First-Year College Football Coaches Who Had the Best Spring in 2014

Brian Leigh@@BLeighDATFeatured ColumnistMay 7, 2014

STATE COLLEGE, PA - JANUARY 11:  James Franklin, head coach of the Penn State Nittany Lions addresses the media on January 11, 2014 at Beaver Stadium in State College, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)
Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

How does one evaluate the first few months of a new head coach's tenure? 

It certainly isn't simple. Even after a full season—a sample replete with actual, tangible results—the jury is often still out. How is one supposed to make a judgement after 15 some-odd practices and an overblown glorified scrimmage?

The answer requires some creativity. Things outside the field of play must be taken into account. What is the mood about the program? How have recruits begun responding? Are the ghosts or demons of the coach who just left or got fired still looming?

It's hard for a coach to do a quote-unquote bad job this early in his tenure. Unless something has gone catastrophically wrong, there have not yet been enough things for him to screw up.

None of the 17 new head coaches who didn't make this list have anything to worry about. They're all doing fine—I'm sure.

They just haven't stuck out as much as these guys.

James Franklin, Penn State

Keith Srakocic/Associated Press

James Franklin brought the promise of renewed energy to Penn State, and his first few months on the job have not belied that point.

"We are going to dominate the state," he said in January of his recruiting philosophy, according to Audrey Snyder of "We are going to dominate the region."

And dominate he has so far this spring. Penn State is tied with Alabama for the most commitments (15) in the class of 2015 and sits one spot behind the Tide at No. 2 in the 247Sports team rankings.

Most recently, Franklin landed 4-star dual-threat quarterback Brandon Wimbush, who announced his college decision live on Bleacher Report Tuesday evening:

It's not just Wimbush touting the "energy" around the program right now, either. He is merely the latest in a long line of talented prospects who have committed since the beginning of March:

Penn State Class of 2015 Commits Since March 1, 2014
RatingOverall RankPosition Rank
OT Sterling Jenkins4-Star495
DT Adam McLean4-Star10613
WR Juwan Johnson4-Star11612
QB Brandon Wimbush4-Star1595
ILB Josh Barajas4-Star1654
OG Steven Gonzalez4-Star1968
WR Brandon Polk4-Star27933
WDE Jonathan Holland3-Star83139
Source: 247Sports Composite

One can only tell so much from how a team looks in its spring game. Penn State admittedly looked like it will have its work cut out for it this summer—especially along the offensive line.

But what Franklin has done in re-vivifying this program so quickly has been remarkable. It didn't take long for 72,000 fans to forget all about Bill O'Brien (who?) and flock to Beaver Stadium for the spring game.

Only Alabama had more.

Steve Sarkisian, USC

LOS ANGELES, CA - DECEMBER 03:  Steve Sarkisian speaks at a press conference introducing him as the new USC  head football coach at the John McKay Center at the University of Southern California on December 3, 2013 in Los Angeles, California.  (Photo by S
Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

Steve Sarkisian has settled back in nicely at USC, replacing the man he once shared offensive coordinator duties with, Lane Kiffin, as the full-time head coach after a successful-ish run at Washington.

His first spring back in SoCal went swimmingly, although the momentum really started in late winter—back on national signing day.

Sarkisian and receivers coach Tee Martin were the no-doubt winners of that spectacle, landing committments from three of the top 40 players on the 247Sports Composite:

Since then, the recruiting success for Sarkisian has not waned, as he poached 5-star class of 2015 quarterback Ricky Town away from Alabama and back to his home state of California.

But that's not the only good news at quarterback that's come out of spring practice. Cody Kessler silenced all rumors of a QB competition with Max Browne and was quickly named the starter, and his development under Sarkisian—who specializes in coaching the position—has been a major national storyline of the past month.

But that won't stop Kessler from pushing himself.

"I told [Sarkisian] it's not going to change how I'm going to play," Kessler said of being named the starter, according to Gary Klein of the Los Angeles Times. "I'm going to continue to push myself … as if I am still competing against guys across the country."

That is an encouraging attitude after a very encouraging spring.

Derek Mason, Vanderbilt

Mark Humphrey/Associated Press

For many of the reasons stated in the Franklin section, Derek Mason had and continues to have a tough job in front of him at Vanderbilt.

Franklin didn't just take most of the recruiting class when he decamped from Nashville this offseason; he took his patent joie de vivre, the energy that has made so many flock to him in Happy Valley.

But Mason, who comes over after forging one of the nation's top defenses at Stanford, has stayed true to himself this offseason and patched nicely over the holes that Franklin left. He salvaged the recruiting class toward the end of the cycle, finishing with 22 commitments when it could have been far less.

More importantly, though, he has straddled the line between maintaining Franklin's momentum and imitating him. Mason is a quieter, more reserved coach than Franklin, and he has not thus far felt the ghost of his predecessor imploring him to act as he once did.

"Not much yelling," said receiver Jordan Cunningham of his new coaching staff, according to Zac Ellis of "Just a little bit of yelling here and there. I feel like [the coaches] relate to us."

Mason will continue to be himself—from the soft-spoken attitude to the focus on academia to the 3-4 defense he is implementing—and continue trying to mold Vanderbilt into an east coast version of the power he helped build in Palo Alto.

That sounds better than an ersatz version of what Franklin built.

Follow Brian Leigh on Twitter: @BLeighDAT


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