UNIVERSITY PARK – James Franklin’s “family” has grown substantially in the last seven months.
But he’s not complaining, and neither is the contingent of “sons” he inherited when he was named Penn State’s head football coach in January.
“That’s what he is every single day: He’s really energetic, and he’s really entertaining,” Canon-McMillan graduate Mike Hull said. “Every single day he brings it, and it’s really easy to play for somebody who’s that energetic. It really feeds the rest of the team.”
The rapport Franklin and his coaching staff developed with the Lions was obvious Monday at Beaver Stadium on the opening day of training camp. Players were relaxed, and everyone spoke about a mutual respect they hope translates into victories, beginning Aug. 30 when the Lions play Central Florida in the Croke Classic in Dublin, Ireland.
“This staff, probably more so than most staffs I’ve been on, has spent more time focused on chemistry and morale,” Franklin said. “I think chemistry and morale are as important as, if not more important, than the X’s and O’s.”
Franklin’s coaching philosophy is similar to that of former head coach Bill O’Brien, which, sophomore quarterback Christian Hackenburg said, has made the transition very easy.
“They both operate the whole program in a very similar way,” Hackenburg said. “How they do things, they keep it within the family. We have a lot of smart football players. They’ll take tidbits from last year and apply them this year.”
Franklin admits there were some challenges when he arrived, but he and the players worked through them, and he’s grateful for that.
“For redshirt seniors, playing for four head coaches is crazy. It’s unheard of when you think of all Penn State’s been through,” Franklin said. “I’m so thankful they’ve allowed us to join their family and break into their circle of trust. That’s how you’re going to build special things. We’re all going to work together to help them achieve their dreams.”
Among the players who caught Franklin’s attention is Hull, a fifth-year senior who moved to middle linebacker after making the switch outside last year.
Franklin didn’t lavish praise on many players yesterday, but when it came to Hull, Franklin didn’t mince words.
“I’ve been really, really, really impressed with Mike. He had a great spring for us,” Franklin said. “He’s a guy who not only has the physical tools in terms of being able to run, being able to change directions. He’s freakishly strong. But he processes information fast as well. You watch the tape, and the offense is running counter plays, they start out going one way, and everybody on the defense takes three steps in that direction. Hull takes two and is already moving in the other direction.”
Hull isn’t the biggest guy on the field. He’s listed at 6-foot, 232 pounds in the Penn State Football Yearbook. But Hull said his speed, intensity and instincts, all of which he’s been honing since he started playing football in grade school, more than make up for his lack of size.
“I can do a lot of things a lot of people can’t do because they’re too big or too slow,” Hull said.
“I talk about how much I like big features. Look at him. He’s kind of got a peanut head,” Franklin said, “but he’s 235, 237, which is big enough for a middle linebacker. … It’s big enough to get the job done.”
Hull is embracing his role as the leader of the defense, and though he prefers to lead by example, he’s becoming more vocal, which is precisely what Franklin wants.
“He’s more comfortable doing that now than ever before,” Franklin said. “I think he’s going to have a really big year for us. I think he has gained a lot of confidence from his teammates, and how he’s conducted himself his entire career here.”
The fact Hull was moved to middle linebacker also says something about the confidence the coaching staff has in him.
Defensive coordinator Bob Shoop said that although the Lions have not forged a defensive identity yet, “We’ve done a good job of identifying good players and putting them in a position to be successful.”
“The best players are going to play,” he said. “What is not negotiable is we’re going to be an in-your-face style of defense that’s a lot of fun to play. We’re going to be relentless in our pursuit of the football and never-ending pressure.”
That should suit Hull just fine.
“I really like Coach Shoop. He plays to the team’s strengths,” Hull said. “He does a good job putting the scheme to the players instead of the players to the scheme.”