James Franklin, entering his third season as Penn State’s head coach, has called this year “pivotal” after back-to-back 7-6 finishes. The sting of the NCAA sanctions has dissipated. The 85-scholarship limit has nearly been reached. The two-deep has been replenished.
Clear goals, full roster … can’t lose (?).
Well, let’s not get ahead of ourselves. The schedule is still a bear. There are questions at quarterback, along both lines and on the linebacker depth chart.
But the Nittany Lions are better-positioned than they have been.
“Really feel like we've laid a foundation in a lot of different areas that's going to allow us to take some steps in the right direction and show some progress,” Franklin said at Thursday’s Media Day.
His assistants sounded many of the same notes.
“I kind of feel like a parent at Christmas that knows what’s in the box, that the kids are going to get to open,” said Charles Huff, the running backs coach/special teams coordinator.
Franklin, Huff and Co. offered only hints on Thursday. Here are a few:
QB Question Mark
Nothing new to report here. Trace McSorley begins preseason drills as he ended preseason practice – with a slight lead over Tommy Stevens for the No. 1 job. Franklin said it’s not a huge advantage, though, and believes Stevens has a chance to overtake the presumptive nominee.
The decision on a starter is not imminent.
“I think we'll get in a situation where maybe by Week Two (of camp) or game week (before the Sept. 3 opener against Kent State) that we'll make the announcement, I just don't know,” Franklin said. “The decision hopefully will be clear to everybody and it won't be much of a decision that we have to make as a coaching staff.”
Joe Moorhead, the new offensive coordinator, said the staff is seeking “a passer who can run rather than a runner who can pass.”
Barkley As A Returner?
It goes without saying that running back Saquon Barkley is a special talent, as he exhibited while rushing for 1,076 yards as a freshman last year.
But Franklin and Huff both said there have been discussions about using him in the return game, a la Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey, the Heisman favorite.
“All options are open,” Franklin said.
“I think whenever you have a player who has his playmaking ability, whatever position he is, I think you've got to look at multiple ways to put the ball in his hand,” Huff said.
Andrew Nelson, who spent much of the spring at left tackle, has moved back to the right side, where he has spent most of his career.
“There's a number of reasons why we're going to do that,” Franklin said, “which I will not go into at this time.”
Paris Palmer, who has started 11 games last year, remains in the picture. Franklin also mentioned Noah Beh, Sterling Jenkins and Chasz Wright as candidates at tackle, without designating which side they might play.
Unspoken is where some of the freshman linemen — Michal Menet and Connor McGovern foremost among them — might fit. Or the staff could move veteran guard Brendan Mahon out to tackle. Stay tuned.
End Garrett Sickels is the only returning starter on the defensive line, after Austin Johnson, Anthony Zettel and Carl Nassib departed for the NFL. Evan Schwan has seen some time on the other flank. Tackle Kevin Givens was the talk of spring ball, and Curtis Cothran and Parker Cothren are also in the mix inside. Ditto for Torrence Brown on the edge.
And juco transfer DT Tyrell Chavis arrived on campus this week.
“Several of those guys,” defensive coordinator Brent Pry said, “have asterisks by their name on my depth chart with some notes that ‘This is what needs to happen in camp. This is where they need to grow as a player. This is what they need to get better at. This is what we need to see from them.’ ”
Speaking of Returns
Linebacker Nyeem Wartman-White has not played since tearing up his left knee in the first half of last year’s season-opening loss at Temple. He is good to go now, albeit with a caveat.
“There is a difference between running out on the turf in your shorts and running out in a live period or an inside-run period where there are bodies flying everywhere,” Franklin said. “It's going to take some time (to return to full strength). He hasn't played, really, in almost a year. So it will take some time to shake the rust off and work him back in gradually.”
There is some question about where he will play. He manned the weak side earlier in his career, then moved to the middle last season. When he was injured, Jason Cabinda also made the switch from the weak side, and led the team with 100 tackles.
“Jason's got some strengths that you just don't find everywhere in his leadership, his command, his confidence, his knowledge of the game,” Pry said. “The awesome thing in the (meeting) room is that Nyeem's got a lot of those same qualities. So it is an important decision. I think there will be some separation, there will be some delineation between those guys in what takes place.”
Whoever doesn’t play the middle will man the weak side. Pry also said Jake Cooper will see some practice time in the middle. Maybe Brandon Bell, too, though he is the returning starter on the strong side.
Suffice it to say that the staff is trying to cover up a lack of depth with versatility. One of the key reserves, Manny Bowen, has moved from the strong side to the weak side.
Franklin was gratified by the news that former PSU tight end Adam Breneman is going to revive his career at Massachusetts, having shaken the persistent knee problems that plagued him in the past.
“And I think the other thing that factored into it is he tried politics for a couple months,” Franklin said. “And if anything's going to bring you back to college and bring you back to college football, it's politics.”
Franklin was also left to ponder a reunion with Jordan Rodgers, who once played quarterback for him at Vanderbilt and most recently starred on “The Bachelorette.”
“I'd love to get Jordan and JoJo (Fletcher, his significant other) on the sideline for a game,” Franklin said. “I think that would be pretty cool. Open invitation, Jordan and JoJo to Happy Valley.”