James Franklin's rebuild has hit a snag, but Penn State still heading in right direction

Penn State's 4-0 start this season might have led some to believe that new coach James Franklin was simply putting the finishing touch on a masterful rebuilding job former coach Bill O'Brien started before he left for the Houston Texans after only two years.

Franklin, who had turned around Vanderbilt during his three years there and had been part of Maryland's revival under Ralph Friedgen, knew different even before his team lost its past three games, most recently a controversial 31-24 double-overtime defeat at home Saturday to then-No. 13 Ohio State.


The recruiting sanctions and scholarship reductions imposed by the NCAA in 2012 — not to mention a five-year postseason ban in the aftermath of the child sexual abuse scandal involving former assistant Jerry Sandusky — had diminished the program's depth and talent.

The natural attrition from injuries and the need to redshirt certain players this season also hampered the progress Franklin was making. When his Nittany Lions (4-3, 1-3 Big Ten) take the field Saturday at Beaver Stadium to play Maryland (5-3, 2-2), they will be carrying the school's longest losing streak since 2004 with them.

"I kept saying over and over again, winning minimizes the issues and losing maximizes the issues, but either way the issues are still there," Franklin said in an interview Wednesday. "We were fortunate to find a way to get tough, gritty wins [at the beginning of the season], but we've got long ways to go to get better."

The Big Ten acknowledged Monday that two critical mistakes were made by game officials Saturday, leading to 10 points for the Buckeyes. But Franklin said he has told his team to "move on" to what will be his first meeting with the Terps since leaving the program to become a first-time head coach at Vanderbilt in 2011.

"We're excited to play Maryland. It's an opportunity to get out and play together again," Franklin said. "The game of football is not like basketball, baseball, some other sports. You get only so many opportunities to play together, and we cherish each one."

Franklin said the emotion of playing against a school where he spent eight seasons over two different stints — the first five as a receivers coach, the last three as offensive coordinator and designated heir apparent to Friedgen — isn't as strong as it might have been a few years ago.

Whatever disappointment lingered from not being named Friedgen's successor despite carrying a "coach-in-waiting" designation given to him by former Maryland athletic director Debbie Yow has apparently dissipated for the now 42-year-old Franklin.

"I'm really, really appreciative of the time I had at the University of Maryland," Franklin said. "I had a great experience. I really did. I met a lot of good people, coaches throughout the state. It was a great time for me professionally and personally. I'm forever grateful for the opportunity that I was given."

Franklin recruited seven current Maryland players, including sixth-year senior quarterback C.J. Brown and fifth-year center Sal Conaboy, and he said he has also known junior wide receiver Stefon Diggs and senior wide receiver Deon Long "for a long time."

"There's a bunch of guys there that are playing well that I know and recruited — or our staff knows well and recruited," Franklin said. "Obviously it's a lot less now than it was a few years ago. It's different just because you know the guys. You know the guys extremely well."

Franklin said he still follows those Maryland players he recruited and hopes "they do well, every game but one."

Because he also served as Maryland's quarterbacks coach during his second stint under Friedgen, Franklin has a special connection to Brown, who redshirted in 2009 as a freshman and sufferered the first of two season-ending injuries early in Franklin's last season there in 2010.

Brown said Tuesday that he is not surprised by Franklin's success as a head coach.

"He's a people person, he's a motivator, he wears his heart on his sleeve, he's very passionate about the game of football and also his players," Brown said. "His mindset, and the way he looks at things, he's very motivated to get results. He's proven that thus far at Vandy and now at Penn State."


Franklin took a Vanderbilt program that had never been to bowl games in consecutive years to three straight, and he led the Commodores to nine wins last season for just the third time in school history. He was then hired to replace O'Brien, who went 8-4 and 7-5 in the two seasons following the firing of Joe Paterno.

The NCAA announced in early September that the penalties from the Sandusky scandal had been lifted, though the Nittany Lions won't be back to their full allotment of 85 scholarships until 2016 at the earliest.

"There's a lot of work that needs to be done here," Franklin said. "We have one scholarship offensive tackle in the senior, junior and sophomore class. There's some real holes in the roster that's going to take some time to get fixed, but there's no doubt that getting the scholarships back is helpful. We want to build this program the right way for the long-term."

Franklin endured a similar three-game losing streak in his first year at Vanderbilt in 2011, but losing in Nashville is different from losing in State College.

"The difference is the expectation. There's a different expectation at Penn State," he said. "But everyone [in the fan base and community is] staying positive."

Senior center Angelo Mangiro, who was forced to play three different positions along the offensive line against Ohio State because of injuries, said that the Nittany Lions have taken a "next man up" approach.

"As a whole family we've been pretty positive," Mangiro said in a teleconference Wednesday. "I think it starts with Coach Franklin, goes through our coaching staff and down to our players from the older guys to the younger guys."

Ivan Maisel, a senior writer for ESPN.com who has covered college football for nearly three decades, said Wednesday "that anybody who's paid any attention to what's happened at Penn State the last three years understands that it's not a normal situation.

"He just didn't take over a job the way that most coaches take over a job. It's only because they eased up on the sanctions [that] it's not as bad as it could have been.

That Franklin built his reputation more on recruiting than Xs and Os could be beneficial in bringing the once national power back to prominence.

"He's a natural salesman. He's good at it. He's not afraid to assert his position in places where it has not been historically asserted," Maisel said. "If you look at what Vandy did, and you listen to the recruiting buzz ... they've made some inroads. It's certainly promising in what is a very competitive side of the Big Ten. I think people should be optimistic."


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