(Photo Courtesy USA Today Sports)
Penn State football has been through plenty in the last two-plus years, but despite all the off-field distractions surrounding the team, the Nittany Lions managed to play winning football. Defying all the odds and proving he could coach, it was just a matter of when, not if, Bill O'Brien would jump at a chance to become a head coach at the NFL level.
He did that on New Year's Eve, with reports of his departure surfacing and then being confirmed. It was just another challenge for a program that has seen it all, and the ensuing coaching search had more sources and twists than an episode of Lost.
When the dust settled, it wasn't former Penn Stater Al Golden taking over, but it was a native Pennsylvanian, James Franklin, coming to Happy Valley. The Nittany Lions weren't afraid to splash the cash for this hire either, with Franklin set to earn a reported $3.6 million a season. After making Vanderbilt in to a legitimate football school over the past four years, Penn State couldn't pass up the opportunity to get a man who sees Penn State as a destination and not a stop up the coaching ladder. Will the expensive hire pay off for PSU?
Why We Like the Hire:
James Franklin isn't one to shy away from the spotlight or the media, and for a university that is in need of all the positive PR it can get, Franklin is the right hire on that alone. He also happened to prove he could do things never done before at Vanderbilt, during the height of the SEC's reign on top of the college football world.
What isn't to like about a coach that won nine games each of the last two years and finished .500 or better in the SEC? Furthermore, he's becoming a salesman for what Penn State football should be about, and that sales job began on national signing day. Playing with the band, announcing national letters of intent NFL draft style and holding a pep rally for the fans to cap it all off pretty much says it all.
Penn State doesn't need turning around, as they've had back-to-back winning seasons in the midst of NCAA sanctions. Franklin can take that talent, add to the mix and the hope is bring this program back to its glory days when it is all said and done.
His track record of building a program suggests he could be a dangerous coach when not having to build it from the ground up, or sell something that doesn't yet exist either. Penn State and James Franklin may be a case of right coach at the right time.
Why We Don't Like the Hire:
Franklin's Vanderbilt squad feasted on the low-hanging fruit of the SEC during his tenure in Nashville, and heading in to the Big Ten East that won't cut it. Penn State will be challenged to contend for Division honors with three teams equal to or better than they are out of the gate—Ohio State, Michigan State and Michigan.
The three year track record of Franklin suggests that he can win games against the teams he's supposed to, but hasn't been able to produced some consistent results against the better competition. At Vanderbilt, Franklin's teams won just one game against a Top 25 team, beating No. 15 Georgia this past season.
Given the names that dot the Big Ten East, Penn State is going to have to find a way to consistently beat Top 25 opposition. The good news here is that Penn State is not Vanderbilt, and winning against Top 25 competition happens to have happened a lot throughout the years.
The only question is if Franklin can continue that tradition or not.
What Kind of Talent Does He Inherit?
Two words: Christian Hackenberg.
Seriously, the thought of combining the phenom with an offensive guru like Franklin should keep Big Ten defensive coordinators up at night for at least the next two years. In his true freshman campaign, Hackenberg delivered 2,955 yards and 20 touchdowns, while also throwing just 10 interceptions as well. That's a great place to start building any team.
Beyond that, there is a lot of returning talent at running back with Zach Zwinack, Bill Belton and Akeel Lynch all proven options. The question will be just who fits what Franklin wants the best, and that's a good problem to have.
Defensively there is a lot gone, but a lot to like as well. Deion Barnes returns at defensive end, and is one of the better pass rushers in the Big Ten, while fellow end C.J. Olaniyan also returns. Since we're also talking about "linebacker U" and all, there are two intriguing options returning there
As you can see, the cupboard is far from bare in the talent department for Franklin, the issue will be dealing with the roster restrictions that are in place thanks to the NCAA sanctions. More than anything else, that was the most impressive thing Bill O'Brien was able to do at PSU—win games with a roster that often times was below 60 scholarship players during the season.
Yeah, But Can He Recruit?
Ask Vanderbilt about that, they still are smarting from the pillaging Franklin did to them before national signing day. Franklin was able to persuade five of the 2014 commits to come to Happy Valley instead of Nashville. He also managed to steam the tide after losing big names like 5-star defensive tackle Thomas Holley and 4-star cornerback Troy Vincent Jr.
He showed just how quickly his activity and the Penn State name can produce results, also flipping 4-star wide receiver Saeed Blacknall from future Big Ten foe Rutgers. At the end of the 2014 cycle the Penn State program was a Top 25 class nationally, and the Big Ten's No. 3-ranked class as well.
Franklin talked a lot about owning the state of Pennsylvania and the mid-Atlantic region when he was hired, stating, "Our recruiting philosophy, we are going to dominate the state. We are going to dominate the state. We are going to dominate the region."
The early returns on his first full class show he wasn't kidding. Four of the six verbal commitments are from the state of Pennsylvania, two of which are in the top five of the state (according to 247sports). Penn State is also at or near the top of the list for two more of the top five players out of Penn., and that would be all you need to know about how good Franklin is as a recruiter.
If there was such a thing as a slam-dunk hire for Penn State, this may have been it. The only thing missing from Franklin's resume was a Penn State degree, otherwise he would've been the perfect candidate in almost every segment of the Penn State family. Getting the hottest name in college coaching circles to finally step away from Nashville was a huge coup for the Nittany Lions, now it's up to Franklin to produce the results on the field.
Coaching Grade: A