After introducing his coaching staff in January, James Franklin quietly left Beaver Stadium’s media room and made his way upstairs.
As offensive coordinator John Donovan took his turn at the dais, Franklin took to the railing of the recruiting lounge that overlooks the room below.
He boomed a question from the peanut gallery.
“How many points a game are we going to score next year?” Penn State’s coach shouted.
Donovan laughed and brushed off the interruption from above.
“As many as it takes to win,” he said.
Well, that’s one question out of the way. Penn State has plenty more to answer starting Monday, as the Nittany Lions open spring practice for the first time under Franklin. Here are a few of them.
How will the new offense be tailored to fit Christian Hackenberg?
Amazingly, this will be the first time in five years — since Daryll Clark’s final season in 2009 — that the Lions enter spring ball without any kind of quarterback controversy.
Now it’s up to Franklin and Donovan to make the most of Hackenberg’s talents.
Obviously, the scheme they ran for three years at Vanderbilt — one that liked to utilize the quarterback in the run game — isn’t ideal for Hackenberg, who has the foundation of a terrific pocket passer.
Donovan will be in the crosshairs this first year because, fairly or not, he will inevitably be compared to Bill O’Brien and the sophisticated, pro-style attack he ran.
“We’re a huddle team, but we aren’t going to stare off at the sidelines for too long,” Donovan said. “We will be big in personnel, shifting the motion and that kind of stuff. We’ll mix the tempo to keep them modest and catch them off guard.”
Shifting tempo was a hallmark of O’Brien’s offense, and the option to switch to the no-huddle at any moment will be important to preserve.
For the first time in his coaching career, Donovan will also be working directly with the tight ends. It’s a position that was not heavily featured at Vanderbilt, but Donovan will have to quickly change that for this new offense, as tight end has the deepest collection of talent on the roster.
“When you have tight ends in the game that are versatile, (defenses) don’t know what you’re in,” Donovan said. “You’re can be in a tight formation, spread formation, you can shift in and out, you can motion. You can do a lot of different things, and we like to get creative on our side of the ball.
“Tight ends give us that, and we want to use it to our advantage.”
Will Bob Shoop make significant, fundamental changes to the defense?
Namely, how much will we see the Lions’ new defensive coordinator incorporate the linebacker/safety hybrid position that was dubbed “Star” at Vanderbilt?
Installing the Star — or whatever Penn State-related name they might change it to — looks to be on the agenda for the Lions for use in certain packages.
On one hand, the Lions’ depth at linebacker is once again very thin at just five scholarship players for the spring, including Ben Kline, who underwent multiple offseason surgeries. So working in a 4-2-5 look makes sense from a numbers standpoint.
On the other, the Lions don’t have an abundance of ideal candidates to play Star, especially with Stephen Obeng-Agyapong having graduated. Last summer, the former staff kicked around the idea of Adrian Amos getting some reps as a linebacker, so he could potentially experiment at the hybrid spot.
A name to watch there would be Koa Farmer, but the 6-foot-2 California recruit won’t arrive until the summer.
Regardless of how big of a role the Star plays in the new defense, the point remains that it’s yet another new defense. More than anything, Shoop is hoping to bring stability to the unit.
“I think the challenge here in some ways is, if you realize it, I’m the fourth defensive coordinator here in four years,” Shoop said. “So there’s been some transition of guys going from Scrap (Tom Bradley), to Ted (Roof), to John (Butler) and now to me. And they all recognize that.
“The players have said that to me, ‘Are we going to change again?’ This and that. That’s why we’re talking to Jordan (Lucas) or Adrian or Mike (Hull) and getting some feedback from them to enable them, to feel a comfort level and get to know us and play as best as they can.”
How will the revamped offensive line shake out?
Penn State will be replacing three starters up front, with plenty of question marks outside of the returning left flank of Donovan Smith and Miles Dieffenbach.
The Lions’ already shaky depth in the trenches took a hit when redshirt freshman guard Tanner Hartman left the team earlier this offseason. Former defensive tackle Derek Dowrey has been working out with the offense this winter, however, and he is expected to play guard this spring.
As it stands right now, Penn State has just three scholarship tackles on the roster at the moment — Smith, redshirt freshman Andrew Nelson and just-arrived true freshman Chasz Wright. Others, such as junior Anthony Alosi, have worked at tackle before as well.
Nelson would appear to have the inside track for the right tackle job by default, but he also looks to be one of the team’s most talented linemen, to boot. The previous coaching staff never missed a chance to praise Nelson last season while he redshirted.
Less clear is the interior line. Much will depend on who emerges as the best man at center, with Angelo Mangiro and Wendy Laurent likely the top two options. Mangiro has good size and versatility and could fill either the vacancy at center or right guard.
If Mangiro ends up at center, that could open the door for another redshirt freshman in Brendan Mahon to get serious consideration at right guard.
Will depth issues force the coaches to again reduce contact?
Thanks to the sanctions, O’Brien was understandably paranoid about injuries to the players he was able to keep. That gave rise to practices that didn’t feature full-contact tackles in both the spring and the summer.
Had O’Brien stayed, there wouldn’t have even been a Blue-White Game this April, at least not one that resembles those from the past. That was a concession made to keep players as healthy as possible.
Since then, however, the sanctions have been reduced and Franklin plans to have a full Blue-White Game as usual to close out spring practice on April 12.
What remains to be seen is how intense the practices will get before that point. If Franklin’s early talks are any indications, expect the atmosphere to be very charged indeed.
“We want to create a really competitive environment,” Franklin said. “Our practices will be that way. You might see the DB coach and receiver coach get into a fight during practice. I want that. The defensive line coach and the O-line coach going after it.
“I want the players to see the most competitive environment they possibly can.”