Penn State coach James Franklin admitted Friday that he did have an early concern with his projected starting quarterback, Sean Clifford — but that worry has long since faded.
Early on in Clifford’s career, Franklin remembered pulling him aside and telling him he checked all the boxes — except for one. Franklin told Clifford he was concerned that he didn’t show quite enough athletically to keep defenses honest in the RPO offense.
At the time, Clifford was running the 40-yard dash in the 4.8s. Now? “In our last testing event, I think he tested faster than Trace (McSorley) did,” Franklin said during Big Ten media days in Chicago. (Although Franklin didn’t share their testing numbers, McSorley ran a 4.57-second 40 at the NFL Combine.)
Clifford said earlier this month that’s one area he’s really improved on since his freshman season.
“The strength staff’s done a great job helping me take my 40 down,” Clifford said during last week’s Lift for Life media availability. “They’ve also helped me prepare for running situations, getting bigger up top so that way I can take those hits.”
Renovations at Beaver Stadium?
Due to the scope of the renovations, Beaver Stadium was intentionally left off the initial five-year plan to Penn State’s 20-year “Facilities Master Plan,” which should see the rebuilding or renovation of virtually every sports venue.
But Athletic Director Sandy Barbour said Friday the university is getting closer to at least beginning discussions on the football stadium.
“I do think that we’re going to start to get ready to look at what might be a design — a design — around what might be our first phase there,” she said.
When asked if that means Penn State might get the proverbial ball rolling on Beaver Stadium in 2021 or 2022, Barbour said she couldn’t offer any kind of timetable. Penn State still needs to decide what needs to be renovated at Beaver Stadium, how much it’s going to cost and how the university is going to pay for it.
“We’ve been in it; we’re constantly in it,” Barbour said. “But I think in this next year, we’re ready to take another step.”
In the meantime, Penn State recently received approval from the board to hire an architect for nearly $70 million worth of next-step renovations for the Lasch Football Building.
Transfer portal plan
It’s no secret that Penn State hasn’t been a huge fan of the transfer portal. This offseason alone, the Nittany Lions watched more than 20 players such as safety Ayron Monroe and linebacker Jarvis Miller enter the portal.
To combat that, Franklin said he’s put “a very specific plan” in place so there’s no gray area for Penn State players declaring for the portal.
“You enter the portal, you’re losing aide at the end of this semester,” he said. “Now, that doesn’t mean you can’t come back. But if you’re looking, we’re looking. So you can’t be on the team, be looking around and shopping around, and now we’re stuck. ... So we’re going to operate as if you’re no longer with us.”
As a result of the defections this offseason, Franklin anticipates signing a recruiting class of “30 or more.” Franklin said he’ll be able to back-count a few players to the previous season, which is why the number is able to be higher than usual.
Penn State’s 2020 recruiting class currently stands at 20 commits.
But there’s one other big issue Franklin has with the portal.
“The thing that nobody wants to talk about is people are recruiting from other colleges. That’s obvious,” Franklin said. “A good friend of mine is a coach in the MAC conference, and they had five all-conference returning players. And how many of those guys do you think are back? They’re all gone. They lost all five of them, recruited to Power-5 programs. So I think it’s something we’re all looking at, and there are some concerns.”
Ohio State DB Jordan Fuller paused when asked if the phrase “fourth-and-5” meant anything to him.
Three seconds later, a smile spread across his face: “That was the Penn State game, wasn’t it?”
The infamous play was one of the defining moments of Penn State’s season — and of the offense’s inconsistency. Trailing 27-26 with 90 seconds left, on the Ohio State 43-yard line, offensive coordinator Ricky Rahne drew up a draw-play for Miles Sanders.
It didn’t work.
It’s a play that angry Penn State fans and Rahne critics likely won’t forget. But, for the Buckeyes, it hasn’t really been a play that’s stuck with them.
“We don’t talk about specific plays as much as just overcoming adversity,” Fuller said. “Like, the whole game, that’s our main talking point when it comes to that game.”
Added DE Jonathon Cooper: “It was a huge play and our coaches made the right call, and we executed it and made the play. The rest is history.”
Strengths and question marks
Franklin essentially performed a brief breakdown of his team Friday, separating positions into question marks and strengths.
The question marks? Offensive line, receiver, defensive tackle and safety. The strengths? Defensive end, linebacker, cornerback and tight end. The only positions he left out were quarterback and running back.
And Franklin said there was one commonality among the strengths. Speed.
“It’s as fast of a team as I’ve been around,” Franklin said. “We got a lot of guys that run times that I don’t believe in; I don’t believe 4.3 guys really exist. But we got a lot of them that a lot of clocks had them running really fast times.”
For a coach who’s been in the business nearly 25 years, Franklin stressed he wasn’t just playing lip service to his players. He said his team now is faster than the speedy one he had at Maryland, which featured NFL’ers Vernon Davis and Darius Heyward-Bey. It’s faster than Kansas State. Faster than any team.
“We had a bunch of eye-popping numbers,” Franklin added.
Josh Gattis making waves
Former Penn State receivers coach Josh Gattis, who went to Alabama for one season before being named Michigan’s offensive coordinator this season, was a popular topic among Wolverines reporters.
And Jim Harbaugh didn’t mind talking up the assistant Friday.
“Been watching Coach Gattis since he was at Western Michigan and followed his career,” Harbaugh said. “Felt he was just very decisive when the opportunity presented itself to hire Josh Gattis. He’s been excellent. We’ve been learning from him.
“He’s got a great system ... and, I said earlier, we’ve got a young, enthusiastic team, which also has a lot of experience. You could describe Josh Gattis in that very same way. He’s a young, enthusiastic, high-energy coach that really fits our team because we have a group of coaches that are exactly that way.”
Gattis could come back to haunt Franklin. Penn State’s head coach passed over him for the offensive coordinator job when Joe Moorhead left, instead opting for Ricky Rahne. Rahne had mixed success as the 2018 OC; Gattis already moved up and on.
Sparty’s success vs. PSU
In each of the last two seasons, Michigan State entered its annual matchup against Penn State as double-digit underdogs. In 2018, Vegas pinned Sparty as 13.5-point underdogs and, in 2017, it was an even 10 points.
Michigan State still won both times. And it’s won five of the last six meetings with PSU. So what’s been the secret to the Spartans’ success against the Nittany Lions?
“I guess it’s the way we match up against them,” MSU DE Kenny Willekes said. “The last two years, our defense played good against them and (Brian) Lewerke made some big-time throws down the stretch. ... But my respect goes out to them as an opponent; it’s always a battle between them.”
Michigan State linebacker Joe Bachie said he’s “100 percent” convinced that Penn State’s blood will be boiling during the 2019 matchup. And, he said, he doesn’t much mind if the Nittany Lions are favored again.
“We’ve been counted out of a lot of games, and that Penn State game last year was obviously an unbelievable finish for us,” Bachie said. “It just feels so good to do something like that. And we’re going to try to do it again this year.”