Apr. 17—STATE COLLEGE — It turns out that Penn State’s final spring football practice wasn’t Saturday at Beaver Stadium, as the university had promoted for several weeks.
It also wasn’t the most important one, just the first one open to the media.
The Nittany Lions will hold their final three spring practices this week. Coach James Franklin and first-year offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich made it clear they will be the most critical ones for the offense and quarterback Sean Clifford.
“We’ve installed a high volume of plays,” Yurcich said. “Our guys have handled it very well. It’s been a lot. Now it’s time to see us make some growth. It’s very important to see us grow these next three practices.”
Clifford and the first-team offense had an uneven day against the first-team defense. The quarterback made some very good throws, like his 45-yard touchdown pass to wide-open tight end Brenton Strange, and some poor ones, like his interception in the end zone by freshman sensation Kalen King.
“We’re working on it,” Yurcich said, when asked about Clifford’s consistency. “I don’t want to give you an evaluation, but we’re not where we need to be right now.”
Clifford described this spring as a grind as he tries to learn from his fourth coordinator and quarterbacks coach in five years.
“Coach Yurcich pushes us to another level,” he said. “I looked at everything one way and Coach Yurcich has brought another level of competition and focus to me and showed me a different side.
“I’m excited about it and excited to see how the offense grows from here.”
The offensive line played without two potential starters at guard, Juice Scruggs and Des Holmes, who were out because of undisclosed injuries. The offense also faced a defense that blitzed frequently from different spots.
“Obviously there are a bunch of things we have to get cleaned up,” Franklin said. “We’ve gotten a lot in. We’ve laid a really good foundation. These next three practices will be very important. Now we’ll be able to fine-tune things.
“You’d like to leave the spring feeling good about the run game. With the passing game, there are a lot of things that you can work on in the summer. I like where we’re at, but there’s still a lot to work to get done.”
Freshman Keyvone Lee clearly was the best running back on the field, making several runs of at least 10 yards. He has power, strength and vision. He made his case to be the starter in the fall on a day that Noah Cain and Baylor transfer John Lovett did not play.
“Keyvone is your typical 238-pound power back in the Big Ten that is always running north and south,” Franklin said. “He’s always falling forward. So on a run that’s supposed to be 4 yards, he gets 6. A run that’s supposed to be 5 yards, he gets 7. He’s that type of back.
“I think he’s had a nice spring.”
Up front, the defense put a lot of pressure on Clifford, Ta’Quan Roberson and Christian Veilleux. The quarterbacks weren’t allowed to be tackled, but the defense was able to get to them several times.
Franklin didn’t seem terribly concerned.
“The offensive line has really done some nice things overall this spring,” he said. “I’m pleased. Traut (offensive line coach Phil Trautwein) has that group really headed in the right direction. Mike Miranda and Rasheed Walker have done a great job from a leadership perspective.”
The quarterback position draws the most attention for obvious reasons. Roberson and Veilleux, the only other scholarship quarterbacks on the roster besides Clifford, also threw a TD pass apiece.
Roberson appears to have the lead to be the No. 2 quarterback because Veilleux enrolled in January.
“It’s hard to say that (they found Clifford’s backup) when you have guys that haven’t played significant game reps,” Franklin said. “It’s hard to say because you never know until guys get in there.
“Both Ta’Quan and Christian showed some really good flashes of understanding what we’re trying to do and how to operate the offense the way Mike wants to run it.”
All eyes are on Clifford, however, and how he improves under Yurcich’s guidance.
“There’s not much frustration right now,” he said. “I’m really content where I’m at. Last season was last season so there’s nothing to harp on right now. I’m happy to have a fresh start with this team.”
And his new coordinator.