The Sports Xchange

Franklin opens Penn State run chasing cohesion

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- In James Franklin's experience, sometimes the wrong play call isn't always a bad thing if every guy on the defense is carrying out that assignment.

"A lot of times, I've seen that over and over, as coaches, as you're watching something, and they didn't get the check and the coaches go, 'No, no, no ... yes, yes, yes,' because the players ended up executing a different call but they executed it together and that's the important thing," Franklin said.

"It's not always about making the perfect call. It's about getting everybody on the same page and pulling the rope in the same direction."

Franklin, in his first season in State College after three successful campaigns at Vanderbilt, doesn't mind if his young Penn State team makes mistakes -- he just wants it to make them, and do everything else, together.

Part of that is getting an offensive line with four new starters -- two of them who were defensive tackles last season -- to jell quickly and stay healthy. Part of that is fostering better communication in the secondary, an area where the Nittany Lions have talented but were picked apart last season by the Big Ten's better passing attacks. And part of that is putting the focal point of his offense, quarterback Christian Hackenberg, the Big Ten's Freshman of the Year in 2013, in the best spots to succeed.

All of it is done with a team-first approach.

"Where our focus really is, is all the pieces of the puzzle around Hack," Franklin said.

Penn State will enter 2014 with just 72 scholarship players, three fewer than it is permitted this season under the terms of the sanctions the NCAA handed down in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky scandal two years ago. That's 13 fewer scholarship players than every other team it will face has, and although a strong walk-on program has helped fill in some gaps, it could be a rocky season for the Nittany Lions, who went 15-9 in the first two seasons of sanctions under Bill O'Brien.

Still, there is talent; senior running backs Zach Zwinak and Bill Belton are as experienced as any in the conference, and linebacker Mike Hull, defensive backs Jordan Lucas and Adrian Amos and defensive linemen Deion Barnes, C.J. Olaniyan and Anthony Zettel all have all-conference potential. Hackenberg has young wideouts but a deep and talented tight end corps led by 6-foot-6 junior Jesse James.

Another big emphasis for Franklin this summer has been building chemistry and getting to know his new players as much as possible. For a team that has just a dozen seniors, who saw several of their classmates transfer to other programs over the years, building trust is just as important as getting a handle on the new playbook.

"For these redshirt seniors, I'm the fourth head coach they had -- they have been through a lot," Franklin said. "Early on, there was some challenges there but since then, they have been great and I'm so appreciative and thankful to them that they allowed us to enter their family, because this is their family."

SPOTLIGHT ON SEPTEMBER: Penn State opens its season Aug. 30 in Dublin, Ireland, with an intriguing game against George O'Leary and Central Florida, which beat the Nittany Lions last season in Beaver Stadium. Manageable home games against Akron (Sept. 6) and Massachusetts (Sept. 20) sandwich a visit to Rutgers for Penn State's first game against its old Eastern rival as a member of the Big Ten conference. The Nittany Lions host Northwestern on Sept. 27 in a game that should show how ready Penn State is for an October that includes games against Michigan and Ohio State and a five-game November.

KEYS TO SUCCESS: Penn State will need consistent production -- and ball security -- from its three-headed tailback of Bill Belton, Zach Zwinak and Akeel Lynch, who will run behind an inexperienced offensive line. Quarterback Christian Hackenberg allows Penn State to attack any part of the field and should continue to develop. The defense will need a consistent push and dynamic pass-rushing from a defensive line that is an intriguing blend of talented veterans and athletic young players, and a more athletic secondary could thrive in coordinator Bob Shoop's more aggressive schemes.

AREAS OF CONCERN: Left tackle Donovan Smith is the only returning starter on the offensive line, which needed to transport defensive tackles Brian Gaia and Derek Dowrey to offensive guard during the offseason to rebuild depth. Smith is also the squad's only upperclassman offensive tackle. Three true freshmen and a redshirt freshman are likely to be among the top six options at wide receiver for Penn State, and it could take them some time to get on the same page with Hackenberg. Penn State will have a first-year starter at punter, either walk-on Chris Gulla or freshman walk-on Daniel Pasquariello.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "Numbers are a powerful thing. It's a powerful tool being able to have 175 guys show up for a tryout is important because it allows us to be really selective and we all know there's walk-ons all over the country that have had huge impacts at universities and have gone on to play in the NFL." -- Penn State head coach James Franklin, on how walk-ons will help the Nittany Lions' sanction-riddled depth this season.

DRAFT PROSPECTS (includes 2015 rating as applicable):

--Christian Hackenberg -- The 6-foot-4 quarterback has a cannon arm, good mobility and a good feel for how to play the game. Many believe the draft ceiling for Hackenberg, who has three seasons of eligibility remaining but might only be around for two of them, is no lower than the overall No. 1 selection.

--Jesse James -- The junior tight end put up some freakish numbers in the weight room -- a 400-pound bench press and 12 deadlifts at 495 pounds -- during the offseason and will enter the season carrying nearly 270 pounds on his 6-foot-6 frame. James runs like a wide receiver, has improved his blocking and will be a tasty target for the Nittany Lions this season and for an NFL squad in the near future.

--Adrian Amos (No. 5 free safety, 144th overall) -- The senior defensive back has played both safety and cornerback during a strong career and his new coaching staff -- particularly defensive coordinator/safeties coach Bob Shoop -- believes he can be most effective at safety. A big hitter with solid cover skills, Amos will also line up at nickel, corner or Penn State's linebacker/safety hybrid spot, the "Star." Where he'll play at the next level is anyone's guess but his versatility will make it easy for pro teams to find room for him.