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Penn State hoping for good health in Big Ten opener vs. Rutgers

DEREK LEVARSE
YorkDispatch

Call him an optimist. Or call him a college football coach who doesn't want to tip his hand to an opponent.

Both suited James Franklin on Tuesday as he laid out the situation for three of his injured starters headed into Saturday's Big Ten opener against Rutgers.

The Nittany Lions started last week's win over Buffalo without linebacker Brandon Bell and cornerback Grant Haley and then lost tackle Andrew Nelson on the final play of the first half.

Regardless of how many of them are able to suit up on Saturday, the Penn State coach certainly wants Rutgers to think that they all will end up playing.

"I'm hopeful that we have the possibility of all three," Franklin said at his weekly news conference. "I think Grant and Brandon, we feel pretty good that we'll have those guys. Those guys would be significant additions for us. Obviously, as we all know, with our depth and our confidence continuing to grow on the offensive line, being able to have (Nelson) available would be great for us as well.

"I can't give you specific dates. I don't get into those things. That's up to our training staff and our doctors to make those decisions."

Haley has yet to play this season with an undisclosed injury. Bell started the opener against Temple but appeared to hurt an ankle in the first half. He returned to the field heavily taped, but his mobility was clearly affected and he did not finish the game. He was in street clothes against Buffalo.

Franklin said after last week's win that he thought both Bell and Haley could return soon.

Nelson may be a different story.

Playing right tackle against Temple, the sophomore from Hershey had a solid debut in what was an otherwise miserable afternoon for the Lions' offensive line. Against Buffalo, he was asked to switch over to the left side in place of still-raw junior college transfer Paris Palmer.

But at the end of the first half, Nelson was rolled up on from behind and awkwardly tumbled over backward. Athletic trainers were examining his left leg with two people eventually helping him walk off the field.

Though Franklin did not provide specific details about the injury, he said Nelson had re-aggravated a nagging issue he's been dealing with for over a year.

Palmer took Nelson's spot in the second half. Junior Von Walker filled in for Brandon Bell and freshman John Reid has started both games in Haley's place with sophomore Christian Campbell seeing time there as well.

Aside from bolstering the secondary, Haley would also play an important role on special teams if he's able to go this week. Rutgers boasts a return man in Janarion Grant who is as dangerous as anyone in the country right now, scoring three touchdowns in the first two weeks.

"(Haley) would be really important for us because he was fantastic last year as a gunner on punt team," Franklin said. "That would be huge for us this week, having him available in that role."

Line shuffling: Even before Nelson went down, the Lions were moving pieces around up front. Nelson's flip to left tackle created a hole on the right side.

Last season, it was center Angelo Mangiro who kicked out to tackle with Wendy Laurent taking over in the middle. Last week, left guard Brendan Mahon shifted to right tackle with Derek Dowrey jumping into Mahon's old starting spot.

Franklin said Tuesday that Laurent hadn't been 100 percent healthy himself in the first two weeks, which is why Mangiro stayed put against Buffalo. But there was another reason as well.

"Your center is the quarterback of the offensive line. Angelo has a calming effect on the entire group," Franklin said. "The fact that he's right there in the middle, he's able to communicate, he's able to take charge, he's able to lead and be a real vocal presence in there. I think that's the biggest thing, having the one senior on our offensive line be at center, we thought was valuable.

"Mahon has played some at tackle before. We felt like he'd be able to do it and get Paris back in there. I thought those guys played pretty good. I think having Wendy back full-go this week provides a little bit more flexibility for us."

In other words, the makeup of the Lions' offensive line against Rutgers may depend on whether the coaching staff believes that Laurent at center is more useful than Dowrey at guard.

Dealing with fame: True freshman running back Saquon Barkley jumped over a defender and onto the national scene over the weekend. His highlight-reel run was featured on SportsCenter as well as in countless Tweets, Vines and what have you.

A picture of the play — the Centre Daily Times in State College already dubbed it the "Saquon-tum Leap" — is already hanging up at Penn State's Lasch Building headquarters along with a photo from every win from last season.

More than the play itself, however, Franklin said he's most pleased with Barkley's response to it.

"He was just telling me the amount of people texting him, calling him, sending him messages," Franklin said. "And his response was, 'It's only one game. It's only one game.' I think that's one of the things that's different for young guys is making sure you handle that the right way.

"It's special to be a Pennsylvania kid and come to Penn State and have success. The whole state rallies around you. I think he's seeing that right now. It's our job to make sure we continue to talk to these guys about how they handle it and keep that hunger and keep that humility and keep working through it."