Penn State's depth issues may dampen enthusiasm surrounding James Franklin

Penn State head coach James Franklin. (AP Photo)

James Franklin landed at University Park Airport on Jan. 11 brimming with excitement as he prepared to become Penn State's new head football coach. In the 71/2 months since, he has impressed the citizens of Nittany Nation with his enthusiasm, his energy, his sense of humor, and his skill at convincing high school recruits to come to Happy Valley.

However, Franklin now faces the daunting task next weekend of actually coaching Penn State in a game for the first time. And the chips are stacked against him.

This was the year that the NCAA sanctions of July 23, 2012, were supposed to put a choke hold on the Nittany Lions' program, a direct effect of the Jerry Sandusky child sexual-abuse scandal. The governing body had ruled that the number of scholarships allowed to Penn State this season would be reduced from the maximum of 85 to 65 and would remain at that level through 2017.

Thanks to the recommendation last year of former Sen. George Mitchell, who was appointed as the university's academic integrity monitor as a condition of the sanctions, the NCAA restored some scholarships last September. Penn State is allowed 75 this season, 10 more than the original sanctions, and the number grows to 80 next year and back to the full 85 by 2016.

While that is a break to have 10 more scholarship players, it still leaves the Nittany Lions 10 behind everyone else. And it has resulted in depth problems for them along the offensive line and at linebacker and has left the team a key injury or two away from major adversity.

That's not going to dim the fire inside of Franklin one bit, but the Bucks County native and successor to Bill O'Brien is realistic about the situation.

"I do think the longer that you're in the sanctions, obviously, the more difficult it becomes," Franklin said last week. "I don't think that there's any doubt about that. You look at our lack of seniors. Somebody sent me a stat the other day that we have the second-youngest team in the country.

"I do think there's some challenges that come with it. But again, we can't change that, so we're just going to focus on what we have. We've got great kids here. We've got great players. We just need more."

Franklin talked in the spring about his coaching staff's need to be creative in utilizing players and perhaps apply unconventional thinking to allow the Nittany Lions to play to strengths and hide weaknesses. However they decide to do it, it's clear there is no room for error.

The Lions are competing this season with just 11 seniors, including seven in their fifth season on campus, and had 58 true or redshirt freshmen on their training-camp roster. Franklin said he's in the process of dividing the number of freshmen into who could play right away and who would redshirt based on injuries.

Some freshmen will have to help on the offensive line, the team's most vulnerable position. The unit took enough of a hit after three starters from 2013 departed, but one expected returnee - fifth-year senior Miles Dieffenbach - tore an anterior cruciate ligament in spring practice and is out indefinitely, maybe for the entire season.

Franklin has said he will rotate "seven or eight" players along the offensive line, meaning everyone is learning several positions. That's usually standard operating procedure for an NFL team with a 53-man active roster but highly unusual in college football.

Whoever the seven or eight players are, they must develop as a unit quickly enough to keep opposing defenses from getting big hits on quarterback Christian Hackenberg, who is coming off an excellent freshman season and now gets to play for his second head coach in as many years.

"That's part of life," Hackenberg said at the team's media day. "The transition from Coach O'Brien to Coach Franklin has been pretty smooth. We're really excited about what Coach Franklin brings to the table, and we've all bought in, and we're ready to go to battle for him."

Another undermanned area is linebacker, home of the Lions' defensive leader, middle linebacker Mike Hull. The group took a significant hit this summer after Ben Kline, who would have competed for a starting job on the outside, reportedly suffered an Achilles tendon injury. A number of players at the position are young and untested.

The Lions possess good depth elsewhere. In the secondary, Jordan Lucas could be one of the Big Ten's best cornerbacks, and hard-hitting safety Adrian Amos may play a role in the Lions' "Star" defense, moving up as an extra linebacker. Penn State has three talented running backs in Bill Belton, Zach Zwinak, and Akeel Lynch.

The Big Ten schedule is a relatively favorable one. The Nittany Lions must play top-10 teams Ohio State and Michigan State in their own East Division, but they avoid the top three teams - Wisconsin, Nebraska, and Iowa - in the West.

Still, they're in a fragile situation. They cannot overlook anyone, especially Central Florida in Saturday's opener in Dublin, Ireland, and Rutgers in their initial Big Ten contest under the lights in Piscataway, N.J., on Sept. 13.

Franklin knows it's a difficult task, but it doesn't diminish his gusto to get started and fire up Penn State fans.

"It's about getting everybody on the same page and pulling the rope in the same direction," he said.

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