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Penn State mailbag: Visits, Holuba Hall practice fields and RB depth

By Audrey Snyder/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette about 19 hours ago

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- The season opener is just a day away and before we all get our first real look at this Penn State team, let’s jump right into some of your questions.

As always, keep tweeting (@audsnyder4), emailing (asnyder@post-gazette.com) and asking them.

Our first question gets us started with recruiting:

Yes, night games typically are the biggest attraction for official visitors and this usually coincides with the White Out game. Now, Penn State’s White Out game this season is against Michigan on Nov. 21 and while a time for it still hasn’t been announced I’d pick that as the one many kids will likely choose to attend. Granted, high school schedules are always difficult for kids to work around, another reason why you usually get the biggest recruiting turnout of the year for the night games. Plus, the atmosphere is always the best for those games. I do think Penn State will probably have a nice number of unofficial visitors for the Rutgers game Sept. 19 because it’s an 8pm kick, but we’ll see how that goes. With 20 kids already giving Penn State their verbal pledge for this 2016 class there likely won’t be much more movement here as far as official visits making key impressions for kids (because there’s not too much space left in the class) but the other thing that helps with those visits is having a winning team that plays well to help make a strong impression for prospects and their parents.

As for Penn State’s practice in Holuba Hall Wednesday (after rain forced them indoors) what in the world is up with those fields running side by side? James Franklin says that will be changed in the future.

September 3, 2015

Okay, so Penn State’s practice fields in Holuba Hall are two 80-yard fields running side by side, rather than one normal, full length field. The problem with it is when it comes to kicking we’ll often hear balls hitting off the rafters, so the team can’t work on that indoors as well as it would like to. What they can do is what happened on Wednesday where they had half the team working on goal line on one field while the other half did the same on the field next to them. As far as I can remember -- and while it’s not all that long, this is my sixth season covering the team-- I can’t remember the field in Holuba ever being “normal.” I remember Bill O’Brien mentioning it once or twice and after digging around on the Internet I came across this statecollege.com article from May of 2012 when O’Brien contemplated, but opted against changing it from two fields to one.

In the article O’Brien said that Joe Paterno wanted two fields, one for offense and one for defense, and while he thought about changing it, O’Brien settled on keeping it the same. Franklin said Wednesday after practice that ripping up the blue rubber around the outskirts of the fields and turfing it to the wall to make one big field is something he wants to do. He said he likes the skeleton or structure of the facility, but the field will be changed at some point.

John emailed to ask.... Will Saquon Barkley be Akeel Lynch’s backup and how will he play this season?

For now, Barkley, the freshman running back, is listed behind redshirt freshman Mark Allen and redshirt freshman Nick Scott. Redshirt freshman Johnathan Thomas wasn’t listed on the depth chart so we’ll keep an eye on Saturday to see if he’s healthy or not and see if he can be part of the backfield at some point this season.

James Franklin was very high on Allen throughout camp, usually citing his pass protection skills and Allen’s high energy that that team thrives off of. We do know that Barkley is slated to play this season--one of at least four true freshmen who will do so-- and as it progresses I think we’ll see him take on a bigger role, but let’s not simply overlook Allen either. Penn State will need at least three running backs to contribute and right now there’s a lot on Barkley’s plate. For any freshman to step in and play right away is a challenge, but Barkley continues to get bigger and this week was listed on the depth chart at 5-foot-11, 222 pounds, making him the heaviest of the four backs.

They all are very different runners so we’ll see how Barkley adjusts and if he can keep up with the rapid acceleration he’s already had since arriving this summer. So far he’s certainly looked strong in short periods we’ve seen live, but Allen brings a different dimension --and certainly build at 5-foot-6, 181 pounds-- that the backfield needs as well.

Audrey Snyder: asnyder@post-gazette.com and Twitter @audsnyder4.


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Reps for backup QB, young players important piece of non-conference play

By Audrey Snyder/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette 1 day ago

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. – James Franklin said he’s pleased with Penn State’s quarterback situation thus far, saying the team is back to more of a “traditional model” which hasn’t been the case the last few years.


Penn State quarterbacks Tommy Stevens (4), Trace McSorley (9), Billy Fessler (16) and Christian Hackenberg (14) during practice on Aug. 6, 2015. (Photo/Craig Houtz)

Penn State has three scholarship players invested in the position between starter Christian Hackenberg, redshirt freshman Trace McSorley and freshman Tommy Stevens. Walk-ons Billy Fessler and Jackson Erdmann are behind Stevens, who is slated to take a redshirt this year.

“All three we’re excited about,” Franklin said following Wednesday’s practice. “You also have Billy Fessler who is doing a good job for us and Jackson Erdmann is doing a good job for us as well, but we’ve got three guys that I think if you asked anybody in our program, players or coaches, that they would say they’re excited about those three quarterbacks and what they’ve learned.”

Last year when McSorley redshirted the backup to Hackenberg, or at least the one who played in mop-up duty, was walk-on D.J. Crook. Penn State didn’t want to burn the redshirts of McSorley and Michael O’Connor, who has since transferred, in limited roles closing out games and despite the 44 sacks Hackenberg took he was able to play in every game.

Getting reps for the backup quarterback, as well as other young players, is something Franklin hopes the team can accomplish should the opportunity present itself this season.

In last year’s 48-7 win against UMass Crook came in late in the third quarter with Penn State up 41-0. Crook, who has since transferred to Albany, also came in last season to close out the team’s 31-13 win against Temple.

Fans thought they’d get their first look at McSorley in April at the Blue-White Game, but he ended up being scratched from the scrimmage. While the quarterbacks behind Hackenberg are still young, it’s always important to think big picture and while Hackenberg won’t discuss his NFL Draft potential, if he would opt to leave after this season it would make every rep McSorley can get this year in games that much more important.

Non-conference play of course is where Penn State might be able to get a big enough lead to allow this to play out. While it might not be the case in the season opener against Temple, the value of those live reps is important for the future.

“Hopefully we play some games where not only are we able to get the backup quarterback some reps, but some other players in your program some reps,” Franklin said. “That’s really valuable in terms of player development and program development and you know, you guys would probably know that better than me. How many games at Penn State over the last four years had pretty much been decided by the second or third quarter where guys can get legitimate reps? I don’t think that’s happened a whole lot.”

Audrey Snyder: asnyder@post-gazette.com and Twitter @audsnyder4.


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Nittany Lions finish practice indoors, prep for season opener against Temple

By Audrey Snyder/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette 2 days ago

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- The Nittany Lions worked in Holuba Hall for the end of Wednesday’s practice after a thunderstorm forced them indoors.

 

“I’m very pleased with the tempo,” James Franklin said following the 10-minute portion of practice that was open to the media. Players practiced in helmets, shorts and shoulder pads during the workout. “I thought it went very well. I think we’re praticing good. The guys are starting to figure it out. I do think we’re getting to the point where they’re ready to play. It’s been a long camp, it’s been a long Temple week in terms of our normal game week plus the bonus days so I think overall it’s pretty good.”

The only thing the team can’t work on inside is kicking. Franklin said eventually he wants to take the two practice fields in Holuba Hall and flip them long ways to create one large field that way the team can work on everything indoors if needed. Franklin said they’ve already measured it out and they can rip up the blue rubber around the outskirts of the field and put turf in all the way to the walls so they wouldn’t be limited indoors.

The Lions worked goal line during the portion that was open to the media before Franklin brought them together at midfield to end practice. Franklin said trying to strike a balance between keeping the players fresh following camp while making sure they have the live, full-speed reps down so they’re ready for Saturday is always a challenge. He said this is especially true along the offensive line where there’s not really a substitute for muscle memory. 

At this point in the week, Franklin said he’s aware players from the “Philadelphia footprint” are especially looking forward to playing at Lincoln Financial Field on Saturday, while adding that it’s certainly an improvement over Veterans Stadium.

“It’s pretty cool for those guys,” Franklin said. “A lot of those guys grew up Eagles fans and now they got a chance to play in the Linc which I think is a real positive. When it was the Vet, I don’t know. That turf that used to be on your grandma’s back porch that they used to have and the jail cell in the basement, times have changed. I think right now it’s a real positive for our guys who are Eagles fans who grew up going to games at Lincoln Financial Field.”

Audrey Snyder: asnyder@post-gazette.com and Twitter @audsnyder4.


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Talking points: Penn State TE Mike Gesicki on blocking and keeping it light

By Audrey Snyder Pittsburgh Post-Gazette 2 days ago

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. – The conference call line was open for tight end Mike Gesicki Wednesday morning.


Penn State tight end Mike Gesicki, a sophomore, continues to emerge as one of the more intriguing players on Penn State’s the offense. A former three-sport New Jersey standout, Gesicki said he's now an improved blocker too. (Audrey Snyder/Post-Gazette)

Here are some of the highlights from Penn State’s 6-foot-6, 255-pound sophomore who is listed as a starter heading into Saturday’s season opener against Temple:

Q: What kind of adjustments did you have to make last year, including your three-point stance since you hadn’t really played tight end before?

A: Mike Gesicki: “Yeah, last year I kind of went out for the first practice and coach [John] Donovan said, ‘Alright guys, Day 1, let’s get down in the stance.’ I kind of stood there and was like, ‘I don’t [know], I’m not really sure how to get down and all the specifics and all this because I never really played the position in high school.’ It was definitely a huge adjustment for myself. Coach Donovan and the upperclassmen, guys like Jesse [James] and Kyle [Carter], even Adam [Breneman] who didn’t play last year, they all played such a huge role in my development and I wouldn’t be where I am right now or wouldn’t have done anything that I was capable to do last year without them and I mean it took probably, definitely all of training camp and I wasn’t really comfortable playing—wasn’t extremely comfortable playing—last year until mid season when I was comfortable in there, knew my role, knew my assignment.”

Q: What do you think you did to earn the starting job this year?

A: Gesicki: “Yeah, the depth chart came out yesterday and everybody wants to talk about the starters and the backups and everything. I’m not really getting all twisted up in it and not focusing on who is starting and who is not just because all the guys are going to get a chance to go in there and make plays and have a chance to get on the field and show what they can do. To say I did something that another guy didn’t or to say that I was able to do something better or anything to kind of solidify myself as a starter I’m not really sure. You’d have to ask coach [John] Donovan or coach [James] Franklin and see.”

Q: I think people are calling you Little Gronk. Now that you’re in Week 1 and have that starting role are you still having fun or all you all business now?

A: Gesicki: “[Laughs] My outlook on anything that I do is I’m not going to go out there and – there’s a time to be serious and a time to have fun—and I’m always trying to have a good time and have fun with things because when I’m doing things with a smile on my face and I’m doing things because I love to do it I’m gonna do it better than I would if I was trying to be too serious with it. That’s just how I’ve kind of been my whole entire life. Don’t get me wrong, on Saturday at 3:30 when it’s time to go I’m going to be all business, but I’m going to be out there trying to have a good time and trying to be all business at the same time. That’s just kind of who I am and my personality. I love having a good time. I love to be fun and be happy and things like that and I feel like when I do that then I’m able to be more successful than if I wasn’t.”

Q: How are you a better blocker this year and who has helped you out in that regard the most?

A: Gesicki: “Right. Initially I think it was pretty obvious I didn’t adjust very well to the whole blocking thing. I wasn’t successful as a blocker, I didn’t really get the job done and we got to the point where the only time I was really in there was on passing downs and after my freshman year ended I kind of put a chip on my shoulder and told myself that if I want to be the player I want to be and wanted to do the things I wanted to do on the football field then I had to accept the blocking role and kind of change my mindset to wards it. That’s exactly what I did.

”In the springtime we went out there and I felt day in and day out that I was getting better as a blocker and coach Donovan helped me out tremendously, coach Franklin helped me out, told me that I couldn’t use the excuse of I didn’t play tight end before anymore. I couldn’t use that excuse anymore. I had to accept the role of blocking and be able to do both because if I do both then it would help me out in the passing game as well so I kind of used that as a chip on my shoulder my freshman year to help me get better and better and I just kind of changed my mindset to accept the blocking role and to not only help myself and my production, but to help out the team.”

Audrey Snyder: asnyder@post-gazette.com and Twitter @audsnyder4.


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Odds and ends: Thoughts on Penn State's TEs, the plan for the freshmen and more

By Audrey Snyder/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette 2 days ago

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. – The return of the regular season means the return of routines and that was in full swing Tuesday as defensive tackle Austin Johnson and safety Marcus Allen fielded questions on conference calls and James Franklin held his first weekly news conference of the season.


Purdue's Ricardo Allen, left, tries to stop Penn State's Adam Breneman as he runs down the field with the ball during an NCAA college football game Saturday, Nov. 16, 2013, in State College, Pa. (AP Photo/Centre Daily Times, Abby Drey)

Following Franklin’s availability quarterback Christian Hackenberg and linebacker Nyeem Wartman-White met with the media for the first time since the team held media day Aug. 6. Here is my notebook from Tuesday with lots of items in it. Also, here are my three keys to the season as well as a story about cost of attendance stipends (Hint: It includes what LaVar Arrington’s go-to Wendy’s meal was when he was in college).

We’ll go through more player conference calls Wednesday and catch the final 10 minutes of practice in the evening.

For now, here are some extra thoughts as Wednesday gets rolling.

What to make of Adam Breneman’s availability and Kyle Carter’s spot on the depth chart?

Breneman, a redshirt sophomore, said earlier this summer he felt better than ever and he was practicing with the team even up until last Wednesday when he was spotted running on the side with strength coach Dwight Galt.

With Breneman left off Penn State’s Week 1 depth chart and his history of injuries, it’s unclear what’s next. Franklin didn’t go into great detail when asked why Breneman wasn’t on the depth chart, but Franklin did say the redshirt sophomore who missed last season with a knee injury has “some challenges that he needs to overcome on the football field.”

There was no timetable given and when asked if Breneman will be available later this year.

“I can’t speak on that. I’m not sure,” Franklin said.

Breneman was a key piece of Penn State’s 2013 recruiting class along with Christian Hackenberg and I remember asking Franklin about Breneman in the middle of last season and the coach being upbeat about all the possibilities a healthy Breneman would give the offense. We’ve seen the offense operate with (2013) and without (2014) Breneman and while I think Mike Gesicki, the listed starter who turned heads since he arrived on campus last summer is in for a breakout year, Breneman’s availability—whatever it is or isn’t-- is certainly a concern.

I also found it interesting that redshirt junior Brent Wilkerson was listed on the depth chart ahead of fifth-year senior Kyle Carter. This isn’t a slight to Wilkerson, rather just interesting when looking at the way things have gone for Carter the past few years.

Carter, who dealt with his own share of injuries throughout his Penn State career, was second on the team in receptions back in 2012. While the tight ends where heavily emphasized in Bill O’Brien’s offense, Carter’s production since he burst on the scene that year has decreased.

Here are the numbers:

2012 (through nine games): 36 catches, 453 yards, 2 TDs

2013 (through 12 games): 18 catches, 222 yards, 1TD

2014: (through 13 games): 16 catches, 153 yards, 1TD

“Hopefully we stay injury free and don't need to either, you know, have to burn a red shirt or something like that, but we feel good about the three that we have,” Franklin said of the tight ends. “There's no doubt that you'd love to have Adam available for this week and you'd love to have his play-making abilities, as well as his maturity.”

Plan for the freshmen

Penn State plans on using four freshmen off the bat this season with receivers Juwan Johnson and Brandon Polk, plus cornerback John Reid and running back Saquon Barkley. That much we knew.

How much they play this season, especially Saturday against Temple, remains to be seen. For now Barkley is fourth on the depth chart at running back and is listed second on kick returns (behind Koa Farmer). Johnson is third behind receivers Chris Godwin and Saeed Blacknall. Reid is listed as CB Grant Haley’s backup. Polk is listed behind receiver DeAndre Thompkins and Polk is also listed third behind Mark Allen and Thompkins on punt returns.

Easing the freshmen into their roles is the plan and by the fourth game Franklin said he expects these players to then take the next step.

“What you're really hoping for with these young players is that not that they're, you know, 100 percent ready to play against Temple, that they have a role against Temple, but by game five, these guys aren't freshmen anymore,” Franklin said.

We heard plenty about Barkley during camp and Mark Allen—or ‘Little Mark Allen’ as good friend and teammate Marcus Allen said on his conference call when I asked him about the 5-foot-6, 181-pound back-- is Akeel Lynch’s top backup. What type of role Barkley has this year will be determined as the season progresses, which is always the case with any true freshman who sees the field. Once they get their footing and the game slows down a bit for them—ideally by the time conference play starts— then the players in the yellow or maybe category can step up if they are given the green light and begin their acclimation process.

Talking smack

Austin Johnson said the players like to talk trash to one another to fire each other up during practices. So who are some of the trash talkers and who does it well?

Jordan Lucas talks. Geno [Lewis] hands down likes to talk a lot,” Johnson said. “DaeSean [Hamilton]. Some of the guys on the outside and I mean I talk to the linebackers sometimes here and there so I mean the front seven we just pretty much talk smack to each other here and there. It’s a lot of the guys on the outside like Jordan, Geno, DaeSean, Grant [Haley], John Reid, all those guys. It’s a very competitive atmosphere.”

Reid has only been on campus since late June, but from everything we’ve heard about the guy he likes to compete so it shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise that he’s talking and by the sounds of it is backing it up too.

“He is very good at that corner spot,” Johnson said. “He talks to everybody about what he sees. … People might think, ‘Oh he’s a little small and stuff like that,’ but thery’re not going to say that once the ball is snapped.”

Audrey Snyder: asnyder@post-gazette.com and Twitter @audsnyder4.


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