QB Battle Highlights Penn State's Spring

In James Franklin's third spring in Happy Valley, several of the usual storylines have been flipped.

James Franklin's third spring practice as Penn State’s head coach is far different than the previous two.

Before, he had an established quarterback, some known quantities along the defensive line and some uncertainty along the offensive front.

As he heads into spring drills this year — the allotted 15 practices begin Friday, and culminate with the Blue-White Game on April 16 at 2 p.m. — the script has flipped to some degree. After two years of struggles along the O-line, there is some reason for optimism there.

But QB Christian Hackenberg has moved on, after a career that had its ups and downs — for reasons that can be debated from now until the end of time. And the defensive front has lost tackles Austin Johnson and Anthony Zettel, as well as end Carl Nassib.

All four players are likely to be taken in the upcoming NFL draft. And the Lions, meanwhile, will try to muddle through.

First things first — QB, where Trace McSorley and Tommy Stevens are the frontrunners, with early enrollee Jake Zembiec somewhere in the mix as well.

McSorley, a rising redshirt sophomore, has the benefit of actually playing in a meaningful situation, having clicked on 14 of 27 passes for 142 yards and two touchdowns when he replaced an injured Hackenberg in the 24-17 loss to Georgia in the TaxSlayer Bowl. He has also tested out better this offseason than Stevens, a redshirt freshman-to-be, though Franklin said in a news conference Monday that Stevens “plays as fast as Trace on the field.”

Stevens is the bigger man, measuring 6-4, 219, while McSorley goes 6-0, 199. They work out together and push one another, Franklin said. And they both have the sort of leadership qualities a coach seeks at the position.

So it’s obviously too close to call at this point.

“I think you always would like to try to have your quarterback named as early as possible so they can go into the summer and really take ahold of the team,” Franklin said. “But we don't want to make that decision just because of that.”

So he will not be surprised if the competition continues into preseason camp.

“I think we've had a history around here of you (media folks) announcing the starting quarterback before the head coach and that didn't really go over very well,” Franklin said, a reference to a report three years ago, when Hackenberg beat out Tyler Ferguson in the preseason, on Bill O’Brien’s watch. “Hopefully we can get that announced a little earlier.”

Whoever gets the nod will be working behind an offensive line that is deeper and more experienced than in Franklin’s first two seasons. No fewer than six guys have started — center/guard Wendy Laurent, guards Brian Gaia and Derek Dowrey, guard/tackle Brendan Mahon, and tackles Paris Palmer and Andrew Nelson.

Franklin said Palmer is “a different guy right now,” in that he is stronger and more confident. He also said Nelson, dogged by knee issues throughout his career, has been able to do more offseason work than usual, and has become “kind of fanatical” about nutrition and conditioning.

Mahon, listed at 6-4 and 316, has lost 12 pounds of fat and gained 20 pounds of muscle, according to the coach.

Then there are the younger guys, who have allowed the Lions to finally fill out a two-deep with quality players. At the head of the list is rising redshirt freshman center/guard Ryan Bates, who is 6-4 and now 305 pounds, some 20 more than last season, Franklin said.

And, the coach added, “He's got a full beard. His beard game is strong right now.”

The rest of him, too.

“There's a lot of excitement about him and what he's going to bring to the table,” Franklin said.

He also mentioned early enrollee Connor McGovern, whose position is yet to be determined, as a guy who has made strides in the weight room, not to mention rising redshirt sophomore tackle Noah Beh. When Beh arrived on campus, Franklin said, he weighed 238 pounds. Now he hovers around the 290 mark.

Harvey Levine/FOS
Others in the mix are redshirt freshmen Steven Gonzalez, a center/guard, and Sterling Jenkins, a tackle.

“Now,” Franklin said, “you have guys legitimately behind (the starters), working to take their job every single day at practice. I don't think people understand the importance of competition at every single position throughout our program, and really anywhere. When you've got a guy behind you at every position, that if you don't come to work every single day, has a legitimate chance to take your job, that changes things.”

That is also true at wide receiver, where redshirt freshmen Irv Charles and Juwan Johnson — two big, rangy targets at 6-4 and 220-ish — will push holdovers Chris Godwin, DaeSean Hamilton, Saeed Blacknall and Brandon Polk. Franklin notably mentioned Charles, saying he lost two pounds of fat and gained 16 pounds of muscle.

There is no question about the lead dog at tailback. That would be Saquon Barkley, who as a freshman last year rushed for 1,076 yards, most by a first-year player in school history, and was named BTN.com’s Big Ten Freshman of the Year, while making several freshman All-America teams. He has also shown himself to be a workout warrior, running a 4.38 40 and power-cleaning 390 pounds this offseason. Franklin said Barkley, listed at 5-11 and 219 pounds, has lost five pounds of fat and put on 12 pounds of muscle.

Now it’s a matter of honing his mental game.

“It's, how can we continue giving him the reps that he needs to grow and develop?” Franklin said. “How can we get the game to slow down for him so he can play aggressive and be decisive in his pass protection and things like that, anticipate when things are going to come? And that's really when you become more aggressive. That's when you become more physical and that's when you actually play faster.”

Nick Scott, one of Barkley’s backups last year, has moved to cornerback, and highly touted Miles Sanders doesn’t arrive until the summer. That could give an opening, Franklin said, to a guy like Andre Robinson, a thick-legged redshirt freshman who has improved his upper-body strength.

As for the defensive line, redshirt junior Garrett Sickels was a season-long starter at end in 2015, and redshirt sophomore Antoine White saw some time at tackle. There are huge holes to fill, however.

To that end, redshirt freshman Kevin Givens and redshirt junior Curtis Cothran have moved from end to tackle. Both are over 270 pounds, according to the coach, though he would like them to get bigger still.

Others new faces who figure to battle for playing time at tackle are redshirt freshmen Kam Carter (now up to 305 pounds) and Robert Windsor.

Franklin said that the Lions’ strength at linebacker should help ease the transition for the down guys, though the former positional group has taken some hits as well. There was the recent transfer to Delaware of outside ‘backer Troy Reeder, and long before that the knee injury sustained by middle man Nyeem Wartman-White. That came in the ’15 opener, a loss at Temple. On the punt team.

Wartman-White “will probably be limited this spring,” Franklin said. But he hopes to return to his old spot.

But according to the head coach, Jason Cabinda would like to remain in the middle, where he started after Wartman-White was injured.

“They both want to be the Mike linebacker and neither one of them want to give it up, which is great,” Franklin said. “Our Mike and our Will (i.e., weakside) linebacker are two box ‘backers. They are interchangeable in a lot of ways, so I think that's going to be interesting and going to be fun.”

Other guys in the mix at linebacker are sophomores Jake Cooper and Manny Bowen, as well as senior Von Walker and redshirt freshman Jan Johnson. The latter is a preferred walk-on who has also wrestled at PSU.

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