The good and the bad about what happens behind closed doors during Penn State’s spring practices and scrimmages is that a great play for the Penn State offense means the Nittany Lions defense was gashed.
A pick for Brent Pry’s defense means the offense had a miscue, so there’s only so much to glean from the moments when teammates scream from the sideline while the losing side drops to the ground and bangs out push-ups. But, during those moments where maybe a reserve player gets his chance to step in and make a play or a veteran player who has waited his turn has a chance to compete for a starting spot, there are plenty of eyes on them.
The film will be dissected again at the conclusion of spring ball, as it all goes toward rounding out a player’s full body of work, but there have been some highlights through the team’s 10 spring practices. Some have resulted in clips that’ve trickled out to the internet, while others were highlighted during media sessions in the past couple weeks.
The familiarity between both sides of the ball, especially for the veteran players, might make some of them think a little too much about what they might face during spring practices. Still, the intensity hasn’t been lacking.
“You’ll kind of get those moments where Coach [James] Franklin will be like, ‘Alright, fourth-and-1,'” cornerback John Reid said. “You’re thinking run, but in the cornerback’s mind you’re thinking that we’re playing our offense so they’re going to try and get cocky and do something against us so maybe they’ll run a comeback or a fade on fourth-and-1 just to try and put the exclamation point on us.”
It’s a secondary that features different faces than a year ago, but Penn State cornerback Amani Oruwariye, who is no stranger to high-flying acrobatics, already made at least one highlight reel interception this spring.
“They ran the post-corner route, he bailed off the post late and still jumped over the top to make the corner so I thought that was cool,” Reid said. “That was good.”
Well, except for the flag that followed and negated the pick. But, that particular play was still a teachable moment for others, safety Nick Scott said.
“I think everybody knows that Amani has some ball-hawking tendencies and has a knack for the ball and on this particular play there was a ball up in the air and he really just turned into the wide receiver and adjusted his body and went up to go get it,” Scott said Tuesday. “That’s something that a lot of the young guys, myself included, can take from Amani is his mentality when that ball is in the air that it’s his and he goes and gets it.”
If the season began this week, Penn State’s starting safeties likely would be Scott and Garrett Taylor. Taylor is among the team leaders in interceptions, Reid said. The safeties lead the team in takeaways, Scott said.
Improving takeaways has long been a focal point for Terry Smith’s corners, something they’ll highlight again in camp in August when they’ll keep track of interceptions and tally them in the meeting room in an attempt to crown the “takeaway king.”
But before there can be a takeaway king crowned, the secondary has needed to focus on one wide receiver in particular.
Speedy redshirt freshman KJ Hamler has tested the secondary while working out of the slot. Count Brandon Polk, who said Tuesday he’s been playing the ‘Z’ wide receiver spot exclusively, among those impressed with Hamler. One particular play left them all hyped up.
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“The deep ball in the middle. I’m pretty sure it was on Instagram,” Polk said. “That one was cover-2 and KJ had read it right and ran the sting and basically Trace [McSorley] threw the ball and KJ went to go and get it. You got to see kind of some of the speed that KJ has across the field. That was one of the biggest plays of the spring.”
Added wide receiver DeAndre Thompkins: “As soon as the ball was in the air, you knew it was a touchdown.”
Redshirt freshman wide receiver Mac Hippenhammer continues making strides as well. While Franklin said earlier this spring that Hippenhammer has to continue developing physically, Hippenhammer had a 27-yard touchdown catch during a Saturday scrimmage that stood out to center Connor McGovern.
“A lot of the wide receivers have made great plays,” McGovern said. “A lot of explosive plays across the offense.”
While Hamler will continue to stretch the field, running back Miles Sanders was Scott’s pick as a breakout candidate this spring. Sanders is expected to help fill the void left by Saquon Barkley, and when Sanders has been out there this spring, Scott has seen his explosiveness and breakaway speed. It also should help that the line in front of Sanders is expected to be better than it’s been in years past.
Highlights up front might be a little harder for most to see, but for a group that’s deeper than it’s been at any point during Franklin’s tenure and with four returning starters, it’s had its moments this spring too. McGovern’s highlight came during the 2-minute drill during practice Monday.