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Franklin did best he could at Penn State with hand he was dealt

Coach James Franklin had issues of youth and an undermanned squad that hampered his first season with the Nittany Lions.

Penn State head coach James Franklin. (Evan Habeeb/USA Today Sports)
Penn State head coach James Franklin. (Evan Habeeb/USA Today Sports)Read more

STATE COLLEGE - Finishing a regular season 6-6 isn't what Penn State fans are used to. Neither is it something they want to get comfortable with.

If you looked at the Nittany Lions' schedule 4 months ago and predicted a .500 record, most would call you a liar.

Penn State, by all accounts, had it pretty easy. The Lions had a relatively soft nonconference slate, faced their two most difficult tests - Ohio State and Michigan State - at home, and, as of now, only six of 12 opponents are bowl-eligible.

Ending the year without a winning record against the second-easiest strength of schedule in the Big Ten is disappointing.

That's an indictment of first-year coach James Franklin and his staff, right?

Not necessarily.

There's no way the staff can get away without any of the blame; clock management and play-calling were rightfully questioned throughout the season.

But take a look at what the staff had to work with, and you'll understand why many, Franklin and his staff probably included, are looking to the future.

Penn State had the second-youngest team in college football. The roster features 44 true freshmen, 22 redshirt freshmen and 11 true sophomores.

With youth, there's obviously potential. But potential doesn't become results without growing pains, and the Lions found that out this year.

Simple mistakes, miscommunications and basic failure to execute plagued Penn State all season, and Franklin, to his credit, hasn't made excuses for these shortcomings. He's also been realistic.

The coach, who worked wonders in 3 years at Vanderbilt, recognized that there is a gap between his team and other established programs across the country, such as Michigan State, which thrashed Penn State, 34-10, on Saturday.

"We've been on sanctions for 3 years. That team is Michigan State, a team that has been recruiting and building their program for a long time and done a nice job with it . . . They have more scholarships than we do," Franklin said.

Franklin then mentioned how the Penn State program, originally well below the ability to hold 85 scholarship players, is getting those scholarships back with the NCAA lifting its sanctions from the Jerry Sandusky scandal earlier in the year.

"We're going to close the gap by developing the players that we have," Franklin continued. "We're going to recruit for the future. It is what it is."

With those scholarship restrictions, Penn State missed out on more than a handful of recruits since 2012. Those potential additions could have been contributing sophomores or juniors this season.

Are scholarships and youth to blame for losing, for example, to a poor Illinois team? Not really, but over the course of the season, the lack of depth and need for freshmen to step up and play adds up.

Penn State quarterback Christian Hackenberg, a 19-year-old sophomore co-captain, said this season didn't go as everyone expected. He struggled, his offense struggled and, overall, the team struggled to play a complete game.

Hackenberg said he came into the season with a "whatever happens, happens" mentality, and regardless of the good and the bad, he and his teammates would learn from it.

From little things like looking off a receiver to larger problems, such as realizing how to deal with seasonlong issues (e.g., a leaky offensive line), Hackenberg, like his teammates, have experienced quite a bit through this turbulent season and, subsequently, have room to grow.

And that's what Penn State football fans should take out of this season.

Don't forget about offensive coordinator John Donovan's frequently head-scratching play-calling. Don't ignore special-teams worries and special-teams coordinator Charles Huff's role in correcting assignments. And do not neglect Franklin's lapses in judgment this season.

But remember that success isn't always instant.

Not saying that Franklin will or won't get to this level, but people tend to forget Nick Saban was 6-6 in the regular season during his first year at Alabama.

Bob Stoops, who won a national title in his second season at Oklahoma, was 7-5 in his first regular season in Norman.

That's not to say Penn State will win a national championship next year. Rather, those two coaches, who combine for a 253-58 regular-season record at their current respective programs, were given a chance despite mediocre premieres.

Plus, they didn't have to deal with a team hampered by a lack of scholarship players and talent.

Undoubtedly, the jury is still out on whether Franklin is a top-notch game-day coach. He still must prove that.

But his recruiting skills and ability to sell the Penn State program in a time when many could ignore the Lions are promising.

If, in 3 or 4 years down the line, Franklin's players aren't developed and winning still hasn't happened, then go ahead and pull out the pitchforks.

But for now, fans should put any frustrations to the side. Let Franklin's plan run its course.