A Penn State offensive lineman has shown big progress this fall, and it’s not who you might think.
At Wednesday’s 10-minute media session after practice, head coach James Franklin said he saw good progress out of fifth-year player (and four-year backup) Wendy Laurent.
Franklin said Laurent is “ahead” of Stanford transfer Kevin Reihner, also a fifth-year player, has done well at both guard and center, and is “fighting for a starting job.”
“That’s a guy that’s going to create a bit of flexibility for us as well,” he said. “Playing experience helps. It helped him. I don’t think there’s any doubt about that. But he’s just been different. He’s been so much more competitive in the offseason. Really think his commitment level is at a really high level right now.
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“To be honest, he looks like a different guy.”
As for the hole at left tackle, Franklin said he still saw a ways to go in the “maturation” of junior college transfer Paris Palmer.
“I think he’s improved, he’s bigger, he’s stronger, he’s more confident,” said Franklin. “But he’s probably playing, in a lot of ways, like some of the offensive linemen played last year. Tentative, not as confident, not as aggressive as you’d want him to be.”
The opening, he said, is, as of now, just that.
“Nobody has kind of grabbed ahold of the spot,” said Franklin. “We’re going to have to make a decision here, are we moving some guys around to get the best five on the field? But we’re not at that point yet. We haven’t even had the first scrimmage. But no one has grabbed ahold of the spot.”
Impressive plays by younger talent
From what the media got to see, during a 10-minute window Wednesday, the team was in pads and participating in 11-on-11 drills.
While the first team stood back, backup quarterback Trace McSorley demonstrated a bit of zip on his throws, including a long sideline spiral that 6-foot-2, 211-pound sophomore receiver Saeed Blacknall pulled down, bobbled a bit, then maintained control.
In the next series, McSorley went for the opposite sideline and freshman Juwan Johnson showed his 6-foot-4 length while nicely pulling it down.
“We got a bunch of young players that are in consideration for playing time, probably more than last year,” Franklin said.
That includes freshman Saquon Barkley, who had a beautiful cut-and-run off a pass from McSorley that saw him shake off one defender and outrun another on his way to the end zone — amid plenty of hooting and hollering from his teammates on the sidelines.
“It’s interesting. I’d put all those guys in a bag right now,” Franklin said of the running backs. “And that’s Akeel as well. Akeel, Mark (Allen), I think Nick (Scott), I think Saquon (Barkley) is in the conversation as well, you know, I think all those guys right now are fighting to see who’s going to be No. 1, who’s going to be No. 2, who’s going to be No. 3. And it’s a really good competition right now.”
Franklin said the team will break into scout teams about two weeks before the first game and that will also show division of first and second team reps.
“We’re not going to make a decision for at least another week,” he said.
With depth comes physicality
Franklin said the depth on the roster and the young talent allowed for more “live periods” at practice this year, as demonstrated by the lively 11-on-11 matchups.
“The practices are probably on a completely different level in terms of competition, in terms of leadership, in terms of how physical we’re able to be,” said Franklin. “We weren’t able to do that last year. I think you are able to do a better job of evaluating how guys are really going to play in those situations. “
According to assistant head coach and linebackers coach Brent Pry, his squad is looking extremely physical. The hardest hitter at the moment, he said, is 6-foot-1, 245-pound linebacker Jason Cabinda.
Replacing Mike at Mike
Pry said Nyeem Wartman-White is still “growing in” to his new role at middle linebacker — the gap left by standout Mike Hull, who is currently trying to make the Miami Dolphins roster in the NFL.
“He’s a guy that did an outstanding job at Willy-backer (weak side linebacker) in the fall, but it’s a new animal in there,” said Pry. “He’s still growing in the position. He still needs reps, he still needs experience, he still needs practice.”
Pry said Wartman-White needs to control the whole defense, and the redshirt junior needs to grow in that sense, but Pry is confident in Wartman-White’s ability to adapt to the learning curve and said he’ll be ready by Penn State’s season opener at Temple on Sept. 5.
“His biggest strength is his agility and his physicality,” said Pry. “There’s not many guys at 250 (pounds) that can play with the knee-bend and physicality that Nyeem does.”