Penn State football holds media day

Defense is the focus as Lions prep for season

Sentinel photo by Patrick Waksmunski
Penn State linebacker Micah Parsons is interviewed during Media Day at Beaver Stadium on Saturday afternoon.

UNIVERSITY PARK — Micah Parsons can’t wait to do it, and especially for a chance to carry the ball, but the question still remains of whether it’s a good idea or not.

Penn State’s standout sophomore linebacker has been working out as a kickoff returner, and there seems to be a good chance he’ll get a shot at it during games this fall.

Parsons is the off returner — “OR” as he called it — along with primary kickoff return man K.J. Hamler. Parsons would be mostly blocking in that role, but if the ball comes his way, he would take off and run with it.

Actually, if the ball comes anywhere near Parsons, he wants to get it and run.

“If it’s something close, I want to take it,” Parsons said with a laugh.

Doing that would not be something new for Parsons, one of the brightest young linebacker stars in the country.

“I was the kick returner my senior year (of high school),” he said. “I got a couple touchdowns under my belt as kick returner.”

Parsons is a tremendous athlete, so no one should doubt that he could be a solid return man.

But is it worth the risk?

The Nittany Lions’ defense will rely heavily on Parsons’ immense talents, and kickoff return is always full of violent hits and injuries, so why put him in that spot where he could get hurt?

“First of all, we want to do whatever we need to do to win games,” defensive coordinator Brent Pry said. “If Micah can help us (on) kickoff return, then we want him to do that and he wants to do that. “He may be a little more passionate about actually catching the ball than blocking somebody, but he’s committed to special teams.”

Pry mentioned Parsons carried the ball a lot in various roles in high school, so he’s used to it.

“It’s our job as coaches to make sure we don’t just throw him in the fire and we don’t put too much on his plate,” Pry said. “He’s obviously a guy that can rush the quarterback and do things that way, and he had his hands full last year just learning linebacker. As he’s able to do more, and have success, then we’ll ask a little more of him.”

Parsons said Pry actually vouched for him as a kickoff return man to new special teams coach Joe Lorig.

“Coach Lorig saw the film, he saw my speed, he’s like, ‘How would you like to be at OR?’ I told him, ‘I can play OR,'” Parsons said. “He saw the film, he’s like, ‘Well, you’ve got to be more disciplined if you’re going to play my OR,’ so I kind of kicked things up a little bit for Coach Lorig.”

More disciplined means Parsons making sure to let Hamler handle the returns he’s supposed to handle instead of going after the ball too aggressively himself.

“Obviously if it’s far out right, I won’t go at it,” Parsons said. “But if it’s to the middle, I’m like, K.J., you better say ‘me.’ Like, I’m trying to take this drink, too. Share the wealth, share the wealth. So if it’s in the middle, I’m like, I need it.”

Parsons said he’s not worried about potentially getting injured on kickoff return.

“Nah. It’s really God’s plan,” he said. “I’m not really a person that really believes in a bunch of injuries. Thank God — knock on wood — I’ve been a person that’s stayed healthy my whole career, no significant injuries. But I believe in just having fun and play like you know how, and I believe that you’ll be as safe as ever.”

Gross-Matos back

Highly touted defensive end Yetur Gross-Matos was suspended for the summer and away from the squad for violating team rules.

Coach James Franklin, though, offered a lot of praise for Gross-Matos and didn’t discuss any type of frustration over the suspension.

“He’s a mature guy. He’s had a great summer,” Franklin said. “From what I see, he looked great (Friday, the first day of camp). I know he’s appreciative of being back.

“I think he’s going to have a really big year for us. As the year went on last year, really started to kind of separate himself I think into one of the more elite defensive ends in college football. … Very pleased with him and his development and his appreciation for being at Penn State and his appreciation for being a part of our football program and his attitude and approach.”

Gross-Matos has dealt with heartbreaking tragedies in his life. When he was 2, he lost his father to a drowning accident. And when he was 11, his older brother died after being struck by lightning at a Little League baseball game.

But Yetur always maintains a positive attitude.

“He’s always been a guy that always has a smile on his face,” Franklin said. “I think you guys probably read a bunch of different stories about his background. I think because of that background, he probably has a different sense of appreciation than maybe the rest of us, but we are expecting big things out of him.”

QB competition

Franklin gave no timetable on when he will name a starting quarterback. While most assume it will be Sean Clifford, Will Levis also is in the competition during camp.

“When we will name a quarterback? I can’t tell you,” Franklin said. “We will do it when it’s obvious to everybody. Sometimes you get in tough situations, when it’s not obvious, it’s a close call. That’s what we get together as a staff and make that decision and move forward. But I don’t know the timeline of that.

“Obviously, the earlier, the better, for everyone involved. … The good thing is both of them are approaching it the right way. They are both approaching it as if they are the starter and they are both approaching it from a leadership perspective and both are very talented. We are excited about that.”

High school games?

State College Area High School could end up playing a game at Beaver Stadium this year because of renovations to its home, Memorial Field. Penn State issued a statement Friday acknowledging the possibility.

Franklin said the stadium could be used for more high school games in the future.

“We’d love to get to the point at some point that maybe we’re able to host a state championship games here,” he said. “I think there’s a lot of reasons why that makes sense. We’re in the center part of the state. I think it would be exciting for kids to have the opportunity to do that, and you see that in other states, as well. So there’s some opportunities there, and we’re going to look at them.”