Penn State Football

Who has the early lead at safety, and how is Keaton Ellis progressing? PSU coaches offer updates

James Franklin discusses JUCO safety Jaquan Brisker

James Franklin addressed reporters after practice Wednesday and talked about safety Jaquan Brisker, a juco newcomer competing for the starting job.
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James Franklin addressed reporters after practice Wednesday and talked about safety Jaquan Brisker, a juco newcomer competing for the starting job.

Lamont Wade declared for the transfer portal in mid-January, cleaned out his locker and then changed his mind two weeks later. So far, returning seems like it was a good idea for the safety.

The Penn State junior currently appears to have the edge at safety, maybe the most competitive position battle in camp. He’s trying to win the job over JUCO transfer Jaquan Brisker and redshirt sophomore Jonathan Sutherland, and he’s currently getting a lot of reps with Garrett Taylor and the first team through fall camp’s first five practices.

“Lamont Wade is doing a great job,” cornerbacks coach Terry Smith said after practice Wednesday night. “Right now, he’s a very vocal leader. He’s getting our guys lined up, getting them in the right position, and he had a heck of an interception the other day at practice.

“And that first unit right now, they’re jelling really, really well. So they look good and we just continue to work. We got a lot of time before the first game to decide what the true lineup will be.”

Wade’s early lead isn’t a huge surprise. The cornerback, who switched to safety before spring 2018, has had about 18 months to get acclimated to the position. Brisker, the nation’s top-ranked junior-college safety, has been on campus for a little more than two months.

According to Smith, the two safeties are pretty similar. The biggest difference is size; Wade is 5-foot-9 and 199 pounds while Brisker, who gained 15 pounds since May, stands at 6-foot-1 and 210 pounds.

“Brisker is bigger, but Lamont has experience with the system. He knows the system better,” Smith added. “They’re both fast guys — they both run 4.4 — they’re both physical, they both can cover. So other than what they look like, they’re very similar type players. So they’re battling it out, and I can see both of them playing a lot of football for us.”

Strength coach Dwight Galt previously called Brisker a “stud” for how quickly he’s physically developed since arriving on campus. And head coach James Franklin acknowledged he’s been impressed so far by the newcomer.

“He’s long, he’s rangy, he’s athletic. He’s a details guy that I’ve been really impressed (with),” Franklin said. “You guys have heard us talk about championship habits. I see him doing little things probably earlier than I would anticipate. Little things — the ball’s on the ground, he’s scooping and scoring, and he’s got positive energy with his teammates.

“I’ve been impressed with him. I really have.”

No QB decision yet, or probably this week

Franklin still has not named a starting quarterback, although virtually every reporter and analyst believes it’s inevitable Sean Clifford earns the job.

Still, with the final question to Franklin on Wednesday night, one reporter asked whether he’d announce the starter before next Wednesday — when the media returns to practice.

“No,” Franklin said with a laugh, “I think maybe by the bowl game.”

“Which bowl is that?” the reporter joked back. Franklin then asked if the reporter had lost weight.

Keaton Ellis still impressing, expected to be a ‘contributor’

State College’s Keaton Ellis may be a true freshman, but he’s already made an impact on this defense. Smith, the cornerbacks coach, believes he’ll contribute this season.

“Keaton’s had a great spring, great summer; he’s off to a fast start in the fall,” Smith said Wednesday night. “I see Keaton as a contributor this year. Where exactly, that is still to be determined, but he’s off to a great start.

“We’re really excited about him. He just seems to make plays, and he’s super smart. So he doesn’t make mental errors so the trust is growing fast.”

Smith, who’s also the defensive recruiting coordinator, was on the hometown product early on. And the excitement around the 5-foot-11, 190-pound prospect has only grown as the months have passed. Last September, Ellis’ composite recruiting ranking was No. 664 nationally, according to 247 Sports. By January, that lowered to No. 317.

Smith went so far as to say in December that Ellis had the best film he had seen from any high school corner in the nation. Penn State knew early on he was going to be special, Smith said Wednesday, even if it took the rest of the country a little longer to catch on.

“He didn’t have all the star rankings — he wasn’t nationally known — but he came to our camp and we absolutely loved him,” Smith said. “We loved his change of direction, we loved that he was a bigger corner that could run, we loved his toughness. Obviously he’s a super smart kid ... and he continues to make big steps and big strides.”

Freshman RBs showing maturity

True freshmen Noah Cain and Devyn Ford, both ranked among the top-10 RB prospects in the 2019 class, are both expected to play major roles this season. And Franklin likes what he’s seen so far.

He lauded both young backs for their maturity. Here’s what he said about each one:

(On Cain) “His running style and things like that, it’s breaking tackles, it’s falling forward. He’s the guy that’s going to get four yards on a consistent basis. He’s going to get a 12-yarder, and you’re going to look down at the stat sheet and he’s going to have 100 yards, and it didn’t feel like it. Very productive, very pleased with him, his toughness, his maturity.”

(On Ford): “Devyn’s doing some really good things. We’re excited about him. He flashes. He’s explosive, he’s mature, he’s got a mature approach, seems to be learning well — so, so far so good. But he gives us a little juice. He tested really well this summer. It’s funny because that was probably the one thing off his high school film that we weren’t sure about. He was unbelievably productive, but we weren’t sure what his top-end speed was, and he can run. He proved that this summer.”

Other news and notes

  • Defensive tackle Robert Windsor and offensive guard CJ Thorpe needed to be separated during the 15 minutes of practice open to the media, although no punches were thrown and the incident was pretty minor. Still, it speaks to the competitive nature of practice — an environment that James Franklin has tried to emphasize — and it sure fits Thorpe, who’s well-known for his aggressiveness.



  • Franklin said it’s too early to tell whether OL Juice Scruggs will be able to play in 2019. Scruggs was involved in a car accident and missed the entire spring. He was down to about 279 pounds after the accident. “He’s progressing,” Franklin said. “You guys know with injuries, those are strictly medical decisions. When they are ready to come back and they’re healthy and they can protect themselves and they’re not at risk, then they’ll be back.”



  • Junior cornerback Tariq Castro-Fields is off to a solid start. Smith said his 6-foot, 197-pound corner is doing a better job finding the deep ball, and he’s made some other necessary adjustments to his game. “He’s always been a pretty good cover corner,” Smith said. “He’s also a lot more physical this year. He’s gotten a bit more bigger, a bit more faster and stronger.”



  • No “green lights” have been give to any of the true freshmen yet, meaning none have publicly seen their redshirts taken off. Although some, such as running back Cain, are essentially locks to play the full season, Franklin said no decisions will be officially made until later in camp. He said he also talks with all the freshmen and their parents before making final decisions, and that exercise that won’t happen for a few more weeks.



  • Overall, Franklin said he’s been pleased through Penn State’s first five practices. “I knew we were fast and I knew we were athletic, but I think our execution has been really good,” he said.
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