While head coach James Franklin assured media on Monday morning that a best-case scenario would be to name next season’s starting quarterback by the end of the team’s 15 upcoming spring ball sessions, he’s not going to rush it.
“I think you always would like to have your quarterback named as early as possible, so they can go into the summer and really kind of take ahold of the team,” he said. “But we don’t want to rush the decision because of that.
“We want to make the right decision, No. 1, and if that becomes obvious very early on, great. If it needs to go to summer camp, we’re willing to go to summer camp. If it needs to be the first game (and) you guys are waiting for us to announce the starter, that could be the case as well.”
I think you always would like to have your quarterback named as early as possible, so they can go into the summer and really kind of take ahold of the team. But we don’t want to rush the decision because of that. We want to make the right decision, No. 1, and if that becomes obvious very early on, great. If it needs to go to summer camp, we’re willing to go to summer camp. If it needs to be the first game (and) you guys are waiting for us to announce the starter, that could be the case as well.
James Franklin, on naming Penn State’s next quarterback
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Franklin said that redshirt sophomore Trace McSorley and redshirt freshman Tommy Stevens have been paired up in weight training and related workouts and are competing “fiercely.”
“And what's great about it, they have a very close relationship,” he added. “So it's one of these competitions where they have a lot of respect and really like each other, but they truly are really competing in everything.”
Alongside the two of them is early enrollee Jake Zembiec, who, despite an impressive high school resume, is a year or two behind his competition in terms of collegiate experience and development.
Franklin said that “young pup” Zembiec is competing alongside McSorley and Stevens, but much remains to be seen of his playing capacity.
“You never know what’s going to happen with a guy like Jake Zembiec,” said Franklin. “It’s hard to keep him a part of the equation because you just never know. We haven’t seen him.”
In terms of live snaps, McSorley has the obvious advantage. His first two career touchdowns came in comeback fashion against Georgia in the TaxSlayer Bowl, where he showed impressive poise despite getting thrown into the game unexpectedly when Christian Hackenberg hurt his shoulder.
In terms of build, however, Stevens might have the edge. He is listed on the most recently released roster as 6-foot-4 and 219 pounds, and Franklin said his movements and lanky stride have improved. McSorley is listed as a generous 6-foot-even and 200 pounds, while Zembiec clearly (and understandably) has the biggest gap to fill size-wise between the two. He is listed at 6-foot-3 and 202 pounds, but looked thin when media observed winter workouts a few weeks ago.
Whoever is named as the starter, they’ll have to be ready to fully take the reins despite their youth and inexperience, and Franklin emphasized that while learning new offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead’s scheme will obviously play a huge factor in the decision at starter, confidently and authoritatively communicating that offense to all position groups will too.
“Leadership is going to be really important for us,” said Franklin. “We’re in a position where we still don’t have a lot of seniors. There’s going to be a lot of responsibility put on those guys as well as the quarterbacks. We look at that.”
Defensive line works to fill gaps
Penn State’s strongest position group last year was its defensive line, so filling three of the front four spots after Carl Nassib, Anthony Zettel and Austin Johnson departed for the NFL is a top priority for Franklin and defensive line coach Sean Spencer.
The unit will undoubtedly keep redshirt junior Garrett Sickels as a starter at strong side defensive end, and some younger names have emerged in filling the gaps to complement him.
“They’re going to have to factor in,” said Franklin. “You look at a guy like Antoine White. He’s been a guy who is really the model you would like. He’s sat behind guys and been able to get some game experience and gain some confidence as he’s matured over time.”
White, a redshirt sophomore defensive tackle who is listed at 6-foot-2 and 283 pounds, could be joined by either Curtis Cothren or Kevin Givens, both of whom have put on a layer of muscle and have been moved from defensive end to tackle.
Another promising name on the end could be sophomore Colin Castagna, listed at 6-foot-4 and 254 pounds.
“(He’s) a guy that we were looking at out of high school, was not recruited, actually went to play volleyball first, transferred in here and is really kind of blowing up right now,” said Franklin.
Castagna ran a 4.82-second 40-yard dash, recorded a 10-foot-4 broad jump alongside a 365-pound clean and a 465-bench, and got Franklin a bit excited while rattling off his stats to media.
“He looks like a Greek God,” he joked. “He had his shirt off the other day, I said, ‘If I had a body like you, I would show up to the press conference with no shirt on.’ He is just beautiful.”
Offensive line expectations
Franklin said the biggest difference he’s seen in the offensive line from the end of the season to the beginning of spring ball is the impact the influx of youth has had.
“There is a group of guys that have been sitting and waiting their time,” he said. “I would actually put some of the other guys like (Noah) Beh and (Chasz) Wright and (Steven) Gonzalez and (Connor) McGovern and (Ryan) Bates and Jenkins, a lot of these guys into that category, as well, that have kind of been waiting their turn to be able to prove that they are ready.”
Franklin added that of all the first-year players, 6-foot-5, 305-pound early enrollee Connor McGovern will have the best chance to impact the oft-maligned line.
We haven't done anything on the field yet, but he's a little bit different than most freshmen because he's going to have a chance to legitimately compete at that position because of his demeanor, because of his work ethic and because of his size.
James Franklin on offensive lineman Connor McGovern
“The difference is, he's 305 pounds right now,” said Franklin. “We haven't done anything on the field yet, but he's a little bit different than most freshmen because he's going to have a chance to legitimately compete at that position because of his demeanor, because of his work ethic and because of his size.
“He's a grown man right now. We'll see if that translates on to the field with the speed of the game, which is always the difference for these guys.”
Young talent like McGovern and fellow early enrollee Alex Gellerstedt has helped with the competitiveness of the unit, Franklin said.
“Now, you have guys legitimately behind them working to take their job every single day at practice,” he said. “I don't think people understand the importance of competition at every single position throughout our program and really anywhere.
“When you've got a guy behind you at every position, that if you don't come to work every single day, has a legitimate chance to take your job, that changes things. If you're looking behind you and you know the guy behind you has no chance to take your job, it's different, and it's human nature.”
Numbers to Note
Penn State football used its ‘”BOD POD” fitness/physicality analysis system to take note of some impressive weight changes among the players.
“Saquon Barkley lost five pounds of fat and gained 12 pounds of muscle,” said Franklin, who rattled off the most notable changes to open his presser. “Mark Allen lost eight pounds of fat, gained five pounds of muscle. (Ryan) Buchholz lost zero pounds of fat but gained ten pounds of muscle. Christian Campbell gained 12 pounds of muscle. Irvin Charles lost two pounds of fat and gained 16 pounds of muscle. Gellerstedt lost 13 pounds of fat and 20 pounds of muscle. DaeSean Hamilton gained 20 pounds of muscle, lean mass. Shareef Miller, pretty amazing, lost 14 pounds of fat and gained 17 pounds of muscle. (Brendan) Mahon lost 12 pounds of fat and gained 20 pounds of muscle.”
The players will put their gains to work when spring ball officially starts on Friday.