Lions Building on Depth Looking Toward Fall

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UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - Penn State's 2017 spring season officially came to a close Saturday afternoon, as the Nittany Lions hosted their annual Blue-White game in Beaver Stadium.

In front of an estimated 71,000 fans, Penn State put an exclamation point at the end of a successful spring season with a culminating event that showcased a little bit of everything when it comes to meeting offseason expectations. 

"I think we really accomplished our goals," head coach James Franklin said. "We were able to develop a lot of depth, get some reps for some guys that maybe normally don't get reps."

Looking back to just a day over a month ago, it was Franklin who noted this year's spring objectives were mostly focused on getting back to the basics, giving 100 percent effort and creating one of the most competitive environments around - just to name a few. 

An unprecedented level of competition has certainly been the case through the 15-session spring game, spanning March 21 to April. Fueled by the confidence of a highly successful and historic 2016 season, it's a welcome atmosphere to continue to cultivate for the Nittany Lions, who are now in position to continue developing depth and building on a foundation that has already showed its solid shape.

Penn State showcased some of its promising depth Saturday, with a few Nittany Lion stepping forward to display some of their most recent progress.

Sophomore Tommy Stevens threw for 216 yards with 17 completions and a trio of touchdowns, even finding wide receiver DeAndre Thompkins for a 50-yard grab. 

"Ultimately, it's just fun to come out and put on a show for the fans," Stevens said. "The best part of my day was just coming out and working hard with some of my best friends and I had a good time."

When it comes to Stevens though, his playmaking ability and positive approach isn't something that has caught the Nittany Lion staff by surprise this year.

"To be honest with you, not a whole lot different, he just keeps getting better," Franklin said. "We saw these things last summer, this is why it was a true quarterback competition." 

For Franklin though, there's still work to be done at the quarterback position when it comes to creating even more depth with exciting possibilities from Stevens and the already proven success from starter Trace McSorley.

"We have to create more competition," Franklin said. "I think we have two quarterbacks that we can win with, and I think you have to have that. I think that you need to have three. That is no disrespect to the guys that we have. Jake Zembiec, Michael Shuster and Billy Fessler are doing nice jobs developing. We have some guys coming in, but I do not think any of those guys are ready for prime time yet. They have a lot of work to do."

Taking a similar approach to preparing as if your number could be called at any moment this spring is sophomore Juwan Johnson. From teammates to coaches, there was simply no denying the type of spring season Johnson has put together, often picked as the top breakout guy this offseason. 

"He's showing that he can play at the highest level and he's doing a great job - and lucky for me, he's one of my best friends and he's an even better person than he is a football player so I'm glad to have that guy on my team," Stevens said. 

For Johnson, the spring success is clearly welcome and earned, but that doesn't mean the work is over. 

"I still have a lot of things to work on," Johnson said. "Whether it's route running or just catching the ball, I still have a lot of things to work on to get this offense going. I can be proud of what I did this spring, but I still have a lot to work on."

On the opposite side of the ball, Penn State has made significant progress this spring in replacing veteran defensive ends in Garrett Sickels and Evan Schwan.

Among those stepping up, Shareef Miller highlighted team Blue with four stops, adding 3.0 tackles for loss and a team-high 2.0 sacks. Miller joined veteran Torrence Brown, who played in all 14 games last year with four starts. Brown also added one of five sacks coming from the Blue squad.

"There is a good group of guys at that position that are competing and battling, so I'm encouraged by the competition and depth we can have there," defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Brent Pry said. "We still have some work to do to find two guys who can equal the production that Schwan and Sickels had - that [Carl] Nassib and Sickels had last year and even back to C.J. Aloniyan and Deon Barnes before that. Torrence Brown is a veteran guy that we're very excited about."

Among the linebackers, Penn State saw sophomore Jarvis Miller make the move from safety this spring, following along a similar path as junior Koa Farmer, who has made significant strides settling in at the Sam position since he made the move last year.

Miller finished tied for first on the squad with seven stops, including one would-be sack, as the Nittany Lions did not actually bring down quarterbacks. Miller though, was quick to credit Farmer for helping him through a few of the nuances of the transition. 

"We're both fast and the thing about playing linebacker, you have to be physical all the time so being in that physical mindset and just learning how to be a linebacker, because I've never played linebacker before and he didn't either so when I made the flip he just gave me little tips and things to help me out," Miller said.

With spring ball now complete, the work has merely just begun for the Nittany Lions. Drawing from the entire slate of practices, Franklin and the staff will get right to work distributing feedback as the team sets its sights on summer conditioning with training camp looming in the distance.

Regardless of comfort or increasing competition and confidence though, Franklin still noted that he'll remain consistent in his approach to demanding 100 percent effort even long after spring ball, with a clean slate awaiting.

"For us, the way you do not worry about complacency is - this 2017 team has not achieved anything," Franklin said. "This James Franklin has not achieved anything, Saquon Barkley hasn't achieved anything. Those things are in the past. What are we going to do in the present, and what are we going to do moving forward to be the type of program we want to be. I am fired up right now. I am excited."

Reach Arielle at ans26@psu.edu or follow on Twitter @arielle_sargent

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