Penn State

Beat writer Donnie Collins keeps you posted with in-depth analysis and commentary

Parsons relishing leadership role for PSU

It’s ironic, in a way, because he has never been outside the spotlight. Even when he spent his entire true freshman season as a backup and still led the team in tackles. Especially when he was dominating games as a sophomore last season.

Micah Parsons insists he never looked at himself as more than a piece to Penn State’s puzzle, just a kid learning how to play, an eager student following instruction from the veteran players who came before him. Not until now, anyway.

Now, he knows being quite a bit more is going to make 2020 his most challenging season yet. Commanding a stat sheet has never been an issue for Parsons, but as Penn State’s only returning starter at linebacker, he knows he’s going to have to command a room much better.

“It’s going to be completely different,” Penn State’s star junior said during a video conference Monday afternoon. “I went from, ‘God, I’ve never said anything,’ to the guy that probably has to speak up more. I’ve got to go outside of my comfort zone a little bit and speak up more and try to be that guy for younger guys.

“It’s going to be a challenging year for me, but I think it can do nothing but help me grow. It’s a challenge that I’ve got to be willing to accept and a challenge that I’ve got to be willing to grow into to do what we want to do this year.”

The challenge is leadership, and it’s not like Parsons hasn’t had plenty of examples to follow.

He admired the way former walk-on Jan Johnson carried himself the last few seasons, developing into a reliable starter and an improved hand in the middle of the Nittany Lions defense in 2019. He tried to emulate his tenacity in practice, his approach to study in the film room, even his consistency off the field.

That is something Parsons hopes can continue as he becomes the unquestioned leader of a linebacking corps that will see open competition among junior Jesse Luketa, sophomores Ellis Brooks and Brandon Smith, and freshman Lance Dixon. But he has sought other opinions, too. He talked to Cam Brown, who graduated alongside Johnson after last season, and former Penn State star running back Saquon Barkley to get some insight into their approaches to leadership.

It’s not a transition that snuck up on him. Former Nittany Lions quarterback Trace McSorley told him before the 2019 season he’d have to start considering the changes in his approach he’d need to make himself an all-around example for younger players once 2020 rolled around.

ASSOCIATED PRESS FILE
Micah Parsons made 109 tackles and had five sacks for Penn State last season.

 

“I’m just learning how to be that guy that everyone looks up to, and learning what it takes and what do you have to give up to be that guy,” Parsons said. “You have to give up wanting to have fun all the time. You have to be serious and change your approach. Just those types of leadership qualities that you want to see in a person is just kind of important, is how it was explained it to me.”

Still, he is awaiting his chance to assume that role in person.

Parsons is one of the few Penn State scholarship players who was not in State College last week as part of the first phase of the team’s return to campus. He said the coaching staff allowed him to spend one more week at home, where he’ll spend Father’s Day with his dad, Terrence, and young son, Malcolm. Parsons will instead report to voluntary workouts with the second phase of returning players Monday.

Until then, he knows he will have to overcome a challenging transition in his career that happened to fall during a difficult time. He doesn’t plan to be a video-chat leader once he’s in the room.

“We can’t control what happened with this pandemic. You can’t control what’s been going on in the world right now,” Parsons said. “But we can control how we come back after this pandemic and how we move forward. We’re going to get better from it.”

Four former Lions on ’21 College HOF ballot

Four former Lions on ’21 College HOF ballot

D.J. Dozier kneels

The famous photo of Penn State running back D.J. Dozier kneeling in reflection after scoring on what would be the game-winning 6-yard touchdown run of Penn State’s win over Miami in the 1987 Fiesta Bowl. It sealed the Nittany Lions’ second and, so far, last national championship.

The National Football Foundation released the names that will appear on the 2021 College Football Hall of Fame ballot this fall, and there are plenty of them. They range from former Bloomsburg and New Orleans Saints standout offensive lineman Jahri Evans to Champ Bailey, from Tony Romo to Dwight Freeney. Just a lot of names. A lot of absolute stars. The College Football Hall of Fame is definitely the one Hall where you see supremely deserving players get turned down year after year just because there are so many people nominated.

Anyway, Penn State had four former players appear somewhere on the list, and there were even a few others with ties to the program somehow who got on there, as well.

Running back D.J. Dozier, receiver Bobby Engram and offensive lineman Steve Wisniewski are all up for election next year, as is Glenn Killinger, a current Hall of Famer as a player who is up this year for the Divisional Coach honor for his work as the winningest coach in West Chester football history.

To even get on the ballot, a player/coach has to have:

  • Received First-Team All-America recognition by a selector that is recognized by the NCAA and utilized to comprise its consensus All-America teams.
  • Cleared 10 full seasons since his college playing days ended and have played in the last 50 years.
  • He must have proven himself worthy as a citizen, carrying the ideals of football forward into his relations with his community.
  • As a coach, reached 70 years of age and be three years post retirement, or be active and reach 75 years of age.

Current Penn State receivers coach Taylor Stubblefield, who set the NCAA career receptions mark while in his playing days at Purdue, is also on the ballot. So is Brad Culpepper, the former Florida defensive tackle whose son, Judge, is a sophomore defensive tackle at with the Nittany Lions.

REPORT: Penn State QB Johnson in transfer portal

Penn State is going to be short a scholarship quarterback once preseason practice starts, according to Lions 247.

Michael Johnson Jr., a much-ballyhooed redshirt freshman who was a consensus four-star recruit in the 2019 recruiting class, has entered the NCAA transfer portal, the recruiting website reported. (The story has some good insight into why Penn State’s training staff was a little bit concerned about his ability to stay sharp during the quarantine.)

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Nittany Lion coaches learn players online

This ranked as an offseason of change at Penn State long before everything changed.

Remember when turnover on the coaching staff stood out as the biggest story around the football program?

When longtime offensive line coach Matt Limegrover’s contract wasn’t renewed?

When Gerad Parker continued the trend of one-and-done receivers coaches?

When beloved defensive line coach Sean Spencer jumped at the chance to lead the New York Giants’ front four?

The cancellation of spring practices and the worry surrounding the spread of the coronavirus pushed those stories firmly to the back burner in Happy Valley, but it didn’t change the responsibilities of the new assistants whom head coach James Franklin brought in to replace them.

So for the last several months, Penn State players haven’t just been asked to learn a new offensive system, to stay in shape away from trainers and gyms and focus on a new way of doing things. They were tasked with adjusting to the type of change they always wonder about most.

And vice versa.

“It has been different than taking any other job that I’ve had in my life,” new defensive line coach John Scott Jr. said. “You normally get that time to bond with the guys when you’re there. … With what’s going on in the world right now, I had to adapt a little bit. Before this thing really had the big outburst, I was able to meet with the guys several times, as well as be with them in winter workouts. I got an opportunity in that way to learn their personalities and see them move around and see them work.”

Scott, receivers coach Taylor Stubblefield and offensive line coach Phil Trautwein won’t see any of their players in pads until preseason practice begins, tentatively as it may be, in August. Only arriving with the Nittany Lions during their preparation for the Cotton Bowl last December spared first-year offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca that same fate.

But none of the newcomers said he was particularly concerned about that aspect of the new job. Few other teams got preseason work in on the field and, after all, quarantine has granted players and coaches alike greater opportunities to study more film.

Trautwein and Stubblefield said they were able to focus on some of the technique issues that have led to at-times inconsistent play along the offensive line and at receiver.

But the trick isn’t to point out mistakes and expect players to rectify them on their own time. It’s to build a foundation for being able to work on those facets of their respective games once players are back on campus.

“It’s for them to truly work on it and break it down to where you’re crawling, you’re walking, you’re jogging, until you’re sprinting,” Stubblefield said. “So, it has that progression that they can get their body in a position where they can learn that hard skill — not the soft skill, the hard skill — of what we’re looking for in regards to wide receiver play.”

For Scott, who didn’t even fully move to State College until after the players already were sent home for the semester, the personal interaction with new players has been the part of his new job he has had to adjust most.

Typically, he’ll take players out to eat or invite them to his home, to get to know them in a relaxed, group setting. He wants to spend as much time with them personally as he can, he said.

That hasn’t happened this spring, at least in person. But he has been able to have one-on-one video conferences with players. He has talked with their parents, and even in many cases, their high school coaches, to get a complete picture not just of the player he is working with, but the person.

“You’ve got to develop that trust,” he said. “You’ve got to develop that bond.”

Penn State safety enters transfer portal

It appears C.J. Holmes’ tenure in Penn State’s defensive backfield is finished.

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Penn State nets offer from big-time sophomore-to-be

Penn State nets offer from big-time sophomore-to-be

Today in the “There’s a long way to go” department, Penn State got its first verbal commitment to be part of, get this, its 2023 recruiting class.

Tight end Mathias “Mega” Barnwell, a 6-foot-5 tight end from Spotsylvania High School in Virginia, announced via his Twitter account Monday afternoon that he has verbally committed to the Nittany Lions.

Barnwell, as we speak is a zero-star recruit (he hasn’t played enough to properly evaluate him yet). But for sure, he’s going to be one of the top prospects at least in the East by the time 2023 rolls around. He’s already 240 pounds, and even as freshman, he looked like a man among boys on the field in a really good high school league.

Obviously, he’s a tight end now and continues a burgeoning tradition of big-time tight end prospects going to Penn State. But on film, he can already block a little. If he gets too big, it’s easy to see him perhaps fitting in at tackle or at defensive end down the road if need be as a backup plan. He’s a really good prospect, and plenty of major programs knew it. He already had offers from the likes of Maryland, Ole Miss, Nebraska, Tennessee, Pitt, USC, Virginia and Virginia Tech. And buckle up, because committing to Penn State does not mean more offers aren’t going to be rolling in.

Clifford grinding through chess games

Spring practice shutdowns and time away from campus have plenty of college football players concerned. They also know they’ve been given a gift most like them don’t ever get.

Time.

Time with family. Time to think. Time to heal their bodies. Time to breathe. Time, in some cases, to better themselves in ways they might not have been able to before.

So when Sean Clifford was asked Wednesday afternoon during a conference call how he is making himself better during a quarantine that is approaching three months, he mentioned things coaches and fans might expect to hear: film study, meetings and workouts. However, some of his time is devoted to an activity that might not be on most players’ radars.

“I’ve been working really hard grinding through chess,” Penn State’s junior quarterback said. “That is one thing that I’ve found a lot of fun doing. I find a lot of connections to football.”

Clifford spent his sophomore season in 2019 learning the ins and outs of college football during his first season as a starter, with strong results.

He completed 189 of 319 passes for 2,654 yards and 23 touchdowns, finished third on the team with 402 rushing yards, and led the Nittany Lions to their third New Year’s Six bowl game in four years. He also knew there was room for significant improvement.

To pursue some of those improvements mentally, he figured a dive into the centuries-old bastion of strategy could provide as big a benefit.

ASSOCIATED PRESS FILE
Sean Clifford completed 189 of 319 passes for 2,654 yards and 23 TDs last season.

 

In learning chess, Clifford has worked with Seth Makowsky, a chess coach who trains athletes and teams on chess strategy in an effort to improve their on-field performance. He worked last summer with Houston Texans quarterback DeShaun Watson, and held spring practice sessions on mentality with UCLA’s football team in 2019.

While he has learned plenty about chess through Makowsky, Clifford prefers to refer to him as “an elite mindset trainer.”

“He really teaches you how to go through your reads and have a good formula to attack each play, attack each day, and kind of just grow as a person,” Clifford said. “So, I think that’s just one thing that I’ve really been working on.”

Chess, at least, is something Clifford can control in these craziest of times. He would have spent the spring learning new offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca’s system and helping break in a group of young receivers. Instead, he’s joining in on nearly constant video meetings with teammates and studying up for Ciarrocca’s instructional sessions.

The last time Ciarrocca saw him throw a pass in person, Clifford concedes, was Nov. 9, when he was on the opposite sideline as Minnesota’s offensive coordinator. But Clifford spent the last few months working on techniques Ciarrocca taught on those video sessions, focusing on his footwork. He records his workouts on video, sends them to Ciarrocca in State College. The back-and-forth has proceeded that way since mid-March.

“One thing that we talked about is, with footwork and a good solid platform will come better accuracy, which he thinks that I have a very good capability of having,” Clifford said. “I’m very confident in that, too. I think that with better footwork, better platform, being able to drive the ball off my last step, off my hitch step, I think that’s going to pay dividends throughout the year.”

Veteran DT enters transfer portal

It had been a somewhat quiet offseason for Penn State as far as the NCAA transfer portal was concerned.

That changed a bit on Monday, though.

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Penn State coach confident there will be a season, but it will be a challenge

Penn State coach confident there will be a season, but it will be a challenge

Let’s look at the biggest question in college sports from two sides:

Will there be college football this fall? It’s starting to look like the answer is yes.

Even as COVID-19 remains a threat, states are opening up. The University of Tennessee was the latest major school, most in the South, to announce it plans to welcome students back to campus in the fall. Only a handful of schools in the Southeastern Conference have not announced similar plans to do so. Given that, it makes sense that if students are back on campus, campuses will get back to business. There’s no better business on a college campus than football, you should remember.

This is why James Franklin has been saying lately, with a certain degree of confidence, that he thinks Penn State will be back on the field at some point for a 2020 season, too. But he also fancies himself a man of science, a coach trying to keep both feet firm in reality. That’s why the Nittany Lions head coach prefaces his confidence with a bit of a disclaimer that maybe we should all be considering as we inch toward a return to some sort of our former normalcy.

That disclaimer: A return to football at Penn State might look at lot different than a return to football in the SEC, or even a return to football at Big Ten schools like Iowa and Wisconsin, in places where COVID-19 hasn’t run as rampant.

“This is a lot more complicated than a lot of people are looking at,” Franklin insisted during a video conference with beat writers Wednesday afternoon.

Most of what Franklin said during this nearly hour-long discussion should be construed as good news for those who hope the fall will look more normal in the face of the pandemic than the spring has and summer promises to be. He’s “hopeful,” even confident, there will be a season.

That likely isn’t going to come with 107,000 screaming fans at Beaver Stadium of course, but he said that administrators have been studying models being released by NFL teams like the Miami Dolphins to host smaller crowds adhering to social distancing standards set forth by the Center for Disease Control. Franklin conceded Penn State could be looking at a full season or a shortened season, a season with semi-filled stadiums or one with no fans in the seats at all. The motivation behind that hope seems to be a very warranted desperation, knowing what lost football revenue will mean to college athletics on the whole.

“If we don’t make it work, there’s going to be major impacts across the board,” Franklin said. “Even if we get to the scenario as extreme as not having fans, I do think allowing people to watch Penn State football and having the ability to do that … you just have to be flexible and open to any of these scenarios. Because at the end of the day, we’ve got to find a way to make it work if we can, as long as everybody is going to be safe and healthy.

“We just have to have an open mind to whatever this is going to look like and trust the experts. … We’ve got to do whatever we can to save this season.”

Reality is, Penn State might have a lot more work to do to save its season than Clemson or Georgia or Alabama will, and the rub lies therein. The NCAA has worked over the years, setting rules in place, to make sure every program is given the same opportunities to meet, the same chances to be coached, the same amount of practice time, and the same rules on when they can reorganize on campus.

It’s just not going to be that way this year, and that probably puts Franklin’s program in a bind some others in the Big Ten might not be in. Nearly 52,000 people have been diagnosed with COVID-19 in Pennsylvania, and there are more than 3,100 deaths. It has hit Southeast Pennsylvania and our area especially hard, and there are plenty of Penn State players under stay-at-home orders who presumably will be returning to campus from some of the nation’s hardest-hit areas.

Without identifying him, Franklin said a fellow Big Ten head coach called him earlier in the week, floating an idea that the Big Ten should make a return to the field consistent, an all-can-come-back-or-none-can proposition. Franklin is the one who brought up the stark reality: That’s never going to fly, given the fact the COVID-19 climate is so different state-by-state and even county-by-county. There are more COVID-19 cases in Pennsylvania’s northeast region, which includes Lackawanna and Luzerne counties, than there are in Wisconsin and Minnesota, for instance.

“Let’s say you have six schools in your conference, or eight schools, that are all able to open and get going, and there’s one or two or whatever that can’t,” Franklin theorized. “Are you going to penalize all these schools not being able to open?

“With the Big Ten, say we have two or three schools that, at the end of the season, are part of the playoff conversation. Well, the schools we’re competing against (for playoff spots) in other conferences, were able to open before we were, and the Big Ten held back certain schools (from starting) for a school that maybe isn’t a hotspot for our conference? … I don’t think you’re going to like it, and I don’t think people are going to be happy about it. But in reality, I don’t see how you’re going to be able to hold up 10 or 12 in one conference from two states that are opening up a month later. I don’t think you can penalize one conference from opening because another conference is opening way ahead.”

Franklin urged the NCAA to release guidelines to discourage conferences from opening up earlier than they should. But there are no such guidelines now. We live in a world where Tennessee can conceivably start practicing on time, while Penn State has to wait.

That’s fine enough, considering the circumstances. But while there is hope playing fields will be full by the fall, there’s still a long way to go before we figure out how level they can possibly be.

The best of the worst: A look at Hollywood’s sports failures

The best of the worst: A look at Hollywood’s sports failures

Worst (n.): amost unfavorable, difficult, unpleasant, or painful; bmost unsuitable, faulty, unattractive, or ill-conceived; cleast skillful or efficient

That’s how Merriam-Webster defines the word “worst,” and I’ll be honest, I’m not sure it’s fair to call what I’m about to publish a list of the “Worst Sports Movies Ever,” given the entirety of that definition. For starters, some of these movies are universally well-liked. Some of them tell great stories. Some, I’ve watched over and over again. (Others? Not so much.)

Major League 2 movie poster

Major League 2 didn’t live up to the standard set by its iconic predecessor. Was it disappointing enough to make the list?

You have to be pretty good to be bad, after all. Google “Worst Sports Movies,” and you’ll get lists of films I’ve never seen and that you, most likely, haven’t either. I’m a huge baseball fan, but I’m not going to spend $10 to walk into the theater, buy a tub of popcorn and drench my insides with a box of Mike and Ikes and a gargantuan Pepsi — Man, those were the days. — to watch Joey Tribbiani play baseball with a chimpanzee. Because I know that’s going to be bad.

What I’m talking about here is the movies we’ve all seen, for one reason or another, that just disappointed you in some way. A catastrophic lack of attention to detail, for starters. An blatant insult to the intelligence of sports fans. Poor writing. Poor acting. All-around disappointment.

Over the last few weeks, my esteemed colleague Joe Baress — master page designer/blossoming film critic/former Holy Cross basketball legend — published his choices for top sports movies of all time. It was an intriguing list, well-thought out, expertly analyzed and passionately written. I agreed with very little of it.

That’s the nature of these lists, though. And, it’s the nature of film and art and anything in life not based on fact.

Tomorrow on this blog, I’ll start writing my own subjective list, an idea I had to spin off Joe’s. It will be called my list of the 10 Worst Sports Movies; it won’t be a list of bad movies you shouldn’t watch, though. It will be a rundown of movies we’ve all probably seen that could have been better and fell short, movies whose storylines were too ridiculous to even consider (but…Hollywood) or movies that have so  frustrated a middle-aged sports writer over the years that he can’t get past the little downfalls.I have rewatched them all in preparation for this rundown. After all, they’re sports movies. They’re supposed to be fun. And, for all of their faults, many of them still are.

Will you agree with everything I write? No. Am I perhaps going to list your favorite movie? I bet, for many of you, I will. It should be fun, though. Hopefully, you’ll read along.