News & Notes From James Franklin’s Media Day Press Conference
Penn State football will be back in just a few short weeks, and with that comes the team’s annual media day.
Head coach James Franklin made his first remarks of the Nittany Lions’ 2019 season to the media over the weekend. Naturally, there were plenty of discussion points for the head coach to touch on.
From his team’s quarterback battle to the Nittany Lions’ leadership, here’s a roundup of the most notable sound bites from his season-opening press conference at Beaver Stadium.
On Penn State’s quarterbacks
Unsurprisingly, Franklin wasn’t willing to name a starting quarterback at his first press conference of training camp. The head coach has been consistent in saying that every position will come down to a camp competition, and quarterback is no exception.
The competition to take on Trace McSorley’s old job will likely come down to redshirt sophomore Sean Clifford and redshirt freshman Will Levis. Clifford has the upper hand in terms of in-game experience, as Levis has yet to throw a pass at the collegiate level. However, Franklin praised both players’ mentality entering the competition.
“The good thing is both of them are approaching it the right way,” he said. “They are both approaching it as if they are the starter, and they are both approaching it from a leadership perspective. Both are very talented, so we’re excited about that.”
Franklin said he’ll name a starting quarterback “when it’s obvious to everybody” in his program. He’s also been impressed with true freshmen Michael Johnson Jr. and Ta’Quan Roberson, and he had heaps of praise for veteran Michael Shuster.
“I do want to mention a guy named Shuster. He has been fantastic,” Franklin said. “He is a great leader in the quarterback room. He’s like having another coach. He’s great with the young guys. He’s great when it comes to game-planning. He’s a culture driver.”
It’s no secret that Penn State’s 2019 roster is mostly made up of young players.
Franklin said this year’s team will have a strong veteran presence from guys like Steven Gonzalez, Cam Brown, and Jan Johnson, but it’ll also need younger players — particularly the redshirt sophomore class — to step up and take on leadership roles.
“There are guys that are thrust into leadership roles that probably under typical situations would not be,” Franklin said. “I think you’re always putting a priority on developing leadership through your entire roster. That goes back to our philosophy of having not just two seniors as captains. You want to make sure that you’re having an impact and being able to relate [to others] across your roster from freshmen all the way through seniors, offense, defense and special teams and all of it.”
Franklin named KJ Hamler as a perfect example of someone pushed into a leadership role early. The talented wideout has just 13 games of college experience under his belt, but he’s already the veteran of his position group. Fellow young receivers Jahan Dotson and Justin Shorter are expected to step up into larger roles this season, and they’ll both look up to Hamler as a leader.
Quarterback is another natural source of leadership on any football team, and it’s also another very young position on Penn State’s roster. Sean Clifford has just four games of college experience under his belt, but he’s quickly grown as a leader following Tommy Stevens’ abrupt departure from Penn State.
On Penn State’s secondary
On paper, defense is probably the strongest part of Penn State’s 2019 roster. The unit features a nice balance of younger players and veterans like John Reid, Garrett Taylor, and Tariq Castro-Fields.
Beyond those three players, the vast majority of Penn State’s secondary doesn’t have much game experience. However, Franklin isn’t concerned about the team’s depth in the secondary because he considers it the “earliest place on the defensive side of the ball to make an impact as a young player.”
“It has a chance to be a strength,” Franklin said of the secondary. “I like our depth, our length, and our talent at the corner position. We went into spring ball feeling like we had some question marks at safety, but then after spring, we felt like we were probably a little bit further along there than we thought. Then obviously, we got some guys that have joined our program in the summer that are going to help. We’re going into this [season] with a lot of confidence.”
At safety, Taylor returns as the group’s elder statesman, and he’ll likely be joined by one of Jonathan Sutherland or Lamont Wade in the starting lineup. Sutherland and Wade have played a lot of ball for Penn State, but the group’s depth will be filled out by inexperienced players. Freshmen Jaquan Brisker and Tyler Rudolph are talented, but raw assets, and CJ Holmes just made the switch to safety from running back.
Taylor will have lots of responsibility as Penn State’s top safety. If Franklin’s comments are any indication, however, he’s more than ready to take on that role.
“GT has had a great summer,” the head coach said. “He looks unbelievable. He’s as lean and explosive and as fast as he’s been, and he obviously has tremendous experience.”
Reid and Castro-Fields were both fixtures in the lineup last year, but Donovan Johnson is the most experienced corner on the roster with just six games played in his career. A good amount of talented young players — including State High product Keaton Ellis, four-star recruit Joey Porter Jr., and Daequan Hardy — will hope to fill out the team’s depth at corner.
On defensive end Yetur Gross-Matos
Star defensive end Yetur Gross-Matos was suspended throughout the summer for an undisclosed violation of team rules, but he was back in action with the team as it started training camp. Franklin had plenty of praise for Gross-Matos, who is projected by some as a top 10 prospect in next year’s NFL Draft and currently weighs in at 255 pounds.
“He’s a mature guy. I know he’s appreciative of being back,” Franklin said. “We’re very pleased with him, his development, his appreciation for being at Penn State, and his attitude and approach. I think he’s going to have a really big year for us.”
As Franklin noted, Gross-Matos really separated himself as one of the elite players at his position in 2018. He led Penn State with 20 tackles-for-loss and eight sacks on his way to earning first-team All-Big Ten honors. The head coach also brought up Gross-Matos’ background, which was featured in-depth by ESPN, and the impact that has on his mentality.
“He’s always been a guy that always got a smile on his face,” he said. “I think because of that background, he probably has a different sense of appreciation than maybe the rest of us do.”
On Beaver Stadium hosting high school football
Franklin was asked about Penn State’s reported interest in bringing one high school football game to Beaver Stadium this season. He’s open to the idea of being “great partners in our community and our state” and allowing two high school teams to hold a game in Happy Valley. However, the head coach said high school action would only take place at Beaver Stadium at the appropriate time.
Although he was asked about the possibility of just one high school game, Franklin brought up another interesting possibility: hosting the Pennsylvania state championships in Happy Valley.
“We’d love to get to the point where maybe we’re able to host the state championship games here,” he said. “There’s a lot of reasons why that makes sense — we’re in the center of the state. We’re going to look at it.”
It’s currently unclear who will play and when the game would be held at Beaver Stadium. State High is a natural candidate to play at the 107,000-seat stadium — especially considering the team won’t play at Memorial Field this season as it undergoes renovations.
Penn State football has two bye weeks this season — one on September 21 and another on November 2 — on top of its normal slate of away contests. Time will tell whether or not high school football will come to Beaver Stadium, but it seems like a matter of “when” instead of “if” at this point.
On KJ Hamler’s role on offense
KJ Hamler was one of Penn State’s most dangerous weapons on offense last season, and he did most of his damage while lining up in the slot.
At 5’9″ and 176 pounds, Hamler’s as close to the prototypical slot receiver as you can be in terms of size. He also has the straight-line speed to burn any cornerback in the nation, which was on full display in the 2018 White Out game.
Utilizing Hamler’s skill set out of the slot will be Franklin and the offense’s top priority. That said, don’t be surprised if Hamler doesn’t spend all of the 2019 season lined up in the slot on offense thanks to Mac Hippenhammer’s talents.
“I could see us in some situations where we want to get Mac on the field, or we want to get Mac on the field and we want to move KJ outside,” Franklin said. “It could be for a specific match-up that game. It could be trying to get the ball in [Hamler’s] hands where now he becomes the first option in the quarterback’s progression.”
Additionally, Hamler’s expected to assume kick and punt return duties once again. He didn’t return a kick for a score last season, but opposing teams always have to be cautious when someone as dynamic as Hamler has the ball in his hands.
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Penn State ranked just outside the top 100 in this year’s Forbes’ list of the top colleges in the United States.
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