A week ago, James Franklin rode to his press conference on a golf cart. It wasn’t golf cart weather this week.
Instead, a bundled-up Franklin emerged from the warm confines of an automobile, strode toward Beaver Stadium’s media room past two massive overhead heaters that provided instant relief from the biting wind and cold, their scorching filaments offering the dimly lit concrete corridor a soft orange glow, and chided Mother Nature.
“Things have changed in State College,” Franklin said. “Winter is here, and we’re embracing it.”
That includes moving practices indoors like the team did on a frigid Wednesday night and cutting back on the amount of on-field work his team is doing. Really, that’s been the plan all along — cut back in order to keep players fresh and healthy as the season wears on.
It’s been successful in the past for Franklin and his staff who coached Vanderbilt to a 10-2 record in November in three seasons. So far, Penn State is 2-1 in November under Franklin.
Franklin and his assistants began scaling back practices as the season entered its second half following the team’s loss to Michigan. The push to minimize players’ exposure to full-speed, multiple-period sessions has continued.
“We ended up probably cutting 15 minutes off our practice a couple weeks ago,” Franklin said. “We’re going to be cutting another 10 minutes off of practice ... going forward. Then on top of that you change the tempos as well to change some of the banging and running off of them.”
Thud tackling — where players make contact but don’t take each other to the ground — has been replaced with two-hand touching. Full speed 11-on-11 sessions have become jog-throughs. The portion of Wednesday’s practice open to reporters featured individual position drills without contact and offensive and defensive walk-throughs.
“It’s changing tempos,” Franklin said. “You might say we’ve got three (11-on-11) periods, one of these is going to be a jog-through. Now two of these are going to be a jog-through. I allow the coaches to handle that on their own. We have some discussions about it, but I think they know best what their positions need and what the team needs.”
More emphasis is put on regenerative sessions throughout the week, too. For the majority starters who have played heavy snaps over 36 quarters and two overtimes, Sunday’s include plenty of personal maintenance.
The team’s massage tables, hot and cold tubs are heavily occupied on Sundays. So is the team’s weight room where players get in one of two weekly lifting sessions with strength and conditioning coach Dwight Galt. Players have Mondays off other than team meetings. A second lifting session takes place on Thursday.
“If you look at our track record over the last four years, our guys’ strength numbers usually go up during the season,” Franklin said. “They’ll put on pounds on their bench press and everything. Obviously you’ve got to be careful with your legs. Do we squat and power clean and things like that during the season? Yes. Is it early in the week? Yeah. A lot of that is from a durability standpoint and a strength standpoint. Because if not, you can shrink and shrivel up as the season goes on.”
Lifting sessions vary from player to player and are dependent on a player’s physical condition. Many of Penn State’s veteran players, who have been exposed to three different weight-training staffs, say they’re not lifting more, just harder with the reps they have.
Center Angelo Mangiro said he feels like he’s gotten stronger and has maintained his weight throughout the season. In previous seasons, some players said they’ve struggled to maintain their weight.
“This is when it really pays off,” wideout DaeSean Hamilton said. “They told us, back at Vanderbilt they had a stretch where they went 4-0 in November due to the fact that they were just wearing down opponents.”
In fact, Franklin’s last two years at Vanderbilt saw the Commodores go 8-0 in the final month of the season. In that span, Vanderbilt outscored opponents by 17 points per game. Penn State has outscored three opponents 40-23 in the second half so far in November and 16-13 in the fourth quarter.
Other than Maryland turning a fumble into a touchdown and recovering another to end the game, Penn State has outplayed opponents Indiana and Temple in the fourth quarter.
Hamilton attributes the success to conditioning that hasn’t waned despite the cutbacks.
“At the end of practice we always do kicking for conditioning,” Hamilton said. “Whether it’s punting or field goals, the punters have to meet a certain requirement to keep us from running at the end of practice and if they don’t meet that then we have conditioning after that. But cutting down practices has helped our bodies. At the same time, we are still in great shape.”