PSU’s new assistant coaches bring diverse experiences

UNIVERSITY PARK – Boring and ho-hum will never be words used to describe the unique collection of assistant coaches James Franklin has assembled at Penn State.

If you have no idea what a nekton is, well, join the club. Or just ask running backs coach and special teams coordinator Charles Huff, who baffled everyone Friday by mentioning the nekton and making one of the most interesting and off the wall comparisons you’ll ever hear in football.

“I’m not sure how many science teachers are in the building,” Huff said. “But a nekton is a living organism that can flow freely through water not affected by the current, and it’s always attacking. The most reasonable example will be a great white shark.”

Uh, yeah.

And how exactly does that relate to football?

“A great white shark will eat and eat and eat until it dies, and it won’t say I’m full,” Huff said. “That’s how we’ll be on special teams. We’ll attack and attack and attack.”

As if the nekton stuff wasn’t intriguing enough, Huff also compared his special teams philosophy to the late great distance runner, Steve Prefontaine.

“He coined the term of ‘suicide pace,'” Huff said. “So from the time the gun went off, he was sprinting. From the time we come off the mat, we’ll be flying around. Any person that steps on the mat that is a special teams player here at Penn State will be flying around.”

The fact that PSU will finally have one person in charge of all the special teams should come as great news after the program has struggled so badly in those areas for years.

As intriguing as Huff’s comments were, he merely shared the honor of most entertaining personality among the assistant coaches, who were all unveiled Friday at Beaver Stadium.

The Nittany Lions now have a guy on staff whose nickname is “Coach Chaos.” That title is held by defensive line coach Sean Spencer, whose energy, passion and enthusiasm would be best described as a train going 100 mph.

Spencer was fired up talking about everything, even Sheetz MTOs. The Sheetz Corporation might want to check into signing him as a pitchman.

“I told [Coach Franklin] the other day, I looked at him and he had on a Penn State shirt, and I said, ‘You’re the head coach at Penn State. I just remember years ago we were sharing MTOs because we didn’t have any money,'” Spencer said.

Like Franklin, Spencer once coached in the PSAC and became very familiar with driving all over the state recruiting. Those days are long gone, but not his love for MTOs.

But what about the big Pennsylvania debate of the MTO versus Wawa?

“Wawa was in Philly,” Spencer said. “When I was at Villanova I used to love the Wawa. But I’m telling you, I love the MTO.”

Of the new assistant coaches, all of whom had been previously known prior to Friday because of social media, Spencer might have the biggest shoes to fill taking over for Larry Johnson.

“Unbelievable respect for Coach Johnson and what he’s done here,” Spencer said. “Respect for what he’s done for African-Americans like me to help us move on in this profession. Really guided the way for us all. But when people talk about big shoes, I really have my own shoes to fill. I’m coming from the SEC, so it wasn’t small-boy football out there.”

Spencer’s goal is “establishing my own self and establishing my own foundation, and then hopefully years from now people can talk about me the same way they talk about [Johnson].”

Seven of the nine assistants are coming with Franklin from Vanderbilt, along with strength and conditioning coach Dwight Galt. Franklin called Galt the “most important hire” and referred to him as the “Yoda of the program” for all of his knowledge.

Huff also previously worked with Franklin at Vanderbilt in 2011, so nine of the 10 new coaches are very familiar with one another. The only exception is cornerbacks coach Terry Smith, but Franklin knows the former western PA high school coach well from the recruiting path.

“Really, really excited about the staff that we’ve been able to put together,” Franklin said. “For me, what I was looking for is really familiarity – guys that I’ve worked with or known for a very, very long time, guys that I trust, guys that I know how they’re going to interact with the players.”

One of the things that stands out about the collection of assistants is their educational backgrounds. Some of them played or coached at places such as Yale (defensive coordinator Bob Shoop), Cornell (quarterbacks coach Ricky Rahne) and Johns Hopkins (offensive coordinator John Donovan), and they coached at a world-class university in Vanderbilt.

“If you kind of look at the staff, what I’m looking for is I want to surround myself with as many smart guys as I possibly can,” Franklin said. “I think you hear that all the time in leadership.

“People talk about getting into leadership roles and surrounding themselves with really talented people, but then they don’t do that. A lot of people get intimidated by that.”

Franklin also is known for empowering his assistants by delegating responsibilities. He’s involved in every aspect of the team, like any head coach, but he trusts his coaches to handle their duties and doesn’t micromanage them.

Franklin describes himself as “the CEO of Penn State football,” and that could be construed by some that he lets his assistants run the ship and handle most of the Xs and Os. Shoop said Franklin “doesn’t get enough credit for being a good football coach. He knows football inside and out.”

“He’s done a great job of surrounding himself with people who complement him,” Shoop added. “And he trusts John Donovan, he trusts myself to coach the offense, to coach the defense, to do our jobs so he can be the face of the program, so he can be the CEO of Penn State football.”