By Arielle Sargent, GoPSUSports.com
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - Spring football at Penn State has nearly arrived in Happy Valley. Just a day before the Big Ten Champion Nittany Lions officially kick off spring football practice, Penn State head coach James Franklin met with members of the media for a press conference to preview the upcoming spring season.
Spring practice officially opens Wednesday, March 23, leading up the the annual Blue-White game Saturday, April 22, which is slated for a 3 p.m. start in Beaver Stadium.
Check out a few takeaways from the press conference.
Making Strides in Winter Training
Franklin led off his press conference noting that as an entire unit, the Nittany Lions were extremely productive in the winter training period, all led by assistant athletic director for performance enhancement, Dwight Galt and his staff. Franklin mentioned that a number of the Nittany Lion strength categories have seen an increase in performance numbers.
"I know Coach Galt went through a lot of this stuff with you guys the other day in the weight room, but it's been impressive," Franklin said. "I think we're one of the bigger, stronger, faster teams right now that I've ever been around, not just at Penn State but in my 23 years doing this."
Galt recently met with members of the media to recap the winter conditioning period and give updates on a few Nittany Lions who were making solid progress.
More from the Max Out Day media session HERE.
Outside of the physical attributes of growing bigger, faster and stronger, Franklin also highlighted that part of the success of the morning workout all comes down to developing intangibles like grit and mental toughness.
"A lot of these kids were playing video games and when the video games started to beat them, they hit the reset button," Franklin said. "So teaching guys how to compete, I think is a big part of what we do, and that's what the morning workouts are all about. I'm proud of that. I think we got a lot of really good work done."
What's Happening at Center
It's been a big discussion among the coaching staff and it's changed a few times, but Franklin noted that as the Nittany Lions look to fill the role held by graduating center Brian Gaia, the key is to get as many guys with starting experience on the field.
Franklin detailed that Connor McGovern will fill the role moving forward with Zach Simpson also an option, as both have practice experience and could potentially slide in with an easier transition to ensure practice stays organized. McGovern, who played in all 13 games, made nine starts at right guard for the Nittany Lions. Redshirt Michal Menet and early enrollee Mike Miranda could also be options rotating in as well. Although too early to tell, Franklin noted that as the spring season gets underway he and the staff will have to see how things play out on the field before making any final decision.
"Typically your centers and guards need to be interchangeable and your tackles usually are just a different body type, you know, different type of athlete," Franklin said. "I think Coach Limegrover has done a really good job. We have been forced in our past to be interchangeable just based on numbers, where now we're doing it just to make sure that we can kind of get the best five on the field or the best two-deep, best ten in the two-deep situation."
A Difficult Nittany Lion to Replace
Another impactful senior who will not return due to graduation is linebacker Brandon Bell, who's departure will open a large spot for the Nittany Lions when it comes to experience and play-making ability.
"He always kind of found a way to defeat the block, to get his hands on a ball and to make an interception," Franklin said of Bell. "He was a natural playmaker. That's why he was so successful for so many years here. And that production, you know, that production, that play making is always difficult to replace."
Reflecting on the season, the next man up mentality certainly nothing new for the Nittany Lions and as Franklin noted, it often gave the staff a chance to build some depth at the position with different guys seeing live reps in game.
"Fortunately we do feel like we've got a pretty good two-deep, and within some areas even a three-deep on defense and with some exciting players coming in," Franklin said.
With a starting point in mind, there's certainly no doubting the experience returners like Koa Farmer, Manny Bowen and Jason Cabinda bring to the field. An All-Big Ten Third team selection by the league's coaches, Cabinda brings both skill and leadership to the position with eight or more tackles in eight of nine games he played in 2016.
Franklin outlined a few spring objectives, noting that this year he'll return to the basics, beginning with maximum effort from every member of the program 100 percent of the time. Stemming from the morning workings, maintaining a high level of competition is also an objective, along with the more technical aspect of offensive ball security and defensive ball disruption.
Discipline is also an objective, which encompasses broad areas of the program, but as Franklin pointed out, also spans the little things, like preparation, making it to class and arriving to appointments on time.
"I believe that if we can do a better job in that area and have 10 percent less - what I would describe as drama, having to get on a guy about missing a class and calling his parents and spending time doing that, as coaches and players, if we can spend our time developing them as students and developing them as players and developing them as men and not babysitting, it's going to make all of us more efficient with our time, Franklin said.
A few Nittany Lions are set for position moves heading into the spring season. Franklin noted that Johnathan Thomas will make the move from linebacker to running back and Jarvis Miller will move from safety to linebacker. Josh McPhearson, who played in six games during the 2016 season, will also move from wide receiver to running back, ideally as a return specialist.
"We are really hoping Josh can factor in and compete as a kick returner, as a punt returner," Franklin said. "He's a dynamic guy when he gets the ball in his hands so we're going to give him an opportunity there."
Thomas played in five games during the 2016 season while Miller played in all 14 games seeing action primarily on special teams having moved to linebacker after the Minnesota game.
Reach Arielle at email@example.com or follow on Twitter @arielle_sargent