Help Wanted: Penn State Answering Questions, Filling Holes At The Line Of Scrimmage
Heading into spring practice, James Franklin and the Penn State coaching staff faced question marks at the two most important position groups in football, outside of quarterback: the offensive and defensive lines. Even the most casual fan will tell you that controlling the line of scrimmage is the key to victory, and with the Nittany Lions losing four combined starters on both fronts (Donovan Smith and Miles Dieffenbach on offense, Deion Barnes and C.J. Olanyian on defense), prospects were shaky as the opening game against Temple loomed in six months.
But after seeing players improve beginning with offseason weight gains during winter workouts and further development at spring practice, which culminates this Saturday at the annual Blue-White scrimmage, Franklin is impressed with the team’s progress — even if it’s invisible to the naked eye.
“Overall, I’m really pleased,” Franklin said Saturday after Penn State’s third week of practice. “I told them, they may not see it. Even the individual coaches may not see it, but I do. Looking at it from 50,000 feet, and watching all the drills, and all the competition, I’m just so impressed.”
One of the position groups where he’s seen the most progress is defensive line. Losing a duo that combined for nine sacks last season, 30 percent of its year-end total, puts pressure on incumbents Anthony Zettel and Austin Johnson to pick up the slack, but more importantly, whoever steps in at defensive end. As practice winds down, Franklin is beginning to find the answer to those concerns.
“We entered this spring with questions marks at D-end. We don’t have those question marks,” Franklin said. “Those guys have played with great techniques, they’re playing with fundamentals, they’re playing with confidence right now, and I’m excited about our defense. I really am.”
Two names that have stood out this spring include Carl Nassib and Garrett Sickels, players that saw limited action in the rotation last season. Nassib, who Franklin praised prior to practice as “Mr. Consistent,” finished with 3.5 tackles for loss and one sack in 2014 in what Franklin called a “sneaky, quiet, really successful year.” Sickels, a redshirt sophomore, racked up 3.0 tackles for loss and 2.0 sacks.
Franklin used words like “talented” and “dependable” to describe the likely starting duo, but they weren’t the only pair of ends that received the coach’s adoration. A redshirt freshman and sophomore are quickly making names for themselves.
“Curtis Cothran and Torrence Brown to me are exciting,” Franklin said. “That doesn’t slight the other guys, but for two young guys that haven’t played, they’re flashing some really exciting things.”
It’s a sentiment shared by incumbent starter and first team All-Big Ten selection Anthony Zettel, who spurned the NFL to return to Penn State seeking an All-American season.
“We all feed off each other as a group,” Zettel said of the defensive line. “I think we have so many ends that can bring different qualities that can help the line. I think that a lot of the younger guys have just improved tremendously since last year.”
On the offensive side of the ball, the need for improvement was obvious. Much has been written about the offensive line’s struggles, and with the departure of Dieffenbach and Smith, the left tackle and guard spots move from relative strengths to questionable at best. However, Franklin has seen improvements in two key areas that’s given him confidence heading into the final week of spring practice: communication and confidence.
“Let’s be honest: understand where we started,” Franklin said. “We’ve got a long way to go to be where we want to be, but we’re communicating. Last year, because we had one returning starter, no one would get up there and make the calls and communicate because nobody wanted to make mistakes. Now they’re communicating so much better, they know who to work to now with confidence.”
“Now we just need to get better at all the little things: the pad level, the hand placement, the hat placement,” he added.
In Franklin and offensive line coach Herb Hand’s master plan to retool the offensive line, the next step is fairly simple. With better communication, confidence will only continue to build, leading to a stronger, more cohesive unit. Instead of thinking about being in the right position, the focus can shift to dominating the man in front of them.
“Last year there were times when they didn’t play with confidence at all,” Franklin said. “Now they’re confident mentally, but we need to get them to play more aggressive because they’re not thinking. They’re not thinking about their assignment, their technique. They’re just coming out and playing aggressive. That’s the next step they have to take.”
But even with a new aggressive mindset, you still need players that can execute. JUCO transfer Paris Palmer is a player that inspired hope for the fanbase, a raw 6-foot-8, 290 pound prospect that projects as the left or right tackle of the future. But Franklin was quick to remind everyone that while talented, he’s still growing.
“He’s where the rest of the offensive line was last year,” Franklin said. “He’s kind of different because he has the footwork to get to position and make the plays, but at this level, he can get overpowered because he’s right around 290 pounds. He’s 6-foot-8, 290 and he looks like he’s 247. So the combination of experience this spring, all summer working, I think he has the chance to be in the 300-305 pound range against Temple, and that’s going to help because size matters. Mass moves mass. You can afford to have some of the mistakes because you have the size.”
While Palmer is still at least a summer away from contributing meaningful minutes, redshirt freshman Chasz Wright fits the mold of a capable replacement for Dieffenbach at guard.
“He’s grown tremendously,” Franklin said. “But he’s also 6-foot-7, 330 pounds so he’s able to get moving and be physical and play with more confidence.”
For Penn State’s running game, a mauler like Wright is something that was sorely missed last season. Not to mention, Christian Hackenberg wouldn’t mind another big body protecting his backside, as the third-year starter was sacked 44 times last season, the second-most among Big Ten signal callers in the last decade.
In Franklin’s second year on the job, the development of players like Nassib, Sickels, Wright, and Palmer will determine how much Penn State improves just as much as Hackenberg’s development under center. For the defensive line, the goal is maintaining its dominant front four with the addition of two new defensive ends. For the offense, it’s finding a consistent push that paves the way for the running game and keeps No. 14’s jersey clean. That’s easier said than done, of course, but outside of depth issues at tight end, running back, and left tackle, Franklin insists he feels pretty good. Miles ahead of last year, for sure.
“No doubt about it,” Franklin said when asked if there’s less question marks now than this time last spring. “Less everything at this point.”