There are certain corners of the Interwebs where things are said and written just for effect.
Perhaps you’ve heard.
That being the case, it should come as no surprise that one scalding take heading into this college football season is that Penn State coach James Franklin is on the hot seat.
It’s understandable if you consider the fact that the Langhorne native has finished 7-6 each of his first two seasons, or that he is a combined 0-6 against Ohio State, Michigan State and Michigan, the three teams he absolutely must beat to succeed in the rugged Big Ten East.
(Also to be taken into account is that the Lions lost to Maryland two years ago for the first time since 1961, and to Temple last year for the first time since 1941.)
Take a step back, though. Consider that he is still dealing with the fallout from the Jerry Sandusky child sexual abuse scandal — that, specifically, the draconian NCAA sanctions left him with a threadbare roster when he arrived from Vanderbilt.
Consider further that his own athletic director, Sandy Barbour, has his back, and that he is entering just the third year of a six-year contract.
Hot seat? Well, maybe a little toasty, but nothing more.
For the record, Franklin declined to play along when asked Tuesday afternoon about any noise pertaining to his job. He said during the Big Ten coaches’ conference call that he was concerned only with the task at hand — Saturday’s season opener against Kent State in Beaver Stadium and the day-to-day machinations of his team.
“Focus on that, not anything else,” he said. “Not any other conversations or anything else going on. Focus on the things we can control.”
He has said on other occasions that he considers this Year One of his program, since he finally has a full complement of 85 scholarship players (or thereabouts) at his disposal. He and his staff have consistently brought in top-notch recruits, something best reflected at the skill positions.
The Lions, however, are painfully young (12 players with senior eligibility) and have a new quarterback (redshirt sophomore Trace McSorley), questions along both lines and little depth on linebacker. They are also facing a tough schedule, especially early. September includes visits to Pitt and Michigan sandwiched around a home meeting with Temple, and later they not only face the Buckeyes and Spartans but an always-respectable Iowa club.
So if they tank — if, say, they go 4-8 (not an impossibility) — then it is safe to say that Franklin might be in jeopardy. If they again piddle along in the middle of the pack, which seems more likely, he will almost certainly get another year.
McSorley, a smallish run-pass threat (at 6 feet, 201 pounds), would appear to be a better fit for Franklin’s preferred offensive mode than the departed Christian Hackenberg, a classic dropback type — particularly since new offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead, formerly the head coach at Fordham, has brought his no-huddle spread attack to Happy Valley.
McSorley spelled an injured Hackenberg midway through last season’s TaxSlayer Bowl loss to Georgia, going 14 for 27 for 142 yards and two touchdowns, and he certainly has a pedigree. He was a rare four-year starter at Briar Woods High School in Virginia, leading his team to four consecutive state finals and winning the first three of those.
“Trace just has that gene inside him that just makes him a competitor, and just a winner,” said Wake Forest tight end Cam Serigne, once McSorley’s high school teammate.
That is literally true. McSorley’s dad, Rick, played football at Richmond, and a paternal uncle, Jeff, played at Marshall. But McSorley has seemingly taken that DNA and run with it.
In his very first high school game he led his team, minus its top two running backs, on a game-winning 88-yard drive in the final minutes. And in his career he won 55 of 60 games.
“He was kind of smart beyond his years,” Briar Woods coach Charlie Pierce said. “I’ve been coaching for 27 years and a head coach for 17 years at a couple different high schools, and I’ve only experienced a couple players that had a football acumen like Trace. Trace had the best, by far, at an early age.”
Now he will be entrusted with a unit that promises to be heavy on run-pass options.
“I think that’s going to be one of the best things of our offense,” McSorley said, “because the defense can in one sense never be right.”
He has a guy who can run in sophomore Saquon Barkley (a school freshman-record 1,076 yards last year) and a bunch of guys who can catch, headed by Chris Godwin (69-1,101-5 TDs) and DaeSean Hamilton (45-580-6 TDs).
But the line remains a question, and only one projected starter — right tackle Andrew Nelson — will open in the same position he filled a year ago. (The new left guard is Ryan Bates, a redshirt freshman from Archbishop Wood.)
The defensive line, which lost three NFL players in Austin Johnson (Titans), Anthony Zettel (Lions) and Carl Nassib (Browns), is likewise unsettled. Only end Garrett Sickels returns.
Linebacker Nyeem Wartman-White, a Philadelphia native, was lost for the season with a knee injury sustained in the 2015 opener against Temple. The fifth-year senior is back and will man the weak side, after playing the middle last year.
Jason Cabinda slid over from the weak side to fill the breach when Wartman-White was injured, and led the team with 100 tackles. He’s also back. So too is Brandon Bell (Mays Landing, N.J./Oakcrest High) on the strong side. He made 65 tackles last year despite “playing with two bad wheels” and “a shoulder that kept popping out,” according to Brent Pry, who was promoted to defensive coordinator after Bob Shoop left for Tennessee.
The secondary is likewise well-fortified, and includes cornerback John Reid, a sophomore from St. Joe’s Prep.
Bottom line: There are too many questions surrounding the Lions to believe they can challenge Ohio State and Michigan atop the division, and (perhaps) enough to drop them below the .500 mark for the first time since 2004. Split the difference, then. Figure that they remain a middle-of-the-road club, and that Franklin’s seat doesn’t become too hot to the touch.
Not yet, anyway.
Freelance writer Gordie Jones is a regular contributor to CSNPhilly.com.