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Penn State Football: Nittany Lions Continue To Look For Established Options

by on September 24, 2019 4:00 PM

One of Penn State's largest internal dilemmas is not so much a question of talent as it is consistency. The Nittany Lions have shown flashes of what they can become, but often follow it up with moments of plodding struggles. This is not an overly surprising trait for a younger team to have but it is nevertheless an obstacle to overcome.

For James Franklin and his staff the solution is both practical development and trial by fire. This has been most evident in a rotating running back room where all four players have had their shake, and all have had their moments, but none of them have taken a firm grasp on the job.

Which of course opens another door to another problem: when exactly do you abort previously planned rotations in favor of one player or another? How do you find out what you have in a team, while finding out what you have in each individual player, some of whom play the same position. And how do you do that and find the best way to win?

The solution isn't straightforward, but the need for players to establish themselves will go a long way towards Penn State having a successful season.

"We would say an established guy is a guy we know what we're going to get week-in and week-out, game in, game out, practice, all of it," James Franklin said on Tuesday. "A guy who has played enough football for us on a consistent basis that we consider he has solidified his position and there's really no threat to him. I mean, obviously we always want to make sure that we are creating an environment that there's competition, but there are some guys that have played at such a high level for such a long time, you know what you're getting there."

"Now it's about managing; managing the reps, so that when they are in there, you are getting the best you possibly can from them, but then also, being able to get some other guys in there to develop the depth."

Penn State's defense faces this issue less than the offense simply because its a unit predicated on depth and rotations. A defensive line led by Sean Spencer has long been a 10-or-so man grouping while corners, safeties and linebackers have had a healthy dosage of practical options over the years.

Offensively the list of truly established players is a little less clear-cut. KJ Hamler and Pat Freiermuth are the obvious selections here, but beyond that nearly everyone else, Sean Clifford included, have had their moments of good and bad. For the likes of Justin Shorter, who has been a steady hand in the receiving game, a host of unproven talent around him has resulted in no shortage of target distribution.

Penn State has yet to give the ball to any one player with the singular force of will as it did Saquon Barkley, save Freiermuth's seven-catch second half against Buffalo. And while Barkley's talent required such an oversized emphasis, Penn State's offensive development will improve as its ability to define roles develops as well.

In essence the Nittany Lions are not short on options, but at least from outside the walls of the Lasch Building, they are still wading through the process of self-discovery.

"The other thing I would say, too, is a lot of times the young players, they are focused on just the splash plays alone," Franklin added. "So they think they should be playing more because they have had a sack or an interception or whatever it may be, but a lot of times that guy doesn't grade out as well because those other eight plays aren't as consistent."

"We talk about that with our defense and I think that's where I think we've got to be careful with the conversation last week about sacks because if you put too much emphasis on that, and not them doing the dirty work that needs to be done -- I think Parker Cothren was a great example of a guy, kind of like what we would call the keystone of our defense; a guy that maybe doesn't show up in the stat sheet but is essential to the defense being what we needed it to be, and that was Parker Cothren. I think right now we are doing a pretty good job of that, being gap-sound and those types of things."

"I think if we continue to do that, some of those splash plays, some of those exciting plays will, show up, not because guys are forcing it to happen but it coming as a natural result of doing their job within the framework of the offense, defense or special teams."

Or as another coach said: take care of the little things and the big things will take care of themselves.

Ben Jones covers Penn State football and basketball for He's on Twitter as @Ben_Jones88.
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