James Franklin had been hesitant to put his backups in games in the past. He would often wait until his team was up at least four scores in the fourth quarter until bringing in his depth.
That hasn’t been the case this season. Franklin has gotten numerous players extra playing time early in games, especially true freshman quarterback Drew Allar. The former five-star recruit has played in all four games, three of which came with the game in hand. While he’s come in as early as the third quarter, Franklin said the plan was to get him in even sooner during some of those games because of the value it brings.
“His situation is probably a little bit different because he just hasn’t played college football as much,” Franklin said Tuesday during his weekly press conference. “But the more experience that we can gain and allow those guys to get, the better we are. ... There’s a ton of value in that.”
The plan to get Allar in during the first half may not have worked out so far, but there still might be a chance to do it again. The Nittany Lions take on Northwestern this weekend, a 1-3 team that is dealing with its own turmoil during a three-game losing streak. Franklin said ideally the team would like to get players in early in the game, but said the team has a lot of respect for the Wildcats and the ultimate goal is still to go 1-0 this week.
While the plan for Allar may not have been set yet, the team should still be able to rotate in plenty of youth. Franklin said the decision to do that has plenty of factors involved.
“It’s a combination of things,” Franklin said. “... Most importantly we’re getting the guys in the game a little bit earlier than we had in the past. That is really putting a priority on creating depth. That is based on previous experiences. That is what I think we need to do in 2022 with making sure that as many guys in the locker room feel like they’re getting opportunities. It’s all of that.”
Evaluating Diaz’s defense
Franklin’s marquee addition during the offseason may not have been any of the team’s high profile recruits or transfer portal players. Instead, it might be defensive coordinator Manny Diaz who has continued the team’s strong play on that side of the ball after Brent Pry left the post to become the head coach at Virginia Tech.
Pry often led the Nittany Lion defense with a bend but don’t break mindset that tightened up in the redzone but didn’t do as much when it comes to forcing the issue.
Diaz has taken a different approach in his brief tenure with Penn State.
“I think the guys like and respect him, which is important,” Franklin said. “I think stylistically and visually maybe it looks a little different because of how we played in the past. ... I think our guys are getting more comfortable and more confident each week. I think he’s getting more comfortable and confident each week.”
One of the keys to Diaz’s defense has been the cornerback play. The group, led by Joey Porter Jr. and Kalen King, is one of the best in the country and has routinely made life difficult for opposing wide receivers.
Part of the reason for the strong play by the group is Porter’s ability to lock down whoever lines up across from him. His talent for shutting down opponents has freed things up for the defense in a way that Franklin and the rest of the team hasn’t taken lightly.
“There’s some examples of the team that we show the team and we show the defense of Joey just eliminating a guy in a play that he’s not even an option for the quarterback,” Franklin said. “There’s a ton of value in that. Schematically there’s a ton of value in that. There’s a ton of value in that as a defensive coordinator in maybe what you are able to do to stop the run, that if you didn’t have the confidence in the corners that maybe you were limited in.”
Amor leading special teams
Penn State has benefited from elite punting in recent years, with former Nittany Lions Blake Gillikin and Jordan Stout finding success in the NFL. Now it’s Barney Amor’s turn to lead the way and he’s already doing that for the unit. He doesn’t have the same powerful leg as his predecessors, but Amor’s precision has helped pin opposing offenses deep this season. He’s currently eighth in the nation with 10 punts placed inside the opponent’s 20-yard line.
His production has far more to do with the work he’s put in than the amount of natural talent he possesses.
“Barney is very talented, and I don’t want this to come off the wrong way because I can say this for a lot of guys, I don’t know if he’s the most talented guy in the country,” Franklin said. “But it’s not about just talent. It’s about production, and it’s about your routine and how you go about your business and consistency.”
While Amor has done a lot to make sure the special teams unit is playing at a high level, he still can’t do everything himself. He’s the bright spot in a unit that has struggled this season.
Franklin said that’s an area the team must improve on this season.
“We’ve got to be better in kickoff and we’ve gotta be better in field goal,” he said. “That’s coaching, that’s protection, that’s production in those units as well.”
DE Smith Vilbert remains unavailable for the Nittany Lions, and Franklin said he wants to have a conversation with him to make sure they’re on the same page.
OG Hunter Nourzad didn’t play against Central Michigan due to some bumps and bruises, but could have if necessary. His status is up in the air for the Northwestern game.
Franklin declined to go into detail about the addition of expanded beer sales in Beaver Stadium.