STATE COLLEGE — James Franklin has excuses if he wants them.
The roster is still depleted by the sanctions. The new Penn State coach and his staff are still trying to put their lives back together after moving, many of their families still back in Tennessee. As spring practice began Monday in Happy Valley, the Nittany Lions are still very much a work in progress as the transition to the Franklin era shifts into high gear.
But Franklin believes the program can’t afford a slow start, no matter the reason.
“We need to go out there with the mindset that we’ve been here for three years,” Franklin said Monday from Beaver Stadium, a few hours before the Lions took the field for the first time. “We know how to practice, we know what the expectations are. We can’t allow the fact that this is our first practice (together) to be an excuse not to go out and fly around.
“We need to go out and practice like a veteran team, a veteran staff, a veteran organization. That’s our goal, to hit the ground running.”
As it turned out, he was speaking literally.
Practicing inside the airplane hangar that is Holuba Hall because the outdoor field was still waterlogged from melting snow, the Lions made it a point to dash from drill to drill at Franklin’s urging.
That mindset was installed well ahead of time.
“There’s no walking on the field — ever,” Franklin said. “I told them the first day, if you don’t know where you’re supposed to go or what you’re supposed to be doing when the horn blows, then sprint in a circle until you figure it out.”
There didn’t appear to be any such dizzy spells during the 45 minutes of practice open to reporters. But the tone had been set.
Though spring practice opened at high speed, it will once again not be full-contact.
A year ago, former coach Bill O’Brien deliberately dialed down the hitting in practices year round, predominately because he was worried about injuries to his dwindling number of scholarship players.
Franklin said Monday that injury concerns, however, were not on his mind. Rather, the limited contact comes from an approach called “tag-off” that the staff used previously at Vanderbilt.
“I think you can get a lot of work done without going full-contact,” Franklin said. “Tag-off is basically two-hand touch, but you’re doing it in an athletic position. You’ve got to be able to legitimately, when you watch the tape, be able to say that guy would have made the tackle.
“I think you can get a lot done — if you do it the right way and you demand the fundamentals and the technique. So we’ll do it, but it’s not necessarily from the injury prevention standpoint.”
Make no mistake, though — depth is still among Penn State’s biggest issues as the Lions prepare for the 2014 season.
No place is it more evident than on the offensive line, where the team essentially has only two scholarship tackles in junior Donovan Smith and redshirt freshman Andrew Nelson. The only other players listed as tackles on the updated spring roster are true freshman Chasz Wright and walk-on Albert Hall, who made the switch from tight end this offseason and has drawn praise from Franklin.
Hoping to balance out the numbers a bit, the Lions have already moved sophomores Derek Dowrey and Brian Gaia from defensive tackle to guard.
“A big part of that is, when I looked at the defensive line, we had a four-deep of scholarship players on the defensive line, basically,” Franklin said. “Four-deep at defensive end, about three-and-a-half-deep at nose guard and D-tackle.
“On the offensive line, we did not have a two-deep of scholarship players. Not even a two-deep. So just felt like we needed to make some moves.”
It was just the first practice of the year, but Dowrey was already working with the first team in position drills along with returning starters Smith and Miles Dieffenbach, center Angelo Mangiro and Nelson.
On the other side of the ball, senior Adrian Amos opened at safety after bouncing around the secondary last season.
“We think his natural position is safety,” Franklin said. “That’s where we’re going to play him.”
Amos and Ryan Keiser opened as the first-team safeties, with Jordan Lucas and Trevor Williams at corner.
Up front, Anthony Zettel has bulked up to 274 pounds and is expected to primarily play the three-technique tackle spot after spending last season at end.
Zettel joined the first team line in drills Monday, along with fellow tackle Austin Johnson and ends C.J. Olaniyan and Deion Barnes. Franklin said Zettel remains versatile enough to line up at end in certain packages if needed.
Also shifting spots are walk-ons Von Walker and Old Forge grad Brian Tomasetti. Both were tailbacks in 2013, with Walker playing mostly on special teams while Tomasetti redshirted. They will both start the spring as safeties.