His teammates’ fate — whether all of Penn State’s offensive players would have to run sprints to end practice — was on the line and Zach Zwinak was not going to let Cole Chiappialle forget it.
Before Chiappialle got into his stance for his last of three attempts to cross the goal line in Penn State’s “Lion’s Den” drill, Zwinak turned red, hollered a few words unfit to print for motivation and slapped his fellow running back on the backside.
“You’ve got one inch,” Zwinak screamed. “You better get it.”
Angelo Mangiro and guards Brian Gaia and Derek Dowrey dropped into their stances, determined to drive defensive linemen Anthony Zettel, Austin Johnson and Carl Nassib off the ball. Quarterback Christian Hackenberg lined up under Mangiro, ready to deliver the handoff.
Linebacker Mike Hull glared across the line of scrimmage.
The young Chiappialle lowered his head, dug in his heels and readied for the final handoff from Hackenberg. He had been unsuccessful on his first try, as Hull exploded through him, knocking Chiappialle backward after fighting around Gaia’s block. On the second run, Chiappialle picked up a handful of yards before Hull rode him to the ground.
This was it.
The whistle blew. Hackenberg pivoted, put the ball in Chiappialle’s gut. Linemen collided and Chiappialle put his head down and blasted through the pile and over the goal line. Defensive players clad in blue lined up for sprints as their white-wearing offensive counterparts celebrated. Chiappialle ripped his helmet off and bumped chests with Zwinak, whose veins bulged from his neck.
This is the norm behind the Lasch Building where the Penn State football team is in the middle of its second week of preseason practice. Afterward, a hoarse James Franklin expressed his satisfaction with Thursday’s session.
“This is typical camp,” Franklin said. “I feel pretty good. The staff feels pretty good. ... I think we’ve had great energy during practice. Guys are flying around. We’ve gotten better. I’ve dramatically seen us get better, especially on special teams. I think our punters, from the beginning of camp to the end have improved and that’s going to be big for us. I like where we’re at right now.”
Special teams drills — specifically punting — were on display during 30 minutes open to reporters.
Redshirt freshman Chris Gulla took turns with freshmen Robby Liebel and Daniel Pasquariello booming balls to sophomore Gregg Garrity and freshman DeAndre Thompkins. All three punters drew praise from their teammates, with most of their punts achieving Franklin’s announced goal of a four-second hang time.
On the other end, Garrity and Thompkins fielded each kick cleanly. After practice, sophomore Von Walker — who punted among his other duties at Central Mountain High School — stayed behind with Robby Liebel and worked on his punting skills.
During a live scrimmage, Hackenberg rotated with freshman Michael O’Connor and Trace McSorley. Hackenberg fired a deep ball on the money to sophomore Jake Kiley who made a nice adjustment to come up with the catch underneath cornerback Jesse Merise just as the gates opened to reporters.
All three quarterbacks took equal snaps and primarily worked with a wideout combination of Geno Lewis, DaeSean Hamilton and Thompkins, who played in the slot.
Afterward, Franklin said Hackenberg’s throw count is being monitored. The sophomore quarterback attempted 392 passes last season. That’s been made easier by having five quarterbacks on the roster, Franklin said. In addition to Hackenberg, McSorley and O’Connor, Penn State also has redshirt freshman D.J. Crook and freshmen Billy Fessler to help handle individual drills when an arm is needed.
The additional reps have made the battle for the backup quarterback position a hot one.
“I’ve been very pleased with Hack. I think his improvement from the spring and his confidence and his command of the offense, I think across the board is much better,” Franklin said. “The No. 2 battle is interesting. McSorley, all the things we thought about him when we recruited him, he’s a winner, he’s smart, he’s picked it up very well, he doesn’t panic.
“I think Mike O’Connor has had a great summer. Dwight Galt, our strength coach said he’s maybe had the best summer of anyone on the team. But McSorley is right there.”
Chiappialle gets in,
Zettel, Gaia scuffle
During the brief 11-on-11 portion that was open to reporters, the offense looked out of sync at times. Hackenberg threw incomplete passes — off the hands of Thompkins and Brent Wilkerson, respectively — on back-to-back plays to open a drive inside the red zone.
Chiappialle scored a touchdown on a direct snap before a scuffle broke out after Chiappialle scored. Anthony Zettel and Brian Gaia got into it exchanging shoves before Franklin jumped in and helped defensive players pull Gaia back. Afterward, Franklin sent Gaia to the sideline to cool off and turned to reporters and muttered, “Perfect timing.”
Penn State used a handful of offensive linemen during 11-on-11s.
Notably, freshman Noah Beh and redshirt freshman Brendan Mahon swapped in and out with Gaia and Dowrey at guard while true freshman Chasz Wright manned the right tackle spot. Redshirt freshman Andrew Nelson worked as the left tackle. In addition, converted defensive end Albert Hall split snaps with Nelson.
Mangiro, the line’s most experienced player outside of left tackle starter Donovan Smith, played center. Smith did not take part in portions of practice featuring contact and instead watched from the sideline in a light blue jersey.
“They’re working extremely hard,” Franklin said. “They’re working together well. They’re a very prideful group.”
Senior safety Ryan Keiser wore pads but was not involved in the portions of practice open to reporters as he was wearing a light blue jersey.
Keiser joined freshmen receiver Troy Apke and sophomore center Wendy Laurent as other players not exposed to contact.
New look to practice fields
The fences surrounding the practice fields behind Lasch were outfitted with blue covers with different school lettering on them.
Meanwhile, the end zones were painted with a clear message, “Compete.”
“We think it looks really classy,” Franklin said.