Penn State football officially begins spring drills on Wednesday.
Here are a dozen items that review and preview where the Nittany Lions are at after last season’s 9-4 record and beginning on-the-field preparation for the 2019 season, as James Franklin heads into his sixth year as head coach:
1. PRESEASON RANKINGS — Here’s where Penn State stands in the early preseason rankings for 2019, according to the top cadre of media outlets: Sporting News 12, Athlon 13, Sports Illustrated 14, ESPN 17 and The Athletic 21.
2. SPRING PRACTICE DATES —Penn State’s first of 15 spring practices is this Wednesday; No. 15 is the Blue-White Game on Saturday, April 13 in Beaver Stadium. Weekday practices are at 4:30 p.m., while Saturday practices on March 16 and 30 are at 11:45 a.m., and Saturday practices on March 23 and April 6 are at 10:30 a.m. The practice schedule:
MARCH — Wednesday (13), Friday (15), Saturday (16), Monday (18), Wednesday (20), Saturday (23), Monday (25), Wednesday (27) and Saturday (30). High school coaches clinic and chalk talk: March 29-30. APRIL — Wednesday (3), Saturday (6), Monday (8), Wednesday (10) and Friday (12). Blue-White Game kickoff is at 3 p.m.
3. PRESSED FOR ANSWERS — Penn State’s most pressing questions will be asked of Franklin when he meets with the media at noon on Wednesday, in the Beaver Stadium press room. It will be the first time in five weeks he’s held a presser. Franklin is 45-21 (.681) at Penn State, and 69-36 overall (.657) as a head coach. He’s 3-12 in five seasons against East division rivals Ohio State, Michigan and Michigan State, with seven of those games decided by a TD or less.
4. COACHING STAFF CHANGES — OUT: WR coach David Corley, ST/Asst. DL coach Phil Galiano, GA/DEF Matt Fleischacker. Corley was fired after one year with the Nittany Lions, serving first in a brief stint as the running backs coach, then as wide receivers coach for the 2018 season. He was on a two-year contract. Corley’s LinkedIn and Twitter accounts do not indicate a current employer.
Galiano went to New Orleans to be the Saints’ assistant special teams coach under Darren Rizzi, who was the Miami Dolphins’ special teams coach when Galiano was a ST teams intern with the Dolphins in 2016. The two were also on Rutgers’ staff together in 2004-06.
Fleischacker was a grad assistant working under mentor Brent Pry at PSU in 2017-18. He left in the offseason for a full-time outside linebackers coaching position at Mercer (Macon, Ga.) of the Southern Conference. Mercer had a 5-6 record in 2018. After failing to make the PSU squad as a walk-on kicker, Fleischacker was a student assistant at Penn State first under Bill O’Brien and then Franklin, before a stint as a GA at Appalachian State.
5. COACHING STAFF CHANGES — IN: WR coach Gerad Parker, ST/DEF assistant Joe Lorig and GA/OFF Kevin Reihner. Franklin addressed two shaky units in the offseason.
Parker spent the last two seasons at Duke under passing game whiz David Cutcliffe. He was the interim head coach at Purdue in 2016, and had an injury-plagued career as a wide receiver at Kentucky. In January 2017, Parker was on Cincinnati’s staff for 19 days, then left for a job at East Carolina, which did not materialize after Parker was charged with DUI. (More on Parker, including video, here.)
After three seasons as special teams coordinator and outside linebackers coach at Memphis from 2016-18, Lorig spent six weeks in early 2019 as the ST coordinator at Texas Tech. (Read about it here.) Lorig had worked with Texas Tech head coach Matt Wells at Utah State. He had six stops before Memphis, including Idaho State, where in 1999 he was cornerbacks coach and Franklin was wide receivers coach under then-head coach Larry Lewis, who is now a non-coaching analyst for the Nittany Lions.
Reihner played for Penn State as a graduate transfer from Stanford in 2015. His father George played for Penn State in 1974-77. Reihner was an offensive QC assistant in 2016 at Fordham under current Penn State TE coach Tyler Bowen. In 2017, Reihner was an offensive GA at Wake Forest and in 2018 he was a tight ends coach at Delaware.
6. FRONT OFFICE CHANGES — OUT: Phil Esten, Justin King and Kenny Sanders. Franklin reported directly to Esten the past four years. Esten, who was the deputy AD at Penn State, is now athletic director at his alma mater, St. Thomas in Minnesota.
Sanders had been Penn State’s No. 2 recruiting staffer since arriving in 2014. Officially director of player personnel, Sanders is both smart and personable, and was a key piece of Penn State’s family approach to recruiting. He previously had been with the Baltimore Ravens and worked on Wall Street, giving him a wide range of experiences that helped him excel in a key behind-the-scenes role that aided Penn State’s stellar recruiting successes under Franklin. Sanders is now the director of recruiting at the University of Oregon.
King, a former standout Nittany Lion cornerback who played six seasons in the NFL, also worked in Penn State’s recruiting office. The step-son of PSU assistant Terry Smith, King recently was named manager of football operations for the XFL, which restarts play in February 2020. King was a top recruit out of Gateway High School; his Pittsburgh ties paid off. He was hired by Doug Whaley, senior VP of football operations for the XFL. Whaley played high school football at Upper St. Clair and at Pitt. He worked 10 years with the Steelers before becoming GM of the Buffalo Bills, who fired him in 2017. Whaley worked briefly for the NFLPA.
7. FRONT OFFICE CHANGES — IN: Scott Sidwell. Sidwell will replace Esten. Formerly the director of athletics at the University of San Francisco, Sidwell was a baseball player and assistant coach at Tulane when Sandy Barbour was AD there. Previously, Siwell was an athletics administrator at Syracuse for six years. In a letter to the USF community, school president, Rev. Paul Fitzgerald, wrote that Sidwell “was approached by Penn State University.”
Franklin will report to Sidwell on a day-to-day basis. In addition, according to a Penn State press release, Sidwell will also have myriad other duties: “Sidwell will direct the leadership of Penn State Athletics’ development, marketing, strategic communications, facilities operations and event management, as well as serve as the day-to-day sport administrator for Penn State football. Development of revenue generation initiatives, fan experience, strategic partnerships, multimedia rights, branding, licensing and creative also will be among his key areas of oversight.”
8. STARTING SPOTS OPEN, OFFENSE (5) — Coordinator Ricky Rahne must replace starters at five positions: QB, RB, WR, RG, RT. Whether it’s Tommy Stevens or Sean Clifford at quarterback in the 2019 season-opener on August 31, it will be the first time in 2,471 days and 79 games that the starter is not named Christian Hackenberg (21-17 as a starter) or Trace McSorley (31-9). The math: Matt McGloin was the starting QB for Penn State on November 24, 2013, when PSU beat Wisconsin 24-21 in overtime.
9. STARTING SPOTS OPEN, DEFENSE (4) — Pry must find new starters at DE, DT, LB and FS. Last week, I wrote that the Nittany Lions’ strength in 2019 will be its defense. Read it here.
10. PLAYER CHANGES
OUT – KEY GRADS: QB Trace McSorley, RB Miles Sanders, WR DeAndre Thompkins, OL Ryan Bates, OL Connor McGovern, OL Chasz Wright, LB Koa Farmer, CB Amani Oruwariye, DE Shareef Miller, DE Kevin Givens, S Nick Scott. OUT – KEY TRANSFERS: WR Juwan Johnson, WR Brandon Polk, OT Alex Gellerstedt, TE Danny Dalton, DE Torrence Brown, LB Jarvis Miller, DB Zech McPhearson, S Ayron Monroe.
OUT & BACK: Two transfer portal explorers took a look around and decided to return to Penn State: S Lamont Wade and WR Cam Sullivan-Brown.
EARLY ENROLLEES (scholarships): RB Noah Cain, QB Michael Johnson Jr., QB Ta’Quan Roberson, TE Brenton Strange, OL Anthony Whigan, LB Brandon Smith, LB Lance Dixon, CB Keaton Ellis, CB Marquis Wilson and S Tyler Randolph.
11. PRO DAY — This is not technically part of spring practice, but it is an annual spring football ritual at Penn State. NFL scouts, coaches and front office types will descend upon Lasch Building and Holuba Hall on Tuesday, March 19. While some, if not all, of the seven former Nittany Lions who took part on the NFL Combine will again be on display, this will be an opportunity for recent graduates like Thompkins, Farmer and Scott to show off their speed, strength and skills.
12. SEASON OPENER — It is 174 days until Penn State opens its 2019 season on Saturday, August 31, at home in Beaver Stadium. The opponent will be Idaho, not quite a big attraction. The Vandals were 4-7 in 2018, and 3-5 (tied for ninth) in the Big Sky Conference. Idaho lost three of last four games in 2018, including a season-ending 63-10 blowout by Florida in Gainesville.