James Franklin made a few things clear shortly before his team began preseason practice on Monday.
It won’t be until two weeks from now that the Nittany Lions begin preparation and scheming to play UCF in the season opener on Aug. 30. And that trip — to Dublin, Ireland’s Croke Park where the Nittany Lions will take on the Knights — won’t include many sightseeing opportunities for Penn State players and coaches.
“I think it’s going to be a real unique experience but the hard part is everybody keeps talking about what a great cultural experience for the players but it’s not like we are going to be touring the countryside,” Franklin said. “We have got a tight schedule. What we have got to do is we have to make sure our guys have an unbelievable experience at Penn State and get their degrees, and a degree that means something so that once they graduate, they can afford to go on a vacation back to Ireland and enjoy the countryside. But this trip really isn’t for that.”
Penn State players understand this.
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Although most of his family will be attending, sophomore tight end Adam Breneman understands his time overseas will be dominated by football preparation.
“It’s a business trip when we head over there,” Breneman said. “We’re not going to be out there taking tours. We’re going to be there practicing and having meetings and getting ready to beat Central Florida.”
Recently, Penn State dispatched a group of athletic department officials to tour the venue, team hotel and practice facilities in order to make preparations for the trip across the Atlantic. In addition, Franklin and his staff have worked the phones, speaking with officials from Notre Dame and Navy — both teams have played games overseas recently — in order to get a better handle on the preparation involved.
“It’s not even like playing an away game,” Franklin said. “You’ve got to deal with the time zones. You’ve got to deal with sleep. You’ve got to deal with the nutrition aspect. ... Customs is a huge deal. When you think about all the equipment that we’re going to have to take over there and each piece of equipment we’re taking over there has to be documented. How many rolls of tape? How many scissors? How many this? How many that? To get through customs, every single piece of equipment has to be logged.”
Penn State defensive line coach Sean Spencer likes the consistency he’s seen from his players throughout the offseason.
There are high expections for defensive ends Deion Barnes and C.J. Olaniyan. Anthony Zettel impressed during the spring as he transitioned from defensive end to defensive tackle. Austin Johnson also caught the coach’s eye with the Nittany Lions searching to replace two starting defensive tackles including DaQuan Jones, who was taken by the Tennessee Titans in the fourth round of the NFL Draft.
“I liken Austin to a lot like DaQuan,” Spencer said. “Obviously, DaQuan’s an NFL player so it’s a big thing to say, but he’s got a great skillset for a big-bodied person, probably the best basketball player on the team at 315 pounds.”
Johnson played in all 12 games and made two starts for the Nittany Lions last season. Johnson, who enters camp listed at 6-foot-4, 313 pounds, is expected to challenge for a starting spot at defensive tackle following the departures of Jones and Kyle Baublitz. Jones, a 6-foot-4, 323-pound lineman, led Penn State with 11.5 tackles for loss and ranked fifth with 56 tackles in addition to recording three sacks in 2013. His 56 tackles were the most by an interior lineman in the Big Ten.
Defensive coordinator Bob Shoop called Zettel and Johnson “really good players” on the interior line when discussing the talent in his unit Monday.
Johnson made a season-high six tackles and contributed to a sack against Eastern Michigan last year. In a win over Wisconsin in the final game, he made four tackles to go with a quarterback hurry. Johnson finished with 27 tackles in his first year of action after redshirting as a freshman in 2012.
Johnson was an all-state football and basketball player at St. Augustine Prep in New Jersey.
The title of best basketball player on the team remains a debate among the players in the locker room.
“They just talk trash,” Spencer said. “I’ve still got the best crossover in the state, so I don’t know if they want to go against me.”
Revolving return door
Special teams coordinator Charles Huff is still looking for a de facto punt and kick returner to distance himself from the field.
The Nittany Lions used eight different return men last season and practiced more than that during kickoff and punt return drills on Monday.
Franklin said ideally the team’s third running back would be its primary kick returner. While Akeel Lynch spent most of last season as Penn State’s No. 3 ballcarrier, he split kick return duties with fellow running backs Bill Belton and Zach Zwinak at practice.
“We have a few guys we think have a chance and you’d love for your third running back to be that guy, just from a numbers standpoint, plus it helps them get reps,” Huff said. “As spring goes on and we go through spring and we go through camp, the guy who develops with the most talent and dangerous talent, he can protect the ball, run the scheme, trust the scheme will be the guy.”
Freshmen running backs Mark Allen and Johnathan Thomas also took kick return reps as did senior safety Adrian Amos.
Meanwhile, freshmen wideout DeAndre Thompkins and cornerback Grant Haley were among player fielding punts. Sophomore wideout Gregg Garrity, junior cornerback Jordan Lucas and senior safety Jesse Della Valle joined them. Thompkins, who Franklin said ran the fastest 40-yard-dash time on the team, drew praise from Huff as he caught four straight punts without a muff.
Some things don’t change
While the seniors on the Nittany Lions’ roster may be seeing their fourth head coach in their four seasons, and most have had to experience changes in calls and terminology, some priorities do not change.
Every football coach around the world — or wherever the sport is played — has the same expectation for the kicker.
“If it goes through the uprights, they’re happy no matter what,” said senior Sam Ficken, who was pretty good at making his coaches happy last season, making a program-record 15 straight field goals from late in 2012 through early in 2013. He finished the year 15 for 23 in field goals and 41 for 42 in extra points.
Formations and strategies may change with each new coach, but the ripple effect on special teams, especially kickers, is not felt nearly as much, Ficken felt.
“There are a few things that’ll change,” Ficken said. “I wouldn’t say on the field goal unit, but obviously with kickoff unit we’ll be doing a few different things. ... My job won’t change much — kick it left, kick it right, kick it deep, kick it soft. Different things, but obviously my job doesn’t change too much.”
Redshirt freshman punter Chris Gulla has a different way to stay in shape when he is home in New Jersey — yoga and surfing — and especially the latter.
“It’s definitely good to take your mind off football,” the Toms River native said. “It’s tough in the summer because we’re here a lot, but it’s always nice to escape back home, go back to the beach, hang out with some friends. But it definitely helps with core strength.”
Huff agreed in the benefits for the activities.
“People think punting is, you kind of hold the ball out and you kick it,” Huff said. “There’s a lot more that goes into that — balance, transferring your weight, consistency in your drops, those type of things. The yoga and the surfing, surfing’s probably one of the better ones that actually start controlling your balance, all help his core strength and get him in the mindset of reproducing the exact same motion over and over and over.”
His surfing has been strictly Atlantic Coast — no Banzai Pipeline off Hawaii just yet — but Gulla is hoping to get some company from his teammates.
“It’s one thing I’m trying to get these guys to do, take a trip for spring break,” Gulla said. “Hard to convince them.”
Franklin came screeching up in a speeding golf cart as he arrived and nearly hit longtime Harrisburg-Patriot News columnist David Jones, who had his back turned.
Franklin apologized to Jones, who has never been short on opinions over the years about the program.
“There will be people who are sorry you stopped,” quipped Jones, drawing laughs.