Franklin evaluating players

UNIVERSITY PARK – James Franklin has spent a lot of time watching film on the Penn State roster he inherited, getting to know as much as possible about his new players.

But film study only shows so much.

The real chance for everyone – coaches and players alike – to make a first impression came Monday, the first day of spring drills for the Nittany Lions.

“The hands-on experience is the most important thing,” Franklin said. “A lot of times you watch a tape and you’re not sure what they’re being taught, what the techniques are, the fundamentals are and what they’re really being asked to do in the scheme.”

Franklin mentioned several times Monday that he wants to build a program that focuses not on goals, but on the process. That means “doing the little things extremely well,” the coach said, and those little things will be heavily emphasized every day.

The word “culture” hasn’t been used in a very favorable context regarding Penn State the past few years, but Franklin freely uses that word in describing what he wants to see from the players starting this spring and moving forward.

“Culture is about creating great habits and eliminating bad habits,” Franklin said. “That’s academically, socially, that is on the football field. So that’s what we’re really looking for. We’re looking for guys that are going to run around and compete and have fun.”

Franklin said there will be no walking on the practice field. Ever. He even told a funny story about it.

“I told them the first day, ‘If you don’t know where you’re supposed to go or what you’re doing when the horn blows, then sprint in a circle until you figure it out,” the coach recalled.

Penn State held its first of 15 spring practices Monday, and for now the practice schedule will remain Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, with two other days of lifting. In the future, Franklin said he wants the spring practices to be on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, but that wasn’t possible this year because players’ class schedules had already been set.

One buzzword for the PSU program last year was “thud,” or hitting in drills but not tackling all the way to the ground, in an effort to minimize injuries. Franklin has a variation of that he calls “tag off,” which he described as “basically two-hand touch, but you’re doing it in an athletic position” as if the defender were actually going to make a tackle.

The Lions still have depth issues because of the NCAA sanctions, so they must do things outside the norm at times to try and keep everyone healthy. Former coach Bill O’Brien suggested in the fall that the Blue-White Game might not even be a real game environment, citing Zach Zwinak’s wrist injury last year as something the program can’t afford.

“I’d like to have a true game,” Franklin said of the spring scrimmage April 12. “It’s hard to say that at this point because we’ll see where we’re at in 15 days. But I think it’s more fun for the players. I think it’s more fun for the fans.”

The Blue-White Game, the coach added, probably will feature all first-teamers versus everyone else, or possibly first- and second-teamers against everyone else.

The biggest issue facing the team this spring and in the fall will be the offensive line, which lost three starters and returns only left tackle Donovan Smith and left guard Miles Dieffenbach. Franklin said he’s concerned about whether there’s enough depth on the line to play a true game in the Blue-White scrimmage.

The biggest issue for Franklin this spring will be starting the relationship-building process with every player.

“The most important thing to me is I want to make sure that at the end of the spring, we have great chemistry and organization, these kids know how much we care about them, make sure they have an unbelievable experience here,” Franklin said. “But once you have great chemistry and the kids know how much you care about them, then you can maximize their experience here and maximize their potential.”

Franklin addressed numerous topics during his spring news conference. Here are some of the highlights:

n Franklin saw a lot of depth on the defensive line – four deep in some spots – and realized with so little depth on the offensive line that some switches had to be made. Redshirt sophomores Derek Dowry and Brian Gaia were moved from the D-line to guards on offense.

n Anthony Zettel has moved from tackle to end on the D-line.

n Franklin singled out some of the early leaders on the team and mentioned: quarterback Christian Hackenberg, guard Miles Dieffenbach, linebacker Mike Hull, safety Adrian Amos and cornerback Jordan Lucas.

Some of the players are more quiet leaders, such as Hackenberg and Amos, while the coach said Lucas “never lacks for something to say. He enjoys talking and speaking his mind, and he’s got a lot of personality and he’s very, very charismatic.”

n Redshirt sophomore offensive tackle Albert Hall has shown great work ethic and attitude, and Franklin has singled him out for it in front of the whole team a number of times.

n True freshman receiver DeAndre Thompkins is the team’s fastest player, the coach said, after everyone took part in 40-yard dashes. How fast did Thompkins run? “Fast. Very fast,” Franklin said.

n The coach said he’s developed a lot of respect for PSU wrestling coach Cael Sanderson, and he offered a good one-liner.

“I want to become good friends with him, and I think he’d be a really good colleague,” Franklin said. “And probably more than anything, I want to keep him on my good side because I think he might pick me up and slam me.”

n Practices will be open to players’ parents. Franklin then joked that it might not be all parents, however.

“I’m going to do background checks on them, as well,” he said of the parents. “If one of their dads played for a certain school and for a certain coach, then he might not be part of the family. That parent might not get in.”

n Franklin still believes PSU can sell out every home game.

n Penn State might need to get heaters in the Beaver Stadium media room. Near the end of his news conference, Franklin mentioned, “Is it always cold like this in here? Wow. Going to have to get a jacket.”