As the new guy in a foreign setting surrounded by more than a hundred unfamiliar faces this spring, James Franklin’s intent was to learn as much as he could about the makeup of his roster with just 15 practices to do so.
This summer — with the benefit of the NCAA’s new eight-hour rule allowing coaches contact with players where there would’ve otherwise been none — Franklin has continued to build individual relationships. Now, with camp set to begin on Aug. 4, Franklin can finally focus on tinkering and arranging his lineups and preparing to field his best 11 players on every unit.
That includes developing depth on one of the Big Ten’s youngest teams. Penn State currently lists 34 true freshmen and 78 players with underclassmen eligibility on its roster. Among those underclassmen and including six juniors — 76 of Penn State’s 121 players have never played in a game at the FBS level.
“I want the message to our players and everybody involved that you're going to have to come and compete and earn your job every single year and every single day,” Franklin said. “So we want to be able to come into camp with those freshmen, give them a legitimate job to compete for a starting position. And, if not, have an opportunity to compete for playing time in terms of depth.”
Penn State returns 20 players with starting experience and a handful who played in every game last season. Among them, most of the 11 players with senior eligibility have been heavy contributors on offense or defense over the last two seasons. By comparison, Ohio State and Michigan State — the two teams that played for the Big Ten title last season — list 22 and 18 seniors on their rosters, respectively, including deep junior classes.
Like Bill O’Brien before him, Franklin is ready to depend on young players with short resumes to augment his team’s depth. He’s already taken similar actions in switching a handful of players’ positions to shore up depth at two of the team’s biggest needs. Sophomore Von Walker was moved to linebacker from running back. Former defensive linemen Derek Dowrey and Brian Gaia moved over to the offensive line.
Dowrey and Gaia are among the group that could be vital to strengthening Penn State’s competitive numbers. They are two of 19 Nittany Lions with sophomore eligibility who are actually juniors, meaning they’ve redshirted and are well into their third year in the program.
Both Dowrey and Gaia played big roles as redshirt freshmen last season albeit as reserves on defense. They were instrumental in stiffening Penn State’s defensive line in short yardage and goal line situations. Others, like wideout Geno Lewis, defensive tackle Austin Johnson and linebacker Nyeem Wartman, emerged as key contributors at their respective positions.
But unlike Dowrey, Gaia, Lewis, Johnson and Wartman, the majority of Penn State’s now redshirt juniors — players like linebacker Gary Wooten, safety Malik Golden, defensive end Evan Schwan and linebacker Adam Cole — have mostly played special teams only.
Golden saw ample playing time in the season finale against Wisconsin due to an injury to Adrian Amos. His performance then and through spring ball has caught the interest of his teammates. Golden has added 20 pounds to his frame this offseason and senior linebacker Mike Hull said Golden has operated as a linebacker/safety hybrid much like converted safety Stephen Obeng-Agyapong did last season.
Meanwhile, Schwan had to make a name for himself on special teams last season due to a deep defensive line rotation he was unable to crack. He’s continued to do so with impressive workouts this summer, Hull said.
“He wins every single drill, every single sprint with the defensive linemen,” Hull said. “He’s got to be like 265 (pounds) now. He’s putting on a lot of weight and he’s gotten a lot stronger so I think you’ll see some athleticism out of him this year. He’s pretty fast for a defensive end.”
Wooten also brings speed Hull said. Many Penn State players said they thought Wooten could’ve played on defense last season but instead fit in as a full-time special teams contributor.
Defensive coordinator Bob Shoop plans to use an aggressive defense with multiple blitz packages and said he wants fast, athletic linebackers and safeties in order to vary the team’s coverage abilities. Hull said Wooten fits into those plans.
“I think he provides great depth,” Hull said. “He can really play (middle linebacker) or (weakside linebacker). He’s really athletic and a really strong kid. If he needs to play I think he’ll do a great job for us and we can use him in pass rush situations.”
Franklin said he expects to have 72 scholarship players this season. Penn State can field up to 75, however due to the NCAA restoring scholarships last fall after they were taken away following the Sandusky scandal and the sanctions imposed on the program in its wake.
The scholarship limitations force O’Brien to use a handful of true freshmen last season. Players like Walker and fellow linebacker Brandon Bell were among that group.
The Nittany Lions welcomed a host of incoming linebacker prospects this summer in Jason Cabinda and Troy Reeder. Both have size at 6-foot-1 and each over 240 pounds.
“Your first year, it is pretty challenging (to get on the field),” Hull said. “There’s a lot thrown at you and it’s a lot different than high school but we’re going to have to get them up to speed quick and I think they’ll be able to handle it. Both the guys are really smart and both are willing to work.”
Part of Franklin’s plan of releasing a seniority-based depth chart like he did last week is to let his underclassmen know they’ll have a chance to play right away regardless of their spots on the pecking order.
“That's going to be very, very important to us, creating depth throughout our roster, playing as many guys as we possibly can, and then being able to call the game on offense, defense, and special teams to hide some of our deficiencies as well,” Franklin said.
Nittany Lions pick up 5-star defensive end
Penn State added another prospect to its 2016 recruiting class on Wednesday.
Defensive end Shane Simmons — ranked as a five-star recruit by 24-7 Sports — verbally committed to the Nittany Lions. He announced his decision, which is non-binding until he signs a National Letter of Intent, on his Twitter feed.
At 6-foot-4, 221 pounds, Simmons became the second prospect to commit to Penn State in the 2016 class. The Hyatttsville, Md. native who attends DeMatha Catholic, is considered the top overall prospect in the state according to 24-7 Sports. He had offers from Alabama, Arizona State, Baylor and Cincinnati.