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News & Notes: Penn State Football’s Media Day & Open Practice

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Actual football stuff!

Heather Weikel Photography

Normally, practice is only opened up to the media for the last 20-ish minutes of practice, but for the first time during James Franklin’s tenure, the media was allowed to attend the full practice following media day festivities. Before we get to notes from practice, here’s a rundown of the happenings from media day.

  • First and foremost, I felt like the atmosphere and buzz around the team was different from last year. Perhaps it is just because this is a younger squad that isn’t quite as open with the media yet, but there was a more outward sense of confidence last year. That’s not to say this year’s team lacks confidence, but it just seemed like everyone was a bit more reserved. Quiet confidence, if you will.
  • I had a long talk with offensive line coach Matt Limegrover where we touched on a bunch of stuff — from Kyle Korver stabbing the Sixers in the back, to his years on Jerry Kill’s staff, to snow-filled official visit weekends in Minnesota. On the Penn State side of things though, Limegrover talked about the new reality of college football where guys — even on the offensive line — are leaving earlier and earlier. He mentioned reading this piece on Penn State’s 1994 offensive line, and said that having an offensive line that experienced (one fifth-year player, four fourth-year players) just doesn’t happen all that often anymore.
  • On that same note, Limegrover said that with those changes, players know the expectation is for them to be pushing for time by their second or third season. He mentioned Rasheed Walker as someone who enrolled last year with the intent to play right away, and with the new four-game redshirt rule, they were able to find a happy medium — get him some game reps while preserving the redshirt.
  • While it’s still too early for Limegrover to say much of anything, I wouldn’t be surprised if Caedan Wallace is on a similar plan. We’ll get to more of him during the practice portion of this article, but that kid does not look like a freshman.
  • Regarding the transition from a more mobile QB (Trace McSorley) to more of a pocket passer (Sean Clifford — should he win the job, of course), Limegrover said that not too much will change as far as the offensive line’s scheme. As he put it, the offense is the offense, and while there’s tweaks to play calling, there won’t be a dramatic shift as far as what they’ll ask the big guys upfront to do.
  • Chatted with tight ends coach Tyler Bowen for a bit. As you could imagine with James Franklin’s praise of Nick Bowers, two tight end sets are something we should be seeing more of this coming season.
  • Talked with sophomore defensive tackle PJ Mustipher. No surprise, but he says he’s much more comfortable going into camp this season than last season. He said that the experience he got last season has really prepped him for what to expect this fall.
  • As for which defensive tackle spot he’ll be playing at, Mustipher said he’s prepared to play either. Knowing what we know about defensive line coach Sean Spencer and his penchant for versatility, that shouldn’t come as too big of a shocker.
  • Sean Clifford was bombarded with reporters the majority of the time, so instead I talked with Will Levis to see how he was dealing with the ongoing competition. He was quite candid with me saying that while he’s always prepared as if he was the starting QB, he didn’t necessarily think he’d be in this position heading into his redshirt freshman year. Not that he didn’t think his talent warranted it, but more so that the depth chart when he committed was not exactly conducive to seeing the field this quickly.
  • I asked him if there were any wide receivers that he really enjoys throwing to, and while he ended up naming a bunch of them (good teammate alert), the first name out of his mouth was Justin Shorter. Just saying.
  • If Levis is to be believed, the “Lion” package may not be dead with Tommy Stevens’ departure. Who knows if we’ll see it this year, but Levis said there have been conversations about him playing it.
  • Last but not least, I asked Levis which of the Penn State coaches would win in an MMA tournament against each other. He went with Tyler Bowen based on size, but pound-for-pound, he said Sean Spencer and Gerad Parker would be tough to beat.
  • Matt McGloin was there as a part of the media (HappyValley.com), but I had the opportunity to ask him a few questions anyway. The big takeaway — big fan of what James Franklin has done and is doing. He said he wished he could have played for Franklin.
  • I also asked McGloin his top three Penn State bars, in order: Pickle’s, Bar Bleu, and Cafe. Do with that what you will.
  • As we were leaving the field, I jumped up and touched the crossbar WHILE wearing vans. No big deal. Redshirt freshman linebacker Charlie Katshir saw and his face definitely had that look of, “Oh wow, this dude is an athlete.”

Now onto practice notes. Again, we were allowed for the whole practice which is a major change up from what is usually given. It was pretty neat just being able to walk from a defensive line drill to go see how Sean Clifford and Will Levis were throwing it.

  • Quarterback seems like an apt place to start. Honestly, the majority of practice there wasn’t all too much to take away from them. Most of their drills were just throwing to unguarded receivers or running backs so while it was good to see the arm talent up close, it wasn’t like we didn’t know both Clifford and Levis could sling it.
  • They did get into some half skeleton offense-defense stuff toward the end of practice. I decided to duck out a little early because of the impending 2.5 hour drive, but before I left I saw Clifford hit KJ Hamler deep. Looked to be 35 or so yards. Would like to see more of that this fall.
  • Liked what I saw from the running backs. Ricky Slade is so unbelievably quick. Pretty fun watching him do lateral movement drills because it’s just so effortless for him. He’s done a nice job adding on some more weight too. Thick thighs.
  • Goes without saying, but Penn State got two really good running backs in the 2019 class. There are times where you can point out a freshman based on their look or tentativeness going through a drill — not the case with Cain or Ford. I was of the mindset that only one (most likely Cain) would see action in more than four games this year, but Ford looked really good. Both seemed like they belong right there with Slade and Journey Brown.
  • Speaking of Journey, he had one of the funnier moments of practice. Right after finishing up a drill, I heard him joke to one of the other running backs, “Man, my son is going to play basketball or run track.” Only practice No. 2, Journey. Long way to go.
  • One last note on the frosh running backs: it will all come down to protecting the football and picking up the nuances of pass blocking. Miles Sanders touched on this last year after a practice, but he said the responsibilities the running back has pre-play — i.e. knowing who to block depending on the defense’s alignment — was the toughest thing for him to get a handle on his first season. We’ll see how Cain and Ford fare there.
  • I didn’t get to watch a whole lot of the wide receivers, but Justin Shorter is a house. He’s all of the 6-foot-4, 235 pounds he’s listed at. Honestly, if you put him with the linebackers, I would think he’s Cam Brown. So impressive physically and also not dinged up. I repeat NOT dinged up.
  • KJ Hamler looks thicker than I remember him last year. I view this as important because I want Hamler to touch the football 49 times per game. So explosive.
  • Tight end wise, Zack Kuntz is still quite slender. On some level, that’s just his normal frame as he’ll never be the bulkiest of players, but he looks like he might be another year away.
  • True freshman Brenton Strange fit in with the group well. He looked better physically than I thought he would, and he displayed some soft hands during a drill with the QBs. Which, for the record, Pat Freiermuth had a drop during the same drill. I whispered to myself, “Please, not again.”
  • I watched a whole bunch of offensive line drills, and it seems like Rasheed Walker at left tackle, Michael Menet at center, Steven Gonzalez at left guard, and Will Fries at right tackle are all locked in. Right guard was being shared by Mike Miranda and CJ Thorpe, just depended on the drill which one would practice with the rest of the first team.
  • I thought Rasheed Walker looked a little out of sorts during the spring game, but he looked much more under control on Saturday evening. I’m sure there will be some growing pains, but that dude has all the talent in the world, and just from the spring to summer it looks like he’s become more comfortable.
  • If one of Walker or Fries goes down, I’d feel pretty good about Desmond Holmes. James Franklin noted during his press conference that Holmes dropped his body fat substantially over the last year and it shows. He looked, and moved, like an offensive tackle now. They had Anthony Whigan as the second team right tackle, but I imagine Holmes will be the first backup at both bookend spots.
  • You know how I said Noah Cain and Devyn Ford didn’t look like true freshmen? Caedan Wallace joins them in that camp. Man, does he look good physically. Despite being viewed as a guard for much of the recruiting process, Limegrover had Wallace at right tackle and he didn’t look out of place there. Like I said earlier, I think he’s on the Rasheed Walker plan of getting some action in four games.
  • Defensive line was the other group I spent a lot of time watching, and for good reason: they are very entertaining. Spencer definitely keeps it light with his guys, whether it’s cracking a joke (he referenced something about Adisa Isaac losing to Erasmus Hall) or hitting a dance move as the music starts right in the middle of a drill.
  • For as entertaining as they are, they also happen to be uber-talented — defensive end specifically. Yetur Gross-Matos looks like Yetur Gross-Matos. I don’t really know what else could be said about him at this point. He’s a stud. Shaka Toney looks bigger, and it doesn’t take long to see that he’s a leader among the group.
  • Shane Simmons gets his own bullet because after what had to be a frustrating 2018 for him, he looked fantastic on Saturday. Spence was throwing him a lot of praise during drills, and that kid must have lived in the weight room this offseason — his lower body is high-key thicc. Looks like he didn’t lose an ounce of explosiveness despite adding a good deal of mass, either.
  • One of the cooler moments with the defensive ends was when true freshman Smith Vilbert struggled with a drill, and redshirt junior Daniel Joseph took him aside after his rep and was giving him some pointers. It’s the little things, people. Great to elite.
  • Speaking of true freshmen, Adisa Isaac is another one of those freshmen that looks like he belongs. He’s still a bit undersized, but his quickness pops. Toss in the ever improving Jayson Oweh too, and there’s very valid reasons to think this group might be the best in the Big Ten.
  • Defensive tackle isn’t quite at the spot where defensive end is, but that’s saying more about defensive end than anything else. Windsor has slimmed down big time, and is moving better because of it. Antonio Shelton, like Shaka Toney, stands out as a leader among the group. Very vocal kid and pretty solid player too.
  • Like Shane Simmons got his own bullet, so does Damion Barber. Man, talk about a body transformation. The first time I saw No. 90, I didn’t even think it was Barber. He looks like a legitimate defensive tackle now. Very excited to see him get some game action this fall.
  • Fred Hansard is a massive human being.
  • Hakeem Beamon is a definite redshirt this year, but for a defensive end moving to tackle, I thought he jumped out physically. Fun to think about what he’ll look like next year this time. Good looking prospect.
  • Last note on the defensive line, but former Penn State defensive end Deion Barnes was on hand watching the unit go through drills. He wasn’t directly involved with the drills, but was talking and looked to be coaching a few of the guys up after reps. He’s a coach down in Philly, and given his relationship with Spence, I wouldn’t be stunned if he eventually finds a way on the staff in some capacity.
  • The back seven went through drills, and nothing too surprising there from who you would expect on the first team: Cam Brown, Jan Johnson, Micah Parsons, John Reid, Tariq Casto-Fields, Garrett Taylor, and Lamont Wade.
  • The only freshman to be with the second team back seven? Cornerback Keaton Ellis. Goes without saying, but a redshirt seems highly unlikely there.
  • Beyond the back seven stuff, I saw some other safety drills. JUCO transfer Jaquan Brisker stuck out physically and athletically. Smooth, lanky athlete that is well put together. Lamont Wade looked good as well — it was from a distance, but he looked more defined than the previous times I saw him. Looked a bit more fluid than usual, too. Will be a fun battle.
  • Last but certainly not least, I have a couple special teams notes. First and foremost, Blake Gillikin just bombed some punts to begin practice. He and Jordan Stout were taking turns, and while Stout looked solid too, Gillikin was getting more hang time and distance. Not that we didn’t know, but Gillikin is very good.
  • Punt return was Journey Brown, KJ Hamler, John Reid, Mac Hippenhammer, and Jahan Dotson. James Franklin was pretty involved with this drill, grabbing on the jerseys of the players as they tried catching the punt.
  • Kick return was Noah Cain, Ricky Slade, Devyn Ford, Keaton Ellis, Donovan Johnson, and Micah freaking Parsons. I am sooooooo here for Parsons kick return touchdowns.