Players say team morale high after change

UNIVERSITY PARK – The last few weeks have been “a little crazy” for Penn State’s players, but then again, they’re used to that.

“We’ve been through a lot,” linebacker Mike Hull said Tuesday. “The last coaching change probably was harder than this one just because of all the stuff we went through last time.

“This time I think we got a really good coach in Coach (James) Franklin, and we’re just really excited to get back to work and see how everything plays out.”

The players were on Christmas break when Bill O’Brien left for the Houston Texans. Interim head coach Larry Johnson took over and kept everyone in the loop about what was going on. Then right before they returned to campus they had a new coach in Franklin.

“He’s really excited to be here, he’s really excited to coach us,” guard Miles Dieffenbach said. “He has some great plans for us. He’s really preaching a lot on the relationships he’s going to build, and that’s really the most important thing he’s here to do.”

Franklin held his first squad meeting Sunday night, and the players say from what they know of him so far he’s not that different from O’Brien.

“I’d say they’re more similar than different,” Hull said. “Both of them are really big about assigning roles to players. Each individual player is going to have a role on the team, and we’re going to work together whether you’re a starter or a fourth-team guy.

“(Franklin) just seemed like he was real dedicated to building a really tough football team, which is the same thing that Coach O’Brien was trying to do.”

Part of that process, Hull added, would be a return to smash-mouth football and tackling in practice. The Nittany Lions couldn’t do much tackling this past season because of their limited depth, so O’Brien went more to the thud approach.

Dieffenbach said the players walked through the locker room Sunday and noted, “It was really like nothing’s changed” for the tight-knit team.

“Team morale, I think, at this point has never been higher,” he said.

Dieffenbach is on record saying O’Brien is “one of the greatest men I’ve ever known.”

“We all know he was a terrific coach, but more than that he was just a great guy,” Dieffenbach said Tuesday. “He was a great friend. He’ll be a lifelong friend for me.”

Franklin figures to have a similar influence.

“He is a players’ coach,” receiver Geno Lewis said. “He has a very positive attitude. I know all the guys are really excited.”

Notes: The players spoke highly of Larry Johnson, who’s now heading to Ohio State. “He’s been a great coach for us, and I just wish him the best,” Dieffenbach said. … Franklin made the media rounds Tuesday, appearing on numerous national programs. “The pride and the passion at this place is something you can’t really describe, you have to experience it,” he said on LaVar Arrington’s radio show in Washington D.C. … Dieffenbach said this of the coaching search: “We know (AD) Dave Joyner, he picked Bill O’Brien and he did a terrific job, and we had full trust that him and that committee were going to find a great coach for us.” … The players expect the strength and conditioning program to remain very similar under the new staff, which will be led by Dwight Galt, who mentored former strength coach Craig Fitzgerald. … Hull said the knee injury that limited him during the season is better now after taking time off and noted he won’t need surgery. … Quarterback Christian Hackenberg will speak to the media today for the first time since the coaching change.