Expect to see even more Penn State defenders get in on the action on Saturday.
Specifically, a handful of linebackers could make their Linebacker U debuts. Gary Wooten, who’s been used mostly on special teams throughout his career, will likely play while Jason Cabinda and Troy Reeder may have chances to work in to the linebacker rotation, linebackers coach Brent Pry said.
Wooten’s teammates have expressed high prase for the dreadlocked linebacker from Miami, Fla., since he arrived at Penn State in 2012. But Wooten has rarely cracked the linebacker rotation. He played in mop-up time against non-conference opponents last season and finished with six tackles.
He’ll get a chance to raise those numbers on Saturday when Penn State hosts Akron at Beaver Stadium at noon.
“Yes,” Pry said when asked if Wooten would play defense on Saturday. “Gary’s had a very good camp. I feel good about his development. I trust putting Gary into the game. Saturday’s game in Ireland just didn’t merit, from a reps standpoint, it just wasn’t necessary to play him. We were able to ride the game out with Mike (Hull) and so we were glad to do that.”
In Ireland, Penn State dominated possession time against Central Florida. The Nittany Lions held onto the ball for 34:07 and had to defend just 51 UCF plays. It resulted in a fairly light workload for starters Hull, Brandon Bell and Nyeem Wartman. Head coach James Franklin said he was pleased with the play of the starting linebackers.
On Saturday, the Nittany Lions will be faced with an Akron offense that likes to attack the perimeter and pull linebackers out into space. Hull, who switched to middle linebacker after playing on the outside in all of his previous seasons, said Penn State linebackers will have to cover more ground than they did in Week 1.
If Akron is able to extend drives, which UCF couldn’t do, it could provide more chances for reserves like Wooten to spell the starters. Pry described Wooten as the team’s “fourth linebacker” on the depth chart and second behind Hull in the middle.
“The situation was, there was so few snaps in the first half (against UCF), there was like 20 or 21, that you don’t want to take away from your first group in not playing them enough,” Pry said. “Guys have to get greased up and get in the flow of the game. There just wasn’t enough snaps to go around in the first two to three quarters of the game.”
As for Cabinda and Reeder? Pry and the rest of the coaching staff will continue to be cautious in bringing the true freshmen along. The fine line between getting them valuable experience and preserving a year of eligibility for each of them is a tricky one to walk, Pry said.
“We’ve got to grow as a unit and part of that is experience,” Pry said. “The only way to get that is to put them out there. I’m a firm believer in giving those guys opportunities if they merit that and I feel very good about putting Gary on the field. The situation with Troy Reeder and Jason Cabinda is a little different because they have an opportunity to redshirt if we’re able to. So the perspective is a little bit skewed with those guys.”
Wide receiver Matt Zanellato returned to practice for Penn State earlier this week and appears to be ready to play on Saturday.
Zanellato did not play in the Croke Park Classic and was limited with a lower body injury in the practices leading up to the game. He ran routes with the first- and second-team offenses and appeared to have his quickness back during the portion of Penn State’s practice that was open to the media on Wednesday.
Penn State’s tallest receiver, the 6-foot-3, 200-pound Zanellato caught four passes for 53 yards last season and has six catches for 72 yards in his career.
Franklin is a member of the East Stroudsburg Class of ‘94.
That was also a special year for Penn State football. The ‘94 team fielded one of the most vaunted offenses in the history of college football, became the first Big Ten team to go 12-0, won the Big Ten title and dispatched Oregon in the Rose Bowl.
About 50 members of Penn State’s unbeaten 1994 team will be honored at halftime on Saturday, in addition to a group of community heroes. Before that, a bunch of the ‘94 players will speak to the team at a reception and join current Nittany Lions for a walk-through practice on Friday night.
“I am aware of them, tremendous respect for the undefeated, 1994 national championship team,” Franklin said. “But I don’t really know those guys personally. I’m looking forward to it.”
For of that team’s five All-Americans — tight end Kyle Brady, tailback Ki-Jana Carter, quarterback and co-captain Kerry Collins and guard Jeff Hartings — will join in the festivities. The fifth All-American, wide receiver Bobby Engram, will be unable to attend due to a prior commitment with the Baltimore Ravens where he is an assistant coach.
“Hopefully (we’ll) get a chance to interact with those guys and build those relationships,” Franklin said. “That’s something that we’re lacking. There was so much consistency on the staff for so many years, we’ve lost a little bit of that. We’d like to start building some of those relationships and connecting with our past — the ‘94 undefeated national championship team.”
Penn State players will arrive in front of Medlar Field at Lubrano Park at 9:30 a.m., the athletic department announced Thursday.
Instead of the blue buses letting players off directly in front of the players’ entrance to the stadium, players and coaches will get off the buses and walk a few yards down Curtin Road and then turn right into the stadium entrance.
When fans arrive inside Beaver Stadium, they will be treated to a different experience as well. The new high-definition scoreboards in the end zones will make their debuts on Saturday. The new scoreboards are 156 by 42 feet — with a 152-by-37-foot video board in the north end zone and a 122-by-37-foot video board in the south end zone — and will have closed captioning. The new scoreboards replace the ones that were installed before the 2000 and 2001 seasons.