About halfway through the season, with a bye week long in the distance, Penn State has found itself in what players describe as “the grind.”
It’s that time when the excitement of the first home openers, and the first hundred hits, and the first few weeks of official practice have worn off, and the time when the physicality of college football and how it wears on the body is starting to overlap the adrenaline rush a fresh season brings.
Defensive tackle Anthony Zettel described “the grind” earlier this week via teleconference. He said while he’s holding up well, his body does need the full week to recover after games at this point in the season, with a lot of focus on rest and nutrition throughout.
Head coach James Franklin said after practice on Wednesday night that a combined effort between the trainers in the weight room and his own staff’s decision to trim practices is helpful during this time of the year.
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“I think the strength staff does a really good job, we lift during the season, so I think that’s helpful for us. We have an experienced training staff,” he said. “Typically, last week we starting cutting practice back. Last week, we cut basically 12 minutes out of practice. So instead of five-minute periods, we pick out a certain amount of periods and make them four-minute periods. It doesn’t seem like a lot, but that helps as well.
“I’ve been places early in my career where it was the end of the season, you know, bowl season, and the practice shell had not changed. It was the same as it was (in) week one, and I think over time you have to start cutting those things back, and modifying them, especially with our depth and being young.”
Franklin said that despite the added (and much-lauded) “practice depth” the team has this season as opposed to last season, he hasn’t tweaked the amount of practice the team gets.
“I think the time is probably the same (as last year), but the way we’re practicing (is different),” he said.
“We did a lot more jog-throughs last year, we did a lot more tag-offs last year, in terms of our tempo, and we’re able to do more ‘thud’ and full-speed work, which I think is helping our offensive line and their development in the run game, because we’re able to be more physical every day at practice.
Situational adjustments at quarterback?
Franklin said that, especially after seeing what Ohio State dual-threat J.T. Barrett could do in the red zone, the staff has talked (as they have for the last year or so) about introducing new things in correlation to offensive situations.
The difference, though, is ability of players.
“It’s a little bit different dynamic, because the guy that (Ohio State) was putting in was the Big Ten Player of the Year. You know? A guy who’s a proven guy. I mean, the guy they pulled out (Cardale Jones) hasn’t lost a game,” he said. “But yeah, we’ve had a lot of discussions of doing some things like that to keep people on their toes, to give them some extra things to work with.”
Franklin said that one of the things that would be helpful in implementing those situational adjustments is bringing in a player who has consistently shown he’s been able to pass and beat a defense, as well as run and beat a defense.
“It’s a challenge,” he said, citing several talks with defensive coordinators as to just how tricky defending a rotating-quarterback attack such as Ohio State’s can be — or even a true dual-threat.
“You look at Maryland, for example,” he added. “They are going to run their quarterback. That’s going to be their game plan in our opinion. Because now they’ve moved their fullback, that was their former quarterback, who’s a hard-nosed kid…so my point is, if they’re going to have this game plan of all quarterback runs, they better have a guy behind him that could do the same thing, or the game plan goes out.”
Penn State, of course, does not yet have options like that, especially with a more traditional pocket passer like Christian Hackenberg, who has shown a few bursts of speed (don’t discount those two rushing touchdowns), just not consistently, and speedy-yet-untested backups in Trace McSorley and Tommy Stevens.
But that doesn’t mean Franklin hasn’t thought about options; and one that was used often last season was the Wildcat — he likes running it, it’s just that the backs he has available might not be ready for it.
“The fans, and the media, you guys are huge fans of the Wildcat,” he joked. “I’m a big believer in it in small doses, just to keep people honest and allow you to level the playing field just in terms of being able to add an extra hat, just in terms of blocking perspective, but we’ll see.
“You know, as Saquon (Barkley) and those others get more comfortable it could show up. But as of right now, obviously we haven’t shown it.”
A higher ‘standard’ on special teams
Franklin said earlier this week that he’d love to see his kickers and punters develop a “standard operating procedure” (SOP) that does not deviate from day to day at practice, to help with consistency in games. Punters Daniel Pasquariello and Chris Gulla, who struggled to the point of Franklin half-suggesting an open tryout after last week’s game, apparently do have their routines, where kicker Joey Julius’ SOP is still a work in progress.
“Those guys have a routine, Joey is the guy that I’m trying to get to be more disciplined with those things, those guys have a routine (but) I still think they can be more structured,” the head coach said.
“You watch the very best punters, they’ll go out and walk around a field and drop the ball, go through their three steps and a drop, maybe 500 times in practice. I would even argue, you have to be a little bit of a ‘different’ guy, to be able to do that year after year after year...When you shank the ball out of bounds, it’s typically (because) your drop was slightly off; the nose was up, the nose was down, whatever it may be, those types of things.
“So, those two guys are actually pretty good with that, but they can be a lot better.”
Franklin said that since many college programs don’t have “kicking coaches” on staff, Pasquariello and Gulla both rely on their private coaches to give them feedback and film of what went wrong the prior game.
“Danny’s guy is in Australia, so that makes things a little difficult, with time zone changes and all that as well,” Franklin joked.
Penn State will face the nation’s best kickoff and punt returner in Maryland’s William Likely this Saturday at 3:30 p.m. in Baltimore.