On Thursday, James Franklin returned to Indianapolis to address the media as a part of Big Ten Football Media Days.
Unsurprisingly, Franklin quickly addressed concerns regarding this past season and what he expects from his team moving forward.
“I think last year is either going to be an indicator for some, or it's going to be a year that you kind of throw out the window because it's been an anomaly,” Franklin said.
Although the Nittany Lions took a step back from championship contention with a 4-5 record in 2020, Franklin still believes the winning culture he’s instilled in Happy Valley can’t just be cast aside after one disappointing season.
“We have proven that we know how to win at Penn State,” Franklin said. “We know how we want to do it, what [winning] looks like and how we want to represent the university and community.”
While Franklin seems more than confident that the Nittany Lions will return to winning football in 2021, that doesn’t mean he’s letting his players completely forget about last season.
“We’re going to take last year, and we’re going to learn from it and grow,” Franklin said. “I think our team is extremely hung up, and I think there’s a chip on our shoulder because of it.”
However, Franklin does not want potential success in 2021 to be linked to “proving the naysayers wrong.”
He’d rather have victories attributed to the culture he has been establishing in University Park since his hiring in 2014.
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“I want to be successful because of the men in our locker room, the people in our organization and people we represent in State College,” Franklin said. “We want to go back to that model and method that has been so successful while also learning some of the lessons from last year.”
While Franklin seems confident his “model and method” will propel the blue and white back to contention, there are other areas that set his team up for a successful 2021.
One main area propelling the Nittany Lions forward this upcoming season is offensive strength across the board.
“I believe we have one of the most talented back rooms in the country, same thing at the tight end position,” Franklin said. “Really excited about what we can do with the offensive line position, and then obviously having an experienced quarterback like Sean Clifford.”
As for running backs, Penn State has three who have been honored with preseason recognitions.
Returning rushers Noah Cain and Keyvone Lee and Baylor grad transfer John Lovett were all named to the Doak Walker Award watch list Wednesday, which is annually given to the season’s top running back in the country.
On top of those three, the Nittany Lions have two more backs who saw the field and contributed in 2020 — Devyn Ford and Caziah Holmes.
As far as a running back rotation goes, Franklin says he feels most comfortable with three guys.
However, he acknowledges that you can never have too much depth at any given position, especially after the numerous injuries Penn State had in the running back room in 2020.
“I think we're in a position to have three guys rotating that we feel really good about, with a fourth, and possibly a fifth on deck ready to jump in there and contribute when needed,” Franklin said.
At tight end and wide receiver, Penn State will roll with a similar crew to the 2020 campaign Brenton Strange and Theo Johnson — who filled in for the injured Pat Freiermuth — will lead the way at tight end, while Jahan Dotson, Parker Washington and Keandre Lambert-Smith will take charge among the wideouts.
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Along with the consistency on the offensive side of the ball, Franklin said people should look out for the linebacker position in 2021 — a group that has been strong in Happy Valley for as long as fans can remember.
Franklin said his program has “recruited well” at the position in recent years, and he called the guys who will be leading the linebacking corps this year — Brandon Smith and Curtis Jacobs — “impressive.”
Even with largely the same group of quarterbacks returning in 2021, it’s still a position of question going into the fall.
There’s nothing to say Sean Clifford won’t secure the starting job again in 2021, but the order behind him is a bit murkier.
While Franklin has not yet named the backup quarterback, the favorite seems to be last year’s third-string Ta’Quan Roberson.
Whether it ends up being Roberson or another name like Christian Veilleux, there’s a special level of preparedness that comes with the backup spot.
“One of the things I think is really challenging, specifically at the quarterback position, is you must train and prepare as if you're the starter,” Franklin said. “It's just making sure whether it's Christian Veilleux or Ta’Quan Roberson, can [they] honestly look [themselves] in the mirror and say ‘I am preparing and training so when the time comes, I will be ready.’”
When it comes to players earning spots, Franklin says it all comes down to consistency — something he would like to get back to after leading the Nittany Lion to three New Year Six bowl games in four years and a Big Ten Championship win in 2016.
“It's whether you're writing one great article, or whether they write 10 great articles in a row,” Franklin said to a group of reporters. “It's the same way in football.”
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