For the nation’s college football programs, spring has come and gone with no workouts, no practices, and no way of knowing what players at the other end of the various Zoom meetings are actually learning everything that’s being taught remotely, preparing for a new season that might not start on time.
For Penn State’s James Franklin, it’s unlike any challenge he’s faced in 25 years of coaching.
“As football coaches, we’re part of the paranoid population,” he said last week during a conference call.
“Spring ball is a sprint. You go to a meeting and you're sprinting to discuss what you need to get installed for that practice. Then you go out and try to execute it. It's like a constant sprint. This is like, OK, let's talk through details. Let's have a discussion. Let's have a conversation. Let's take quizzes and tests.
“I do think from a strictly learning perspective, this has been really good. The problem is there are physical aspects that we’re not getting -- muscle memory, fundamentals, techniques.”
Without the usual physical interaction, the coaches don’t have all the teaching methods they need to satisfy all the different types of learners on the team, Franklin said.
“There are guys who can learn on a computer screen,” he said. “There are guys who need to learn by taking notes and getting up on the board and drawing the play. There are some guys who need the physical reps to learn. Some of our learners aren’t getting what they need.”
Franklin said there’s no way presently to hold his players accountable in their workouts, with the focus being more on academics and learning the playbook. He said once the players return to campus, a gap will be seen between those who are self-driven and others who “need the structure and the discipline of the program.”
“Some of our guys have some facilities and some of our guys have some resources, whether it’s in their basement or whatever it may be. We’ve got one guy who’s working out with his mom’s frying grease -- two big buckets of frying grease that he curls -- and things like that. So it’s the whole gamut.”
Franklin also understands that the families of some of his players are facing stressful financial times during the pandemic. Those players aren’t eating the same as they would on the university’s meal plan and likely will return to campus underweight.
“I wish I could tell you that our players had a little bit of wiggle room in terms of being able to have something to fall back on financially for this, but they don’t,” he said. “Like many in our country, you’re living paycheck to paycheck, or you’re living rent check to rent check. That’s one of the challenges that come with this. These are all the things that we’re discussing about summer-school and preparing-to-play policies.”
All in all, however, Franklin said he thinks he and his staff “are in a pretty good rhythm now” in their routine, which includes three staff meetings every week, offensive and defensive meetings, and nightly recruiting calls.
“We have a team meeting on Wednesday where we make announcements and keep everybody up to date on what’s going on,” he said. “We’ve added a parents meeting every other week, which has been really good to keep them informed, and I answer any questions that they may have.