Staff’s growing pains show
For better or worse over its long history, but mostly for the better, Penn State football has been spoiled by the stability of its coaching staff.
Even with Bill O’Brien’s two years, Penn State has only had four head coaches in the last 68 years.
Of course, Joe Paterno’s 46-year tenure, from 1966 until it ended in 2011, had much to do with that.
During the vast majority of his career, Paterno had a staff of assistant coaches that almost never changed, and — absent the huge asterisk of empowering Jerry Sandusky — it generally served the Nittany Lions well.
Fast forward to the fifth year of James Franklin’s regime.
Offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead became Mississippi State’s head coach, and it’s clear through eight games that he’s been missed mightily.
Running backs and special teams coach Charles Huff joined Moorhead to become the Bulldogs’ assistant head coach. Receivers coach Josh Gattis took the same position at Alabama.
Ricky Rahne, first the Lions’ quarterbacks coach and their tight ends coach since 2016, was promoted to the Lions’ offensive coordinator. Tyler Bowen was hired as tight ends coach, and David Corley was brought in to coach the running backs. Ja’Juan Seider was hired to coach the running backs, and Corley shifted to wide receivers coach.
And Phil Galiano, because of the new NCAA rule allowing a 10th assistant, was named special teams coordinator.
Yes, it smacks a little of “Who’s on first?”
On the offensive side, only line coach Matt Limegrover remains in the position he mentored last year. The defensive staff has been pretty stable as Brent Pry, Sean Spencer, Terry Smith and Tim Banks kept their 2017 roles.
Franklin this week addressed the considerable adjustment his staff has endured — and the mixed results that have accompanied it.
“The reality is every time you lose someone and you have to replace them with someone new, there’s a transition process,” he said. “There’s growing pains.”
Of the defections, he seemed most disappointed to lose Gattis and Huff, saying, “We can’t have guys leave for lateral moves,” and mentioned it’s been an ongoing conversation with the PSU administration relative to assistants’ salaries.
“We’ve got to make sure that we’re doing everything we possibly can in terms of creating a really good … and then also that financially we’re paying the same salaries that everybody else is in terms of our peer groups,” Franklin said. “That’s got to happen, because to sit here and say that that (money) is not a factor, it is a factor. This is a special place, but that’s a factor.”
Penn State doesn’t list its salaries for assistant coaches, but it’s been reported that Gattis is making more than $500,000. But even beyond the money, is a move to Alabama really lateral? That’s highly debatable.
The offseason turnover has been the most of Franklin’s now eight-year head coaching career.
“Yeah, I think that’s definitely a factor,” he said. “You look at my career as a head coach, we’ve had pretty good consistency. Experience counts, and stability counts, and consistency counts.”
Despite suffering more losses to graduation and injuries, the defense, other than the fourth quarter against Appalachian State, has played well enough to be undefeated.
The offense? Not so much. With a preseason Heisman Trophy candidate in Trace McSorley and a veteran offensive line to go with anticipated skill players (albeit ones replacing NFL players), more was expected from the offense.
What wasn’t expected was an inability to function in the clutch, repeated dropped passes by veteran wide receivers and what at times has been a complete collapse by the special teams.
About the special teams, Franklin said, “Obviously after (last) Saturday, we’ve still got a lot of work to do. I think some of it is personnel. I think some of it is some of the things that we can do better from a scheme standpoint.”
As bad as the special teams were last week in the first half against Iowa, they helped win the game in the second half, so maybe there’s something to build on. Maybe.
The only aspect of this year’s team more suspect than the special teams has been the four-minute offense, which has repeatedly failed to end games successfully, thus putting even more pressure on the defense.
“When you get to four-minute, that’s when you’ve got to put it on your shoulders,” Limegrover said about his unit. “We know it’s an area we have to be better.”
Penn State has not put together a complete performance yet this year, and it doesn’t seem likely that will happen today as a 10-point underdog at Michigan.
When you look at the Lions’ roster, other than McSorley and the line, the rest of the team appears to be in year one of following a successful run (2016-17).
And that includes getting used to the directions, styles and voices of new assistants.
“Whenever you hire a new coach, they may have great experience, but they’ve come from somewhere else that has a different system and has a different culture, and they have to fit into it,” Franklin said. “I think a lot of times when you have turnover … when you really start to get a return on your investment is year two.”
Which means how well the Lions finish this year and how much momentum they carry into 2019 will go a long way toward determining how these hirings and how this staff is judged.
Because to this point this season, it’s pretty indisputable that the Lions have not been a consistently well coached team.
“Retention is really, really important for us to keep growing,” Franklin said.
That’s only if things, from an organizational standpoint, start to get better.
Rudel can be reached at 946-7527 or firstname.lastname@example.org.