As the weeks went by, Shane Simmons’ absence from Penn State’s depth chart became increasingly expected. But that all changed Monday, and the defensive end punctuated it with a tweet: “BACK.”
Yes, Simmons — a former five-star talent who entered 2018 with high expectations — is finally ready to play following an unspecified camp injury.
“He’s my roommate so I know what he’s gone through, not being on the field,” Penn State linebacker Cam Brown said. “I know he’s excited, and I can’t wait to see him play. He’ll be a force to be reckoned with.”
Added head coach James Franklin: “We’re really excited about having Shane back.”
The redshirt sophomore, who is listed as Yetur Gross-Matos’ backup on this week’s depth chart, won’t take on a massive role right away. Franklin said Simmons might give Penn State 10 or 15 plays against Michigan State, but even that would be “a win” for the Nittany Lions.
Penn State, which lost starters Ryan Buchholz and Torrence Brown to retirement just before the season, has been looking for difference-makers on the edge. Only four defensive ends — Gross-Matos, Shareef Miller, Shaka Toney and Daniel Joseph — played against Ohio State, and it was clear that quartet wore down as the game went on.
Simmons, a former top-50 recruit, will bolster that group significantly. As a redshirt freshman last year, the Maryland native was used as a situational pass-rusher and acquainted himself with Michigan State quarterback Brian Lewerke, tallying his first career sack on the road at Spartan Stadium.
This go-round, Simmons — standing at 6-foot-4, 250 pounds — is “more of a complete player,” according to Franklin. And his teammates see it, too.
“He’s a dynamic end, and he’s great for our front,” Gross-Matos said. “I think more than anything just the relentlessness he brings when he’s out there trying to make plays, he’s going to be huge for us.”
New tradition this weekend
Saturday’s game against Michigan State will also serve as Penn State’s Homecoming, so Franklin said the program has decided to start a new tradition.
The school’s blue buses will again arrive Saturday afternoon, with players high-fiving throngs of fans on their way inside the stadium — but there will be one big difference. The first bus to arrive will this time be filled with past lettermen instead of current players.
“So they are going to lead us into the stadium,” Franklin said. “That first bus will be a number of Penn State lettermen; basically it’s first-come, first-served. Once the bus is full, the bus is full. I thought that would be a really nice thing for us to do every single year on Homecoming.”
Beware Bachie — and fakes
Franklin had high-praise for Michigan State’s middle linebacker. He said Joe Bachie “may be the best linebacker in the league that we have seen.”
“Very productive, very physical,” Franklin said. “Great leader for them. Runs really well.”
What else should Penn State be on guard for? Franklin said that was easy; fakes on special teams.
Franklin rattled off several times Sparty has gone for it in those situations — speed option against Indiana this year, a kicker sweep versus Maryland last season and a kicker ISO against Rutgers in 2015.
“They are willing to run a fake at any time in the game,” Franklin added. “That goes back with Coach Dantonio. They are up by points; they will run a fake. They are down by points; they will run a fake. Different field positions, overtime to win the game.”
Preparing for the unpreparable
Last year’s Michigan State game was an odd one for several reasons — chief among them the fact there was a three-plus hour delay in the middle of the game.
So if that would ever happen again, what would Penn State do?
Well, Franklin said, they’re traveling with more food now. They’re bringing extra underclothes. And, well, what else are the Nittany Lions supposed to do?
“So the things that we can control, yeah, we’ve got a plan for, but just there’s so many things that there’s not an answer for,” Franklin said, “unless Penn State and every other school in the conference is going to build massive structures for rain delays; that you’re going to leave open, whether there’s good weather or not, in case you get thunder and lightning. That’s not going to happen.”
Dominating the ... nation?
Franklin’s reputation as a tireless recruiter definitely seems well-earned, based on his agenda last week.
He said he traveled to 25 high schools in eight states. And, as a staff, Franklin said Penn State went to 108 high schools in 20 states.
Most of the coaches left practice early Wednesday and then returned to Happy Valley late Saturday night.