STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — By 9:30 p.m. Saturday, James Franklin was high-fiving fans along the perimeter of Holuba Hall and holding up someone’s young child. He thanked the fans who waited through rain and lightning as the Penn State Nittany Lions opened the ninth practice of the preseason to the public.
In just three weeks many of these same faces will filter across the street into Beaver Stadium for the prime-time season opener against West Virginia. Until then, this was a chance for Penn State to give many of the diehards a glimpse into their world while Franklin hoped his team would gain something by performing in front of a crowd.
Franklin knows there’s value in these settings. Penn State also was more inclined to do this because it returns the same offensive, defensive and special teams coordinators from a year ago. It was also paired with a NIL event featuring an autograph signing before practice began.
“You’d have to be an idiot to throw out your first 10 openers of what you’re gonna do. You’re conscious of that,” offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich said last week when I asked if he had any hesitations with a public practice. “Everybody for the most part is running four verts and everybody for the most part is running inside and outside zone and gap scheme. And they have all of last year on tape so it’s not like we’re going to reinvent the wheel and become an offense that’s totally different from what we did last year so to me, that’s a little bit overrated.”
Defensive coordinator Manny Diaz said when he was Miami’s head coach they used to hold open practices early in the preseason during installs. As Diaz dodged raindrops Saturday night he wanted to see if his defense — one that to my eyes certainly looked like it was rounding into form — would be able to play within the framework while the pressure was dialed up by fans.
“When we play West Virginia we’ve gotta be in mid-season form,” Diaz said last week. “Creating pressure at times by having people around and creating a different environment I think there is some value in that. … Everyone will have their opinions on who’s good, who’s not good and all that based off one practice. Right now we’re still making the sausage, right? It’s just one day out of four weeks of sausage making.”
As the rain pounded the practice field, Penn State flipped the format to move the scrimmage portion up. They ended the night in Holuba Hall around 9:15, 2 hours after T.I.’s “Bring Em Out” blared over the speakers as the team started stretching.
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Takeaways from Penn State’s open practice:
1. Penn State’s cornerbacks look special. This is not a new storyline, but Kalen King and Johnny Dixon certainly looked the part Saturday night while Daequan Hardy continues to be a strong presence. The play that stands out to me most came during the scrimmage. Faced with third-and-6, Drew Allar was looking to take a deep shot to Harrison Wallace III. King was having none of it. As the ball fell to the ground King wagged his finger in front of the crowd, making it loud and clear no pass was going to be completed coming his way. King’s energy seems to be infectious for a defense that, as expected, looked a lot more dominant during this practice than the offense.
2. Penn State has a legitimate kicking competition taking place. Alex Felkins, the Columbia University transfer took the first kick, followed by Sander Sahaydak and then walk-on Ryan Barker. After the red zone portion of practice, each kicker moved around the field and attempted six field goals each. Collectively they hit nine of the first 10. This weather certainly gave off a nasty Big Ten feel as the rain continued all evening. As they moved back farther the accuracy was shakier for all three, so figuring out their ranges will be critical. It’s just one practice, but all three seem to be in a tight race for the job.
3. Franklin acknowledged earlier in the week that Allar was taking the majority of the first-team reps and the order on Saturday was Allar, Beau Pribula and Jaxon Smolik. The thing that stood out to me most about Allar wasn’t a particular throw — the defense was putting up quite a showing against the first-, second- and third-team offenses — but Allar’s poise. He was barking out calls at the line. He was pulling teammates aside after plays making sure they were on the same page. So much of this offseason has been about him becoming a leader and it looks like it’s starting to happen.
4. There were some notable moments for the offense in the scrimmage setting. Penn State was running various scenarios, starting with Allar and then giving reps to Pribula with the same scenarios and then Smolik. The Nittany Lions mixed and matched personnel. It certainly looks like Allar is getting comfortable with KeAndre Lambert-Smith. He hit Lambert-Smith with a short pass on one play during red zone work while Wallace had an outstanding block that got the sideline fired up.
5. Seeing a full practice gives one a much better feel for who this team responds to and who does the talking. Lambert-Smith is definitely a high-energy teammate and one that fires up the offense. Penn State ended practice inside doing a 1-on-1 tackling drill where the ball carrier starts at one end and the defender at another. They’re running at each other at an angle rather than head-on like the Oklahoma drill. Franklin shouts out the two players who will compete while the entire team — and in this instance media and fans — watch. Lambert-Smith’s speed and shiftiness were on full display. He burned King, one of PSU’s top athletes, earlier in the drill. Franklin later paired Lambert-Smith against safety KJ Winston Jr., who figures to be a big part of the defense. Lambert-Smith took two of the three reps in dominant fashion, each time burning Winston. Chop Robinson and Lambert-Smith were yelling back and forth a bit after. It got super competitive in a hurry. You got a much better feel for Lambert-Smith’s speed and elusiveness in that setting. He also enjoyed celebrating that win and was pointing at the crowd. Penn State needs him to be WR1 and while it’s just a drill, he looked every bit the part of a playmaker and a spark plug for this team.
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6. Some other thoughts on those drill pairings: Nick Singleton blistered linebacker Dom DeLuca. We know Singleton has that extra gear and he hit it in a hurry. Fans cheered and picked their jaws up off the ground. Kaytron Allen also beat linebacker Abdul Carter, which garnered a lot of yelling and cheers from running backs coach Ja’Juan Seider. These backs are something else. And, not to be forgotten in this loaded backfield, Minnesota transfer Trey Potts showed off his hands a few times during practice and in the 1-on-1 tackling drill beat linebacker Tyler Elsdon. Freshman London Montgomery was also active and has been this preseason. He looked lively. The freshman missed his senior year of high school due to a knee injury.
7. I didn’t see offensive lineman Landon Tengwall during practice.
8. Franklin has said before that the team likes to rep various situations they’ve been faced with in the past. The new video board on the practice field lit up with one scenario that will likely make many stomachs churn. It read: Penn State 21, Indiana 20. There’s 1:47 left in the game and PSU has the ball at the 14. If this scenario isn’t coming back to you yet, it’s the exact situation PSU faced in Bloomington in 2020. Devyn Ford scored the touchdown rather than going down at the goal line and eventually Penn State lost the game. I was not expecting to be reminded of that one, but that was the situation. Ford is suiting up at Notre Dame this preseason.
9. Hardy and Kaden Saunders were both people that Stacy Collins has mentioned as punt return options and both have gotten work doing so this preseason. Hardy has done it before and it would seem like a perfect entry point to a bigger role for Saunders, a redshirt freshman. Saunders is in the mix to be one of those top six receivers.
10. About those receivers. Quite a few times Franklin could be heard yelling across the field “Good job, Liam!” The younger Clifford is pushing for an expanded role. That top group of receivers appears to include Lambert-Smith, Wallace, Omari Evans, Clifford, Dante Cephas and then either Saunders, Malik McClain, Malick Meiga, Anthony Ivey and the rest of a largely unproven group. McClain stands out on the field because of his size. Cephas is still getting comfortable. He did catch a nice ball across the middle from Pribula at one point and looked smooth doing so.
11. If memory and my soggy pages of hand-written notes serve correctly, the lone touchdown during the scrimmage portion came from Smolik to freshman tight end Joey Schlaffer. During that same drive, Smolik completed a pass to Jason Estrella while Montgomery, the freshman back, got some run.
12. It’s hard to miss Dani Dennis-Sutton on the field. When seeing him out there you’re comparing him to other large humans and even then No. 33 always seems to flash. Listed at 6-foot-5, 258 pounds, Dennis-Sutton could be in line for a big year and that’s saying something considering the lofty expectations for defensive ends Robinson and Adisa Isaac.
13. Among the defensive players who caught my eye were linebacker Tony Rojas and defensive end Amin Vanover. Rojas’ speed is obvious and he seems to continue trending like someone who could burn a redshirt this year. Rojas was called out in the 1-on-1 tackling drill to face reserve running back Amiel Davis. Vanover and Hakeem Beamon at one point were hard-charging ahead and stopped before what looked like a would’ve been sack against Pribula.
14. While the weather didn’t make for the best night for the crowd it still seemed to be a well-received event. There were games for young kids on the far side of the practice field while sets of bleachers lined the one sideline. Once lightning pushed practice inside the fans who stayed lined the perimeter of Holuba Hall. It was during the 1-on-1 tackling drills that I was reminded just how special this had to be for many fans. It was 9 p.m. on a Saturday and fans who were soaking wet lined up two and three deep to watch drills. They were “oohing” and “ahhing” along with it. That doesn’t happen everywhere. It was yet again a reminder of how excited fans are for this season in particular.
(Photo: Matthew OHaren / USA Today)