Promising Penn State closes out spring with Blue-White Game

While Penn State turned a corner in 2016, it does not necessarily follow that the Nittany Lions have found a patch of straightaway.

Not when you consider their division -- the Big Ten East, featuring Michigan and Ohio State, is one of college football's best -- and the schedule that lies ahead this fall.

Not when you consider the potential for injury. (And PSU has already had a big one.)

That said, the Lions have just about everybody back from a team that went 11-3, won a conference championship and played in the Rose Bowl in 2016. They have also sorted out some things in the course of spring practice, which wraps up Saturday with the Blue-White Game, a 3 p.m. kickoff in Beaver Stadium. 

And coach James Franklin can only hope that his players were paying attention when he sounded the alarm about complacency at the beginning of spring drills. 

The Langhorne native, 7-6 in each of his first two seasons on the job, talked then about the Lions' not taking things for granted and approaching their business the same way they did last season -- "that we understand that 2016 was nice, and that it was a great experience, but 2017 is a completely different animal."

Time will tell as to whether that message has taken hold, but quarterback Trace McSorley, excellent in his first year as a starter, has told reporters this spring he is still kicking himself over the late interception that set up USC's game-winning field goal in the Arenaball-ish 52-49 Rose Bowl loss to the Trojans. 

And Mike Gesicki, the senior tight end from Manahawkin, N.J., has played the no-respect card, a popular gambit in just about every locker room in America. Specifically, Gesicki told USA Today that standout running back Saquon Barkley didn't receive the notice he deserved last season due to "a lack of respect Penn State gets as a program."

Never mind that Barkley was named Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year after rushing for 1,496 yards and 18 touchdowns in 2016, and catching 28 balls for 402 yards and four scores. Never mind that Barkley and McSorley are both in this year's Heisman conversation.

And never mind that the team has routinely been ranked near the top of various way-too-early polls for '17. That’s Gesicki's story, and he's sticking to it.

"There were moments throughout the season, after we knocked off (then-No. 2) Ohio State (on Oct. 22), we still felt that people weren't favoring us," he said during an April 11 conference call with reporters. "You watch all the shows, sitting in the hotel all day before games and see people knocking you on TV. It's stuff we can't control. We can't control other people's opinions about us and, at the end of the day, I don't think it affects us."

Even if it might seem otherwise.

Suffice it to say, at least, that the Lions still understand there is work to do, still understand they have mountains to climb.

They don't figure to show much Saturday; they never do in the spring's final scrimmage. Stars like McSorley, Barkley and Gesicki will play little, if at all. Ditto for Ryan Bates, the redshirt sophomore left tackle from Archbishop Wood; he excelled at guard and tackle last year, and now looms as the anchor of a unit that has quickly gone from a team weakness to a strength.

Saturday will be more about the emerging guys. Guys like Juwan Johnson, the redshirt sophomore wide receiver from Glassboro, N.J., who has been the talk of spring ball. Guys like defensive ends Shareef Miller and Shaka Toney, Philadelphia natives who played at George Washington and Imhotep Charter, respectively.

It will also be about cornerback Lamont Wade, an early enrollee from Western Pennsylvania who has made a quick impression. Safety/special teams captain Nick Scott said last week that Wade is "killing it at corner right now," and believes he will be "one of those guys that really helps contribute his first year here."

He might have to, seeing as John Reid, the junior corner from St. Joe's Prep, suffered a knee injury early in the spring, as first reported by Lions247.com. He could miss a sizable chunk of the season, if not all of it. Franklin, in keeping with his standing policy, has declined to address Reid's injury.

The coach has acknowledged that senior Christian Campbell is playing Reid's old spot. And Franklin also told reporters that the 5-9, 190-pound Wade is "physically developed," possesses "tremendous confidence" and has shown himself to be a quick study.

"You never know if he's going to hit the wall as installation [of the defensive system] builds up," Franklin said. "But we haven't seen that yet. I think he'll put himself in place with a good foundation and go into the summer with confidence and have a chance to legitimately compete."

As for Johnson, he is the heir apparent to Chris Godwin, who opted for the NFL draft after capping a team-leading 59-catch season with a brilliant nine-grab, 187-yard, two-touchdown performance against USC. The 6-4, 218-pound Johnson redshirted in 2015 and made his first two career catches while playing primarily on special teams last year; his biggest play was a blocked punt in a late-season rout of hapless Rutgers.

"When you talk about the most improved players on the team," receivers coach Josh Gattis told the Big Ten Network on March 31, "he's one of those guys that comes to mind. He's one of the guys that's going to make a lot of plays for us this upcoming season and help us win a lot of games."

Johnson expects as much. Atop his Twitter page is this quote: "Sleep on me if you want to. I'll wake you up soon."

It is from Sept. 19, 2016.

In the meantime, he has had to become more consistent, more attentive to detail. And he has had to be patient.

"I've always been a person that's been -- not looked down on, but [looked at as], 'He's going to be good; we've got to find out when,'" he said earlier this week.

Which is why the tweet in question is one he "harped on when [he] was younger."

"This offseason I kind of focused on that," he said. "Eventually it worked out for the best."

Miller and Toney are both in the mix at defensive end, after the Lions lost last year's starters, Garrett Sickels and Evan Schwan. While PSU recorded 40 sacks in 2016, seven came in the opener against Kent State. The Lions had none in their losses to USC, Michigan and Pitt.

Redshirt junior end Torrence Brown, naturally, believes the pass rush will be better -- that, in fact, he and his linemates are "improving every day" while jousting with the Bates-led O-line.

"If we keep competing with those guys to the best of our abilities," he said earlier this week, "it will translate to the games and we'll be a great pass-rushing line this year."

Just another matter to consider, now that PSU has turned a corner. Next stop, parts unknown.