Penn State coaching staff making their in-home visits

By Audrey Snyder/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette about 8 hours ago

Not wasting any time between the end of the regular season and prior to Sunday’s bowl game announcement, college football coaches across the country are making their way into homes to meet with prospects and their families. 

James Franklin was in New York with offensive line coach Herb Hand Sunday to watch quarterback verbal pledge Jake Zembiec win a state title with Aquinas Institute. Tuesday evening they were back with Zembiec, this time for an in-home visit.

Running backs coach/special teams coordinator Charles Huff was in Michigan visiting with kicker Quinn Nordin. Nordin is a soft verbal pledge who has also shown interest in the in-state Michigan Wolverines, so trying to lock down a commitment from the kicker -- a key position in this 2016 recruiting class given the way walk-ons Joey Julius and Tyler Davis struggled this season-- will be worth keeping an eye on between now and Signing Day in February. 

Penn State defensive coordinator Bob Shoop was in the Pittsburgh area Tuesday, along with cornerbacks coach/defensive recruiting coordinator Terry Smith and Huff who stopped in to visit with McKeesport’s Khaleke Hudson who has yet to commit to a school. 

Of course no round of in-home visits would be complete without coaching staffs from one school visiting verbal pledges who are committed to another. Woodland Hills running back Miles Sanders, who plans to continue looking around between now and Signing Day, tweeted that the Pitt coaching staff visited with him Monday. 

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Penn State's Jordan Lucas accepts Senior Bowl invitation

By Audrey Snyder/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette about 12 hours ago

Penn State safety Jordan Lucas’ senior season come to a close three weeks ago during the Nittany Lions’ loss to Northwestern, but Lucas accepted his invitation to the Reese’s Senior Bowl on Tuesday. 

Senior safety Jordan Lucas is the first Nittany Lion to accept a Senior Bowl invitation this season. (Photo/Craig Houtz)

While it’s unclear whether or not the shoulder injury that sidelined Lucas for the remainder of the season will allow him to play in the game in Mobile, Ala. on Jan. 30. At the very least he will go through the standard pre-NFL Draft procedures at the event, thus giving him a leg up on the process before meeting with teams at the NFL Scouting Combine.

Lucas, who moved from cornerback to safety this season, is the first Penn State player to accept the invitation. He could be joined by defensive end Carl Nassib, the Big Ten’s defensive player of the year, who at 6-foot-7 and with an FBS best 15.5 sacks this season should be on many team’s radars in the coming months. Nassib was invited to the Senior Bowl, coach James Franklin said last month, but thus far a decision on playing in the game hasn’t been made. 

Redshirt junior defensive tackle Austin Johnson has not announced yet whether he will declare for the NFL Draft following Penn State’s bowl game, but I would not be surprised to see Johnson, a potential early-round pick, end up playing in the Senior Bowl if he would choose to declare.

At 6-4, 323 lbs. --and with a burst off the line and the strength to drive offensive linemen backwards and blow up plays in the backfield-- Johnson could project ahead of even junior quarterback Christian Hackenberg, who could go in the second round if he chooses to declare.

Both Johnson and Hackenberg have been mum on their futures when asked within the last week. 

Audrey Snyder: and Twitter @audsnyder4.

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Monday thoughts on Penn State: Finding a coordinator, staff members on the hot seat and bowl options

By Audrey Snyder/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette 1 day ago

Penn State and offensive coordinator John Donovan parted ways, with James Franklin announcing the change to his coaching staff Sunday afternoon, less than 24 hours after Penn State’s 55-16 beat down by No. 5 Michigan State. 

Offensive coordinator John Donovan during Penn State’s spring practice in 2015. (Audrey Snyder/Post-Gazette)

Saturday’s loss to the Spartans was actually one of the better games of the year for Penn State’s offense as the Lions racked up 418 yards of total offense, but Franklin needed to change something or someone and this offense, one that wasn’t able to succeed with a 1,000-yard rusher in Saquon Barkley, nearly a 1,000-yard receiver in Chris Godwin and a potential NFL early round draft pick more than explains who or what the problem was.

Yes, the execution hasn’t been pretty this season either, but from the day Franklin was introduced and said he was “fiercely loyal as a person in general, and I'm going to be fiercely loyal to the guys that I've worked with in the past,” clearly there was going to be come a point in his coaching tenure where Franklin would have a tough personal and professional decision to make with a guy who has been part of his staff for the last five years. 

I can’t imagine that parting ways with Donovan was easy for Franklin, but like Franklin and the staff say when they’re reviewing film with players they say they’re critiquing the performance and not the person. While Donovan wasn’t made available to media more than 8-to-10 times in his nearly two years in town, there was no positive spin left to put on this offense, one that finished this season 108th of 127 FBS teams in total offense. 

But, moving forward in the search to find Donovan’s replacement Penn State will have some talented skill positions to sell a new coordinator on, plus there is no shortage of talent in the pipeline, at least not on paper anyway. But, while Penn State is off schedule or maybe on (Franklin has said both this season, but by the looks of it I’d say they’re behind) entering year three, which is the year Franklin emphasized since he arrived, there will be a new coordinator to adapt to. 

Likely there will be a new QB too, considering Christian Hackenberg has the option to declare for the NFL Draft if he so chooses. So, year three on one side of the ball at least will feature something, or at least someone, different. Penn State has a mobile quarterback in redshirt freshman Trace McSorley and another mobile one in his backup Tommy Stevens. QB Jake Zembiec is a PSU verbal pledge and finding a coordinator who runs a similar system, or at least uses the same type of personnel will be key. 

It’s no secret the short, quick passing game was difficult for Hackenberg to adapt to and with new terminology likely in place with a new offense look for the Lions to spend this winter figuring out the new lingo. And, since it’s popped up several times on Twitter, I don’t see any scenario where Hackenberg returns to Penn State for his senior season. It doesn’t matter if Donovan stayed or left, the number of hits Hackenberg took —and his draft stock that continued to fall along with the sputtering offense— there’s no need to stay as the Lions continue to rebuild.

This offensive line hasn’t helped matters and while Hackenberg hasn’t said one way or another (in fact he said Saturday night he’s not thinking too much about his future) the reality is his draft stock won’t improve with a senior year here, but the risk of absorbing more big hits and risking injury won’t get much better. 

And that leads me to this….. 

-Is the change at offensive coordinator the only coaching change Franklin will make this offseason?

It’s certainly a big one and one that pleases many of the fans who have called for the firing of Donovan for much of the last year-plus. 

Franklin said both before and after the bowl game the staff will be evaluated and the way Penn State’s special teams and offensive line performed this season could there be a hot seat surrounding RB coach/special teams coordinator Charles Huff and offensive line coach Herb Hand? I think the case can be made that both units haven’t taken a step forward— or at least not a big enough of a step forward to where they’re noticeably improved. Is it the coaching or a lack of talent. 

Yes, Huff is working with a slew of walk-on kickers and punters and while kicking isn’t his area of expertise, what can Penn State do to correct the specialists? An incoming scholarship kicker and scholarship punter should help, but how will the return game improve? And, what if Penn State loses kicker Quinn Nordin to Michigan? To me, and this probably sounds a bit crazy, but keeping both specialists in the 2016 recruiting class should be a main priority for Penn State. They’ve lived the alternative and it hasn’t been pretty with the revolving door of kickers and punters.  

Yes, losing cornerback Lavert Hill who decommitted from Penn State Sunday night is of course a loss, but it’s not surprising given his brother plays at Michigan, he’s an in-state kid and the way Jim Harbaugh is turning the program around it’s easy to see why he’d want to be a part of it. Hill will make a final decision at the U.S. Army All America game. 

Back to PSU’s issues on special teams, Penn State uses scholarship players and a lot of starters and key contributors on special teams so maybe Huff is given another shot with more talented specialists? Still, the return game has been up and down and I kept an eye on WR/punt returner DeAndre Thompkins during warmups Saturday and while the Lions went with the safe option of sure handed returner Gregg Garrity, Thompkins was fumbling punts in warmups, making me wonder why it took four fumbles in games for PSU to make a change? If it shows up in warmups, maybe it’s been problematic in practice this year too? I would think so. So, has he gotten better as a returner? I’m not so sure. 

-As for Herb Hand, maybe the blocking scheme is too complex for what he’s working with? I don’t know for certain, but surrendering 39 sacks — and while they’re not all on the o-line —  it’s still too much of an issue after the Lions gave up a school record 44 sacks a year ago.

Herb Hand’s offensive linemen will have to take a step forward next season. (Audrey Snyder/Post-Gazette)

Next year Hand will need to find either a new center or left guard to replace senior Angelo Mangiro, so are any of these now redshirt freshman going to be ready to step in? Center Ryan Bates would only be a redshirt freshman, so he might need another year of growing and developing, meaning maybe PSU keeps Wendy Laurent at center and looks to plug in a left guard. Year three once again will be key in determining how the talent in the pipeline is developing. 

-And, I expect QB coach Ricky Rahne will have quite a few eyes on him next year too, especially if the Lions are using a new quarterback. Hackenberg’s development stalled with this offense so was it the QB, the system or was the coaching part of the problem? We’ll see. By parting ways with John Donovan it eliminates one issue, but how many more problems remain will be sorted out in the coming months. 

-Final thoughts on bowl options:

While it’s unclear who will call Penn State’s plays for the bowl game (I’d guess either o-line coach/run game coordinator Herb Hand would be an option or James Franklin could do it himself), Penn State’s bowl projections, which will be known Sunday evening, are narrowing a bit. 

Possibilities include: 

-Holiday Bowl (Dec. 30 in San Diego, Calif.)

-Music City Bowl (Dec. 30 in Nashville, Tenn.) 

-TaxSlayer Bowl (Jan. 2 in Jacksonville, Fla.)

At 7-5, Penn State is likely in the mix for either the Music City or the Taxslayer Bowl. Given the strength of the Big Ten (winner of the B1G title game to the playoff, loser of the title game to the Rose Bowl and Ohio State to one of the playoff games) the slotting could then include:

-Michigan (9-3, Citrus Bowl)

-Northwestern (10-2, Outback Bowl) 

-Wisconsin (9-3, Holiday Bowl)

-Penn State (7-5, likely the Music City or TaxSlayer) 

A potential return to Nashville would certainly be a big sell for the Music City Bowl, but James Franklin likely would want to stay as far away from that as possible. This makes the Jan. 2 Taxslayer Bowl, that kicks at noon and is in Jacksonville, probably as a much more appealing option for PSU. 

Audrey Snyder: and Twitter @audsnyder4.

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What are they saying? Penn State players on loss to Michigan State

By Audrey Snyder/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette 2 days ago

EAST LANSING, Mich.-- Penn State has a ways to go to try and stay competitive in the Big Ten East and the Lions’ 55-16 loss to No. 5 Michigan State Saturday night showed it. 

Freshman RB Saquon Barkley eclipsed the 1,000 yard mark and WR Chris Godwin will have a chance to do the same as the Lions wait until next Sunday when they’ll learn their bowl destination. The Penn State notebook with more on the Lions’ two bright spots on offense and what went wrong against Michigan State is here

QB Christian Hackenberg


CB Grant Haley


WR Chris Godwin


Audrey Snyder: and Twitter @audsnyder4.

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Upon further review: Examining Penn State’s 55-16 loss to Michigan State

By Audrey Snyder/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette 3 days ago

EAST LANSING, Mich. — Where would Penn State’s offense be without freshman running back Saquon Barkley

Barkley has been the silver lining to an otherwise disappointing season for a Penn State team that Saturday night looked fundamentally flawed and lost at several points and just doesn’t have the talent to keep pace with the mighty Michigan State Spartans. It’s by no means an easy task to slow down Connor Cook and this well-rounded team that’s one of the nation’s best, but Barkley, who rushed for 103 yards on 17 carries, setting a PSU freshman record with 1,007 yards this season, proved yet again he’s a special talent. 

On a field where the talent gap and the level of execution from one sideline to the other proved to be drastic, Barkley and sophomore receiver Chris Godwin — who caught 11 passes for 109 yards and a pair of touchdowns — were as steady as they’ve been all season. 

When there was a 4th-down conversion on the table Godwin stepped up to move the chains. When the Lions struggled to find the end zone right away riding Barkley into the red zone and a slant falling incomplete to Godwin, Christian Hackenberg went back to his top target on third down for the score. 

“I can’t really be happy about my performance because my biggest goal is for us to win as a team and if we don’t win it just kind of takes away from what happens,” said Godwin who has 63 catches for 968 yards this season. “I’m confident we can fix things so we come away from our next game with a victory.”

Barkley, who hasn’t been made available to the media this season per James Franklin’s media policy where freshmen and transfer players are off limits, has acclimated well to the spotlight, teammates said. Much like Hackenberg did three years ago as a bright-eyed freshman, Barkley’s breakout season shows promise for the future. While the Lions’ future will be a focal point during bowl prep Penn State has two young cornerstones to build with. 

“I thought he was obviously very talented and he burst on the scene and he made a lot of really good plays,” Hackenberg said of Barkley. “Talent is something you really can’t coach and he has a lot of it and I think you look at his work ethic and that’s something that goes into it. You don’t just rush for 1,000 yards just on straight talent. He’s put in a lot of work and there’s a lot of people that go into that. … It’s awesome for him. … He’s earned everyone’s respect in the locker room at a young age and that’s special.”

Franklin said he did not leave Barkley in at the end of the game because the record was within reach, rather he wanted many of the offense’s young players to take reps with backup quarterback Trace McSorley who entered the game with under 10 minutes left and the score out of reach.

Tracking the tackling 

It’s time for the weekly why is the tackling still problematic and what can be done to fix it part of the notebook. It was magnified the last month during the Lions’ losses to ranked opponents and while injuries and depth can account for part of it it doesn’t tell the whole story. 

Penn State opted to scale back the contact in practice earlier this season while waiting to make it to their late-season bye week. After the bye parts of the practice schedule remained the same with limited contact while the Lions stressed getting in an athletic position as if they were making a tackling, but not driving their teammate to the ground.  

“Everyone has their nicks and knacks, but everyone not getting their full contact in in practice really makes a difference I think,” said cornerback Grant Haley

Franklin said earlier this week the team was as banged up as it’s been all year. However, every team in late November has issues to overcome so while Penn State might be reeling late in the season the breakdowns in fundamentals weren’t fixed.  

The case for Carl

Penn State’s defense shifted tackle Anthony Zettel back to his 2013 position as a defensive end and plugged senior Tarow Barney in at defensive tackle alongside Austin Johnson. Defensive end Torrence Brown checked in after Carl Nassib was taken out of the game after two plays while dealing with what the television broadcast said was a hamstring injury.  

Nassib played two plays against Michigan and just two against Michigan State. Defensive end Garrett Sickels didn’t make the trip due to an undisclosed injury and without both starting ends the Lions failed to register a sack or a tackle for loss. 

“Not having Nassib and Sickels in there had an impact on us in third down, had an impact on us on first and second down,” Franklin said. “Good players.” 

Flag fest

Penn State’s offense was penalized six times and offensive lineman Andrew Nelson, who played left and right tackle Saturday, accounted for three of the penalties. The Lions’ starting offensive line — with Nelson at left tackle, Derek Dowrey at left guard, Angelo Mangiro at center, Brian Gaia at right guard and Brendan Mahon at right tackle— was the same combination it used earlier this season against Buffalo. 

The Lions put Paris Palmer in at left tackle in the second half and moved Nelson back to right tackle. The Lions also used Palmer in their jumbo package in the first half, much like they did last week against Michigan too. Still, in the regular season the finale the Lions hadn’t found their best group of five. Hackenberg was sacked twice and the Lions surrendered 39 sacks this season, just five away from tying the school record that was set a year ago.

“Jumping offsides, there was a couple times where they did a good job with their environment in the stadium with the fans where we jumped offsides and now you’re in a first and 15 situation or a 2nd and 15 situation against a good football team so it makes it difficult to stay on schedule, create manageable third-down situations,” Franklin said.

What happens next?

Penn State did mid-season evaluations and James Franklin said the Lions will do staff evaluations again before the bowl game and then after the bowl game as well.  

“We’re evaluating every single day, but the evaluation will happen in between now and the bowl and then again after the bowl when the season is over,” he said.

Franklin also said he will meet with several players in the coming weeks to hash out a plan about their futures. While it would seem likely that standout juniors Austin Johnson and Christian Hackenberg would be at the top of that list, Hackenberg shrugged off questions about his future after the game and said he’s focused on bowl prep, calling it a mini version of spring practice. The Lions will learn their bowl destination next Sunday evening.

“We will have some conversations with a number of guys and come up with a plan that makes sense for them and makes sense for Penn State,” Franklin said. “Look forward to doing that here in the next couple weeks.”

Audrey Snyder: and Twitter @audsnyder4.

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