football Edit

Ear to the ground: Penn State football preseason camp rumblings

Penn State is a full 14 days into its preseason practices ahead of the 2021 season.

With only 15 days remaining until the Nittany Lions take on Wisconsin at Camp Randall Stadium on Sept. 4, that makes this just about the midpoint of the football program’s August training camp.

Last week, we detailed some of the storylines that dominated the first full week of camp on both sides of the ball. Today, we’ll turn our attention to some of the prominent insider notes and observations to emerge this week as the start of the season draws near.

Penn State Nittany Lions football offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich
Penn State offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich is in his first year with the Nittany Lions. (Ryan Snyder/BWI)

- Will Mike Yurcich’s offense deliver the success the program is searching for this season?

- What’s the latest on Penn State’s starting offensive line?

- How is the Nittany Lion secondary shaping up?

- Impressions from Penn State’s running backs room.

- News on Jesse Luketa’s hybrid role at defensive end and linebacker.

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Quick Hitters: August 18 Penn State football practice observations

Inside the Den: Penn State football preseason practice first week notebook

In the meantime, join us with five key observations from Penn State’s preseason practices, here:

- If there was one comment that caught my attention this week from a trusted program insider, it was this:

Penn State has itself a fun offense again:

As is the case now and always with me, that’s not a guarantee of the Nittany Lions’ proficiency under Mike Yurcich by any stretch of the imagination. My expectations remain that this group will naturally have progress hurdles to overcome - it’s the case at every program, every season, but demands repeating here - but the actual type of offense that this group is working on should end up sparking fond memories in the program’s recent history.

And that was the point when James Franklin hired Yurcich after just one year of Kirk Ciarrocca this offseason. No doubt, there were more obstacles beyond Ciarrocca’s control last season than I care to repeat here. That much is indisputable at this point.

But so is the notion that Penn State lost some of the offensive mojo that Franklin saw as being so integral to the program’s success in 2016 and 2017. In turn, it was no accident that upon announcing Yurcich’s hire and through the spring, Franklin found the occasion to reference those years more than once when talking about the potential of - and goal for - the offense under Yurcich this season.

Again, execution is its own story - dependent on so much, not least of all the performance of Sean Clifford and the pieces around him - but the bottom line here is that the impressions out of preseason camp are for Penn State to constantly put defenses in conflict and sew confusion throughout that side of the ball.

That’s to say nothing of Penn State’s secondary or serve as an indictment, which has held its own against the passing attack this month, but the optimism within the program is firm that Yurcich’s impact will be unmistakable as the season progresses.

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- We’ve been talking about Penn State’s options on the interior of the offensive line since well before the start of preseason camp.

But this week, for what it’s worth, a stronger suggestion was made that Sal Wormley has strengthened his position battling Anthony Whigan and Des Holmes for the starting nod at left guard. Again, that’s not a crowning ceremony for Wormley, but he’s very much a part of that conversation to join expected starters (left tackle>right tackle) Rasheed Walker, Mike Miranda, Juice Scruggs, and Caedan Wallace.

The reality here is that Penn State and offensive line coach Phil Trautwein are gearing up for a season where the gap between the first- and second-team units up front is relatively thin. Trautwein has stressed repeatedly his desire to get a wealth of options into the game.

But if Wormley can make that move, it would accelerate a climb that started with plenty of buzz at his arrival in 2019 but largely stagnated through the 2020 season. To date, he has played in four total games, mostly on special teams while limited to just three games last season.

Wormley is said to be a natural football player who moves effortlessly for a guy who currently lists at 6-foot-3, 310 pounds. Hamstrung by some of the ground he needed to make up in strength and conditioning, Wormley was hurt by the restrictions of the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and the months-long break between winter workouts and the return to campus last June/July for the program.

Penn State Nittany Lions defensive end Jesse Luketa at practice last week.
Penn State's Jesse Luketa has reportedly taken strides in his shift to a hybrid DE/LB role this preseason. (Greg Pickel/BWI)

- Some positive news coming out of camp this week regarding hybrid linebacker/defensive end Jesse Luketa.

According to some, the veteran defensive mainstay is said to have shown himself as being a lot more comfortable and moving faster when lining up in that hybrid role as a defensive end that can rush the quarterback, play the run, and drop into pass coverage when needed.

Further, we’re told, Luketa has done well in coverage and split his time this week more between the Mike linebacker and hybrid defensive end roles.

All of this, of course, aligns with what Franklin had to say about the situation with Luketa in the preseason.

“We're kind of going to split his time. I would say probably more of his time will be spent at defensive end in training camp, just because he has such a foundation and history at the linebacker position, already within the same scheme,” Franklin said. “So, we want to get him to the point where he's really comfortable and effective in what we're going to ask him to do at defensive end. Obviously, we still need to keep him sharp at linebacker, as well. I see him playing both roles.”

- We’ve gotten some conflicting info here through the week, but it’s worth mentioning here nonetheless that both Keaton Ellis and Tig Brown have established that they’re both going to play this season.

Who has the edge to start opposite Jaquan Brisker, though?

This week, we’re hearing Ellis has made a push for the job. (Our guess? This position battle isn’t over yet.)

Additionally, it’s my understanding that Daequan Hardy appears to be in a position to start at that slot corner spot when the Nittany Lions go to five defensive backs on passing downs.

Penn State Nittany Lions running back Noah Cain
Penn State running back Noah Cain saw just four snaps and three carries due to injury during the 2020 season. (Ryan Snyder/BWI)

- Last, but certainly not least, the intimations that started this summer with the emergence of Noah Cain’s highlight clips on Twitter, then continued through some of the feedback we received, and now has progressed into the preseason, all have continued.

Our understanding from the start of the preseason was that someone in the running backs room would have to be so good as to unseat Cain. And yes, there has been some level of hope at various times that one of the sophomores in Caziah Holmes and Keyvone Lee might take such a step that it becomes clear they could do that unseating.

But, the bottom line here is that Cain looks the part of a starting, in control running back and that, as an obvious addendum, the rest of the room hasn’t been so good as to disrupt his status at the top.

One last note here at the position is with John Lovett, who has backed up that “home run threat” tag he brought with him from Baylor. He has, we’re told, ripped off at least one big run at seemingly every practice through camp this preseason and, importantly, has also looked good catching the ball out of the backfield.

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