Penn State's Camp Franklin: Fast-paced and intense, with some surprises

Quarterback Christian Hackenberg excelled as a freshman last season, but he will be playing behind an offensive line that returns just one starter.
Quarterback Christian Hackenberg excelled as a freshman last season, but he will be playing behind an offensive line that returns just one starter. (JAMIE SABAU / Getty Images)
Posted: August 04, 2014

Penn State kicker Sam Ficken had experienced spring practices conducted by Joe Paterno and Bill O'Brien during his career, but he'd never seen anything like some of the methods carried out in the spring by new head coach James Franklin.

Ficken understood that coaches needed to simulate pressure situations that a kicker might encounter late in a game, such as making an entire team run laps if a field goal at the end of a practice went wide of the uprights.

However, he learned from the very first day of drills that Franklin had a different approach.

"The setup was that the whole team would surround the short-snapper, the holder, and myself," Ficken recalled last week at Big Ten Football Media Days. "If you made the field goal, you didn't have to run. If you missed, you did have to run. So [Franklin] would do different things.

"He'd take a water bottle and squirt you in the face or he'd have an air horn blowing in your ear - well, not directly in your ear - when you were getting ready to kick. He definitely pulled all the tricks out. It took me by surprise the first practice, for sure. But squirting the ball with water, that's relatable to a game in the rain. He's doing things that I hadn't done in the past, and I think they're definitely helpful."

On Sunday, Franklin will begin his first training camp since leaving Vanderbilt and taking over at Penn State last January. The Nittany Lions report for meetings on that day, with practice starting Monday.

If it's anything like spring practice, Camp Franklin figures to be fast-paced, competitive, loud, intense, and borderline chaotic.

"In the spring, practices were pretty brutal, especially early on," senior linebacker Mike Hull said. "Coach Franklin brought that SEC mentality, where you're hitting and going live in just about every drill. But they had to do it. They wanted to see what type of players they had, what their personnel was.

"So I think that was the main thing. I'm expecting [preseason] to be pretty similar to that, but maybe not as much contact just because of the numbers."

One particularly physical drill expected to return this month is a variation of the old Oklahoma drill called the "Lions' Den," in which three offensive linemen and a running back or wide receiver try to advance the ball against three defensive linemen and a linebacker. Franklin called it "a great opportunity to evaluate without any schemes; it's mano-a-mano."

In the days leading up to the Nittany Lions' Aug. 30 season opener against Central Florida in Dublin, Ireland, the players will know what to expect. That includes keeping the tempo high, or as Franklin explained on the first day of spring ball: "If you don't know where you're supposed to go or what you're doing when the horn blows, then sprint in a circle until you figure it out."

Bill Belton found that out the hard way.

"That's very true," the senior running back from South Jersey said. "He made me run around in circles until I found out where I had to go. I didn't know what to think, but then I realized, 'All right, when we're on the field, we've got to run.' It brought us some good habits."

Although Penn State is operating with a maximum of 75 scholarship players under NCAA sanctions, Franklin will bring 105 players, the NCAA-mandated limit, to training camp, including 20 scholarship freshmen and some walk-ons who weren't part of spring drills. His goal is to create "the most competitive practice and environment you've ever seen."

His routine is based on a model he has utilized for years and that his staff, many of whom worked for him at Vanderbilt, knows well.

"You adapt that model. You make some tweaks. You try to grow and evolve," Franklin said last week. "We feel pretty good to go. There's not a whole lot left for us to do. It's just kind of cleaning up a few things, having some discussions as a staff, and getting the final pieces of the puzzle put together."

The biggest puzzle pieces are developing depth, particularly along the offensive line, where protecting quarterback Christian Hackenberg is of the utmost importance, and at linebacker, where an injury to starter Ben Kline may prompt the Lions to bring in an extra safety to play Kline's spot in certain schemes.

In Franklin's view, every player - senior or freshman, scholarship athlete or walk-on - has a chance to win a job.

"The message to our players and everybody involved will be that you're going to have to come and compete and earn your job every single year and every single day," Franklin said. "We want to be able to come into camp with the freshmen and give them a legitimate chance to compete for a starting position. If not, then they'll have an opportunity to compete for playing time in terms of depth."

The players will start going at it on the field Monday. The drills are likely to come with some interesting twists, some that Franklin introduced in the spring and maybe some new ones.

For his part, Ficken hopes he's presented with the same distractions when he's kicking.

"Absolutely," he said. "I'd be very disappointed if he didn't."


Nittany Lions' Big Questions

Penn State's first preseason practice is Monday. Here are the biggest questions facing the Nittany Lions on offense and defense.

Offense: Line depth

After passing for 2,955 yards and 20 touchdowns last year as a true freshman, Christian Hackenberg worked diligently in the offseason to improve his technique and his strength, gaining 15 pounds (to 235) on a 6-foot-4 frame. But any increase to those statistics could be held in check by an offensive line that returns just one starter - tackle Donovan Smith - and counts a pair of converted defensive tackles as the unit's starting guards. Redshirt freshman tackle Andrew Nelson is considered a fine prospect but hasn't played a snap of college football. The crowd of candidates behind the five starters possesses little experience collectively, but the Nittany Lions will have to develop backups quickly lest an injury to a starter throws the entire offensive flow out of whack.

Defense: Linebacker experience

Senior Mike Hull has moved to the middle and has the strength, speed, and versatility to be one of the Big Ten's best linebackers. Sophomore Brandon Bell (Oakcrest) made an impact last year as a true freshman. But a reported Achilles tendon injury to junior starter Ben Kline leaves the Lions with just one player - sophomore Nyeem Wartman - who has started a game. Behind Hull, Bell, and Wartman are some underclassmen, such as Gary Wooten and Von Walker, who have distinguished themselves on special teams but have played few snaps on defense. The unit is not lacking in numbers but is lacking in experience. Penn State's defensive coaches could adjust by playing an extra safety at one corner linebacking spot in certain schemes. - Joe Juliano


jjuliano@phillynews.com

@joejulesinq

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