STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — Minutes after Dante Cephas entered his name in the transfer portal, the former Kent State wide receiver was overwhelmed.
“It was crazy,” Cephas said Sunday, standing on the field at Beaver Stadium for one of the first times in his freshly minted No. 3 jersey. “I just tried to stay sane first and foremost and go with my gut feeling.”
Cephas’ gut led him to Penn State, a place where an immediate need in the receiving corps could prove to be a perfect fit for the Pittsburgh native. Cephas has reunited with his former Penn Hills teammates, Daequan Hardy and Tank Smith.
Cornerbacks coach Terry Smith has known Cephas since the receiver was playing pee wee league football. He saw a kid who wasn’t the fastest receiver coming out of high school, but Smith still monitored Cephas’ progress in the MAC, where he caught 130 passes for for 1,984 yards and 12 touchdowns during the last two seasons.
“We’re excited to have him,” Smith said. “We’re excited for his play-making ability and just to stabilize our receivers to take another step and become a dominant unit.”
— Audrey Snyder (@audsnyder4) August 6, 2023
If there’s something important to know about Cephas, it’s that he was so set on transferring to Penn State that he didn’t care who was going to coach him. He insists he had no idea Penn State was going to part ways with receivers coach Taylor Stubblefield on the same night that he planned to publicly commit to the Nittany Lions.
“I did not know that was happening, but even when it did happen I was not worried about it,” Cephas said of the coaching change. “I was just trying to stay focused at the time and stay in my lane. Whoever the coach was, that’s who would be coaching me.”
It’s quite a leap on Cephas’ part to make such a critical decision without knowing who’d be coaching him, but he said getting to work with Marques Hagans has been a bonus. In a way, player and coach are both going through this preseason together, and they know plenty of eyeballs are on them.
Head coach James Franklin said there’s a learning curve that Cephas is going through as he works to master the offense and get on the same page with the quarterbacks. There’s still no defined two- or three-deep in the receiving corps — and that is one of the biggest storylines this preseason.
“He’s done some really good things,” Franklin said. “He’s gotten bigger. He’s gotten stronger. The guys have got a ton of respect for him. He’s shown flashes. … It’s one thing to do it two or three times a season when you’re watching him play an opponent like Georgia. It’s another thing to do it week-in and week-out in the Big Ten, and I think it’s another thing to do it every day at practice. I think he’s really embraced that.”
Other takeaways from Penn State’s on-campus media day:
• This was the first we heard from Franklin since the Big Ten expanded again, this time adding Washington and Oregon. Franklin called it “somewhat sad” thinking about many of the regional games that are disappearing thoughout college athletics. We’ll have to wait and see what the future schedule looks like with USC, UCLA, Washington and Oregon all starting play in the Big Ten next season. Whether or not divisions return also remains to be seen.
“It’s very different than the college football that we all grew up with — not really college football, college athletics, where at least for most of the year it was pretty regional,” Franklin said. “I do think it’s a huge win for USC and UCLA from a travel perspective. I think it’s a huge win for them.”
Penn State poised for a special season: 15 thoughts, plus a season prediction
• When asked who has surprised him through three practices, Franklin pointed to a quarterback. No, he didn’t pick Drew Allar or Beau Pribula. He went with freshman Jaxon Smolik. Offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich said Smolik sees the field well, and the challenge now — as it is for all young quarterbacks — is to get him to articulate better what he’s seeing when they’re in meetings.
“It’s just a matter of time and repping that stuff out,” Yurcich said. “That’s our job as coaches to bring him up to speed, and I’m really tickled pink where he’s at right now.”
• With a group of reporters gathered around Allar, Pribula fielded plenty of questions about his place in the offense and what the competition means for him. Coming off a redshirt season, Pribula said he’s more comfortable now than ever. He said it’s no longer about learning the plays but mastering them.
Yurcich said Pribula’s confidence is noticeably improved this year. He’s had one season and two spring balls worth of practices. Even if Allar — last year’s backup — is indeed the guy, Penn State still needs the backup quarterback to be ready. As the Lions found out at Kinnick Stadium a couple of years ago, a season can swing with an injury at quarterback.
“You can see that (confidence) in his eye,” Yurcich said of Pribula. “You can see that when he takes the field. He knows he fits us, and it’s one of those things where he’s got great leadership and you’re seeing that emerge. That’s part of confidence, right? It’s hard to lead when you don’t have confidence.”
• Defensive end Smith Vilbert will be out for the year with a season-ending injury, The Athletic learned. Penn State is well-stocked at defensive end, where Adisa Isaac, Chop Robinson and Dani Dennis-Sutton give the Lions three players who could start for just about any team. It’s one of the deepest positions on the team. Vilbert was unavailable during the 2022 regular season for an unspecified reason, but he did play in the Rose Bowl. His breakout moment came in the Outback Bowl following the 2021 season, where he had three sacks.
“It’s difficult,” said defensive line coach Deion Barnes. “It’s just making sure he feels like he’s still a part of the team, making sure they all still engage. Smith is an older guy so he’s more experienced and he understands it’s just part of the game and he’s gonna be rusty a little bit when he comes back. … He was like, ‘Man, I’m going to come back.’”
• It didn’t take long for Barnes to realize what Penn State had with Robinson, one of three projected first-round picks on this roster.
“If you tell Chop to run through that Rocket Mortgage sign right now,” Barnes said, pointing to the sign on the far side of the field, “and he will run through that sign. That’s what excites me. He wants to be a pleaser. He wants to make sure that everything that you ask him he’s going to do and he’s going to do it to the best of his ability.”
• Penn State knows what it has at cornerback. Kalen King had a group of reporters gathered around him for most of the 50-minute media session. It’s the kind of responsibility that comes with being a projected first-round pick. King saw how teams approached the secondary last season when they wanted to test him knowing Joey Porter Jr. was on the other side. Now, Johnny Dixon, the projected starter opposite King, knows what’s coming his way.
“Utah, the first third down of the (Rose Bowl), they went after Johnny and he did a great job,” defensive coordinator Manny Diaz said. “They went after him on (Ji’Ayir Brown’s) interception later in the game as well. He loves that. He knows that is coming.”
Terry Smith said Dixon has had a nice start to camp, which is a continuation of what he did in spring ball.
“He is really, really focused,” Smith said. “He’s stronger. He’s faster. He’s smarter. He’s much more locked in. I’m super excited to see him this year.”
The Beaver Stadium tunnel club in the works. Viewing areas on both sides of the tunnel pic.twitter.com/uywtSzljKR
— Audrey Snyder (@audsnyder4) August 6, 2023
• In less than a month, the Beaver Stadium tunnel club will open. This was my first look at the outside of the space. For $10,000, fans can stand in here and watch the team run on and off the field. Athletic director Pat Kraft said last month that in the future they plan to expand the space because of how popular it’s been.
(Photo of James Franklin: Scott Taetsch / Getty Images)