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Penn State Approaches Spring Practices Differently With Transfer Portal Haul Imminent

Before the transfer portal’s inception nailed the future outlook of college football, spring practice periods stood as almost an identical precursor for the outlook of fall camp, which then used to flow directly into the regular season with similar roster makeups present in each phase. 

Now, however, with nearly 1,300 FBS players entering the portal since last August, high-profile programs across the country are approaching spring ball in an entirely different manner. With approximately 10 athletes per Division I team on the move, most Power Five schools, including Penn State, have fallen victim to abnormal depth shortages that are unrelated to classic turnover from graduating seniors or other eligible NFL Draft prospects deciding to pursue opportunities at the next level.

For the Nittany Lions, deficits on the offensive line and at defensive end have hindered the squad’s progression in the trenches at the midpoint of the spring season. In James Franklin’s mind, the ninth-year head coach doesn’t see the glaring issue as a stark concern. Instead, he views it as a result of the rapidly evolving model with an unavoidable presence, regardless of program caliber.

“There was an article that came out today, that I’m going to show the coaching staff tomorrow, that there are a lot of programs across the country that are really struggling with depth, and that spring games across the country have been modified because they don’t have the depth to do a traditional spring game,” Franklin said Wednesday evening. “So, there’s no doubt that the landscape of college football has changed dramatically.”

Shortly before the transfer portal gained its current level of traction, the fad of high school recruits electing to enroll early in January rather than finishing their high school careers proved to be vital in the early development of prospects entering the college ranks hoping to make an immediate impact as a freshman.

While the first few months of initiation used to be considered invaluable compared to hitting the ground running in the grueling summer months for first-year players, coaches are now evaluating their squads with more of a long-term vision in mind. As Penn State and other teams recruit experienced talent from the transfer portal later on, the initial months of football in Happy Valley have transitioned into focusing more on scheme integration rather than player evaluation, which would likely lack significance on the depth chart’s final product come September.

“You always have to be thinking short-term and [about] how we can maximize what we have right now, but then also building for the future,” Franklin said. “You talk about programs that say they’re going to sign 12 to 15 players out of the transfer portal, and those guys probably have a better chance to come in and [make an] impact right away compared to the long term of recruiting a high school player and letting them develop.”

Similarly, the change in mindset is also applied to the way coaches evaluate incoming recruits who have yet to step foot on the practice field. Previously, players who decided to graduate high school in either May or June would be at a stark disadvantage to their peers of the same age who elected to spend the entire spring semester with their new program.

At Penn State, summer camp consists of 25 practices compared to the current cycle of 15 endured throughout the spring. Although spring ball consists of roughly 40% of the Nittany Lions’ run-through sessions before Franklin’s squad will take the field in early September, the increased workload with a full depth chart in the summer makes the periods throughout March and April more approachable for unacclimated freshmen than ever before.

“We have a group of freshmen, really all of our incoming freshmen, we’re trying to push knowledge on them so that when they get here in the summer, it’s not just hearing it for the first time,” defensive coordinator Manny Diaz said. “My belief is that you get all of these guys, you don’t think about redshirting anybody. You try to get your best football team with the guys you have available. We’ve been telling Dani [Dennis-Sutton], and there’s others at all spots, ‘Hey, you’re only 15 days behind the guys here on campus right now. We can overcome 15 days.'”

Aside from the group of 16 freshmen set to hit Happy Valley in June, Franklin plans on extending the program’s range to the transfer portal, similar to how he landed defensive end Arnold Ebiketie from Temple last offseason. For the entirety of the portal’s existence, the head coach has taken a cautious approach to re-recruiting thousands of potential suitors at his disposal.

Ideally, Franklin and his staff intend to go after familiar faces the Nittany Lions attempted to snag on the recruiting trail out of high school. In order to keep the pre-established culture intact within the locker room, Franklin believes it’s important to do as much research as possible before extending offers to players out of the portal. In the view of the program’s leader, the fit is equally as important to the pickup’s potential on-field ceiling.

“We try to be very strategic and calculated about it. I know, it’s amazing to me, there are guys that are taken out of the portal that nobody calls, [and] you have no idea what happened at the previous school or what the issues may be. So, we try to do as much homework as we possibly can,” Franklin said. “We talk to the high school coach. We try to call somebody at the previous school that maybe we have a relationship with that hopefully will tell us the truth.”

The challenges of navigating the transfer portal for Franklin don’t end at finding the perfect fit from both a personal and a football sense. Oftentimes, the academic side of the equation is considered to be an afterthought, especially when transfer players are pursuing different settings mostly for football purposes.

However, at Penn State, the academic approval element from the university is just about as difficult to confirm for prospective transfers as any other institution. According to Franklin, instead of evaluating each transfer player’s academic record in one, central system, each separate academic college must approve previous academic records for admission into specific majors.

With added steps to the already tedious process, players who find a mutual fit with Penn State’s coaching staff may not be eligible for student enrollment for as many as 40 days after committing to Franklin’s program.

“One of the challenges that we have here is trying to get the credits evaluated,” Franklin said. “Some schools kind of have a central hub and office that kind of handles all transfer students and evaluating the prospects. We send it around to [where] each separate school has to evaluate their classes that could take anywhere, we’ve been told up to 40 days, which can make the transfer process challenging for us. But, we try to be as thorough as we possibly can to make sure that we’re getting the right fits and bringing the right people in here.”

Although the roster development phase of college football is vastly different than when Franklin first took hold of the Nittany Lions in 2014, his culture centered around his family-oriented atmosphere has opened the opportunity to make meaningful splashes on both the traditional recruiting trail and out of the transfer portal.

Last season, Penn State nabbed six transfers in total, with four grasping an immediate role in the squad’s first or second-team production in Ebiketie, Derrick Tangelo, Eric Wilson, and John Lovett. While Franklin has yet to add a much-needed edge rusher to fill voids behind Adisa Issac and Nick Tarburton, the head coach still managed to grab wide receiver Mitchell Tinsley and guard Hunter Nourzad into the mix from Western Kentucky and Cornell, respectively.

By the time the Nittany Lions hit the ground running during the dog days of summer training camp, Franklin is resting assured that the quality and quantity of his available depth will be night and day in comparison to what his roster will amount to during the upcoming Blue-White scrimmage.

After all, whether the incoming freshmen make an immediate mark or a slew of transfers command Franklin’s younger group this fall, the Pennsylvania native believes that both types of players have an equal chance to succeed at Penn State — regardless of their previous paths.

“Hopefully our culture here provides an opportunity for both [incoming recruits and transfers], [and] for us to solve problems in the transfer portal,” he said. “Being able to develop long term as well, but I know talking to a lot of coaches, they’re not going to take the risk, they’re not going to take the chance. They’re going to go get immediate impacts, which I get. I think you could make both arguments — you really could.”

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About the Author

Connor Krause

Connor Krause is a senior from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania double majoring in journalism and business. He is a lifelong Penn State football and basketball fan and enjoys rooting for Pittsburgh sports teams. In his free time, Connor can be found playing golf or pick-up basketball. You can follow his Twitter and Instagram @ckrause_31.

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