For the second time in three weeks, Penn State’s veteran football players wore just jerseys, shorts and helmets and didn’t take any contact during Wednesday’s practice session inside Holuba Hall.
Penn State’s coaching staff, working the second bye week in the last three, have used the idle week practices to evaluate their younger players while veterans have taken most contact reps off.
Miles Dieffenbach is the exception.
The senior guard was fully-padded on Wednesday, bulling open holes for true freshmen running backs Nick Scott, Marcus Allen and Johnathan Thomas during a live scrimmage open to reporters. Dieffenbach, who suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) in the spring, said over the summer he was targeting a late-season return and hoped to play in Penn State’s last three or four games.
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He could be back sooner than that. Penn State coach James Franklin said he wasn’t sure when Dieffenbach would suit up. A senior captain, Dieffenbach traveled with the team to Ann Arbor, Mich. last weekend but has yet to suit up for a game.
“I think we’re close,” Franklin said. “I think you guys have all seen, he wasn’t out at practice when you come on Wednesdays and then he started to come out at practice and doing more and more. But I think he’s getting closer every single day. You’d love to see him this week.”
So would Dieffenbach’s teammates. Without the 6-foot-3, 303-pound fifth-year senior, Penn State’s offensive line has struggled mightily.
Although Dieffenbach has been worked along gradually since he had surgery in the the spring, his experience could bring an in-game boost to a unit that has struggled to communicate and execute blocking assignments. The Nittany Lions (4-2, 1-2 Big Ten) are managing just 93 rushing yards per game — 2.8 per carry — and have allowed 20 sacks so far.
Before his injury sidelined him, Dieffenbach was the senior-most member of Penn State’s offensive line with 23 starts in 24 appearances dating to 2012. The Nittany Lions have had to turn to two redshirt freshmen — tackle Andrew Nelson and guard Brendan Mahon — and two converted defensive tackles — guards Derek Dowrey and Brian Gaia — to bolster depth alongside center Angelo Mangiro and left tackle Donovan Smith.
Dieffenbach started working in individual drills a few weeks ago and graduated to working in group drills. The bye weeks have afforded him extra time to get back into playing shape after he lowered his weight to speed up his recovery and ease the strain on his surgically repaired knee.
The extra scrimmage time has been an added bonus and has given Dieffenbach the chance to simulate game action.
“We’ve been able to put Dieff in there,” Franklin said. “It’s hard to go from not doing anything to go play a game. So now he’s been able to do drill work, he’s been able to go in the live scrimmages and you see him getting more confidence because it’s not just the physical aspect. It’s the mental aspect of it as well.”
Ready the chopper
Franklin is sticking with the schedule from two weeks ago when he gave his players Thursday, Friday and Saturday off.
The three-day break allowed Franklin and his assistants to get on the road toward their respective recruiting areas. Most of Penn State’s coaching staff is expected to be out on Thursday and Friday with most of them returning Saturday afternoon. Defensive coordinator Bob Shoop will leave later on Thursday as he is scheduled to speak to reporters Thursday morning.
Franklin plans to visit the Allentown and Philadelphia areas. And like before, Franklin will make dramatic entrances and exits in his university-approved and rented helicopter.
Really, it’s the only way Franklin can be in as many places and visit as many recruits as possible he said.
“I don’t know how you’d do that without that,” Franklin said.
Scholarship numbers released
For the first time since Franklin took over, the Penn State athletic department announced Penn State’s official scholarship count and breakdown.
Penn State currently lists 64 scholarship players on its roster with 17 true freshmen who are still likely to redshirt. Eleven of 12 seniors on the roster are on scholarship while eight were recruited as scholarship players. Meanwhile, only Pittsburgh’s roster can be considered greener than Penn State’s. The nation’s second-youngest team, Penn State has 76 underclassmen (49 freshmen and 27 sophomores) on its roster.
The Nittany Lions were previously limited in how many scholarships they could offer by NCAA sanctions. Those sanctions have been lifted and Penn State will be allowed to sign a full class of 25 recruits and have 85 scholarship players on its roster next season. The Nittany Lions are permitted 75 scholarship players this season.
Franklin was careful to temper expectations of a full compliment of scholarships automatically giving Penn State usable depth, especially along the offensive line.
“I think our numbers will get back quicker now because of what’s happened the last couple of years,” Franklin said. “But the issue is some positions, depending on your approach, whether you go heavy junior college or whether you go high school. Yeah, you might get your numbers back on the offensive line next year but they’re still going to be almost all freshmen or sophomores. Maybe a few juniors.
“If you look at most programs in the country, you usually don’t play on the offensive line until your redshirt sophomore year. So I think that’s where it will change. I think our numbers will be back but we’ll still be young. You don’t go from being the second-youngest team in the country to mature overnight. But it will gradually happen.”