Penn State Football: Best Quotes and Key Takeaways from Big Ten Media Days
Penn State head coach James Franklin was one of the marquee attractions at Big Ten media days, his first since arriving in Happy Valley after three successful years at Vanderbilt.
Franklin and his larger-than-life personality have been a constant topic of conversation this offseason—not just in Penn State and Big Ten circles, but in the national college football dialogue. His brash recruiting tactics have been working, and he has revived the program with an energy it seemed to lack under former head coach Bill O'Brien (who left this winter to coach the NFL's Houston Texans).
O'Brien did well with the hand he was dealt, which included unprecedented NCAA penalties in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky scandal and the ensuing report conducted by former FBI director Louis Freeh. Now a few years removed from that ugly period, Penn State hopes Franklin can restore its former glory.
Joined in Chicago by three senior leaders—running back Bill Belton, linebacker Mike Hull and kicker Sam Ficken—Franklin took the podium to unofficially kick off his first season with the Nittany Lions.
Here are a few highlights from the event.
James Franklin Talks About His Favorite Topic
The only thing James Franklin likes more than recruiting is talking about recruiting. This is not offered as a snide comment, but as a token of respect. He speaks with genuine passion about bringing kids to Penn State, and he is not afraid to make enemies along the way.
Which is good, because he's definitely made some enemies in the seven months since arriving at PSU. His vow to "dominate the state…(and) the region" at his introductory press conference made Franklin a quick favorite with Penn State fans—you can even buy a T-shirt with the catchphrase—but did not endear him with local coaches.
But Franklin doesn't care if he comes off as arrogant; and he wouldn't call it arrogance, either. More likely, he would call it "aggressiveness," and he explained that philosophy to Brian Hamilton of SI.com:
That's just kind of who we are. That's my personality. We're aggressive in everything we do, within the rules. I don't really worry about that. It's my job to do everything in our power to help Penn State be as successful as possible in the classroom, in the community and on the field. And we're going to be aggressive in every aspect.
In more recent news, Franklin drew the ire of his former SEC counterparts when Penn State staffers worked as guest coaches at a Georgia State camp this summer. The SEC does not allow its coaches to stray so far (50-plus miles) from campus, so Franklin broke an unspoken rule of recruiting conduct. Not an actual rule like a law, mind you, but something closer to the NCAA "bro code."
None of the backlash he's received is going to stop Franklin, however. He made that clear when he took the stage in Chicago on Monday. His goal is to make Penn State as good as possible within the boundaries of permissible NCAA conduct. As long as the book allows it, he is going to get it done. He will not adhere to nebulous turf wars.
"Whatever that may be, whether it's recruiting certain parts of the county, we're going to look into all those things," Franklin said of his method for improvement, per Matt Fortuna of ESPN.com.
It isn't just one region that Franklin wants to dominate; it's all of them. After the early success he's found on the recruiting trail—PSU ranks sixth on the 247Sports team rankings—who can blame him?
Why shouldn't he go get blue-chip recruits from the south?
Bowl-Ban Questions Were Handled with Maturity
Penn State remains stuck in mud with regard to its bowl ban, which has stayed in place despite whispers about a possible reduction. NCAA president Mark Emmert addressed those rumors in January, saying there were "no discussions" about further reductions to PSU's sanctions, per Dennis Dodd of CBSSports.com.
Still, because of those whispers, Nittany Lions players were asked about what the ban being lifted would mean for the program. And all three guys answered that decidedly difficult question well.
"We talk about it as players off the field a little bit, but we really don't want to get our hopes up," said Hull, per Josh Moyer of ESPN.com. "We want to take it one day at a time, one game at a time, and play the same way regardless of whether we're going to a bowl game or not."
"We don't know any more than you guys, to be honest," added Ficken. "Obviously, we hope it's lifted. But, if not, we're going to approach the season the same way. That's not going to affect how we play the 12 regular-season games."
"We just continue to work on what we have to do to get better," said Belton, who earlier offered a candid response. "That's something the guys don't think about. All we're trying to do is prepare for UCF."
Penn State would be wise not to get its hopes up for a bowl-ban reduction. Doing so can only lead to a letdown, and lobbying is not likely to change the NCAA's mind. If it happens, it happens. If it doesn't, that is something this team is well-prepared to deal with.
The focus is the games on the schedule.
The Elephant Not in the Room
Penn State did not bring its best player to Big Ten media days—or at least it did not bring its most fussed-about.
Sophomore quarterback Christian Hackenberg was left home from the event by Franklin, who instead took a trio of seniors, but that didn't mitigate his presence. Seniority might have kept Hackenberg out of Chicago, but his name was never far from the mind. He was among the hottest topics for PSU reps to talk about.
"He's become more outspoken," said Belton, per Bruce Feldman of FoxSports.com. "He works his butt off. He's gonna be scary good."
"He’s humble, he’s hungry, and he’s open to learning," added Franklin—who must be feeling a bit like Cleveland Cavaliers head coach David Blatt—per Alex Robinson of OnwardState.com. "Everyone’s looking for an athlete, and I think Christian is one of those guys."
No one in their right mind can deny Hackenberg's physical gifts. He was the No. 13 overall player in the 2013 recruiting class for a reason. He is 6'4" with underrated mobility and perhaps the strongest arm in the country. With a quick flick of the wrist, he can make throws that most college (and even some professional) QBs struggle with.
So it was reassuring that the words used to describe Hackenberg at media days—"humble," "hard worker," "open to learning"—concerned his mental makeup more than his physical. That is what separates the Andrew Lucks of the world from the Matthew Staffords. How well does their mind catch up to their body?
It's not too soon to be saying these things, either. Considering the way Hackenberg gets talked about in NFL draft circles, it seems fair to start comparing him with other tall, strong-armed, No. 1 overall selections. He is on his way to becoming the next in line.
Better get used to it now.
Watch out for WR DaeSean Hamilton
It would be easy to look past DeaSean Hamilton, a 3-star recruit in 2013 who redshirted last year with a wrist injury. Even with a gaping need at receiver, this incoming class of recruits includes sexier names such as De'Andre Thompkins and Saeed Blacknall.
But overlooking Hamilton might be unwise.
According to Audrey Snyder of PennLive.com, Hamilton's name came up when PSU players were asked about teammates who stuck out this offseason. It was not the first time Snyder had heard his name mentioned in such a capacity since the start of summer workouts.
"He's been getting better really fast and he looks good," Belton said of Hamilton, per Snyder. "He's going to surprise a lot of people."
In competing with Thompkins and Blacknail (among others) for playing time, Hamilton has the added benefit of having been in the program for a full year. After what has by all accounts been a good offseason, he could be called upon to help fill the Allen Robinson-sized hole on the outside of the offense. At 6'1", he could prove a useful target in the intermediate and longer passing game.
Jeff Rice of 247Sports has mentioned Hamilton as an X-Factor as well.
Franklin Delivers a Perfect One-Liner
The best line of the event, as far as Penn State was concerned, came from Franklin with regard to the executive changes at Penn State.
In the seven months since he took over, Franklin has already seen the hiring of a new school president, Eric Barron, and a new athletic director, Sandy Barbour, who was announced in her role this week.
Making light of the mild chaos, Franklin joked: "I’ve been here seven months, and I’m the [veteran] when it comes to Penn State," per Robinson. And all this without coaching a single game!
It truly is a new era of Penn State football.