Penn State coach James Franklin talked about the 2018 Nittany Lions for the first time Monday during his spring practice press conference. Spring practice for Penn State opened today and concludes with the Blue-White Game on April 21. ASSOCIATED PRESS PHOTO
Meteorologically speaking, spring starts tomorrow. For college football fans in Pennsylvania, though, it started today.
Penn State head coach James Franklin addressed the media this afternoon at his annual press conference leading into the start of spring practice, which kicks off in a few hours. This is really the first chance Franklin has to talk specifically about the future-as-the-present, and I’ll be honest with you, it was somewhat strange to hear him talk about guys like Saquon Barkley and DaeSean Hamilton and Jason Cabinda in the past tense, their on-field contributions to the program history.
You’ll read quite a bit more in-depth into what Franklin had to say in Tuesday’s editions of The Times-Tribune and other Times Shamrock newspapers for sure, but here’s a rundown of some of the more important talking points:
- The mid-semester players (i.e., the true freshmen who enrolled in the spring) have come in “a lot further ahead” than Franklin anticipated.
Of course, Franklin isn’t going on actual on-field play here, because he can’t. But physically, these players are more prepared to go than others have been in the past. They’re stronger, more aggressive, more competitive and more mature, Franklin said. And the numbers back that up.
Here are the body fat percentages of some of the freshmen players, from when they enrolled in January to now:
|Player||Body Fat % -January||Body Fat % – March|
|CB Trent Gordon||13.0||10.1|
|SAF Isaiah Humphries||15.9||13.4|
|TE Zach Kuntz||10.4||9.0|
|OLB Jesse Luketa||18.3||14.9|
|MLB Micah Parsons||9.5||9.5|
|MLB Nick Tarburton||18.7||14.2|
Those clearly are considered significant adjustments most of the way, and it speaks to what an athletic freak Micah Parsons is that he came in at more than 230 pounds and the training staff didn’t feel like he needed to alter his body fat percentage that much.
- Position changes
Franklin announced four, but three of them, everybody knew already anyway.
Lamont Wade is going from cornerback to safety, Damion Barber from defensive end to defensive tackle, and Dae’Lun Darien from receiver to linebacker. The one that wasn’t quite common knowledge: walk-on offensive lineman Hunter Kelly is going to be “helping us out” in the spring by playing defensive tackle.
Wade was one of the top prospects at corner in the nation in the 2017 recruiting class, but the need right now is at safety, and Franklin said he feels like Wade can do the job there. Darien is interesting, because clearly he physically fits the same mold at WLB that a guy like Cam Brown — long, athletic — currently does, and Franklin said Darien has run better this spring in testing than he has at any point with the Nittany Lions before.
But the Kelly thing, although I would doubt he’s going to be a major contributor at DT this season, is telling. Penn State is really thin at defensive tackle after losing Parker Cothren, Curtis Cothran and Tyrell Chavis. It’s something we’re probably going to have to discuss as the Blue-White Game gets closer, because if they’re looking for temporary help, there’s a concern.
- There will be big-time competition at several positions.
Franklin obviously listed middle linebacker at the top of the list. But he said they need to find a “two-and-a-half deep” at defensive tackle, and they want to find someone to handle the kickoff and field goal duties.
That could be the same guy, of course. But it sounds like Franklin would prefer someone different at both spots, and it might not be something he wants Blake Gillikin to handle alone. Carson Landis is going to get “an unbelievable opportunity” to make a name for himself this spring, because he’s really the only kicker on campus.
- Wade to safety seems like a fit.
Franklin gave a really good evaluation on why the coaching staff felt the need to move Wade to safety, a controversial move to some because Wade was such a good prospect at a prime position.
Basically, it came down to the coaching staff liking its depth at cornerback much more than it did at safety. The Nittany Lions lost all four starters from last season’s secondary, but don’t forget, John Reid is returning at corner, and Amani Oruwariye was an all-Big Ten player there off the bench last season. Meanwhile, there isn’t much playing experience at safety coming back after Nick Scott. So, safety is a chance to get Wade on the field more regularly.
Also, just look at Wade. Franklin notes he’s not as long in the arms and legs as some of the other young players at cornerback. But, some of those players aren’t as well-built and physical as Wade. So, he might be a better fit at safety as it is.
- Micah Parsons works hard.
Franklin admitted it’s “not ideal” to count on Parsons to fill the role he’s expected to fill this season, considering he has never played the position before and has no established veteran presence — the MLB predecessor, Jason Cabinda, raved about getting to learn from Mike Hull for a season — to guide him. But it kept coming back to Parsons’ athleticism.
And now, it’s becoming about his work ethic.
Franklin conceded, quite candidly, that there were some players and coaches last year who wondered aloud if Parsons was going to be worth the trouble on the recruiting trail that it took to get him back into the fold. Franklin noted that nobody who has watched him in the gym this spring is questioning that anymore.
- There is “a legitimate two-deep” on the offensive line.
Franklin threw down the gauntlet. He said the offensive line is one that is talented enough and deep enough now to lead a consistent winner in the Big Ten. So, the days when the coaching staff clearly expected some growing pains are now gone. It’s put up or shut up time for the offensive line.
Two players he singled out for their improvement during the offseason: Sophomore tackle Alex Gellerstedt and sophomore guard Michal Menet.
- There’s no one man who can replace Saquon Barkley.
That much seems obvious enough, and Franklin suggested Penn State will use more of a committee approach than it has in the past few seasons. But, he did point out that new running backs coach Ja’Juan Seider came in with fresh eyes and a fresh approach and has still raved about the projected starter, junior Miles Sanders.
- Youngsters vying for playing time
As they are wont to do this time of year, younger players are making strides in the weight room. But some are going to be watched a lot more closely on the field this spring because they are playing positions of need. Franklin mentioned a few:
Antonio Shelton, the sophomore defensive tackle, has “closed the gap as much as anybody” and could be in line to join that “two-and-a-half deep” behind projected starters Robert Windsor and Kevin Givens. But Franklin also mentioned sophomore Ellison Jordan and two redshirt freshmen, Barber and Fred Hansard, as possibilities too.
It sounds like Brandon Polk is going to get the first look in the slot on offense. That’s a position of need for the Nittany Lions, and it’s going to be difficult to fill, considering DaeSean Hamilton played it so well last season.
Franklin called redshirt freshman running back Journey Brown “a freakish athlete” in testing. But, he did add that he wouldn’t be surprised if the veteran Jonathan Thomas, who moved back to running back from linebacker, played really well this spring.