Penn State Football Vs. Rutgers, Franklin and Ellies

Coach James Franklin and defensive tackle Dvon Ellies (91) take a picture with Penn State football fans following their victory over Rutgers at SHI Stadium on Saturday, Nov. 19, 2022 in Piscataway, NJ. The Nittany Lions won 55-10.

As James Franklin sat down for his last weekly Tuesday press conference of the regular season, he started it the same way he always has.

“I always appreciate everybody coming out and covering Penn State football,” Franklin said, just as he has through thick and thin, every week.

While Franklin has enjoyed tidbits of success in his nine seasons with the Nittany Lions, the past two, a combined 11-11 record over 2020 and 2021, were anything but successful.

Now on the tail end of a season that’s shown promise for a program with its best days expected to be ahead of it, for the first time in two years, Franklin seems content.

“I feel like I can focus more of my time and energy on our players and our program right now than probably I ever have in 12 years,” Franklin said. “All the way back to Vanderbilt.”

Contrary to previous seasons in which Franklin’s had to fight for off-field improvements that could lead Penn State to elite status, alignment between him, Penn State President Neeli Bendapudi and Vice President for Intercollegiate Athletics Patrick Kraft has shifted tons of weight off of his shoulders.

For Franklin, it’s now all about football, and that shift can be greatly attributed to Bendapudi and Kraft in just their first years at Penn State.

“The alignment… has been phenomenal,” Franklin said. “I think you guys know, in the past I've always been happy with the leadership, but I did feel like we needed more alignment, specifically when it comes to football.”

It probably helps, too, that the Nittany Lions are winning football games, the most in three seasons with another game still left to play.

Despite season-ending injuries to starting wide receiver Parker Washington and offensive guard Landon Tengwall, as well as other bumps and bruises to projected first-round NFL Draft picks Joey Porter Jr. and Olu Fashanu, Penn State has played — and succeeded — through adversity.

“One of the things that I'm most proud of is that we're getting better each week,” Franklin said. “The best teams in college football get better individually and collectively throughout the season. We're doing that.”

Franklin noted that 16 different players have recorded a sack, and 26 different players have registered a tackle for loss this season, two stats Franklin said he’s “never seen” before.

On the defensive side of the ball, Manny Diaz has been phenomenal in his first season as Penn State’s defensive coordinator.

It’s pretty easy to connect the plethora of players to record a sack and tackle for loss to Diaz’s philosophy to consistently rotate on and off the field — a strategy that’s worked perfectly, especially given the team’s depth on defense.

“When I go into the defensive staff room, they’ve got really good morale, they have fun in there, they work hard,” Franklin said. “Everybody in that room has a voice. I think he's done a really good job, not just with our players but with the staff as well.”

With longtime defensive coordinator Brent Pry out the door this past offseason, replacing him and the culture he brought with him was expected to be much more difficult than it actually ended up being.

After getting the job following his firing at head coach at Miami (FL), Diaz moved into Pry’s former home and began to piece together one of the best seasons any assistant coach in the country has had this year.

“Being a head coach and then going back to being assistant, you can be an even better assistant because you view the profession and the game and the world differently,” Franklin said. “I think he's done a really good job of not just teaching the X's and O's but also building a culture on the defensive side of the ball… being the head coach of the defense.”

Diaz, just like Bendapudi and Kraft, has simply made Franklin’s life easier — and it’s translating on the field.

Penn State will play one final regular-season game at home against Michigan State before a nearly one-month hiatus until it plays its eighth bowl game in nine years.

For a number of Penn State’s seniors, who will be honored on Saturday, it’s been a roller coaster past three years as a member of the program — from the coronavirus to the 7-6 season just a year ago — all culminating to a successful final campaign in 2022.

“They've kind of been through a bunch,” Franklin said. “They've seen it all. They really have — specifically the guys that have been here six years.”

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