Blue-White Weekend has, of course, gone boffo. Penn State coach James Franklin understands that, and certainly isn’t complaining.
“I’ve been at a lot of other schools (where) the coach can do whatever he wants with the spring game,” he said during a Big Ten conference call Thursday, “because there’s not a whole weekend around it. At Penn State it’s different, which I think is great, and we embrace (it).”
At the same time, he cautioned that fans showing up for the Blue-White Game Saturday at 2 p.m. should not expect too much, given some injuries that have beset the Nittany Lions’ roster. He did not, as usual, get into specifics, but he did emphasize that the game will offer only a snapshot of the team he expects to take the field for the Sept. 3 season opener against Kent State, not a full portrait.
“We’re thin, so we basically have put the teams together, hoping that we can get through the game and it will be competitive and it be fun,” he said. “But we’re thin. We’re thin at some spots.”
Probable 2016 starters expected to miss the game due to injury include linebackers Brandon Bell and Nyeem Wartman-White, as well defensive tackle Parker Cothren. Veteran offensive lineman Brendan Mahon is doubtful. Several top reserves — from both sides of the ball — will also be sidelined.
Franklin, who was followed on the Big Ten call by rising redshirt junior defensive end Garrett Sickels, said that if nothing else, the game will give some hint as to how the squad’s less-experienced players might perform in a stadium setting.
“Some guys step their game up and play at a higher level,” he said, “and some guys — being in that venue, on that stage — don’t handle it as well. That’s important. That’s important to see how guys are going to react in that stadium, before our first game next year.”
The accent was on line play throughout the rest of the call. That was far from a surprise, given the offensive front’s woes in recent years and the fact that Sickels is the only returning starter on the defensive front. The others — tackles Austin Johnson and Anthony Zettel, and end Carl Nassib — are expected to be taken in the NFL draft.
Franklin said that veteran offensive tackle Andrew Nelson has successfully transitioned from the right side to the left, while Brian Gaia has gone from guard to center. Rising redshirt freshman Ryan Bates was the first name the head coach mentioned at left guard, while saying that senior Derek Dowrey and the redshirt junior Mahon, both of whom have starting experience, are the top candidates at right guard.
Franklin also mentioned another redshirt freshman, Steven Gonzalez, as a candidate at guard, and said senior Paris Palmer and redshirt sophomore Noah Beh are battling for the right tackle spot. Palmer started 11 games on the left side last year, and appeared in all 13.
And what of yet another redshirt freshman, tackle Sterling Jenkins?
“We’re looking to see him make a big step this summer,” Franklin said.
He said early enrollee Connor McGovern is somewhere in the mix as well.
Sickels, who has been going against these guys throughout spring practice, said Bates, Gaia, Nelson and Dowrey “have separated themselves and really stood out.”
Sickels can only hope to do the same on the D-line.
“Last year I was the youngest starter,” he said. “I was kind of the young guy, just hanging around with Zettel, A.J. and Carl.”
Now, more is required.
“Now I’m the old guy,” he said. “Now I’m the leader.”
Franklin said the hope is that the redshirt junior Cothren and redshirt freshman Robert Windsor can fill Johnson’s old spot at nose tackle, while redshirt sophomore Antoine White and redshirt junior Curtis Cothran are Zettel’s most likely successors.
Sickels said White is “very quick, shifty” and “plays with a good pad level.”
“Everything that he’s done, he’s improved a lot,” Sickels said. “He’s been a big student of the game this offseason.”
Sickels was also asked about redshirt sophomore end Torrence Brown, who appeared in all 13 games off the bench last year.
“Torrence,” he said, “is a guy that doesn’t make mistakes.”
Sickels also mentioned senior Evan Schwan as a defensive end who figures to see a lot of time. And while redshirt freshman tackle Kevin Givens’ name did not come up Thursday, Franklin and several players have frequently mentioned him as a young lineman whose stock is on the rise.