‘We know what talent we have’ Clifford says post Blue-White
Linebackers Brandon Smith and Lance Dixon walked out to midfield Saturday with their fellow 2019 signees. The highly-touted group was granted a round of applause from the Blue-White Game crowd, the Beaver Stadium patrons recognizing the No. 13-ranked class in the country — one that comes to Happy Valley with a bit of hype.
Smith and Dixon are a primary reason why the Nittany Lions’ class was so highly regarded. And they showed why Saturday.
Smith, a five-star prospect and the No. 1 inside linebacker in the 2019 class, led the White squad with six tackles (three solo) and chipped in a pass breakup. Dixon, the No. 9 outside linebacker in the cycle, tallied two tackles for loss and a sack for the Blue team. Both were noticeably active, filling their gaps and flying to the ball.
Now, what do those performances mean for their playing prospects come August? That remains to be seen.
Smith, the No. 18 recruit in the country, will need to fight through more established players for snaps. Jan Johnson has a solid hold on the starting middle linebacker job, and Ellis Brooks — whose six tackles led the Blue squad — seems locked in as Johnson’s No. 2. Dixon’s upward movement is also limited as he serves as Cam Brown’s backup at SAM.
Still, both Smith and Dixon made strides since arriving in January. They proved that to everyone at the Blue-White Game and gave a glimpse of what could be on the horizon.
“When (Dixon) builds more confidence and gets comfortable with the scheme, he’s going to be a force to be reckoned with,” said Brown, a front-runner to be the 2019 defensive captain. “(Smith has) been coming along great. In a year or two, when he knows how to use his body and play reckless, he’s going to go crazy.”
- On March 13 — the opening day of spring practice — James Franklin made a point to mention two position groups: Defensive tackle and safety. A month ago, he needed to see a two-deep develop at both positions, needed players to step up. Well, Penn State’s defensive tackles closed camp with a reason for optimism. No one was hitting the quarterbacks, but four DTs for the Blue team — Antonio Shelton, PJ Mustipher, Fred Hansard and Damion Barber — recorded a sack. Shelton was impressive all day and perhaps solidified his starting spot alongside Robert Windsor. But Mustipher’s quickness given his 300-pound frame was a positive sight to see, too, for Franklin and the defensive staff.
- Franklin called timeout with five seconds left in the second quarter — yes, apparently you can call timeout in the spring game — to set up a pressure situation for placekicker Jake Pinegar. As much as pressure as kicking at the Blue-White Game can bring, that is. Pinegar came on to attempt a 35-yard field goal, and it was good. Pinegar had his ups and downs as a freshman last year. He’ll enter the fall as Penn State’s starter yet again — and perhaps it’s little things like seeing a 35-yard field goal go through at Blue-White that gives him confidence going into next season.
- A lot was made of Dan Chisena’s touchdown-turned-scholarship moment on Saturday, and rightfully so. But Will Levis’ throw on the 59-yard score got overlooked. Levis laid it out there perfectly for the former track star, allowing him to run under the ball and waltz into the end zone. Levis — a redshirt sophomore who took second-team reps all spring — impressed coaches, teammates and even former teammates. Trace McSorley said last month, after examining a practice or two, that Levis has “become more confident” slinging the ball downfield. That was evident Saturday.
- Behind the Levis-Chisena connection, the game’s second-longest play was a 35-yard catch by tight end Nick Bowers. Sean Clifford found the 6-foot-4 target over the middle, applying just enough touch to hit Bowers in stride. It was a job well done by the tight end, too, to get open. Bowers’ career has been riddled with injury. But if he can stay healthy for his redshirt senior year, it’ll be a nice luxury to have him and Pat Freiermuth making plays at tight end.
- Speaking of Clifford, he actually led the Blue team with 31 rushing yards. Franklin talked about the signal-caller’s development as a dual-threat quarterback this offseason, and Clifford showed off his legs a bit.
- Clifford finished 11 of 19 for 118 yards — but he could have and should have had more. Three of Clifford’s first four passes were dropped. On the Blue team’s opening drive, Freiermuth ran a clean route in the flat, but let ball bounce off his hands. On third down, KJ Hamler could haul in a 20-yard toss. And on the second series, Justin Shorter dropped an easy one. It’s the spring game, so nothing to get too bent out of shape over. But drops were a problem last year — so seeing them show up again on Saturday was an unnerving sight.
- The weather was perfect, and the running clock was magnificent. Nothing ugly about Saturday.