Is QB Christian Hackenberg the right fit for this offense?

By Audrey Snyder/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette about 4 hours ago

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. – Quarterbacks coach Ricky Rahne talked with reporters on a conference call Thursday, the first time he’s been made available to the media since the team’s media day Aug. 6. 

Penn State’s offense, ranked 116th in the Football Bowl Subdivision, hasn’t struck a balance with the run game and the passing attack and through five games James Franklin said his team is still searching for its identity. What’s one of the team’s top priorities right now?

“Getting good at something and creating an identity,” Franklin said Wednesday after practice, adding that the rest -- which includes more creativity within the offense-- will come with time.

One would think part of Penn State’s offense getting going would come down to QB Christian Hackenberg doing the same. Franklin said Tuesday Penn State is calling the game in a style in which it can eliminate mistakes, but added that the teams needs to be more aggressive with taking shots down the field. Hackenberg, a projected first-round NFL Draft pick, passed for 200-plus yards just once through the first five games. That big arm that helped Hackenberg get this far hasn’t equated to Penn State taking many deep shots – whether because of pressure when he’s in the pocket, a lack of separation from the receivers, dropped passes or otherwise.

What’s Hackenberg done better this year compared to last?

“[He’s] making some great checks in the run game that have really helped us run the ball better in terms of getting us into good plays,” Rahne said. “The other thing I think he’s done very well is I think he’s taken care of the football.”

So, with more mobile quarterbacks in the pipeline like redshirt freshman Trace McSorley and freshman Tommy Stevens is Hackenberg, -- the 6-foot-4, 228-pound junior with the big arm and the high football IQ – the right fit for this offense where short, underneath passes thus far have been a big part?

"I would say that our offense is a multiple offense and there's lot of different types of quarterbacks that can be successful," Rahne said. "There's been multiple types of guys, sizes, that have succeeded in this offense. I would say Christian's skillset fits it well. It's about accuracy, and intelligence, and pre- and post- snap decision making, and being athletic enough to make plays with your feet.

"I think Christian's skillsets fit a variety of offenses. He has a big arm, but he's still athletic, he's a very intelligent kid, and I think that [criticism] is a bit overblown."

Hackenberg’s completed just 52 percent of his passes thus far and improved footwork, specifically with this quick passing game, has been a focal point for him since Franklin and staff arrived in January of 2014. Rahne said Hackenberg has been better throwing the ball on the run, another point of emphasis as the team focused on moving the pocket because of some of the struggles up front.

“In general, I’ve actually seen an increase in his accuracy and things like that especially with the weather factors and things of that nature over the last few weeks,” Rahne said. “Just excited to get out there this weekend because I like the way he’s practiced this week.”

Audrey Snyder: and Twitter @audsnyder4.

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PSU practice notes: James Franklin says RB Saquon Barkley takes reps and more

By Audrey Snyder/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette about 20 hours ago

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. – Dressed in shoulder pads and shorts, running back Saquon Barkley did take reps at Wednesday’s practice, coach James Franklin said.  

Barkley didn’t take any reps during the 10-minutes portion that was open to the media and hasn’t played in since injuring his right ankle during the win against San Diego State, but he was at practice. Franklin said how Barkley – and other injured players respond to treatment in the coming days — will determine whether or not he and others play Saturday afternoon against Indiana.

“He’s kind of still working through it,” Franklin said of Barkley following practice. “No determination has been made, but he did take reps in practice and he looked good, but we’ll see.”

Linebacker Brandon Bell, safety Marcus Allen and right tackle Andrew Nelson were also participants during the 10-minute portion of practice that was open to the media. Paris Palmer repped at left tackle and Nelson at right. Nelson hasn’t played since the end of the first half against Buffalo and this was the first time he was practicing when the media was present since then. 

“I think having Marcus Allen and Jordan Lucas and Brandon Bell back would be significant for us. I don’t think there’s any doubt about that,” Franklin said. “We’re hopeful. Every morning at 7 am we have a staff meeting and we sit down with the trainers and they kind of go through. A lot of it goes when you practice today how do they react?”

Bringing sexy back?

James Franklin said he doesn’t always want Penn State (4-1, 1-0 Big Ten) to win ugly. It’s also true that Penn State’s offense, ranked 116th in the Football Bowl Subdivision, can’t be as creative each week, Franklin said.

He said the playbook is essentially the same, but the creativity waivers every week based on personnel and experience level of the offense.

“I would like our identity to be winning,” Franklin said. “I don’t know if we want our identity to be ugly. We are in the entertainment business as well. It’s sports and it’s college athletics and it’s also entertainment. Yeah, you don’t want it to be ugly long term. I don’t want to be ugly long term, the team doesn’t want to be ugly long term.

“We would like to get to a point where it’s more exciting, sexier is a word that I use sometimes that you guys laugh at, but you know yeah, you get to that. Right now the most important thing is winning and then those things evolving over time. Trust me, those wide outs and quarterbacks and DBs, they all want that and so do we.”

Big-picture thinking?

Did Franklin think he’d face this many questions about the program, specifically the long-term vision this early into his Penn State tenure?

“Well, probably not before I took the job, but as things played out this way because people want to know the direction of the program and where we see it going long term,” Franklin said.

He said that what coaches see behind the scenes — as far as in the meeting room and at practices -- is important and that right now Penn State needs to be “getting good at something and creating an identity.” 

If Franklin was a fan then what’s the defining game this season? 

“For me? The defining game is this Saturday. This one is big. This Saturday is big,” he said. “Next week that one will be big. I don’t know. I don’t look like that. … That’s for you guys to have those awesome discussions on what’s defining and what’s not. I want to win Saturday. Pretty, ugly, nasty, sexy, exciting, win. Whatever way we’ve got to do it.”

Audrey Snyder: and Twitter @audsnyder4.

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Scout-team standouts: Who is giving Penn State the best practice looks?

By Audrey Snyder/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette 1 day ago

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Penn State burned the redshirts of five freshmen so far this season while many of their classmates work to make a name for themselves by running the scout team. 

Freshman defensive end Shareef Miller runs off the field after the conclusion of practice on Wednesday, September 23, 2015 in State College. (Audrey Snyder/Post-Gazette)

Many of the true freshman— those not named Jake Cooper, Manny Bowen, John Reid, Saquon Barkley and Brandon Polk— are this week preparing as if they’re running Indian’s offense or defense, trying to give Penn State the best and most accurate looks possible. 

Who are some of the players on the scout team who’ve impressed their older teammates thus far?

TE Mike Gesicki:[QB] Tommy Stevens. … I know he’s been doing a great job. On the defensive side of the ball Rob Windsor he kind of disrupts the plays sometimes and he makes some plays on the scout team.”

Guard Derek Dowrey: “There’s a bunch of guys. We got d-ends that are really working our tackles right now, giving them good looks each week. [Kevin] Givens and Shareef [Miller] are both out there giving great looks. Inside you’ve got Robert Windsor. ... He’s a guy that is very strong and very twitchy. He has to grow as a player, but I think he’s been giving us great looks and I think he could be a great player for us some day.”

WR Chris Godwin: “Some of the scout team defensive backs that have stood out have been [cornerback] Garrett Taylor and [safety] Jarvis Miller. They’ve been doing a pretty good job as freshmen just coming in and giving it their all on the scout team and what their role is with the team to try and give us the best look on each team for each week.”

Givens, a freshman defensive end from Altoona, was called a “ball of muscle” last week when defensive line coach Sean Spencer talked with reporters. If you’ve had a chance to catch a glimpse of Givens on the sideline it’s safe to say that’s a spot-on description. 

Also, Windsor is another freshman whose name we’ve heard mentioned a lot by teammates and at times even coach James Franklin during this summer and fall. Building depth at defensive tackle will be huge for the coming years and with Penn State losing Anthony Zettel, Tarow Barney and possibly junior Austin Johnson as well (if he opts for the NFL Draft). Windsor, classmate Ryan Buchholz, who the team moved inside from end to tackle this summer, will have a chance to add to a rotation that already includes Parker Cothren and Antoine White. 

“He’s an extremely talented kid,” Spencer said of Buchholz. “He’s a guy that’s versatile enough to play into our three technique, and it was always kind of in the back of our mind during our recruiting that we could.”

Audrey Snyder: and Twitter @audsnyder4.

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Penn State rewind: Why wasn't the starting d-line on for TD drives, dishing out deep balls and more

By Audrey Snyder/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette 3 days ago

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Penn State’s offense continues searching for an identity and if the Lions had a two-minute drive with the game on the line really who knows if they’d throw the ball or not?

Three of their home games have been played in the rain, but this is the Big Ten and it’s only October, which means what happens when more rain, sleet or snow enters the equation? Yes, the offense looks completely different without freshman RB Saquon Barkley (see the Temple game where he had one carry as another example of that) but Saturday Penn State went to their third, fourth and fifth-string running backs more than QB Christian Hackenberg’s strong right arm.

Hey, Penn State is +8 in the turnover margin, but grinding out a win against Army isn’t pretty, no matter how many times the Lions wanted to pound home the old cliche that they went 1-0 last week.

So, let’s revisit a few plays in this week’s installment of the Penn State rewind:

End of the 3rd quarter: Setting up the Gesicki TD

Penn State started playing the hit song ‘Let it Go’ from the movie Frozen at one point during the game and really there couldn’t have been a more fitting song for the lack of Penn State’s vertical passing threat. The Lions remembered that Hackenberg has a big arm late in the third quarter and the results were a 49-yard catch by Chris Godwin and then a 33-yard touchdown catch for TE Mike Gesicki.

Back-to-back plays, back-to-back deep balls seemed to settle things down a bit from fans who by the looks of it on social media and in the stadium have more than a few questions about the play calling.

So what happened on the Godwin catch?

“I got lined up and saw the safety was a little bit low and the cornerback he was in man-to-man coverage so with the play that we had running, I was running a post route and was able to get over top of the corner and Hack gave me a great ball,” Godwin said after the game. “In that point and time it’s just me making a play. [Wide receivers] coach [Josh] Gattis has us each and every day working on our ball stills to that we can come down with the 50-50 balls and I was able to do it that time.”

Godwin was slow to get up after landing on the ball and went to the sideline after it knocked the wind out of him. The sophomore is Penn State’s top receiver thus far (23 catches, 349 yards) and has become a reliable deep threat, especially with those 50-50 balls.

Gesicki’s first career touchdown

Following up the deep ball to Godwin Penn State went to tight end Mike Gesicki for his first and only catch of the game.

Hackenberg had time on both these passes —which hasn’t always been the case this season or last— so him dropping back, setting his feet and delivering to the 6-foot-6 tight end left Hackenberg a little more animated than usual. It was also a big play for the sophomore tight end who continued rebounding after having two drops on one series against Buffalo, one of which he was headed right for the end zone.

“Christian gave me a great ball, the o-line blocked well and really the guys that got me open were Saeed and I couldn’t tell you the other receiver who was out there,” said Gesicki. By the looks of it appeared DaeSean Hamilton was also out there. “But they ran great routes and I was able to make the catch and get in the end zone. I’m just happy for that opportunity.”

After having 43 passing yards in just about the entire the three quarters prior to this three-play 91-yard drive —all of which came through the air— No. 14 celebrated with Gesicki, who he hosted just a couple years ago during the tight end’s official visit.

Where’s the starting d-line?

Penn State ranks 15th in the nation in total defense and second with 18 sacks. With a 20-7 lead in the fourth quarter and Army’s tricky triple-option reeling off 21 yards on six plays, after a 7-yard rush on 3rd and 2 moves the chains Penn State makes a wholesale change up front. Gone are starters Carl Nassib, Anthony Zettel, Austin Johnson and Garrett Sickles (who were all in on the third-down play) and in comes redshirt freshman Torrence Brown, redshirt freshman Anotine White, senior Tarow Barney and redshirt sophomore Curtis Cothran. Backup senior linebacker Ben Kline — who was running the scout team just a couple weeks ago after being out of action since the Minnesota game in 2013 due to various injuries — also stayed in on this drive.

White picks up the fullback, Kline doesn’t read it quickly and or correctly and takes on the wrong guy and just like that in one play —with missed tackles along the sideline— the Lions are burned for a 56-yard touchdown run and the next thing you know it’s a 20-14 game with 10:59 remaining.

Now, Penn State subs up front quite a bit and I asked d-line coach Sean Spencer about this philosophy last week.

“I have it written out prior to the start so I actually know exactly what I want to do for every particular series,” Spencer said last Thursday on a conference call. “They know it going into the game so it’s not really a shock. Obviously if a drive extends then I’l rotate guys in and I kind of get a feel for the game too. … I want those guys to remain fresh.”

Penn State likes the depth and talent they have up front, Spencer said he’s been doing it this way with rotations his whole career and said he goes into the game with an idea of who and when he’s going to mix up and then lets the flow of the game dictate substitutions to try and keep players fresh. They don’t always sub four players at once though and keep in mind DE Evan Schwan, who usually subs for Sickels, was inactive due to an injury. So, essentially there was a third-string defensive end out there with a third-string tackle (DT Parker Cothren backs up starter Austin Johnson. Barney and White are tackles two and three behind Zettel).

“It’s what I tell every recruit when they come here that I’m going to rotate and I’m going to play a lot of guys so it’s really not a shock,” Spencer said. “It’s a little dramatic at some points in time and I probably drive coach Shoop crazy when he sees guys running off — sometimes he’ll make the reference that we just made a hockey substitution — but I’m on it and it’s something I pay great attention to and detail throughout the game.”

Penn State’s back-up defensive line — this time with ends Cothran and Brown and tackles Barney and Cothren in the middle— also was on the field for Army’s third-quarter touchdown drive, which made it a 13-7 game.

Army went 76 yards on eight plays that time, complete with an A.J. Schurr three-yard rushing touchdown. 

How did they miss this?

It’s pretty obvious when sitting in the press box, watching the game live and you see Army shuffling players on and off the field, not realizing for several seconds that they indeed have 12 men on the field. Hey, I could even see that clear as day and my vision isn’t great.

QB Christian Hackenberg has to snap this ball and capitalize on the penally. He’s looking the other way, but why wasn’t anyone on the headset or the sideline relaying that information? Army’s 12th man took about four seconds to get off the field and Penn State just missed it. I know one of the reasons Franklin said offensive coordinator John Donovan prefers calling the game from the box as opposed to the sideline is so he can see the whole field.

Somehow, someway nobody up top or down below was able to capitalize on this in the first quarter. Penn State ended up getting a touchdown out of the drive, but it’s still a missed opportunity that they can learn from. 

Audrey Snyder: and Twitter @audsnyder4.

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What are they saying? Penn State players on win vs. Army

By Audrey Snyder/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette 4 days ago

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- It wasn’t pretty and it raised a lot of questions about Penn State’s offense, but the Lions did improve to 4-1 with Saturday’s 20-14 win vs. Army

What did players have to say as they ready for the full slate of conference play?

CB Grant Haley


LB Jason Cabinda


LB Von Walker


WR Chris Godwin


TE Mike Gesicki


Audrey Snyder: and Twitter @audsnyder4.

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