Franklin: ‘Tells’ common, but hardly hampering Nittany Lions’ offense
Penn State’s national championship dreams collapsed with two road losses by four points to two of the better teams in the Big Ten in recent weeks, and the big question around the program the last few days is whether the Nittany Lions were helping opponents find a way to hand them those two losses.
Former college football great and NFL star turned radio personality Jonathan Vilma brought the issue to the forefront late last week, when he suggested on a national radio show that he noticed tendencies with Penn State’s offense that could have led to its late collapses in losses to Ohio State and Michigan State.
“I can say that about every offense in the country,” head coach James Franklin said Tuesday during his weekly news conference. “There are tells. That’s what our defense does. That’s what our offense does. Are there some things that we can do better? Yes. No doubt about it.”
While guest co-hosting ESPN Radio’s The Russillo Show on Friday, Vilma said he noticed several weeks ago — and withheld his comments while the Nittany Lions were still firmly in the College Football Playoff discussion — “some tells” with the way the offense lined up.
Most notably, he insisted that he could tell whether Penn State was going to run the ball or throw it based on the stance of one of the offensive tackles.
“It was particularly noticeable when he started getting tired,” Vilma said of the tackle. “As all linemen do, they get tired. He would then start to really lean in on his runs and sit back on his passes. And I said, ‘Wow, I could call run-pass this whole game. Run-pass, runpass.’ I was right.”
Vilma also suggested what Franklin admitted after the Nittany Lions’ 35-6 win over Rutgers, that defenses were able to either force Penn State into a certain play call or shut down a running play based solely on where running back Saquon Barkley aligned himself in the backfield in relation to opposing defensive tackles.
Franklin didn’t necessarily disagree with Vilma’s assessment, saying that the most important thing for Penn State is not eliminating all tells, but more consistently winning one-onone battles, sustaining blocks along the offensive line and figuring out ways to disguise tendencies. They did that Saturday, he said, with the pistol formation and more motioning of Barkley into and out of the backfield.
“But, I’d also say this: If the tells were so obvious, I still think we’re averaging, I think, 31 points a game,” Franklin pointed out. “If everybody knew what we were doing on most of our plays, I would think we’d be scoring a lot less than that.”
Franklin confirmed Tuesday that linebacker Manny Bowen, who missed last Saturday’s win over Rutgers due to a violation of team rules, will not play Saturday against Nebraska at Beaver Stadium either.
It remains to be seen whether Bowen’s suspension will last past this weekend’s game, and Franklin remained vague when asked about the subject.
“Bowen’s not available right now,” Franklin said.
The suspension is the second the junior has been given during his Penn State career. He also missed the Rose Bowl loss to USC in January due to a violation of team rules.
Bowen currently ranks third on the Nittany Lions defense with 51 tackles, and his four quarterback hurries are tied for second on the team behind defensive end Shareef Miller’s eight.
Most of Tuesday’s news conference centered on the play of the offensive line and how to improve the unit’s physicality, a facet Franklin noted with a bit of a shrug.
He said there were no lineup changes coming against Nebraska, and he added that he continued to hope some injured players could return sooner rather than later, a sign that offensive tackle Ryan Bates could be inching closer to a return. He stressed Penn State needs to stay the course with its starters and continue to stress the importance of both development of the youngsters and the learning process that goes along with playing confidently.
“It’s youth, I think it’s experience, and I think it’s mentality,” Franklin said. “I think the thing that’s exciting to me is, I think Will Fries has a chance to be a really, really physical, intimidating offensive lineman. Steven Gonzalez has the ability to do that. Connor McGovern has the ability to do that. Brendan Mahon has the ability to do that. And so does Chasz Wright. We’ve just got to get them playing consistently with that type of confidence and that type of mentality.”
In that regard, the play of the lone veteran up front might hold more importance at this point.
Franklin said he plans to have a chat this week with Mahon, hoping the senior can set an example of physical play for the freshman, two sophomores and junior that are likely to join him as starters against the Cornhuskers.
“Mahon has got the ability to be one of the most physical offensive linemen in the country,” Franklin said. “He’s an older guy. I think when he does it, the rest will follow.