College Football Countdown | No. 56: Penn State – USA TODAY

Sell yourself enough and it becomes part of your DNA, profoundly impacting your approach, your mindset, your personality and, eventually, your reputation.

East Stroudsburg University’s Denny Douds had to be sold twice, first when James Franklin was a recruit, then when Franklin was a headstrong and cocky freshman fighting for snaps behind the Warriors’ ex-Marine starter. Franklin aced the first test: Douds went back to his assistants with a tale to tell of a quarterback in Langhorne with speed to burn and confidence to spare, mumbling answers to the pertinent questions ? “How many times does he throw?” Douds was asked ? to get his crew on board.

Franklin then had to sell himself: I’m a coach now, not a quarterback, Franklin admitted during a one-year stint at Washington State, his first stop on the Football Bowl Subdivision level. A career was born out of this moment of self-realizing clarity ? I’m now a coach.

In 2000, he had to convince Maryland’s Ralph Friedgen to take a chance on a lightly experienced, 27-year-old position coach with only that single year of FBS experience. That led to the Green Bay Packers, which led to Kansas State, which led back to College Park, which led to the coach-in-waiting tag, which led to Vanderbilt.

Franklin sold Vanderbilt on potential, the great unknown, and so convinced the administration on the power of promise that the vault was opened: Vanderbilt rehabbed its image first, committing the program ? in mentality, not to mention dollars and cents ? to match Franklin’s vision.

Recruits came quickly, as did wins, the latter on an unfathomable scale. There’s a reason this worked: Franklin led, Vanderbilt followed. What’s the difference between a salesman and a used-car salesman? The latter sells lemons. Franklin sold Ferraris. His lasting impact is seen in wins and the Commodores’ altered sense of self-value; more tangibly, it’s in some of the best in-house facilities in the Southeastern Conference.

Penn State’s simply the latest challenge. The zip code’s changed, as have the stadium size, the fan base, the prestige and ? this above all else ? the expectations. What hasn’t changed is Franklin’s approach, the mindset that carried Neshaminy High’s finest from teenage summers spent at the Philadelphia Water Department, helping make ends meet at home, to the state’s coaching pedestal.

“I think I’m a guy in the early on that’s hard to figure out,” Franklin told USA TODAY Sports in May. “Because you’re like, ‘Is this guy real?’ At first, people kind of see the intense emotion, the intense passion, and at first people are like, ‘How do we take this guy?’ In a lot of ways, that’s a challenge.”


But should the Nittany Lions feature strong play from the quarterback position, get pressure up front, solve depth issues at linebacker and land consistency at cornerback, this team should put pressure on Ohio State in the Leaders Division. To me, it’s safer to call for another eight-win regular season.

2013 RECAP:

In a nutshell: We’ll look back and absolutely marvel at what Bill O’Brien was able to achieve despite the odds during his two seasons at Penn State. Rare is the coach who leaves after just 24 games yet avoids much of the coaching-change vitriol; O’Brien earned his keep, earned PSU’s respect and earned a spot in the NFL. Last year’s team won seven games despite the inherent issues, as we’re all aware: one, attrition; two, lack of depth; three, inexperience; and four, a freshman quarterback. As Franklin well knows, the first three factors remain on PSU’s plate ? and won’t be disappearing in 2014. Yet last year’s Nittany Lions persevered, taking two games in overtime, losing two games by a field goal and topping three eventual bowl participants. PSU didn’t thrive during these dark days of sanctions ? but the Nittany Lions survived.

High point: Beating Wisconsin in the finale. After dropping two in a row to begin his tenure, O’Brien-coached teams at PSU never suffered a multiple-game losing streak.

Low point: I’d say Nebraska, which stung, but let’s not ignore a 63-14 loss to Ohio State in October. And that note about avoiding losing streaks cuts both ways: PSU alternated wins and losses from the year’s third game through the end of the season.

Tidbit: Each of Penn State’s last three coaches ? Engle, Paterno and O’Brien, dating to Engle’s debut in 1950 ? have won at least eight games in a single season. Another two Big Ten programs, Northwestern and Wisconsin, have also had three eight-win coaches in a row ? Barnett, Walker and Fitzgerald for Northwestern, and Alvarez, Bielema and Andersen for the Badgers. Leading the way in the conference is Nebraska, which is on a five-coach streak: Devaney, Osborne, Solich, Callahan and Pelini.

Tidbit (coaching edition): Seven of Franklin’s nine assistants came along for the ride from Vanderbilt, spelling a continuation not just of the Commodores’ tight-knit feel ? this staff is as close as any I’ve ever come across ? but a degree of in-staff continuity with scheme and approach. The two newcomers are running backs coach and special teams coordinator Charles Huff and cornerbacks coach Terry Smith. The rest know the drill: John Donovan as offensive coordinator and tight ends coach ? he’s a really sharp guy ? and Bob Shoop as defensive coordinator; Herb Hand and Sean Spencer as offensive and defensive line coach, respectively; Brent Pry as co-coordinator and linebackers coach; Josh Gattis as receivers coach, and he did a wonderful job in this spot at Vanderbilt; and another bright guy, Ricky Rahne, as quarterbacks coach.


Benjamin Franklin’s inventions

1. Bifocals
2. Lightning rod
3. Catheter
4. Long arm
5. Franklin stove


Offense: The Christian Hackenberg show continues. It was a memorable debut: Hackenberg (2,955 yards and 20 touchdowns) stepped in as a five-star true freshman and met every expectation ? if not exceeded expectations ? in showing the sort of wise-beyond-his-years play rarely seen among major-conference rookies. He was careful, tossing just one interception for roughly every 39 attempts. He was productive, topping the 300-yard mark four times with five multiple-touchdown performances. Hackenberg was comfortable enough in the pocket to stretch the field, though he’ll need to continue making strides against the rush. He was everything he was supposed to be, basically, and more. The potential is off the charts; O’Brien left Franklin a gift. But this year won’t be easy.

For one, Hackenberg won’t have an all-everything receiver at his disposal. The Nittany Lions will have a hard time replacing Allen Robinson, a program great, and will be reliant on at least two true freshmen for depth purposes at the position. But there is a leader: Eugene Lewis (18 receptions for 234 yards) figures to assume Robinson’s role as Hackenberg’s go-to target despite his own inexperience; he really needs to get on the same page with PSU’s quarterback before the opener. Beyond Lewis, don’t be surprised at all if true freshman DeAndre Thompkins plays a bunch, thanks in part to his early enrollment, and redshirt freshman DaeSean Hamilton is coming off a strong spring. PSU will also lean on junior Matt Zanellato, who got his feet wet a season ago. Here’s the basic rotation, subject to change during August: Lewis, Zanellato, Hamilton, Thompkins and fellow freshmen Saeed Blacknall, Chris Godwin and Troy Apke. It’s simply not a great group ? in 2014, at least. There is substantial promise, so things will improve.

So Hackenberg will have to lean heavily on his tight ends; good thing the Nittany Lions return a terrific group. There’s junior Kyle Carter (18 for 222), an easy all-conference pick when fully healthy ? as we saw very clearly in 2012. There’s fellow junior Jesse James (25 for 333), an NFL-size contributor with the frame to simply bully opposing defenders along the back seven. And let’s not forget about sophomore Adam Breneman (15 for 186), perhaps the most gifted skill player on the roster; while slowed early in his debut by a knee injury, you saw the potential during his electric close to the regular season. These three tight ends are great alone; together they’re superb.

And the backfield is here to lend a hand. The Nittany Lions bring back the heart of last year’s ground game: Zach Zwinak (989 yards) and Bill Belton (803 yards) are now seniors, believe it or not, and sophomore Akeel Lynch (358 yards) flashed terrific burst and vision as last year’s third option. Wisconsin and Nebraska have better individual backs, to be sure ? you know, Gordon and Abdullah ? but PSU has to feel very positive about its options in the backfield. What really makes this unit work is how well each complements the other: Zwinak’s the bruiser, Lynch the speedster and Belton a hybrid of the pair. The issue? Hackenberg and these backs must produce behind a very raw and untested offensive front, and it’s easy to see the entire range of PSU’s skill players suffering should the line struggle against premier competition.

Defense: It’s funny to consider ? since this is the place for linebackers ? but PSU is in bad shape on the second level. The one sure thing is senior Ben Hull (78 tackles), who will move into the middle as Glenn Carson’s replacement. It’s also safe to pencil sophomore Blake Bell, a potential-laden talent, into a starting role on the outside. But the Nittany Lions are really going to miss Ben Kline, a third projected starter who tore his Achilles late last month; injuries were an issue for Kline a year ago as well, but he was viewed as a linchpin on the outside. Instead, the Nittany Lions must turn back to Nyeem Wartman, who has been unimpressive in starting duty. Depth is also a concern: PSU will need snaps from two incoming freshmen to make ends meet on the second tier. While Hull will be an all-league pick, the Nittany Lions aren’t looking good at linebacker ? and yes, I realize that’s a strange sentence.

It’s better elsewhere. The secondary has one spot to fill: PSU needs to find a starter to play opposite of cornerback Jordan Lucas (65 tackles, 3 interceptions), a rangy, athletic junior with a nose for the football ? and a starter really poised to make all-conference noise if he can make last year’s off-and-on lulls a thing of the past. But Lucas can be so impactful that quarterbacks will be only too happy to look elsewhere, meaning juniors Trevor Williams and Da’Quan Davis ? Williams the starter, Davis the top reserve ? must deliver under pressure. For now, this is the secondary’s biggest concern. I’m not in love with the back end, but it’s totally serviceable: Anthony Amos (50 tackles) is a steady, seasoned hand, and Ryan Keiser is your typical walk-on success story ? a somewhat limited athlete who makes the most of his skill set.

And if the Nittany Lions do struggle on the outside, Amos could always shift back outside to cornerback. If so, Shoop and PSU could promote Malik Golden, a really nice young talent, or Jesse Della Valle into a starting role. That’s actually not a bad idea, all things considered. And unlike many other groupings on this roster, I don’t worry about depth: Davis, Golden and Della Valle ? if that projected quartet starts ? are very solid as backups, and PSU adds as many as six incoming freshmen into the rotation come fall camp. I’m actually pretty high on this group.

No other unit defines this program’s current state more than the defensive line: PSU has a really solid top four but a questionable second tier. The starting group is strong across the board, beginning with ends C.J. Olaniyan (50 tackles, 11.0 for loss) and Deion Barnes (28 tackles). Olaniyan is going to fit really well into PSU’s scheme for the pass rush; Barnes has shown flashes of all-conference talent, though he’s coming off a fairly disappointing sophomore season. Inside, the Nittany Lions will team sophomore Austin Johnson with junior Anthony Zettel (16 tackles, 4.0 sacks), a converted end who added size without taking away an explosive first step. There’s no dominating interior presence here, unlike the last few years, but the top four is ready to roll. I just worry about the lack of depth, though perhaps JUCO transfer Tarow Barney will supply immediate assistance along the interior.

Special teams: Coverage and return teams will be a weekly concern until PSU’s reclaims its lost depth, so get ready for another season of middling-to-painful results. One thing the Nittany Lions can control, however, is the kicking game: Sam Ficken is back for one final season, hoping to finally discover some consistency on kicks beyond 35 yards, and redshirt freshman Chris Gulla takes over for Alex Butterworth at punter. I suspect that several true freshmen ? notably one of those talented receivers ? will get a long look on kickoff returns; Della Valle shouldn’t lose his spot on punt returns.


Offensive line: Barring a surprise development come August ? or barring some sort of didn’t-see-this-coming production come the season ? this line is going to keep Penn State’s offense in neutral. It’s a huge issue: PSU is really only confident in one position, left tackle, and can only view the remaining four spots with varying degrees of skepticism ? particularly with senior Miles Dieffenbach out with an ACL injury until at least the final month of the regular season. It is a good thing, however, that the line’s most trustworthy body comes at left tackle: Donovan Smith is an anchor for the entire group and a beautiful protector of Hackenberg’s blind side. Yet there are only 20 returning starts up front, all with Smith; that’s the second-lowest total in college football.

It’s a good thing Hand knows what he’s doing. Look for the competition to extend deep into August, seeing that there seems to be little separation at any of the four open spots. It should be redshirt freshman Andrew Nelson at right tackle, though true freshman Chasz Wright could factor into the mix. A second redshirt freshman, Brendan Mahon, could fit at right guard or move out to tackle, should Nelson struggle. Sophomore Wendy Laurent should be the guy at center, even if junior Angelo Mangiro remains an option. Mangiro could also start at left guard, should PSU not feel comfortable in what converted defenders Derek Dowrey and Brian Gaia bring to the table. Getting the picture? It’s not good outside of left tackle. And depth ? don’t even ask. Hand’s got a full plate.


Michigan: Every game counts ? this is Penn State, after all ? but the Nittany Lions’ road toward bowl eligibility demands at least two wins away from home. One will be Rutgers; a second should be Illinois. But it’d be great to knock off Michigan in Ann Arbor, giving PSU the breathing room needed to tussle with Northwestern, Maryland, Ohio State and Michigan State inside the friendly confines.


In a nutshell: We’re going to have to be realistic about what Franklin faces in his debut season. Penn State has issues, with none bigger than the lack of overall depth seen nearly across the board ? in my mind, these Nittany Lions may face a number crunch tougher than either of O’Brien’s two teams. Things are rosy in the backfield, including quarterback, and fine in the secondary; things are worrisome on the second tier of the defensive line and the receiver corps; things are very questionable along the offensive line and at linebacker. To me, it’s the offensive line that should cause a sleepless night: PSU has Smith and nothing else, even if we must admit the potential for growth during the next 24 months is obvious ? as we can also say at wide receiver.

It’ll pay to be pragmatic. Yes, the Nittany Lions have a smooth schedule; there’s always Ohio State, Michigan and Michigan State to consider, but the slate as a whole is conducive to a solid start. Yet I can’t ignore the areas where PSU comes up lacking, and can’t help but think this team ? and this fan base, of course ? should be very happy winning six or more games during the regular season. Conversely, I don’t think a seven-loss debut spells trouble in the least: Franklin’s going to get it done here at one point or another, even if this staff doesn’t hit the ground running from the start. But I wouldn’t think this team is finishing below .500.

Despite the problems, this team should win at least six games and as many as eight. Hackenberg is a star in the making, a foundational piece of the entire offense ? and the face of the entire on-field team. The backfield is terrific. The receiver corps has enough athleticism to surpass my expectations. The defensive line is going to be a strength if the top four stay healthy. The secondary is another grouping set to exceed preseason projections. Yeah, the linebacker corps and offensive line will be an issue all year ? that’s simply a fact, though Hand has worked wonders before. In total, this new staff is going to win games. What about 2014? Let’s be careful about planning for a major breakthrough. Bowl eligibility is the baseline, but this team isn’t equipped to make a 10-win finish out of this schedule.

Dream season: Penn State takes advantage of this schedule to go 10-2, dropping only games to Ohio State and Michigan State.

Nightmare season: The Nittany Lions finish 4-8.


Who’s No. 55? It’s been two decades since this program last finished below .500 in conference play.


College Football Countdown | No. 56: Penn State – USA TODAY

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