Four sharp blows of the whistle echo through the indoor practice field. A buzz starts up from Penn State players as James Franklin starts calling out names.
The new Penn State coach begins setting up one group of four players against another group of four. Three blockers and a ballcarrier against four defenders.
The rest of the team closes around them to form a claustrophobic patch of field where the chosen crash into each other. Onlookers scream and whistle as the eight involved fall to the Holuba Hall turf.
Most know it as the Oklahoma drill. At Penn State, Franklin calls it “Lions Den,” and it has become a way for coaching staff and players to develop a rapport during spring practice.
“It has everything to do with the game and nothing to do with the game,” cornerback Jordan Lucas said. “It’s just competing. That’s what this staff wants us to do is compete.”
That mentality has been the defining characteristic of Franklin’s first session of spring ball in Happy Valley.
From running full speed in between drills to coming up with different ways to get players’ competitive blood boiling, it has been an altogether different experience for the Nittany Lions.
“I think everyone likes them bringing the SEC mentality up here,” linebacker Mike Hull said.
As one of just 10 scholarship seniors on the 2014 roster, Hull and the Lions’ leadership core were understandably guarded when Franklin came in with an entirely new staff back in January.
The group was especially close-knit under former coach Bill O’Brien in the aftermath of the Jerry Sandusky scandal, Paterno’s death and the ensuing NCAA sanctions.
As such, one of the biggest obstacles for Franklin and his assistants this spring was winning the players’ trusts following O’Brien’s abrupt departure for the NFL.
“The players had a little bit of a wall up when we got here, which is natural,” Franklin said. “For us to get to where we want to go they have to let us in. They can’t do it by themselves and we can’t do it by ourselves. We’ve got to do it together.”
That was after the first week of spring ball, which culminates with Saturday’s Blue-White Game at Beaver Stadium.
Entering this fourth and final week of practice, the situation has greatly improved from the players’ perspective.
“The wall,” Hull said, “is down now.”
To accomplish that, the new staff ramped up the intensity.
Lions players had been used to more upbeat practices under O’Brien, which featured music blasting during stretches and to simulate crowd noise in some situations.
By all accounts, however, Franklin has a gone a few ticks past that pace, and not just on the practice field.
“It’s just the energy that’s been in place from the top to the bottom, from day one until now,” quarterback Christian Hackenberg said. “It stays the same through the entire day.
“You really never know what to expect on a day-to-day basis. It keeps things interesting. I mean, there’s a regimen to it, but you never know what’s around the corner, what they’re going to have for competition, so it’s fun.”
That competition part is what Hull meant by an “SEC mentality.” Back in January, Hull had advocated for the university to hire the best possible coach rather than get hung up on whether or not the guy had ties to Penn State.
It remains to be seen whether Franklin will prove to be the best choice. The first step down that path is creating a bond with his new team.
“It’ll change, the more time we get to spend together,’’ Franklin said. “It’s not going to happen overnight. You make it happen by having them to your house for dinner, by doing things with them, by building relationships.
“By the time we get to the season, we’ll have as good a chemistry as anybody in the country.’’
Michigan game in primetime
Penn State will get to be a part of the first Big Ten night game in the history of Michigan Stadium.
The announcement came Monday that the Nittany Lions’ Oct. 11 game at Michigan will kick off at 7 p.m. with ESPN or ESPN2 carrying the broadcast.
It will be just the third game ever played under the recently installed permanent lights at the Big House. Both previous times came against Notre Dame in 2011 and 2013.
Penn State and Michigan, of course, played in primetime last season, with the Lions winning 43-40 in four overtimes, the longest game in Big Ten history.
Pro Day set
A total of 11 former Penn State players will be on campus today for the program’s Pro Day, which allows NFL scouts to get an up close look at the draft-eligible Lions.
Those working out include P Alex Butterworth, LB Glenn Carson, WR Brandon Felder, OT Garry Gilliam, OT Adam Gress, DT DaQuan Jones, TE Matt Lehman, DB Stephen Obeng-Agyapong, WR Allen Robinson, OL John Urschel and DB Malcolm Willis.