Penn State begins James Franklin era
UNIVERSITY PARK – It’s usually not a good idea to read too much into the actual football from the Blue-White Game.
But while that’s true for much of Saturday’s spring scrimmage, there were a few real indicators of what to expect from Penn State this fall during new coach James Franklin’s debut in front of 72,000 fans on a beautiful sunny day at Beaver Stadium.
Most glaring, the offensive line needs a lot of work. That was well known going into Saturday, and it played itself out as the line didn’t provide a lot of protection for the quarterbacks or open up holes for running backs.
The Blue, made up of mostly first-teamers, beat the White, 37-0, but the two sides combined to go 3-for-22 on third down. There were many reasons for that, but one common thread was that the quarterbacks didn’t have a lot of time to throw.
From a running standpoint, the Blue offense gained only 86 yards on 21 carries. Two of those carries went for 45 yards, so the other 19 only netted 41. The White had 16 rushes for minus-25 yards.
“This is probably unique,” Franklin said of the situation with the O-line. “I’ve been places where, when we first showed up, we had challenges in terms of depth and things like that. I’m not sure that I’ve ever been in a situation where you don’t even have a scholarship two-deep.
“With that, we’re talking about guys that we’ve moved over from the other side of the ball. We’re talking about guys we’ve moved from one position to another, tight ends that we’ve converted. I don’t know if we’ve ever been in this situation before, but again, it is what it is, we’re going to find a way to make it work.”
Making matters worse, first-team center Wendy Laurent went down with a leg or ankle injury Saturday, although he was able to limp off the field on his own. The team already has lost guard Miles Dieffenbach to an ACL injury, leaving left tackle Donovan Smith as the lone returning starter.
Starting quarterback Christian Hackenberg played only three series for the Blue before giving way to true freshman Michael O’Connor. Hackenberg was a bit uneven and completed 4-of-10 passes for 43 yards, and he just barely overthrew Geno Lewis on a home run ball on his final throw of the day.
“I think we’re in good position as a unit to move forward,” Hackenberg said of the offense.
He then was asked if he’s worried about his O-line.
“No, not at all,” he said. “I have a lot of confidence in those guys. I think that once guys start getting healthy and we get guys coming back, I have a ton of confidence in those guys. I know the coaching staff does. They’re going to do a great job for us.”
O’Connor guided the Blue offense the rest of the day and, after a slow start, handled himself with poise. He completed 11-of-16 passes for 81 yards.
O’Connor graduated high school early so he could enroll in the spring at PSU, experience that can only benefit him going forward.
“He should be in high school right now,” offensive coordinator John Donovan said. “For him to get out there and do what he’s been doing and be able to operate in that environment is impressive enough.
“Just for him to understand the verbiage and what we ask our guys to do – we run a pro-style system, so a lot of that goes on the quarterback when you run something like that – so for him to be able to comprehend that … he’s done an unbelievable job for the situation he’s in.”
It’s Hackenberg’s team, but if anything happens to the sophomore phenom this fall, O’Connor will have to step in.
“I thought he did a great job,” Hackenberg said. “He really took his opportunity and ran with it, and he executed well. Of course there’s a lot of bumps in the road, but that just comes with spring. I think moving forward he’s going to become a great player, and I’m excited for him.”
Hackenberg and O’Connor are the quarterbacks, but the most exciting pass play of the day came from receiver Geno Lewis.
The Lions ran a double reverse to get the ball in the hands of Lewis, a high school quarterback, and the defensive secondary completely bit on the trickery. Receiver Matt Zanellato was wide open by about 20 yards, and after catching a pass from Lewis, he raced to the end zone for a 56-yard touchdown.
“It was very exciting,” Lewis said of the play call before adding, “It was just a fun time. I was real excited when they called it. I thought it was going to work, and it ended up going the right way.”
The trick play might have been an indication that Franklin likes to do some unusual things with his play calling. It’s a bit strange showing a look like that in a spring game instead of saving it for a real situation, but Franklin didn’t seem to care.
“I’m not one of these paranoid college football coaches,” Franklin said. “[Other teams] have three years of really good film on us, it’s not like we’re hiding a whole lot.”
The playbook was limited, Franklin acknowledged, but one part of it that was on display was the wildcat package. Several times a running back took a direct snap, and that’s a look that likely will be on display this fall.
“We did it down at Vandy and had some good success with it,” Donovan said. “We’ve been able to do a lot more than what you saw today with it from there, so that’s just a little showing and then we’ll kind of go from there.”