FOS Inside Look: PSU Football Camp

In our continuing effort to give fans new perspectives on Penn State football, last week we spent some time at the program's brand new Senior Position Camp. Get a taste for what the young athletes experienced while camping in Happy Valley and see video of the Nittany Lion coaches in action.

See the coaches in action here.
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The Penn State Football Camp officially began 27 years ago, with 160 young athletes being tutored by the Nittany Lion staff. But the roots of the camp extend beyond that, to an operation called “Pine Forest,” which was held in a wooded area near Tidioute in northwest Pennsylvania.

The stories from Pine Forest are the stuff of legend. A crew of Penn State assistant coaches — Joe Paterno, Frank Patrick, Sever Toretti, to name a few — were involved with the camp and had to make do with no running water, as the story goes, so they used a nearby stream to bathe and shave. The bugs were so bothersome, it is said, that coaches and players would hold their hands high above their heads, hoping the insects would swarm around their fingers rather than their faces.

Fast forward to 2005, and the camp has come a long way. From a numbers perspective, nearly 3,000 kids will attend the various portions of the event this year, with 95 high school coaches and many assistants from smaller colleges pitching in with the teaching. From a timing perspective, the five different elements of the camp now run from the first week of June until the last.

And from an amenities perspective, well, let's just say the coaches don't have to wash up in a river any longer. The newest addition to the camp, the first two-day Senior Position Camp which ran June 24-25, allowed about 130 athletes of varying degrees of talent to work within the Penn State system, including meetings in the program's 93,000-square foot Lasch Building and workouts on the state-of-the-art FieldTurf at Holuba Hall.

The two-day senior camp is held between the four-day fundamental camps, which drew about 800 and 1,200 athletes, respectively, this year.

Fran Ganter, the former Nittany Lion assistant and a current assistant athletic director at PSU, oversees the camps. He said the two-day senior camp was “just a brainstorm.” Since the school year typically runs late in New Jersey and New York, a disparity had grown between the number of athletes who could attend the twin fundamental camps, with far more signing up for the second. Starting another camp in early July would not work because it is the only time the PSU coaches can take a short vacation. “So we thought we would offer another alternative,” Ganter said. “Get the numbers down for the two camps we have and give [the seniors] an opportunity.”

There is also an element of exposing all those seniors to the inner workings of the program. But while there were a handful of blue-chip recruits at the first senior camp, the vast majority of athletes on hand will never suit up at the major college level. As recruiting tools go, this has to be pretty far down the list.

“We've really gone out of our way not to show any favoritism,” Ganter said, explaining the edict came directly from Paterno. “Now, after the camp is over, we'll recruit them as hard as anyone else. But we don't want anyone to feel slighted or feel the other guy is more important to us than he is. I think everybody would tell you that our coaches are very careful to treat everybody the same.”

It sure seemed that way when they allowed a reporter to check out the first half day of the senior camp last week. The camp began on a Friday afternoon, with Ganter addressing the entire group in the “squad” room in the nicely air-conditioned Lasch Building. The athletes filled the theatre-like seats, as Ganter talked about what to expect from the camp.

“We want them to have fun, but never lose sight of the fact that the reason they are here, and the reason someone helped them to get here, is to get to be a little better football player,” he said. “We want every guy to leave here a better football player than when he got here.”

Helping get that done in the senior camp were the Penn State position coaches and a host of former Nittany Lions who are now coaching college or high school ball. Most were standing at the back of the room, and one-by-one they introduced themselves — mentioning when they played at Penn State, where they are now, that type of thing. Ganter, who had many of the coaches in camp as players during his 30-plus years as a coach, was obviously full of pride.

Some of the former players who are now coaches were instantly recognizable — Derek Bochna, for example. Others, like Tom Bill, Gary Brown and Frank Gianetti, looked so much different. Bill is thinner, Brown has filled out and Gianetti sports less hair.

From there, the athletes divided up by position and headed to the respective position rooms in the Lasch Building for introductions and a short video session. In the quarterbacks' room, there are three long tables facing the front, each on its own tier and each with seven seats.

“We're going to give you a very, very intense two days of drills,” Penn State quarterbacks coach Jay Paterno told the 16 passers in the room. “You are going to be doing the same drills we do.”

The players each introduced themselves, and one player said he was from Virginia and gave a “V-A” hand signal. Paterno quickly noted that the same signal, flashed by PSU receiver Terrell Golden after a touchdown last season, resulted in a 15-yard penalty. Another young QB introduced himself, saying his name was “John Schaeffer.”

“We had a John Shaffer,” Paterno cracked, referring to the less-than-athletic quarterback who led the Lions to a national title in 1986. “I hope you have a little better speed than he does.” Once the introductions were complete, he talked for a few minutes, interspersing the occasional one-liner with the primary message he hoped to get across.

“How good a season you have is not going to be determined today or tomorrow,” he said. “It is how hard you work after you leave.”

As advertised, the video session that followed showed practice footage of actual Penn State players going through actual Penn State drills. Paterno stopped and started along the way to explain things, using a red laser pointer to highlight specific areas of the tape. There was Zack Mills in the board drill. There was Michael Robinson in an anticipation drill. There was Chris Ganter, Fran's son and a former Lion backup, in a 2-on-1 read drill. The campers paid close attention. No nodding off. No slouching back into their seats.

“They were getting some things they would not get out on the field,” Fran Ganter said of the film session. “That was a really cool thing. That was well-received.” Ganter's youngest son, Ben, is the quarterback at State College High and was one of the 16 athletes in the room.

Just as the film session concluded, a voice came over an unseen speaker in the room, instructing the quarterbacks to report to Holuba Hall. All of the newcomers in the room looked around, trying to determine where exactly the voice came from, before filing out.

Ganter addressed the athletes for a couple of minutes in Holuba Hall and then they were put through a stretching routine. While they were limbering up, the former players caught up on old times on the sideline. Bill and Brown laughed while remembering the brutal distance runs they endured in Holuba. They would go as far as they could in a certain number of minutes.

“There was this clock on the wall,” explained Bill, now an assistant at Hunderton (N.J.) Central High. “I hated that clock…”

“Look,” Brown, an aide at Division III Lycoming, interupted, “that clock is still there.” They both broke up.

Speaking of clocks, for the next hour and a half, the athletes were put through the typical tests run at camps and combines — height and weight, 40-yard dash, vertical leap, shuttle run among others. And this is where it became abundantly apparent that the camp is not all about recruiting.

Penn State receivers coach Mike McQueary handled the timing of the 40-yard dashes. One young athlete, sprinting in a smooth style, crossed the line in 4.45 seconds. But that was the exception. Most seemed to post times in 4-9 to 5.5 range. Every so often, a player would take off, arms flailing, knees high, heavy breaths coming from the mouth and snorts from the nose, face contorting every which way — you'd swear he was approaching the speed of sound. But then he crossed the line and McQueary barked out the time.


Over at the vertical station, one player drew a gasp from those gathered when he maxed out the apparatus, slapping away all of the horizontal slats. Five minutes later, some poor camper could not even hit the bottom slat.

When the tests were through, the athletes headed to different areas to work on position-specific drills. And, as Ganter noted, there appeared to be no preferential treatment to the star recruits. New Jersey quarterback Brett Brackett, who has already committed to Penn State, was working on his form while tossing with another camper. Bill came over, and spent a few minutes helping the other camper refine his mechanics. Keep the front shoulder low, he advised, and it will improve your motion because you are throwing “downhill.”

Former Lion Terry Smith, now a coach at Gateway High near Pittsburgh, did the same kind of things with the receivers. Also lending personal advice to the pass-catchers was Kenny Jackson, a former PSU All-American, longtime pro, and former assistant coach with the Nittany Lions and Pittsburgh Steelers.

Over with the defensive linemen, heavily recruited Maryland standout Phillip Taylor — all 6-foot-3 and 350 pounds of him — and lesser-known State College athlete Nate Stupar zipped through a drill where they had to dance over a series of bags. Penn State defensive line coach Larry Johnson stopped the drill, saying, “That's the way you do it! Great job, Stupar!”

The first session began with Ganter's meeting in the Lasch Building at 2 p.m. and ended right around 5 p.m. A year and a half ago, Ganter stepped down as Penn State's offensive coordinator to move into his current administrative post.

Yet he still relishes the opportunity to work with young athletes in the camp setting. And if the camp in question has running water, well, it makes it that much better.

“Being around these kids, it's great,” Ganter said. “They're all here for the right reasons. They work hard at this camp and learn a lot.”


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