Penn State is getting back to normal.
At least when it comes to what happens on the football field, that’s the message that James Franklin delivered last week during Big Ten Media Days.
The shadow of the Jerry Sandusky scandal might be inescapable, especially as new details seem to arise every few months and there’s still a raging debate over a statue — and the legacy — of Joe Paterno. But as far as what Franklin can do with the Nittany Lions football program, he finally is back to a full allotment of 85 scholarships, and he said that makes a big, big difference.
“Our first year being back to the 85 scholarships, which is significant,” Franklin said. “I've spent the last couple of months going back and changing all of our practice schedules and everything that we're doing in terms of reps, the amount of time that we're out at practice, increasing the reps that we're having at practice because we had modified all those in the past. Reducing those numbers, getting those numbers back up. So I think it's really going to be important for the development of our guys, development of our program as a whole.”
Franklin’s first two seasons featured seven wins apiece, nothing to sneeze at considering the challenges he and his staff faced, stepping into a program still under NCAA sanctions. Penn State’s bowl ban was lifted, and the Lions reached a pair of bowl games, winning the Pinstripe Bowl in exciting fashion to cap the 2014 campaign.
But 7-6 finishes typically don’t cut it at Penn State, and fans — regardless of their understanding of the program’s uphill climb — are itching for more tangible success.
Whether this is the year those results come or not — the Lions are in a loaded Big Ten East Division with perennial powers Ohio State, Michigan State and Michigan again expected to assert their dominance — Franklin does see some of his sanctions-impacted decisions finally paying off.
“We made some decisions in our first two years that I don’t know if a lot of other people would have made those decisions,” Franklin said. “So when you’re at 65 scholarships, a lot of people would’ve played every single one of the freshmen just because you don’t have enough bodies. We made the long-term decision to redshirt guys. Even last year, 75 scholarships, a lot of people would’ve played those freshmen. We made the decision to redshirt as many of them as we possibly could. Again, everybody wants short-term results. I felt like that was in Penn State’s best interest long term.
“I think it definitely puts us in position to capitalize on some of those decisions that we made early on. Some of the growing pains that we had to go through will start to help us have more mature players. We’re still way out of whack in terms of the number of seniors we have in our program. But we do have more experienced guys now. … Yes, I think you’re going to have an opportunity to build on that. I think you’re going to see progress, and I think you’re going to see an effect not only on offense and defense but special teams, as well.”
Penn State has been viewed as a type of sleeping giant in recent seasons, a one-time dominant program battling through challenges and expected to one day rise again to compete with the teams at the top of the Big Ten heap. Fans want the Lions to return to that status immediately, and though that might not happen in 2016, Franklin believes he’s at least laid the foundation for that success to come back soon.
“There’ve been unbelievably high expectations since the day we got here. That has not changed, that’s what you have at a place like Penn State,” Franklin said. “We knew that coming here, we embraced that. There’s no doubt about it. But I think myself, the administration, the former coaching staff, everybody kind of was aware what we were doing in our first two years and the plan of how we were approaching it.”