STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — There were times this spring when James Franklin found himself shouting in the midst of Penn State spring practices for Micah Parsons to stop working outside the framework of the defense.
“When he makes a decision, he can flat-out run and run by people,” Franklin said of the freshman linebacker. “There are times where he’ll backdoor the play and go two gaps back, and you really shouldn’t do that. You’re saying, ‘No, no, no.’ Then he makes a tackle for loss in the backfield, so it’s like, ‘No, no, no, yes, yes, yes.’ “
It’s been so far, so good for Parsons during his first spring with the program, Franklin said Wednesday night. The staff opted to move Parsons from the Mike linebacker spot to the Will during the first half of spring practices in hopes of lessening the load as Penn State tries to figure out the best way to get its three top linebackers on the field. That combination is still unknown as Ellis Brooks, Jan Johnson and Jake Cooper are still options in the middle, while Sam linebacker Koa Farmer and Will linebacker Cam Brown were asked to learn all three spots.
Parsons’ move to the Will, an inside linebacker spot the staff views as interchangeable with the Mike, should alleviate some aspects of the learning curve. Trying to shuffle players who are learning the defense and their positions likely caused the staff to reroute its plans while Parsons gets comfortable at a spot he hasn’t played.
“Micah’s doing really well,” Franklin said. “Obviously the position is new to him. He can run, and he has really good instincts. Little things like stance and start, he hasn’t found a stance he’s comfortable in yet. It sounds crazy, but that’s more challenging than you’d think.”
Parsons is going through the usual learning curve that comes with the jump from high school to college football, and he’s certainly not the only one. Tight end Zack Kuntz also enrolled in January, and like tight end Mike Gesicki who came before him, the most glaring area for improvement for Kuntz comes down to the run game.
Similar to Gesicki, who hadn’t played a down with his hand in the dirt until arriving at college, Kuntz’s 6-foot-7 frame helped him become a better athlete than his high school peers. Now the challenge is using that frame to block in the run game while also improving his route running. But unlike Gesicki, who was needed to play right away as a freshman, Franklin has recognized the benefit Penn State has with another highly touted tight end this time around.
With others trying to see the field ahead of him, there’s no need for Penn State to play Kuntz this season unless he proves he’s one of the best options. Added depth is a luxury and that’s where Kuntz’s first season could be a little different than the NFL-bound Gesicki’s debut with the Nittany Lions.
“We’re in a situation where almost at every position if guys are going to play early it’s because they’ve earned it, they’ve beat people out at other positions,” Franklin said. “Getting stronger getting more confident, he’s a really good kid, he learns well.
“The area he’s got to improve dramatically is in the run game. In the pass game he’s got to be more refined with his routes and with his details. He was just a better athlete than everybody in high school. … He can legitimately run for a kid who is 6-7.”