Flexibility Key for Undermanned Lions

James Franklin and his staff are asking some of their better players to handle multiple roles.

DUBLIN -- NCAA sanctions are limiting the Penn State football team to 75 scholarship players this year -- or 10 below the maximum for most FBC programs. So new coach James Franklin and his staff are working on the Nittany Lions' flexibility to mitigate the reduced manpower.

Not flexibility in the exercise sense of the word, but rather they are relying on the athletes to be more versatile -- pretty much across the board.

“It's something that we're gonna have to do and we're gonna have to embrace until we get in a situation where we have similar depth to other people in the country and get some of the scholarships back,” Franklin said.

On offense, for example, scholarship limits, graduation and other issues have led to a dearth of veteran talent on the line. So for this week's opener against UCF at Croke Park here Saturday, only six or seven offensive linemen really have a chance to play (barring injuries).

Fortunately, offensive coordinator John Donovan and line coach Herb Hand -- who worked together under Franklin for three years at Vanderbilt before joining him at Penn State -- are used to this. The Commodores rarely had a two-deep full of SEC-caliber offensive linemen.

“We started what we called cross-training,” Donovan said. “So if you have your five starting O-linemen, and your sixth-best O-lineman -- let's say he is one of your backup tackles, but one of our guards gets nicked up. To be able to put (the backup tackle) in that spot because he's the next best guy is what you would prefer to do.

“We've done a good job of cross-training guys in different spots, to be able to be versatile, to be multiple,” he added. “… When it comes to game times -- to put ourselves in the best position to win.”

Tight end is a little different. There is excellent depth there. That, coupled with a relative lack of experience at receiver, prompted the staff to ask even more from the tight ends.

“We did a good job when we got here of saying, you guys are tight ends, but you're also gonna play other positions -- not pigeonhole guys into playing only one spot,” Donovan said.

He added: “They're all capable of playing certain positions on the field. So that's the beauty of the tight end position. … The tight ends, if they can learn it all, can play inside our outside, or in the back, or wherever it might be. We did a good job of coming in here and kind of cross-training those guys to play multiple spots on the field. They can all pretty much do what we ask them to do, and that's a credit to them.”

On defense, coordinator Bob Shoop has hinted that he and the staff have found creative ways to exploit the team's depth along the line. Franklin declined to go into detail prior to the season-opener -- he joked he would talk about it Sunday -- and explained, “If you have a strength, then you need to find ways to get those guys on the field. I think that's what Bob is talking about.”

Could depth on the line help make up for a lack of depth at linebacker, which might entail an end dropping back? That remains to be seen, of course. But it is difficult to imagine another scenario in which the staff could effectively squeeze more out of the linemen.

In the secondary, safety Adrian Amos will be one of the more versatile players on the team. The idea is to point him in whatever direction the most action figures to be. If that means playing safety, great. But he can also do it while lining up as a nickel or even outside linebacker.

“You're going to find Adrian Amos all over the field,” Shoop said.

Special teams coordinator Charles Huff is also preaching versatility. He'll ask it from certain starters who will be on the different units at times. And he'll ask it of reserves, who may be called upon at a moment's notice.

“We would love to have rotating guys,” Huff said. “This way, if something does happen, we're not locked into these 11 guys play punt, these 11 guys play kickoff, these 11 guys play kickoff return. And then something happens and there's a huge gap because he's the only guy who's been repping there.

“We've done a very good job this camp of repping multiple guys at multiple positions,” he added. “… I want to keep special teams simple, because I want more people to be able to play. If I can put a fresh body out there who knows what he's doing -- that may not be as fast as the guy that started -- as long as he knows what he's doing and he's fresh, he's going to give you everything he's got.”

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