James Franklin finally has the right quarterback and he’s setting him up to fail

The best season of James Franklin's tenure at Penn State came with elite skill players around Trace McSorley. Now he has the five-star guy in Drew Allar, but failed to put the pieces in place to compete for the national title.
Iowa v Penn State
Iowa v Penn State / Scott Taetsch/GettyImages

There is an obsession with the quarterback position in football. In the 2024 NFL Draft, six quarterbacks were selected in the first 12 picks and now the conversation in each one of those cities, Chicago, Washington D.C. Boston, Atlanta, Minnesota, and Denver, will revolve around setting up their new passer to succeed in the league. 

In college football, the narratives don’t always develop the same way. In the professional ranks, if a first-round quarterback doesn’t succeed, it almost always means the coach and general manager lose their jobs. First, for investing in the wrong player at the most important position, and second for failing to provide him with a supporting cast that can help him succeed. The quarterback isn’t held singularly responsible for his lack of success. 

However, when five-star prospects inevitably flame out at a similar rate to first-round picks, the response is quite different. The coach’s job is almost always safe, the player enters the transfer portal and the machine keeps churning. Well, that can’t happen in Happy Valley. If Drew Allar doesn’t develop in his second year as the starter at Penn State, James Franklin needs to be held accountable. 

Investment is clear in the NFL. Contract figures are disclosed, draft pick value is understood, and trade capital is easily valued. With so much information, it’s obvious when a team fails to infuse its roster with enough talent to help a young quarterback succeed. In college football, the whole team-building process is shrouded in ambiguity which allows coaches to sidestep the criticism lobbed at campus as a player who was an invaluable recruit devolves into a disposable player. 

Allar is a long way from disposable and still could make good on his potential, but there weren’t many signs of a budding superstar last season. He completed 59.9% of his passes for 2,631 yards, 25 touchdowns, and just two interceptions, but only averaged 6.8 yards per attempt ranking him 120th of the 178 quarterbacks who had at least 100 dropbacks. Of that group, his average depth of target ranked 148th while his adjusted completion percentage was 52nd per PFF.  

As a sophomore, he was an accurate passer with an excellent pocket presence and just a 10.2% pressure-to-sack rate which was 18th among that same sample of quarterbacks despite being pressured 38th most times. But one who lacked the aggression and possibly the receiving talent to push the ball downfield. Nearly 60% of his pass attempts were eight behind the line of scrimmage or within nine yards of it. He was effective to the intermediate part of the field, but only completed 11 of 36 passes over 20 yards downfield. 

He’s a 6-foot-5 passer with a fairly big arm who doesn’t take sacks and is generally accurate. That’s a player who should be widely considered a first-round prospect in the 2025 NFL Draft and a Heisman Trophy candidate, but James Franklin hasn’t set him up to succeed. 

Penn State failed to reload

Last year, Allar was saddled with Mike Yurcich as his play-caller and a receiver group of KeAndre Lambert-Smith, Dante Cephas, and Harrison Wallace III. Yurcich was fired midseason and both Lambert-Smith and Cephas have since transferred from the program as have Cristian Driver, Malick Meiga, and yesterday, Malick McClain. On top of those transfers, another one of Penn State’s top targets, tight end Theo Johnson, along with both of Allar’s starting tackles and starting center, are beginning their NFL careers this offseason. 

Franklin replaced Yurcich with Andy Kotelnicki, an innovative offensive coach who will introduce plenty of creativity on that side of the ball, but didn’t do enough to replace the talent that walked out the door. Penn State has built its entire receiver corps around Julian Fleming, an Ohio State castoff and one of just two incoming offensive transfers, while other teams are loading up on talent. 

McClain’s last-second departure on the final day of the spring transfer portal window was a surprise, though not devastating to the program. In his lone year with the Nittany Lions, he caught just six passes for 71 yards and a touchdown. Still, it continues to strip depth from a position where Penn State should be aggressively adding talent. 

Wide receiver was the team’s most glaring weakness last season and the position group may be in an even more precarious spot ahead of the 2024 season. Fleming is the preordained WR1 with Wallace, who missed most of last season due to injury and only has 38 catches in his collegiate career, is the obvious No. 2. 

Tyler Warren will likely finish third on the team in targets after hauling in 34 passes last year for 422 yards and seven touchdowns. There’s a compelling case to be made that Warren will be the most productive tight end in the country next season and he’ll be paired with five-star freshman Luke Reynolds, but that doesn’t excuse the failure to add more dynamic weapons to an offense that finished 75th in the nation in passing yards per game, 60th in total offense, and 97th in 20+ yard plays from scrimmage. 

The battle for WR3 will almost certainly come down to, Kaden Saunders, Omari Evans, and Liam Clifford, a group that has amassed a total of 38 grabs for 445 yards and three touchdowns across six combined seasons. That’s a completely unacceptable situation for a team with Big Ten title and supposedly national title aspirations to be in with a five-star quarterback in his third and potentially final collegiate season. 

Big Ten's top contenders extended their lead

 With Michigan reloading and stabilizing, Ohio State and Oregon have emerged as the two favorites in the conference. Both have more veteran, proven quarterbacks with Will Howard at Ohio State and Dillon Gabriel at Oregon, yet those coaching staffs aggressively sought out offensive weapons to improve the situation for their transfer portal QBs. 

Ryan Day brought in QuinShon Judkins from Ole Miss, one of the five best running backs in the country, tight end Will Kacmarek from Ohio, and a potentially generational wide receiver prospect in Jeremiah Smith, the No. 1 recruit in the 2024 high school class and one of the reasons that Fleming was so expendable. 

Dan Lanning and the Ducks also took big swings, not just by adding Gabriel and former five-star QB Dante Moore as his backup, but also by bringing in Evan Stewart. Now Gabriel is set up with the No. 1 wide receiver in the 2022 high school class who spent his first two seasons at Texas A&M. 

Day and Lanning had superior talent to Penn State last season and this offseason they just extended their lead. The Nittany Lions would likely make the expanded 12-team College Football Playoff with another 10-win season, but James Franklin is failing the most talented quarterback he’s ever had, who is capable of much more. 

The most perplexing part of Franklin’s offseason philosophy is that his only high-level success across 10 years in Happy Valley came in 2016 and 2017 when Trace McSorley was surrounded by arguably the most dynamic group of skill players in the country. 

From those teams, six offensive players were drafted between 2017 and 2019, not including McSorley, a sixth-rounder in the ‘19 draft. Chris Godwin was a 2017 third-rounder who wildly outperformed his draft slot once in the league, Saquon Barkley was the No. 2 overall selection in 2018, and Mike Gesicki followed him in the second round. Even DaeSean Hamilton was a fourth-round pick which is probably as high as any current skill player could go in 2025 or 2026. 

If Penn State once again can’t get over the hump this season, it won’t be because Drew Allar is a bad quarterback, it’ll be because he wasn't given enough help. The calls will come for James Franklin’s job whenever the Nittany Lions suffer their first loss in 2024, but if Franklin refuses to explore the remaining talent in the transfer portal and enters the year with the current group of pass-catchers, then those calls will come far too late. 

When Drew Allar arrived on campus, Penn State’s national championship window opened, but this offseason, Franklin let it slam shut.

There are still transfer portal receivers available for Penn State. dark. Next. There are still transfer portal receivers available for Penn State