Penn State Football

Penn State football notebook: Younger Nittany Lion players getting more action as starters focus on rest, healing

Former State College standout and Penn State running back Jack Haffner (32) and the younger Nittany Lions will focus on healing before heading to Ann Arbor next week to face Michigan.
Former State College standout and Penn State running back Jack Haffner (32) and the younger Nittany Lions will focus on healing before heading to Ann Arbor next week to face Michigan. CDT file photo

Jack Haffner sprinted out of the backfield, turned and hauled in a pass from Trace McSorley. The next time Haffner was the target — he was wide open down the sideline where it looked like he had room to run, possibly for a touchdown — the pass fell short, out of his reach.

It was a familiar sight for senior Bill Belton.

The senior running back who stood off to the side without pads, in his white practice jersey and blue shorts, was the intended target on a similar throw from Christian Hackenberg during Penn State’s loss to Northwestern on Saturday. Hackenberg’s misfire sparked a heated sideline discussion between the two teammates.

Clearly, Belton put that behind him. The only shouting he did Wednesday after watching McSorley’s misfire was to holler words of encouragement at the true freshman quarterback and to Haffner as he jogged back to the huddle. Soon after, the younger players — Penn State’s third and fourth stringers and redshirt players — went back to work in their third full-contact scrimmage of the week. Meanwhile, starters like Belton were instructed to avoid heavy contact.

“I think there’s a lot of reasons you do it,” coach James Franklin said of the scrimmages. “You do it for morale and chemistry. It brings something different to practice, an energy. It keeps those guys involved that they know they’re still being evaluated and their time could come at any moment. I think that’s really, really important.

“I’ve been a part of some programs that by the time you redshirt, you’re just kind of forgotten for a year. That’s when you usually have a high turnover and a lot of attrition which we don’t want.”

Instead, Penn State is in a less-than-ideal predicament thanks to now-eased NCAA sanctions that cut the amount of scholarships the Nittany Lions could give out for better parts of the last three seasons. As a result, Penn State has just one scholarship offensive tackle — Donovan Smith — among its senior, junior and sophomore ranks.

Franklin has also leaned on a number of true freshmen this season. Linebacker Jason Cabinda became the latest rookie to see game action when he entered in relief of sophomore Von Walker, who started in place of injured Nyeem Wartman.

In total, eight true freshmen have played this season. Five started games last season when former coach Bill O’Brien also relied heavily on underclassmen scrimmages to gauge the game-readiness of his youngsters.

“I think it’s good for our older guys,” Franklin said. “I talk about, how these guys support them every Saturday, they need to be out here supporting them and coaching them up as well. So I think it’s really good for the overall health of your program.”

Health of individuals was also a focus this week. Penn State did not hold an on-field practice Sunday and instead spent it taking “mental reps” in the film room. Tuesday and Wednesday featured walk-throughs and jog-throughs where the starters worked on 7-on-7s, red zone execution and individual drills.

They also spent plenty of time in training rooms.

“This week I’ve been getting treatment, getting massages, getting in the cold tubs, hot tubs, things like that,” receiver DaeSean Hamilton said. “During this week it’s about getting your body right. You’ve got to take care of your body, especially in the bye week when you’re not really banging a whole lot like you would during the season.”

Franklin described the stripped-down sessions as “really good practices.” Most of Penn State coaches left town after Wednesday’s practice, headed toward their respective recruiting areas. Players will have Thursday, Friday and Saturday off before meeting at the Lasch Building to begin preparations to play at Michigan on Oct. 11.

“We’ll be back somewhat to a normal schedule on Sunday,” Franklin said. “But instead of having to spend half of our day grading the previous game, obviously we’ll be able to get right on to Michigan.”

Practice tidbits

Wartman appears to be on track for a Week 7 return.

After the sophomore linebacker missed the Northwestern game — he was spotted on the sideline with his right arm in cast, and supported by a sling — Franklin said Wartman would likely be back on the field at The Big House. He’s taken steps toward that goal and was able to take part in conditioning work after Wednesday’s practice.

Wartman’s injury came at a tough time as he was voted by coaches as the team’s Defensive Player of the Game for the Massachusetts game after making five tackles against the Minutemen.

Meanwhile, Belton and Hamilton practiced fielding punts to end Wednesday’s session.

A pep talk on winning

Franklin has made a habit of inviting guest speakers to pump up, educate, inspire and inform his squad since the spring.

The football team’s latest guest just happened to be a familiar face and an expert on how to win, Franklin’s recent topic. Cael Sanderson, Penn State’s wrestling coach spoke at the team’s afternoon squad meeting.

Sanderson never lost a match while wrestling at Iowa State and won four NCAA championships and three Dan Hodge Trophies, considered the Heisman Trophy of college wrestling. After starting his coaching career at his alma mater, Sanderson moved on to Penn State where he’s coached the Nittany Lions to four straight NCAA team titles. Sanderson’s dry sense of humor was also a highlight for the football team after he playfully accepted a challenge from Penn State’s running backs coach Charles Huff.

“Huff has told stories about how he can hit a fastball off a major league pitcher which we all said he couldn’t,” Franklin said. “And he also said he could hold his own with Cael Sanderson. So this was a great opportunity to call Huff out in front of the whole team. When Cael took his keys out of his pocket and his pen and set it (down), Huff’s face changed and the whole room went crazy and that was kind of the end of that.”

Recruiting on the fly

Penn State Director of Player Personnel Andy Frank keeps a large board with recruiting destinations and plans constantly up to date.

It’s a fluid and constantly evolving process and Frank helps Franklin and the staff maximize their time with recruits. Take the next three days for example — Franklin already had plans to leave State College either Wednesday night or early Thursday morning and get to as many schools as possible. His assistants will head to their respective areas.

He also plans on attending one high school game and may hit two on Friday night. He did that last week with a visit to Pittsburgh, where he also phoned in to a local radio show as “James from State College.” The host hung up on him, not believing he was really the Penn State coach before Franklin had to call back and insist he was who he said he was.

“Obviously you can’t have a whole lot of interaction with the players,” Franklin said. “It’s more just that they know you’re there. Pick up transcripts, talk to coaches, guidance counselors, things like that.”

Penn State currently has the sixth-best recruiting class in the nation according to