Outback Bowl Head Coaches Joint News Conference

December 29, 2021

Wednesday, December 29, 2021
Tampa, Florida, USA
Raymond James Stadium
Sam Pittman
James Franklin
Press Conference

THE MODERATOR: Thank you for being here today. I'd like to also acknowledge we have our chair of the bowl, Rita Lowman is here. Rita, thanks for being here.

This is the 36th Outback Bowl. We're very proud, have a very long-standing tradition with the Big Ten, SEC, putting together matchups are that incredible year after year. Many times we're fortunate enough to have a matchup of teams that haven't played each other.

In a hundred years of football, these two teams have never faced each other on the gridiron. That's one of the things we enjoy throughout the years. We're excited to see these two teams square off on New Year's Day. Very excited.

Speaking of New Year's Day, as you can see, the weather has been fantastic all week long. It's expected to be the same all the way through game day, Saturday. Right now zero percent chance of rain, sunny, 80 degrees as the high. It's going to be a great time. Make sure you bring your sunscreen. Kick time is 12:05. We'll be on ESPN-2. We're looking forward to a terrific matchup.

I'm going to start, as the designated home team, Arkansas, Coach Pittman, ask you to make some opening comments about where things are right now, how your week has gone so far.

SAM PITTMAN: Thank you, everybody. We're very excited to be here. We've had a good week. A lot of activities for the kids. Trying to stay away from COVID as best we can.

I want everybody to know I have such a great respect for Coach Franklin. He and I have had some really good conversations over the last two times we were able to get together. I have great respect for Penn State University.

We've been practicing at the University of Tampa. It's very close to our hotel. The facilities are wonderful. We've gone through three practices thus far. We have one tomorrow morning, then obviously we'll go to the stadium to do our subscript and walk on Friday before the game.

We're excited to play Penn State. Very honored to be a part of the Outback Bowl.

THE MODERATOR: Coach Franklin.

JAMES FRANKLIN: First of all, I'd like to thank the Outback Bowl. Obviously tremendous opportunity to play in a historical bowl game, a great location. We appreciate the weather. Very similar to Happy Valley, so appreciate that (laughter).

Got tremendous respect for the University of Arkansas. Obviously I've been fortunate enough to be a head football coach in both the SEC and the Big Ten. I think I got pretty good perspective on that.

I've known Coach Pittman really kind of from afar, his reputation. One of our guys that was on our staff last year, Dowell, is now on their staff. I've gotten some really good insight and have heard nothing but great things.

We had an opportunity at the bowling event the other night to really kind of sit there and talk, me, Coach Pittman and his wife. Just really enjoyed it.

Coach Pittman is doing it the right way. There's a lot of excitement at the University of Arkansas right now with what he's been able to do. I think he's a great fit for the university.

More than that I think he's a great guy, a regular guy that you can have really good conversations. We were able to bounce things off each other. Really obviously not a whole lot about this bowl game, but just things that head coaches can talk about that you can't really talk to a lot of other people about.

Also our concerns about some of the things that are going on in college football and college athletics right now. Some really good discussions. I look forward to continue building our relationship and staying in touch with each other after the bowl.

Again, have tremendous respect for the University of Arkansas. I think it's going to be a great game, a great opportunity for both of us to go out and finish our seasons the way we want to, hopefully put a product on the field that the Outback Bowl and Penn State alums, Arkansas alums can all be proud of.

Appreciate the opportunity.

THE MODERATOR: We'll open it up for questions.

Q. If they made a move of your life story, who would play you?

JAMES FRANKLIN: Yeah, it's either going to be The Rock or Denzel Washington, obviously. One of those two.

I'm glad you kind of gave me reference because I didn't know what you were talking about when you first started talking. Yeah, probably The Rock. Similar body type, charisma (laughter).

SAM PITTMAN: Well, I think of Jack Nicholson. He's older, more mature, got a lot of gray like I do. I don't know, I think he's made a lot of money. That's who I'd like to do it, be representing me (laughter).

JAMES FRANKLIN: We'll take a bunch of softball questions like that.

SAM PITTMAN: Yeah, stay here all day.

Q. What do you make of Arkansas and their run-pass offense?

JAMES FRANKLIN: I think it starts with their quarterback. Big, physical, mature guy. I think they do a really nice job of obviously not only from a tempo standpoint but to me it starts and ends with the running game.

I know you talk about balance, but I think it's obvious that they want to run the ball, obviously having a head coach who has an offensive line background. Those guys usually pride themselves with that. I think his personality and identity shows up on the offensive side of the ball.

I think they do enough of the things to keep you honest. The play-action passes, RPOs off of that, that can be challenging. Also some of the tricks and gimmick plays.

The other thing is I think when you have that type of quarterback, you have to manage it during the season. When you get to the bowl game, this is the last game of the year, we're expecting them to run that 245-pound quarterback a bunch. We got to be prepared for that.

It's going to be a challenge. There's no doubt about it. I think their offensive coordinator does a good job keeping you on your heels and off balance as much as possible. They've had the personnel to be able to do it.

I think it really starts and ends with their quarterback.

Q. Your thoughts on Kendal Briles and the job he is doing as offensive coordinator?

SAM PITTMAN: I think Kendal has done a nice job. Went back to Feleipe Franks from last year. Obviously Feleipe played a lot of ball. For him, he had never been in that system. I think Briles is a really good teacher, really good communicator. Certainly he has gotten better throughout this year with his throwing ability and the long ball. He's gotten better there.

You guys remember we opened up scrimmages last year in the spring simply because I felt like we needed to put pressure on him with people in the stands to perform, him and Malik for that matter.

I think Kendall has done a really nice job. I believe, like coach, he's a good play-caller.

Q. Tell us about the challenge of getting a team ready with a number of opt-outs.

JAMES FRANKLIN: I think that's one of the things that me and coach were talking about the other day. I've been a head coach, I've been fortunate enough to be a head coach for 12 years. Have never had an opt-out in all of my 12 years. They've had a little bit of it. We've had more. It's challenging.

What I would say is I'm focused on the guys that are in our locker room. That doesn't mean that I'm not happy and excited and supportive of the guys that are not. But I'm excited about the guys that are in our locker room and I'm excited about the guys that are going to have bigger roles.

I think we all know the last two years of college football have been different and have been challenging. Obviously not only what's really happened nationally but also conference to conference. This was handled differently in every single conference. Our season was canceled, then restarted again. It's been a challenging two years.

I think back earlier in the season to our Rutgers game. We got hit with the flu. We didn't have a scholarship quarterback available on Friday. So there's been a lot of challenges.

At the end of the day the reality is you got to find a way to get it done. 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 kind of picture of what our future is going to be. Guys are going to get a bunch of reps in this game that maybe hadn't throughout the season.

There's some challenges, no doubt about it. Our guys are excited. I think there's also some tremendous leaders out there that we're depending on, are going to need to step up for us, no doubt about it.

Q. Ever cross your mind not to play in a bowl game this season?

JAMES FRANKLIN: What I would say is we discussed what we think is going on a bunch in college football. I'll speak for myself. We've never seen this in college football, right? We've never seen people not playing. It happened a little bit last year. We thought we were done with it. It's happening again this year.

I don't really kind of want to get into it because I can't really speak for other people, what they are doing.

For us, we want to play. We want to represent the Outback Bowl the right way. We want to represent Penn State the right way.

Are there challenges, probably more challenges than there have ever been before in college football? Yes. But we're excited about representing the Big Ten the right way. We want to represent Penn State the right way. We're very blessed and fortunate to be here in the Outback Bowl. We're going to take it as a blessing and take advantage of the opportunity.

SAM PITTMAN: I think it says a lot about Penn State's Coach Franklin. He's had several guys. If you look at it, if we played in the regular season, the teams would be different. I mean, they're just different because we've had a couple leaving for the NFL. He's had several over there at Penn State. The teams are different. I mean, that's just what it is.

Once you wrap your mind around that the teams are different, you're going to field a different football team, you're probably going to find some surprises both ways from who's out there.

But we have 120 on our team. The other 115 or 110 that are left right now, they deserve the opportunity to play. I don't think either one of us - I don't want to speak for coach - are looking for a way out, we're looking for a way in. I think that's what coach did. I know that's what we did, as well.

Q. Could Olu Fashanu start at left tackle if need be?

JAMES FRANKLIN: Better be, right? Yeah, he was going to start earlier in the year, had an injury, was unable to start. That's when Landon went in and started and played really well as a true freshman.

But, yeah, we've been preparing and planning. Like I said, Olu was going to start during the year, now we're in a position obviously that he's going to do it on Saturday. We have a lot of faith and confidence in him. It's going to be exciting to watch him go out and play. He's had a really good week of practice.

Q. Is it important when the BIG 10 and SEC play in college football?

JAMES FRANKLIN: Do I think it's important when Big Ten and SEC teams play each other?

JAMES FRANKLIN: Yeah. I mean, yeah. Two great conferences. Obviously, like you mentioned, we played Auburn earlier in the year. It's kind of unusual. I think when we played Auburn, if I'm correct, was the first time there had ever been really a big Big Ten-SEC matchup during regular season or some crazy stat like that.

Obviously playing Arkansas right now, there's not too many things left in 2021 that you can say has never happened before. So pretty cool opportunity.

SAM PITTMAN: I think it's big for the teams, the players, obviously the fans. I think it's good for both those.

Q. On the Penn State tight ends.

SAM PITTMAN: Well, they're talented. I mean, Penn State has a big, thick running back as well. Lee I believe. He's a good player, a big player. Off of that, they run a little play-action, coming off to the tight ends. Those guys are really good blockers, good catchers. They're very talented.

I think if Grant is saying that, we've emphasized that. They're very talented players. We have to know where they're at and how to defend them.

Q. You are both at schools you idolized growing up. Tell us what it is like being part of the tradition and creating tradition.

SAM PITTMAN: For me, I can explain it when we're coming in on the bus to the home games, you see people walking across there. I was one of those people trying to get into the game, trying to get a glimpse of the coach on the bus, the players on the bus. They didn't have the Hog Walk back then. Just trying to get in the stadium, feel the atmosphere.

I feel that every single home game. Very surreal, very honoring. I'm honored that I'm the head coach at Arkansas. But, yeah, I mean, I feel it all the time. I was a fan. I went to camp, football camp there. Lou Holtz was the coach.

JAMES FRANKLIN: Did you get rejected, too? I got rejected at Penn State. I went to Penn State's camp. I got rejected.

SAM PITTMAN: I got recruited none (laughter). I don't think it ever got to the rejection part.

JAMES FRANKLIN: I didn't mean to interrupt, coach. Yeah, I grew up just outside of Philadelphia, so it's unusual. A lot of times you have the opportunity to be able to come back home. I played in the state of Pennsylvania. I did go to camp. I think Jim Caldwell was the quarterback's coach at the time. They had a drill, Coach Pittman, where you threw fades. It had like a little target sitting in the end zone. I won that drill. I thought for sure Coach Caldwell was going to come over and talk to me about why I should be at Penn State. He never came over (laughter).

It's something obviously that you take a lot of pride in. Obviously you understand the history, understand the tradition. I think we're also both at places that really emphasize the true student-athlete, getting a great education at a great university.

There's so many reasons that I think for us that it's important. College football is really important. Being able to win games is really important. But at Penn State it's also about getting a great education, having a well-rounded experience, being prepared and ready for life when that comes, when the game of football comes to an end.

I think all those things allow for me, obviously being a local guy, having pretty good perspective on what it truly means to be a Penn Stater.

Q. Each team has lost significant players at wide receiver. What does it mean for the offense?

SAM PITTMAN: Well, he's (Treylon Burks) from the state. He's our go-to guy. He was our big-play guy. Any time we got zero coverage or man coverage, everybody in the place knew we was going to throw him the ball. A lot of times he'd go make the play and a lot of times he'd score on it.

I understand his situation and things of that nature. But losing him, we lost a lot of offense. We also lost a very good leader. But can't really replace him. It's going to take a lot of people to replace one Burks.

The great thing about that is we knew before we ever started bowl practice that he was not going to play in the bowl, so that's allowed us these four weeks in and out of four different weeks to plan and prepare for that.

The guys, like coach said, our guys, the ones getting ready to play are looking forward to the opportunity. They're young, but yet we recruited them for a reason. Hopefully they can make plays like Burks did.

JAMES FRANKLIN: For us, kind of a similar story, right? Jahan Dotson from the state of Pennsylvania decided to stay home after being committed to another school. Worked really well for Jahan and Penn State. I could not be more proud.

Jahan had an opportunity last year to leave and decided to come back. 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.

Just like coach talked about, losing Jahan, everybody knows he was our big-play guy, has been for the last couple years. Last year as a punt returner and receiver, this year mainly as a receiver. But it's an opportunity for KeAndre, for Parker, an opportunity for Meiga and those guys to step up. Back to the guys that coach was talking about earlier, the tight end group.

I think both of us, our answer is probably similar. It's not like there's going to be one guy that's going to step up and replace that production, it needs to be a little bit of all the guys. For us, I could say the same thing.

I had a conversation with our defensive staff and players about losing our defensive coordinator in Coach Pry. It's going to be the same type of approach.

It's a tremendous opportunity.

Q. With bowl games being cancelled, has it framed the conversations with your team a different way?

JAMES FRANKLIN: Again, I have opinions on other places and other things, some of the things that I think are going on. I know coach does as well. We've talked about those privately.

In this setting, I'm going to specifically talk about Penn State. We're just going to do everything we possibly can, like we have all year long, to keep our guys safe.

I do think we're at a point in the season where they're kind of sick of listening to me. We've been pounding these messages home all year long. Overall our doctors and our trainers and our players have done a tremendous job with that.

We're going to need to do that not just up till game time, because this isn't just about protecting college football, it's also about these guys making great choices so they can be safe and healthy throughout the rest of the year and their lives.

With the game of football there comes sacrifices, your health, there's sacrifices that have to be made. That is lessons in all of this, right?

SAM PITTMAN: I mean, the kids see it. They see this bowl locked out, this bowl locked out. There's not a lot you have to say other than what we're doing, wearing our masks in the building, all that kind of stuff.

We've got to this far without losing guys to COVID. I know there's new variants and all that right now. I think anytime you have a coaching staff and a team that wants to play the game, it's not always that way, but it makes it easier to get the game going.

I think Penn State wants to play, and we want to play, so...

Q. Did you know in advance which players planned to opt out of the game?

JAMES FRANKLIN: Yeah, I think as you guys can imagine, some of the announcements coming out are new to you guys, but they're not new to us. What I try to do, at the end of the year I try to sit down with all these guys and have conversations. Sometimes their parents are included in those conversations.

Like I said, for 12 years we've never had one. That doesn't mean for 12 years there hasn't been guys that have been advised not to play, there hasn't been guys that have considered it. But literally for 12 years we've never had one.

This is new information for you guys. It's not new for us. We've been planning and prepared for this for a while. None of these announcements are new to us.

Q. On Jesse Luketa making the transition to linebacker.

JAMES FRANKLIN: He's already done that this year. He's already played that position. I think that was part of him coming back. He's going to come back next year and use his extra year.

I think he realizes as well as we do, although he's got some safety skills and DB skills, he plays his best the closer he is to the football. I think that's his long-term future.

It made sense for him to come back, fill one of those roles, be able to put a whole season of tape together of showing probably what his role and identity will be at the next level.

Obviously he's been a great special teams player for us. But, yeah, playing what we call the field backer, the Sam linebacker, I think that's his future. He'll play that on Saturday.

Q. On the challenge of balancing the fun of a bowl game with preparing for the game.

SAM PITTMAN: I have no experience at it, so... It's pretty balanced to me (laughter).

Done a gazillion of them as a head coach. We're practicing in the morning. Your day has objectives in it, and it has things that you need to get accomplished. Practice is first and foremost. We're doing it early in meetings. The rest of the day they can go out on their own.

As long as they can plan their day, and I want it to have success, the whole day, I think the fun and the practice and the meetings and all that can be put together.

That's what we're trying to do. It's good that we're starting practice in the morning because that way they have to be in a little better shape coming home, earlier curfew, things of that nature.

Q. On the SEC's 0-4 start in bowls this season.

SAM PITTMAN: I wish the answer was yes. Each of those schools got their own team, going to the NFL. A lot of times in the SEC, the Big Ten, things of that nature, I mean, you're going to have really good players. Until we get to more teams in the Playoffs, like I said before, you're going to play a different team. It's going to have the same logo on there, but it's not the same team that you had during the regular season.

I think that's a little bit what's happened to the SEC. Maybe not. Maybe they just got beat. I know I'll catch a lot of heck for saying that for those teams that beat the SEC teams.

For me it's about preparing our team well enough to go out there and play as good as we possibly can. Really hadn't thought much about the SEC being 0-4.

Q. What does the addition of Tyson Morris mean for the team?

SAM PITTMAN: Well, we needed him back. His legs looked fresher than the other guys today. He hadn't practiced for a few days.

JAMES FRANKLIN: He looked good (laughter)?

SAM PITTMAN: I'd leave it wide open (laughter).

But you're right, he's from Fayetteville. He's a super senior, coming back, all those things. I'm just glad that he was able to get back today. He seemed to be excited. The kids seem to be excited for him.

Q. On the team's depth at linebacker and burning redshirt freshmen due to opt-outs.

JAMES FRANKLIN: Yeah, fair question. Obviously there's not a whole lot I'm going to answer in terms of things that I think could affect the game from an information standpoint.

But, yeah, we're going to have to burn some redshirts. We've been very strategic about playing guys in four games, playing some guys in three games, saving a game for a bowl, things like that.

As the season went on, we had the flu spike, other things, it was hard to do that. So, yeah, we have some guys that we're going to have to burn their redshirts for this game.

It's not something that I decide that on my own. I don't think that's the right thing or fair. You bring the young man in, have conversations with him. Sometimes you include the parents in those conversations.

I still think it's a little bit better than the old days. I'll never forget Domonique Foxworth who is on TV now who I recruited out of Baltimore at the University of Maryland. He burned his redshirt for one game at the end of the season to send us to the ACC championship years ago. I really think that was the right change. This is one of the rules that have been changed. I think it's the right thing to do.

Yeah, you're talking about burning a guy's redshirt, but you're talking about doing it for five games. You'd still like to preserve it if you could. But I think it's a very different conversation than in the old days you're talking about a kid you've been trying to redshirt all year long, now you have no choice, you have to play him in a bowl game where he's lost an entire year for one game. I think it's a better scenario than where that is.

That's where we're at. We're going to have to play some of those guys.

Q. You're not in the College Football Playoff, but is there a better place to play than in the Outback Bowl?

JAMES FRANKLIN: No, I mean, obviously I think both of us and the conferences we play in, the schools that we have from a historical perspective, obviously we want to make the Playoffs, no doubt about it. If not, to be able to play on New Year's Day in Tampa, Florida, at the Outback Bowl, it's a tremendous opportunity.

I know we're very, very excited and fortunate to be here.

SAM PITTMAN: We lobbied for it. We did. We wanted to come here. We made no bones about it. We wanted come to Tampa and the Outback Bowl.

We didn't know the opponent. We may have tried to lobby somewhere else (laughter). We wanted to come here. We wanted to play on New Year's Day. It's a big deal for us, for our program. So we lobbied for it.

THE MODERATOR: Thank you, coaches.

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