For the first time in nearly four years, Penn State’s football team is almost back to full strength.
There are multiple scholarship players at nearly every position and most players are plenty familiar with a coaching staff that was brand new at this time last year. And with the start of spring practice approaching, head coach James Franklin is looking forward to working with the deepest personnel pool the Nittany Lions have had since NCAA sanctions gutted the program in 2012.
“Across the board we’re smarter, just in terms of them understanding how we do things again,” Franklin said. “We’re bigger, we’re faster and we’re stronger.”
Save for its specialists, Penn State will boast at least two scholarship players at every position. It’s a luxury that escaped the Nittany Lions during Bill O’Brien’s run as head coach and in Franklin’s first year. If a scholarship player got hurt, Penn State scrambled for a viable alternative — a walk-on player or another scholarship player would have to switch positions to account for man-games lost.
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No position group was harder hit than the offensive line. And as a result, quarterback Christian Hackenberg was hit hard and often. The junior quarterback absorbed a program-worst 44 sacks as Penn State rotated offensive linemen in and around the front most of last season.
The hardships started almost right away when Miles Dieffenbach was lost to injury at this time last year. As a result, Franklin entered his first spring practice sessions with just one returning starter up front. Now, tackle Andrew Nelson, guards Brian Gaia, Brendan Mahon and Derek Dowrey and centers Angelo Mangiro and Wendy Laurent all return after each made starts last season.
“There’s nobody that is happier about this group returning and the strides they’ve made than Mr. and Mrs. Hackenberg,” Franklin said. “I’m excited about them. I know (offensive line coach) Herb (Hand) is excited about working with them. I know they’re so much more confident mentally and physically, all those things.”
But Franklin was cautious to pin high expectations on many of his depth options up front. Seven of Penn State’s offensive linemen are redshirt freshmen.
“You have heard me say this before, you really should not play defensive tackle or offensive line until your redshirt sophomore year,” Franklin said. “We have way too many redshirt freshmen in our two deep still, but I think we have a chance for great improvement.”
The tweaking begins Friday when Penn State holds its first of 15 spring practices.
On the mend
Franklin knows replacing stalwart middle linebacker Mike Hull will be a tall task.
But he believes Nyeem Wartman is up to it. The return of Ben Kline should bolster the linebacker corps, another position group that has lacked depth over the sanction years. Kline suffered a ruptured achilles last summer and missed all of last season.
“He’s unbelievably respected on our team as a leader,” Franklin said. “You talk about his toughness, injuries that he’s overcome. Right now he is running and moving and lifting and has tested. His testing numbers are really good.”
Tight end Adam Breneman is also close to 100 percent and should be ready for most spring workouts, though he could be held out of contact drills for precautionary reasons. Breneman suffered a season-ending knee injury last year and was able to redshirt.
“The fact that we were able to redshirt him last year and still have some success is good,” Franklin said. “He’s got a year to get healthy, get bigger and stronger, get more confident. .. He’s as close to 100 percent as he’s been in a long time and feels really good. He made the comment to me (Monday) in my office, he feels as good as he felt in his junior year in high school.”
Position switches and special terrors
After starring at cornerback the last three seasons, Jordan Lucas will play safety in 2015.
His move to the back end of the secondary comes as a bit of necessity and also to help get more younger players on the field more consistently.
“I think Jordan is a guy who could play corner here and at the next level as well,” Franklin said. “I think he has a chance to maybe be special at safety. It’s also back to the philosophy you have heard me talk about before. I think it’s easier to play a freshman at corner and a freshman at wide receiver than it would be to play a freshman at safety, linebacker or defensive line. The closer you are to the ball, the harder it is to get on the field early.”
Penn State played a handful of true freshmen in the secondary last season. Christian Campbell and Grant Haley both saw plenty of playing time at corner while Marcus Allen and Troy Apke also rotated in and found success at safety. They’ll be joined this season by redshirt freshman Amani Oruwariye who has also moved to safety.
Meanwhile Adam Geiger and Jack Haffner have moved from offense to defense.
The pair of former walk-ons both played running back and will now play linebacker in order to get more tackling practice. They’ll need it if they want to fulfill their goals of being “special teams terrors.”
“They want to have a huge role on special teams,” Franklin said. “It’s hard to do that when you’re never tackling.
Those guys will go over to be able to work all the individual parts of practice with the safeties, with the linebackers. We’re hoping that’s going to allow them to have a bigger role on special teams. They’re already big, strong, athletic guys. We’re excited about that.”