Intensity greater this year

The new buzz word for Penn State football this spring is “intensity,” which was mentioned about 50 times in teleconferences with four players Thursday.

“The intensity in practice and how fast paced everything is, that’s the biggest difference from this year and last year’s spring practice,” cornerback Jordan Lucas said.

New coach James Franklin demands that his players compete in everything they do on the practice field. It’s high energy and ultra-competitive all the time, plus something has returned to the practices that wasn’t on display much during the season last fall.

Thud was the buzz word then, but that practice of hitting but not tackling is now out and has been replaced by hard-hitting, smash-mouth football.

It’s all part of what the players call the “SEC mentality” that Franklin is trying to bring to Penn State.

“I describe an SEC mentality as just being aggressive, competitive, every single drill out there being very physical,” linebacker Mike Hull said.

That type of practice mentality can come with a cost, however, which is why former coach Bill O’Brien knew he had to play it safe last season because of severe scholarship limitations. There’s no point getting players hurt in practice when the roster is already so thin and the ultimate goal is to have everyone healthy for the season.

So far this spring, starting left guard Miles Dieffenbach has been lost to an ACL injury, and tight end Adam Breneman will miss the rest of the spring with a bone bruise in his knee. Penn State hasn’t confirmed those injuries – Franklin may not, given his reluctance to discuss players’ health – and it’s unclear how Dieffenbach and Breneman got hurt.

Penn State already was thin on the offensive line, so losing Dieffenbach could turn out to be a big blow.

“There is a fine line between going live and toning it back to keep guys healthy, and I think [Coach Franklin has] kind of found that balance in spring ball,” Hull said.

One of the new hard-hitting drills that several players spoke of is called the lions’ den. It features three blockers and a running back going head to head against three defenders and a linebacker. It doesn’t have to be a running back and linebacker, per se, just any offensive and defensive player, but the point is straightforward.

“You line up head to head, and it’s smash-mouth football,” Lucas said.

Football players love hitting guys, and PSU’s players had to change things up last year with all the thud work. Lucas said that didn’t hurt the defense, but clearly this year Franklin is establishing from the get-go a more aggressive approach to hitting in practice.

“I would just say the competitive edge that Coach Franklin brings to the team would be a huge plus for us,” defensive end Brad Bars said.

Quarterback Christian Hackenberg said he’s gained about 10 pounds and is now up to 234, but the extra bulk hasn’t cost him any speed. He actually just ran his fastest 40-yard dash time, he noted, at 4.73 seconds.

Like his teammates, Hackenberg enjoys the extra intensity Franklin has brought to the team.

“It’s just the energy that’s been in place from the top to the bottom from day one until now, it stays the same throughout the entire day,” Hack said. “Every time you come over to the building it’s always high intensity, always thinking about getting better.”