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James Franklin's talent surge meets Penn State's classic identity

What happens when some of the country's most entrenched schemes get a little modernization and a major recruiting boost? The Nittany Lions are about to find out.

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Matthew O'Haren-USA TODAY Sports

"We are Penn State!" is a motto that has had real meaning when applied to Nittany Lion football over the generations. Due in large part to the perennial leadership of Joe Paterno, Penn State football was able to maintain a steady identity over multiple generations and countless senior classes.

Schematically, that identity was built around a 4-3 defense that found ways to use the same base cover 3 and zone blitzes against offenses through five different decades. Recently with linebackers coach Ron Vanderlinden, who wrote the book and filmed the movie on LB play in the 4-3, the Nittany Lions maintained and strengthened their identity as Linebacker U throughout the 2000s and put another eight 'backers into the NFL.

The same traits that define great linebacker play (good fundamentals, toughness, and awareness) defined the rest of the program. The offense could be plodding at times, and hasn't had a good unit since 2009, but the teams were keyed by defenses that kept them in games.

When Bill O'Brien took over for Paterno, he retained Vanderlinden and legendary defensive line coach Larry Johnson (gone to Air Force and Ohio State, respectively). In 2012 and 2013 Penn State was kept alive by defenses that ranked 22nd and 23rd in defensive S&P+, despite the NCAA's scholarship reductions. While the scheme changed to include more quarters coverage rather than cover 3, much of the system remained intact.

On offense, the Lions remained vanilla, using big formations to run straight-ahead zone schemes while mixing in outside throws afforded by favorable numbers and the arm strength of 2013 five-star freshman Christian Hackenberg. Before O'Brien could totally overhaul who Penn State was on offense and fully unleash Hackenberg in a sophisticated passing game, the coach decided to leave for the Houston Texans job.

Enter James Franklin.

Franklin's on-field resume is not quite as strong as it seems, as it's largely built around turning Vanderbilt into the best of the SEC's dregs. Vanderbilt did defeat Georgia in 2013 but went down against the other teams of substance on the schedule. However, there's a good chance that Franklin is the right man in the right situation to carry Penn State football into a new era of excellence.

Unlocking resources

Pennsylvania is one of the most talent-rich regions in the country. By inspecting a map of the last 10 years worth of four-/five-star players from the state (which we can do, courtesy of Paul Dalen of Corn Nation) we can see the level of talent immediately available to the Nittany Lions -- the bigger logos represent five-star signees:


One thing that is readily apparent is that while Pennsylvania produces a good share of elite talent, the Nittany Lions have not managed to lock it down.

The blue dot in the middle represents former four-star receiver Alex Kenney, who hails from State College, the home of PSU. The state's most illustrious football program is smack dab in the middle between the Philadelphia and Pittsburgh regions that produce most of the state's talent. It's three hours to Philly and about two and a half to Pittsburgh, with cities Allentown, Scranton, and Harrisburg also nearby.

If the Nittany Lions could regularly land most of the blue-chippers within the state, that'd make for the foundation of potential top-10 recruiting classes. This is Franklin's mission precisely. For the year 2015, Franklin has already secured 11 total commitments, including three Pennsylvanian four-star players, along with some top players from nearby New Jersey and Maryland. PSU currently ranks No. 2 nationally on the 247 Sports Composite.

Penn State's new schemes will reflect the evolution of 4-3 defense to the modern era.

The other major resource available to Penn State is that tradition of defensive excellence and providing the NFL a pipeline of top linebackers. Tasked with maintaining that tradition, Franklin eschewed the option of maintaining Vanderlinden or the other legendary coaches of the 2000s Nittany Lion staffs. Instead he brought aboard Western PA native Brent Pry to coach linebackers and installed new defensive coordinator Bob Shoop, a Yale grad who came to prominence at Vanderbilt with Franklin.

At Vanderbilt, the linebackers were coached to handle the stresses of modern spread offenses and be able to play coverage or fill inside against the run while bringing physicality:

Here against Houston, you see their middle linebacker get out in space, anticipating the need to take away a quick route from a slot receiver. The Vanderbilt linebackers routinely got great depth to take away the passing game. He then reads the screen, flies past the offensive lineman trying to block him, and clotheslines the poor Cougar slot receiver, causing a fumble.

Shoop's schemes reflect the evolution of 4-3 defense to the modern era. He largely uses the 4-3 over front that has been primary in State College for the last several decades, and he also loves to apply pressure with the zone blitz, another long-standing staple at Linebacker University.

But the differences will come in how Shoop uses the secondary to support the linebackers. While former DC Tom Bradley and Paterno would rely on cover 3 defense and dropping the "hero" safety down to provide an eight-man front, Shoop will maintain the evolution towards quarters coverage and mix in far more two-deep safety coverages.

Against the passing game, that means that linebackers will often be asked to cover wide areas of grass without an eighth man in the front to help cover the middle of the field:

However, Shoop will occasionally drop an eighth man into the box either to mix things up with some good old-fashioned cover 3 or to run a fire zone blitz. There are a few features to Shoops' fire zones that are worth noting; first is that they approach the spread option differently than blitzes and defenses of the past:

The classic way to defend the option with the 4-3 defense is to string it out. The defensive end steps inside to take away the dive and forces the quarterback to run outside and make a choice while pursuit bears down on him.

However, with spread option teams adding the choice for the QB to pass the ball either on a quick route or to a bubble screen, bouncing the option outside is no longer the best method. Especially since Penn State's most prominent conference rival is at the forefront of the new option strategy.

The result of that strategy is that your seam-curl-flat defenders are put in an impossible run/pass conflict in which they have to defend the QB run and the outside pass to a slot receiver.

Shoop's method is evolved:


The weakside linebacker and the defensive end opposite him take wider, outside paths to the quarterback. Their goal on an option play is to funnel the ball inside to the blitz and then attack the QB. By playing this technique, the nickel and safety are able to play man coverage on the slot receivers and take away the easy throws that would destroy them if they also had the responsibility to tackle the QB on an outside run.

In essence, this is transforming a zone blitz into a man-one (one deep safety) blitz. Instead of playing three underneath zones, the underneath defenders are playing pattern-matching against the three inside receivers, with the corners playing the outside receivers and the middle third safety playing as the single deep man over the top.

While this scheme is more sound against modern spread-option attacks, what made Shoop's Vanderbilt particularly successful was the play of its secondary. In the clip above you see the boundary corner and deep safety respond quickly and violent in run support, corralling and smacking down the running back after he bounces outside away from the teeth of the blitz.

Shoop is the right coach to lead the Penn State 4-3 defense against the new era of offensive football, but the future Penn State defense may be as well known for its play in the secondary as it has been for the play of its linebackers. But before that future can come, Franklin has to find success with who Penn State is right now.

Deploying assets

While Shoop uses newly available scholarships to stock up State College with athletic defensive backs, the Nittany Lions still have some vestiges of LBU around to help field a quality defense.

This is Mike Hull, No. 43 for the Nittany Lions:

Here he's being asked to play the edge and control the devastating Buckeye ground game, then pursue the ball after the bubble screen is thrown. His change of direction and acceleration is good enough that he's out there to make the tackle within a yard of the line of scrimmage. At 6' and about 230, he's the kind of sturdy-but-quick linebacker that's needed in today's game.

Shoop and Pry are moving him to the middle, where his ability to cover a vast amount of space will allow them to use their cover 2 strategies that keep the safeties back and the ball in front. Look for Hull to anchor the Lion D while Shoop rebuilds.

On offense, Franklin and run game coordinator Herb Hand's preferred strategy is building around powerpin and pull, and inside zone blocking, plus an affinity for pairing that with West Coast passing concepts and double-TE formations such as this one:

The key with these run schemes and formations is that the ancillary players like the H-back, tight end, and fullback along with the pulling linemen have to be able to find and either hit or seal off targets in space, while the pinning and down blocks have to win forcefully. These schemes afford the blockers different favorable angles, but also require a concert of post-snap decisions.

What's fortunate for both Franklin and Penn State is that the region tends to produce tight ends, and there are already several quality ones on campus. With sophomore Adam Breneman and junior Jesse James, the Nittany Lions have 6'4 and 6'7 edge pieces that can help them adopt a more mobile run game while also creating mismatches in the passing game.

Matthew O'Haren, USA Today

And now we arrive at the crucial point. Franklin's early success at Penn State will have everything to do with how he utilizes Hackenberg.

At Vanderbilt, he didn't have great play at quarterback. In 2013, Vandy would often manufacture offense by using the QB in the run game and mixing in a wildcat package to get extra blockers on the field to make up for the fact that defenses weren't afraid of the passing game.

With Hackenberg and these tight ends, Franklin can look to attack the soft part of every defense: the deep and outside zones. One of his preferred methods for doing this is the smash concept:

It's not easy to hit windows outside of the hash marks in the passing game, and most defenses are designed to encourage such throws.

By fielding big targets like Breneman and James and relying on Hackenberg's arm strength, Penn State can create bigger windows and hit them well outside of the pocket. The size of these players might also give the Lions some leeway in installing passing concepts that attack the middle of the field, if Hackenberg can master the reads and timing.

If Franklin can teach the timing and the routes of his passing game effectively, the talent exists to attack and punish defenses for loading up to take away the angles and leverage in the pull-heavy run game.

"We are Penn State"

In one way, Franklin is like a young Mack Brown. Like the former Longhorn coach, his offensive expertise is slightly dated and doesn't have an exceptional track record. As an OC, Franklin had a offense inside of the top 50 in S&P+ only once (2008 Maryland).

But he has great strengths as a head coach that could define a great era of Penn State football. Like Brown, Franklin is all about building relationships, gathering talent both on the field and on his staff, and leveraging his accumulated advantages on the field. The staff Franklin has already built has some big or up-and-coming names on it, and it seems entirely reasonable to assume that Franklin can continue to gather great coaches to fill vacancies or weaknesses as needed.

His background in Pennsylvania and contacts around the state as well as his connections in the fertile recruiting grounds in Baltimore and the South could allow him to bring in Big Ten Championship-level recruiting classes. The importance of the fact that he's coming aboard as Penn State is getting scholarships back from the NCAA cannot be overstated. He'll have the chance to load up the roster with his own players.

In a period like that, having a great recruiter as your head coach is what's most important in rebuilding a limited program.

Under Franklin, you can expect Penn State to look much like it always has: relying on good fundamentals in a 4-3 defense and looking to crack skulls and move the ball with physical, pro-style offensive tactics. As long as Penn State is defined by his strengths in marshaling and expanding the Nittany Lions' natural resources and advantages, then it should find success in rediscovering classic Nittany Lions football.