With seven spring practices behind them, Penn State continues working through its to-do list ahead of the April 21 Blue-White game.
In typical James Franklin fashion the Penn State practices won’t stray from the usual focus on fundamentals and technique while several upperclassmen with defined roles will see limited reps. The balancing act between keeping more-experienced players involved while increasing reps for the younger players to develop depth is what spring ball is all about.
What are some of Penn State’s focal points for these remaining eight practices?
What will Sean Clifford look like with more reps?
Quarterback Sean Clifford has a golden opportunity this spring as the redshirt freshman is taking more reps than usual with Tommy Stevens sidelined. While Stevens will still be here come September and will be back in his versatile Lion position, Clifford has a chance to take those reps that otherwise would’ve gone to Stevens.
Franklin said the situation is a bit of a “blessing in disguise” as Stevens is forced to take mental reps and the young quarterback works as Trace McSorley’s backup. It’s a move that in all likelihood won’t pay dividends this fall, but next spring when Stevens is slated to be the quarterback and Clifford likely elevated to the top backup spot, this spring will certainly help.
Is Penn State’s kicker on campus?
Franklin wants Penn State going back to the old model where one player handles kickoffs and the other does field goals and extra points. With Tyler Davis gone and the staff wanting Blake Gillikin to focus on punting, will this spring give Carson Landis the edge in the kicking competition?
The walk-on has what Franklin called an “unbelievable opportunity” this spring since he’s the only kicker here. Scholarship kicker Jake Pinegar arrives with the rest of the incoming class this summer and walk-on kicker Vlad Hilling will be a summer addition, too. This job won’t be settled at the end of spring, but Landis could leave a favorable impression by the end of spring ball.
“He’s going to get a bunch of reps in this camp,” Franklin said of Landis. “I think the biggest thing for a high school player trying to transition into the Big Ten and football at this level is the consistency aspect.
“He shows flashes of being really good. So this spring is going to be important for him to show the consistency aspect, and the accuracy, the consistency in him hitting his sweet spot so he can drive the ball as far and as strong as he wants to.”
How steep is the learning curve?
Micah Parsons hasn’t played middle linebacker before and Ellis Brooks hasn’t played a down of college football. Jake Cooper and Jan Johnson have dealt with injuries that slowed their collegiate careers while Jesse Luketa and Nick Tarburton haven’t even been on campus for four months.
It’s a spring unlike any other for defensive coordinator Brent Pry as he has to find a starting middle linebacker, and there are pluses and minuses with every candidate. While none of the options — especially the younger ones — are expected to know the position particularly well by late April, what intangibles do they bring to the spot?
Parsons’ work ethic and willingness to let his 5-star rating go out the window since enrolling in January has impressed teammates and the coaching staff. Brooks is the linebacker that has a leadership style teammates said reminds them of Jason Cabinda. Cooper and Johnson have filled in before and can’t be out of consideration because of their experience with this defense. What can these candidates do in the next month to help strengthen their case for playing time — or even a shot on the three deep at middle linebacker — this fall?
How many moving parts?
Position flexibility along the offensive line continues being built, but for the time being one starting spot is up for grabs
Tackles Ryan Bates and Will Fries gained valuable experience last season while then-guard Connor McGovern locked down the starting center job last spring. Steven Gonzalez helped himself step into the guard job last spring and the development of Michal Menet, C.J. Thorpe, Des Holmes and Alex Gellerstedt, among others, is important this spring. No group was hit harder during the NCAA sanction era than the offensive line, but that’s also why Franklin and his staff recruited this position especially hard in their first few classes at Penn State.
Before a whole crop of signees arrive this summer these other linemen have a chance to move up on the depth chart and continue making strides behind the scenes in the weight room. On the first day of spring practice Franklin said he felt this line would have depth that it not only felt good about, but that it could also win with. Ideally it won’t need to dip into that depth just yet, but as has been the case every year injuries pop up and thrust younger linemen into important roles.