PENN STATE NOTEBOOK: C.J. Thorpe switches sides, makes immediate impact on defensive line
Penn State’s C.J. Thorpe has garnered praise over the last two seasons for his nasty streak, for playing physical until the whistle — and maybe, on a few occasions, a little past it.
But the redshirt freshman was involved in one of the biggest position changes of the year last week, when the promising offensive guard became a defensive tackle in a span of seven days. Head coach James Franklin announced Wednesday night that Thorpe would remain on defense for the rest of the season and would move back to offense after the year.
“We talked about making a move this summer but decided not, because we really feel like he’s got a very, very bright future long-term on the offensive side of the ball,” Franklin said after practice. “But we also have gone back and forth for probably over a year now that he’s probably also a guy that can help us on the defensive side.
“So we made that move. It was pretty impressive on his part. We moved him on (Sept. 23), and he was able to play in the game and he played pretty well. And his role will continue to grow.”
Thorpe’s move speaks to the issues on the interior of the defensive line. Per Franklin, both true freshman P.J. Mustipher and redshirt freshman Damion Barber were available at defensive tackle on Saturday — but Penn State instead opted to play Thorpe, who had seven days’ experience at the position.
It’s not as if Penn State didn’t have other options at defensive tackle. Although Ellison Jordan is out with an unspecified injury, both true freshmen Judge Culpepper and Aeneas Hawkins did not participate despite being healthy. Redshirt freshman Fred Hansard and redshirt sophomore Antonio Shelton both played again as backups Saturday — but they’ve combined for just 0.5 tackles-for-loss this year.
“We have games like that where we play our starters a lot more reps and we run out of gas in the fourth quarter,” Franklin said, “so we got to do a better job of creating depth so we feel like we can play those guys in those types of games to sustain it. That’s the next step for us, so that was part of the reason for the move.”
Thorpe arrived in Happy Valley last season as a four-star offensive lineman, the nation’s seventh-best guard, according to 247 Sports. He played the first four weeks of 2018 as the backup right guard to Connor McGovern before moving to the other side of the ball.
Franklin still believes he has a lot of potential on the offensive line. But, for now at least, the head coach is hoping Thorpe’s nasty streak translates well to defense.
“It was impressive enough that he was able to learn it all in a week from a scheme standpoint,” Franklin said. “But, fundamentally, he’s way behind. Drive-blocking on offense is way different than the techniques and fundamentals on the defensive side of the ball.”
"Lion" package: Tommy Stevens and Penn State’s “Lion” package made their return to the field Saturday night — but neither exactly went as planned in the 27-26 loss to Ohio State.
Still, Franklin promised Wednesday night that the package isn’t going anywhere.
“The ‘Lion’ package has been pretty darn good to us,” Franklin said after practice. “We ran it a couple times on Saturday, and it didn’t go well. Obviously, we believe in Tommy Stevens. We believe in what he can bring to the table for us, so we’ll continue to commit to that.”
In Stevens’ first game back from an unspecified leg injury, he struggled in the two-quarterback package. The Nittany Lions ran the formation on the first two drives and were forced to punt both times.
On the first possession, Stevens twice ran backward. On the second, he recovered his own fumble but suffered a 13-yard loss. And, the final time the package was run, early in the second quarter, he didn’t touch the ball.
“It’s funny,” Franklin said. “It’s about the plan and the execution of the plan. It’s not necessarily the results. We did not execute the way it should be executed; that’s all it came down to.”
Stevens’ do-it-all style of offense generated its own name last December, when Franklin dubbed him the starting “Lion.” But, before it had a proper name name, Stevens still accounted for quite a few yards.
The redshirt junior finished the 2017 season with 158 passing yards and three touchdowns, 12 catches for 60 yards and two scores, and 190 rushing yards and four touchdowns.
“We feel great about it,” Franklin added.
RB rotation: The Lions have normally utilized a running back rotation this season. But that wasn’t the case against Ohio State, when Miles Sanders had 16 carries and no other true running back had one.
Franklin didn’t appear to have trust in true freshman Ricky Slade, who fumbled earlier in the season and is still working on his pass blocking/receiving. Franklin addressed the rotation, or lack thereof, after practice.
“Miles was a ‘tap’ deal, so Miles was going to go and, if he needed a blow, he was going to pat his helmet and we would’ve played Ricky in that situation,” Franklin said. “But Miles felt like he could handle it and give us the best opportunity to win.”
Slade did not take part in a single play in the game.
WR drops: For five weeks now, drops have been a persistent issue among Penn State’s receivers. At least three balls were dropped again Saturday night.
How much of that is the fault of WR coach David Corley? Franklin didn’t answer that directly Wednesday night but acknowledged there’s plenty of blame to go around.
“I think obviously, yeah, we could be more consistent, I don’t think there’s any doubt about it,” he said. “I think the receivers individually would say that. I think David Corley would say that as well. Everybody owns it; it’s not any one person. Everybody owns it, including myself, so that’s why you see these guys out here right now getting extra reps.”
Juwan Johnson stayed after practice and was seen sprinting with a football during practice. Mac Hippenhammer and several other players also stayed behind to run routes.
This week’s (recruiting) schedule: It may be the bye week, but that doesn’t mean Franklin and Co. are any less busy. Franklin flew to Columbus, Ohio, on a recruiting visit — “Probably the last place I want to be,” Franklin said, half-jokingly — for five-star recruit Zach Harrison on Monday.
And several of his coaches left practice early Wednesday to catch flights elsewhere. Most will not return to campus until Saturday night.
“You got to see the big picture,” Franklin said. “You got to say, look, we’ve got to do everything in the present to give our guys the best chance to be successful, but we always got to be building for the future.”
But, once they return, it’s back to business as usual. Outside of moving one 10-minute portion of Tuesday’s practice to Sunday — since Tuesdays are generally heavier — there will be no other changes.