CHICAGO — James Franklin enters his sixth season at Penn State under a vastly changed Big Ten landscape. Urban Meyer has departed Ohio State, league commissioner Jim Delany is transitioning into retirement, and the league is trying to return to the College Football Playoff after a two-year absence.
On a micro level, Franklin begins the season without Penn State’s all-time leader in wins and passing yards in Trace McSorley.
“Whenever you lose a quarterback that played as many games and started as many games as Trace McSorley did for us and was able to win at such a high level, obviously there's question marks going into the season,” Franklin said.
Franklin offered a glimpse into what Nittany Lion fans can expect when he addressed national media Friday morning during Big Ten Media Days. He said he feels assured he and his staff’s recruiting prowess at the quarterback position will soon be rewarded.
“We've been fortunate to be able to recruit extremely well,” Franklin said. “(I’m) very confident in the way we developed that position, as well, and we think we're going to have great competition.”
Since Tommy Stevens’ departure for Mississippi State, redshirt sophomore Sean Clifford has been the presumed successor to McSorley. Franklin reiterated that no solid decision has yet been made as to who will emerge as the Week 1 starter, suggesting an anticipated position battle between Clifford and redshirt freshman Will Levis when fall camp begins.
“We've got two, what we would consider veterans, in Sean Clifford and Mr. Levis, that are going to have a great competition this camp, and have really had that all summer, including spring ball,” Franklin said. “And then we've got two freshmen that are also going to have an opportunity to compete, as well. And we'll make the decision when the decision has been made, when it's obvious to everybody who our starting quarterback is going to be.”
Clifford played in four games last season, passing for 195 yards and two touchdowns on five completions. Levis passed for 86 yards and one touchdown in Penn State’s Blue-White game.
“Sean was able to gain some experience last year and do some pretty good things for us, and I know he is excited and chomping at the bit as well as Levis is, too,” Franklin said. “Big shoes to fill, but we've got tremendous confidence in those guys and what they're going to be able to do for our program.”
While the situation at quarterback remains fluid, Franklin wasn’t hesitant to compliment his defense — more specifically, the defensive line. Much of that confidence comes from the fact the Nittany Lions return heralded defensive end Yetur Gross-Matos, a junior who earned a couple of preseason nods this week. Penn State returns six players from last year’s unit that finished 2018 ranked No. 34 nationally in total defense (350 ypg).
“We have a chance to be as good as anywhere in the country at defensive end,” Franklin said. “(We) went into spring ball with question marks at (defensive) tackle — I think we're probably a little bit further ahead there than we thought we were.”
Penn State returns 14 starters this season, including dynamic wide receiver KJ Hamler, a redshirt sophomore. The Nittany Lions’ receiving corp last year struggled with drops, but Franklin said he anticipates the group taking a step forward this season. Penn State added new wide receivers coach Derek Parker in the offseason.
“We are young; we are talented,” he said. “Probably the fastest football team that I've been a part of in probably my nine years as a head football coach, so we're excited about having that speed and athleticism on the field.”
Penn State also added Joe Lorig as special teams coordinator. Lorig will work with school all-time punting yards leader Blake Gillikin, who is expected to add further value to a talented special teams unit.
“We have a chance to be really strong on special teams with Blake Gillikin as our punter, and then obviously with Jake Pinegar as our field goal kicker,” Franklin said. “We're returning Rafael Checa as our kickoff specialist.”
Gillikin, who was nominated as an Allstate AFCA Good Works Team earlier this week, said he worked with Lorig on becoming even more consistent with his punts.
“I want to be one of the best punters in the country, if not the best,” Gillikin said. “I think that starts with consistency. Any kid can hit a big ball, but it’s about guys who can repeat and do it over and over again. So that’s what I really worked on — really honing in on my process and making sure that I can repeat it every single time.”
Penn State opens its 2019 season on Aug. 31 against Idaho. This year’s schedule features contests against eight teams that were bowl eligible last season.