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Spring Ball Top Performers: Offensive Line

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UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - Penn State's top performers series is continuing along, taking a closer look at the Nittany Lion offensive line with Matt Limegrover.

The countdown to the Blue-White game has reached single digits as less than 10 days separate Penn State from its brief return to Beaver Stadium before the fall season.

On a conference call earlier this week it was junior Connor McGovern who said he believes this year will be the year of the offensive line. Equipped with both depth and experience, the Nittany Lions have a strong collection of options at all five starting spots, most of which who have started.

It's this situation though that creates something unique this spring from Limegrover - competition.

"I think one of the things that has been real beneficial this spring is there's tremendous competition so you have a lot of guys who have played a lot of football that are in there," Limegrover said. "You also have a young group of guys who have been highly touted who have kind of grown into their roles."

Among the returners are fully healthy Ryan Bates and consistent performers in Steven Gonzalez and Connor McGovern, who has settled right into the starting role at center for the Nittany Lions.

"Ryan Bates is another guy, he had a pretty significant injury against Ohio State last year," Limegrover said. "Even when he had a chance last year against Washington in the bowl game, he wasn't quite 100 percent. He came in and gave us some good reps but he's healthy again and out doing a great job."

Emerging from the younger group is Michal Menet, who Limegrover noted is at full strength, along with CJ Thorpe, who has started to step forward.

"CJ Thorpe is a young guy who has really started to show up," Limegrover said. "He's starting to put a lot of good technique together with his demeanor, which we really like having in the room. He's kind of got a little chip on his shoulder, which makes a difference."

It's the competition though that's driving the expectation, pushing the Nittany Lions toward a whole different level this spring, with Limegrover noting he's no longer handcuffed by having to do things a certain way. 

"We've had some variety," Limegrover said. "Some of these guys have been playing two or three different positions, playing at tackle, both sides, the guards and centers. I'm trying to get as many guys as I can to snap the football so we have options at center, at guard."

Even with the moves along the line, there's still a feeling within the group that nothing is given.

"They come out here and there's not a lot of messing around," Limegrover said. "They know that if they have an off day or if they are not on top of their game, they are going to fall behind and nobody wants that right now. That depth chart is really crowded."

Spring Ball Top Performers: Defensive Line

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UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - Penn State's top performers series returns for another position-by-position look inside spring practice. For Nittany Lion associate head coach Sean Spencer, Penn State's defensive line is once again reloading following the departure of several veteran leaders.

"We have a model here, it's reload and we're not going to rebuild, we're going to reload," Spencer said. "It's a mindset that we try to create with the guys, it's the next man up mentality."

As Penn State head coach James Franklin noted in his midweek media session Wednesday, Penn State is in good position at defensive end, but has some progress to make when it comes to developing youth a defensive tackle.

Standing out in the group of developing defensive tackles though, Spencer was quick to point to the progress of Kevin Givens, calling him one of the most versatile Nittany Lions he has seen since current Detroit Lions defensive lineman Anthony Zettel. 

"We can play him at three technique, we can play him at nose guard, we can play him at defensive end and that's all coming about now in spring practice," Spencer said. "We've played him at multiple positions."

Outside of Givens, Spencer noted redshirt defensive tackles Antonio Shelton and Fred Hansard have also stepped forward in spring practice.

"A guy like Antonio Shelton, he's learning how to take the weight room to the field," Spencer said. "He's a 312-pound guy, he's big, he can move, he's pretty, athletic, fast in trenches and he has taken that from the weight room to the field and we're really excited about his progress."

In yesterday's media session defensive end Ryan Buchholz also pointed to the progress Shelton and Hansard have both made through 11 of Penn State's 15 spring practices. 

"Fred's been killing it," Buchholz said. "He's a big guy, I think he's like 317 pounds now. Antonio has been working on his speed and his power. Those guys have really been stepping up and I think they'll be seeing the field this year."

VIDEO: A Conversation with Bill O'Brien

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UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - Former Penn State football head coach Bill O'Brien returned to Happy Valley for a spring chalk talk, speaking to hundreds of high school and middle school coaches. 

Before departing, the current Houston Texans head coach took time for an exclusive one-on-one interview back inside the Lasch Building. Listen in on the conversation as O'Brien takes a look back at his time at Penn State and the success it's had since his departure to the NFL.

Spring Practice Update

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UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - Penn State football hosted its weekly media availability at Holuba Hall Wednesday evening. Nittany Lion head coach James Franklin joined running back Miles Sanders and defensive end Ryan Buchholz for a trio of media sessions following spring practice.

For Buchholz, the Blue-White game is exactly the type of outing the Nittany Lions look forward to all offseason. With just four remaining practices, check in for an update on the spring season. 

Franklin on the Defensive Line
Franklin noted there's still room to grow when it comes to filling gaps in production left behind by graduation at defensive tackle. 

"I think obviously we're making progress with some young guys but we have some redshirt freshmen that we're kind of depending on, which is not ideal," Franklin said. "You'd love to have seniors, juniors and maybe a few redshirt sophomores sprinkled in, in the two deep but there's obviously a lot of teams across the country who play with redshirt freshmen and we have to be ready to do that as well."

Fortunately, Franklin noted the Nittany Lions are in good shape at defensive end with a mix of athletic veterans as well as younger guys who have transformed their bodies to better compliment the needs of the position.

"There are a lot of guys who have played a lot of football for us, a lot of athleticism, guys who played last year who were undersized, like Shane Simmons who is now over 250 pounds," Franklin said. "I think we're in a pretty good place. We're confident about where we're at, at defensive end. It needs to be a strength of our defense while our defensive tackles grow and mature inside and the same thing at Mike linebacker."

Looking at the Offensive Line
Buchholz noted a clear maturity factor when it comes to the consistent progress the offensive line has made in the offseason. 

"They are older and they are a mature group," Buchholz said. "Even though they did switch around last year, they are definitely good this year. They stepped up a lot."

For Franklin, redshirt Michal Menet is one Nittany Lion who has improved the most, specifically as it relates to fine tuning his fundamentals and technique.

"In high school he was just such a better athlete than everybody," Franklin said. "He's probably had since the end of the season until now, probably as much improvement as anyone in our program. I'm really pleased with him. He is legitimately fighting for a starting job and getting a lot of reps with the ones right now."

Patience Paying Off
With All-American Saquon Barkley's departure to the NFL, there's no doubting the spotlight will turn to running back Miles Sanders. While patiently waiting for his opportunity though, he took a ton from Barkley to help in his development.

"Learning from Saquon, he's a great mentor, he has been a great mentor since I got here so just learning from him and picking little ideas from his brain to be the best player I can be," Sanders said.

As his teammates on the other side of the ball watch him hard at work in spring ball, there's also no doubting Sanders' speed.

"He'll beat you to the spot, he'll beat you around the edge and he'll run right by you," Buchholz said. "It's definitely his speed. Obviously we can't tackle him right now but he definitely has some power in him so it will be different when you can actually tackle him."

Spring Ball Top Performers: Wide Receivers

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UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - The spring ball top performers series is rolling along as new wide receivers coach David Corley weighs in from practice with a closer look at the group.

Led by returning leaders in veterans Juwan Johnson and DeAndre Thompkins, the Nittany Lions have made productive strides on the field this spring.

"Those two guys have played a lot of football here for us and you can just see their experience kind of come through as they talk to different guys in the room and help guys along," Corley said.

Among the group though, sophomore KJ Hamler has been perhaps the talk of spring ball with coaches and teammates all praising his development.

"We had some scrimmage work this past Friday and had a red zone play and KJ did a great job getting free from the man to man coverage," Corley said. "The ball was kind of thrown a little bit behind him but a great, great adjustment and he reached behind him, back shoulder catch and scored a touchdown."

It's plays like these that have Penn State head coach James Franklin naming him the buzz of spring ball and veteran teammates like Brandon Polk enjoying every minute of watching him on the field.

"KJ has been having a really good spring just creating explosive plays," Polk said. "He's blocking, he's doing everything the coaches are asking him to do. He's doing it and he's always going out there giving 100 percent. I don't think I've ever seen him go out there jogging or slacking. He's out there saying basically, I want this job."

With Hamler working primarily in the slot this spring, Polk also noted that Hamler has grown tremendously off the field, coming in with a better understanding of different defenses in addition to routes, utilizing unique speed to his advantage.

Nearly two weeks ago Thompkins also praised some of Hamler's intangibles, noting his ability to take coaching and put it into action. 

"KJ right now is just on fire, seeing him behind me and me mentoring him, he's taking every little piece of knowledge and soaking it up," Thompkins said.

Outside of Hamler, Corley noted two-sport student-athlete Mac Hippenhammer has also shown flashes this spring, with really the entire group working at a high level. 

"Our entire group is really working hard so far this spring, really giving great effort and doing the things we ask them to do," Corley said. 

Sanders Stepping Forward

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UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - From the overhang above the Penn State football weight room, Miles Sanders was quietly at work while a huddled group of reporters swarmed assistant athletics director for performance enhancement, Dwight Galt. 

It was max out day in late February as one inquiring reporter gestured up toward Sanders and asked Galt where the now junior running back had grown the most. His answer? Leadership.

"Miles is a stud," Galt said. "This kid is a special kid and we feel very good about what Miles Sanders brings on the football field but especially off the field."

At the Fiesta Bowl All-American teammate Saquon Barkley told Sanders to save a few records, some of which he quickly noted were crazy. That hardly slowed Sanders' stride.

"I'm taking it one step at a time, starting after the Fiesta Bowl we came back and it was winter workouts," Sanders said.

Among his winter objectives, keeping his body weight consistent was a top priority, with the intention to put on more muscle and decrease body fat.

Now at 211 pounds solid, Sanders noted he's down to just eight percent body fat.

After weight lifting sessions, Sanders started working out with quarterback Trace McSorley.

"We lifted on Monday, Wednesday and Friday's," Sanders said. "After every lift me, Trace, the other running backs and Juwan [Johnson], DeAndre [Thompkins] and the rest of the receivers, we would stay after and throw in Holuba. Just trying to get that connection down."

That connection of course leads into another one of Sanders' offseason objectives, improvement in the pass game. 

"That's what made Saquon great," Sanders said. "He wasn't just a running back, he actually could catch the ball out of the back field and a lot of the great backs in the NFL, they do both. That's the biggest thing I'm working on right now."

There are many things Sanders took from Barkley, but the greatest thing though, came in his tireless work ethic.

"He's a very competitive dude but his work ethic stood out to me the most," Sanders said.
He doesn't leave until he feels like he got enough work."

Sanders is no stranger to extra work, noting just days before the Fiesta Bowl that the humbling experiences of his freshman year only gave way to a different type of offseason training, one devoted to developing the mental side of his game to better shape his body language.

Deep down, Sanders knew he wasn't ready his freshman year, but 2017 brought an even tougher challenge. Sanders played in 12 games in 2017, averaging 6.2 yard per carry on 31 attempts.

"Last year it was harder to just be more patient," Sanders said.

With Barkley and Sanders alternating possessions, the Fiesta Bowl was perhaps a glimpse of what his teammates knew he could do the moment his number was called.

Sanders carried the ball six times for 15 yards and one touchdown in the 35-28 victory against No. 12 Washington. He added on one catch for four yards and returned four kickoffs for 56 yards.

Step two, spring ball. 

Sanders can exactly remember his first start at Woodland Hills High School in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Playing varsity in ninth grade, Sanders bypassed the typical year on the freshman team,

"The actual starter, he transferred to another school and the other back up, he was sitting out for school reasons and so they said, you're up," Sanders said. "I was like, alright, and I'm a freshman, I'm 160 pounds and I'm about to play a varsity football game."

The 2015 Mr. PA Football honoree who would soon be rated the top running back in the nation by Rivals, Scout and 247Sports called it an awful outing, but that didn't last for long.  

"I did terrible my first game but that kind of started everything," Sanders said.

The thing about high school Miles Sanders, is that he wasn't really a vocal leader. The second greatest thing he learned from Barkley though, was leadership.

"The main thing I'm trying to do more this year is be more vocal and be more involved in getting everybody going. That's the effect Saquon had on everybody. Once he got going, everybody else got going. That's the effect I'm trying to have on everybody."

As Galt also mentioned back in February, the running back culture has always been one of the best on the team for the Nittany Lions culture-wise.

"Our room is very, very competitive and we make each other better," Sanders said. "Every practice we go out there and we make each other better. We have a standard. The whole team has a standard, the whole offense has a standard but the running backs we also have a standard."

In spring ball, that standard is evident in the expectations.

"Like in practice, once we're doing everything right and not missing assignments, knowing what to do, that's how we get the offense going," Sanders said. "We believe that we get the offense going."

With a certain noticeable brightness about him, Sanders noted the circumstances are obviously different this spring.

"Saquon is not here anymore so it gives me and the other running backs the opportunity to play more and actually show everybody what we can do," Sanders said. "We've been sitting behind Saquon for three years, including me, Mark [Allen] and JT [Johnathan Thomas]. Journey [Brown] got here last year. We're all excited and we've been having a great spring ball so far." 

Leading that group though is Sanders, who noted it's no longer about a few reps with the ones, but being the first back in on a consistent basis - just like Saquon. 

"I'm just getting used to getting out of that backup role and back into that leadership role like I was in high school," Sanders said.

Sure there's pressure, but Sanders pays no mind to it, knowing he'll just take it one step at a time and try to get better for the team.

"I've been patient for so long so it will feel right for it to be the year that I show everybody what I can do."

Spring Ball Top Performers: Tight Ends

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UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - Penn State's top performers series is back again checking in with Nittany Lion tight ends coach Tyler Bowen.

It's clear Penn State has a sizeable gap at the position when considering the departure of All-Big Ten first team selection Mike Gesicki. For Bowen though, the standard doesn't change regardless of who has departed and who returns.

"We talk about all the time, we want to compete at a standard in this program and this group is going to live up to that standard," Bowen said. "As a group, we're going to find guys who are going to reach that standard and I think they have really embraced that and really brought a good mindset into spring practice." 

Among the Nittany Lions new to the group, early enrollee Zack Kuntz has already impressed Bowen with his transition to the collegiate game.

"Zack's really coming along for a guy who should be in high school right now," Bowen said.
He's doing a really nice job of acclimating to what we do with the tempo of practice and everything. Somethings are new to him but he's doing a nice job acclimating."

Earlier this week Penn State head coach James Franklin noted that while Kuntz is pretty far along in the passing game, he still has progress to make in the run game.

"It's a little bit probably like when Mike Gesicki got here and never blocked and had never really been in a three-point stance and never been attached to the tackle," Franklin said.

For Franklin, unlike Gesicki, the Nittany Lions will have time for Kuntz to develop with the increase in numbers and depth.

"Now, we're in a situation where almost at every position, if guys are going to contribute early, it's because they have earned it and beat people out at every position," Franklin said. "He's getting stronger, he's getting more confident, he's a really good kid, he learns well."

Outside of Kuntz, Bowen noted redshirt Danny Dalton has extended the progress he made in winter workouts on through the spring.

"Danny really, right now, he's carrying over what he started in the winter and taking it into spring ball with his effort his attention to detail and really finishing in everything he does," Bowen said.

Spring Practice Update

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UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - Penn State football hosted its second media availability following spring practice at Holuba Hall Wednesday evening. Penn State head coach James Franklin joined quarterback Trace McSorley and cornerback John Reid for three separate sessions.

Check in with all three Nittany Lion for a closer look at the spring ball progress.

Competition at Safety
Franklin noted he and the staff likely won't make decisions until camp, but there's clear competition at safety for the Nittany Lions. With open departures due to graduation, Franklin did note that among the group vying for the spot, if Penn State were to play Saturday, Nick Scott and Garrett Taylor would earn the starting nod. 

For McSorley, the longtime leader on special teams is part of a group of safeties flying around on the field giving the offense a variety of looks.

"Nick's back there, he's always trying to disguise and show us different looks," McSorley said. "His athleticism, he can be shown one thing and then the next second he's flying across the field because he's got that speed, athleticism and range to be able to cover that."

For Franklin, alongside Scott, Taylor has clearly distinguished himself among the highly competitive group, helped out by uptick in confidence.

"He's gotten stronger, more explosive, he's gotten faster and he's a veteran guy," Franklin said. "He's a very mature guy, he has approached this the right way since he stepped on campus." 

As Franklin also pointed out, there's plenty of examples of Nittany Lions sticking to the right approach before eventually earning their way into a starting spot.

"As you guys have seen at multiple positions, but specifically safety, we've had guys who have stepped into that role, starting with Malik [Golden] and then obviously last year with [Troy] Apke, guys that maybe didn't have prominent roles but kept the right attitude and approach and then when their time came they were ready," Franklin said.

Back and Better Than Ever
Coming off an injury that sidelined him last year, Reid noted he feels better than he ever has, sticking to his robust rehab plan to continue ensuring a smooth recovery. While out for the season Reid didn't check out, instead opting to stay as engaged as possible. It's no secret Reid has a passion for film, but the year on the sideline gave him an even different perspective. 

"I think one of the biggest things was, this year I was in the headset so you kind of know the reasons they are calling certain plays," Reid said. "Actually being able to hear it from the coaches on the headset, what they are thinking in the heat of the game, I thought was really cool, it was important."

Reid also continued to travel with the team to road games, a decision Franklin noted was one both the team and staff were all in favor of.

"We felt as coaches, him traveling and being around the guys, and his intelligence and his knowledge and experience, that was valuable," Franklin said. "The players wanted that and the coaches wanted that. I think it also helped keep him engaged because as much as you tell guys to stay locked in, when you're not traveling and you're not on the sideline, it's difficult."

A Bright Spot for the Offense
McSorley was quick to note the Nittany Lions are in a bright situation when it comes to the offensive line, an area he's excited for when it comes to looking at the offense from a broader view.

"They are getting great movement," McSorley said. "It's one of those positions where you get four or five guys who have worked together for a couple years now, that chemistry amongst them, just like chemistry with quarterbacks and receivers, they understand how they work together and how to combo the linebackers and slide in pass protection and what have you."

With an offensive line complete with six or seven with starting experience, McSorley also noted he's pleased with a "young hunger" a few of the newer Nittany Lions have brought along the way.

Spring Ball Top Performers: Specialists

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UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - The spring ball top performers series has returned, with a position-by-position snapshot of who's standing out and exceeding expectations for the Nittany Lions.

With each passing practice, hear from a different assistant coach for a closer look as Penn State heads toward its annual Blue-White spring game. Up first, Penn State special teams coordinator Phil Galiano checks in for a look at the specialists.

As early as Penn State head coach James Franklin's first spring ball press conference, he named identifying a field goal kicker and kickoff specialist as a top priority given the graduation of senior Tyler Davis.

Among the Nittany Lions with an opportunity to compete for the job this spring, Franklin named sophomore Carson Landis, who Galiano said is doing a bit of everything for the Nittany Lions right now.

"Carson Landis is a guy who is very valuable for us right now, doing really all three," Galiano said. "He's doing field goal, kickoffs and punts and working extremely hard for us. He's coming to work every day. He's working extra and we're asking a lot of him right now. We're asking him to be a field goal guy, to also be a kickoff guy and then to also be our backup punter."

The specialists are of course led by a consistent veteran in Blake Gillikin, who has only continued to build on yet another strong season as the leader of the group.

"Obviously Blake Gillikin is a phenomenal player and it's really been all winter in the winter conditioning and now that he has been here punting for us, and really doing a heck of a job," Galiano said.

Among an excellent battle for the snappers, Galiano also noted Kyle Vasey has continued to stand out for the Nittany Lions since starting all 13 games at long snapper last year.

"Kyle's been a very solid player for us the past couple of years," Galiano said. "He's really working extremely hard, was one of the leaders during winter condition and so far this spring snapping the ball for us and doing a good job."

Spring Practice Update

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UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - Penn State football hosted its first weekly media availably of the spring season Wednesday evening at Holuba Hall.

The Nittany Lions are well underway in the spring season, all leading up to the annual Blue White spring game set for Saturday, April 21st inside Beaver Stadium.

Check in with Penn State head coach James Franklin and the Nittany Lions for a closer look at the earliest update from the spring season.

The Buzz of Camp
Last year it was Juwan Johnson who was impressing during spring ball and this year, Franklin noted it's wide receiver KJ Hamler who has commanded the buzz from his coaches and teammates. 

"He's just so quick and so fast," Franklin said. "Usually you get a guy that's really fast or really quick and he's both. He's still not as efficient with his movement as he needs to be but he's an exciting prospect."

Also developing well for the Nittany Lions is wide receiver Mac Hippenhammer, who is also splitting time on the baseball roster.

"Mac Hippenhammer is one of the more natural football players that we have, even last year when he was redshirting on scout team and special teams, you'd watch him do things and it just came natural to him," Franklin said. "I think the baseball experience has been good for him, his confidence is built with that. He did really good academically. That was part of the requirement, we said if you're going to play baseball then you have to do really well academically because that's a lot on your plate and he did." 

Stevens is Staying
During the offseason quarterback Tommy Stevens did take time to check out other programs considering a possible transfer. As Stevens revealed Wednesday though, he's staying right in Happy Valley. 

"I love Penn State," Stevens said. "I love the relationships I have here and I love playing football with my best friends."

During the decision making process Stevens noted his parents were very supportive throughout the process, keeping an open mind the entire way. Stevens made the decision recently and told his teammates today that he'd be staying at Penn State.

"I wanted them to hear it first," Stevens said. "Of course, I live with guys on the team and I wanted them to hear it first so I told them hey, this is what I'm going to do."

Farmer Taking on a Leadership Role
Penn State linebacker Koa Farmer obviously knows the ins and outs of the safety position alongside Sam linebacker, but this year he'd like to continue adding to his skillset. Interchangeable is the word Farmer used, noting he's working on learning Mike and Will linebacker positions to ensure he's ready for any situation where he might be needed. 

With key defensive departures, Farmer is also embracing more of a leadership role.

"We had Jason [Cabinda], we had Marcus [Allen], we had Grant [Haley]," Farmer said. "They were probably the leaders of our defense last year and those guys are done and it's my time this year. Being more of a leader, being more vocal, getting the energy up in practice. I can't keep it to myself in practice."

New Leader in the Room
It's been a new transition for DeAndre Thompkins and the rest of the Nittany Lion wide receivers adjusting to a new position coach. At this point in the season, there's nothing but love in the room for the new leader of the wide receivers. 

"Coach [Corley], he's cool," Thompkins said. "He's laid back, he's one of those guys who understands the game of football and he has a special way of teaching it to his players." 

For Thompkins, Corley is of course well respected, but it's also respect that's a big thing for the Nittany Lion wide receivers coach.

"He's of those guys where he can crack a joke but he can also get on you if he needs to," Thompkins said.

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