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Penn State Football: Small Senior Group Carries Big Leadership Burden

by on June 22, 2014 10:00 PM

Penn State’s group of seniors in their final season is short on numbers and miles behind where it was at the start of spring drills.

That’s Miles – as in injured veteran guard Miles Dieffenbach.

Dieffenbach went down with a torn ACL early in spring practice and there is perhaps an outside shot he’ll be back for the final five-game stretch in November. Maybe.

No matter, his loss has not been a good experience -- especially since the guard is the second-most experienced player on the squad, with 23 career starts.

Sixteen other Penn State players are seniors academically, but enter the season with two years of eligibility remaining. That leaves just 11 healthy seniors  in their final year of eligibility on Penn State’s roster heading into the 2014 season. Eleven. How’s this for a comparison of experience, from an era of freshmen-rarely-play gone by:

Penn State, 1982 – 21 of the 24 seniors on the preseason roster were in their final season at PSU.

Penn State, 1986 – 32 of the 45 seniors (14 in their fifth year) on the official Fiesta Bowl roster were in their final season at PSU.

Penn State, 1994 – 27 of the 47 seniors on the preseason roster were in their final season at PSU.

A MIXED BAG

Penn State’s 2014 final-season seniors are somewhat of a rag-tag group. In addition to Dieffenbach, three are safeties (Adrian Amos, Ryan Keiser, Jesse Della Valle), two are running backs (Bill Belton, Zach Zwinak), one’s a kicker (Sam Ficken), another missed 2012 with an injury (Brad Bars), there's just one linebacker (Mike Hull), two rarely play (Tyrone Smith, Devin Pryor) and four (Della Valle, Keiser, Pryor, Smith) started their Penn State careers as walk-ons.

And speaking of true seniors: Keiser is the lone married guy on the team, while defensive end C.J. Olaniyan is a dad.

No wonder James Franklin said he’s looking for all of his players to be leaders, not just seniors.

“I want them to work on their leadership skills,” he said. “It’s our job to help them develop that, and that’s not just veteran players, but freshmen all the way up through the seniors. I think that’s very, very important. If a guy’s not a rah-rah guy, to try to get him to be that is not going to work. That doesn't mean you can’t work on developing those skills. It might be a guy who’s going to pull them to the side and do it one-on-one, maybe when the coaches aren’t watching or the teammates aren’t watching.”

THE FRANKLIN FIVE

Or maybe at a camp full of high schoolers. It may be just a coincidence, but the five Nittany Lions who worked Penn State's senior elite high school camp two weeks ago were all underclassmen -- cornerback Jordan Lucas (junior), safety Malik Golden (sophomore eligibility), tight end Kyle Carter (junior eligibility), offensive tackle Donovan Smith (junior eligibility) and wide receiver Geno Lewis (sophomore). But it’s unlikely.

Call them The Franklin Five.

Each must play key roles on and off the field in 2014. Smith and Lewis, especially, are the only real vets with game-time experience in their position. And Lucas has emerged as the vocal leader of the defense, complementing the quiet styles of seniors Mike Hull and Adrian Amos. Franklin said the quintet’s presence in working the camp of top high school prospects inside Holuba Hall had multiple benefits.

“I think it is really important as players to not only get coached and play the position, it’s also important to step to the other side” – at which point Franklin literally took a step to his left – “and be the coach, and understand why we’re asking them to do other things.

“It’s no different than when they’re seniors. I hope they’re coaching the freshmen and sophomores. And doing the same thing as juniors. … We really believe it takes a village to get this program going.”

It’s a young village, that’s for sure. When 20 incoming scholarship players arrive on campus in two weeks, they’ll swell the 95-man Blue-White game roster to 115. Only 105 can take part in official summer drills, but once school starts in the fall more players may be added. Of that 115, a remarkable 70% are sophomores (32) and freshmen (49).  Granted, many are walk-on filler and fodder, but the 81 combined is a heckuva lot more than the 22 juniors and 12 seniors on Franklin’s 2014 roster right now.

Franklin has experience in handling – and building a foundation – with those kind of numbers. In 2013, his third year at Vandy, Franklin’s official roster was back-ended for the future as well: 18 seniors, 17 juniors, 23 sophomores and 47 freshmen.

STARTING EXPERIENCE

Overall, Penn State brings a bit more experience to the field than it did in 2012 and ’13 under Bill O’Brien, but considerably less than it did in Joe Paterno’s final year:

-- Entering the 2014 season: 23 players with a combined 218 starts.

-- Entering 2013: 22 players with a combined 164 starts.

-- Entering 2012: 18 players with a combined 132 starts. Those numbers were greatly impacted by the departure of Silas Redd, Khairi Fortt, Justin Brown and Kevin Haplea (kickers, like Anthony Fera, don’t figure into the aforementioned starting statistics).

-- Entering 2011: 32 players with a combined 290 starts. Wow.

2014 LEADERS

For 2014, Franklin said during spring drills that he expected the biggest jolt of leadership to come from Dieffenbach and sophomore quarterback Christian Hackenberg on offense, and Hull, Amos and Lucas on defense.

“I think Hackenberg, obviously,” Franklin said while discussing team leadership in March, prior to Dieffenbach’s injury. “The position kind of calls for that, but he’s a quiet leader. He really is a quiet leader. On offense, if I kept going, Dieffenbach has been another guy I’ve been impressed with. He’s kind of gone out of his way in that role. I think it’s important to him. The tight ends are a quiet group overall. The running backs are a quiet group overall.” 

On defense, Franklin points to Hull and his secondary.

“…Hull is a quiet leader. When he speaks, people listen,” Franklin said. “When he does open his mouth to say something, it's well thought out and it's calculated.

“Jordan Lucas never lacks for something to say. He enjoys talking and speaking his mind, and he's got a lot of personality, and he's very, very charismatic. It's not always as well thought out before he says it. It just comes out of his mouth. He's a great kid; love him. I think Amos is a quiet leader as well and has done some nice things.”

On the field, Amos has been making noise since the 2011 season. He had one start that year, as a true freshmen – the only player on this year’s team with such a pedigree. Amos has a team-high 25 starts, having started every game of the 2012 and 2013 seasons. Again, Amos is the only player with such experience.

That’s why, at the start of spring drills, Franklin said succinctly, “... I like him back there being a leader for us.”

For Franklin, the secret will be getting similar Golden moments from his underclassmen.

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Mike Poorman has covered Penn State football since 1979. He is a senior lecturer in Penn State's College of Communications and teaches a pair of classes in the John Curley Center for Sports Journalism: “Sports Writing” and “Introduction to the Sports Industry.” He created and taught for several years the Center’s course on “Joe Paterno, Communications and The Media.” Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/PSUPoorman. His views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State University.
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