PSU set to focus on future
UNIVERSITY PARK — Penn State’s 2016 season was remarkable by any measure, but coach James Franklin has a clear message about the team’s focus as spring practice begins today.
“We understand that 2016 was nice and it was a great experience, but 2017 is a completely different animal,” Franklin said during his spring preview press conference Tuesday afternoon.
The Nittany Lions won the Big Ten title, played in an epic Rose Bowl, went 11-3 and finished ranked No. 7 in the country.
Franklin knows the players can use all of those experiences to help prepare for a new season, but he also stressed everyone has to remain hungry and humble while understanding that what happened in the past doesn’t guarantee success in the future.
“None of the points from last year are going to carry over,” Franklin said. “None of the sacks are going to carry over. None of the wins are going to carry over.
“There are some lessons we learned and there’s a foundation, but we’ve got to recreate this team from the ground up. We’ve lost some leadership and we’ve lost some players and some playmakers, and some really just special people, and guys have got to step up into those roles.”
Penn State has to replace two significant losses in standout receiver Chris Godwin and playmaking linebacker Brandon Bell. But a load of talent and depth returns in many spots, so the program is well positioned to sustain and build on 2016.
Franklin recalled a story of how former offensive lineman Miles Dieffenbach said a few years ago that, because of decreased depth following the sanctions, just showing up at Penn State pretty much meant a player was on the two-deep depth chart.
Now, with a full allotment of scholarships and increased talent from top to bottom on the roster, there’s an enormous amount of competition taking place to win and keep jobs.
“You’d better come to work every single day, or other guys are going to pass you by and take your opportunities,” Franklin said. “We want to create the most competitive environment we possibly can in every area.”
As an example of that, Franklin spoke at length about sophomore running back Miles Sanders, who came to PSU as one of the most heralded recruits in the country.
Sanders weighed in around 200 pounds last season and is listed at 205 now, but Franklin said the running back is really about 224.
“I think what happens with a lot with these guys is, in high school, they are the biggest, strongest, fastest guy, and they work hard, but it comes pretty easy to them,” Franklin said. “And then they get to college, and it’s a humbling experience.
“It’s welcome to college football, and you’re Miles Sanders, the No. 1 running back in the country and you show up, and Saquon Barkley is warming up (lifting) with your maxes, and the competitive juices get going and it has an effect.”
Franklin addressed numerous topics Tuesday. Some of the highlights:
n Offensive linemen Noah Beh, Brendan Brosnan and Adam De Boef are no longer in the program. Brosnan and De Boef are retiring from football. Beh, who was suspended for much of last season, is transferring to Delaware, according to Lions247.com.
n Some position changes: Johnathan Thomas from linebacker to running back; Josh McPhearson from receiver to running back; Jarvis Miller from safety to linebacker. Franklin said McPhearson will be used in the return game.
n Sophomore Connor McGovern is moving from guard to center, and Hollidaysburg product Zach Simpson remains at center. “They are both guys that have done it before in practice, and we feel like we can go out and practice well right from day one with those guys.” Redshirt freshman Michal Menet also will rotate in at the position this spring.
n Replacing Godwin’s consistent and stellar production will be a big challenge. Franklin said last year was ideal for the receiving corps because there was a strong first team, the second team contributed and there were young, exciting players on the third team. With Godwin gone, it’s unclear who will emerge as the No. 1 target. Franklin said redshirt sophomore Irvin Charles has probably matured as much as anyone in the program since arriving on campus. Redshirt sophomore Juwan Johnson also is very mature. “Irv is a guy that has got a lot of ability, as much ability probably as any guy that I’ve been around in college,” Franklin said. “Him and Juwan are very similar in that way.”
n The winter workout season went very well, and Franklin spent a lot of time discussing how much that helps players develops physically and mentally. “Teaching guys how to compete is a big part of what we do, and that’s what the morning workouts are all about,” Franklin said.
n The coach brought up Altoona product Kevin Givens when discussing how you just never know what position a young player will ultimately end up in because everyone’s body responds differently when they get to college. Franklin said, “You get here and you’re 245 pounds, and then all of a sudden two years from now — like Kevin Givens, I mean, Kevin Givens said, ‘What am I going to play?’ I don’t know, you’re a big, strong athlete, and you look like you’re angry on tape. And we’re going to get you here and figure it out. He played outside linebacker in high school and now he’s playing 3-technique.”
n Some of the team’s proven veterans will be held back a bit during spring practice rather than going all out every day, with Franklin singling out Barkley, tight end Mike Gesicki, linebacker Jason Cabinda and safety Marcus Allen.
n Franklin on PSU’s big challenge in the league: “You could make the argument right now that the Big Ten is as good as it’s ever been.”
n Backup quarterback Tommy Stevens has always drawn praise from Franklin for continuing to work and prepare as if he were the starter. The coach expects that to continue. “What he can’t do is he can’t change that. He can’t lose that,” Franklin said. “He’s got to have that approach every single day that he’s going to prepare as if he’s the starter. He’s going to take the next step in every area — his footwork, his release, his arm strength, his accuracy, his understanding and grasp of the entire offense, his leadership on offense, his leadership with the whole team.”
n All eyes are always on whoever is carrying the football. Franklin had a good line about that when he said, “The ball is the program. You’re carrying the ball, you’re carrying the hopes and the dreams of everybody in our program and that supports our program.”
n Numbers game: Just before leaving the podium, Franklin made sure to point out a bunch of important statistics about what PSU has returning this season, including: 99.2 percent of rushing yards, 72.8 percent of receiving yards, 87.4 percent of scoring returns, 72.1 percent of tackles, 52.5 percent of sacks, 64.2 percent of tackles for loss, 71.4 percent of defensive turnovers returned, 100 percent of most special teams.