Arrange 50 little blue cones to form a wide lane and a boundary to keep bystanders at bay. Throw into the middle a ball carrier and two blockers, add a tackler and two block destructors opposite them and let chaos and violence ensue.
Helmets crash. Pads crunch. Observing players and coaches stomp, jump and holler and head coach James Franklin loves it.
Welcome to the Lions’ Den — a physical, six-man, head-to-head tackling drill that’s become a common occurrence during Penn State’s spring practice sessions with Franklin in charge.
“It gives you a great opportunity just to evaluate them without any scheme,” Franklin said after Penn State’s 11th spring practice on Saturday. “It’s mano a mano. Can you get off a block? Can you make the block? It’s another opportunity to step up in front of your teammates and show what type of football player you are.”
For a team with depth concerns due to NCAA sanctions that have decreased the number of scholarship players on the roster, the contact-heavy drill is a welcome addition to spring ball. For most of Bill O’Brien’s tenure, this sort of activity was limited to Saturday afternoons.
So when walk-on safety Brian Tomasetti burst through a pair of blockers and drove a ballcarrier into a row of his teammates looking on beyond the cones, Penn State players reacted as if Mike Hull had just exploded through to bury Ohio State’s Carlos Hyde behind the line of scrimmage.
“I think there’s a lot of value in it. I really do,” Franklin said. “Because a lot of times when you’re out there running offense or defense, their brains are spinning with scheme and (the Lions’ Den is) just go play football. So that’s good for us.”
Overall, the entirety of this season’s spring period has taken on a more physical feel for the Nittany Lions, Hull said.
Offensive linemen bashed and shoved in a head-to-head position drill on Saturday. Meanwhile linebackers and defensive linemen have also said they’ve been exposed to more live contact than they were used to in the last two spring periods.
“Whenever we’re on the field it’s no holds barred and we’re working and competing,” Hull said. “Sometimes I think we’re going to have a little bit more live practices than we did before which I think we need. (The coaches) understand the restrictions but they’re doing a really good job and I think everyone really likes them bringing the SEC mentality up here.”
Hull described the SEC mentality as being as physical as possible even in drills against tackling dummies or sleds. He also said Penn State has started to tone down the amount of contact with just four practices left before Saturday’s Blue-White Game.
Sophomore quarterback Christian Hackenberg said he thinks the team has benefited from Franklin’s high-energy, up-tempo practices.
“I think that we have to do that right now,” Hackenberg said. “We have new things to learn, new systems on both sides of the ball. So I think that going full speed, really just competing and seeing what we can do with it is the best thing to do.”
Offensive linemen MIA
While Penn State players in other position groups have stayed healthy for the most part this spring, the offensive line is missing a few pieces already.
Penn State practiced with just nine offensive lineman in its main group during the portion of practice open to reporters on Saturday. Missing were tackle Andrew Nelson, guards Anthony Alosi, Miles Dieffenbach and center Angelo Mangiro. Dieffenbach is out with a knee injury but no updates were available on the other missing players per Penn State’s policy not to update injury statuses.
It is unclear whether any of the missing players will be available for Saturday’s Blue-White Game. Franklin said Penn State may dress offensive linemen in gray jerseys for the game to allow available linemen to switch from the Blue Team to the White Team without having to change uniforms.
“The format is really dictated on where we’re at in terms of depth and bodies by the time the game comes along,” Franklin said. “At this point we still plan on having a true spring game. We’ll see how this week goes and affects that.”
Special teams focus
About 15 players took turns fielding punts on Saturday.
But due to the low, diagonal roofs inside Holuba Hall, Penn State coaches used two Jugs machines — usually used to feed passes to receivers — to zip the football up into the air at a sharp trajectory.
It’s part of special teams coordinator Charles Huff’s push to improve the Nittany Lions’ special teams units that ranked near the bottom in nearly every statistical category last season.
While players including Adrian Amos, Bill Belton and Akeel Lynch camped out under the football, giant yoga balls bounced their way and tennis balls flew toward them, too.
“We practice special teams every single day, twice a day,” junior cornerback Jordan Lucas said. “Right before, right after stretching and a segment in practice. So we learn our techniques. We know our depth as of right now. Of course things may change from now into the summer, especially when some freshmen get here but special teams is the most important unit on this football team. And they’re letting us know that right now.”
Franklin has not ruled out anything as it relates to the fall lineup. He’s insisted he will play the best players regardless of seniority or past assignments on all special teams units. He’s used the Lions’ Den drill as an evaluator for players who could serve on coverage units.
“That’s how you can earn a job covering kicks or something like that,” Franklin said. “It’s just another opportunity to evaluate.”
Instead of ending spring practices with mandatory conditioning sessions, Franklin has opted to use certain special teams scenarios to give his players incentive to finish strong. Recently, a 55-yard field goal from Sam Ficken capped a session on the practice fields — and kept his teammates from having to run the dreaded sprints — behind the Lasch Building.
Its this type of team bonding that has helped boost the team’s overall morale, which some players have mentioned as sagging following the uncertainty left behind after O’Brien’s departure.
“He’ll put some pressure on the kickers and try to make them make field goals and whenever we don’t have conditioning everyone goes nuts,” Hull said. “And I think that everyone really likes that he kind of lets us have a say in some stuff.”