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UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - It's nine practices into Penn State's 2017 spring season and Nittany Lion tight end Mike Gesicki doesn't look back on his late December decision to return to Happy Valley for a final season in the Blue and White with any regret.
Gesicki's decision to remain at Penn State for his senior season came weeks after he helped guide the Nittany Lions to their first Big Ten Championship since 2008 and fourth overall in a gritty comeback win against Wisconsin, and just days before hitting the road for Pasadena, California for the 103rd Rose Bowl Game.
"I obviously saw everything that was happening positively here at Penn State, the future we had coming, and guys coming back, the talent that we had," Gesicki said. "I knew from my personal experience that I had room to improve and things that I had to get better at. To come back to a football team with high expectations and kind of the sky's the limit for us, it made me see that there's no better option than to come back to Penn State and this great university and take full advantage of another year at school before moving forward."
The path to reaching even greater heights in 2017 began in winter workouts, where Gesicki, like others, noted the goal to strengthen not only physical, but mental toughness was at the forefront of setting the tone headed toward spring ball.
For Gesicki, spring ball this year means putting together the pieces from a wildly successful 2016 season.
Gesicki was as a shining example of one of those pieces.
The product of an intense commitment to offseason improvement, including a social media blackout, Gesicki silenced his critics from the start, with the first of a record-setting five touchdown catches by a tight end coming in the very first game of the season.
From an acrobatic one-handed grab against Temple to a timely second-quarter touchdown catch leaping in between a pair of Trojan defenders at the Rose Bowl, Gesicki quickly emerged as one of quarterback Trace McSorley's top targets.
Starting all 14 games, nearly every week featured an eye-popping Gesicki grab, as he climbed to the top of the Penn State record book with 48 receptions and 679 yards, both marks the most for a Nittany Lion tight end all-time and second on the team behind wide receiver Chris Godwin.
Exactly one year later. So much can change. Motivated more now than ever. Penn State Football may be back but still plenty left to build on.-- Ⓜ️G (@mikegesicki) January 4, 2017
"We don't have a team or a game plan to focus on so in a way, you can be selfish and not have to focus on things outside of the program and just focus on us," Gesicki said. "We kind of take these 15 practices to fix the problems and the minor setbacks that we had during the season and make everything click in the spring so when training camp hits and it gets going, we're working at full speed."
For Gesicki spring ball also means stepping into an even larger leadership role than before, as not only a senior, but a leader among his position group too.
"I've become a lot more comfortable in my role on the team so I've been able to step outside of my box, and know what my role is on a specific play or what I have to worry about on that specific play and then be able to go be a vocal leader, to help out guys with their assignment on the play," Gesicki said.
Understanding his role on each play goes much further for Gesicki though, who also pointed out that everyone on the team has approached spring practice with a greater awareness of their own role on the team.
"I think last year guys were trying to find their role, trying to understand a new system with a new offensive coordinator and a new defensive coordinator," Gesicki said. "Now we're a year forward and everybody knows their role and knows their assignment to play fast and play to the best of their ability. I think that's the most exciting thing because that's when the team is going to have the most success, when you know your role and you know your assignment and you're not second guessing yourself or the system and you're buying into what the coaches are preaching on a daily basis and you're playing at the highest level."
Combined with the initiative to make Penn State the most competitive atmosphere in college football, for Gesicki, the level of competition in each spring practice has only continued to rise.
"Every single period is like the national championship game, everybody is going so hard on every single play and showing how important it is for us to get better and to compete with our offense against our defense at such a high level, it's really paying dividends for us and it's really effective," Gesicki said.
With the 2017 on the horizon, Gesicki's decision he made more than three months ago is perhaps now more than ever, one he's excited to see through.
"To kind of sit here and look back from a year ago to where this team is now, we are light years ahead of where we were last year and I think that's going to only show in the season when we're a little more comfortable and there's more continuity and we're a year further in the system," Gesicki said. "I think there are a lot of things to be excited about at Penn State."
Reach Arielle at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow on Twitter @arielle_sargent
PARK, Pa. - Week three of Penn State Football spring practice is nearly
complete with Saturday's practice marking the ninth for the Nittany Lions.
With a bit of a smaller group in 2017, Penn State special teams coordinator and running backs coach Charles Huff noted that although smaller in size, the Nittany Lion specialists have benefited from a year of experience, gaining maturity along the way.
"We played a lot of young guys and if you play young guys and you look at our season, as the season went on, those guys got better and better," Huff said. "They changed their best every day, they came out and competed every day, they set a new standard for themselves each game, each week and it has carried over to the spring."
Huff also noted that while the entire group is progressing well through spring ball, a few Nittany Lion returners are standing out.
"Tyler is doing a great job kind of leading that group kind of taking that workman's approach to the game and practice each day," Huff said.
Joining Davis is punter Blake Gillikin, who burst on to the scene to impress from his very first outing in Beaver Stadium as just the third true freshman to start at punter since 1946. Earning All-Big Ten honorable mention distinction, Gillikin finished third in the conference with a 42.8 punting average to break the freshman single season record, earning ESPN.com true freshman All-America honors.
"Blake has really stepped up," Huff said. "Obviously a year under his belt now, he's feeling better, feeling more comfortable. He's able to kind of correct himself immediately. He does a good job with the younger guys. Right now we have some younger guys who are battling with him holding-wise, Billy Fessler and Danny Pasquariello - a smaller group, a lot more mature but making progress."
PARK, Pa. - Midway through the third week of spring ball, Penn State is headed directly
toward its final stretch of spring practices gearing up for Blue-White weekend.
As the Nittany Lions quickly approach the end of the spring season, continue
catching up with the staff for a closer look at a few top performers.
In the fifth release, Penn State offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Joe Moorhead checks in for a quick look at the Nittany Lion offense. In a second season of the newly installed offensive system, Moorhead noted that although Penn State has gained confidence from last year's success, there's still work to be done.
"I think a big focus of the spring is improving our fundamentals and technique gaining a greater knowledge of our scheme and executing," Moorhead said.
Following a 2016 season that brought one of the most exciting offenses for the Nittany Lions, Moorhead selected a few standout performers, naming quarterback Tommy Stevens, running back Johnathan Thomas, tight end Jonathan Holland, offensive lineman Michal Menet and receivers Juwan Johnson and Brandon Polk, just to name a few.
Penn State's annual Blue-White Game is set for Saturday, April 22 at 3 p.m. in Beaver Stadium.
Reach Arielle at email@example.com or follow on Twitter @arielle_sargent
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - With eight of 14 spring practices now complete, Penn State hosted its second media availability session of the spring season Wednesday evening at the Lasch Football Building. Along with head coach James Franklin, linebacker Jason Cabinda and offensive lineman Ryan Bates all took time to meet with members of the media.
Spring Ball Mindset -
As the Nittany Lions continue to grind through each spring practice, Cabinda noted the Nittany Lions are playing pretty fast in comparison to a year ago, with confidence driving the mindset.
"We're more of a veteran team now we have a lot of guys who have a lot of experience," Cabinda said. "We're coming off the sidelines and its non-stop talking and guys consistently saying 'hey, you need to to do this better,' or talking about what happened on the field, what mistakes might have happened. When you see that and guys are really trying their hardest to be right all the time, you can tell how much guys care about being right and playing well, we're getting a lot out of practice right now so we're really pleased with that."
Miranda Making His Mark -
As Franklin noted last week, often spring ball presents a time for the staff to get to know a little bit more about what type of player an individual is through what he shows on the field in the short series of practices. This week, Franklin noted he's pleased with what he's seeing from one of four Nittany Lion early enrollees.
"A guy who I think has done a really nice job for only being on campus for a few months is [Mike] Miranda," Franklin said. "He's taking a bunch of reps right now really with the ones and he's doing a great job, and I've been pleased with him."
Bates has also taken note of the impressive maturity in such a short adjustment period.
"It's definitely difficult being the position that he is in coming from high school, he should still be in high school really, but he's progressing really well so far," Bates said. "If you ask any of the offensive linemen, it's a developmental position and right now he's putting up a good fight and he's doing really well against some of the older guys on the defensive line in one-on-ones and in team periods."
Cabinda Making Changes -
Franklin noted that Cabinda has only benefited from trimming down his weight, with a noticeable increase in speed as the byproduct of dedication to nutrition and time in the weight room. Up in the mid 250's at his highest weight in his sophomore year, Cabinda noted that he's now keeping his weight below 235 for optimal performance.
"I just felt that if I had my weight down and play fast, that I wouldn't really lose my physicality because physicality means more than mindset really," Cabinda said. "It has been going well, I really love the way I'm playing and how I'm moving."
A Complete Mauler -
Bates also had high praise for the progress of offensive lineman Steven Gonzalez, calling Gonzalez the strongest Nittany Lion on both the offensive and defensive line in the weight room.
"Steve came into the class with me, he was actually my roommate freshman year, so we're close," Bates said. "He's a 465-pound bencher, 600-pound squatter and in the run game just a complete mauler. He's a good person to have on the offensive line.
Gonzalez played in 11 games for the Nittany Lions in 2016, making three starts, making his first start in the road win at Rutgers.
Farmer Stepping Up -
Since making the move from safety to linebacker last year, Koa Farmer has continued to step up and make progress learning the position, with Cabinda taking note.
"I think he's really growing into the Sam position," Cabinda said. "He's playing with knee bend, playing with his shoulders rolled over, all those things. It's not necessarily easy going from safety to linebacker, you have to adjust to the physicality of the game at linebacker. His box play has improved the most, his drops, his depth in his drops, he's really understanding the defense at the sam position so he's really coming into his own."
Reach Arielle at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow on Twitter @arielle_sargent
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - It has been a little more than three months since Penn State Football's captivating Big Ten Championship season came to a close in a gripping, record-setting Rose Bowl appearance.
It was that night in Pasadena, California that quarterback Trace McSorley noted all of the emotion, the pain, and the uncomfortable pang of a pit in the stomach, would need to become the catalyst to the motivation for what's next in 2017.
Now in the heat of the grind of spring practice, the Nittany Lions have certainly not forgotten the feeling although set on a different ending in 2017.
"All the hard work that we put in throughout the year going through everything, getting to the Big Ten Championship and the extra weeks in practices and games, we put in a ton of work last offseason to get to the Rose Bowl," McSorley said. "To have it end the way it did, it hurt, but it was one of those things where you end up using it as motivation, knowing the work that we did last year got us to this point and we fell short, so we need to exceed that going into this year," McSorley said.
Headed into winter conditioning, for McSorley, there wasn't much of a shift in format, but rather a noticeable change in where the source of the energy was coming from.
"There's a lot of leadership on guys like Saquon [Barkley], Jason [Cabinda], DaeSean [Hamilton], a lot of older guys and some of the captains and together we've been talking and really trying to make sure we're pushing people," McSorley said. "We know the level and the standard, how we're expected to work and the level of work ethic we need to have at each workout and we just try to push everybody past their limit, especially going into those winter workouts."
For McSorley, rather than the coaching staff driving the intensity and encouragement, it was up to the Nittany Lions to lead by example, bringing teammates to along too when it comes to exceeding expectations.
"There's going to be a point in each workout where each person is going to hit a wall and it's helping your teammates push through that wall, finding that point where they think they don't have more and then realizing they actually do have a lot more left in them," McSorley said.
With winter workouts well complete, it's not even remotely surprising that the drive to compete at a whole new level was a main takeaway headed into spring practice.
Just before kicking off the first day of spring practice, McSorley, Cabinda and Nick Scott were all selected as team captains on March 22. For McSorley, one of the highest honors in sports.
"It's really your teammates who believe that you're the guy they want to look toward when times are tough and times are good," McSorley said. "When you look back at all the captains who have been at Penn State, it's a pretty special group of people who have been a captain here."
Since earning the starting job last training camp, McSorley not only inspired, but brought out the best in those around him on the field, often in an exciting and thrilling fashion, having stepped into a new offensive system under offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead.
Following the 2016 season, McSorley etched his name all over not just the Nittany Lion record books, but Big Ten Championship and Rose Bowl record books along the way.
Among 31 school records either matched or broken in 2016, McSorley set 12 of them individually, playing a major role in an additional five all-time team performances.
Averaging 258.1 passing yards per game and a stunning 16.1 yards per completion (which also finished first nationally among FBS programs), McSorley threw for a record-setting 3,614 yards in 2016 with a record 29 passing touchdowns as one of just three Nittany Lion quarterbacks to throw fro more than 3,000 yards in a single season. Helped out by an All-American running back in Barkley, Penn State closed out the year as one of 11 FBS teams with a 3,500-yard passer and a 1,000-yard rusher.
Headed into year two in the offensive system engineered by Moorhead, along with McSorley, Penn State returns a tremendous amount of its supporting cast from one of the highest scoring offenses in program history.
"We're a lot more confident," McSorley said. "From the quarterback position, just watching our footwork from last spring to this spring, you can tell that we know what's going on and if a quarterback is unsure about what's going on you can kind of see in his feet that he looks uncomfortable."
Outside of quarterbacks though, McSorley noted that the Nittany Lions have gained confidence across the board.
"We've been able take what we installed last spring, grow it in fall camp and throughout the season last year, and now refine it this spring," McSorley said. "I think it's been one of the best things we've been able to do, to understand what we did best last season, what we needed to improve on, how we can continue to get better, the things we're good on and really taking strides to get better."
For McSorley that means perhaps locking in on an emerging receiver to take the place of the clutch consistency of Chris Godwin, while also continuing to see progress from an explosive group of running backs, punctuated by the endless highlight-reel worthy performances from Barkley. Add in returning tight end Mike Gesicki and the options are stacked with experienced potential.
McSorley is also confident in the continued strides of the Nittany Lion offense line, with four of five starters returning and Connor McGovern making progress at filling the vacant center role left behind by Brian Gaia.
"He has done a great job, having experience on the offensive line last year, he knows the plays, he knows how we're getting combos and working toward things and I think he'll get more and more comfortable conducting the offensive line from the center as he gets used to playing the position," McSorley said.
Perhaps the byproduct of a season marked with such striking success though, is the increase in the level of competition, even seven practices in to a 14-practice spring schedule.
"This middle portion is usually where a lot of people lose some energy but we've really kept the energy high and I think a lot of that has been that we have a lot of competition in practice and our guys thrive off of that," McSorley said.
With ongoing battles both on offense and defense each practice, that's exactly the type of atmosphere the Nittany Lions have set out to continue building.
"Offense and defense both are competing all the time we're trying to build one of the most competitive atmospheres in all of college football, just in practice," McSorley said. "So if we can build that and have great competition each day, that will only help us get better. Competition kind of brings out the best in everybody no matter what it is."
Reach Arielle at email@example.com or follow on Twitter @arielle_sargent
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - Penn State has reached the midpoint of spring ball, set for practice No. 7 of 14 Monday at the Lasch Football Building. As the Nittany Lions head deeper into the practice schedule, continue catching up with the Penn State staff for a closer look at who's exceeding expectations.
In the fourth release, Penn State defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Brent Pry checks in with a closer look at the Nittany Lion linebackers.
Led by senior captain Jason Cabinda, Penn State's talented group of linebackers will look to replace the natural playmaking ability of senior Brandon Bell heading into to the 2017 season.
As James Franklin noted during his spring ball press conference though, he and the staff are confident in both the two and three-deep, with some exciting new players emerging from the battle-tested group.
"Obviously Jason Cabinda is a guy we're super excited about," Pry said. "He's a guy who has proven himself on the battlefield and works like crazy, one of our best workers with no complacency and working to improve his weaknesses."
Aside from Cabinda, Pry also noted veterans Manny Bowen and Koa Farmer are among a few more top performers to date.
"I'm excited about Manny Bowen and what he's doing this spring," Pry said. "He has grown into the Will linebacker position well, and Koa Farmer too, I'm looking forward to what he's at Sam, he's doing a nice job learning the position and growing as a linebacker."
Farmer made the move from safety to linebacker early on in the season, playing in all 14 games with a pair of starts. He finished out the season with 4.5 tackles for loss and three sacks, including a key fourth-quarter sack in the Big Ten Championship game against Wisconsin. Bringing versatility at the position, Bowen started 12 of 13 games he played in, registering 68 stops, including two sacks and 9.0 tackles for loss.
Reach Arielle at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow on Twitter @arielle_sargent
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - Week two of Penn State spring practice is nearly complete, with the Nittany Lions steadily approaching the midpoint of the five-week spring season. With each passing practice, continue moving position by position with the Penn State staff for insight on a few Nittany Lion top performers.
In the third release, catch up with Nittany Lion wide receivers coach Josh Gattis for a closer look at Penn State's intriguing group of wide receivers.
With standout Chris Godwin electing for forgo a final season of eligibility with the Nittany Lions to declare for the NFL Draft, Penn State will only reload, equipped with an already exciting group at a wide receiver position that's stacked with potential.
As head coach James Franklin noted during his spring press conference, last year's ideal situation brought exciting depth, with consistency, confidence and anticipation all around from starters through the third team.
With veterans in DaeSean Hamilton, DeAndre Thompkins and Saeed Blacknall returning, Penn State also saw flashes from returners Juwan Johnson and Irvin Charles. Both Johnson and Charles played in all 14 games, with Charles' game changing 80-yard touchdown grab in the third quarter of the thrilling overtime win against Minnesota.
"We're practicing like a different team right now, just to be able to carry the confidence from last year over to this year, guys are playing faster," Gattis said. "It's year two in our offensive system, it's year two in our defensive system under Coach Pry and guys are playing with so much more confidence, we look like a really, really competitive team, our depth across the board is even."
Gattis also noted that Johnson has the potential to be making some key plays for the Nittany Lions come September, making him the top performer pick."We've had a great start to spring practice, the guys are developing, but specifically I think Juwan Johnson is having an unbelievable spring camp," Gattis said. "He has really improved a lot, and when you talk about most improved players on the team, he's one of those guys who comes to mind."
By Arielle Sargent, GoPSUSports.com
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - On the fifth day of Penn State Football spring practice, the Nittany Lions hosted their first media availability. Head coach James Franklin, safety Marcus Allen and running back Saquon Barkley all took time for a question and answer session following practice at the Lasch Football Building.
A Little More on The Captains -
Penn State named senior Jason Cabinda and juniors Trace McSorley and Nick Scott 2017 team captains following a vote from coaches and teammates. As Franklin noted, typically there's a pre-spring ball vote as well as a training camp vote, with the team this year opting to name captains the trio captains on March 22 with all three coming in with a high number of votes. That might not be all when it comes to captains though.
"I think as you guys know, I would like, we didn't do it last year but I would like to have two on offense, two on defense and two on special teams, so that still gives us an opportunity between now and two weeks into camp for somebody else to kind of step up as well," Franklin said. "So we be in a situation where we have two on each side of the ball."
Monroe Maturing -
With an opening at safety due to the graduation of Malik Golden, Ayron Monroe is among a group competing for the spot, and his coaches and teammates are taking notice.
"Ayron's been really good, he's so much more mature and so much more confident in what we do and how we do things," Franklin said.
Allen has also taken note, also taking on some added responsibility to help guide Monroe in a few areas outside the practice field.
"I try to guide him on off the field things, just to be that guy inside the film room to get extra film, extra work and just have him under my wing," Allen said. "As far as his athleticism, it's crazy, he's very good, he's a freak."
Scott Doing His Thing -
Franklin also noted that in the safety battle, Scott has had just about as good of an offseason as anyone on the team. For Allen, Scott's success is a result of a commitment to the little things.
"He's always in there getting extra work, he's with me 24/7 even if I'm not in there, he's in there by himself," Allen said. "He's an athlete, he can run, he can jump out of the gym, he's very elusive as far as when he as the ball in his hands and Nick's just doing his thing right now."
Saquon Barkley Adding More Leadership
While already emerging as a leader, spring practice has only given Barkley more of an opportunity to refine leadership skills and work toward mentoring others.
"Coach JoeMo just kind of told us that the great teams have players that are able to coach other players are and players who are willing to be coached," Barkley said. "So I just try to take the knowledge that I have from the two years I have been playing and not only from myself, but kind guys who have experience and especially people coming from defense to offense or people who are going through their first spring ball and try to give them advice and try to teach them what to do on this play or the little things you can do to take a negative and make it a positive."
Competition at Running Back -
Having the ability to take time to fill more of a coach-like role, Barkley noted that all of the running backs are currently competing at a high level.
"Everyone is trying to show Coach Huff and show Coach Franklin that they can be that guy so everyone is pushing each other," Barkley said. "Mark [Allen] might rip off a 20-yard run and two or three plays later Andre [Robinson] and Miles [Sanders] and JT [Johnathan Thomas] and all those guys - the room is so competitive. The love that we have each other is just so impressive to see how we go from being brothers and best friends to when we're on the field, we're trying to make sure this guy doesn't get this extra rep or something like that."
From the group, Barkley noted he has seen Robinson take on a good feel for the inside zone with shifty speed from Allen and explosive play from Sanders, with Thomas working through the transition from defense to offense.
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