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Penn State began spring practice Tuesday with the hopes of making its first College Football Playoff appearance in 2023.
James Franklin looked ahead to this season after coaching the Nittany Lions to an 11-2 record, a Rose Bowl win over Utah and a top-10 finish in the polls last season.
The press conference also came less than 24 hours after Deion Barnes was promoted from graduate assistant to defensive line coach.
Here are 10 takeaways from the 45-minute session:
1. Hiring Deion Barnes as defensive line coach
The hiring of the 30-year-old Barnes, a Philadelphia native and a former Penn State defensive end, was a popular one based on the reaction on social media by fellow staff members, current players and former players.
“His ability to relate to the players and recruits is going to be a strength of his,” Franklin said. “He has the ability to be hard and demanding on them in a way that they respect and can relate to, which a lot of younger coaches have a hard time with.
“One of the things that I was impressed with during the interview process is his understanding of the big picture, not only defensively but in terms of managing the room and setting the standards and expectations of the room.”
Franklin was asked why he waited until the night before the first spring practice to announce Barnes’ hiring after John Scott Jr. resigned two weeks ago.
“We ended up interviewing a ton of people for it,” he said. “Although Deion is a letterman and although the players and former players felt strongly about me hiring Deion, ultimately I had to hire the right person. I needed to make sure of that.
“Throughout the process, it became more and more obvious that this was the right thing to do.”
2. Quarterback repetitions this spring
Franklin said he hopes that Drew Allar and Beau Pribula will receive about the same number of repetitions this spring. He also said they’re going to take a longer look at Pribula’s running ability.
A few minutes later, Franklin was asked if he plans to use Pribula as a runner once the season begins in September.
“I do think if you look at last year we had a very specific plan to get Drew as many reps as we possibly could to build depth and experience,” he said. “This year is a little bit different because we’re back to having a true competition.
“Beau has some athletic traits that are desirable and maybe make sense for us to use if they give us the best chance to win. We’ll see how it plays out.”
3. Update on Olu Fashanu and Landon Tengwall
Franklin said Fashanu will not be restricted at all after the outstanding left tackle missed the final five games last season with an undisclosed injury.
Tengwall, a former four-star prospect, started the first five games last season until suffering an undisclosed injury during warmups before Penn State lost to Michigan. He missed the rest of the season.
“Olu will be full go,” Franklin said. “Landon will be full go by the third practice. … It’ll be great to have those two guys back. They’re obviously proven guys who have played a ton of football for us.”
4. Drew Shelton will get a chance to win a starting job
Shelton, the former Downingtown West star, filled in rather nicely for Fashanu at left tackle in the final five games last season as a freshman. Franklin said he will compete with Wallace for the job at right tackle and will be part of a three-man or four-man rotation at tackle.
Much depends on whether a fourth tackle can play well enough to be Fashanu’s backup on the left side. If the Lions can’t find one, then it’s likely that one tackle will be No. 2 on both sides.
“I would like to be two-and-a-half deep at every position,” Franklin said. “But if there’s not, there needs to be at least a third guy (tackle) that we think we can win with and a fourth guy who is developing.”
5. Hunter Nourzad moves to center
After making eight starts at left guard last year, Nourzad is expected to compete with Parkland grad Nick Dawkins at center.
Franklin said Sal Wormley, who’s expected to start at right guard, and 352-pound Vega Ioane also will receive repetitions at center this spring, along with Dominic Rulli and Ian Harvie.
“Hunter is going to be in a competition with Dawkins,” Franklin said. “I think Vega will take some reps. I think Wormley could take some reps as well. Then I think Rulli and Harvie will be there as well, so it allows us to have a four-deep from a practice perspective.”
6. Young tight ends will receive much work
Franklin said it’s better than it was last season and mentioned veterans Khalil Dinkins and Jerry Cross and freshmen Mega Barnwell and Joey Schlaffer, the former Exeter standout.
Those four will receive more work this spring, Franklin said, because veterans Theo Johnson and Tyler Warren will see limited practice time with their “bumps and bruises.”
“In some ways it’s a blessing in disguise because Dinkins, Cross, Joey and Mega are going to get a ton of reps this spring,” Franklin said. “In a lot of ways that’s valuable because we know who Theo and Tyler are.”
7. Franklin won’t chase size at defensive tackle
Several months after Franklin famously complained that the Penn State defensive line was not heavy enough after Michigan ran for 418 yards against the Lions in October, he backtracked on that statement.
Three defensive linemen — Dvon Ellies, Kaleb Artis and Ibrahim Traore — are the only ones on the Penn State roster who weigh at least 300 pounds.
“We are never going to chase size for the sake of size,” Franklin said. “All of our weights are based on body composition. If you have a guy who’s naturally a high body fat guy, we’re not going to ask him to put on weight because he most likely will put on more body fat.
“We have to find a happy medium.”
The 302-pound Ellies is expected to be part of a four-man rotation at defensive tackle with Hakeem Beamon (256), Zane Durant (275) and Jordan van den Berg (286).
8. Thin depth behind Nick Singleton and Kaytron Allen
Singleton, the former Gov. Mifflin star, and Allen established themselves as freshmen last season, combining to rush for 1,928 yards and 22 touchdowns.
Their emergence, however, prompted veterans Caziah Holmes, Devyn Ford and Keyvone Lee to enter the transfer portal. That left the Lions with just walk-ons and incoming freshmen London Montgomery, who’s recovering from a knee injury, and Cameron Wallace as the only other backs in the room.
“We’ll get those guys (walk-ons like Tank Smith) a ton of reps not only to develop depth but to be smart with the other two (Singleton and Allen),” Franklin said. “That’s why we ended up signing two high school running backs. Whether the third back comes from who we have in the program or from an incoming freshman, that’s what we have to figure out.”
9. Great expectations at wide receiver
KeAndre Lambert-Smith, who made a memorable 88-yard touchdown catch in the Rose Bowl, is the lone returning starter after Mitchell Tinsley and Parker Washington headed to the NFL.
Dante Cephas (Kent State) and Malik McClain (Florida State) enrolled in January after transferring, Cephas most likely will be a regular, but McClain will have to battle Harrison Wallace III, Omari Evans and Kaden Saunders, among others, for playing time.
Franklin made it clear Tuesday that he expects more from the wide receivers.
“We think there’s talent in that room to go where we want to go,” he said. “I think we have to be tougher and we have to be more consistent. If you look at college football and the NFL, that’s probably the area where you can change the game the fastest.”
10. Another former Penn State player joins the staff
Former defensive end Torrence Brown, whose career was cut short by a leg injury, has joined the coaching staff as a graduate assistant, replacing Barnes.
Brown played for the Lions from 2015-17 and was part of Franklin’s first recruiting class in 2014.
“It’s great to have Torrence back,” Franklin said.
Franklin hired former Penn State safety Calvin Lowry (2002-05), who has coached in the NFL, as an offensive analyst in January.
“He’s been awesome,” Franklin said. “It’s just cool to have, I think, 10 (Penn State) lettermen now in the building. There’s a ton of alumni in a lot of different roles. I think that’s a real positive for us.”
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