Mounting injuries present practice issues at Penn State
- Penn State is dealing with injuries to four linebackers, including all three starters.
- The Nittany Lions face unbeaten Minnesota on Saturday afternoon at Beaver Stadium.
- Because of the injuries, James Franklin says PSU is struggling to hold competitive practices.
STATE COLLEGE — James Franklin generally proceeds with caution, dialing back his team's practice regimens as football seasons grind on.
But Penn State's coach has never had to consider doing so this early.
A rash of injuries had Franklin worrying aloud following his team's 49-10 loss to No. 4 Michigan on Saturday. He feared Penn State, with four linebackers hurt, might not be able to stage a competitive practice before another hard-running team in Minnesota (3-0, 0-0) this week. It's still a concern as he looks to avoid his first 0-2 Big Ten start.
"In my 22 years of doing this, I've never been a part of a team that's lost all three of our starting linebackers," Franklin said. "I've been around teams that have lost this guy for a game or lost this guy for two games or lost this guy maybe for a season, but to lose all of them for a significant amount of time at the same time, I've never been a part of that."
The injury bug's bitten deeper, too.
Backup linebacker Jan Johnson was felled with an unspecified season-ender on Saturday and Franklin said the team is dealing with other ailments not noticeable from watching Saturday's game. Star Nyeem Wartman-White is also out for the rest of the year and Franklin gave no strong indication fellow starters Brandon Bell and Jason Cabinda could return soon.
It's all forced Franklin to consider scaling back practices much earlier than mid-October, when he's usually done so.
He planned to meet with defensive coordinator Brent Pry in order to determine the best "practice tempos" to protect healthy bodies, whether or not to move more players to reserve linebacker roles or considering using Bell and Cabinda in minimal capacities if they can.
"That's the decision you have to make. Is it holding them out of practice completely and going full speed with everybody else?" Franklin said. "Or is it modifying practice to allow them to get some quality work in practice as well when you're pretty confident that that guy is going to be able to play on Saturday?"
Franklin is hoping to improve his defense's versatility by moving linebackers around this week.
Sophomores Jake Cooper and Manny Bowen are expected to drill at all three linebacker spots after starting on the outside the last two weeks. Middle man Brandon Smith will likely make his second career start after the former walk-on was ejected from the Michigan game for targeting on the first play of the second quarter. That ejection was detrimental to a group that hadn't played much together.
Koa Farmer, who was recruited as a safety before he switched to linebacker and back to safety again, has worked with the linebackers this season. He played his most snaps on defense against Michigan as did true freshman Cam Brown who is also expected to see a bigger role.
"I haven't been on a team that's been through so many injuries," Farmer said. "But at this point it's just the next man up mentality and getting young guys in the game, getting those guys experience for everyone so they can be ready."
Penn State will have to be prepared for Minnesota's hard-charging run game or risk big problems. The Gophers are averaging just over 228 rushing yards per game with tailbacks Rodney Smith and Kobe McCrary. Due to injuries and inexperience up front, Penn State is allowing just over 213 rushing yards per game and continued struggles could potentially spell disaster for a team looking to turn around a disappointing start.
"These next two weeks are huge for our program and huge for where this weekend will take us," tight end Mike Gesicki said. "I think that we all understand that and we all kind of see the big picture."