Three’s a charm, with some help from Pittsburgh
As I pondered where to begin this year, I felt that there was no other choice than to begin where it all ended; with the coaching staff. Well, at least that’s where it ended for a choice few. No sooner than the jet engines cooled after a return trip home from East Lansing, Michigan and the debacle that ended the regular season, coach James Franklin relieved us all of some angst. The king of the wildcat and jet sweep, offensive coordinator John Donovan, was swiftly relieved of his duties. A surprise to some, myself included, but nonetheless welcomed by the vast majority who suffered through two seasons worth of an incompetent offense. Looking back, Franklin had no other choice than to make the move. It’s been well documented that James Franklin prefers the role of CEO and would rather delegate control of positions to his assistants. After the season-opening beat-down at Temple, it became painfully obvious that he could no longer trust his offensive coordinator.
In mid-December, as Penn State prepared for the Taxslayer Bowl, Franklin handed the keys of a new offense to Fordham head coach and more notably Pittsburgh-native, Joe Moorhead. Moorhead managed to turn Fordham into an FCS (Division 1-AA) contender after spending years at the bottom. He brings to State College a fast-paced, spread offense that should benefit the speed that Franklin has built on his roster. We all saw a brief glimpse of that offense on display in April as Trace McSorley spent the day dissecting an overmatched White defense in the annual Blue-White Game. Whether that translates into Big Ten play or not remains to be seen, but all signs indicate that the pieces in place are a much better fit moving forward.
Of course, much of what the offense does or doesn’t do depends on the growth of the O-Line, which also went through a major change of its own immediately after the dust settled from the season-ending loss to Georgia. O-Line coach and longtime confidant of Franklin, Herb Hand, left for the same job at Auburn (which, coincidentally, has agreed to a home-and-home series in 2020-2021). Another move that most have welcomed with open arms after watching former QB Christian Hackenberg suffer through too many sacks to count, with very little improvement along the O-Line. His replacement, Matt Limegrover, was previously Minnesota’s OC and O-Line coach, as well as being a native of Pittsburgh along with Moorhead. Limegrover comes to Happy Valley highly regarded and has many years of experience building O-Lines that can handle the rugged Big Ten Conference. Perhaps we will never know for sure, but I suspect their ties to Western PA helped secure the commitment of Miles Sanders, the nation’s top-ranked running back, who was being sought heavily by the likes of Michigan State and Pitt leading up to National Signing Day in February. Just the mere thought of having Sanders, Saquon Barkley, and Andre Robinson in the same backfield is enough to make any opponent cringe. Add in the weapons on the edge, along with a revamped O-Line and it would appear the skies the limit for Moorhead, Limegrover, RB coach Charles Huff, and TE coach Ricky Rahne as they retool and reinvent an offense that became a joke at times over the past two years.
Defensively, it’s not so much about who left as it is who Franklin was able to retain. Less than a week after professing his love and commitment for Penn State and going as far as to claim Penn State was an ESPN 30/30 just waiting to happen, defensive coordinator Bob Shoop hit the road for Tennessee. Like Herb Hand, it was a lateral move that left many scratching their heads. Obviously, losing a top-ranked coordinator and one who pieced together a No.2 ranked overall defense just a year ago is cause for concern. In this case it wasn’t. If Shoop (who would have left sooner, rather than later anyway) had stayed, then linebacker coach and DC-in-waiting Brent Pry most likely would have moved on himself. The move elevated Pry, an Altoona native, into a position he’s been destined for, perhaps from as far back as his childhood in Central PA. Retaining Pry, as well as defensive line coach, Sean Spencer, who was being heavily courted by Oregon, was imperative heading into year three.
In the secondary, Terry Smith remains in charge of the cornerbacks and continues to provide the link between the Paterno era and today. Franklin brought in Tim Banks from Illinois to replace Shoop as coach of the safeties. Yes, THAT Illini and yes, Banks WAS a first-year assistant when they raided State College back in the summer of 2012, but was reportedly just following orders from his head coach who has since been fired. Despite his ties to that program, both he and Franklin spent time together as assistants at Maryland, along with another well-known name around here: Billy O’Brien. Under normal circumstances, losing a defensive genius such as Shoop would raise a red flag, but with Pry at the helm I do not expect much of a drop-off, if any. In fact, I may go as far as to say retaining him was the jewel of the annual coaching carousel that takes place every winter.
For a head coach and staff that spends so much time preaching family, it certainly was an offseason of change, but change that ultimately should help the Nittany Lions down the road. Franklin brought in two coaches with ties to Pittsburgh, a major battleground for recruits in the region, and one in Banks who has a stellar reputation in the coveted DMV (D.C., Maryland, Virginia) area. As for that “family” thing, it was reported recently that neither Shoop nor Hand bought a home in Happy Valley or brought their families with them over their two years on the job. After an offseason of debate and speculation, that bit of news made it clear that they never quite bought into the family approach and always had one foot dangling out the door.
Recently, James Franklin happily announced that not only did all of his assistants receive contract extensions and raises, but that they all bought homes and moved their families into the area. Something that clearly is important to him. In year three of the FrankLion era, the roster is full (81 of a max 85 scholarship players are on the roster) and the sanctions are receding further into the rear-view mirror. Throughout this offseason and even before, it’s often been said that because of the restrictions that James Franklin came into, year three would truly be year one. He’s asked us all time and time again to trust the process. To have some patience as they navigate a storm that wasn’t of their doing. Year three is finally here and I still drink the “Franklin kool-aid,” maybe now more than ever given the potential of this offense and the fact that a homegrown kid from Altoona leads not only Linebacker-U but the defense as a whole. As we enter into the final stages of the offseason and head towards a new beginning, I say threes a charm with a little help from the old steel mills of Pittsburgh, of course.