James Franklin is bullish on investing in special teams.
“Very rewarding to me…that we’ve been investing in special teams in a lot of different ways — time, resources,” he said following a 52-0 win over Akron on Sept..
“…Special teams, over the last year and a half, is probably the area we’ve improved the most in the program. We’ve invested in it, and we’re really getting a lot of return on our investment right now. I couldn’t be more pleased,” he said on Sept. 16, after Penn State defeated Georgia State, 56-0.
“I don’t know if I’ve seen a better half of special teams in my 23 years of doing this. That has been something that we’ve worked really hard on and invested in since we’ve been here,” he said on Sept. 30.
With all those wise investments paying off for Penn State in 2017, you’d think the Franklin that was coaching the Nittany Lions was named Benjamin, not James.
As it is, James’ latest pronouncement came on Saturday night, 35 minutes after Penn State had defeated Indiana, thanks in no small measure to a multitude of successes on Penn State’s special teams.
There was Saquon Barkley’s 98-yard kickoff return to open the game. Nick Scott’s scoop-and-score from 13 yards out, after Irv Charles caused Indiana punt returner J-Shun Harris to fumble. Blake Gillikin’s six punts for a 46.5-yard average, with two inside the 10 and four inside the 20, as well as three boots of 50 yards or more. Gillikin’s draw of a personal foul, which led to another PSU TD.
(The last time Penn State had two special team touchdowns in the same game was in 2001 at Illinois, when Bruce Branch had a 71-yard punt return and Larry Johnson had a 97-yard kick return for a touchdown.)
Other than Travis Davis’ woeful 5-of-11 field goal performance thus far — read about it here — Penn State special teams in 2017 have been money.
Penn State’s special teams special play began in 2017 with DeAndre Thompkins’ 61-yard punt return for a score in the season opener. It was PSU’s first TD via PR since DWill in 2008. The stretch of standout special teams play includes a string of 31 kickoffs by Davis for a 64.2-yard average, with 20 touchbacks.
NATIONAL RANKINGS: THEN AND NOW
That’s a far cry from when Franklin and his special teams coordinator, Charles Huff, arrived in 2014 and were met with a decimated roster. Outside of kicker Sam Ficken, the Nittany Lions were not that special. They were 81st in punt returns, 60th in kickoff returns and 106th in net punting.
Franklin set out to change that. It began in the summer of 2015, when Huff and special assistant Sam Williams spent the time and money (what some folks call an “investment”) to visit at least a half-dozen NFL teams to benchmark their special teams approach. The teams? Pittsburgh, Baltimore, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Detroit and New Orleans.
That kick-started the investment process. Over the past four seasons, Franklin and Huff have turned things around. Look at where Penn State stands in the latest NCAA college football national rankings, released on Sunday:
6th — net punting, 43.1 yards.
7th — kickoff returns, 30.9 yards.
12th — punt returns, 16.9 yards.
15th — punt return defense, 1.3 yards.
45th — kickoff return defense, 18.7 yards.
113th — field goal attempts blocked, 2. (Yikes…no one’s perfect. Read about it here.)
So, how have they done it? Investing.
To Franklin, that means many things — from cash money to utilizing money players like Barkley. There’s also the addition of new staff beyond the core group of nine assistant coaches, devoting more scholarships for kickers, a deeper and faster group of special team players, and putting starters — like Barkley — on special teams. Here’s a quick overview of some of Franklin’s special changes:
Penn State’s special teams are the purview of Huff and wide receivers coach Josh Gattis, who doubles as assistant special teams coordinator. They are two of Penn State’s allotted nine full-time assistant coaches. (Teams can add a 10th in January 2018; look for Franklin to make his a special teams guy.)
But they’re not the only people in Lasch thinking about special teams every day. Here’s where the investment comes in. They are helped by as many as three staffers/consultants who have strong special teams experience, but didn’t count against the core nine.
Early in his tenure at Penn State Franklin hired Williams to be the special teams/recruiting assistant for quality control. Williams worked with Franklin at Vandy and also coached special teams as a grad assistant at Rutgers.
“Sam and I have built a strong relationship. That’s my guy,” said Scott, Penn State’s special teams captain, on Saturday. “He’s like a spark. He’s like having another Coach Franklin with his energy. Sometimes I’ll go up to his room and watch block film or see what kind of blocks he’s drawn up for the week and get a head start on that. He’s been huge in terms of scheme and helping Coach Huff draw up blocks and things like that. He’s been big for the program.”
In late winter 2017, Franklin also hired former Rutgers and Tampa Bay Buccaneers assistant Phil Galiano as a defensive consultant. Galiano has an extensive background with special teams as well. Galiano has been in coaching for 15 years and had three separate stints at Rutgers, most recently as a special teams and tight ends coach. He spent 2012-2013 in the NFL as the Bucs’ special teams coach, when former Rutgers head coach Greg Schiano left Rutgers to be the head coach in Tampa Bay. (Schiano, fired by Tampa Bay after the 2013 season, is in his second year as associate head and co-defensive coordinator at Ohio State.)
Also in the offseason, Franklin added a consultant named Larry Lewis, who was the head coach at Idaho State in 1999 when Franklin was the wide receivers coach there. Lewis has been a college coach since 1981. Most recently, Lewis was the special teams coordinator and running backs coach at Virginia. At UVA in 2015, Lewis’ punt returns unit was ranked No. 6 in the country. Prior to that, he was special teams coach at Colorado State and Nevada, where Khald Wooten was once the nation’s No. 4 punt returner, at 15.1 yards per return.
Lewis’ influence at Penn State has been immediate and evident. Early in his career, Thompkins had a hard time holding onto the ball. This season, defenders have a hard time holding onto him when he returns punts — which is why they try very hard to kick away from him. (Indiana punted eight times on Saturday; not one was returnable.) Overall, Thompkins ranks No. 8 in the nation among all punt returners, with 11 returns for 206 yards — and an impressive 18.7-yard average.
On Saturday, I asked Scott, “How big is Lewis’ impact on Penn State’s special teams this season?”
“It’s been huge,” Scott replied. “It’s been huge, especially in terms of giving guys a deeper understanding of the game, giving us tidbits and helping with the coaches as well. A lot of those guys don’t get a lot of credit because they’re under the radar. But in terms of developing our players mentally and assisting the coaches behind the schemes, they’ve been huge.”
Such staffing costs money. And in Franklin’s time at Penn State, the budgeting for support staff for the football program has exploded — growing by $2.98 million in three years, according to annual reports Penn State must file with the NCAA and the U.S. Department.
In 2012-13, under Bill O’Brien, the money spent on the football support staff was a bit more than $683,000. In 2013-14, which encompassed time with both O’Brien and Franklin, it jumped to nearly $2.87 million. In 2014-15, it was $4.06 million. And in 2015-16, it was $3.66 million.
Of course, not all that money has gone to pay for the aforementioned quality control assistants and consultants. But it does give you more of an idea of what Franklin means when he talks “investments.”
With the return of a full complement of 85 scholarships, Franklin aimed to invest a few of them on scholarships for kickers. Gillikin is the prime example of that investment paying off.
What about Alex Barbir, Penn State’s redshirt freshman place-kicker also on scholarship? Not so much. Or, at least not yet. Barbir has kicked off five times in 2017, for a 60.8-yard average. Two of the five have gone out of bounds.
Barbir came into the picture when Quinn Nordin, who like Gillikin is from Georgia, de-committed from Penn State to go to Michigan, where he finally landed. That Franklin and Huff had ID’d Nordin, and at one time had him deplaning in State College, was testament to their strategy. Nordin is 11 of 13 on field goals this fall for the Wolverines, and ranks No. 2 in the nation with 2.75 made field goals a game.
THE FULL ROSTER
Penn State has more top-line players on its roster, from top to bottom, than it has had in several years. This depth manifests itself several ways.
Penn State’s special teams player are more skilled and faster, and there are more of them. The competition to get on the field in any manner is fierce on a squad that is 14-1 over its last 15 games, and it extends to filling the slots on several special team units. Charles is great example of this. Now in his third season, Charles is still having a tough time cracking Gattis’ wide receiver rotation. But he keeps on coming up big on special teams.
“It’s great to see guys like Irvin Charles, who has made so many plays for us on special teams,” Franklin said on Saturday night. “That’s just going to continue to grow and build confidence with him and spill into his role on offense eventually.”
Still, several starters are aching to be on special teams. Barkley is the most visible example of this. A number of other Nittany Lion starters play on special teams — like senior corner Christian Campbell, who is on the No. 1 punt return group. It’s a mindset, says Scott, that permeates the locker room.
“We have a lot of guys who want to be on special teams,” Scott said. “Special teams are not looked at as a punishment or being below starters. If you’re starting on special teams, you’re just as important as Saquon, Hammy (DaeSean Hamilton), Jason Cabinda. We take a lot of pride in that and we want to make our presence known.”
The Nittany Lions are also faster. Witness their kickoff coverage unit, which would comprise almost two full 4×100 relay units. Chasing down kicks are the likes of Charles, Scott, Lamont Wade, Tariq Castro-Fields, Irv Charles, Nick Scott, Jarvis Miller and Ayron Monroe.
PRACTICE MINDSET AND TEMPO
With a deeper and broader roster, Franklin can afford to devote more quality time on special teams play in practice. That work finds its way into games, said Campbell.
“Every special teams rep at every practice, we go full speed,” Campbell said. “Practice is harder than a game.”
That includes the work that goes into forcing a fumble, which Campbell did on Saturday while on defense (the concept is the same for special teams play). “We work on that in practice all the time: Strip it, somebody else close to the ball picks it up and scores,” Campbell said. “That work helps. And you are starting to see it show up it in a game.”
In other words, it’s starting to pay dividends.
Which is exactly why Franklin calls it an investment.