Penn State offensive coordinator Ricky Rahne joined reporters on a conference call Thursday, in the Nittany Lions’ final media availability before Saturday night’s road game against the No. 17 Iowa Hawkeyes.
Here’s an in-depth look at Rahne’s Q&A with reporters:
How would you evaluate the offense, and what are some of the areas you see as strengths?
Ricky Rahne: As a coach I think we’re always inclined to look at what we can do better. I think, obviously, we can be a bit more consistent. We’ve had times of being very explosive and great, but we’ve also had a few lulls. So that’s one thing we need to continue to strive for — being more consistent throughout the game, throughout drives.
Area of the strength — I would say that’s been one of our areas of strength: We have been explosive. I would also say that we have protected the ball pretty well, and we’ve also protected the passer very well. So, between those two things, that generally leads to a lot of points.
How would you describe the identity of this offense, and where is the ceiling for this unit?
RR: Obviously, I think the ceiling is very high. We’re a young offense, as you saw — there’s been stats out there about how many touchdowns are being scored by freshmen and sophomores, and things like that. So every game we get, every experience we get, is one that’s just going to be added to the bank and help us long term. So the ceiling is high. We’re a very talented, confident unit. We work extremely hard.
I love coming to practice with these guys. They’re always putting in work, they’re wanting to get better each and every day. So I think the ceiling for those guys is very high.
In terms of an identity, I think we’re a team that’s going to continue to be explosive and generate explosive plays. I also think we’re showing we can run the football when we need to and be a physical unit downfield. And I think one of our identities, and maybe the key one, is we’re very selfless. Guys are going to block downfield; they don’t care who has the ball. They’re going to play for each other and play hard, and that’s something I’m proud of.
With the arc that Sean Clifford is on, is that about what you expected from him?
RR: Well, yeah. Obviously I’ve been around Sean for a long time. For me, he’s about where I expected him to be. I’ve expected him to play well, and he has. I’ve also expected that there were going to be times when he was going to make a mistake here or there, and that’s happened as well.
What I’ve been proud of is just the way he’s prepared each and every week and also the way he’s bounced back from the mistakes that he’s had also kept a level-head. And he’s been very successful. So I’ve just been very pleased with his play overall.
He’s a passionate kid who plays the offense with a lot of passion, and I think the other guys on offense respond to that.
The running back rotation is a hot topic. How much fun is it to watch these four running backs go to work, and how much is it a challenge in figuring out the best approach?
RR: Yeah, I mean it’s a lot of fun because we have a lot of talent in that room. In terms of a challenge, in terms of it being a hot topic, one (place it isn’t an issue) is in that individual room. I think those guys have handled it extremely well. Obviously, they all want the ball. They’re running backs; that’s part of it.
But I’ve been so pleased and proud with how well they’re supporting each other. If you could see the way they talk to each other during practice and just watch them interact with each other, it really is an all-for-one, one-for-all mentality in that room. And they see it as when one of them is producing, they all are. So I’ve been extremely pleased with that and I think that each game, I know I can count on one or two of those guys to be having a dynamic game that game.
I’ve really also been happy with how they’ve been pass-protecting and how they have been in the pass game, in general. Caught a few screens, done some things like that — been catching balls out of the backfield — just been a much more productive force in the pass game.
How do you feel you’ve managed the RB rotation? Last week we saw two series for Journey Brown and then he didn’t get the ball until the second half. Is that something you guys will continue to do?
RR: Obviously we’re going to keep playing it on a week-by-week basis. I do think, at times, it can be hard to get into a rhythm. But those guys are also playing on special teams, too, so they’re staying in the flow of the game that way. So they’re making an impact on the team in more ways than just carrying the ball.
So it’s something we’re going to keep evaluating and see; Coach (Ja’Juan) Seider and I talk about it almost daily, on how we want to handle this thing. And I think he’s done an unbelievable job building a culture in that room, and those kids in that room, they trust him because he tells them the truth and he’s honest with them. And, in the end, they know he’s got the team and their best interests at heart.
I have to ask about the Bruce Springsteen cutout in the offensive room, which was shown on HBO. What on earth is that doing there?
RR: Well, there’s a lot of things in that room. It’s pretty eclectic and obviously we have the fish tank that was shown, the Springsteen thing; there’s a mannequin in there. There used to be a giant boulder in there, there’s bowling pins in there — there’s quite a few things in there and, quite frankly, they’re there to remind us to have fun. I mean, ultimately, we all got into this profession because it was something we loved, and we wanted to do something with our lives that we were going to enjoy.
And sometimes when you’re concentrating in there for 12 hours a day, 90 hours a week or whatever it may be, it starts to be drudgery. So we have all that stuff in there to remind us to have fun, and I love being in that room with those guys. And I think we have one of the most talented staffs in the country, but they’re also great men who are fun to be around. And I consider them my good friends; it’s one of those things to help keep it light and helps us all remember why we do this.
As far as getting KJ Hamler the ball, how much of that is just KJ getting open and how much of it is play-calling from your perspective?
RR: I think it’s a little bit of everything. Obviously, defenses are going to do things to take him away, and it’s our responsibility as a coaching staff to make sure we put him in position to succeed because he’s so talented. But it’s also our responsibility make sure if they are going to do that, that you make them pay with the other talented guys we have in the room.
You see on Jahan’s touchdown, (Hamler) was able to clear out the entire zone. And he was able to catch that thing, make the free safety miss, and KJ was downfield blocking and making a great block so he could score. So we’ve got to utilize his talents in a variety of ways. We also got to make sure other guys get the ball.
Last game, they were pretty adamant they were going to take him away, and it created explosive plays for a lot of other guys on the team.
Jake Zembiec — with him being on medical scholarship — how has he found ways to still contribute as an older guy in the quarterback room?
RR: Jake’s got a unique role on the team. Obviously, he’s still at practice every day and still doing those sorts of things. He’s still very much involved with the team. He’s with all the guys, and the guys will hang out with him and all those sorts of things. He’s also able to share his story, about how he got to where he is and show guys there’s more than one way to contribute on the team.
You don’t necessarily have to be out there scoring touchdowns to have a role. I think that’s one thing we preach as a coaching staff; I think that’s something our kids really buy-in to. There are a bunch of guys on this team, that maybe people outside of this building don’t know about, but we all understand that they help us score every point. They help us win games and those sorts of things, maybe without even being on the field. Those guys on the developmental squad and the older guys in the room; we have another older quarterback Michael Shuster who really helps the guys, helps them learn. And maybe if I say something he doesn’t think they understand, he’ll ask a question he knows they won’t ask. So there’s a variety of things those guys do.
Iowa does a lot of things to disguise what it’s doing defensively. What kind of challenge do they provide, especially for Sean Clifford pre-snap?
RR: I think the thing Iowa does best is they’re going to show you a very similar look every play and they’re going to get to what they’re going to do. And they’re able to do that because they don’t do a whole lot of things on defense but, what they do do, they do extremely well. They’re a well-coached football team; they’re very talented. I think a lot of people downgrade their talent sometimes, and I think that’s just no true. They do a great job of recruiting kids that fit their system and play well in that system.
I think it’s a talented team, it’s a physical team. They’re big. And I think their coaches put them in the position to succeed.
What’s the key to not having communication issues with your QB when you’re up in the box?
RR: I think the key to that is that we communicate all week. There’s constant communication throughout the week so that we’re used to communicating with each other. If he has a question, if he has a point or if I think I need to point something out to him, we’re very open to communication throughout the week. And it just makes it that much easier on game day.
What’s unique about playing in Kinnick Stadium?
RR: It’s a great atmosphere. It is full. And Kinnick is certainly a great atmosphere; I would say the unique things, I would say there’s two: One, it’s tight. The sidelines are tight to the fans and it’s a very personal experience. Obviously, the children’s hospital being right there is a unique thing, and that’s a pretty special moment in the game. But the thing that struck me the last time we were there is that while you’re warming up, there’s not a whole lot of people in the stands.
Then, all of a sudden, you go in and you come back out — and it’s packed. So I don’t know what kind of operations they use, but they are very efficient at getting them in the stadium quickly. And they’re not really there during warm-ups — they’re still outside tailgating and doing their thing — but they get in there quick. And they fill it up, and it’s a very educated crowd, and they’re passionate.
You mentioned earlier you’ve had lulls. What exactly happened on offense after you built the 28-0 lead last week?
RR: Well, obviously, we turned the ball over the one time. We can’t let that happen. So that one we need to eliminate. We drove the field on a drive after that, and then we just lulled in the red zone. And then, after that, it was probably one play each drive, to be really honest, whether it was a play where maybe I got too greedy in a play-call; other plays where we just didn’t execute. It was a variety of different things.
So I got to get better. As a coaching staff, we’ve got to get better. And, obviously, there were things the kids needed to improve. But, really, it wasn’t necessarily one individual thing. It was just a combination, and we got to continue to put together drives. I thought we came out with great energy and executed almost as well as we can. And then we just got to make sure that we keep our foot on the gas.
Beyond Sean Clifford, in that QB room, how do you think Will Levis has handled his new role — and what’s stood out to you about the two freshman QBs?
RR: I’ve been happy with the way Will has prepared each week. People forget he didn’t really get these practice reps last year. Every rep is extremely valuable, and I think he’s done a nice job with that. He’s been able to go in there and operate when he’s got his chance. And I think people haven’t seen his full talents yet, so I’m excited with the way he’s going.
The two true freshmen, I’ve been excited with the change I’ve seen in both of them over the last three weeks, where you can see the offense start to click in their head much better. They’re understanding defenses better; they’re getting it. And I can just see a dramatic growth in both of them over the last 2-3 weeks. I’ve been extremely happy with them — happy with how they’re approaching the classroom on campus, as well — so it’s been a good deal.
Going back to the running backs, how do you think the two freshmen there have done? And, in August, would have anticipated they both would’ve come on the way they have?
RR: Yeah, I mean, we knew at least one of them was going to need to. That’s one thing everyone’s talked about — that we have too many. You got to have enough, too. So we were pretty sure one of them was going to have to come on and, in camp, they both showed they have the ability to do that. So that’s been great.
And, in the games, they’ve both flashed their talent. They have a little bit different styles, but both of their styles can play on offense, and more than happy with the way Noah’s ran. Obviously, he ran really well last game. I think he’s really improved in his blitz pickup and has showed he can catch the ball out of the backfield. And Devyn (Ford) has shown earlier this season, and on multiple occasions, he’s a pretty explosive player. And when he gets a chance, he can find a crease and take one fast.
So we’re excited with the way both of those guys are playing, and I think Coach Seider has done an unbelievable job of preparing them each week. And I’m excited to see what they’re going to do this week.
Do you feel you’re getting better at play-calling?
RR: Yeah, I mean I feel like I have made strides in that. Part of that is just understanding the team. That’s also one thing that’s different that people sometimes don’t understand. Each year is a different year. The team’s different. So who you’re going to rely on, what you’re going to rely on, what’s your go-to. One quarterback may really feel comfortable with this play — and the other one may not like that one. He may like this one a little bit better. So you got to fit play-calling also with what the kids do well and what they execute and what they feel comfortable with, so it’s a delicate balance all the time.
I’m getting better at it. I think, as a staff, we’ve done a nice job, and we’re getting better at it. It’s still Coach Seider’s second year here and Coach (Tyler) Bowen’s second year here and Coach (Gerad) Parker’s first year here. So we’re still growing as a staff and, each week we game plan, it’s getting better and better.
You talked about the young talent before. Were you surprised how quickly some of the young guys came along?
RR: No. We are young in age, but they’re pretty mature football players and kids. If you’ve ever been around Jahan Dotson very long, you realize how mature he is as a kid. If you’re around Pat Freiermuth, same thing. So I think that we have a young team in terms of age, but they’re very mature. They love the game of football; they really care about each other.
They’re going to do what you ask of them to do, so all those things together makes it feel like we’re older out there. And a lot of those guys got to play last year, so they’re very hungry. So, excited to see what the second of the season’s going to bring.
You’re in a position where fans are very, very critical of the play-caller. I wonder if, when you have an outstanding game as a play-caller as you seemed to have against Maryland, you ever hear from the fans, “Great job”?
RR: Yeah, that’s not how it works. I tell people this all the time, and I think they take it the wrong way. We have 600,000-plus fans. If 200 of them tell me I’m the worst play-caller and person in the world, we’re talking 0.03 percent. That’s pretty negligible, at best. On the flips side of it, there’s probably going to be 200-300 people — and probably more than that because, actually, Penn State fans are much more supportive than people think. There’s probably 400-500 fans that are going to say, ‘Great job.’ Well, that’s still a small percentage, right?
Most fans, they cheer on the team, understanding there are highs and lows, understanding they want the team to win every week. But, after that, they’re going to support the players, as they should. I would hope they would reach out after the Maryland game and say, ‘Hey, KJ, heck of a play.’ ‘Hey Sean, you played excellent.’ ‘Hey, offensive line, you didn’t allow a sack and you played terrific.’
I don’t need that. I’m not saying our players do, but I’m sure they would appreciate it — as do I — but I just feel like our fans do a great job of telling the payers how much they appreciate them.