STATE COLLEGE — Terry Smith’s first instinct was to yell in joy. For Ricky Rahne, it was a state of shock. Charles Huff all but dropped his phone. Brent Pry hugged the closest person around, who happened to be James Franklin.
This is Penn State’s new coaching staff. And they all seem to still be absorbing that fact.
Franklin formally introduced his nine assistants on Friday at Beaver Stadium, all of whom vividly remember the point at which they got the offer to join him in Happy Valley.
“I wanted to scream, but I was on the phone with the boss,” Smith said with a laugh. “So I had to maintain my composure. As soon as I hung up that phone, I just screamed.
“I was just sitting in my car … and I just paused and I screamed. Surreal. It was just so exciting.”
It was a particularly memorable moment for Smith, who is the staff’s lone Penn State alum. But it still meant plenty to the seven assistants who followed Franklin directly from Vanderbilt this month.
Though that core group that comprises the staff had been together for just three years, the unprecedented success they had with the Commodores has forged a close bond.
“Really, really excited about the staff that we’ve been able to put together,” Franklin said. “For me, what I was looking for is really familiarity — guys that I’ve worked with or known for a very, very long time. Guys that I trust, guys that I know how they’re going to interact with the players. And how these guys are going to be in the community, and also have a connection with Penn State from a lot of different perspectives.
“We feel like we’ve got a really good plan based off our experiences. But you better have a plan that is specific and unique to the institution that you’re at, and I think this staff is going to allow us to do that.”
The staff has four Pennsylvania natives, including Franklin (Langhorne), who hails from Bucks County and played at East Stroudsburg. Smith (Monroeville) and Bob Shoop (Oakmont) grew up outside of Pittsburgh, while Pry’s family is originally from Altoona.
Sean Spencer played college ball in central Pennsylvania at Clarion. Rahne’s wife is from Pittsburgh. All 10 coaches went to school in the Northeast or Mid-Atlantic and eight of them grew up within 350 miles of State College.
“For a lot of us,” Pry said, “this is coming home.”
John Donovan will be the offensive coordinator as he was for the last three years at Vanderbilt. He will also work directly with the tight ends.
Rahne (quarterbacks), Huff (running backs), Josh Gattis (receivers) and Herb Hand (offensive line) will round out the staff on that side of the ball.
As they were with the Commodores, Hand and Rahne also have the titles of run game coordinator and pass game coordinator, respectively.
Donovan had previously been the sole play-caller on offense, though that could be up for discussion for next season.
“We’ll see how this thing plans out,” Franklin said. “I am the CEO of Penn State football and there are a lot of things that need to be done. If I feel like it’s going to give us the best opportunity to be successful, then I’ll call the plays.
“But more likely than not, that will be John’s role. John called every single play over the last three years at Vanderbilt. I did have recommendations and I did have input, but John called every single play, so we’ll see how that evolves.”
Shoop is the Nittany Lions’ new defensive coordinator, though linebackers coach Pry also has heavy input in the gameplan on that side of the ball.
Spencer will coach the defensive line and Smith will deal with cornerbacks. Shoop will work personally with the safeties.
As is the case on offense, the Lions still have to evaluate the current roster before drawing up any blueprints for the unit.
“Rather than recruit players to fit a scheme, I think we do a good job tailoring the schemes to fit our personnel,” Shoop said. “We’ll recruit the best players we can. Identify their strengths and put them in the best position to be successful, whatever that means and whatever that situation dictates right there. That’s what we believe in.”
There may not be any base schemes installed yet, but each defensive assistant talked about a mindset, mentioning aggressiveness as the common theme.
ON SPECIAL TEAMS
Yes, this is officially a thing now at Penn State. Huff is the first Lions assistant since Larry Johnson in 1999 to actually hold the title of special teams coordinator.
And he made an interesting first impression on Friday, alternately working in references to marine life and famed distance runner Steve Prefontaine into his introduction.
“Our special teams here at Penn State will have two distinct characteristics. One is a nekton mentality. I’m not sure how many science teachers are in the building, but a nekton is a living organism that can flow freely through water not affected by the current. And it’s always attacking.
“The second characteristic will be a Prefontaine pace. … He coined the term of ‘suicide pace.’ So from the time the gun went off, he was sprinting. From the time we come off the mat, we’ll be flying around. If we make a mistake, we’re going to make it at 100 miles an hour.”