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May 5, 2014
by Chris Adamski


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Penn State’s Franklin, assistants to visit Pittsburgh on Thursday

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James Franklin’s roots in Pittsburgh trace to his childhood. Thursday, he’ll be making one of his first public appearances in the city since being hired as Penn State’s head coach in January.

 

Franklin will be at the Sheraton Station Square for the local stop on the Penn State Coaches Caravan tour. Franklin will join assistants (and Western PA natives) Terry Smith and Bob Shoop, along with women’s soccer head coach Erica Walsh and men’s soccer head coach Bob Warming for the Pittsburgh stop, the seventh of 17 by Franklin and other coaches over a 22-day span.

 

Earlier Thursday, Franklin & Co. will make their only other Western Pennsylvania stop, in Uniontown, at the Community Center Building’s main arena on the Penn State Fayette campus. You can register to attend either event (or any of the other eight across the state and region that haven’t sold out yet) here. Registration is $40 for members and $55 for non-members, and if space allows tickets will be available at the door for each for an additional $10.

 

The caravan stops outside of Pennsylvania (most every corner of the state is covered) are Washington D.C. and Baltimore on Wednesday and in New York City and northern New Jersey on May 15. The closest the caravan will be to Pittsburgh other than Thursday is Erie – a sold-out stop May 22. The caravan began this past Thursday in State College.

 

Like most everything involving Franklin, there was no shortage of pomp and spectacle associated with that initial caravan stop. Say what you want about Franklin, he is a skilled public speaker who is comfortable and personable in interacting with fans, alumni, students and public at large.

 

This is the third public appearance for Franklin in Pittsburgh since being named the Nittany Lions’ head coach in January. Within a week, he spoke briefly at the Pittsburgh Athletic Association’s Johnny Majors Night – and connected with an audience that, for obvious reasons, was largely pro-Pitt. Franklin also spoke at the Nike Coach of the Year Clinic in Green Tree in February.

 

Smith was a standout player for Gateway who was a receiver at Penn State and later coached Gateway. He was hired as cornerbacks coach and defensive recruiting coordinator by Franklin. Shoop, who is from Oakmont, is Penn State’s defensive coordinator and safeties coach.

 

The reception at the Sheraton Station Square begins at 6 p.m. Thursday with the program to follow at 7 p.m. Franklin will be available to the media prior to the event.

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May 5, 2014
by Chris Adamski


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Baldwin’s Jenkins expected to add to PSU’s recruiting success as Franklin’s first WPIAL recruit

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Over the weekend, Penn State landed yet another highly-regarded recruit. Come Tuesday, the Nittany Lions are expected to welcome their highest-rated Class of 2015 prospect yet.

 

After much anticipation, James Franklin & Co. appear poised to make their first big recruiting splash into Pittsburgh.

 

Saturday, it was Potomac, Maryland, defensive lineman Jonathan Holland who became Penn State’s 13th 2015 verbal commitment. Tuesday, Baldwin High School offensive tackle Sterling Jenkins will make a verbal commitment to a college public via KDKA television. It is widely expected Jenkins will do so to Penn State.

 

Sportscaster Bob Pompeani will interview the 6-foot-8, 305-pound Jenkins at the high school mid-afternoon Tuesday, Highlanders coach Pete Wagner said. The private announcement – no school assembly, no pep rally, I’ve been told – will be taped and aired at 6:40 p.m. on the evening news. (The announcement will be made available via the KDKA website, per longtime KDKA producer Mike Vukovcan).

 

Jenkins isn’t making any official (well, as “official” as a nonbinding verbal commitment can be, anyway) public announcements until then. And his choice “officially” is between Penn State and Ohio State. However, it would be an absolute shock if he did not choose PSU. Barring something incredibly unforeseen over the final 24 hours, it’s expected Jenkins will become the Nittany Lions’ highest-rated of an already highly-rated 2015 incoming class (per ESPN).

 

Wagner reiterated again Monday – as he has before – that Penn State is a “clear-cut No. 1” for Jenkins, who is the No. 1 rated 2015 prospect in Pennsylvania and No. 6 offensive tackle in the country according to Rivals.com. ESPN rates Jenkins as the overall No. 65 prospect – regardless of position – nationally. For all of Franklin’s early recruiting successes – and they are many, judging by the No. 2 national class ranking Penn State holds behind Alabama in the Rivals, Scout and 247 rankings – Jenkins would be considered the top-ranked recruit of them all.

 

Jenkins repeatedly has posted pro-Penn State tweets to his Twitter account. Many, many of the major analysts who do this for a living have been saying for some time now that Jenkins has been all but a lock to pick Penn State. Jenkins wants to make a public announcement, so we’ll respect his wishes.

 

In addition to Ohio State, Rivals reports that other schools that have offered Jenkins a scholarship include Michigan, Georgia, Tennessee, Virginia Tech, Arizona, West Virginia and, yes, Pitt.

 

Jenkins traveled to Penn State on Monday with his father, stepmother, grandmother and youngest sister (in a text message, he said he “had a great time” in State College). Jenkins chose to make his announcement the day after this highly-anticipated family visit to Penn State.

 

“He just wanted to do a campus tour,” Wagner said. “It was an opportunity for everyone to see everything together, in terms of the academic offerings, the campus and hearing from some of the coaches.”

 

One of Franklin’s first stops upon accepting the PSU job in January was Pittsburgh – and visiting Baldwin to see Jenkins was a high priority on that visit. Cornerbacks coach Terry Smith (the former Gateway High School coach who also is the defensive recruiting coordinator at Penn State and whose state recruiting area responsibility includes Baldwin) has been active in recruiting Jenkins. The two have formed a good relationship. Offensive line coach Herb Hand and defensive coordinator Bob Shoop (an Oakmont native) also have visited Baldwin over the past month.

 

Jenkins has visited Penn State at least five times, including for the Blue-White Game last month.

 

“It’s a pretty natural feel,” Wagner said of Jenkins’ relationship with the coaching staff.

 

Much has been made of Franklin’s oft-repeated proclamation to “dominate the state” in recruiting. So far, he and his staff have done that – nabbing each of the four highest-rated prospects from Pennsylvania who have committed to far. Not only would Jenkins give them the No. 1 overall prospect in PA – it would provide the first WPIAL recruit of Franklin’s tenure.

 

Jenkins and Central Valley defensive back Jordan Whitehead are the only known WPIAL 2015 prospects whom have scholarship offers from Penn State. Whitehead has said he plans on taking his time before making a decision.

 

 

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April 13, 2014
by Chris Adamski


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Franklin earns win-win in his first Penn State spring game

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When I sat down with James Franklin four days before spring practice began in early March, he told me he was “not out to win spring ball.”

 

At his first spring game, though, Franklin won big.

 

Twice.

 

Before Saturday’s Blue-White game even kicked off, Penn State took over the unanimous lead in the national Class of 2015 recruiting class rankings when Maryland defensive end Adam McLean took to Twitter announce a verbal commitment to Penn State.

 

McLean, 6 feet 1, 282 pounds, is rated as a four-star prospect by all three major recruiting services. According to Rivals, he had more than two dozen scholarship offers, notably from high-profile schools such as Alabama, Texas A&M, Notre Dame and Florida State. Yes, Pitt had offered him a scholarship, too – and, yes, it makes it a clean sweep of nine 2015 prospects now that had offers from both Pitt and Penn State who chose PSU.

 

McLean’s commitment buoyed Penn State to No. 1 in all three of the major recruiting sites’ national rankings: Scout, Rivals and 247. Yes, that’s ahead of Alabama in all three. And PSU is the only school with 12 commitments so far.

 

(As an aside, the news could be getting even better for Franklin & Co.: Baldwin offensive tackle Sterling Jenkins was one of 40 signees/prospects to be on hand at Beaver Stadium on Saturday, and Jenkins – already with Penn State No. 1 on his list – dropped some strong hints he might be close to making it official – or at least as “official” as a non-binding verbal commitment can be).

 

(Another tangent for my usual recruiting disclaimer: I have never seen any of Penn State’s commitments play in person – and I’m betting neither have anyone reading this. Also, again, all these verbal commitments are just only that – verbal – and the smart money is that one way or another that somehow, some way, the ’15 PSU class changes somehow prior to signing day next February. Both those things said, the objective and subjective ratings by the major recruiting services – outlets that do these things for a living – are all we have to go on, so we will trust them, at least as a relative basis of comparison. And the vast majority of these verbal commitments – if not all – will stay PSU loyalists all the way through to February).

 

Back to Franklin’s second “win.” The Blue-White Game drew an announced estimated 72,000. I have not the time nor energy to verify this with all other 120-plus schools who held a spring game, but it has been reported by multiple outlets that Penn State, so far, has had the largest attendance for a spring game in 2014.

 

The relative impact of recruiting among the list of things that comprise a successful program can be debated. It’s somewhere between “extremely important” and “important – but only one piece of a player-development puzzle that is only one piece of the overall program health puzzle.” We all can agree that none of these recruits has won Penn State a game yet.

 

That said, Franklin’s selling seemingly whatever recruits he wants on the PSU program. And he also sold 72,000 Penn State fans, students and alumni on taking in a intrasquad scrimmage.

 

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April 11, 2014
by Chris Adamski


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What I’m watching for at the Blue-White Game

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I’ve compiled a list of questions, in no particular order, of what I’m keeping a keen (well, as keen as I have the ability to) eye on to get answers to at Penn State’s Blue-White Game on Saturday (not necessarily in order of relevance). Feel free to watch for the same things. Suggest something I might be missing via email or comment below. Or ignore me altogether. Most do.

 

Enjoy the game. Looks like a beautiful day is on tap in bucolic* Happy Valley.

 

(*-word stolen from 93.7 The Fan’s Chris Mueller)

 

 

 

 

Who starts on the offensive line?

This is the most cut-and-dried issue we’ll see addressed. We know Donovan Smith is the left tackle. After that, what do we know? There are inexperience and injury concerns abound.

 

Does Michael O’Connor have any “Hack” in him?

It might be telling (or it might not be) that true freshman January enrollee O’Connor is on the team with the starters (“Blue”). Is that a sign that the plan is for him to be the backup come fall? He’s unquestionably the most talented of the three quarterbacks behind Christian Hackenberg (D.J. Crook and Austin Whipple were true freshman walk-ons last season). But, the thought goes, O’Connor would earn an extra year to start if he redshirted. My guess (and it’s only a guess): Crook and Whipple, to use a baseball analogy, are the “short relief men” used late in blowouts or if Hackenberg is dinged up for a play or two. If Hackenberg suffers serious injury, though, O’Connor is the “long man” to replace him as the starter the remainder of the season. We’ll get our first chance to see him in live action Saturday.

 

Who’ll be the second and third cornerbacks behind Jordan Lucas?

Trevor Williams and Jordan Smith are on the “Blue” roster, indicating they are the favorites to be so come fall. Williams started the first half of last season. Da’Quan Davis, as I’ve opined many times, is an intriguing candidate because he played extensively as a true freshman in 2012 and showed decent promise. Then last season, under the same coaching staff and with a dearth of bodies at the position, he barely saw the field on defense. Davis is athletic – but he is undersized, and this staff has stressed it prefers bigger defensive backs.

 

What is James Franklin’s sideline demeanor like?

This is Franklin’s first public appearance in a football setting at Beaver Stadium. A smart man savvy in selling himself and the program he represents, Franklin knows this. He has made no secret of his desire to put on a show for the fans – fans he hopes come in droves (in part, many will just to see him). I could envision Franklin playing to the crowd, almost pro wrestling-style. Or, perhaps he will take a more business-like, let’s-get-to-work approach. In the end, this is a minor detail that doesn’t really matter. But we’re all still learning the intricacies of the engaging James Franklin peresona.

 

Is Gary Wooten a breakout candidate?

Canon-McMillan’s Mike Hull strikes me as a young man who is calculated when he speaks. He isn’t cavalier with quotes in an interview setting. And I think he’s even more aware of what he is saying (and when) this season, when he will be a fifth-year senior captain and undisputed team leader. Both times Hull has been available to the media, Hull has pointed out the strong spring that Wooten is having. Hull is a definite starter, of course, at middle linebacker. Who will flank him (and be Hull’s primary backup) is up for debate. It most likely is some combination of Ben Kline, Nyeem Wartman, Brandon Bell and Wooten.

 

Is DeAndre Thompkins a star in the making?

A freshman early enrollee, it’s obvious Thompkins has been turning heads through 14 spring practices.  A 5-11, 171-pound North Carolina native, Thompkins might have instantly become Penn State’s fastest receiver. He also, arguably, became the Nittany Lions’ top return man right away. We’ll see how he is doing at picking up some of the finer points of the college game (route-running, blocking, etc.) to be trusted to be on the field regularly immediately as a freshman, but there seems little questioning that Thompkins has the type skill set that will raise fans’ eyebrows in a spring game-type setting.

 

Who’ll play on special teams?

Franklin has said he won’t shy away from playing his starters on special teams. This is a stark departure from the Bill O’Brien philosophy. O’Brien relied on a bevy of freshman and walk-ons (including several freshman walk-ons) for his special teams. The result was a below-average unit that multiple Penn State players have called a weak point on the 2013 team. That said, you can’t blame O’Brien – if a starter got hurt on a meaningless extra-point attempt, for example, the results would have been devastating to a thin roster. It’s likely even Franklin will back off his “the best guys will play on special teams” mantra during a glorified intrasquad scrimmage, so who knows if we’ll get answers Saturday? But I certainly will be looking to see who is on the kick return and coverage and punt return and coverage teams, in particular. The most visible of both – and the one we’re most likely to get answers on – come at the actual returners. Thompkins, for instance, is expected to handle some of those duties.

 

Does the defensive line have the quantity and quality of players that PSU hopes/believes it does?

On a team razor-thin in no shortage of areas, Franklin this week pointed to the defensive line (along with running back) as positions of depth. Telling that these comments were made after the Lions moved two defensive tackles to the offensive line! Imagine how deep the defensive line corps could have been? Signs are pointing to a seasoned and largely-proven starting unit of Deion Barnes and C.J. Olaniyan at the ends and Austin Johnson and Anthony Zettel at the tackles. But redshirt freshman Garrett Sickels has the pedigree to make an impact at end. Also, end Brad Bars is back from injury, and newcomer tackles Tarow Barney (a junior college transfer) and Antoine White (a freshman) are worth getting your first peek at. Zettel packed on 20 pounds to move from end.

 

What about the local guys?

I’ll always have a soft spot for the WPIAL and City League players. As a bonus: I’ve found the ones on this team that I’ve interacted with to be really good guys. So I’ll keep an eye out for any of them on the field. We know about Hull and tight end Jesse James (South Allegheny HS), both of whom we’ll see playing on Sundays in the future. Unfortunately, guard Miles Diffenbach (Fox Chapel) has a knee injury so his status is in limbo. Shaler’s Jesse Della Valle earned increasing playing time on defense as last season went on, and he was a primary punt returner. Will he hold onto his spots on both depth charts? Can Whipple, who played at Pine-Richland, beat out Crook? Franklin went out of his way to praise Blackhawk grad Cole Chiappialle when talking about the running backs Thursday. That’s a crowded position, but maybe Chiappialle is more prominent on several special teams, too? Chiappialle and Langley grad Tyrone Smith, a defensive tackle, are on the “Blue” roster with the starters. Belle Vernon cornerback Adam Cole, North Allegheny receiver Gregg Garrity and Franklin Regional linebacker Carter Henderson also are worth tracking. Garrity was used in the return game at times last season.

 

 

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March 30, 2014
by Chris Adamski


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Giving Penn State’s remarkable recruiting efforts some well-deserved recognition

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When it comes to recruiting, we have a major developing story happening in Happy Valley. A narrative that I’m of the opinion hasn’t gotten enough play – both locally and nationally.

 

A purportedly-unanimous consensus is building that Penn State is putting together one of the top recruiting classes in the country. Following the news of the Saturday verbal commitment of New Jersey offensive lineman Steven Gonzalez, just look at where the Nittany Lions’ Class of 2015 has ascending in the national rankings: No. 2 by 247, No. 3 by Rivals and No. 3 by Scout. From what I can tell, ESPN, which is generally considered one of the “Big Four” of the recruiting  sites, hasn’t yet ranked the Class of 2015 by school. But you can track how many of “The ESPN 300” top recruits have chosen each school. And only one program – Texas A&M, with seven – has more than Penn State’s six.

 

Penn State is one of only two schools in the nation (interestingly, West Virginia is the other) to have already secured 10 verbal commitments from 2015 prospects.

 

To use Rivals.com as the standard ranking, each of the top four Pennsylvania 2015 prospects to commit have chosen Penn State. As an aside, all four also had offers from Pitt; in fact, when it comes to recruits who were offered scholarships by both Pitt and PSU and have already committed, the score is 8-0.

 

But for all attention in these parts about Dominating the State or throwing down gauntlets is getting, coach James Franklin & Co. are seemingly setting their sights much higher. Why compete with Pitt when it’s heavyweights like Alabama, Ohio State and South Carolina that can be taken down? PSU is competing favorably with those national powers, beating them head-to-head for kids in some cases.

 

Seemingly every time there’s a campus visit, a player commits. Gonzalez was thought to be a heavy lean toward Ohio State… then he steps foot in University Park, and everything changes. In just 11 weeks on the job, Franklin and his staff have secured 19 commitments to Penn State (nine signed in February as part of the Class of 2014; 10 are verbally committed to next year’s class now). During Bill O’Brien’s final 11 months at Penn State, he induced 16 kids to commit to Penn State who ultimately signed there.

 

When it comes to so-called blue chippers… the comparison is even more extraordinary: O’Brien’s staff, in almost exactly two years on the job, secured eight Rivals four-star recruits to come to Penn State. In 11 weeks, Franklin already has matched that number.

 

Now, pointing this out is not at all fair to O’Brien (for one thing, he and his staff did achieve a holy grail that has thus far eluded Franklin: One five-star recruit). Mostly, though, it’s important to note that O’Brien was operating under a great deal more challenging circumstances: The Jerry Sandusky scandal was much more raw, scholarship reductions were far greater, the NCAA four-year bowl ban was much more restrictive to kids entering the program in 2012 or ’13 than it is to those who will in ’14 of ’15 (there’s a chance they might not have to deal with a bowl ban at all).

 

Still, at the moment, the Nittany Lions still are prohibited from postseason play each of the next two seasons. That is just scratching the surface on what makes this recruiting run so remarkable: It’s been done while PSU’s coaching staff has been handicapped by the remaining NCAA sanctions.

 

Penn State has fewer scholarships to offer and a bowl ban still officially in effect. It’s coming off a 7-5 season that, while that’s better than many expected and commendable under the circumstances, is piddling compared to the likes of the national championship-caliber teams it’s beating in recruiting.

 

So not only are Franklin and his staff “dominating” (sorry) recruiting – they’re doing it with a figurative hand tied behind their backs. Imagine what they can do on equal footing with everyone else? And after they’ve adapted to the Big Ten landscape and to Pennsylvania’s recruiting culture. After they’ve had enough time on the job to so much as move into a permanent home.

 

What’s more, this class is far from finished. Of both national significance and local note, PSU is hot on the trails of Central Valley defensive back Jordan Whitehead and Baldwin tackle Sterling Jenkins. Each is a Rivals four-star and among the top six prospects in Pennsylvania. And they aren’t the only high-profile targets from across the country.

 

Look, no one recognizes that it’s only still March 2014 than me. These Class of ’15 rankings mean little until Signing Day next February. And even then, star rankings and projections don’t necessarily correlate to on-field performance.

 

But all we have at this point is a season of recruiting. And thus far, while operating under some relatively trying restrictions, James Franklin and his staff are – as they predicted – dominating at it.

 

 

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February 23, 2014
by Chris Adamski


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DaQuan Jones Q&A at the NFL Scouting Combine

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Penn State defensive tackle DaQuan Jones is projected to go in the first half of the NFL Draft. After being selected to take part in the Senior Bowl last month, he is at the NFL Scouting Combine this week.

 

I am most certainly not there in Indianapolis, but Ken Laird of TribLive Radio is. So he sent me audio of a portion of DaQuan Jones’ session with the media there. I transcribed it for the benefit of all.

 

Jones, at times, looked dominating this past season for Penn State. He certainly has an NFL body and an NFL profile, and he’s gotten good instruction over his college career. It will be interesting to see how his pro career plays out.

 

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Jones’ general impressions of the combine experience:

 

It’s been pretty cool. I’m really enjoying it, taking every moment in. It’s just, stuff like this comes around once-in-a-lifetime, so you have to take full advantage of it and take advantage of every opportunity. And being here and being able to meet the scouts and coaches and stuff like that, it’s just been really neat and I’m just enjoying it.

On his listed weight of 322:

 

Yeah, 322, and I’m going to work to get my weight down in the next month coming going into Pro Day. … Right now I’m at 322, I’m comfortable at it, I don’t feel heavy, I feel good, I move good, so I might stay there or I might move down, it’s really just up in the air right now.
On what it’s been like training in Pensacola, Fla., with, among others, former Penn State teammate Silas Redd:

 

It’s been pretty neat and him being at USC we didn’t really talk very much out there and so we found each other and hung out and it was like we didn’t even leave. It was pretty cool rooming with him and getting to catch up. It was neat.
On if he’d be open to playing nose tackle in the NFL:

 

I’ll do anything, really. It doesn’t matter what position I play. I played it at Penn State, played every position pretty much, so I am comfortable with it. So it really doesn’t matter what position I play.

On how his childhood shapes who he is today:

 

It’s played a big part. Just how I grew up, I don’t want to be going down the road a lot of my friends did and a lot of my family members. I really want to strive to go out and be better than that – and that’s what’s drove me to be where I am today.
On how he’s gone about doing that:

 

You’ve really got to surround yourself with good people, and my high school coaches really stepped up and were there for me and really just showed me the way and I just followed it and put my head down and went to work…. It motivates. I look back everyday, and I have three brothers to take care of – and I’m working for them, not just myself.
On changes Bill O’Brien brought to the program when he arrived two years ago, and why Jones stayed at Penn State when he did:

 

I wanted to stay there because (defensive line coach Larry Johnson) was still there. He wasn’t going anywhere, so I decided to stay, too. I talked to (former PSU standout defensive lineman) Jordan Hill, and he decided say. The majority of the defensive line guys wanted to stay, so I stayed. And Coach O’Brien coming in and his system really just helped me excel. I can’t thank him enough for what he did for me and our program. He is just a great coach.

On what he did to improve his hands and quickness between his junior and senior years:

 

I really was just working on my technique stuff because of Coach Johnson. I just worked on everything I could. My step, my hand placement, stuff like that. I spent all summer trying to work on that, and it paid off and it really help me my senior year.

On if he feels more comfortable as a “one-gap” or “two-gap” player:
Like I said, I’m open for anything. I really don’t feel any type of way (about it). At the Senior Bowl, I got to play the two-gap and really play a man and I’m comfortable with that, too. So I can play gap, man… whatever you want me to do and I’m comfortable with it.
On if he’d have any issues switching from a 3-4 to a 4-3 and back, or with multiple defensive fronts:
I have no issues because at Penn State we did that my senior year. We played a lot of 3-4 and 4-3, so that really helped me out… Whatever it is, I’m comfortable with everything.
On the NFL player he watches to model his game after:
To be honest with you, I don’t really follow NFL football like that because of where I grew up. In college, I tried to focus on just college football. I do watch and I love watching J.J. Watt, I watched him when he was at Wisconsin. That man – just how we gets after it, his motor, his strength, just to be able to dominate guys is amazing. And that’s probably the one guy I watch the most out of all the NFL guys.
On if he’s talked to any of the pipeline of Penn State defensive linemen who have gone on to the NFL before him:

 

I’ve talked to Jordan Hill the most because he recruited me and we’re close – he’s my best friend. He’s the only one I talk to, really, on a consistent basis about this process and what to expect… I’ve been told it’s very busy, very hectic – but at the same time, you’ve got to enjoy it.
On if it feels like work:
Actually being at the Senior Bowl helped me for this stuff. I’m kind of ready for it and prepared, but also it’s not bad, really. You just answer a few questions here and there and you’ve just got to be honest and you get to meet great guys.

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February 17, 2014
by Chris Adamski


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Penn State’s 2014 recruiting class – who’s most likely to play right away? (defense edition)

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Thursday, we broke down the Class of 2014’s offensive players and the ability/likelihood of each making an immediate impact (as in, during the 2014 season). Today, it’s the defense (in alphabetical order):

 

 

S Marcus Allen

Allen is big enough (6-2, 200) and a hard enough hitter that he appears to have the ability to contribute immediately. Most important, he joins the team at a position of little depth that had its shaky moments last season. Odds are, Allen will be given a long look to earn an opportunity to make an early impact at free safety.

 

 

DL Tarow Barney

If Penn State played a game tomorrow, Barney might well garner the most consideration of any of the incoming freshmen to start it. Both 2013 starting tackles are gone, and there’s precious little experience there. A junior-college transfer, Barney is older and his body is most ready for the rigors of the major-college game. At the moment, among the group of Barney and redshirt sophomores Austin Johnson, Derek Dowrey and Brian Gaia, two very likely will be starting.

 

 

DE Torrence Brown

The 25th and final member of Penn State’s Class of 2014, Brown is one of only two players who was tabbed as merely a “two-star” prospect by one of the four major recruiting services (Scout, while the other three all gave “three stars”) – for what that’s worth. At 240 pounds, Brown falls into something of a “tweener” category between end and linebacker. Anything is possible with the lack of experienced depth the Lions enter the season with, but the better bet for Brown’s meaningful impact is more down the road.

 

 

LB Jason Cabinda

There figures to be opportunity for freshmen to contribute at linebacker, what with the position currently thinned by sanctions. After Mike Hull, a couple sophomores in Nyeem Wartman and Brandon Bell join junior Ben Kline as the lone linebackers with appreciable experience. One of just two scholarship recruits listed at linebacker, odds are the athletic Cabinda will see the field in some meaningful capacity in 2014.

 

 

DB Christian Campbell

There are jobs to be won in the secondary, and there seemingly always is a need for a defensive back-type who can tackle on special teams. Six players in the incoming class are listed as defensive backs, so even though the position is in dire need of some new blood, not everyone will figure prominently. Campbell fits the James Franklin mold of “length” in the secondary.

 

 

DB Koa Farmer

Arguably, the most intriguing recruit of all. Farmer has legitimate potential to be a standout, starting true freshman – but conversely he also is a candidate to need a year or two to settle not only into a role but into a position. At 6-foot-1, 205 pounds, Farmer likely projects as a safety – but don’t discount the possibility he ends up at linebacker. Farmer is versatile enough and has a well-rounded enough skills package that coaches will find ways for him to contribute to a thin defense.

 

 

DB Grant Haley

At 5 feet 10, Haley is the shortest player who was recruited to Penn State by Franklin and his staff (only athlete/quarterback Trace McSorley is within even three inches). Think Steelers receiver Antonio Brown, both in body type and his quickness/shiftiness. Pending Trevor Williams’ spring and preseason, there figures to be a job at cornerback for the taking. Even if Haley doesn’t make his initial impact there, he will very likely get a long look in the return game – and maybe even a little on offense in certain packages – as a freshman.

 

 

DB Amani Oruwariye

Oruwariye, by all accounts, is a special teams dynamo, as his four blocked punts as a high school senior exhibit. That alone should make him an on-field regular this fall. Whether he gets playing time outside of the punt, field goal and kickoff defend teams is something that will need to play out. What we do know is that the depth chart at cornerback is extremely thin – there’s legitimate question whom the No. 2 corner is, let alone the nickel or dime backs or backups.

 

 

LB Troy Reeder

Reeder has the same listed weight as Glenn Carson, whom is preparing for the NFL Draft after being a three-year starter for Penn State at middle linebacker. It’d be foolish to predict Reeder would be able to instantly replace Carson as a true freshman, but it’s not unreasonable to think he’s the odds-on favorite to take over the position at some point during his Penn State career. As far as 2014 goes, again, jobs are there to be had at linebacker for Linebacker U.

 

 

DL Antoine White

Being a January enrollee figures to help White in his quest to make an impact as a freshman. If his future is replacing the NFL-bound DaQuan Jones at tackle, adding a few pounds will be the objective. White, it’s said, also could play end. It’ll be interesting to see which direction the coaching staff goes – we should know by spring practice. Like with just about every position, there’s roles for the taking available for the freshmen.

 

 

DB Daquan Worley

Worley is a versatile athlete most likely pegged for cornerback, although he is said to have versatility to play safety or even on offense. A torn ACL in late October stands as perhaps the biggest obstacle to Worley’s chances to play in 2014, as it’s possible – if not likely – Worley won’t be at 100 percent in time for preseason camp.

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February 15, 2014
by Chris Adamski


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More from Allen Robinson on PSU, prepping for the draft

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I spoke to former Penn State star receiver Allen Robinson (and his star agent, Eugene Parker) on Thursday. Robinson is in Tampa training and preparing for the NFL Scouting Combine next week in Indianapolis.

 

This was done for the story that ran in Saturday’s Trib. But, as so often happens, there’s not space for everything in the paper. So here is more of what Robinson had to say via phone.

 

Among the more interesting nuggets: Some unsolicited for former Penn State wide receivers coach Mike McQueary, the almost-daily inclusion of yoga into his workout routine and that he intends on ultimately earning his college degree (impressive he’s so close in only 2 1/2 years).

 

For the innumerable faithful readers of The Blog out there who are looking for the breakdown of the odds of each of the Nittany Lions’ incoming defensive players recruits of making an immediate impact in 2014, I promise it’s coming in the next 48 hours. (It’s written; this was just more timely to post as a companion to the story in the print editions).

 

Have a lovely weekend…

 

 

 

 

On what his typical day is like:

Allen Robinson: “I’m just waking up getting a good meal… usually go about two times a day some speed training and on the field work, typically in the mornings and then we do our lifting in the afternoon. And then some days instead of lifting we will do yoga some days as well.”

 

On how this regimen differs from his time as a player at Penn State:

“It’s not any different; Coach Fitz (former PSU strength coach Craig Fitzgerald) had a really good program for us, so it hasn’t been too much of a difference transferring. Just maybe a few different exercises and things but really nothing was really too far form what Coach Fitz had us doing…. Other than yoga, not a lot  is different than what I was doing at Penn State. I would just say maybe just some things in the weight room, some different weights, squats, things like that would be a little different, but not so much different than the Coach Fitz workout program.”

 

On if it helps holding common experiences and goals with the other guys he’s training with:

“I’m working out with a good group of guys. A few guys from around the Big Ten like (Michigan State receiver) Bennie Fowler and (Purdue cornerback) Ricardo Allen and wide receivers like (South Carolina’s) Bruce Ellington,  (Clemson’s) Sammy Watkins. (Ohio State running back) Carlos Hyde is here, so honestly, we’re all pretty much in the same boat. But we all played in a big conference and stuff, so we try not to let the Combine get the best of us. It’s just like approaching a game – you kind of have not be nervous and try to go in there relaxed and go in there and do what your practice.”

 

On what he’s focusing on the most as the combine approaches:

“Of course, I want to run the best 40 time as possible I can run. Same thing for the vertical and the other things at the combine; I just want to do those at the best of my ability because at the end of the day I’m a competitor and that’s what I came down here to do is to work on being the best player I can be going into the NFL combine.”

 

On if he’s getting any sort of scouting report from any NFL types or is being told what he needs to work on to improve his stick:

 ”Scouts and things don’t really get too personal. But obviously, for any skill position the biggest thing at the combine is the 40-yard-dash. Any guy who plays a skill position, they look at the 40-yard dash, so I would say that that’s something I really want to do well … But I would say that for any skill guys, that’s really a good focus going into the combine.”

 

On if playing for an NFL coach in Bill O’Brien helped prepare him for the NFL:

“He really pushed me and challenged me as a player. I would say that’s the best thing. I really think him and Coach Fitz made sure just to create discipline in me to be get to workouts and things like that on time and how to go into a work day, how to prepare for a work week, how to prepare for such a big event – like the Combine. I would say Coach O’Brien and Coach Fitz, (former Penn State wide receivers coach Stan Hixon), all those guys did a great job of instilling that in me while I was in school for moments like that. I don’t have any uncertainty right now. It’s something that I’m used to and something that I’m prepared to do, that’s something that I know how to approach a big-time event like this.”

 

On if he looks back fondly at his time at Penn State:

“Two-and-a-half years. I definitely miss my buddies up there and stuff, but they understand the situation. I’m really thankful to have their support. They understand the process and all that… continue contact with all the guys I’m close with at school.”

 

On if he looks back with wonder at his transformation from a little-used spare college receiver into a sure-fire NFL receiver in the matter of less than two years:

“I would just say that I was always taught to prepare myself for the opportunity and for the moment. So with me not playing as much my freshman year, I really couldn’t let that get to me. But at the same time (former wide receivers coach Mike McQueary), he kind of really kept me abreast of the situation and where I stood with the program (as a freshman in 2011). He prepared me for my sophomore year a lot so it wasn’t too much of the transition, so I’m thankful for me having him as a coach. (In 2011), I played at Ohio State, I played at Wisconsin, I played in a lot of those big games and that helped me prepare for my sophomore year when it was my time. So I would say it…  just kind of just the process of waiting for my moment.”

 

On if he intends on going back to earn his degree (in telecommunications):

“Definitely. That’s something that my mom and my family would love to see me get, and that’s something that I really want to get. I’m not too far away – I’m about 20 or so credits away, so that’s not too much and I definitely, at some point, I want to go and get that.”

 

On when in the draft he’s been told to expect to be taken:

“It’s kind of hard to say right now, you know, it’s pretty early. A lot of things that you hear and people tell you aren’t really too accurate, but of course I’m going to be happy to go in the first round – that’s my goal, and that’s been my goal ever since I made the decision to declare for the NFL Draft so that’s what I’m working to right now.”

 

On if he’s met or spoken to new Penn State coach James Franklin:

“I haven’t got a chance to meet Coach Franklin yet, and I heard he was a great coach and I really hope that and I think he’s going to take the program in the right direction. But at the same time Penn State ended up picking their coach by the time I kind of had to decide by and start working out, so my decision was already made, but I’ve heard all great things about Coach Franklin.”

 

On if he’ll be following Penn State this season and beyond:

“Definitely. I have a lot of guys on that team that I’m basically like family with. I’m always going to follow Penn State.”

 

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February 13, 2014
by Chris Adamski


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Penn State’s 2014 recruiting class – what offensive players will play right away?

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Not that long ago, a true freshman faced long odds to get on the field for Penn State. Joe Paterno was often loathe to expose kids just a few months removed from high school – but that was a much easier position to take back then. Now, true freshmen play roles on high-profile teams across the country. Coaches recruit against coaches who don’t play freshmen. Also, NCAA sanctions have left Penn State with little depth – a far cry from Paterno’s gravy days when the Nittany Lions were loaded and players had to wait their turn.

 

Not James Franklin’s first class. It’s no secret that the vast majority will play this fall – and some in very significant roles. A variety of factors will play into how the staff initially utilizes each of Penn State’s 25 new players… and, of course, none has gone through so much as even a spring workout yet. So a lot can change between now and the Aug. 30 opener against UCF in Ireland.

 

But for now, a look at the chances each of PSU’s 25 scholarship true freshmen will have at playing – and playing important roles – in 2014. I’ll split it into two parts, offense and defense. First, the offense, in alphabetical order.

 

 

 

RB Mark Allen

One of three backs to join an already-crowded backfield, Allen will need to carve out a niche for himself to play significantly as a true freshman. He’s said to be a strong receiver out of the backfield. The Lions have plenty of options at running back, but specialization is key and a third-down role is possible because Allen could potentially fit immediately into it.

 

 

WR Troy Apke

Apke plays a position in which there assuredly will be some meaningful contributions from freshmen needed – but he also is part of what was a deep class of prospects at the position. I caution against reading too much into recruiting-service rankings – maybe I’m naïve, but I buy into Franklin’s philosophy that they all start over once on campus. That said, though, Apke has three incoming freshmen who were more highly-regarded at his position. It might be an uphill battle, but there’s a plum spot or two there for some of these guys to seize.

 

 

OL Noah Beh

Franklin called offensive tackle the team’s greatest need, so he and his staff brought in four of them. Donovan Smith (left) and redshirt freshman Andrew Nelson (right) are virtual locks to open the season atop the tackle depth chart, but they are the only scholarship non-freshmen at the position. That means one or two of the incoming guys will need to be ready. At only 260 pounds, though, Beh is the longest shot of the group to play immediately – although he is a very intriguing prospect down the road.

 

 

WR Saeed Blacknall

Penn State’s Class of 2014 has two players who were rated four stars by each of the four major recruiting services – both are wide receivers. Considering the glaring hole the departure of Allen Robinson bolting for the NFL leaves, it’s a good bet that at least one of those two – Blacknall and Chris Godwin – steps in this fall. Blacknall has the size (6-2, 210) and ability to draw comparisons to Robinson. He’ll be given a chance to show what he can do.

 

 

OL Brendan Brosnan

Brosnan has the length and quickness that Franklin likes out of his offensive linemen. He added considerable weight as he approached his senior year of high school. At least one of the freshmen will need to emerge as a reliable backup for Smith and Nelson at tackle. If Brosnan comes into camp in shape and bulked up, there’s a chance it’s him.

 

 

TE Mike Gesicki

Do a Google search of Mike Gesicki dunks. The kid is a pure athlete. And judging by his offers from Ivy League schools, he’s smart, too. At 6-5, 245, he’s got the frame to succeed. Barring something unforeseen, Penn State’s coaches will find a way to use Gesicki this upcoming season. The fact there’s three established quality tight ends will do little to change that. It might not come at the expense of Kyle Carter, Jesse James or Adam Breneman, but Gesicki will in all likelihood make an impact.

 

 

WR Chris Godwin

Godwin is of similar size (6-2, 205) and pedigree (each was deemed a four-star recruit by all four major services and had offers from at least 10 big-five conference schools) to Blacknall. The duo shares the designation of most-likely-to-replace the NFL-bound Robinson over the long term. It will be interesting to see who emerges more quickly and who has the higher ceiling – the answer to those two questions might not necessarily be the same. Each, in all likelihood, will be heard from, though.

 

 

QB Trace McSorley

One of two much-needed quarterbacks in this class, McSorley has zero chance (barring catastrophic injuries) of starting at the position this season. Christian Hackenberg has that locked down, of course. A former Vanderbilt recruit, McSorley is listed as an “athlete” by some recruiting services, so it’s possible the coaching staff could find creative ways to use him in various capacities out of various spots on the field.

 

 

QB Michael O’Connor

O’Connor is actually bigger (225 pounds) and taller (6-5) then the 6-4, 220-pound Hackenberg. He’s not a more highly-regarded recruit than Hackenberg was – but he’s close (four stars, No. 7 pocket passer by Rivals, for example). Conventional wisdom says O’Connor will redshirt behind Hackenberg this fall, learn the system and ease into the college game and eventually start, perhaps, as a redshirt sophomore in 2016. A lot can happen between now and then, though. A theory: McSorley or one of the three walk-on redshirt freshmen would relieve Hackenberg in so-called “mop-up duty” or of if it’s a shortterm injury, but if Hackenberg is out for the season, O’Connor would be a long-term fill-in. Bottom line: What we do know is that O’Connor won’t be taking meaningful snaps in 2014 as long as Hackenberg is upright.

 

 

RB Nick Scott

Scott might not work his way into the meaningful running backs rotation in 2014, but that doesn’t mean he perhaps won’t be on the field often. He played outside linebacker, free safety, quarterback, running back and wide receiver in high school, and that kind of versatility, athleticism and instincts can be utilized by a team which has had depth sapped by NCAA sanctions. There’s a good bet you hear Scott’s name called often this season – just not necessarily at the expense of Zach Zwinak, Bill Belton or Akeel Lynch.

 

 

OL Chance Sorrell

A good enough athlete he played tight end in high school and was previously recruited to play Division I basketball, Sorrell fits the Franklin mold of tall tackles who are good on their feet. But at 270 pounds currently, he needs to add mass. When the first depth charts come out, bet on Brosnan and Chasz Wright being ahead of Sorrell – even if Sorrell potentially has a very high ceiling over the long term.

 

 

RB Johnathan Thomas

At 220 pounds, Thomas is the biggest back on the roster not named Zwinak. Perhaps that makes him the most likely of the “Freshmen 3” at his position to be a featured back down the road. For 2014 – barring injury – Penn State appears set at running back. Thomas’ more physical approach potentially means big things are in store for 2015 and beyond.

 

 

WR De’Andre Thompkins

Thompkins is considered one of the nation’s top 40 wide receivers recruits; when he made his verbal commitment to Penn State this past April, he could have well felt he’d be the jewel of the position for Penn State’s Class of 2014. Since, Godwin and Blacknall committed, leaving Thompkins’ potential freshman role a bit murky. That said, Thompkins has the most established return skills – and not only is that an area in which true freshman have been known to contribute, it’s also a position of need for the Lions.

 

 

OL Chasz Wright

Confirmed by the Penn State media relations staff that he’ll officially be listed at 310 pounds, that would make Wright not only the heaviest incoming freshman – he’d instantly become the Lions’ second-biggest player on the team behind starting left tackle Smith. Combine that with the head start he has as an early enrollee and the extra experience of a season at prep school, and Wright has the inside track on the race for playing time among the freshmen tackles.

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February 11, 2014
by Chris Adamski


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Fran Fisher from the proverbial cutting room floor

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I immensely enjoyed spending a few hours with Fran Fisher in preparing to write a feature story on the longtime Penn State radio broadcaster that ran Tuesday.

 

As with anything in the realities of journalism in 2014, I could have/would have/should have written much more. As you might expect from a 90-year-old that is approaching a half-century of association with Penn State, Fisher has a wealth of stories. Writing a story on him is easy – the toughest part is deciding what will fit into a 750-word package

 

I could have written 12 articles or 12,000 words on him. Out of what didn’t make the Trib story, there’s way too much to recount it all on the blog. But here’s a small sampling of other anecdotes from Fran Fisher.

 

 

On his tenure as a student at Penn State:

 

“I went to Penn State in 1942. I lived in the Sigma Nu house. One of the mistakes I made in my life – and I made many of them – was I dropped out of school and joined the navy. Very, very un-smart thing to do. I shoulda stayed in school. I thought Pearl Harbor was a girl.

 

How’s this for a history lesson: Fisher remembers when State College was a dry village. It was so small that Beaver and College avenues were both two-way streets.

 

 

On the relative insignificance of Penn State football prior to Joe Paterno:

 

“Notre Dame was much, much bigger (in central Pennsylvania). It was Penn State, but was it Penn State University yet? When I went to school it was Penn State College. But to give you perspective as to what Penn State football was at that time, outside of the commonwealth and maybe even inside, most people confused it with the University of Pennsylvania. And early on there had to be at least three occasions I did an interview outside the state of PA where guys said ‘Well, we wish you well in the Ivy League.’ That was very, very common, and I suspect that a large percentage of people outside the commonwealth had no knowledge of the fact that there was a difference between Penn State and Penn. That’s how insignificant the program was.”

 

 

On the forgotten Penn State’s first great team, 1947’s 9-0-1, No. 4-ranked Lions:

 

“I’m not sure people anywhere – including in the commonwealth of Pennsylvania and including (the media) – realize what a great team the 1948 Cotton Bowl team was. If you were to look at those statistics of what they compiled (six shutouts, 4.0 points per game allowed), it had to be one of the best defensive teams in the history of college football. Now, nobody knew that, nobody knows that now. But that kind of started the ascension of the program. The 1948 Cotton Bowl team was a magnificent football team. And Rip (Engle) built from that after he got the job in 1950, and it kept just getting better and better and more recognized and more recognized through when Joe took over.”

 

 

On Joe Paterno growing the program into the national powerhouse it became:

 

“I don’t think anybody anticipated the program would become what it is. Or become what he made it. Including Joe himself, because when they decided to move the stadium, he was totally – absolutely – against it. ‘Putting it way out there in a wheat field? That’s the most ridiculous thing that could ever happen.’ That was his stand on the stadium. Nobody thought it would be other than adequate. And somehow, the state embraced Joe Paterno, his ethical procedures and his winning so that even in the hardcore region, Notre Dame fans became Penn State fans and they bought season tickets and they came and they tailgated and they put Christmas savings packages on order for them to be able to save the money.

 

“And the big-hitters came – and Joe sold them. You  talk about fundraising – Joe was a fundraiser. When he said, ‘I want your bucks; I don’t want your two cents,’ he meant it. And he got ‘em. To the point where all of a sudden there was a financial flow to enable this program to improve the facilities and do all of these things, and when you take a look at what is now the athletics facilities, it’s absolutely amazing. Of course, the Big Ten had something to do with that because once you’re in the Big Ten, you’ve got to keep up with the Jones’, so all of these things that happened, that didn’t happen overnight, but they all gradually happened. And all of a sudden we have a 107,000-seat stadium. Impossible! Who the hell is gonna buy tickets for that?”

 

 

On Joe Paterno:

“I’ll tell you what – he was a tough sucker. But there will never, ever be another coach like Joe Paterno.  We’d go on a bowl trip and there’d be people waiting to get on (a plane) wit players getting on, and he’d be like, ‘Let these ladies on first!!’… ‘Take your hat off!’ ‘Tuck your shirttail in!’ That’ll never happen, ever, ever again.”

 

 

On the beginnings of the Penn State football radio network:

 

“The thing about the radio networks was, I went to Joe and asked him one question when I was moved over to athletics and charged with putting the networks together. I said, ‘Joe, what do you want – do you want money, or do you want coverage?’ He said, ‘I want coverage; I don’t give a damn about money.’ Well, that’s a salesman’s dream. So I put together a pretty good network. I was able to manipulate the per-game fee that the stations had to pay – if we needed the market badly enough. We didn’t make any significant money… subsequently, of course, money became the driving factor over the years, so the rights were put up for bid – blah, blah, blah, blah. Now they get 97 commercials in every game.”

 

 

On his favorite memory of attending a Penn State basketball game at Rec Hall:

 

“One game I’ll never forget,.. not the game, a sidebar if you will. I was sitting in a row with the Athletics people, and Joe and Sue were in the front row and somebody didn’t show up. And Joe says, “Fran, Charlotte, come sit down here.’ So we go down and Charlotte sat next to Joe, and the television – the game was televised  — and of course they shoot Joe the whole time. And I was told afterwards that Olbermann was on TV for ESPN and he made the comment, ‘I wonder if that’s Joe’s mother sitting beside him.’ I never let her forget that.

 

(Incidentally, Fisher recalls broadcasting a Penn State-Syracuse game. “The captain of the Syracuse team was Jim Boeheim.”)

 

 

On broadcasting Penn State’s first win in a national championship game Jan. 1, 1983:

 

“The celebration and coming back from the Sugar Bowl was an event I’ll never forget. We got off the plane at the Capital Campus in Harrisburg, and the governor was there and there was a thousand people there. Joe was (ticked off) – and I’m the one who had to tell them we had to stop at Capital. He didn’t know that. On the plane, I had to walk up to Joe and said ‘Joe, we are bussing but we have to go the way of the Capital Campus.’ ‘That’s out of the way; what do we have to go that way for?’ he said. I said, ‘Well, there’s a whole crowd there; the governor’s there.’ So we went there.

 

“And then when we came home as we got into Mifflin County, lined up along 322 were fire engines and people waving all the way from Lewistown to Millroy, and when we got to the narrowest part… there were so many people they had to stop the bus. And people waving and cheering and there were firetrucks escorting us in State College. It was the most amazing thing I’d ever seen. And Joe said on the subsequent “TV Quarterbacks” program, ‘I had no idea this team meant so much to so many people. It’s amazing.’ There’s a video made of it, as a matter of fact. It was fortunate a guy on the bus had a camera, and we did a video. It was remarkable.”

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