'After Last Season, it Felt Like 75,000'

Penn State welcomed 7,500 fans back to Beaver Stadium for spring football practice. James Franklin was thrilled.
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Penn State welcomed about 7,500 fans, mostly first-year students, back to Beaver Stadium on Saturday for a modest spring football practice.

It was the stadium's largest crowd since 2019, and coach James Franklin took the opportunity to encourage more fans to get the COVID-19 vaccination before September.

"It really felt good to be in there with our freshman students and our parents. It's really good work for us," Franklin said after practice. "Obviously, there's a lot of things that we’ve got to get cleaned up, but being back in the stadium, I thought was a real positive for us, and we'll build on that.

"I would go out here and say this, obviously, being in that stadium felt great. I can't imagine what it would mean to get back to what we've been averaging the two years before the pandemic, that reaction of 106,000 fans for those two years and whatever we have to do to get that stadium back full. That’s for our community, that's for the state of Pennsylvania, that's for our university, that's for the athletic department and obviously, that’s for our football program.

"So, anybody that's comfortable, getting a vaccine, let's get the vaccine so we can get as many people in the stadium as possible as we can and try to get back to normal."

Franklin discussed a variety of football topics as well, from freshman phenom Kalen King (who had two interceptions Saturday) to the quarterbacks to the run game to one player potentially playing offense and defense.

Penn State will conduct three more practices, concluding April 23 with a special event for the senior class. Here is Franklin's post-practice interview.

Q: Can you tell us how many practices you have left? Can you address the progress the offense has made under Mike [Yurcich] this spring?

Franklin: This was practice number 12 for us. We have 15 practices every spring. That's what the NCAA allows. So, we'll get all 15 in. I think we've made great progress. I mean, obviously, there's a bunch of things we’ve still got to get cleaned up, operationally and assignment-wise, but we've gotten a lot in.

We're doing a bunch of different things that are challenging for our defense. It's a great battle between our offense and defense personnel every single day.

Because it's not only what you do on offense, it's all the different looks that you have to prepare for as well, from our defense and vice versa. So, you know, I think we've laid a really good foundation. These next three practices will be important, because we've been heavy install, pretty much for 12 practices, this will allow us these last three to kind of go back and refine some of the finer details. I think the thing I've always felt is, the run game is something that you'd like to leave the spring feel good about, because it's hard to make improvements in that. Before you get back to training camp and the passing game, there's a lot of things you can work on, on your own, you know, the rest of the spring and the summer. So I like where we're at, but there's still plenty to work on.

Q: With three practices left, what do you think about your quarterbacks?

Franklin: So it’s our normal schedule. So, I think we’ll go again on Monday. We’ll go again on Wednesday and then we’re going to go on Friday. That’s how we had it, normally. That’s how we had it scheduled. So, we’ll go Friday, probably Friday night, because I always like to get some practices in the spring, as well as summer camp, under the lights because I think that’s another thing to get used to. Them you know, that allows our guys to finish up strong academically and have the weekend to prepare for exams or whatever else they’ve got coming up.

Obviously, the quarterback work is very important. I think Sean [Clifford] has done some really good things this spring. I think Mike has really been impressed. From what I’ve seen, in terms of Sean’s approach, it’s really important to Sean. He works really hard at it. He prepares like you’re supposed to prepare. Then, you’ve got three somewhat inexperienced guys that need 1,000 reps. So we’ll be smart these next few practices will have a plan from now until summer camp and then have a very specific plan for summer camp, as well. So that when we win our first game, that we’re ready to hit on all cylinders. So far, so good.

Quarterback Sean Clifford and running back Devyn Ford

Quarterback Sean Clifford and running back Devyn Ford

Q: You have spoken highly of [freshman cornerback] Kalen King. Can you specify one or two things that made him so ready for today and the spring?

Franklin: I think a couple things. He is physically ready. You know, he's a guy that's come in and is already physically developed from a weight standpoint, from a strength standpoint. He's also very mature. He and his twin brother, Kobe, both are very mature. They know how to prepare, know how to compete and know how to work.

You know, they went to one of the most successful high school programs in the United States, Cass Tech [in Detroit]. They figured out how to prepare and the level of competition, they played in a really good league in Detroit. Then on top of that, you know, he's got great ball skills. You want to recruit guys that can play both sides of the ball. He's got tremendous confidence, you know, in his talents and he's got ball skills.

I know this sounds strange, I know that sounds funny, and he's making some great plays on the ball, but some guys like him, the ball just likes them. He's gotten a couple interceptions where you just throw it to him and we had a guy like that a few years back that was very similar, that played for us and the ball, just likes him. You know, they get a number of turnovers by making great plays, and they get a number, you know, the ball just tips up and lands in their hands or are just thrown to them by a misread. He's one of those guys.

Part of it is he's always around the ball and I think he's got a pretty good understanding of what we're asking him to do from a scheme perspective. You just continue to see, what you guys saw today isn’t new, we’ve seen it all spring.

Cornerback Kalen King

Cornerback Kalen King

Q: What have been your impressions today and throughout spring of [running back] Keyvone Lee and your offensive line?

Franklin: Keyvone is your typical 237-pound power back in the Big Ten that is always running north or south. Me and Mike, we were talking about it the other day, and [running backs coach Ja’Juan Seider], he's the guy that you look at the end of the game. You think he played pretty good, but he's got 115 yards and two touchdowns because he's just north-south and he's always falling forward. So, a run that’s supposed to be four yards, he gets six, and a run that is supposed to be five yards, he gets seven. He's just that type of back.

He's got really good vision and I think he's doing a better job of understanding who he is. There were times last year where he tried to bounce things and that's not really who he is, at least at this stage. Now, he'll bounce a run but as soon as he bounces, he really sticks his foot in the ground and gets back north-south again. So, I think he's had a nice spring.

I think the offensive line has really done some nice things, overall this spring. We'll have to watch the tape from today. I thought you know, [defensive coordinator] Brent [Pry], like he always does, did a pretty good job overloading the box to make some of the run situations challenging and that's where we're able to have some success getting the ball to the perimeter in some of the RPO-type plays. But, pleased I think.

I think [offensive line coach Phil] Trautwein’s got that group really headed in the right direction and Mike Miranda and Rasheed [Walker] have done a great job from a leadership perspective.

Q: We saw [defensive back] Marquis Wilson at receiver today. When did you guys make that switch? Didn’t see [safety] Ji’Ayir Brown today. How has we done this spring?

Franklin: With Marquis, he was a guy that we’ve been really talking about, since we recruited him, the possibility of playing both ways. My philosophy is, once you really have established yourself on one side of the ball, I’m open to discussing, you know, playing both ways.

[Former receiver] KJ [Hamler] wasn’t happy about it. KJ came up to me, because he thought he should’ve played DB. I told him if you came back that last year, you would have. But with Marquis, it’s partly that and it’s also that he’s got great ball skills. He’s got tremendous confidence in himself and we’re looking for a few more playmakers at the wide receiver position. So, we made this change about a week ago.

It’s something we’ve probably been discussing for about a week-and-a-half and then we made the change, brought Marquis in and we don’t ever tell a kid where to go. But you know, we bring them in and talk about what we’re thinking and see if he’s open to it and he was, he was awesome. He’s still figuring it out right now, but he’s already shown some flashes in practice and done some really good things. So, we’ll continue to build there.

I also think, you know, Kalen King’s development and Johnny Dixon coming in, we feel like we’ve got pretty good depth at the corner position. So, it allowed us some flexibility that factored into it.

Ji’Ayir was not available today, from a health perspective. As you know, we’ll leave it at that.

Q: Do you think there's anything intrinsically that gives team confidence when they have bookend tackles in [Rasheed] Walker and [Caedan] Wallace? There seems to the possibility of that happening this year.

Franklin: To me, if you have two tackles you have a lot of confidence in and you have a center inside, that we have a lot of confidence in from a communication standpoint, from an experience standpoint, that's where you'd like to start and build from. Not that the guards aren't important, they are critically important, but you'd love to have a center and two bookend tackles to maybe help some inexperienced guards from a communication standpoint, from a call perspective and to help those guys kind of develop and grow.

We also have some guards that we think very highly of as well. But, I do think your point is a good one. You want to feel really good about your two guys on the edges and protecting the quarterback’s blindside or his throwing arm. And then to be able to have experience like we have with Miranda at center, we feel really good there.

Q: You’ve talked a lot about the importance of going into a season not just with the starting quarterback, but with the defined backup quarterback, who's ready to win you games. Do you feel like you've found that guy this Spring? How would you assess what you saw from Ta’Quan [Roberson] and Christian [Veilleux] today?

Franklin: I think it's hard to say that, when you have guys that haven't played significant game reps. It's hard to say that you feel that way, because you never know until guys get in there and that's why I think being in Beaver Stadium. Today was important for us because it's different. It's different than being out there on the practice fields at Lasch. So, we'll try to do this again next Friday night. I think that'll be important for us as well.

Both Ta’Quan and Christian have shown some really good flashes of understanding what we're trying to do, how to operate the offense the way Mike wants it to run and then also the ability to make some plays and have the vision to read a defense and then deliver a throw. Ta’Quan this spring has probably had as many of those kinds of ‘wow’ throws as anybody. Sean's had a bunch of them. Ta’Quan has had a bunch of them and Christian has as well. But, until you get that experience, it's hard to say that you feel great until you know they've done it.

That's why you look at some of those backup quarterbacks in the NFL that are the backup and they can come in and win a game. Those guys play in the NFL for a long time because they've gone in the games and shown that they can get the job done. So, now we have some work to do there, but we feel really good about our guys and we feel really good about the guy coaching them.

Quarterback Christian Veilleux

Quarterback Christian Veilleux

Q: Are you still looking for an explosive element to your running game? You mentioned Keyvone Lee's consistency. Knowing who he is, are you still looking for that dynamic punch to the one-two punch?

Franklin: Yeah, and that's part of the running back, whether it’s Keyvone breaking tackles, those explosive plays, and he runs better than you think, to be honest with you. You don't think that way when you have a 237-pound back. We have a bunch of backs that we think can provide that and that's part of the backs either breaking tackles or making people miss. That is the O-Line and tight ends creating space for those explosive plays.

Then, it is also through scheme and that's what the RPOs are all about and what Mike calls the TTOs, which are like the triple option-type things, where you're putting people in conflict and creating space that way by making people defend 53-and-a-third, so that they explosive plays in the run game that will come kind of through all those things.