The wait is over.
James Franklin’s Nittany Lions are done with winter workouts and begin spring camp on Wednesday. Franklin, followed by new special teams coordinator Joe Lorig, will meet with the media Wednesday afternoon before Penn State’s first of 15 practice sessions. The 15th is, of course, the Blue-White Game, which will be played April 13 at Beaver Stadium.
As the Nittany Lions prepare for the 2019 season, several question marks surround Franklin’s program. And spring camp should provide some answers.
Here are five story lines to keep an eye on as the Nittany Lions get camp going.
Who will be the star of the spring? Major 2018 contributors — LB Micah Parsons, TE Pat Freiermuth and WR Jahan Dotson — don’t count here. And presumed starters with experience, i.e. Tommy Stevens, need not apply.
The “star of the spring” is a young, somewhat unfamiliar name, that has coaches and teammates buzzing from Practice 1 to the Blue-White Game. In 2017, it was Juwan Johnson, who made good on the hype that year with 54 catches, 701 receiving yards and a walk-off touchdown at Iowa. This time last year, KJ Hamler garnered praise; he led the team in receptions and receiving yards en route to becoming a finalist for the Paul Hornung Award, given to the nation’s most versatile player.
So, who will be this year’s Hamler? Former five-star prospect Justin Shorter might keep the wideout trend going. Freakishly athletic, but raw, defensive end Jayson Oweh could impress. Really all of the early enrollees — from linebacker Brandon Smith to running back Noah Cain — have a shot.
Shorter is a safe bet to turn heads. But spring camp is often filled with surprises.
Special teams under a new coach: When special teams coordinator Phil Galiano was retained post-Citrus Bowl, many fans were irate. And they had reason to be.
One could argue that the Nittany Lions lost to Kentucky because of Galiano’s unit; the Wildcats returned a punt for a touchdown, a fake punt call failed, and two field goals were missed. Problems persisted throughout the regular season, too, from onside kicks to allowed fakes.
But now Galiano is in the NFL, and Lorig is tasked with turning a 2018 weakness into a 2019 strength. Or at least something that won’t cost the Nittany Lions a game.
Lorig has the background for it. In three years at Memphis, Lorig’s special teams unit finished in the top five in college football in kick-return average twice and in the top 20 in kick-return defense every single year. The Tigers didn’t allow a kickoff or punt return touchdown under Lorig, either.
Special teams can be a boring topic. But this spring there will be great interest in how Lorig plans to correct Galiano’s mistakes, among other talking points. Does placekicker Jake Pinegar hold onto his job? Blake Gillikin said in February he wants to be an All-American; what steps does he take to make that a reality? And what kind of impact do early enrollees like Keaton Ellis and Tyler Rudolph make on the kick and punt teams?
Spring camp is when identities are formed. To avoid a repeat 2018, Lorig and his unit need to use March and April wisely.
Parker and potential: With assistant coach David Corley gone, it’s Gerad Parker’s job to get the most out of a talented, yet inexperienced group of wide receivers. That job starts now.
Parker, who was hired in January, has a full toolbox at his disposal. Hamler and Shorter boast speed and promise, respectively. Dotson has a chance to develop into a reliable set of hands for years to come after starting four games in 2018. Meanwhile, Daniel George, Mac Hippenhammer and Cam Sullivan-Brown have to be champing at the bit to establish themselves as contributors with Florida State transfer George Campbell and 2019 signees John Dunmore and TJ Jones arriving for fall camp.
We won’t see the results, good or bad, of Parker’s spring camp plight until the fall. But since the Citrus Bowl, the only players that have spoken to media are Gillikin, offensive lineman Michal Menet, linebacker Jan Johnson and safety Garrett Taylor. If made available, what does Hamler think of Parker and the direction of the WR room?
This spring, Hamler and the rest of the wideouts could shed light on how they’re putting a mistake-filled 2018 behind them.
McSorley’s successor: This one is a no-brainer as a key storyline.
Stevens is the clear front-runner to replace Trace McSorley, and he should be. The rising redshirt senior bided his time and has the opportunity before him to lead Ricky Rahne’s offense.
But, as all coaches will say, Franklin noted in February that there’s an open competition at every position. That includes quarterback. And that’s where Sean Clifford comes in.
There’s a curiosity surrounding Clifford. The big-armed rising redshirt sophomore wowed in a small sample size, completing 5 of 7 passes for 195 yards and two touchdowns in four appearances last year.
Clifford, a “fiery” competitor as Franklin once called him, will gun for the No. 1 job. And while it’s unlikely he lands it, a situation of even slight uncertainty at quarterback — after three seasons of security with McSorley — will have people talking.
Dealing with change: This spring is a pivotal one for Franklin and the future of Penn State football for all the reasons listed above. But the overarching storyline of camp will be the Nittany Lions adjusting to change.
McSorley’s record-setting collegiate career is over. Five players left early for the NFL draft. The transfer portal took its toll. One coach was fired and another left.
Entering Year 6 at the helm, Franklin is depending on a handful of veterans (Stevens, Gillikin, Taylor, John Reid and Cam Brown especially) to guide a team built by vaunted 2017, 2018 and 2019 recruiting classes.
Every year, March and April are important for setting the tone of the season to come. But what transpires this camp could have a far-reaching impact on 2020 and beyond.