UNIVERSITY PARK — The James Franklin era won’t officially begin for another 139 days, when Penn State takes the field in Dublin against Central Florida.
But while Saturday’s annual intrasquad scrimmage won’t count in the history books, the Blue-White game is far from a meaningless game for the new head coach and his squad of 93 Nittany Lions.
“I want these guys to compete,” Franklin said. “At the end of the spring, we’ll look at it and see where we anticipate guys coming into fall camp. But there’s very few spots that I feel are solidified at this point.”
There are a few positions that aren’t wide open. Franklin said he’s been pleased with a handful of returning players and the efforts they’ve put in this spring.
Namely, he said returning starters in the secondary — cornerbacks Jordan Lucas and Trevor Williams and safeties Ryan Keiser and Adrian Amos — have stepped up and gained edges in their position battles. Franklin is comfortable with defensive ends Deion Barnes and C.J. Olaniyan, both returning starters, and middle linebacker Mike Hull, who has stepped up to become the quarterback of Bob Shoop’s defense.
On the offensive side of the ball, Franklin is looking forward to continuing starting quarterback Christian Hackenberg’s development with the help of offensive coordinator John Donovan and quarterbacks coach Ricky Rahne. The staff also feels confident in a stable of running backs — Zach Zwinak, Bill Belton and Akeel Lynch — all of whom played last season.
And while the new staff will be closely monitoring all of Penn State’s players, there is plenty of room for those who haven’t had as much on-field experience to show what they can do.
“I think every time you’re out there you’re getting evaluated,” Keiser said. “So I think every time you’re on the field it’s an opportunity to play your best and show the coaches what you can do.”
A host of young defensive linemen — including ends Garrett Sickels and Curtis Cothran and tackles Parker Cothren, Tarow Barney and Antoine White — will look to make good first impressions on Penn State fans.
Meanwhile, questions along the offensive line remain.
With senior Miles Dieffenbach out with a knee injury, only Donovan Smith, who has started 20 games at left tackle over the past two seasons, is back from last season’s starting offensive line. Penn State will work in a handful of new linemen including former defensive tackles Derek Dowrey and Brian Gaia.
Sophomore Wendy Laurent and redshirt freshman Tom Devenney have practiced at center while redshirt freshmen Brendan Mahon and Andrew Terlingo have joined Dowrey and Gaia in the guard rotation. True freshman Chasz Wright enrolled early and has joined the battle for playing time at tackle.
Those younger, less-experienced players will get a chance to go up against their veteran counterparts. Hull said he expects one team to have players who have been practicing on first-team units combined with second-teamers. The other team will be third-teamers mixed with second-teamers.
“I think they put a good amount of emphasis on the game,” Hull said. “They’re going to evaluate it as the third major scrimmage that we’ve had, so they want us to perform really well and play at a high level. Obviously they’re going to tone back what they show in the spring game as far as play calls go but (we’ll still be) out there playing football and trying to make the most out of the opportunity.”
The scrimmage will mark a return to a more traditional format. In two years under previous coach Bill O’Brien, the spring game pitted the offense against the defense and rewarded teams for situational success — such as big plays or a third-down conversion on offense or a sack or forced fumble on defense — in addition to traditional scoring plays.
The normal game format will also give players a chance to practice their lines of communication in a live demo with the new coaching staff for the first time.
“That’s the most I’m going to take out of it — just the communication from the box down to the field,” Hull said. “Getting the signals from the coaches and just interacting with those guys as well as getting everyone lined up defensively without the help of any coaches chirping in your ear.”
Follow Travis Johnson on Twitter @bytravisjohnson.