Franklin gets an eyeful of Nittany Lions’ depth

By Philip Cmor

UNIVERSITY PARK — When injuries decimated the Penn State football team’s linebacking corps early last season, Cam Brown got thrown into the fire.

Literally, in a sense, as his redshirt had to be burned.

“Developmentally, (I was) not ready,” Brown said with a big grin.

In the long run, though, Brown might have benefited, and so might have the Nittany Lions.

The reigning Big Ten champions were able to rest many of their star returning players like Saquon Barkley, Mike Gesicki, Jason Cabinda and Marcus Allen for Saturday afternoon’s Blue-White Game. What was on display instead was a group of promising young players who appeared capable of stepping in and filling a role or even becoming playmakers should Penn State need them to do so in the coming season.

“I thought we really were able to accomplish our goals. We were able to develop some depth,” Lion coach James Franklin said.

It was hard to find a position that didn’t look better than at this point last year. Backup quarterback Tommy Stevens threw for 216 yards and three touchdowns in one half. One of the talks of the spring, 6-foot-4 wideout Juwan Johnson caught seven passes, including one for a score. Seeing a lot of time in Gesicki’s absence at a tight end position depleted by injuries, Johnathan Holland looked the part by catching eight balls. Brown had a game-high seven tackles. T.J. Johnson picked off a pass, broke up another and made one and a half tackles for loss. Shareef Miller was credited with a pair of sacks. Backs running behind the first-team line averaged more than 4 yards per carry.

Oh, by the way, the Blue won, 26-0, before an estimated 71,000 at Beaver Stadium, if that mattered.

Stevens, who clicked on 17-of-24 throws, including a gorgeous 50-yard hookup with DeAndre Thompkins in the third quarter and touchdowns of 9 yards to Andre Robinson, 31 yards to Brandon Polk and 15 yards to Juwan Johnson, clearly was the most visible of Saturday’s standouts, but there were a lot of positives to go around.

Perhaps the most impressive effort was turned in by several linebackers who figure to be playing more prominent roles in the fall. Playing for the White, which was supposed to be the second team, Brown and converted safety Jarvis Miller tied for game high with seven tackles, and Miller got a sack. Meanwhile, Manny Bowen tied for honors on the Blue with four tackles and Koa Farmer broke up a pass.

The Blue defense only allowed one first down, as the White finished with minus-23 yards rushing.

That bodes well, especially after the injury bug hit last season, forcing Franklin to start walk-on Brandon Smith against Michigan and replace him with walk-on Jan Johnson after Smith was ejected for targeting … before Johnson broke his leg.

With Brandon Bell and Nyeem Wartman-White graduating, Cabinda is the lone returning starter from the beginning of 2016. The position, though, looks like it has grown in depth and athleticism.

“Fighting through all that last year made us stronger mentally, physically,” Brown said. “I had to grow up a lot faster, which made it a lot easier this year going into spring ball to play more of a role. As a linebacker unit, I just feel everybody is ready.”

In the secondary, Penn State knew it was losing safety Malik Golden from last season, but then starting corner John Reid injured his knee and figures to miss the entire 2017 season. However, some new players flashed playmaking ability on Saturday. In addition to T.J. Johnson, safety Ayron Monroe recorded five tackles, and interception and a pass breakup, and true freshman early enrollee Lamont Wade had a nice pass breakup, as well.

That should bolster a group that still returns all-Big Ten player Allen at safety, corner Grant Haley, the hero of the win over Ohio State, Amani Oruwariye, Christian Campbell and Troy Apke.

A corner with a lot of length who appeared ticketed for safety before Reid went down, T.J. Johnson felt he made some good progress this spring and he’s going into the offseason with some lofty goals.

“I played today with a chip on my shoulder. I played like I had something I wanted to prove. That’s what I did,” T.J. Johnson said. “I thought I played well. I still am not satisfied, though. With the opportunity to play with John Reid out, I feel like it’s mine to lose.”

Another Johnson — receiver Juwan — has been receiving rave reviews all spring, and he showed why, getting open routinely. Listed 6-4 and 225 pounds but as nimble as someone 6 inches shorter and 40 pounds lighter, Juwan Johnson on one play made a great fingertip catch for a 5-yard gain. He went high to haul in his touchdown on the game’s last play.

Insert him to a group of receivers that already includes big Saeed Blacknall and multi-year starter DaeSean Hamilton, and you can understand why fans might be excited, even with Chris Godwin taking his tremendous hands, toughness and instincts to the NFL.

“There are some aspects I can work on, but, overall, I felt I did pretty well today,” said Johnson, who caught seven passes for 81 yards. “I don’t lack confidence like I did last year. I think that just comes from repetition, working on the things I need to work on.”

With Nick Bowers an injury question mark moving forward, Holland’s performance definitely was reason for Penn State fans to feel a lot better about the tight end position, and maybe even breathe a sigh of relief. A 6-4, 247-pounder, Holland made a nice diving catch of a Trace McSorley bullet pass for a 20-yard pickup in the first half and showed some toughness as a runner after the catch — in short, he looked like someone who could perform if called upon.

“I’ve taken a lot of reps. I was more comfortable with the plays we were running. I think that paid off,” Holland said. “I think me and a couple of other tight ends can help Mike take a little stress off of him so he doesn’t have to play 80 snaps a game. We have a lot of talented tight ends — Nick Bowers, Danny Dalton, Tom Pancoast — that can relieve that stress on Mike.”

McSorley played the entire first half with the first-team offense but wasn’t his usual sharp self, completing 13-of-21 passes for 114 yards and leading a pair of drives that ended in field goals for a 6-0 Blue lead at the half. Jake Zembiec quarterbacked the White in the first half, going 2-for-8 for 14 yards.

With Barkley rested and backup Miles Sanders’ arm in a sling, Mark Allen and Robinson got most of the work at running back, combining for 100 yards on 18 carries for the Blue.

The game was played using 11-minute quarters with a running clock to get through it as quickly — and plainlessly — as possible. There didn’t appear to be any injuries, leaving the Lions in good shape to try to defend its Big Ten title.

“I was pleased with our spring,” Franklin said. “Lot of progress. We still have a lot of work to do in a lot of different areas.”