STATE COLLEGE | Penn State coach James Franklin left Beaver Stadium in a pretty good mood after Saturday's Blue-White Game. His quarterbacks got plenty of reps, a few players made some big plays and, most importantly, no one got hurt.
After the game, Franklin held his final media availability of spring practice. Here's what he said.
James Franklin: "I'm appreciative of 60,000 [fans] we had at the game, beautiful day. I'm not sure who got that done for us, but we appreciate that as well. For the most part, we stayed healthy, got a ton of reps, managed a challenging situation with our offensive line based on numbers. I know today wasn't exactly what the fans or the media wanted, but it was the best thing to do for our program and then still maximize the opportunity that we had.
"We answered some questions this spring, but we still have some questions going into fall camp. There's a lot of work that still needs to be done between now and fall camp and then before you know it ... we will be getting on a plane to go to Purdue to open up national television Thursday night, which will be awesome opening up with a Big Ten game on the road. I'm pleased with our progress. [Defensive coordinator] Manny Diaz being able to get here, being able to watch bowl practice and then get 15 practices of spring ball was very, very important. Year two under [offensive coordinator] Mike Yurcich was very, very important.
"Getting a veteran quarterback like Sean Clifford, with the same offensive coordinator for two years and being able to mentor two, really three, talented underclass quarterbacks, all these things gain value. The last thing I would say is we probably have more guys in this recruiting class, and I'm not really talking about rankings, because as we know, those things are nice, but at the end of the day, it's about what really shows up on your campus from a production standpoint, and we probably have more new guys showing up on campus that have a chance to impact the roster as freshmen than maybe we've ever had. Maybe one other class that did that, so I'm excited about that. Where I think this class may be different is, obviously we’ve all seen the increase in mid-semester grads. We're getting more guys that are graduating early and coming in, learning the system and then going into summer with a chance to truly compete. So overall, I'm excited about it."
Q: Could you speak to why it's important to get [freshmen] ids in who are ready to play immediately?
Franklin: "Yeah, a couple of things. I think the first thing I would say is, we don't pressure guys. I think some schools really are adamant about them having to graduate early and get here, we don't but the numbers are just naturally rising. People see it as an opportunity to get ahead academically. As you guys saw, Micah Parsons was here. Micah graduated in three years. You're talking about getting ahead academically in a semester. There's also value in football, you have to show up and you have to adjust academically, athletically and socially all at once, all in the fall semester.
"Where maybe other sports, like basketball, you're able to come in and adjust academically and socially and then adjust later in the semester or the second semester when it comes to basketball. So, there's value from that perspective, and then obviously depth. You look around college football, everybody's struggling with depth in spring ball based on some of the new rule changes, so it helps from that standpoint as well. There are a lot of reasons why I think it makes sense, but I do think it has to be the right kid in the right situation because you go from being a high school student on a Wednesday to a college student on a Monday, it happens fast. You got to be ready for that."
Q: Looking back at spring practices, who are the big standout players?
Franklin: "I always struggle with this because when I do it, and I miss a guy then somebody's upset or somebody's parents are upset. Then we see what's going on nationally right after spring ball, some feelings can be hurt. So, I'm going to answer your question. I don't love the question, but I'm going to answer. Guys that stood out I'm just going to kind of go through my mind with this. [Safety[ Ji’Ayir Brown, he led the nation in interceptions last year, I thought he built on it this spring and this winter in workouts. I really feel like we got three other safeties that really flashed at times. ... At a lot of positions, I'm not ready to say we're as talented with the starters that we've ever been, but we have positions where our depth is as good as it's been where the drop-off is not as significant to the number twos and number threes.
"At corner, Kalen King, I think really stood out this spring. At linebacker, I would say the move of Jon Sutherland to the field linebacker, it's been very obvious to everybody that was the right thing for us to do and that was the right thing for Jon to do. I think he's got a chance to have a big year. Defensive line, just having Adisa [Issac] back, you guys know we felt like he had a chance to be a really special player this last year, so having him back it's great to see that athleticism coming off the edge. I would say the same thing at defensive tackle that I said at safety. We have more depth at the tackle without a significant drop off than we've had in the past on the offensive side of the ball. I would say at right tackle and center and left tackle with Caeden [Wallace], [Juice Scruggs] and Olu [Fashanu], I think those three guys played really well and took a ton of reps this spring. We are going to have a good competition at guard, we will still have competition at those positions, but we will have really good competition guard, see how that plays out. Getting Sal Wormley back from injury that we lost last year is valuable.
"We've got as good of a tight end room I think as anywhere in the country. Our depth there is good. Then wideout with Parker [Washington] and KeAndre [Lambert-Smith] back. I thought Mitchell Tinsley came in and did some good things that you'd expect out of a veteran wideout. And then again at wideout, I think we have a chance to have a legitimate two-deep that we probably haven't had.
"At quarterback, Sean [Clifford] had his best spring. [Christian] Veilleux was able to build on the success that he had in the Rutgers game. Somebody asked me about reps for the quarterbacks, how we divvied that up, so kind of getting to the quarterbacks, Sean and Veilleux both had good springs and the two young guys really flashed some potential. When it came to reps, Clifford was able to get 201 reps this spring and that's attempts, I'm not talking about just overall reps. I'm talking about attempts. Veilleux had 183, Drew Allar had 134 and [Beau] Pribula had 132. Don't overread into the two-rep difference, which I know somebody will make a big deal out of that, but I thought that was good. I thought it was awesome to see Gabe Nwosu today punt the hell out of the ball. He hadn’t done that all spring to be honest with you. Some guys, when they get in Beaver Stadium in front of fans, the light goes on and they play well. I thought he did that today. I thought Barney Amor was great all spring, that's important. Losing Jordan Stout, he will probably be the highest-drafted specialists in the country this year. So long answer but again, I'm going to try not to hurt anybody's feelings but also answer your question in as much detail as possible."
Q: In your opening remarks, you said that you have a lot of questions and a lot of work to do before now and the season. What are the questions? What's number one on the list?
Franklin: I don’t know if I have a number one. The things that jump out in my mind is who's going to be the punter? You know after losing maybe the best specialist in the country. That's a big question. Is it Barney [Amor], is it Gabe [Nwosu] or is it Mitch [Groh]? Or is it a really talented guy coming in, [Alex] Bacchetta? Talking to [former Penn State punter] Blake Gillikin, who I think we all had a ton of respect for, Blake says and he's worked out with [Bacchetta]. Blake says he's the best freshman he's ever seen. So, we'll see how that plays out. But that was a big question, coming into the season, obviously after losing somebody.
"Offensive line, you know, who's going to replace the guys that left? And can we take a step where you guys ask about the offensive line, I say something and then we back it up? I think the other question is linebacker. We lost some horsepower at the linebacker position. I think we got a pretty good idea who the two outside linebackers are, and we had great competition at Mike linebacker between [Tyler] Elsdon and Kobe [King]. And I would say as the staff and managers will probably tell you this, they probably did better than we anticipated. So we're a little bit further ahead there than we thought.
"Those are probably the big things and then obviously hiring a new defensive coordinator. How is he going to fit and match after we have had so much stability at that position for a long time? But that's been good so far.
Q: How does the versatility of his [Manny Diaz's] defense and the versatility of the players who you have at that safety position mesh for you?
Franklin: I think that's one of the things that you hear all the time. It's almost like a coaching cliche, right? We're going to play to the strengths of our players, but then you watch a lot of times and coordinators don't do that. ... I see that with both of our coordinators, and I see that with Manny. That was part of moving Sutherland to the field linebacker position, which is something we were talking about before Manny got here. But I think Manny was able to kind of lay a foundation.
"... We watch everything. We tape everything. We chart everything. We've got data on everything. One of the things that I love to do preseason every year before the fall and every year before the spring is, let’s rank our 22 best players. And then based on that ranking, that should dictate how we play on offense and defense. Let's rank our units, offensive line through quarterback, and everywhere in between, and what's our strongest units to our weakest units? And then as coaches at the end of the year, let's re-rank it and see if it plays out the same way.
"You've got a chance as a position coach to fix your position group was the last ranked group on offense or defense, let's fix it. So, feedback is really important. But to your question about Manny and flexibility and strength of our personnel, I think that’s hard because that was laying a foundation more than anything. And him figuring out who our team is and what our strengths are and then you kind of get into the specifics of game planning."
Q: So, you thought this was Sean’s best spring. Why do you feel that way? What did you think about the future?
Franklin: "Well, number one, the data. What we try to do every day is, we do daily data, and then I get a second sheet with cumulative data. So, it's what you what your eyes tell you, what your experience tells you. And then you have the data to back it up to make sure your eyes and experience are driving you and leading you in the right direction. But you know, you talk about his interception ratio. You talk about his completion percentage. You talk about his explosive play percentage, and we track it all. We track drop percentage, adjusted drop percentage. All these different things. We track 'MAs,' what we call missed assignments. So, we track it all. And that part of it is talking to defense: 'Manny, what do you think about the offense?' So, it's feedback and I think it's also how his teammates responded.
"It's also how he was with the young quarterbacks. I thought he was tremendous. And then what's great is you hear that from the young quarterbacks but then I see the Pribula’s and I see the Allar’s, mom and dad and they talk about their sons talking about how great Sean was with them all spring."
Q: Are you married to the concept of [Blue-White] being a game, a scrimmage or competition, or would you consider it being a skills competition, maybe with fans interacting. Has that ever crossed your mind?
Franklin: "I would prefer it to be the spring game. Because number one, like I mentioned when you step into the stadium and you got 60,000 fans, I want to know which young players can handle that. Some rise for the moment and play better than they did in the 14 other practices. Some are nervous and they're dropping balls they haven't dropped all spring or missing assignments or whatever it is. I think there's also a part of it, let's be honest, I want the fan base excited going into the next year that there's a buzz and they're talking about it. I want you guys writing nice columns, please. All these types of things. I think there's value in it. I get it.
"Like anything, you know, there's a cost benefit ratio to everything. For us, we've done a pretty good job. You saw today some of the periods were thuds. Some of them were live. I can see us even in the future in a spring game setting doing both. The live work, this is still a game where you better block you better tackle you better, better be able to break tackles. So, it is needed I think in the overall evaluation of our program to know where we're heading and maybe I'm old school. I'm still a believer that this game is built on toughness. And I want to know who's taught when it matters most."
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