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Run game top priority this spring

UNIVERSITY PARK — Following are the highlights of James Franklin’s press conference on Monday previewing Penn State’s 2022 spring practice:

Main storyline: It’s a new season, but Franklin made clear addressing an old storyline has been the program’s top offseason priority in attempting to bounce back from last year’s 7-6 record that burst the bubble of a 5-0 start.

And that’s improved offensive line play, which he believes will lead to an improved running game. “We all know it’s an area we must improve on,” he said. “Not only the offensive line and tight ends (blocking) but our running backs’ ability to break tackles.” Offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich had mixed results in his first season. The Lions’ rushing attack failed to produce a 100-yard rusher all season, averaged just 135 yards per game, and ranked among the lowest in the country. “Mike would be the first to tell you he had higher expectations,” Franklin said. “I’m comfortable and confident we can make significant strides, and the run game is a big part of that. We have to get the run game going. That will take pressure off our offensive line and quarterback.” At this point, Franklin projected first-team O-line starters as Juice Scruggs at center, Landon Tengwall and Sal Wormley at guards and Caeden Wallace and Olu Fashanu at tackles.

Young and old: Sean Clifford returns for a sixth season and likely fourth as the Lions’ starting quarterback. Competition is expected to come from Christian Veilleux, who impressed in one start (vs. Rutgers) last year, along with a pair of true freshmen — All-American recruit Drew Allar and York’s Beau Pribula. Both Allar and Pribula enrolled in January. Franklin acknowledged the challenge of creating fair competition. “How do you get everybody enough reps to be evaluated and to be developed?” he asked. “I think the competition will bring out the best in everybody. I’ve been preaching that since I got here. Sean and Christian embrace it, and we’ve got two young kids. There’s a lot to be excited about.”

New leadership:

Franklin is back where he began at Penn State in 2014. He was hired by an interim president (Rodney Erickson) and an interim athletic director (Dave Joyner) prior to the arrival of Eric Barron and Sandy Barbour. With Barron and now Barbour both retiring this summer, Franklin — fresh from signing a contract extension through 2031 — will get new bosses in the coming weeks and months. He said he worked “extremely well” with Barron and Barbour, which he said is “critical.” Former Louisville president Neeli Bendapudi is succeeding Barron, and the search for Barbour’s replacement has just begun. “This new athletic director hire will be critical for the university, this athletic department and the football program,” Franklin said.

Rocco on staff:

Dan Rocco, recently let go as Delaware’s head coach, has landed on the Penn State staff in a defensive analyst’s role, along with former standout PSU linebacker Dan Connor. Along with Delaware, Rocco, the son of ex-Altoona Area High School coach Frank Rocco, previously was the head coach at Richmond and Liberty and spent time in the NFL. Franklin said he now has nine former Nittany Lion lettermen on staff in various capacities.

Quick hitters … Franklin opened the press conference by congratulating wrestling coach Cael Sanderson on his latest NCAA wrestling championship, Penn State’s ninth in 11 years. … Jonathan Sutherland will be used as a combination linebacker-safety, similar to Marcus Allen’s role a few years ago. New defensive coordinator Manny Diaz, it was noted, sometimes used three safeties at the same time at Miami. … Franklin said defensive end Adisa Isaac, who missed all of 2021 with a knee injury, has returned but the staff will take it “slow and conservative,” with him this spring. … He praised defensive tackle Hakeem Beamon, who also didn’t play last season, saying has shown flashes and compared him with Altoona’s Kevin Givens, a former Nit defensive lineman entering his fourth year with the San Francisco 49ers.

(Compiled by Neil Rudel of the Altoona Mirror. He can be reached at nrudel@altoonamirror.com.)

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