By Travis Johnson
UNIVERSITY PARK – A large crowd gathered at the far end of Holuba Hall on Saturday where Penn State conducted its fifth spring football practice.
This one – a fully padded session ripe with 11-on-11 work and full blown contact – gave head coach James Franklin plenty to be smile about afterward. That crowd along the sideline? Most of them are potential Nittany Lions – current high school players who took in the physical practice with their friends and families.
The physicality wasn’t just a one-off show. Franklin, a bit hoarse when talking with reporter afterward, wants everyone to get used to it.
“There will be more contact this spring,” Franklin said. “Right now we want to get the mental and physical toughness from morning workouts as well as from spring ball. And if you get a bump or bruise or scratch now we’ve got time to solve that problem before the start of camp.”
And so far the first five practices have centered on correcting problems that surfaced last season. Franklin and his staff, all of them new at this point last season, spent last spring introducing new concepts, learning their players’ names and attributes and trying to make unfamiliar pieces fit into their vision.
There are still new faces, however. But those newcomers have experience all around them – players who’ve spent more than a year in Franklin’s program who can help the newbies along.
Offensive linemen Derek Dowrey and Brian Gaia took turns pointing out defensive fronts to junior college transfer Paris Palmer during 11-on-11s. Palmer spent time at left tackle for most of the portion open to reporters with returning starter Andrew Nelson on the right.
“I think the experience is the important thing,” Franklin said. “What they have to do is they have to have the confidence to do it. So if they’re lining up next to a young guy, they can’t sit there. They have to ID the front. They have to make the calls to allow that younger, less-experienced guy to play with more confidence because the veteran next to him is taking control.
“Last year we had some challenges because we only had one returning starter in Donovan (Smith) and a whole new offense so no one was confident in taking responsibility.”
Ideally Franklin wants to wrap spring practice with a strong idea of who his starting front five will be when training camp starts in August.
He also wants to feel comfortable that his team can improve specific areas that directly contributed to losses last season.
Penn State has been recreating in-game situations from last season where the Nittany Lions erred or failed to finish teams off. On Saturday Franklin flashed back to his team’s 16-14 November loss to Illinois.
Then, Penn State led 14-13 and the Nittany Lion offense got the ball back near midfield with 3:29 to go after Illini kicker David Reisner missed a 50-yard field goal. Illinois had two timeouts. But Penn State’s offense couldn’t close out the game. The Nittany Lions managed just nine yards and forced Illinois to only use one of its timeouts. Penn State had to punt after a Christian Hackenberg scramble came up just shy of a first down. Illinois won the game with a field goal seven plays later.
“I think whenever you can point back to a specific example it carries more weight,” Franklin said. “Especially when it was a situation when were weren’t successful in. If I can tell them, ‘This is the situation and this is exactly where we were at last year against Illinois, offense, you want to end the game on your terms – controlling your own fate, controlling your own destiny. Defense – we’re trying to get off the field and get the ball back to our offense.’”
Penn State didn’t need Hackenberg to scramble around wildly during the simulation Saturday. Instead, running backs Akeel Lynch and Nick Scott moved the ball and killed the 3:30 Franklin set on the clock behind strong blocking.
It was an early success Franklin hopes will carry over into training camp and eventually the season.
Breneman and Kline still limited
Tight end Adam Breneman and linebacker Ben Kline have been active in practice but are being held out of contact for now.
Breneman is coming off a knee injury while Kline has endured chest and Achilles injuries the past two seasons. Both players will likely be called upon to contribute when training camp opens but Franklin said he wants to take it easy on them for now.
“Kline has been out for a long time. Breneman has been out for a long time so to think they’re going to come in from the first day of spring ball and be full go and see no residual effects from it, that’s not going to happen,” Franklin said.