Head coach James Franklin opened Penn State football’s Media Day on Thursday with solemn recognition of the empty seat in the room left for the late Fran Fisher.
“I’m sad to see my man isn’t in the back of the room, but it’s great to see the rest of the family,” he said, acknowledging relatives of the longtime Nittany Lions radio voice who died in May. “I miss your dad.”
Franklin went on to answer questions enthusiastically, and with a little humor too.
Some players were announced as unavailable due to classroom commitments, and Franklin apologized to media while quipping that quarterback Christian Hackenberg would not be present.
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“Kidding!” He grinned. “All of your heads snapped up...”
Franklin went on to say that there’s a “night and day” difference from last year’s team to this year’s.
“It’s not just the coaches, and the different styles of the coaches and the recruits,” he said. “It's everything we’ve been through in the last three or four years. I think it’s a combination of all those things.
“I think last year there was a lot of feeling out in a lot of different directions. Everything was new, pretty much every single day. And from the time the season ended...that there’s been a lot of time and energy spent on focusing on all of the things we need to improve on.”
The entirety of the offseason was spent in critique, Franklin said.
“It gnaws at you after awhile,” he said, but builds excitement to get back on the field.
And like he said at Big Ten Media Days in Chicago last week, the team, especially certain position groups, has a “chip” on its shoulders.
One of those groups, Franklin said, has “been discussed ad nauseam” in the offseason: The offensive line.
“No. 1, because it’s a great need for us, but also because of their approach,” he said. “Their approach this offseason has been to take ownership of their position and their responsibility and their role, taking ownership of the success of the offense.”
Because of those reasons, and the year of much-needed experience they now have, that group, however, is the one Franklin said he’s most excited about this upcoming season.
Another position question addressed immediately by Franklin was the role of running back Akeel Lynch, as the only returning player with actual carries in a game.
“He’s been a tremendous leader with the young running backs,” said Franklin, who’d like to see a trio of reliable backs this season but, aside from Lynch, only has younger players to choose from. “He's probably been as consistent and as hardworking as any of the players in our program.
“He's been patient and waiting for his time, and he’s prepared ... when his time comes, he’s going to be ready.”
Franklin said he likes to coach Lynch because he doesn’t have “one specific trait, he’s got a lot of traits.”
Lynch isn’t undersized, but he’s not huge, said Franklin, who also noted that Lynch has good speed and can break tackles.
Running backs coach Charles Huff said that in Penn State’s recruiting process, that’s the kind of player they look for at the position.
He said each of Penn State’s younger options at running back have their own unique traits – Saquon Barkley is athletic, Mark Allen is “small and shifty,” and Nick Scott is more of the “power back.”
“We don’t try to fit them into a cookie-cutter mold,” Huff said.