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February 17, 2014
by Chris Adamski


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Penn State’s 2014 recruiting class – who’s most likely to play right away? (defense edition)

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Thursday, we broke down the Class of 2014’s offensive players and the ability/likelihood of each making an immediate impact (as in, during the 2014 season). Today, it’s the defense (in alphabetical order):

 

 

S Marcus Allen

Allen is big enough (6-2, 200) and a hard enough hitter that he appears to have the ability to contribute immediately. Most important, he joins the team at a position of little depth that had its shaky moments last season. Odds are, Allen will be given a long look to earn an opportunity to make an early impact at free safety.

 

 

DL Tarow Barney

If Penn State played a game tomorrow, Barney might well garner the most consideration of any of the incoming freshmen to start it. Both 2013 starting tackles are gone, and there’s precious little experience there. A junior-college transfer, Barney is older and his body is most ready for the rigors of the major-college game. At the moment, among the group of Barney and redshirt sophomores Austin Johnson, Derek Dowrey and Brian Gaia, two very likely will be starting.

 

 

DE Torrence Brown

The 25th and final member of Penn State’s Class of 2014, Brown is one of only two players who was tabbed as merely a “two-star” prospect by one of the four major recruiting services (Scout, while the other three all gave “three stars”) – for what that’s worth. At 240 pounds, Brown falls into something of a “tweener” category between end and linebacker. Anything is possible with the lack of experienced depth the Lions enter the season with, but the better bet for Brown’s meaningful impact is more down the road.

 

 

LB Jason Cabinda

There figures to be opportunity for freshmen to contribute at linebacker, what with the position currently thinned by sanctions. After Mike Hull, a couple sophomores in Nyeem Wartman and Brandon Bell join junior Ben Kline as the lone linebackers with appreciable experience. One of just two scholarship recruits listed at linebacker, odds are the athletic Cabinda will see the field in some meaningful capacity in 2014.

 

 

DB Christian Campbell

There are jobs to be won in the secondary, and there seemingly always is a need for a defensive back-type who can tackle on special teams. Six players in the incoming class are listed as defensive backs, so even though the position is in dire need of some new blood, not everyone will figure prominently. Campbell fits the James Franklin mold of “length” in the secondary.

 

 

DB Koa Farmer

Arguably, the most intriguing recruit of all. Farmer has legitimate potential to be a standout, starting true freshman – but conversely he also is a candidate to need a year or two to settle not only into a role but into a position. At 6-foot-1, 205 pounds, Farmer likely projects as a safety – but don’t discount the possibility he ends up at linebacker. Farmer is versatile enough and has a well-rounded enough skills package that coaches will find ways for him to contribute to a thin defense.

 

 

DB Grant Haley

At 5 feet 10, Haley is the shortest player who was recruited to Penn State by Franklin and his staff (only athlete/quarterback Trace McSorley is within even three inches). Think Steelers receiver Antonio Brown, both in body type and his quickness/shiftiness. Pending Trevor Williams’ spring and preseason, there figures to be a job at cornerback for the taking. Even if Haley doesn’t make his initial impact there, he will very likely get a long look in the return game – and maybe even a little on offense in certain packages – as a freshman.

 

 

DB Amani Oruwariye

Oruwariye, by all accounts, is a special teams dynamo, as his four blocked punts as a high school senior exhibit. That alone should make him an on-field regular this fall. Whether he gets playing time outside of the punt, field goal and kickoff defend teams is something that will need to play out. What we do know is that the depth chart at cornerback is extremely thin – there’s legitimate question whom the No. 2 corner is, let alone the nickel or dime backs or backups.

 

 

LB Troy Reeder

Reeder has the same listed weight as Glenn Carson, whom is preparing for the NFL Draft after being a three-year starter for Penn State at middle linebacker. It’d be foolish to predict Reeder would be able to instantly replace Carson as a true freshman, but it’s not unreasonable to think he’s the odds-on favorite to take over the position at some point during his Penn State career. As far as 2014 goes, again, jobs are there to be had at linebacker for Linebacker U.

 

 

DL Antoine White

Being a January enrollee figures to help White in his quest to make an impact as a freshman. If his future is replacing the NFL-bound DaQuan Jones at tackle, adding a few pounds will be the objective. White, it’s said, also could play end. It’ll be interesting to see which direction the coaching staff goes – we should know by spring practice. Like with just about every position, there’s roles for the taking available for the freshmen.

 

 

DB Daquan Worley

Worley is a versatile athlete most likely pegged for cornerback, although he is said to have versatility to play safety or even on offense. A torn ACL in late October stands as perhaps the biggest obstacle to Worley’s chances to play in 2014, as it’s possible – if not likely – Worley won’t be at 100 percent in time for preseason camp.

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February 15, 2014
by Chris Adamski


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More from Allen Robinson on PSU, prepping for the draft

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I spoke to former Penn State star receiver Allen Robinson (and his star agent, Eugene Parker) on Thursday. Robinson is in Tampa training and preparing for the NFL Scouting Combine next week in Indianapolis.

 

This was done for the story that ran in Saturday’s Trib. But, as so often happens, there’s not space for everything in the paper. So here is more of what Robinson had to say via phone.

 

Among the more interesting nuggets: Some unsolicited for former Penn State wide receivers coach Mike McQueary, the almost-daily inclusion of yoga into his workout routine and that he intends on ultimately earning his college degree (impressive he’s so close in only 2 1/2 years).

 

For the innumerable faithful readers of The Blog out there who are looking for the breakdown of the odds of each of the Nittany Lions’ incoming defensive players recruits of making an immediate impact in 2014, I promise it’s coming in the next 48 hours. (It’s written; this was just more timely to post as a companion to the story in the print editions).

 

Have a lovely weekend…

 

 

 

 

On what his typical day is like:

Allen Robinson: “I’m just waking up getting a good meal… usually go about two times a day some speed training and on the field work, typically in the mornings and then we do our lifting in the afternoon. And then some days instead of lifting we will do yoga some days as well.”

 

On how this regimen differs from his time as a player at Penn State:

“It’s not any different; Coach Fitz (former PSU strength coach Craig Fitzgerald) had a really good program for us, so it hasn’t been too much of a difference transferring. Just maybe a few different exercises and things but really nothing was really too far form what Coach Fitz had us doing…. Other than yoga, not a lot  is different than what I was doing at Penn State. I would just say maybe just some things in the weight room, some different weights, squats, things like that would be a little different, but not so much different than the Coach Fitz workout program.”

 

On if it helps holding common experiences and goals with the other guys he’s training with:

“I’m working out with a good group of guys. A few guys from around the Big Ten like (Michigan State receiver) Bennie Fowler and (Purdue cornerback) Ricardo Allen and wide receivers like (South Carolina’s) Bruce Ellington,  (Clemson’s) Sammy Watkins. (Ohio State running back) Carlos Hyde is here, so honestly, we’re all pretty much in the same boat. But we all played in a big conference and stuff, so we try not to let the Combine get the best of us. It’s just like approaching a game – you kind of have not be nervous and try to go in there relaxed and go in there and do what your practice.”

 

On what he’s focusing on the most as the combine approaches:

“Of course, I want to run the best 40 time as possible I can run. Same thing for the vertical and the other things at the combine; I just want to do those at the best of my ability because at the end of the day I’m a competitor and that’s what I came down here to do is to work on being the best player I can be going into the NFL combine.”

 

On if he’s getting any sort of scouting report from any NFL types or is being told what he needs to work on to improve his stick:

 ”Scouts and things don’t really get too personal. But obviously, for any skill position the biggest thing at the combine is the 40-yard-dash. Any guy who plays a skill position, they look at the 40-yard dash, so I would say that that’s something I really want to do well … But I would say that for any skill guys, that’s really a good focus going into the combine.”

 

On if playing for an NFL coach in Bill O’Brien helped prepare him for the NFL:

“He really pushed me and challenged me as a player. I would say that’s the best thing. I really think him and Coach Fitz made sure just to create discipline in me to be get to workouts and things like that on time and how to go into a work day, how to prepare for a work week, how to prepare for such a big event – like the Combine. I would say Coach O’Brien and Coach Fitz, (former Penn State wide receivers coach Stan Hixon), all those guys did a great job of instilling that in me while I was in school for moments like that. I don’t have any uncertainty right now. It’s something that I’m used to and something that I’m prepared to do, that’s something that I know how to approach a big-time event like this.”

 

On if he looks back fondly at his time at Penn State:

“Two-and-a-half years. I definitely miss my buddies up there and stuff, but they understand the situation. I’m really thankful to have their support. They understand the process and all that… continue contact with all the guys I’m close with at school.”

 

On if he looks back with wonder at his transformation from a little-used spare college receiver into a sure-fire NFL receiver in the matter of less than two years:

“I would just say that I was always taught to prepare myself for the opportunity and for the moment. So with me not playing as much my freshman year, I really couldn’t let that get to me. But at the same time (former wide receivers coach Mike McQueary), he kind of really kept me abreast of the situation and where I stood with the program (as a freshman in 2011). He prepared me for my sophomore year a lot so it wasn’t too much of the transition, so I’m thankful for me having him as a coach. (In 2011), I played at Ohio State, I played at Wisconsin, I played in a lot of those big games and that helped me prepare for my sophomore year when it was my time. So I would say it…  just kind of just the process of waiting for my moment.”

 

On if he intends on going back to earn his degree (in telecommunications):

“Definitely. That’s something that my mom and my family would love to see me get, and that’s something that I really want to get. I’m not too far away – I’m about 20 or so credits away, so that’s not too much and I definitely, at some point, I want to go and get that.”

 

On when in the draft he’s been told to expect to be taken:

“It’s kind of hard to say right now, you know, it’s pretty early. A lot of things that you hear and people tell you aren’t really too accurate, but of course I’m going to be happy to go in the first round – that’s my goal, and that’s been my goal ever since I made the decision to declare for the NFL Draft so that’s what I’m working to right now.”

 

On if he’s met or spoken to new Penn State coach James Franklin:

“I haven’t got a chance to meet Coach Franklin yet, and I heard he was a great coach and I really hope that and I think he’s going to take the program in the right direction. But at the same time Penn State ended up picking their coach by the time I kind of had to decide by and start working out, so my decision was already made, but I’ve heard all great things about Coach Franklin.”

 

On if he’ll be following Penn State this season and beyond:

“Definitely. I have a lot of guys on that team that I’m basically like family with. I’m always going to follow Penn State.”

 

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February 13, 2014
by Chris Adamski


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Penn State’s 2014 recruiting class – what offensive players will play right away?

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Not that long ago, a true freshman faced long odds to get on the field for Penn State. Joe Paterno was often loathe to expose kids just a few months removed from high school – but that was a much easier position to take back then. Now, true freshmen play roles on high-profile teams across the country. Coaches recruit against coaches who don’t play freshmen. Also, NCAA sanctions have left Penn State with little depth – a far cry from Paterno’s gravy days when the Nittany Lions were loaded and players had to wait their turn.

 

Not James Franklin’s first class. It’s no secret that the vast majority will play this fall – and some in very significant roles. A variety of factors will play into how the staff initially utilizes each of Penn State’s 25 new players… and, of course, none has gone through so much as even a spring workout yet. So a lot can change between now and the Aug. 30 opener against UCF in Ireland.

 

But for now, a look at the chances each of PSU’s 25 scholarship true freshmen will have at playing – and playing important roles – in 2014. I’ll split it into two parts, offense and defense. First, the offense, in alphabetical order.

 

 

 

RB Mark Allen

One of three backs to join an already-crowded backfield, Allen will need to carve out a niche for himself to play significantly as a true freshman. He’s said to be a strong receiver out of the backfield. The Lions have plenty of options at running back, but specialization is key and a third-down role is possible because Allen could potentially fit immediately into it.

 

 

WR Troy Apke

Apke plays a position in which there assuredly will be some meaningful contributions from freshmen needed – but he also is part of what was a deep class of prospects at the position. I caution against reading too much into recruiting-service rankings – maybe I’m naïve, but I buy into Franklin’s philosophy that they all start over once on campus. That said, though, Apke has three incoming freshmen who were more highly-regarded at his position. It might be an uphill battle, but there’s a plum spot or two there for some of these guys to seize.

 

 

OL Noah Beh

Franklin called offensive tackle the team’s greatest need, so he and his staff brought in four of them. Donovan Smith (left) and redshirt freshman Andrew Nelson (right) are virtual locks to open the season atop the tackle depth chart, but they are the only scholarship non-freshmen at the position. That means one or two of the incoming guys will need to be ready. At only 260 pounds, though, Beh is the longest shot of the group to play immediately – although he is a very intriguing prospect down the road.

 

 

WR Saeed Blacknall

Penn State’s Class of 2014 has two players who were rated four stars by each of the four major recruiting services – both are wide receivers. Considering the glaring hole the departure of Allen Robinson bolting for the NFL leaves, it’s a good bet that at least one of those two – Blacknall and Chris Godwin – steps in this fall. Blacknall has the size (6-2, 210) and ability to draw comparisons to Robinson. He’ll be given a chance to show what he can do.

 

 

OL Brendan Brosnan

Brosnan has the length and quickness that Franklin likes out of his offensive linemen. He added considerable weight as he approached his senior year of high school. At least one of the freshmen will need to emerge as a reliable backup for Smith and Nelson at tackle. If Brosnan comes into camp in shape and bulked up, there’s a chance it’s him.

 

 

TE Mike Gesicki

Do a Google search of Mike Gesicki dunks. The kid is a pure athlete. And judging by his offers from Ivy League schools, he’s smart, too. At 6-5, 245, he’s got the frame to succeed. Barring something unforeseen, Penn State’s coaches will find a way to use Gesicki this upcoming season. The fact there’s three established quality tight ends will do little to change that. It might not come at the expense of Kyle Carter, Jesse James or Adam Breneman, but Gesicki will in all likelihood make an impact.

 

 

WR Chris Godwin

Godwin is of similar size (6-2, 205) and pedigree (each was deemed a four-star recruit by all four major services and had offers from at least 10 big-five conference schools) to Blacknall. The duo shares the designation of most-likely-to-replace the NFL-bound Robinson over the long term. It will be interesting to see who emerges more quickly and who has the higher ceiling – the answer to those two questions might not necessarily be the same. Each, in all likelihood, will be heard from, though.

 

 

QB Trace McSorley

One of two much-needed quarterbacks in this class, McSorley has zero chance (barring catastrophic injuries) of starting at the position this season. Christian Hackenberg has that locked down, of course. A former Vanderbilt recruit, McSorley is listed as an “athlete” by some recruiting services, so it’s possible the coaching staff could find creative ways to use him in various capacities out of various spots on the field.

 

 

QB Michael O’Connor

O’Connor is actually bigger (225 pounds) and taller (6-5) then the 6-4, 220-pound Hackenberg. He’s not a more highly-regarded recruit than Hackenberg was – but he’s close (four stars, No. 7 pocket passer by Rivals, for example). Conventional wisdom says O’Connor will redshirt behind Hackenberg this fall, learn the system and ease into the college game and eventually start, perhaps, as a redshirt sophomore in 2016. A lot can happen between now and then, though. A theory: McSorley or one of the three walk-on redshirt freshmen would relieve Hackenberg in so-called “mop-up duty” or of if it’s a shortterm injury, but if Hackenberg is out for the season, O’Connor would be a long-term fill-in. Bottom line: What we do know is that O’Connor won’t be taking meaningful snaps in 2014 as long as Hackenberg is upright.

 

 

RB Nick Scott

Scott might not work his way into the meaningful running backs rotation in 2014, but that doesn’t mean he perhaps won’t be on the field often. He played outside linebacker, free safety, quarterback, running back and wide receiver in high school, and that kind of versatility, athleticism and instincts can be utilized by a team which has had depth sapped by NCAA sanctions. There’s a good bet you hear Scott’s name called often this season – just not necessarily at the expense of Zach Zwinak, Bill Belton or Akeel Lynch.

 

 

OL Chance Sorrell

A good enough athlete he played tight end in high school and was previously recruited to play Division I basketball, Sorrell fits the Franklin mold of tall tackles who are good on their feet. But at 270 pounds currently, he needs to add mass. When the first depth charts come out, bet on Brosnan and Chasz Wright being ahead of Sorrell – even if Sorrell potentially has a very high ceiling over the long term.

 

 

RB Johnathan Thomas

At 220 pounds, Thomas is the biggest back on the roster not named Zwinak. Perhaps that makes him the most likely of the “Freshmen 3” at his position to be a featured back down the road. For 2014 – barring injury – Penn State appears set at running back. Thomas’ more physical approach potentially means big things are in store for 2015 and beyond.

 

 

WR De’Andre Thompkins

Thompkins is considered one of the nation’s top 40 wide receivers recruits; when he made his verbal commitment to Penn State this past April, he could have well felt he’d be the jewel of the position for Penn State’s Class of 2014. Since, Godwin and Blacknall committed, leaving Thompkins’ potential freshman role a bit murky. That said, Thompkins has the most established return skills – and not only is that an area in which true freshman have been known to contribute, it’s also a position of need for the Lions.

 

 

OL Chasz Wright

Confirmed by the Penn State media relations staff that he’ll officially be listed at 310 pounds, that would make Wright not only the heaviest incoming freshman – he’d instantly become the Lions’ second-biggest player on the team behind starting left tackle Smith. Combine that with the head start he has as an early enrollee and the extra experience of a season at prep school, and Wright has the inside track on the race for playing time among the freshmen tackles.

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February 11, 2014
by Chris Adamski


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Fran Fisher from the proverbial cutting room floor

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I immensely enjoyed spending a few hours with Fran Fisher in preparing to write a feature story on the longtime Penn State radio broadcaster that ran Tuesday.

 

As with anything in the realities of journalism in 2014, I could have/would have/should have written much more. As you might expect from a 90-year-old that is approaching a half-century of association with Penn State, Fisher has a wealth of stories. Writing a story on him is easy – the toughest part is deciding what will fit into a 750-word package

 

I could have written 12 articles or 12,000 words on him. Out of what didn’t make the Trib story, there’s way too much to recount it all on the blog. But here’s a small sampling of other anecdotes from Fran Fisher.

 

 

On his tenure as a student at Penn State:

 

“I went to Penn State in 1942. I lived in the Sigma Nu house. One of the mistakes I made in my life – and I made many of them – was I dropped out of school and joined the navy. Very, very un-smart thing to do. I shoulda stayed in school. I thought Pearl Harbor was a girl.

 

How’s this for a history lesson: Fisher remembers when State College was a dry village. It was so small that Beaver and College avenues were both two-way streets.

 

 

On the relative insignificance of Penn State football prior to Joe Paterno:

 

“Notre Dame was much, much bigger (in central Pennsylvania). It was Penn State, but was it Penn State University yet? When I went to school it was Penn State College. But to give you perspective as to what Penn State football was at that time, outside of the commonwealth and maybe even inside, most people confused it with the University of Pennsylvania. And early on there had to be at least three occasions I did an interview outside the state of PA where guys said ‘Well, we wish you well in the Ivy League.’ That was very, very common, and I suspect that a large percentage of people outside the commonwealth had no knowledge of the fact that there was a difference between Penn State and Penn. That’s how insignificant the program was.”

 

 

On the forgotten Penn State’s first great team, 1947’s 9-0-1, No. 4-ranked Lions:

 

“I’m not sure people anywhere – including in the commonwealth of Pennsylvania and including (the media) – realize what a great team the 1948 Cotton Bowl team was. If you were to look at those statistics of what they compiled (six shutouts, 4.0 points per game allowed), it had to be one of the best defensive teams in the history of college football. Now, nobody knew that, nobody knows that now. But that kind of started the ascension of the program. The 1948 Cotton Bowl team was a magnificent football team. And Rip (Engle) built from that after he got the job in 1950, and it kept just getting better and better and more recognized and more recognized through when Joe took over.”

 

 

On Joe Paterno growing the program into the national powerhouse it became:

 

“I don’t think anybody anticipated the program would become what it is. Or become what he made it. Including Joe himself, because when they decided to move the stadium, he was totally – absolutely – against it. ‘Putting it way out there in a wheat field? That’s the most ridiculous thing that could ever happen.’ That was his stand on the stadium. Nobody thought it would be other than adequate. And somehow, the state embraced Joe Paterno, his ethical procedures and his winning so that even in the hardcore region, Notre Dame fans became Penn State fans and they bought season tickets and they came and they tailgated and they put Christmas savings packages on order for them to be able to save the money.

 

“And the big-hitters came – and Joe sold them. You  talk about fundraising – Joe was a fundraiser. When he said, ‘I want your bucks; I don’t want your two cents,’ he meant it. And he got ‘em. To the point where all of a sudden there was a financial flow to enable this program to improve the facilities and do all of these things, and when you take a look at what is now the athletics facilities, it’s absolutely amazing. Of course, the Big Ten had something to do with that because once you’re in the Big Ten, you’ve got to keep up with the Jones’, so all of these things that happened, that didn’t happen overnight, but they all gradually happened. And all of a sudden we have a 107,000-seat stadium. Impossible! Who the hell is gonna buy tickets for that?”

 

 

On Joe Paterno:

“I’ll tell you what – he was a tough sucker. But there will never, ever be another coach like Joe Paterno.  We’d go on a bowl trip and there’d be people waiting to get on (a plane) wit players getting on, and he’d be like, ‘Let these ladies on first!!’… ‘Take your hat off!’ ‘Tuck your shirttail in!’ That’ll never happen, ever, ever again.”

 

 

On the beginnings of the Penn State football radio network:

 

“The thing about the radio networks was, I went to Joe and asked him one question when I was moved over to athletics and charged with putting the networks together. I said, ‘Joe, what do you want – do you want money, or do you want coverage?’ He said, ‘I want coverage; I don’t give a damn about money.’ Well, that’s a salesman’s dream. So I put together a pretty good network. I was able to manipulate the per-game fee that the stations had to pay – if we needed the market badly enough. We didn’t make any significant money… subsequently, of course, money became the driving factor over the years, so the rights were put up for bid – blah, blah, blah, blah. Now they get 97 commercials in every game.”

 

 

On his favorite memory of attending a Penn State basketball game at Rec Hall:

 

“One game I’ll never forget,.. not the game, a sidebar if you will. I was sitting in a row with the Athletics people, and Joe and Sue were in the front row and somebody didn’t show up. And Joe says, “Fran, Charlotte, come sit down here.’ So we go down and Charlotte sat next to Joe, and the television – the game was televised  — and of course they shoot Joe the whole time. And I was told afterwards that Olbermann was on TV for ESPN and he made the comment, ‘I wonder if that’s Joe’s mother sitting beside him.’ I never let her forget that.

 

(Incidentally, Fisher recalls broadcasting a Penn State-Syracuse game. “The captain of the Syracuse team was Jim Boeheim.”)

 

 

On broadcasting Penn State’s first win in a national championship game Jan. 1, 1983:

 

“The celebration and coming back from the Sugar Bowl was an event I’ll never forget. We got off the plane at the Capital Campus in Harrisburg, and the governor was there and there was a thousand people there. Joe was (ticked off) – and I’m the one who had to tell them we had to stop at Capital. He didn’t know that. On the plane, I had to walk up to Joe and said ‘Joe, we are bussing but we have to go the way of the Capital Campus.’ ‘That’s out of the way; what do we have to go that way for?’ he said. I said, ‘Well, there’s a whole crowd there; the governor’s there.’ So we went there.

 

“And then when we came home as we got into Mifflin County, lined up along 322 were fire engines and people waving all the way from Lewistown to Millroy, and when we got to the narrowest part… there were so many people they had to stop the bus. And people waving and cheering and there were firetrucks escorting us in State College. It was the most amazing thing I’d ever seen. And Joe said on the subsequent “TV Quarterbacks” program, ‘I had no idea this team meant so much to so many people. It’s amazing.’ There’s a video made of it, as a matter of fact. It was fortunate a guy on the bus had a camera, and we did a video. It was remarkable.”

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January 29, 2014
by Chris Adamski


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“James may be in a different tax bracket… but I’m gonna be as invested in this program as he is”: PSU offensive coaches quotable

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Tuesday was for Penn State’s defensive coaches, now is the time for the Nittany Lions offensive coaches quotable.

 

All were from Penn State’s introductory afternoon for the assistant coaches this past Friday at Beaver Stadium. Most were from the less formal sitdown sessions… but I couldn’t resist including Charles Huff’s drop-the-mic-and-exit-the-room-esque opening monologue while on the podium for his news conference. Only the three coordinators were given the “dais” treatment (Huff, in addition to being the running backs coach, is the special teams coordinator).

 

 

 

 

 

OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR/TIGHT ENDS COACH JOHN DONOVAN

 

“Offensively, we’re personnel‑oriented, pro‑style offense.  So basically, we’re pro terminology. The guys learn the system that’s used at the next level. It has answers. We don’t run dead plays. There are reasons to run in certain spots. If there is somebody coming free on a pass protection, we’re either throwing the ball, breaking a route or the back’s got to pick them up, the line’s got to pick them up. We won’t run dead plays. We like smart guys that can think fast and process information, and I think they’ve got a good base the last couple years of learning a pro system, and look forward to seeing what they know and seeing how they translate to what we’re going to run. We’re multiple, and we’ll cater to our personnel. See what we have. Get our best players on the field, and take advantage of what we have and what the defense gives us.”

 

“(Christian Hackenberg) has  got a lot of talent. We’re really excited to work with him. I know it’s hard for him because he had such a tight relationship with Coach O’Brien. I was fortunate enough to work with Coach O’Brien in two spots, Georgia Tech and Maryland. So I’ve had communication with him and he loves that kid. I think he feels better about guys that he knows that are here now that will take care of that kid and teach him the right way and keep him progressing the way he will and should.  We’re just excited to get to work. He’s going to form his own opinion. We’re confident in our abilities as a staff in what we’re going to teach and what we’re going to run. I think he’s going to be excited about what we’re going to do and the team that he has and the potential that he’ll have.”

 

 

 

RUNNING BACKS COACH/SPECIAL TEAMS COORDINATOR CHARLES HUFF

 

“The second characteristic will be a Prefontaine pace. Steve Prefontaine was a 1970s long‑distance runner who died a little before his time. But he coined the term of “suicide pace.” So from the time the gun went off, he was sprinting. From the time we come off the mat, we’ll be flying around. Any person that steps on the mat that is a special teams player here at Penn State will be flying around from the time, if we make a mistake, we’re going to make it a hundred miles an hour. Suicide pace, we’ll be the first  fast‑paced, no‑huddle, special teams you’ve seen. So that’s how we’re going to be. It will be fun and exciting. The fans will love it. Coaches will love it. I’ll love it. Coach Donovan told me I didn’t have to work on punt because he was going to go 100% on third down, so that made it easy. Coach Shoop told me we didn’t have to work on punt return because he was going to get picks and turnovers. So all we have to work on is kickoff and field goals, so it’s easy.”

 

“I’ve been asked numerous times what kind of identity, what kind of special teams are we going to be?  Our special teams here at Penn State will have two distinct characteristics. One is a nekton mentality.  I’m not sure how many science teachers are in the building, but a nekton is a living organism that can flow freely through water not affected by the current – and it’s always attacking. The most reasonable example will be a great white shark. A great white shark will eat and eat and eat until it dies, and it won’t say, ‘I’m full.’ That’s how we’ll be on special teams. We’ll attack and attack and attack. Just because we block the punt first time out doesn’t mean we’re not coming after it again.

 

“Get set, snap the ball, kickoff, get set, get ready to go. Play as fast as you can. Try to eliminate the thinking. Make it simple. You’re out there for six seconds. Special teams is not where you get first down, second down, third down – you’re out there for six seconds: come off the ball and make it happen.  Flying around, trying to keep it as simple as possible to let these guys run around and have fun with being fundamentally sound and making sure they’re where they’re supposed to be.”

 

“I was lucky enough to work with two unbelievable running backs with the Buffalo Bills, Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller. Both Bill (Belton) and Zach (Zwinak) have some of those qualities. It will be interesting to see how far I can take them from where they are to where they’re going to be.”

 

 

 

OFFENSIVE LINE COACH/RUN GAME COORDINATOR HERB HAND

 

On his style as an OL coach: “Demanding… No one’s ever perfect all the time, but if you strive for perfection, you tolerate excellence. That’s what we do in everything we do. And we don’t say it as lip service; I truly believe that. If you hear me on the practice field… I want us physical, smart, tough and prepared. If we can do those things, we’ll be fine. We really will be.”

 

“What’s important to understand is that we are all invested in this thing, OK? As an assistant coach, all you want is a voice. Because no matter what – James may be in a different tax bracket than me, but I’m going to be as invested in this program as he will be. Now, ultimately somebody has to be the decision-maker and has to be the leader and is at the top of the sphere. And for this football program, that will be James. But he gives us a voice in our staff room, and really allows us that. We talk things out. And so you have an opportunity to say what you’re thinking – and openly. Now, that doesn’t mean we’re always going to agree. There are plenty of arguments, but at the end of the day, we walk out of that room and we’re going to walk out united in one direction. And under Coach Franklin’s leadership and all of us being in a support role, and that support is reciprocal because if you ask James, one of his definitions of being a great leader is to support us in our role and make our jobs easier. And that’s what we’re trying to do for him is support him in his role and make his job easier.”

 

 

 

QUARTERBACKS COACH/PASSING GAME COORDINATOR RICKY RAHNE

 

“(Franklin) hired a bunch of guys who are energetic and who are passionate about football… There’s no egos on this staff, we just want to win games. We want to win games and graduate players.”

 

“There has to be (energy) because Coach Franklin demands it. If he doesn’t feel like we are bringing enough energy, he’s going to let us know. It’s just something where he hired a bunch of guys who are energetic and who are passionate about football, and if you look at our staff, there are a lot of guys who have pretty good college degrees who can do go off and do other things and be pretty successful. But we chose football because this is what we want to do with our lives and what we’re passionate about, and I think that’s where all the energy comes from.”

 

 

 

WIDE RECEIVERS COACH/OFFENSIVE RECRUITING COORDINATOR JOSH GATTIS

 

“It’s an amazing staff. Our chemistry is immeasurable, our families are close, we are all close as coaches…. We love each other, truly, as coaches. This was an opportunity we’re really, really excited about… To get an opportunity to come here and be here with (Franklin) as a staff again (following him from Vanderbilt as a virtual entire unit) is something that’s tremendous opportunity and does not happen in college football quite a bit.”

 

“We’ve got a very diverse staff, age and backgrounds from all different areas. I think that’s what leads to the chemistry and success we have. One of the things that is very, very important in chemistry is we have no egos on our staff – we’re just a bunch of hardworking, blue-collar guys from all different backgrounds, as you can see. It’s funny – I’m the only one who played (FBS) football, but we’ve got a bunch of guys who worked themselves up to be in this position.”

 

“We compete in every area of our program – we’re going to compete on the field, we’re going to compete in the classroom, we compete as coaches in practice. So we have a very, very competitive aspect, and that is a part of us that truly leads to the success we’ve had. But it’s all about the relationships. You can’t compete at a high level without having those relationships and understanding that each man in that room cares about you as much as they care about themselves. And that’s what makes this staff special.”

 

 

 

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January 28, 2014
by Chris Adamski


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“I’ve got ‘Chaos’ on my business card”: Penn State defensive coaches quotable

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As I’ve written already, I can’t promise you how many games James Franklin and the new Penn State coaching staff will win — but I can tell you that they’ll be people who will be fun to watch, follow and listen to.

 

They’ll be good quotes, for instance. As such, some of the best/most entertaining/most enlightening things they said didn’t make it into any Trib stories.

 

Here’s some of what’s leftover from a reporter’s recorder from the day Penn State’s assistants were introduced. And these are just the defensive coaches…

 

 

 

DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR/SAFETIES COACH BOB SHOOP

 

“(James Franklin) does a great job as the face of the program. He’s great at that stuff. He’s a great football coach, and he’s great at that stuff. He’s hired a defensive coordinator in myself and an offensive coordinator in John Donovan, guys who complement him. We’re not looking for the spotlight; we’re not looking for stories to be told about us. We just want to recruit players and coach football, and we’re happy just being in the film room and doing the gameplan and going out and preparing guys the best we can to be successful.”

 

“You’ll see with our staff we’re grinders: blue‑collar guys and hard workers. He hired me from William & Mary, a I-AA program, and Brent Pry from Georgia Southern and Sean Spencer from Bowling Green, and the article in the national paper said be prepared to be underwhelmed by these hires. I promise you that still sits in my office today.”

 

“A t the end of the day there is only one championship defense, and we came here to build a Big Ten Championship and National Championship caliber defense.  That is the only thing we know.  Our identity is we’re an in‑your‑face style of defense that’s going to be fun to watch and even more fun for our players to play, I promise you that.  It is based on two premises, relentless pursuit and never‑ending pressure.  First thing I say to the guys all the time is everyone has a game plan until they get punched in the face.  We throw the first punch and keep on punching.  We make sure it’s not the last punch and keep on punching.  That’s who we are.”

 

 

 

DEFENSIVE LINE COACH SEAN SPENCER

 

On James Franklin: “The dude’s intense. The dude’s intense. He wakes up, he does a back handspring out of bed. He’s fired up. I tell him to stop drinking those energy drinks; ‘you don’t need any.’ He’s the fastest walker I’ve ever seen in my life. I try to keep up with him, and I can’t keep up with him. He’s the fastest walker I’ve ever seen in my life. He brings an unbelievable energy and a passion to his job. A passion for the kids and a passion for people that work with him, and I think that’s what made us special at Vanderbilt. I’ve always talked about not having a special formula – it was about what we believed in. We believed in the guy next to us, the guy in front of us and the guy behind us, and that’s what made us special.”

 

On his nickname of “Chaos”: “Oh my god, I can’t tell you that! I’ve been coaching D-Line since I started D-1 at UMass, and it’d always break down on chaos all the time and I’d be running around the field and I’ve kind of got a lot energy, if you can see that, right? So when I got to Vanderbilt, (strength coach Dwight Galt) would just throw it out there. One time, he said ‘Go follow Coach Chaos,’ and all of a sudden, it just became my nickname. It’s pretty cool, I got it on my business card. Kinda cool when you hand that to somebody and they look scared when they see that…”

 

On how he ended up at Clarion University his playing days: “I didn’t know, man, they tricked me. They tricked me on my official visit. They said, ‘Hey, this place is right near Penn State.’ Only it’s really not near Penn State. We kind of tried, and we got to Du Bois and the car broke down and somebody had to pick me up.”

 

“Very proud to represent Western PA, very proud to say I was a member of the Clarion Golden Eagles. I told everybody I got used to big crowds. It was 6,000 at Clarion; now it’s 107,000 here. I’m used to it. We pretended it was really louder than it was, so…”

 

“I want guys who attack. I want guys who are hungry. We play multiple players to keep players fresh, and I want them to play every down like it’s their last down. That’s what I want. I want them to play with their hands, I want to play with their feet and I want a malice mentality in there.”

 

On meeting his predecessor as Penn State’s defensive line coach: “A kid we were dealing with at UMass that was going to transfer there from Penn State, and Larry Johnson was the most professional person I ever dealt with. He gave me a glowing recommendation for the kid and told me that he just felt like the kid (wasn’t going to play at PSU) and the kid needed to move on but that kid was like his son. So that gave me the ultimate respect for him, the way he handled that.”

 

 

 

DEFENSIVE RECRUITING COORDINATOR/CORNERBACKS COACH TERRY SMITH

 

On James Franklin: “Not everyone is made to be a head coach, and not everyone is made to be the head coach at Penn State. But he has that engaging personality. We’re gonna do great things here.”

 

“I’m a faith-driven man. I believe in God. Even through the trials and tribulations I went through at Gateway, I knew that God had a plan for me and something good was going to come of it. When you’re in the storm, you don’t always think it’s going to come through. But I trusted.”
“I want to be great. I don’t want to be just another coach on the staff. I don’t want to just be where Coach Franklin says, ‘Here’s another one of my staff members.’ I want to be the guy coach Franklin comments on. That’s my life mission. I don’t want to be good. I want to be great.”

 

“I was instrumental when Justin King came here with Lydell Sargeant and Sean Lee and that crew… You try to piece the generations together. We’re all Penn State, whether it’s from 1950s or ’60s to here we are in 2014. We’re one family. We’re trying to get that one voice again. It can’t be underestimated. It’s very important.”

 

“When I was coaching at Gateway, I thought I was going to coach there forever. Then an opportunity came with Temple’s staff under Matt Rhule. I didn’t know how I would adjust. I didn’t know how I’d take coaching in Division I. … It was a great experience. I embraced it. I loved it. Now I’m all in with Division-I coaching. I’m just excited to be here. It’s a dream come true right now.”
On coaching at Penn State: “It means everything to me. It’s not just a job for me. It’s a passion. It’s something I love to do. … I represent a lot of voices. I represent a lot of alumni. For me to have this opportunity, I’m tremendously blessed. I’m fortunate. … I think it’s important because history is important, to know where we’ve come from and where we want to go. A lot of times, staffs don’t know the history. I can give them some input on how things were.”

 

“Joe Paterno was instrumental in my life. He recommended me for both positions. He called the administration at Gateway on both occasions. He changed my life. When we were here from ’87-91, you don’t always understand the lessons but when you’re older and more mature, you absolutely understand the lessons that were being taught. The way I coach today is very similar to him. You want to be caring and nurturing and getting to know your players, and that’s one thing he did.”

 

“Penn State football helped to build this university, build the mystique of Penn State. I played here from ’87 to ’91, and those years are important to me. Those years molded my life and shaped my life. It’s important to alumni that they’re recognized, that they’re important and it matters. It’s great that he’s embraced it. We’re still in the process of healing completely and looking to move forward.”

 

On recruiting in the WPIAL: “We’ve lost some ground there. There’s guys each year going to other Big Ten schools and ACC schools. We want to go back to Western Pa. and get the guys we want. That’s priority No. 1. Tom Bradley had that locked up pretty well, so I have some tough shoes to fill. But I look forward to that challenge.”

 

 

 

ASSISTANT HEAD COACH/CO-DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR/LINEBACKERS COACH BRENT PRY

 

“Everything that I believe in as a coach — the fundamentals, the mentality, the attitude, the trust, the maturity… all those things – these guys embody. So I’m excited to work with them and help grow those traits.”

 

On linebacker Mike Hull: “I appreciate him already. He’s kind of square-jawed, no-nonsense. I actually tried to get him to crack a grin a little bit – it didn’t happen. He’s very serious. He’s a great student, he’s going to be the leader in that room, I feel, for sure. I’m thankful that he’s in place.”

 

On James Franklin: “He was a real competitor. The drive and determination that he demonstrates is something that you’ll come to recognize fully as the head coach of this program is how he ran the football team at East Stroudsburg… Coach Franklin has been a family friend for 20 years with my mother and with my father. There’s a real commitment to one another and a real fondness for each other. We’ve always pulled for him – whether it be for a job at Kutztown or whether it be the head coach at Penn State, we’ve always pulled for him and wanted the best for him. It just worked out when he want to Vanderbilt, he had opportunity for me to go with him.”

 

 

 

 

 

Tomorrow, some of the best of quotes from the offensive assistants.

 

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January 27, 2014
by Chris Adamski


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Penn State’s “dominating” recruiting since arrival of Franklin apparently continues

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A day after a Rivals 4-star recruit announced on Twitter he was making a verbal commitment to Penn State, another followed suit Sunday.

 

Joining California safety/linebacker/athlete Koa Farmer was New Jersey receiver Saeed Blacknall, who “flipped” from his commitment to Rutgers. Blacknall, as “the kids do nowadays,” used social media to alert the world of his decision.

 

These were Tweets on his Twitter page Sunday night:

 

 

(That final link is an Instagram photo of Blacknall on the field of Beaver Stadium during his official visit last week).

 

And, this being 2014, we got something of a “confirmation” from Penn State’s coaches via Twitter. NCAA regulations forbid coaches from speaking publicly about any specific prospects. But references to “Jersey” and “Big One” (one prominent scouting service, 247, ranks him as PSU’s top verbal commitment of the class) are among the reaction from head coach James Franklin and assistants Josh Gattis (the wide receivers coach and offensive recruiting coordinator who would have been prominent in recruiting Blacknall) and running backs coach Charles Huff.

 

Blacknall is the fourth receiver among the 23-player class, joining fellow Rivals four-star prospects De’Andre Thompkins (who’s already enrolled) and Chris Godwin and three-star Troy Apke. Apke, of Mt. Lebanon, might be moved to defense, however.

 

Blacknall also is Penn State’s fourth commitment to the 2014 class who is from New Jersey, including three of Rivals’ top 14 from NJ. Dominate that state?

 

 

 

(Note: This news means I’ll postpone posting the promised “quotables” from Nittany Lions’ assistant coaches until later Monday. Have a good one)

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January 25, 2014
by Chris Adamski


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Thoughts/observations from meeting Penn State’s new assistant coaches

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After spending a total of six hours driving roundtrip, about three hours in Beaver Stadium and roughly another three hours transcribing and writing, all I was afforded the opportunity to convey about my impressions of Penn State’s new coaching staff needed to presented in a 500-word package.

 

When trying to communicate the overall philosophy and personality of a group of 10 men, that barely scratches the surface. Luckily, my talented colleague Kevin Gorman accompanied me and did a fine column on Terry Smith.

 

Just as fortunate is that, even with the realities of shrinking news holes for modern newsprint, this particular forum exists that did not even a decade ago. So I can attempt to present a more thorough picture of what this new James Franklin staff is like (as well as sprinkle in some personal observations) on this blog.

 

 

Here goes:

 

I’m probably just a cynic, but I typically tend to subconsciously give a figurative roll of the eyes to talking points such as how “energetic” this group of men is or how much “chemistry” they have amongst each other or how they set out to foster “positive relationships.” I’d like to think I see through hollow buzzwords.

 

Perhaps my cynicism has been surpassed only by my naivety, but I’m here to tell you I have bought in that these aren’t merely corporate catchphrases. Holy cow, walking up and down the Beaver Stadium recruiting lounge (a panoramic view of Mt. Nittany providing the background), the “energy” of this staff isn’t just palpable – it practically slaps you in the face. I made sure I spent at least five minutes or so with every single assistant (other than Smith, whom Gorman was with, and defensive coordinator Bob Shoop, with whom I had talked to extensively over the past week). In their own way, you can’t help but be drawn to each. From defensive line coach Sean “Chaos” Spencer’s constant standing to running backs coach Charles Huff’s lessons in marine biology to strength coach Dwight Galt’s charm to the presence offensive line coach Herb Hand has in engaging a captivated audience in simple conversation… these guys have an it when it comes both to having a motor running that leaves them constantly on. An innate ability to connect with people. I suppose a skeptic would protest by trying to portray them as “phonies,” and I’ll concede I don’t know them enough to flatly contradict that. But – take it from me – you can’t help but want to like these guys. At least, if first impressions are any indication.

 

And don’t underscore the importance of that when it’s considered what a priority the staff places on recruiting. I’m not smart enough to know how many games or Big Ten or national championships Franklin & Co. can lead Penn State to, but I will confidently predict that they will consistently produce top-10 national recruiting classes.

 

An assistant told me, with a resolute tone, they will have a top-five class. Seeing as how we’re in mid-January, the recruiting turmoil usually associated with a coaching change is upon us and the school is in the final year of annual scholarship reductions, I instinctively assumed he meant 2015 (and beyond) when he dropped the “top-five class” line. When I said so, he quickly interrupted and assured me he meant right now. In 2014.

 

I don’t know if that’s possible with a 20-player maximum class… but after meeting these coaches and recognizing the premium they place on recruiting, I’m not going to outright dismiss their chances. Behind the scenes, they are working on some very big names – ones that previously were thought to have not even given Penn State a thought. You might be surprised if/when you hear who. I know I was.

 

Now, does all of this energy, youthful enthusiasm, genuine chemistry among each other and emphasis placed on aggressive recruiting mean The James Franklin Staff Nittany Lions will beat Ohio State come October? That they’ll be in the new College Football Playoff come each and every January? That remains to be seen. It’s still a young group (average age of 39.6) with scant full-time FBS coaching experience (45 seasons among the nine on-field assistants… or one fewer than Joe Paterno was head coach alone) – and no experience whatsoever of coaching in the Big Ten.

 

Youth is both a strength and a curse, though. And about the relative dearth of “big-name” schools on their resumes? Defensive coordinator Bob Shoop told me, “The key is we keep that chip on our shoulder. Our defensive staff, I promise you, we’re just a bunch of I-AA guys who worked our way up, keep our mouth shut and do our job.”

 

You can’t argue with what these guys (sans Smith) did together at Vanderbilt. Arguably, there isn’t a Power Five conference school in the country in which it is harder to win. Yet these coaches guided the Commodores to a better record over their final 20 games there (16-4) than SEC team other than Alabama.

 

The first game for this coaching staff at Penn State remains seven months (and entire continent) away (Aug. 30 against Central Florida in Dublin, Ireland). There’s no guarantee, of course, Franklin & Co. will be a success in leading the Penn State program out of the NCAA sanctions abyss and back onto its perch among the hierarchy of the nation’s elite programs. We’ll find out beginning this fall, and that will play out over the coming years.

 

Big Ten titles aren’t won over a two-week span of mid-January. What James Franklin and his 10 lieutenants have shown so far (selling the program – both to fans/alumni and prospective recruits) is their strength. It’s what they do best. This is their star turn – both in their actions and while viewed through a prism of a so-called “honeymoon period.” They’re still undefeated, after all.

 

But all we know is what we’ve seen so far.  You can’t get too carried away in evaluating a staff that hasn’t even so much as presided over a practice yet. That said, the James Franklin-led staff is off to quite the start in leading the football program at the Pennsylvania State University.

 

 

 

Tomorrow, I’ll post a collection of quotes from Penn State’s coaches. As you might expect, this gregarious staff is quite quotable.

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January 14, 2014
by Chris Adamski


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Bill O’Brien on ESPN Radio: ‘Not accurate at all’ that lack of support drove him away from PSU

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Bill O’Brien was on at least two high-profile national radio shows Tuesday, and his thoughts about Penn State were prominent in the interviews with “Mike & Mike” on ESPN Radio and Jim Rome of CBS Sports Radio.

 

During he ESPN appearance, almost the entire first half of a nearly eight-minute interview was specifically about Penn State. I have that transcribed below. O’Brien also talked to Jim Rome. He said similar things on both shows, so I won’t type that all out. Just a couple highlights at the bottom.

 

Of course he went on to answer questions about his new gig with the NFL’s Houston Texans. But the way that the Penn State answers went first make you wonder — and I’m speculating here; maybe I’m way off — if this was O’Brien’s concerted effort to “make good” with the Penn State community.

 

 

(Asked what his biggest takeaway is from his time at Penn State)

I’d say the biggest takeaway was the players. I really enjoyed coaching those players; they were great kids. They practiced hard, they played hard and they meant a lot to our staff and to myself at Penn State.

 

(Asked if he always wanted to go back to NFL?)

I loved Penn State, Mike, I really did. I enjoyed the players. I think it’s a very special university. I think they’ve gone and hired a fantastic coach in James Franklin, but there were many parts of the NFL game that I missed and then the other thing that is important to note is my family. When Houston came around and was interested in talking to me and I met the McNairs and I met Rick Smith, I just felt good about this opportunity. It was also the fact that in the city of Houston they have a great medical facility here for my oldest son. It’s just a fantastic facility and I think that’s something that meant a lot to my wife and I, and the McNairs really  helped us with that and talked to us a lot about that. And obviously, the opportunity to come here and be the head coach of an organization that to me is a first class organization had a lot to do with it, obviously.

 

(Asked if Paterno supporters played a factor in leaving, as a Harrisburg Patriot-News reported asserted in citing month-old quotes from O’Brien)

No, that’s not accurate at all. I felt that I had a ton of support at Penn State and my staff had a lot of support at Penn State. I regret that that conversation even took place; I regret that, I do. I know that I ton a ton of support there. Penn State is a special place I believe in what we did at Penn State. I think Penn State, the football program is in a better spot now than it was two years ago. I think our staff, myself, ourplayers are very proud of that, and I think they’re going to take off. I think that Penn State is a place where you can win national championships, and Big Ten championships, so I felt really good about the support I had there, and I apologize to anybody that took that conversation, obviously, the wrong way. I regret that conversation – but again, Penn State is a special place, and they’re going to be in great shape in the coming years.

 

 

Later in the day Tuesday, O’Brien was on Jim Rome’s show on CBS Sports Radio. He answered four questions about Penn State — again, roughly half of an almost nine-minute interview. I won’t type out all of it (too much more important stuff to do), but O’Brien says much of the same positive things about PSU and his former players as he did on ESPN Radio. He said he attempted to reach every player and recruit before word leaked that he was leaving and that some weren’t happy but that overall they were supportive.

 

Here is the part about the Harrisburg Patriot-News column:

 

I can tell you, No. 1, is I feel bad about that conversation. I regret that conversation. I felt that we always had support at Penn State, especially from the student body. The student body was fantastic there, and there were so many nice people in that community that were supportive of the football program and our team and our family. I feel bad about that conversation. I apologize to people about that conversation and I wish it never happened but it did and I’ll leave it at that. I know that Penn State is a very special place and they just hired an excellent football coach in James Franklin.

 

 

 

Meanwhile, four Penn State players were made available to the media today for the first time since O’Brien left. In Wednesday’s Trib, we’ll hear from them — on O’Brien, on new coach James Franklin, on departing assistant coach Larry Johnson and on all the craziness of the past three weeks through their eyes. Pittsburgh area standouts Miles Dieffenbach and Mike Hull are among those who talked.

 

 

Enjoy the day!

 

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January 5, 2014
by Chris Adamski


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Getting to know Al Golden from a reporter who’s known him best

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While Penn State’s coaching search is far from over, Miami’s Al Golden has perhaps emerged as the favorite.

 

Golden’s eight-year head-coaching resume includes impressive turnarounds — for vastly different reasons — at both Temple and Miami. A PSU alum, Golden wears a shirt and tie on the sidelines. He married a Central PA girl. In short, he “looks” the part of Penn State’s next coach.

 

But how well do we really know him? In setting out to learn more, I turned to John Di Carlo. Di Carlo has spent more time covering Golden as a head coach than anyone, and no reporter during his head coaching tenure has been closer to Golden, his staff and how he runs a program than him.

 

Di Carlo has been covering sports in the Philadelphia area for 16 years, and for the past eight years he has been the editor at OwlScoop.com, a Rivals.com site that, bar none, provides the most exhaustive and inside coverage of Temple University athletics. During Golden’s five seasons at Temple, OwlScoop.com was (and remains) the most comprehensive source for Owls news.

 

In short, there’s probably no reporter on the planet who knows Golden better. Di Carlo was kind enough to take some time to answer questions about Golden. He was our sounding board for “Everything a Penn State Fan Would Like to Know About Al Golden But Didn’t Know Who To Ask,” and he has some interesting insights.

 

 

 

Trib Total Media: When Al Golden left the school for Miami, Temple athletic director Bill Bradshaw called his job “one of the most remarkable turnarounds in Division I history.” Can you give us an indication of where the Owls were as a program when he arrived compared to where he took them?

 

John Di Carlo: Al took over what was arguably the worst FBS program in America when he arrived at Temple. The Owls went 19-71 under Bobby Wallace from 1998 to 2005, including 0-11 in Wallace’s final season, the program was asked to leave the Big East following the 2004 season and got trounced as an independent in 2005.

 

Then you have the fact that former Temple President David Adamany admitted that he considered dropping the football program together when things got bad in 2003 and 2004 and the team went a combined 3-21. With uncertainty surrounding the program, Wallace was faced with the task of trying to recruit to a program that may or may not exist by the time these prospective players were finished with their careers, so he took to recruiting junior college players, several of which were not physically ready for D-I football or academically ready for Temple. That was a big contributing factor to the program losing nine scholarships in 2006 due to a substandard APR score, so Al inherited that bouquet of roses, along with a roster littered with some players who couldn’t play dead in a cowboy western movie.

 

But Al knew what he was getting into. He always knows what he’s getting into, in fact. He’s very strategic, analyzes the living hell out of a situation before he gets himself into it, and he loves a challenge, so Temple was perfect for his first head-coaching gig. He worked diligently with the university to get the program’s APR scores up and get those nine scholarships back. The program became an affiliate member of the Mid-American Conference in 2006 and a full-fledged member of the MAC in 2007 and he took things from there.

 

TTM: As a program’s leader and CEO of the organization, how would you describe Al Golden’s overall demeanor, characteristics or leadership style?

 

JD: This is where Al really excels. He embraces that CEO persona and leans on a lot of leadership theory and ideas from people like former GE CEO Jack Welch, one of his favorites. He won’t be afraid to ruffle some feathers to get something done, but again, he’ll be smooth and strategic about it. He pushes and coaches his players – and his staff – hard, he’ll take chances on a recruit he thinks was overlooked, and he’s unwavering in his principles and very good at blocking out the outside world and public perception, something he had to do a lot at Temple and most recently at Miami.

 

TTM: In your time knowing him, how much – if any – indication did Al give of the love or reverence he or his family had for Penn State? We’ve seen third-person references that this is his “dream job;” do you believe that is truly the case?

 

JD: In taking off the record to Al about Penn State, sure, I got the sense of his reverence for Penn State, but as cliché as it sounds, he was very good at focusing on the task at hand, which was Temple and everything that came with it. Before he decided it was time to go and couldn’t turn down Miami (he turned down opportunities to go after the head coaching vacancies at Minnesota and Vanderbilt, among others), he really did kind of catch the bug at Temple, much like Matt Rhule has now, and really engrained himself in the university culture, so he didn’t get too involved in talking about how great it would be to some day coach at his alma mater.

 

Do I think Penn State his dream job? Yes, I do, but I know he was also very excited about reviving what Miami once had and I know Kelly, his wife, likes the area, even though she’s a Penn State graduate and a central PA native. I was told – and perhaps it’s been reported somewhere and I missed it along the way – that Penn State offered Al the job before Bill O’Brien took it, but Al turned it down because he didn’t want to pull a Lane Kiffin.

 

If he’s offered the job again, I can’t see him turning down Penn State a second time.

 

TTM: The worst is behind Penn State, but some aspects of the NCAA sanctions remain, and the stench of the Jerry Sandusky situation might not fully leave for decades. Turning around a perennially losing program is petty by comparison… but between making Temple a winner and riding outa pretty ugly scandal at Miami, Golden has earned a reputation as a stellar, steady hand guiding through reclamation projects. What is it about him, in your view, that allows that?

 

JD: Again, he’s very smart, sharp and strategic about everything – and I mean everything. What was the lesson to be learned at Penn State that Al and the Miami administration pretty much nailed to avoid further heartache down there? Self report everything. You can say that high-level administrators and trustees take care of certain things when it gets to that level, and they do, but Al has a hand in everything. He’s very charismatic, very engaging and very good at getting people to buy in when things are tough.

 

TTM: For all the wonderful qualities of Bill O’Brien, the handshaking, backslapping, schmoozing figurehead of a multimillion-dollar program was something he loathed. How’s Golden in that area?

 

JD: Al’s great in that area. And even if he’s not in the mood to do it on a certain day, you’d never know it because he’s good at pushing through everything he needs to do to embrace that CEO persona. Heck, he even had a lot of input and oversight with the team’s media guide every year and used to suggest attendance and marketing ideas when he was at Temple. Again, the guy leaves no stone unturned.

 

Even when it comes to dealing with boosters and fans who have a million questions about why he didn’t get a certain recruit or run a certain play, nine times out of 10, he’ll sit there and answer the questions. Each year, Temple runs an event for fans and alumni at the New Jersey shore, and it wasn’t uncommon for Al to linger around and have a beer with fans in Sea Isle City or Avalon during the only real vacation time he had in July before preseason camp instead of just ducking away to Stone Harbor, where he and Kelly typically vacationed.

 

TTM: He played tight end at Penn State but his background in coaching is on defense. How hands-on is Golden in the game planning and scheme? Is he a delegator or are his fingerprints all over the X’s and O’s?

 

JD: Unless things have changed, Al’s pretty hands-on with game planning. And from what I’ve been told, it was not uncommon for him to get on the headset when Temple had a chance to really open some things up on offense and really blow things out and say something to the effect of, ‘Let’s just run the ball, stay healthy and get the hell out of here.’ That’s not to say he can’t delegate, and he’s not all that different than some other guys around the country, but his fingerprints are typically all over about 99.9 percent of what goes on with the program.

 

TTM: A lot has been made of his close friendship with Mark D’Onofrio, his former Nittany Lions teammate who is his defensive coordinator. Miami’s defense had a bad season, and there are calls in Coral Gables that a change needs to be made. Is hiring Golden, in your mind, a “package deal” with D’Onofrio?

 

JD: This is where I think things could get interesting. I’m not saying it will be a sticking point that would ultimately kill a deal, because I think Al’s way too smart to let something like that hinder things, but I do think Al feels a bit conflicted about this and ultimately wants to see Mark land on his feet. I’d be shocked if Al didn’t have something to do with Mark getting a couple of interviews for the head coaching job at Temple last December before Matt Rhule ultimately got the job, and I think it’s fair to assume that Al wanted to see Mark either A. get his name out there for some positive ‘Hey, Mark D’Onofrio got a head coaching job interview’ press or B. get the job so he could avoid having to make a tough decision about his future down the line at Miami.

 

All of that, I think, is interesting considering former Temple AD Bill Bradshaw offered Mark the chance to be Al’s successor mere hours after Al announced he was leaving for Miami, but Al wholeheartedly convinced Mark to not take the job and follow him down to Miami.

 

But the numbers don’t lie, and Mark’s defenses have come under some deserved scrutiny at Miami. After being ranked 17th nationally in scoring defense in 2011 (at 20.1 points per game), the Hurricanes got worse. They were 83rd nationally in 2012 (30.5 ppg.) and 66th in the nation this past season (26.8 ppg.), and there was an ugly, three-game stretch this season when Miami, at a time when it really had a chance to prove itself, gave up 131 points and 1,609 yards on third down in losses to Florida State, Virginia Tech and Duke, and the Canes gave up an average of nearly 44 points a game in that three-game losing streak.

 

TTM: Along those lines, with Larry Johnson (as well as Ron Vanderlinden) very popular among the Penn State community – and a likely need for a bright and innovative offensive coordinator and strong quarterbacks coach presence to appease Christian Hackenberg and continue the offense’s progression in the O’Brien mold exists (conventional wisdom says, anyway). Do you believe Golden is the type who is open to bringing in those outside his inner circle onto his staff?

 

JD: I do, and I think he’s going to have to come to the realization (if he hasn’t already) that Mark can’t be his defensive coordinator at Penn State. Mark’s bend-but-don’t break style hasn’t worked at Miami, and it used to leave fans scratching their heads at Temple when Mark would have a double-digit sack rush end like Adrian Robinson drop into coverage instead.

 

Al hasn’t been opposed to surrounding himself with older and more experienced people in the past. When he got to Temple, he hired George DeLeone as his offensive coordinator and tapped into what George did during his days in coaching guys like Donovan McNabb and Marvin Harrison at Syracuse. Even though things didn’t work out recently for George at UConn, he had a good run during his Syracuse days and he was a good hire at the time for Al at Temple.

 

TTM: Perhaps the biggest criticism of Al Golden is a simple one: He hasn’t won enough. Some are speculating he is a bad in-game coach. Did you see any evidence of that? Is there any indication, in your opinion, that maybe there’s reason to believe he can’t win consistently?

 

JD: In some ways, I think that’s fair criticism. Al had the self-imposed bowl bans in 2011 and 2012 that kept Miami out of the postseason while he was building his program down there. But I think – and I’m sure ardent Miami fans do as well – it was fair to expect results in his third season this past fall, and the Canes finished 2-4 after starting off 7-0 and gaining that national top-10 ranking.

 

And even though I’m in full agreement with Bradshaw that Al pulled off one of the most remarkable college football turnarounds at Temple and should be commended for it, there were big-game slip-ups with the Owls as well. In 2009, with a spot in the MAC title game on the line, Temple lost to Ohio, 35-17, and that loss ended a nine-game winning streak. In 2010, again with a shot at a MAC title-game appearance at stake, Temple lost its last two games – 31-23 to Ohio at home in monsoon conditions and 23-3 at Miami of Ohio. Now, Bernard Pierce pulled up lame with a hamstring injury in that Ohio game, and I’ll say that I think Bernard has learned how to be a lot more mentally tough since moving along to the NFL, so that was a big offensive void for Temple. But, nonetheless, the Owls couldn’t lock down a spot in the MAC title game in those two seasons when they could have and should have, nor did Al’s teams ever beat a MAC team with a winning record during his time on North Broad Street.

 

But I also think Al could learn from sub-par finishes down the stretch at Temple and Miami and make his next job his best job. If he winds up at Penn State, he’ll be working with the best quarterback he’s ever had.

 

TTM: Golden has reputation as a strong recruiter, particularly since arriving at Miami. Now, understanding that the national Rivals rankings while you were covering him averaged in the 80’s… for Temple and for the MAC level, was he recruiting well relative to his competition? If so, why do you think he can recruit so well?

 

JD: Absolutely. In fact, Temple’s two highest-ranked recruits (Daryl Robinson and Eric Reynolds) were ultimately dismissed from the program and never worked out. Al’s greatest strength – and that of his staff – was trusting the film and landing guys that were not that highly recruited. Bernard Pierce’s other offer was from James Madison. Muhammad Wilkerson’s other offers were from Western Kentucky and Marshall. Same stories for guys like Tahir Whitehead, Derek Dennis, Steve Maneri and Jaiquawn Jarrett, and all of those guys eventually ended up in the NFL.

 

The same qualities that make Al a good program manager are those that make him a good recruiter. He’s engaging, charismatic and relentless.

 

TTM: Finally, it’s clichéd and idealistic, but Penn State athletic director Dave Joyner said that the search committee values qualities of “integrity” and “academics” as much as on-field winning. With everything that’s happened at the school over the past 26 months, that might be more than mere lip service. Does Al Golden have any skeletons in the closet? Any indication how he fares in the areas of integrity and academics?

 

JD: No skeletons that I know of. Again, he was a big part of getting Temple’s APR score up and getting the nine lost scholarships back, and he’s not above working with faculty and administration to make sure guys are going to classes. Will he take a chance or two on a high school talent with a somewhat-checkered past? Sure, but most guys out there will as well. But the one common thing here, once again, is that Al is involved with anything and everything regarding the program and takes it all quite seriously. Not much gets past him, and he won’t be afraid to kick a talented kid out of his program if he’s not buying in on and off the field.

 

 

A Big thanks for the insight to John, who covered Al Golden’s five seasons at Temple. Follow him on Twitter at @jdicarlo or @OwlScoop_com.

 

 

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