Heading into year three, Penn State coach James Franklin is undoubtedly going to be feeling the pressure.
He’s led the Nittany Lions to two 7-6 campaigns in a row, with the most recent outing a 24-17 loss to Georgia in the TaxSlayer Bowl.
This after Franklin led the Vanderbilt Commodores to two 9-4 seasons in a row complete with two bowl wins.
He hasn’t lived up to the expectations so far. Ironically enough, pressure has been one of the reasons.
Franklin was gifted Christian Hackenberg — a former five-star and current New York Jet — to be his quarterback during his first two years with PSU. In 2013 under Bill O’Brien — his freshman season, mind you — Hackenberg threw for 2,955 yards, 20 touchdowns and 10 interceptions–a solid line for a freshman quarterback.
Hackenberg’s first year under Franklin saw him regress, as he threw for 2,977 yards, 12 touchdowns and 15 interceptions. In 2015 and with a year in Franklin’s system under his belt, Hackenberg again underwhelmed–though he was better–throwing for 2,525 yards, 16 touchdowns and six interceptions.
Arguably the biggest issue Hackenberg dealt with was pressure. He was sacked an incredible 103 times over three seasons at PSU, and that included a 10 sack game against Temple to start out the 2015 season.
This quote gathered by Josh Moyer of ESPN perhaps says it best regarding Hackenberg and the pressure he faced at PSU:
“It’s the line. It’s all the line,” one opposing coach said. “We could see going in that he was taking a ton of hits, and big hits. He just can’t operate like he wants to with so much pressure.”
The lack of offensive line protection was arguably Penn State’s biggest sin through two years under Franklin, especially considering how it impacted a player who could (and should) have been one of the hands-down best quarterbacks in college football.
But what could Franklin do? He was dealing with scholarship losses left over from the Jerry Sandusky scandal. Incredibly, he started the 2014 season with just nine offensive lineman on scholarship — which really illuminates why Penn State has had so much trouble. Depth is huge on the offensive line and big-time talent doesn’t want to play under sanctions or in a program dealing with the aftermath of sanctions. That was an issue PSU had to deal with coming out of the scandal.
There is good news, though. The Nittany Lions may finally just be getting out of that hole.
Perhaps the best stat a Penn State fan can see this season is this: The Nittany Lions began the season with 17 offensive lineman on scholarship.
That will make a world of a difference for Penn State moving forward.
PSU recently released its depth chart and there’s depth and talent all across the offensive line. Senior Brian Gaia is running things at center and in all, four of the starters are returning from last year. Redshirt freshman Ryan Bates is listed as the starter at right guard, but it’s worth noting that he’s a former four-star lineman recruit.
Sean Fitz of 247Sports reports that three freshman lineman may end up seeing playing time this season: four-star Michael Menet, four-star Connor McGovern and three-star Will Fries.
Fitz cited the head man himself in saying this:
“We’re going into this with the mentality that those guys are probably going to end up playing for us at some point, so we’re going to get them involved as early as we possibly can,” Franklin said at his weekly press conference.
It’s also worth noting that Franklin started off strong with offensive linemen on the 2017 recruiting trail. Penn State’s class currently features four offensive line commits: four-star guard C.J. Thorpe, three-star guard Michael Miranda, three-star tackle Robert Martin and three-star tackle Desmond Holmes.
Pressure is the key word here, because that’s the one thing Franklin and Penn State will be trying to avoid in 2016 and beyond.
So far, things seem to be on track.