Dec. 30—James Franklin admits that he struggles to hide his feelings.
He couldn’t hide his disappointment Wednesday when he was asked about preparing Penn State to face Arkansas in Saturday’s Outback Bowl without six players who opted out.
All-Americans Jahan Dotson, Jaquan Brisker and Arnold Ebiketie decided not to play in the bowl game. They’re projected to be taken in the first two rounds of the NFL draft.
Ellis Brooks, Brandon Smith and Derrick Tangelo also opted out, even though they’re not projected to be taken as high as Dotson, Brisker and Ebiketie, if at all.
Five were starters on a defense that ranks seventh nationally in points allowed. The other, Dotson, ranks among the greatest receivers in Penn State history.
It’s safe to say the Nittany Lions won’t resemble the team they fielded in the regular season.
“It’s challenging,” Franklin said. “I’m focused on the guys that are in our locker room. That doesn’t mean I’m not happy and excited and supportive of the guys that are not.
“I’m excited about the guys that are going to have bigger roles.”
Franklin has been a college football coach since he was a graduate assistant at Kutztown in 1995. He’s been a head coach since Vanderbilt hired him in December 2010.
He’s never experienced anything like this, other than All-American linebacker Micah Parsons opting out of the 2020 season because of COVID-19.
Saquon Barkley played in the 2017 Fiesta Bowl, carried 18 times for 137 yards and two touchdowns and caught seven passes for 38 yards. A few months later he was taken by the New York Giants with the No. 2 pick in the 2018 draft.
Miles Sanders played in the 2019 Citrus Bowl, ran 13 times for 51 yards and caught two passes for 7 yards. A few months later he was the second-round pick of the Philadelphia Eagles.
Why did those two decide to play? Why did these six decide not to play?
More players are heeding the warnings of agents and others who point to the severe knee injuries suffered by Notre Dame linebacker Jaylon Smith against Ohio State in the 2016 Fiesta Bowl. Doesn’t make them right or wrong.
The guess here is that Franklin is OK with the decisions made by Dotson, Brisker and Ebiketie, and not with those made by Brooks, Smith and Tangelo. Those three could have improved their stock with a strong performance against a ranked Southeastern Conference opponent like Arkansas.
“Jahan had an opportunity last year to leave and decided to come back,” Franklin said. “I think it really helped him. All the draft reports that we’ve gotten, I think it’s really helped him and Penn State.
“That’s really what life is about, right? Trying to create as many win-win situations as you can. We were able to do that.”
The six Penn State opt-outs reflect what’s going on all over college football.
Ohio State’s Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson, two of the best receivers in the country, opted out of the Rose Bowl, along with two other teammates. Michigan State running back Kenneth Walker III and Pitt quarterback Kenny Pickett opted out of the Peach Bowl.
The increasing number of opt-outs jeopardizes the future of non-College Football Playoff bowl games. It also raises the possibility of players opting out when their teams fall out of CFP contention during the regular season.
Is there a solution? Hard to think of one.
For Penn State, Saturday’s game will be more like the first game of the 2022 season than the final game of the 2021 season with so many new faces on the field.
“The reality is that you’ve got to find a way to get it done,” Franklin said. “As one door closes, another door opens. It’s an opportunity for another player. I think it’s also going to give us a really good picture of what our future is going to be.
“There are some challenges, no doubt.”