Final Takeaways From Penn State Football’s Spring Practices
On Friday, Penn State football held its last scheduled spring practice under the lights in front of a lively Beaver Stadium crowd. Throughout the short, early-season progression period, James Franklin felt as though he and his staff have been able to identify several key strengths and weaknesses heading into a crucial upcoming training camp cycle.
While the Nittany Lions are set to take a short break from organized team activities before the preseason summer grind begins, many previously unanswered questions have been addressed over the course of the spring.
From impressive outputs compiled by unfamiliar faces to the further development of established leaders, here are some of our top takeaways now that spring ball’s come to a close.
Sean Clifford Remains The Undisputed Leader At Quarterback
With Mike Yurcich’s arrival in Happy Valley as the new head of the offense, many believed the fiery coach would impose an open competition at the quarterback position following Sean Clifford’s latest campaign plagued by regression.
For Clifford, the combination of physical maturation and additional motivation for self and team-wide improvement has helped narrow the thought-to-be battle into a single-horse race. In two live practices at Beaver Stadium, the fifth-year veteran channeled a new level of poise and comfortability by hitting on a high percentage of quick-strike, intermediate passes while limiting turnovers, an area he struggled in a year ago. In scrimmage-styled action, he tallied three total touchdowns to just one interception.
“I’ve been pleased with Sean this spring,” Franklin said after Friday’s practice. “I’ve been pleased with Ta’Quan and Christian as well. But between now and spring, there’s a lot that needs to be worked on, but that’s one of the exciting things at the quarterback position.”
Although Clifford’s development has impressed, the head coach reiterated that there is still work to be done within the position room heading into the season. Currently, the margin between the Ohio native and the rest of the unit is too wide for Franklin’s liking.
“The work that [the quarterbacks] do between now and game one are going to be really important,” Franklin said. “We’d like for that gap to be closed between our ones and our twos.”
Jesse Luketa & Ellis Brooks Headline Athletic Linebackers
Despite not participating in any live-action drills throughout the spring, junior linebacker Jesse Luketa has garnered praise from the coaching staff for his intense approach and versatility. Playing alongside the Canadian product, fellow linebacker Ellis Brooks has also capitalized on a season of growth spurred by his veteran leadership.
Naturally, both athletes entered the collegiate ranks as reputable middle linebackers but have since grown into viable outside defenders throughout their tenures in Happy Valley.
“We view both of them as starters for us,” Franklin said. “They will both be starters for us at the linebacker position, whether it be at Mike linebacker or one of the other linebacker positions.”
For Luketa, the possibility of playing a hybrid-type edge rusher possession remains on the table entering his fourth campaign as a Nittany Lion. At 6’3″ 255-pounds, the high motor defender has the ability to utilize his impressive combination of size and speed to pressure opposing backfields.
“There’s also some discussions that we had with Jesse about playing some other positions as well that we think he has the ability to play, which I think is not only going to help our defense but is also going to help Jesse and his future at the next level,” Franklin added.
Aside from the heralded junior duo, rising stars Brandon Smith and Curtis Jacobs have also shown signs of improvement over the past month, emerging as forces at the weak-side and strong-side positions, respectively. While each of the four highlighted players previously entered the program as blue-chip prospects, Brent Pry’s player development has further enhanced the unit into a true force to be reckoned with.
Depth At Skill-Positions Features A Plethora Of Electrifying Playmakers
Penn State’s current depth of playmakers at the running back and wide receiver positions might be at an all-time high in the James Franklin era, folks.
For Ja’Juan Seider’s group, the highly-anticipated return of Noah Cain provides a much-needed spark to the heavily balanced unit. Although the Louisiana native was unable to perform in both scrimmages, he and established newcomer Keyvone Lee give the Nittany Lions the ability to run with power and control. Additionally, the combination of Devyn Ford, Caziah Holmes, and John Lovett brings an added element of speed to spark chunk yardage gains.
At wide receiver, Jahan Dotson picked up right where he left off this spring by providing Friday night’s crowd with an instant 64-yard touchdown reception, created by his post-catch shiftiness. Parker Washington also shined by hauling in just about every ball thrown his way, including a highlight-reel one-handed grab midway through the action.
“Parker playing as a true freshman and being able to build on that. He’s a guy that I think has flashed,” Franklin said.
Aside from the two mainstays, Cam Sullivan-Brown, Daniel George, and Keandre Lambert-Smith all performed serviceably in both scrimmages to close out the dangerous array of pass catchers.
Array Of Transfers, Newcomers Instantly Pushing For Valuable Minutes
Between both scrimmages, several new Nittany Lions were featured as key first or second-team pieces in their first camp cycles on campus.
On the defensive line, a pair of transfers in Arnold Ebiketie and Derrick Tangelo accounted for half of the first-team defense’s starting front in both matchups. In the secondary, former South Carolina product Johnny Dixon played a featured role due to the absence of injured cornerback Joey Porter Jr.
Although he didn’t start, John Lovett’s quickness was as dangerous as advertised Friday night. The Baylor transfer was able to rip off a flurry of quality carries by attacking the sideline and beating the first-level with his game-changing speed.
“Early on, [Lovett’s] been really flashing some things that we were excited about,” Franklin said. “It’s obvious you have a veteran guy who’s been around, he’s played a lot of football, was very respected at the place he came from, so [he’s] kind of what we thought. He can run, he’s got the ability to make people miss, he’s got that extra gear that we need, a guy that can be a home-run threat for us.”
A multitude of true freshman early-enrollees also shined during their first set of months as Penn Staters. Aside from quarterback Christian Veilleux gaining valuable experience in Yurcich’s thin position group, cornerback Kalen King stood out amongst the rest of the class.
Last Saturday, the four-star product picked off two passes, including one returned to the end zone for a touchdown. Described as the “most advanced freshman” Franklin has ever coached at Penn State, the rangy athlete embodied his innate knack for finding the ball in both showings.
“He is physically ready. He’s a guy that’s come in and is already physically developed from a weight standpoint and a strength standpoint,” Franklin said last week. “On top of that, he’s got ball skills…I know this sounds strange, and it sounds funny, but some guys like him, the ball just likes them.”
Offensive Line & Secondary Set For Bounce-Back Seasons
Coming off of a campaign highlighted by several lackluster outings, both position groups have capitalized on increased regularity to last season’s previously abnormal practice schedule.
On the offensive line, veterans Mike Miranda and Rasheed Walker have improved their technique with added instruction from second-year position coach Phil Trautwein. In the spring installment period, both players have strengthened the collective group by focusing on their individual craft.
“I think Mike Miranda has the chance to have a really good year for us,” Franklin said. “He’s flashed, as well as Rasheed [Walker]. I think Rasheed is another guy that came back for a reason, and his maturity, and his positive attitude, and his perspective now is much different. I’m really proud of him.”
Flipping to the other side of the ball, last year’s depleted secondary is now one of the defense’s biggest strengths. Hard-hitting safety Jaquan Brisker and shutdown cornerback Tariq Casto-Fields have set the tone for the fastest, most physical Nittany Lion secondary in years.
“I think Brisker, it is obvious that he came back for a reason,” Franklin said. “He’s so positive right now. He’s so coachable. I’ve been very, very pleased with him.”
With spring ball in the rearview mirror, it’s safe to say several Nittany Lions made strides in just over a month’s time. Sooner than later, James Franklin’s group will embark on a crucial training camp leading up to a blockbuster opening matchup against Wisconsin.
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