Naturally, the first snap of live play at Penn State’s first practice of the fall was a handoff to running back Saquon Barkley.
Redshirt sophomore Trace McSorley was at first-team quarterback as the snap, in shotgun formation from newly converted senior center Brian Gaia, popped into his outstretched hands and he handed off to Barkley, who cut up the middle for a brief gain.
Neither McSorley nor Barkley, nor the rest lined up under the hot August sun on Thursday, took a moment to admire the play as they had at times in the past when the young back had the ball.
Not in Joe Moorhead’s offense. No time.
When he wasn’t working specifically with the quarterbacks, the Nittany Lions’ new offensive coordinator spurred his unit onward, rapping out five plays in a little over two minutes; no huddle in between. That’s how things are now at Penn State — Moorhead is busy at work installing any phases of his uptempo West-Coast-style spread that were left out in the spring.
“I think the things that we’re looking for throughout camp are to build off of the foundation that was established in spring ball,” said Moorhead during his press conference on Thursday. “We talked to the guys about it. We want to come out with the opportunities that we have in camp and prior to the Kent State game, we just want to see incremental improvements. Come out every day, pick something and get a little bit better at it.”
Players spent their NCAA-allotted 15 practices of spring ball implementing concepts within his scheme, but now that it’s fall camp, there is an added layer to the mix: Plays are getting a little more complex, and the freshmen have arrived.
Among those expected to contribute immediately is running back Miles Sanders. Sanders, who will wear No. 24 for Penn State, spent the first portion of practice on kick return — yes, with Barkley, as had been requested by the latter earlier this year — fielding chip kicks by freshman kicker Alex Barbir.
Sanders said prior to his arrival at Penn State that he wanted to at least contribute on special teams. But in Moorhead’s offense, if he can adjust to the natural learning curve of an incoming freshman, he could have a chance to do much more.
The coordinator shared that a two-back, three-receiver set is certainly something the team wanted to implement as he has in the past.
“Essentially you take out the tight end, you put in another running back and we have a similar set of plays that we’re able to run from either of those personnel groupings,” he said. “We did a little bit of it in the spring, and I think that’s part of what fall camp is about, not just the implementation and improvement of the offense, but a little experimentation where you get some groupings in there and really see what you’re good at and what you’re best at.”
Head coach James Franklin spent the entirety of that particular 10-minute segment (Penn State rotates through drills and workouts in sections each practice) working with Barkley, Sanders and Brandon Polk on the return team.
Koa Farmer, Nick Scott and Mark Allen did not practice with the returners, as often seen last season. Scott is officially working out with the defensive backs, as is Farmer. Running back Johnathan Thomas has officially made the switch to linebacker.
Also reshuffled a bit was Penn State’s offensive line. Franklin mentioned earlier that day during his press conference that Andrew Nelson, who played left tackle all throughout spring, would be shifted back to the right side. Senior Wendy Laurent spent a bit of time at left tackle on the first team, as did Noah Beh. Derek Dowrey was at right guard while Nelson stayed on the right.
“There’s a number of reasons why we’re going to (keep Nelson on the right), which I will not go into at this time,” said Franklin. “But we still need to figure out who are going to be those tackles, who is going to be the best left tackle, who is going to be the best right tackle and then the guys behind them.”
The team will continue fall camp for four weeks before the season officially starts against Kent State at Beaver Stadium on Sept. 3.