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Mark Selders

Weekly Press Conference - Head Coach James Franklin (UMass)

Opening Statement: We've got homecoming this weekend, which is always a cool deal. I think it's the 103rd homecoming game. Our fans have been awesome all year long. We're averaging 110,000. Let's do that again this week. Let's pack this place, have it rocking. Use your tickets. If you're not going to use your tickets, find somebody to use your tickets, and let's have this place rocking again. 
 
I did want to give one of our guys some love because I don't think he's getting enough attention for how well he is playing. It really started in training camp and has continued, and that's Johnny Dixon. I think Johnny is playing really good football. I think we have two corners, we have more than that, but two corners in Johnny and Kalen [King] that are tough guys and that are physical at that position, which is less common now than it used to be. They do a really good job in a lot of different ways, not just defending the pass. Johnny is a great blitzer, then also supporting the run, so I wanted to give him some love because it's deserved. 
 
From a UMass perspective, Don Brown, the [head] coach. I go way back with Don. Don was the defensive coordinator at Maryland when I was the offensive coordinator, so we've got history. Obviously, he's been at Michigan and a ton of other places, as well. Well respected head coach as well as defensive coordinator. 
 
When you talk about kind of getting into some of the specifics, their offensive coordinator we've been impressed with, Steve Casula. Steve is doing a really nice job for them. We've been impressed with them on offense. They're an 11-personnel, no-huddle spread, heavy, heavy RPO team. Maybe the most explosive team we've played this year. If you look at them statistically they're No. 2 in major college football in plays of 50 yards or more. They're ranked No. 2 in the country. Plays of 10 yards or more, they're ranked ninth in the country, so this is an explosive team. 
 
We feel like their skill players, I think they've got 43 transfers if I'm correct there, we think their skill players on offense would start for a lot of people. 
 
Wide receiver Anthony Simpson is an Arizona transfer. We've been impressed with him, 17 yards per reception. Running back No. 15, [Kay'Ron] Lynch-Adams, is a Rutgers transfer. He's averaging over five yards per carry. Then their quarterback, who we recruited heavily out of high school, Taisun Phommachanh was at Clemson, was at Georgia Tech, and is now at UMass, is completing almost 66 percent of his passes and doing some really nice things. These guys have got our attention and specifically on the offensive side of the ball we think are doing a great job. 
 
Defensive coordinator Keith Dudzinski, who I've known for a long time, as well. He's been tied with Coach Brown for a long time. I think Coach Brown, I don't mean this with any disrespect to anybody, but I think Coach Brown is calling the defense. I could be wrong there, but either way, those two guys have been really connected for a long time. I've got a ton of respect for Keith and Don both as defensive minds. 
 
Guys that we've been impressed with are D-tackle, No. 42, Billy Wooden, who's a big kid from Towson, Maryland, 6'3", 310 [lbs]. Defensive tackle No. 56, Cletus Mathurin, who's from Hartford, Connecticut, another D-tackle over 300 pounds. They've got a defensive end named Marcus Bradley, who we recruited pretty heavily out of high school, from Gaithersburg, [Md.] went to Vanderbilt originally and then transferred to UMass. He's a 6'3", 260-pound disruptive player. Then their safety, No. 21, Te'Rai Powell, is from New Jersey. They're the guys that we have a respect for. 
 
Then special teams, Ben Albert, who I've also known for a very, very long time, Ben is their special teams coordinator, is also a defensive line guy. Strong defensive line background, was at Boston College for a long time, Duke for a long time, been in the NFL. 
 
We've been impressed with their, No. 1, their punt returner Isaac Ross. He's another transfer. But also doing some really good things in the return game. 
 
No real changes from a depth chart perspective that we need to discuss.
 
Q. What did you want to get accomplished during the bye week? How have you changed the way you've handled bye weeks over the years? Has it changed?
A: Well, I think a couple things. Bye week, probably number one, is self-scout, kind of looking at yourself, what you're doing well, what you need to do better, what your strengths are, what your weaknesses are, but then we also did it across the ball. We had the defense evaluate the offense, the offense evaluate the defense, and then all of us really on special teams, so that was valuable. 
 
Then obviously practice enough that we can stay sharp and get enough full speed good-on-good periods, which are really valuable, but also not too much, that we have a chance to recover and get fresh and get healthy for the second half of the year. So kind of a combination of those things.
 
I thought we were able to do that. We practiced on Sunday, we practiced on Tuesday and Wednesday more traditional type practices for us, and then Thursday was a coordinator and GA practice, which was more of a jog-through. 
 
Then obviously, a ton of recruiting, I think I started in Connecticut, then went to North Carolina, then went to Florida, then went to New Jersey, then went to Massachusetts, if I'm remembering that correctly. Got a ton of work done in recruiting, so that was valuable, and so did the rest of the staff. 
 
Then obviously back in for, I wouldn't necessarily call it a traditional Sunday practice because we didn't have the previous film to review, so we were able to kind of get ahead. 
 
Then obviously with our staff changes over the last couple years, we have personnel that are able to do other projects for us, as well, which is also valuable. So, there's strength in those numbers and not just numbers but guys that have tremendous experience and tremendous resumes that are able to get some projects done for us. So I think we got a lot done. 
 
Really the differences probably from my time at Vanderbilt and my time when I first got to Penn State is just how the staffs have changed. We have more staff, as well as we have the staff that we do have, I would say is more experienced across the board. We've always had some experienced guys. We've been fortunate, guys like Jim Haslett and things like that, so I just think we have more guys with experience that can give us some good information and get some work done on their own. 
 
It was valuable, and then the players were able to get some time off and a lot of them were able to get home and see family and go to high school football games and enjoy themselves. 
 
Productive, but now we've got to get back to work. 
 
Q. You kind of anticipated with your comments on Johnny. Could you talk a little bit about how having two corners, I know you have more than two, but having corners that you can trust to sort of handle their business? How does that have a snowball effect in terms of what Manny [Diaz] can do defensively and just the overall defense?
A: Yeah, I think if you look at college footballm and really the NFL, I think it starts at corner and defensive line. Those two positions are critical to how you want to play defense and really what you're able to do defensively. A lot of those things are predicated on those two positions. 
 
Having two corners, where I think they are unusual is, they check a lot of boxes. A lot of times you'll have guys that are really good in coverage but maybe they don't want to tackle, or maybe they're really good in coverage but they're not great blitzers. These guys do a lot of things, and then not only that, they're big guys. They're guys that can mix it up in there and defeat stalk blocks, whether it's Kalen, how quickly he triggers on perimeter players or whether it's Johnny being able to defeat guys with his hands and techniques and fundamentals. Then their ability to make plays on the ball and be able to run with people. 
 
Yeah, those guys have been, I think, a big part of our defensive success. Obviously, Terry Smith has done a great job. We've talked about him. 
 
Then I think a combination of them covering to allow us to get home in some of our sacks, because the quarterbacks have got to hold on to the ball by taking away maybe his first option, that helps our defensive line, and then vice versa. The better we rush the passer, the less time that we have to be in man-to-man coverage, when we decide to play man-to-man. 
 
I think it really starts with those two positions, but specifically the two corners that you mentioned. 
 
Q. You've always spoken well of your relationship with Don Brown and I'm wondering how he kind of affected you as a coach, as an offensive coordinator. You were a younger coach at that point. Did you do a lot of the stuff you talk about today with scouting the defense and scouting the offense back and forth? What did he teach you about that element of coaching?
A: Yeah, you know, it's funny because I think it's both. I think for all of us, whether it's coaching or any other profession, you learn from a lot of the good experiences you've had, and you also learn from things that you would do differently. 
 
Don did a really good job of getting the defense to understand his system, to buy into his system and play extremely hard. 
 
The other thing that I learned on the other end of the spectrum, and I mean this in terms of as a head coach, is Don has always run an unorthodox system, and as a head coach, I've got a very structured way of the way we install and the way we teach, and a lot of that comes from Don, to be honest with you. 
 
When you're trying to install a defense or when you're trying to install an offense, I don't allow the offense when we're doing install during spring ball or training camp, that Manny has got to teach his defense, and then also he could get empty, he could get unbalanced, he could get motioned and shifts. We don't do that. It's like, on this day you're going to get this from the offense, and on this day, you're going to get this from the defense, and that was always a challenge with Don because Don, that is his base. It's like, okay, we're trying to run it against a base defense. Well, he doesn't really have a traditional base. 
 
So in terms of how he did such a marvelous job of getting his guys to buy into his system and play extremely hard and have a lot of confidence within the system, he does a phenomenal job, as good as I've been around with that. 
 
But then also in terms of how we structure practice and how we build, making sure that the offense and defense is doing it in a way that allows both sides to kind of build a foundation and go from there. 
 
Got a ton of respect for this Saturday. There will be some challenging looks that we'll get. But to be honest with you, that's a big part of how we do things here is based on some of the challenges that he presented as a defensive coordinator when I was a young offensive coordinator. 
 
Q. Last month, you were asked about scheduling teams like Delaware and you said there was pretty good data to suggest that scheduling like that in the non-conference helps teams win championships and get to the playoff. Do you see that approach to non-con scheduling changing or staying the same with a 12-team playoff arriving soon?
A: Yeah, I would say there's a team in this conference, specifically, that's buying out of a ton of game contracts that are already signed, to go in the complete opposite direction. No, I don't think it's changed.
 
I would say you could even make the argument it's magnified and that's why people are changing their schedules because you look at who people are going to have to play, just in our conference, it's going to be even more challenging than it's ever been. 
 
I don't think the philosophy or the model has changed. You've got to do whatever you possibly can to give yourself a chance, number one, to be undefeated at the end of the season, to your point, with a bigger playoff, there's probably a little bit more wiggle room in terms of, right now it's kind of undefeated or at-most one loss, and then on top of that, if you're not scheduling to be undefeated, you're scheduling to have the least amount of losses possible to give yourself a chance to be in the Playoffs. 
 
There's another team in this conference that has had a ton of success the last couple years, and again, I think it would follow the same argument. So no, I don't think so, and from the ADs and head coaches and people I've talked to, if anything, I think it magnifies it even more. 
 
Q. Following up on that, the teams you just discussed in the Big Ten, is that a reaction to expansion to a 12-team playoff and is that a model you want to pursue? Is that something they're doing on their own?
A: Yeah, I think that's a response to expansion in the Big Ten. In terms of the model that we're using here at Penn State and we're discussing, I don't think the model has changed. I think I've been pretty clear on where we should schedule and how we should schedule philosophically, and again, I think the data backs that up. 
 
I think this actually got brought up because people, somebody else was asking about our schedule. I'll leave it at that. 
 
But no, I'm just stating some, I can't necessarily speak for what they're doing and why they're doing it and how they're doing it because I don't sit in those meetings, but if I had to guess, I would say, yeah, it's probably, I don't know if I'd describe it as a reaction, but a strategy. 
 
Q. Drew Aller has not turned the ball over yet in not just a season but in his career at Penn State. Can you speak specifically to his decision-making and to his ability to protect the football? Is he further along in some of those areas than you could have imagined with his experience?
A: Yeah, I don't want to talk about it a whole lot, to be honest with you. But yeah, he's doing a really good job from a decision-making perspective. I think from an accuracy perspective, with an understanding of the offense. One of the things I thought was most exciting in the last game was his ability; Mike's [Yurcich] ability to call shots down the field, and if the underneath coverage sinks, taking check-downs. That's extremely valuable as a play-caller when you have a quarterback that will allow you to call shots, not force the ball down the field and take the back as a check-down, and still I think in some of those create explosive plays. So I think all those things kind of factor into it. 
 
I think the biggest thing is kind of like what we've talked about before, is his poise. A lot of times, turnovers go hand-in-hand with guys that are panicking in the pocket or in decision-making that force you into a bad decision. One of the things I think we're doing a better job, not only in games but also in practice, is throwing the ball away. Like you can't sit here and say we're going to throw the ball away in games and never do it in practice. You've got to throw the ball away in practice and sometimes that's the best decision that you can make. 
 
I think he's also shown the ability that when he does get pressure, that he knows where the outlets are, where the running backs are, where the tight ends are, and so as soon as he makes a sudden movement to avoid pressure, he's trying to get it to the back. I think that's really valuable, as well. 
 
All things that we take a lot of pride in and that we're building on, but I also think that goes with the offensive line and protecting him and his blind side. That's the running backs in protection. That's the fundamentals of two hands on the ball in the pocket. It's all those things. 
 
Q. Where are you guys big picture wise from a health perspective coming out of the bye? If I could ask you specifically about J.B. [Nelson], anything you can tell us about him?
A: Nothing has changed with J.B. in terms of how we normally discuss injuries and things like that. Nothing has changed there. 
 
In terms of health, I think we're in pretty good place from the things that we talked about in terms of the number of reps our guys have had in games, the number of guys we're playing. I think we're in a pretty good place from that perspective. 
 
I mean, obviously you'd always love to be totally healthy, and we're not that, but I think we're in a pretty good place. 
 
I thought the guys did a really good job, the staff did a really good job of managing the bye week reps, as well, because that's something that probably I didn't talk about when I got asked that question in the beginning is, that's also one of the things you're trying to do in practice. You're managing the reps of the guys that have earned that, a guy who's played a ton of football at Penn State, who's played a ton of football in terms of college football in general, has played a bunch of reps for us this season. All those things kind of factor in, and then you kind of manage that, as well. 
 
Nothing is changed from an injury standpoint to address with you guys, but I think we're in a pretty good place. The reality is we need to be in a good place going into this game and we need to be in a good place coming out of this game, as well. 
 
Q. You mentioned that there's a lot of defensive linemen that you're impressed with. Add that with the multi-layered defense you're facing. When you take all those things into consideration, does getting your run game going early take higher precedence than usual?
A: Yeah, I wouldn't say either. I mean, as you guys know, we want to have the ability to run or pass. In any game and in any given situation, that's how we view balance. We want to continue to build on that. 
 
This game could look very different, depending on how they decide to defend us. We could throw it 50 times or we could rush it 50 times, and that's who we want to be offensively. We want to have the ability to do what we need to do to win and manage the game. 
 
Then on top of that, I think when you talk about the opportunities for big plays coming in the run game and the pass game, I still believe those are coming. But at the end of the day, we need to do what we need to do to win games and be able to take what the defense is giving. 
 
Q. You mentioned Johnny Dixon at the start of the news conference. Another guy that you got via the transfer portal, your Ivy Leaguer, Hunter Nourzad. What's his impact the last two years being able to play multiple positions and to come from an FCS school to really thrive at this level? What do you think that says about him? Is he kind of a rare player in that respect to be able to make that jump and make it in a big way?
A: Yeah, and I think he's done a really good job. Culturally, he's been a great culture fit for us. Really well-respected in the locker room from the players, from the staff. I think him coming back this year was important for him and us. That was a decision that he needed to make. I think it was the right decision. Really, I think that's sort of my responsibility, right, when a guy decides to come back, we've got to make sure that it was the right decision for all parties involved. 
 
I think the way he's playing right now, his ability to play center and guard, is extremely valuable, and his approach, his maturity; gosh, he's getting an MBA right now from Penn State. When he's not in class, he's in the weight room, stretching, working on mobility. He does a great job with his nutrition and hydration. He's just one of those guys that I think is a really good example of the importance of maturity on your football team and has done a phenomenal job. 
 
We've been fortunate that the guys we've been able to get out of the Ivy League have done a really nice job for us. Great academic fits for us as well, obviously. They're guys that come here and thrive and usually end up getting some higher ed. degrees in terms of master's degrees and things like that. He's been awesome, he really has. 
 
I think when you have kind of a center that can be the quarterback of your offense and a left tackle like we have in Olu [Fashanu], that's a pretty good recipe for success at those two positions to start to build the rest of the pieces around. Then the experience that we have at right tackle and so on and so forth with Sal [Wormley] at guard, that's an important piece, that center position, and Hunter has done a really good job of really studying what we need to do up front and how we need to do it. He's been awesome. 
 
Q. Going back to when you hired Manny Diaz until now, what have you learned about Manny as a coordinator but also Manny the person? So many players have raved about him and what it means to learn his defense and the way he explains it to them.
A: Yeah, I think when you talk about intelligence, you're talking about people that can take complex ideas and really be able to explain things in a way that; whether it's the players or whoever else can receive that information, it makes sense. I think Manny has done a really good job of that with our defense, and specifically with our defensive players. 
 
I think it's also helped that he's taking over a unit that had played good defense before, and I think a lot of those things of how they were taught, Manny is bringing it in from maybe a slightly different perspective and a lot of the players, specifically the veterans in that room, I think have really appreciated looking at the game from a different lens, but I think the other thing that happens sometimes is when you're young, you think there's one way to do things and be right and be successful, and the older that you get, and we all do, you realize there's a lot of ways to be successful and a lot of ways to be right. 
 
I think it also is magnified that that room had a ton of respect for Brent Pry. So, when he left, that was hard. That really, I think, struck a lot of guys on our team, and then, specifically on the defensive side of the ball, left a lot of question marks.
 
When you're able to go out and hire a guy like Manny and he comes in and right away is able to get up in front of the room and talk about how we're going to play defense and how we're going to build on that foundation, he was able to get buy-in right away, and then in some ways, in some areas, has even taken it to another level. So, I think the veteran players, I think it's kind of like an "aha moment" for them and a real appreciation for it.
 
There's been a lot of growth there, and I think we're playing, obviously, with a lot of confidence, and that stems back to Manny and the whole defensive staff. It also stems back to some of the conversations that we just had earlier about our corners and what our corners allow us to do defensively.
 
In some ways, I think about some of the turnover we've had on the staff, not just at the coordinator positions, with some guys that have been with me for a long time and were established guys around here. That's why hiring and recruiting are two of the most important things you can do is get the right people in here to build on the foundation and to build on those relationships. 
 
In terms of just as a person, Manny and his wife and his sons, it's just been awesome. The thing that probably has surprised me the most is how quickly he's been able to adjust here and hit the ground running, and like I said, when you have an experience like he went through, and I literally felt bad calling him the next day, but how quickly he and his family were able to transition here and really not miss a beat, that's been really impressive. 
 
I think the last thing I would say is, the value of his previous experience of being a head coach, you just look at the game differently after being a head coach. I think that's been really valuable. I think when you're an assistant you have a lot of opinions on what you think you would do as a head coach, but having guys that have actually done it, there's a ton of value in that. But he's also come back and just been one of the guys. I think that the defensive staff has got really good chemistry, and the players kind of see that and feel that as well. 
 
Q. Last year, you had talked about the defensive line playing small. You challenged those guys, wanting them to be playing like, Aaron Donald I think is who you compared them to. When you self-scout now over the last week or so, do you feel better about where the interior defensive line is now as opposed to a year ago, specifically size-wise?
A: Yeah, very much so. Very much so. I think we are bigger across the board. Defensive end we're bigger, defensive tackle we're bigger. We're bigger across the board. 
 
Part of that is just kind of the natural maturation process that happens for these guys. That's part of it. But I also think they've done a great job of emphasizing it and putting the right weight on, because we're not a weight for weight's sake type of program. We want our guys to be lean and athletic, but more importantly, they're playing in a way that they're so disruptive. We're more consistently gap sound. We're more consistently disruptive. 
 
I know Manny and Deion [Barnes] have been very pleased as we sit in there. I watch the game typically on the ride home on the plane and then I watch it typically in the morning and then I watch it with the defense, and just hearing them talk about the defense and how we're playing, guys are doing their jobs on a consistent basis.
 
We are bigger on the defensive line, which I think has been helpful because it is one of your tools. Strength is a tool. Speed is a tool. Intelligence is a tool. Quickness is a tool. Size is; these are all tools, and you want to make sure that you have as many of these tools on your tool belt as possible. But they're also playing bigger in terms of being disruptive and being gap sound and doing their jobs on a consistent basis. 
 
The thing that we spend a lot of time talking about, a lot of times is, okay, you didn't make the play, but you caused the play. You created the play. You created an opportunity for somebody else for a tackle for loss by doing your job. You created an opportunity for a sack for somebody else by doing your job. So, we spend a lot of time talking about that, as well, and I think that's been one of the things that's been really cool is to see the guys embracing their roles and understanding if they just do their jobs on a consistent basis, the plays will naturally just find them. They'll come to them, rather than feeling like you have to make a play. That's typically when problems happen. 
 
Q. Zuriah Fisher has consistently been a consistent member of the defense all season. Can you describe what his progress has been like thus far? How has he gotten to where he is?
A: Yeah, I'm a big Zuriah Fisher fan. As you mentioned, we recruited him as a linebacker and tight end, shows up here, we always kind of thought he had a chance to grow into a defensive end. He already had the size, we made that change kind of with his blessing and support, and he really started to do some great things. 
 
Then he gets an injury, a fairly significant injury, misses some time for that, and he just kind of continues to chip away at it and continues to get better and better and better, both mentally and physically in terms of understanding how to play defensive line. It was new to him, understanding the scheme, and he just; he's one of those guys, to me, that's a really good example for a lot of guys in the locker room. He's one of those guys that's just getting, one percent better, one percent better, one percent better, and it maybe doesn't jump out at you dramatically, but he just continues to get better, and now he's making plays for us and doing his job. I think he's got a really bright future here at Penn State and then after that. 
 
To me, he's what everybody is looking for at defensive end. He's got the ability to be disruptive. He's got the size. He's got the length. He's got the athleticism. He's had a smile on his face really since he's got here. He's had some personal adversity and challenges and setbacks, probably more so than most, and just continues to find ways to be successful.  I'm really proud of him, and I think you'll see him continue to have a good year this year, and I think that's going to springboard him into really good things in his future. 
 
Q. You talked about what you think balance is earlier in this conversation. Just to put it in context of what you're pursuing, how many teams have you coached that have true balance or how many have you seen that have that level of balance this year?
A: Yeah, I think in terms of being able to run and pass, we have as good a balance as I think we've had, and maybe that I've been around. Are there some areas of balance that we're probably still searching for? Yes. But I think our ability to run or pass the ball is problematic. I do believe that. 
 
You look at it in short yardage, it shows up in short yardage. Right now, we're able to throw in short-yardage situations. We're able to run in short-yardage situations. That makes you difficult to defend. People have to respect our running in short-yardage situations. Our ability to dictate a game in terms of how we run the ball against some really good defenses and not get away from it and stay with it, I think has been really good, and then our ability to throw for a high percentage and protect the football has also been good. 
 
I think we're in a good place. I think there's still room for growth there in terms of the total package and where we can go offensively, but to your point, just the balance that we're able to exhibit on first and second down and even third down makes you challenging to defend. 
 
I also think it complements defensively when you talk about time of possession, them creating turnovers and three-and-outs and then our offense controlling the ball and controlling the clock. Sometimes you just; you're left with very little opportunities if you're on the opposing sideline, and that's frustrating, especially when you have a lead. 
 
Q. Where would you say that the receivers and Drew [Allar]'s trust is at with each other? Do you think that's important in taking the next step as an offense?
A: Yeah, I think it's a process, and I think we have made progress this past weekend, have made progress this season. I do think that's back to kind of a health perspective. I think that's where, that's been probably impacted as much as anything when you really have two guys that have played a ton of football for you at the receiver position and there being some consistency and trust in practice and in games with those guys, and then you lose one of them for a couple weeks, that magnifies that. 
 
Being able to have Trey [Harrison Wallace] back and KeAndre [Lambert-Smith] on the field while those other guys are developing those roles and those opportunities and that confidence I think will be helpful. 
 
But I think getting Trey back is a huge piece of that puzzle. I think it helps KeAndre. I think it helps Drew. I think it helps our team. I think it helps our offense. I think it helps Coach Yurcich in calling the game.  But I think that will really help us having those two guys both on the field at the same time.