Last updated: April 15. 2014 1:17PM - 1736 Views
By - dlevarse@timesleader.com

Practices may be over, but new Penn State coach James Franklin still has plenty of work to do before the spring is over.
Practices may be over, but new Penn State coach James Franklin still has plenty of work to do before the spring is over.
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Spring ball is over. Monday began the heaviest film study and today the recruiting effort will kick back into gear as coaches hit the road.

For James Franklin, the most important time will still be spent with his players.

Though the Nittany Lions are done practicing until the late summer, Franklin and his staff must now evaluate the entire roster and lay out their plans for everyone — from star quarterback Christian Hackenberg to the two newest walk-ons — Kyle Alston and Desi Davis — who recently joined the team after a tryout.

“I’ll meet with every single player on the team,” Franklin said. “It might take two weeks, it might take three weeks, whatever it is. But we will schedule them from six in the morning until 11 at night. About a 20-minute meeting with each kid.”

Here’s an overview of what Franklin learned about his new team this spring.


Hackenberg may have only played briefly in the Blue-White Game, but there’s no question the staff is already building the new offense around him.

The rising sophomore threw just 10 passes Saturday, but Franklin had as much to say about him since he arrived in January.

“(With) Hackenberg, we’re going to be going into camp feeling pretty comfortable. I think he’s comfortable with what’s going on,” Franklin said. “He has a good understanding of concepts. He’s getting more comfortable with the terminology.

“I’ve been pleased with him. He’s extremely accurate. He has a really good feel for the game. He has great arm strength and I think we’re going to be able to do some things to help him as well.”

Likewise, top tailbacks Zach Zwinak and Bill Belton touched the ball just once between them in the scrimmage.

Zwinak, who broke his wrist in last year’s Blue-White Game, was healthy on Saturday. Rather, the coaches wanted to make sure he didn’t inadvertently hurt anyone else with his bruising running style.

“I’m really excited to see him cut loose,” running backs coach Charles Huff said. “We didn’t really want to cut him loose too much this spring because he bangs people up. If you’re in his way, he’s going to hit you. I’m really excited to see his progress.”

The receiving corps could change the most between now and the opener against UCF because of the talented group of freshmen that will arrive in the summer. But Eugene Lewis and Matt Zanellato, who hooked up for a touchdown pass from Lewis on Saturday, will have the inside track to start.

Offensive line, of course, will be the concern throughout the year. With the status of guard Miles Dieffenbach (knee) unknown for the season, the Lions may very well end up starting two converted defensive tackles at guard in Derek Dowrey and Brian Gaia.

“Everything’s different, so it was a bit of a challenge,” Dowrey said of the transition. “But I think (offensive line coach Herb Hand) helped me out a lot and smoothed things out.”


Some of Franklin’s strongest praise this spring has been reserved for the defensive line. It was easy to see why on Saturday, as the defense dominated the offense up front, recording nine total sacks on four different quarterbacks.

Senior C.J. Olaniyan was particularly impressive, picking up from where he left off from his breakout 2013 season. Anthony Zettel looked like a natural at tackle, moving inside from end this spring.

“They recruited me as a defensive end, but they knew in the future I’d be a defensive tackle.” Zettel said. “It was just how my body is, so I knew that and gained some extra weight. It helped to solidify that transition. I want to put another seven to eight more pounds of muscle on over the summer.”

At the center of the new defense is linebacker Mike Hull, who will take over as the middle linebacker and be in charge of the call for the unit.

His experience and athleticism are invaluable to Bob Shoop, who is the Lions’ fourth different full-time defensive coordinator in the last four years.

That dramatic turnover makes for some early hiccups in the spring as the players try to adjust yet again to a new set of terminology.

“Yeah, it can be tough at times,” Hull said. “There have been a few times this month where I’d call something out from the old defense and I’d have to catch myself. But it’s gotten easier to make the transition because we’re used to changing things around.”

While the Lions are fairly deep up front, the linebackers are still thin. With Ben Kline and Nyeem Wartman sitting out Saturday, Hull and Brandon Bell were joined on the first team by walk-on Matthew Baney. He made most of his moment in the spotlight, hauling in an interception for a pick-six.

There are a few more options in the secondary, where Adrian Amos and Jordan Lucas lead what could be the Lions’ most aggressive defensive backfields in years.

Corner Trevor Williams and safety Ryan Keiser both made their cases for starting jobs on Saturday as both came up with an interception. Keiser also forced a fumble.

All in all, Shoop was happy with what he saw.

“There’s still work to be done, but I’d say we far exceeded what I anticipated we would,” Shoop said. “I give real credit to some of the veterans. … They bought in.”

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