STATE COLLEGE — Practice was all but over, but James Franklin wasn’t ready to shut things down for the day.
“Lions’ Den!” the Penn State coach belted out as the Nittany Lions roar in approval at Thursday’s practice on campus.
Players had talked about it during spring ball — Penn State’s version of the four-on-four “Oklahoma drill” — but with the season now just two weeks away, the intensity was turned up.
A running back would take a handoff with three blockers in front of him looking to break free from a group of defenders.
At stake between offense and defense during the drills was that the losing unit would be stuck running sprints — sideline-to-sideline gassers — at the end.
Little surprise then to see running back Zach Zwinak and defensive tackle Austin Johnson trading loud barbs by the end of it. Or the players lined up watching on either side of the drill to jump on the pile at the end of a hard run.
In the end, it was the Blue-White Game star, walk-on running back Cole Chiappialle, who managed to fight for the needed yards against linebacker Mike Hull to score a win for the offense.
Chiappialle, all 5-foot-8, 211 pounds of him, climbed out of the pile and gave a jubilant spike of his helmet to celebrate as Franklin jumped and gave a fist pump himself.
“Hope you all were entertained,” Franklin told reporters in attendance with a smile.
The final 20 minutes of Thursday’s practice were open to the media, including some full 11-on-11 work.
Once again, the coaches and players were fully aware that more eyes were on them than usual. So it probably wasn’t a coincidence that the second play they ran was designed to raise some eyebrows.
The offense broke the huddle and quarterback Christian Hackenberg sprinted to his right, split out wide. It was Chiappialle taking the snap out of the shotgun, and squeezing through a hole up the middle for a touchdown.
In other less contrived plays, DaeSean Hamilton made a nice catch on a fade from freshman Michael O’Connor for a touchdown in the corner of the end zone. Fellow freshman passer Trace McSorley connected with Eugene Lewis on a similar play. Lewis came up with the jump ball over coverage from Amani Oruwariye, but the ball was thrown just a bit too far beyond the end line.
McSorley also rifled one into tight end Jesse James, who crashed through a couple half-hearted tackle attempts for a touchdown.
Franklin said the backup quarterback competition between O’Connor and McSorley hasn’t been decided.
“The No. 2 battle is interesting,” Franklin said. “McSorley, all the things we thought about him when we recruited him — he’s a winner, he’s smart, he picked it up really well. He doesn’t panic. That’s what you see a lot of times from a lot of these young guys when you put them in there and you just don’t see that from him.
“I think O’Connor’s had a great summer, but McSorley’s right there. That’s what we want. We want a great competition at every position, especially quarterback.”
Obviously the most notable absence at Thursday’s practice was tight end Adam Breneman. The program announced earlier in the week that Breneman would be out indefinitely — Blue White Illustrated first reported it was a left knee injury — and may end up redshirting this season.
“You don’t want to lose anybody, but that’s the position we probably have the most depth at,” Franklin said. “And I think (true freshman Mike) Gesicki has done a nice job. We all know he’s really athletic.
“Part of his issue, though, is he’s never put his hand in the ground (to block). Ever. … We’ve got a lot of guys who come here and we’re asking them to do things they’ve never done before. I think running and catching and things with athleticism, he’s done a great job with. We’ve gotta continue getting him more confident when it comes to blocking.”
Gesicki was on the field for several snaps in the portion of practice open to the media and seems likely to play right away.
A handful of regulars were wearing powder-blue jerseys, indicating limited or no-contact during practice. The two projected starters donning them were tackle Donovan Smith and safety Ryan Keiser.
Center Wendy Laurent, defensive tackle Tarow Barney and walk-on receiver Brandon Kuntz also wore the powder blue.