Franklin: Position-By-Position Preview

See what the Penn State coach had to say about each area of the team heading into spring ball.

In the opening statement to his pre-spring practice news conference Tuesday afternoon, Penn State coach James Franklin talked about community service (2,100 hours on the part of his team since last July) and grade-point averages (51 guys with a 3.0 or better).

He talked about staff additions and staff retention (defensive line coach Sean Spencer turned down a job elsewhere without so much as a word to his boss).

And Franklin talked about old faces in new places (notably Jordan Lucas' move from cornerback to safety) and improvements his players made in offseason workouts (you will be happy to know, for instance, that 47 guys now power clean 300 pounds, as opposed to 28 last year).

But the bottom line is, as always, this: Are the Nittany Lions better than they were last season?

And Franklin believes they are, as they transition from Year One to Year Two of his tenure.

The biggest thing is, PSU (7-6 in 2014) is now much closer to having a complete roster than it was when he took the job in January 2014, after the scholarship reductions resulting from the Sandusky scandal were lessened, then eliminated entirely.

“We have pretty much a legitimate two-deep at every position, which we did not have last year,” Franklin said.

And as might be expected, everyone now understands how business is conducted under the Franklin Administration. The coach mentioned that the other day he was speaking with offensive lineman Angelo Mangiro, who last year at this time didn't so much as know how the huddle was organized or what the cadence might be. Now, that is old hat.

Now multiple that by 100-some players, and consider the many things asked of them.

“That experience counts,” Franklin said. “That experience is important.”

The questions facing his team are obvious. First and foremost, how do the Lions improve an offensive line that performed erratically in 2014, and now loses two starters in left guard Miles Dieffenbach and left tackle Donovan Smith?

And how do they fill the void left by middle linebacker Mike Hull, the team's leading tackler and emotional leader?

There are also questions at kicker and (to a lesser extent) tight end and defensive end. Franklin and Co. will begin to answer them during spring drills, which begin Friday and run through the Blue-White Game on April 18.

Here is a position-by-position review of Tuesday's call:


Trace McSorley

Quarterback

Franklin can only hope that Christian Hackenberg, who will be a junior this fall, resembles the guy who played in 2013, not to mention the one who reappeared in the Pinstripe Bowl victory over Boston College. In between he struggled, largely because of the line -- he was sacked a program-record 44 times -- the inexperience at receiver and, it would appear, the new scheme. More than once he was seen snapping at assistants on the sideline last fall.

“Last year,” Franklin said, “Christian spent most of his time solving problems, running from problems, taking a lot of criticism, which I'm really, really defensive about (and) to be honest with you, looking back at it, a little angry that he faced some of the criticism he did. I don't know if it was fair, just or realistic.”

Franklin believes Hackenberg will be better for the experience in the long run, that he “earned a lot of people's respect inside our program with how he handled things.”

The head coach also believes that the backup job is in good hands with Trace McSorley, who took all the second-team reps while redshirting last year.


Nick Scott

Running Back

Akeel Lynch is back, after rushing for a team-high 678 yards while starting the second half of last season. His primary backups are untested, as Mark Allen, Johnathan Thomas and Nick Scott all redshirted last season.

Franklin said the 5-11, 215-pound Thomas will be “somewhat limited” in the spring by an unspecified injury, but that he likes his ability as a power runner. Allen, who goes 5-7, 182, is a scatback, the coach noted, while Scott is “kind of a combination of the two.”

“We're going to need those guys to step up,” Franklin said.

A pair of deep subs in the backfield, Jack Haffner and Adam Geiger, have moved to linebacker and safety, respectively, to better themselves for special-teams work.


Kyle Carter

Tight End

Nowhere is the difference between Franklin and his predecessor, Bill O'Brien, more pronounced than it is at this position. O'Brien wanted tight ends who were factors in the passing game, while Franklin wants guys who loom “as a threat in the running game as blockers and also threats in the passing game.”

And at present the talent at this position wouldn't appear to fit the scheme

“Right now,” Franklin said, “we have a bunch of tight ends that were high school wide receivers and weren't asked to block. … A tight end on the field that's not a threat to cause problems in the running game is basically a slow wide receiver.”

He does believe that Adam Breneman, who returns after missing two of the last three seasons (including his senior year at Cedar Cliff High School) with major knee injuries, can be a “complete tight end.”

Breneman is, the coach said, “as close to 100 percent as he's been in a long time,” and was a positive influence despite being unable to play last fall.

Jesse James departs after catching 38 balls last season, but Kyle Carter and Mike Gesicki are back.


Chris Godwin

Wide Receiver

Franklin was not asked about the position during Tuesday's briefing, but it would appear to be in good hands, as Big Ten receiving leader DaeSean Hamilton (82-899) is joined by Geno Lewis, Saeed Blacknall, Chris Godwin, all of whom saw significant action last fall.

Also in the fold is speedy DeAndre Thompkins, who is coming off a redshirt season.


Albert Hall

Offensive Line

Franklin said one of four players could replace the departed Donovan Smith at left tackle -- true freshman Sterling Jenkins, junior-college transfer Paris Palmer, Chance Sorrell or Albert Hall.

The 6-4 Hall, a 238-pound tight end last year, now weighs 292. According to the head coach, Jenkins has added 13 pounds of muscle, leaving him at 6-8 and 294. The 6-5, 281-pound Sorrell also made strides in offseason conditioning, Franklin said, replacing 10 pounds of fat with 10 pounds of muscle.

The plan at present is not to move holdover right tackle Andrew Nelson to the left side, unless one of his backups -- Noah Beh, Brendan Bronson or Charlie Shuman -- shows marked improvement.

Others with starting experience include Mangiro (at center and guard, with some action at tackle as well), guards Derek Dowrey and Brian Gaia, and center Wendy Laurent.

“The fact that we're going to have two-deep of scholarship players is exciting,” Franklin said, noting that last year at this time the Lions had two returning starters at the beginning of spring ball, and then lost Dieffenbach to a knee injury.

“We have five or six guys now that started a game,” he said. “I remember a high school coach coming up to me last year during spring ball, talking about how he'd been to other regional colleges, watched their practice, then watched ours. He had an interesting expression on his face.”

One other thing, too.

“There's nobody that is happier about this group returning and the strides they've made,” Franklin said, “than Mr. and Mrs. Hackenberg.”


Carl Nassib

Defensive Line

Standout tackles Austin Johnson and Anthony Zettel are back, but PSU must replace ends Deion Barnes and C.J. Olanyian. Franklin believes Ryan Nassib -- “Mr. Consistent,” according to the head coach -- will step up, as will Garrett Sickels. Both saw significant action off the bench last year.

He also mentioned Curtis Cothran, Evan Schwan and Torrence Brown as being in the mix on the outside.

“To me our defensive ends are exactly what you want our program to be like in a year or two,” Franklin said. “Yes, they are new starters, but they've played now and they've sat behind players or played a limited role behind players for two years. That's what you want.”


Jason Cabinda

Linebacker

Hull led the Big Ten with 140 tackles last year, and will be sorely missed in every way. Franklin said Nyeem Wartman, who excelled on the outside in 2014, will be given a look in the middle. So too will Ben Kline, who missed all last season with a torn Achilles.

“Kline is a guy we're hoping is going to be a pleasant surprise,” the coach said. “You talk to our players, he's unbelievably respected on our team as a leader.”

Franklin also mentioned Haffner, Gary Wooten, Troy Reeder and Jason Cabinda as being in the mix at middle linebacker. The 6-1, 252-pound Cabinda, who according to the coach has added 12 pounds of muscle, might also be a candidate outside, where Brandon Bell is a returning starter.


Trevor Williams

Secondary

Franklin said Lucas' move is best not only for the team but the player.

“I think Jordan is a guy who could play corner here and at the next level as well,” the coach said. “I think he has a chance to maybe be special at safety.”

Marcus Allen emerged as a starter at safety late last season, and Grant Haley and Christian Campbell played a lot at corner. Trevor Williams, up 10 pounds to 6-1, 195, is the holdover at the other corner.

Amani Oruwariye has also moved from corner to safety, after redshirting last season.


Joey "Big Toe" Julius

Specialists

Sam Ficken, one of the program's more uplifting stories in recent years, is gone after hitting a conference-leading 24 field goals last fall, in 29 attempts. Chris Gulla, now a full-time kicker after punting last season, is a candidate to replace him. So too is Joey Julius, nicknamed “Big Toe” by his teammates because of his stocky dimensions. He is listed on the spring roster at 5-11, 244, but Franklin put him at 5-9, 278.

Daniel Pasquariello, who displaced Gulla for the punting job late last season, will try to hold off Robby Liebel this year.


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