Penn State begins spring football practice this week, a couple of months removed from winning a Big Ten championship and playing in a wild, memorable Rose Bowl.
Coach James Franklin and his staff have lots of talent and experience returning. The Nittany Lions will likely be ranked in the top 10 of every season preview magazine and major poll. They might even fit in the top 5.
Expectations outside the program have changed dramatically, especially since Penn State begin the 2016 season at 2-2 with a loss at in-state rival Pitt and a blowout defeat at Michigan. Since then, the Nittany Lions have won nine of 10 games, including a stunning upset of Ohio State and remarkable comeback against Wisconsin in the Big Ten title game.
There are key starters to replace for the 2017 season. The list includes center Brian Gaia, top wideout Chris Godwin, both defensive ends, linebacker Brandon Bell and strong safety Malik Golden.
Franklin met with the media Tuesday in State College. There was a report earlier in the day that offensive lineman Noah Beh, who was suspended from the team in October, is leaving the program.
What Penn State coach James Franklin said
— “I think we’ve had a very productive winter.” Says development of the players is as good as anywhere he’s been. Credits Dwight Galt, who he’s coached with since they were at Maryland in the early 2000s.
— He said the early enrollees are “still figuring it out” and “it’s a bit of a shock for them.” Said they are trying to speed up the maturation process.
— “Teaching guys how to compete is part of what we have to do.” Mentions that kids don’t spend as much time outside competing these days. Said when they start to lose at video games
— Position changes: Jonathan Thomas is going from linebacker back to running back. Josh McPearson is going from wide receiver to running back with an eye toward being a return specialist. Want him to get more work the ball in his hands. Jarvis Miller is moving from safety to linebacker.
— Spring objectives: 100 percent on every play from every player. Most competitive atmosphere of anywhere in the country. Overall discipline. Wants 10 percent less “drama” — guys missing classes, not getting to treatment, etc.
— On where Franklin wants Penn State football to be in the next five years: “We’re talking about building the No. 1 organization in all of college football.” Says it’s not just wins and losses. Developing the staff, developing the players as peoples, it’s improving the facilities, graduation rates and GPAs. Says it’s the whole package. “We have made progress, but we have a long way to go in a lot of areas.”
— On finding a new center: “That’s been a big discussion.” Changed three or four times already as a staff. Want to get as many returning starters on the field as possible. Starting spring ball with Connor McGovern at center, Zach Simpson at center. Will also rotate redshirt freshman Michal Menet and early enrollee Mike Miranda as well, but they will also see time at guard. Also mentioned Ryan Bates as a possibility. “That’s how we’re going to start spring ball. I’m not sure that’s how we’ll finish.”
— On backup QB Tommy Stevens: “He’s got to keep his eye on the prize.” It’s a different situation. Praised him for preparing like a starter last season, playing well when he had his chances. Said that can’t change. He has to continue that type of work ethic. “We really look at like we have two starting quarterbacks that we can win with.” Says Stevens needs to approach it that was as well, and keep preparing for when his time might come.
— On the wide receivers (particularly Irv Charles/Juwan Johnson/Saeed Blacknall): Last year was probably the ideal. Had a first team that you were excited about, a second team that you felt confident with to come in and contribute and a third team of young guys that you’re really excited about. “Juwan is a very mature kid, very business-like approach.” Said Blacknall was expected to be a breakout guy last year but had injuries. Expects him to have a monster year this year and stay healthy. “Irv has a lot of ability, probably as much as any guy I’ve been around in college.” Mentioned consistency. Said young guys can do it one out of four times, but they need to get it two out of four and then three out of four, etc. Said Charles has matured as much as anyone in the program since he got here.
— On the message for spring: “We have to take all of those experiences and learn from them and grow from them,” but also they need to not lose their identity of being a hard-working, humble team that prepares well. “None of the points from last year are going to carry over. … We have to recreate this team from the ground up. We lost some leaders, some special people.”
— On the players who redshirted last year: “Kind of an interesting guy right now, from testing and last year, is (defensive end) Shaka Toney.” Said he’s tested really well, still needs to get bigger but is making strides. Mentioned the last couple OL recruiting classes as having guys who are going to step up. Haven’t talked much about (defensive tackle) Ellison Jordan since he got on campus because he “came in with an issue” but he’s excited to see what Jordan can do.
— On Saquon Barkley: “I think Barkley, I think our plan will be very similar to what is was last spring and probably during training camp as well.” Named Mike Gesicki, Jason Cabinda, Marcus Allen as guys who they know what they have, practice model might be a little different.
— On the Master Plan: It’s exciting overall for the entire athletic department. Instead of one project at a time, let’s look at it from 5,000 feet and come up with a plan. From everything he’s seen, “it looks good.”
— On Miles Sanders: “I think he’s actually up to 224 right now. I texted his mom last night or two nights ago that her baby looks like a man right now. He was standing next to Saquon and they are two impressive-looking guys. Now, he doesn’t have Saquon’s legs, but few people do. He’s put together right now, and his mom was amazed at how he looks.”
“I probably would not have thought that he’d be 224 pounds with like eight percent body fat or whatever he is right now. I don’t know if I would have expected that, but his body has just kind of reacted. I think what happens with some of these guys is in high school, they are the biggest, strongest guy and they work hard but it comes pretty easy to them. Then they get to college and it is a humbling experience. It’s welcome to college football and you’re Miles Sanders, the No. 1 running back in the country and you show up and Saquon Barkley is warming up with your maxes. The competitive juices get going and it has an effect. Competition is a positive thing and it brings out the best in everyday.”
— On the linebackers: “Brandon (Bell) was a playmaker. He always find a way … he was just a natural playmaker. That production, that playmaking is always tough to replace.” Says they feel like they’ve got a good two-deep and even three-deep at linebacker. Mentioned Koa Farmer/Jarvis Miller/Brelin Faison-Walden at one OLB position. Cabinda/Brandon Smith at MLB, Manny Bowen/Cam Brown at the other OLB. Franklin said Jake Cooper will probably be more in the mix in the fall than the spring (that likely means he’s still dealing with the injury that ended his 2016 season).
— On tight end Nick Bowers: “(The spring) is really important. He’s somebody that we’ve been as excited about as anymore. Mentioned that guys at his size who can run and catch and block are rare. Excited to get him back and see what they have.
Penn State spring game: Date, time, TV channel
The Blue-White spring game at Beaver Stadium will be Saturday, April 22 (3 p.m. ET). It will be broadcast on the Big Ten Network. Admission is free.