PSU football out for redemption
By Cory Giger
James Franklin doesn’t regret saying it.
However, a year later, after setting the bar extremely high with a single word and having that word used against him on many occasions by many people, Franklin does acknowledge that he could have approached things differently.
Following last season’s heartbreaking 27-26 loss to Ohio State, Franklin made his infamous “elite” comments.
“The realty is, we’ve gone from an average football team, to a good football team, to a great football team, but we’re not an elite team yet,” Franklin said in a passionate speech after the game.
“We’re a great program,” he said a bit later. “We lost to an elite program. And we’re that close.”
Franklin had good intentions with those comments, and he clearly was not wrong in anything he said. But he himself opened the door for that “elite” element to be used against him — by Ohio State, first and foremost, any other so-called elite teams, and also by fans who can hold that over his head until he actually achieves the goal.
As an 18-point underdog for this week’s game at Ohio State, it would seem clear that Penn State has yet to achieve elite status.
Franklin was asked Tuesday about his use of the word elite and if he has any regrets saying it, given how much attention that single word has received.
“What I said after that game, I can make arguments both ways,” he said. “I could make arguments both ways that I’m comfortable and good with what I said, but I can also make the argument there’s things that are probably appropriate for me to say in the locker room, behind closed doors, that’s not appropriate to you guys in the media because how things can go.
“It can blow up into something more than what you anticipated it being.”
Which is, in many ways, exactly what happened.
“I don’t wake up regretting that,” Franklin said. “Again, I could probably be a little bit more strategic, which you guys (in the media) don’t want me to be, but probably makes sense.”
Tight end Pat Freiermuth said he had no problem with Franklin’s elite comments last year.
“Last year, personally, I completely agree with him,” Freiermuth said. “We weren’t up to that (Ohio State) game. We were letting things slide. We weren’t doing things like how we do things now.
“I think ever since that comment, whatever it was, when he made it, I think the team and the whole program really took great pride in that. That’s when the 1-0 mentality started coming in, buying into it. You could see that in the offseason.”
There’s no question that Franklin has made enormous strides at Penn State. He won a Big Ten title in 2016, just five years after the scandal, which pretty much no one on the planet expected him to do.
Regardless of whether Penn State is elite yet, the coach voiced great pride Tuesday expressing how far the program has come.
“This is something I believe very strongly, that we have very high standards and expectations at Penn State,” Franklin said. “I think that’s a great thing. I think that’s a great thing. That’s why I came here. That’s why recruits come here. That’s why we fill up a stadium of 107,000 fans the way we do. … People care. I think that’s great.”
He later continued, “I’m not satisfied whatsoever, trust me. I know our fans aren’t either. But I think if everybody would take a deep breath and look at the big picture, everybody walking around that’s associated with Penn State, the university, the athletic department, the community and football, and be very, very proud of what our guys do off the field, what our guys do on the field, and maybe most importantly what they do in the classroom. Should be very proud because it’s very difficult.
“Just look around. It’s very difficult to be successful in all of those areas at the level that we’ve been.”
Freiermuth has been called the best tight end in the country by some college football analysts, which made it shocking to see he was not one of the eight semifinalists for the award given to the nation’s top tight end.
The John Mackey Award semifinalists were released Monday, and Freiermuth’s absence led to a lot of criticism on social media.
“Yeah, it’s disappointing,” Freiermuth said Tuesday. “I thought I did everything I could this year so far up to this point to prove that I’m one of the best tight ends in the country.
“An award doesn’t define me who I am, who I am as player. I think I’ve had a really good season so far. It is what it is, I can’t control that now. My focus right now is on Ohio State, anything we can do to beat them, the season moving forward.”
Freiermuth has 34 catches for 424 yards and seven TDs.
Franklin seemed bewildered that Freiermuth was left off the awards list.
“I can’t imagine there’s eight tight ends in the country that people would choose ahead of Pat Freiermuth,” the coach said. “Could there be a couple? OK, I can live with that. But eight? No, no.”
Linebacker Jan Johnson did not make the cut for the three finalists for the Burlsworth Trophy, which goes to the top player in the country who began his career as a walk-on. Johnson is a two-year starter at middle linebacker for PSU and has 48 tackles (16 solo) this season. He also wrestled for the Lions’ national championship team as a freshman.
“I can’t imagine that there’s a former walk-on in the country that has as interesting and as unique of a story as Jan Johnson and as successful of a story as Jan Johnson,” Franklin said.
Freiermuth is playing as a true sophomore in college, but he is eligible for next year’s NFL draft, he confirmed Tuesday.
“Yeah, I know I am,” the tight end noted. “Like I said before, I haven’t really thought about it at all. Haven’t talked to my parents or the coaching staff, anything like that. Again, I’m not focused on that. I do know that I am.”
Players typically have to be out of high school for three years to be eligible for the draft. Freiermuth spent five years in prep school and reclassified in high school, so that scenario changed his draft eligibility timeline.