The first two and a half months of James Franklin’s tenure as Penn State’s head football coach were largely spent taking care of administrative matters, building his staff and stocking the program with talent for the future.
Now it’s time for Franklin — who also spent plenty of time watching film on Penn State players from last season — to work with his current crop of Nittany Lions directly for the first time.
Penn State began its spring program on Monday. A series of 15 practices will culminate with the annual Blue-White Game on April 12 at Beaver Stadium.
“I think the hands-on experience is the most important thing,” Franklin said. “A lot of time you watch the tape, no different than high school tape, you’re not really sure what they’re being taught. What the techniques are and what the fundamentals are and what they’re really being asked to do in the scheme. So that’s the most important thing.”
The fact that many of Penn State’s upperclassmen are playing for and taking cues from their third head coach isn’t lost on Franklin.
He was hired to replace Bill O’Brien after O’Brien, who replaced the late Joe Paterno in January 2012, left to become head coach of the NFL’s Houston Texans.
“Just like I told the coaches and the players, we need to go out there with the mindset that we’ve been here for three years, we know how to practice, we know what the expectations are,” Franklin said. “We can’t allow the fact that this is our first practice, for us to use that as an excuse to not go out and fly around. So we need to go out and practice like a veteran team, like a veteran staff and like a veteran organization.”
Penn State will practice on Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays and players will continue to work with Dwight Galt, the team’s strength and conditioning coach, on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Film sessions will also be built into the Tuesday and Thursday sessions.
A handful of players are already on the move.
Franklin announced multiple position changes during his nearly 40-minute press conference on Monday.
The Nittany Lions, thin along the offensive line, will get a boost there this spring as Derek Dowrey and Brian Gaia have switched to guard. Both sophomores played defensive tackle last season.
“It takes a lot more than a quarterback to be successful on offense,” Franklin said. “So we want to make sure the game of football is played from the ground up from a fundamental standpoint. But the game of football is also played up front on the offensive line and on the defensive line.”
Penn State lost three fifths of its starting offensive line from last season. Center Ty Howle, right guard John Urschel and left tackles Garry Gilliam and Adam Gress are gone.
Meanwhile, the Nittany Lions return a deep defensive line corps that includes ends C.J. Olaniyan, Deion Barnes, Brad Bars and Anthony Zettel — all of whom have seen heavy workloads over the past two seasons. Zettel, who has bulked up to 274 pounds, will move to tackle, where he’ll join Austin Johnson as the team’s most experienced interior linemen.
“He’s excited about doing it, wants to do it,” Franklin said of Zettel’s shift inside. “He has really put on great size, tested extremely well, but (we’re) really excited about him at the three technique and what he’s going to be able to do at that position.”
In addition, Von Walker has moved to safety. The former walk-on from Central Mountain played running back last season and returned punts.
Contact to be limited
Franklin said he and his staff will limit contact during the spring.
O’Brien used thud tackling throughout the season to reduce injuries for a roster already short on scholarship players.
Franklin said he will employ a similar system. But “tag off” — as Franklin calls it — won’t be used solely to keep players healthy. Rather, it is meant to teach proper spacing and positioning.
“You’re doing it in an athletic position,” he said. “You’ve got to be able, legitimately, when you watch the tape, to be able to say, ‘That guy would’ve made the tackle. He was in an athletic position, he was down in a football position, a good bend in his ankles, knees and hips and was able to tag off, palms up with two hands on the ballcarrier.’
“If not, they’re going to keep running to the ballcarrier until they’re able to do that.”
No injury reports
Franklin reiterated he would not reveal injury details about any player. He previously declined to provide injury updates on players earlier this winter.
He stuck by his policy when asked about the spring statuses of wide receiver DaeSean Hamilton, tight end Brent Wilkerson, linebacker Ben Kline and Bars — who all finished last season on the injury report.
“I don’t think that’s fair to the kids. I don’t think that’s fair to the program,” Franklin said. “I don’t see how that gives us any advantage, and I know (UCF) Coach (George) O’Leary is listening to this press conference right now to try to get any advantage he can. So we won’t talk about any of those types of things.”