WILBORN: Three observations about Penn State offense after spring football game

NUBYJAS WILBORN
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (TNS)

Let's call what happened at Beaver Stadium on Saturday a semi-open scrimmage.

An announced crowd of 7,521 watched a football practice that had ingredients of a Blue-White game. KJ Hamler, Blake Gillikin, Marcus Allen, Miles Sanders, Pat Freiermuth, Will Fries and Yetur Gross-Matos were among the group of lettermen returning to campus for the game.

There was the return to the stadium for the Blue Band, Lionettes, mascots and a select group of freshmen students. However, Saturday's event wasn't the end of practice. Penn State has three more training sessions.

"This was practice Number 12 for us," head coach James Franklin told reporters on Saturday via Zoom. "We have 15 practices every spring. That's what the NCAA allows. So, we'll get all 15 in. I think we've made great progress."

Penn State planned to practice on Monday and Wednesday. First-year students attended Saturday's scrimmage, and now seniors will attend a Friday session that Franklin wants to happen at night.

"We'll probably go Friday night," Franklin said. "I like to get practices in spring and summer camp under the lights because that's another thing to get used to. It will allow our guys to get to finish up academically and prepare for whatever else they have coming up."

As it goes, there was a mixture of excellent and lousy play during the practice session. The Nittany Lions have a lot to work through next week. Here are three issues that Penn State hopes to gain clarity on by Friday.

1. Depth at running back: Depth is one of those good problems. Penn State has five running backs on the roster with Division I playing experience. Noah Cain, Devyn Ford, Caziah Holmes, John Lovett and Keyvone Lee are talented. Cain didn't participate Saturday because he's recovering from an injury. He only had three carries last season, but the Louisiana native is the most skilled of the group. If Cain is healthy, he's the starter.

Ford got the majority of the first-team reps with Cain out. He showed off his speed with a kick return for a touchdown. Yes, the Nittany Lions' special teams unit wasn't going full tilt at Ford, but his speed is genuine.

With the good came some bad for Ford, as he fumbled during the scrimmage. Ball control was an issue for Penn State last year. They'll need to correct this if they're going to be any good. If Ford doesn't get a grip on the ball, there could be more opportunities for someone like Lee.

"Keyvone is your typical 237-pound power back in the Big Ten that is always running north or south," Franklin said about Lee on Saturday. "He's the guy that you look at the end of the game, you think he played pretty good, but he's got 115 yards and two touchdowns because he's just north-south, and he's always falling forward.

"A run that's supposed to be four yards, he gets six, and a run that is supposed to be five yards, he gets seven. He's just that type of back. He's got really good vision, and I think he's doing a better job of understanding who he is."

Baylor transfer Lovett was dressed, but it appeared that he didn't participate. Lovett not practicing probably isn't a concern since teams regularly sit veteran players. Either way, the Nittany Lions have a lot of options at running back.

Penn State quarterback Ta'Quan Roberson (2) during their NCAA football practice, Saturday, April 17, 2021, in State College, Pa. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)

2. Few QB options: The Nittany Lions don't have a lot of options at quarterback. Sean Clifford took most of the first-team reps. Mike Miranda was the center, and Clifford took snaps under center and in shotgun. Offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich promised an up-tempo offense, and the elements were present. Clifford lined up quickly with minimal wasted motion.

"We're playing with tempo now," Clifford said. "We'll throw it deep. We'll slow it down. We'll get under center. It's so exciting for me as a quarterback to be able to grow with a coach."

Ta'Quan Roberson, Christian Veilleux and walk-on Mason Stahl had good and bad moments. Roberson runs fast and throws well, but he looked inconsistent. Veilleux is a freshman, and it showed. He's got a strong arm, but the miscues were present.

Clifford made mistakes mixed in with solid passes. He threw a couple touchdowns, but there was a bad interception to freshman sensation Kalen King and a fumbled snap.

"I think Sean has done some really good things this spring," Franklin said. "I think Mike [Yurcich] has been impressed. From what I've seen, in terms of Sean's approach, it's really important to Sean. He works really hard at it. He prepares like you're supposed to prepare."

Barring injury, Clifford will start, but three scholarship quarterbacks aren't enough. The Nittany Lions need to find someone in the transfer portal if it's possible.

Penn State wide receiver Parker Washington (3) during their NCAA football practice, Saturday, April 17, 2021, in State College, Pa. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)

3. Dotson, Washington need help: Jahan Dotson and Parker Washington are the best receivers on Penn State's roster. But they need third and fourth options to step up. 

Cam Sullivan-Brown made some nice catches on Saturday and throughout the spring, according to the team. Another player could be Marquis Wilson, who played cornerback last year. Penn State's deepest position might be cornerback, and the depth there allows Wilson to try playing both ways. A receiving corps of Dotson, Washington, Wilson and Sullivan-Brown could be daunting for Big Ten defenses.