SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — As James Franklin chatted with Washington’s star defensive tackle Vita Vea, Penn State’s head coach was optimistic the 6-5, 340-pound run stuffer would somehow, someway opt out of Saturday’s Fiesta Bowl against the Nittany Lions.
“I saw him the other night and had a conversation with him about (how) it’d probably make sense for him to declare for the NFL now,” Franklin joked on Friday. “He’s a tremendous player, tremendous. You talk about stuff you can’t coach, 6-5, 340 pounds. …Trust me, we’ve talked about him all week long and I think it’s something that our guys are motivated for.
“As you guys know we haven’t consistently run the ball inside this year the way we’ve liked to so that was a big emphasis for us this week and really for the last month in preparing for this game.”
The matchup between Washington’s top-ranked run defense and the Lions’ inconsistent ground game will be one of the biggest keys to Saturday’s Fiesta Bowl, another look at whether or not Saquon Barkley and the Lions’ offensive line can springboard into the offseason on a positive note.
“You can’t move him,” Franklin said of Vea. “You’re trying to get double teams and be able to get push up to the second level like everyone is, and what happens is either he’s able to make the play at the line of scrimmage by creating a stalemate and ditching the guy at the last second and making the tackle, or the other thing that’s so advantageous about having guys like that inside is it puts the linebackers in a great situation because those defensive linemen aren’t getting pushed in their face.”
Vea – a projected first-round draft pick – was among the many talking points this week. With the game on the horizon and my notebook overflowing, here are a quite a few quick takeaways from information I’ve gathered throughout the week:
• Lamont Wade‘s confidence is obvious to fans and teammates, too. Cornerback John Reid said Wade’s confidence and competitiveness have him excited to pair up together next season. It was Reid who helped Wade this season, one that Wade told me was humbling as he tried to grasp as much of the playbook as possible while realizing the the level of competition, whether against non-conference opponents or those in Big Ten play, was better than he anticipated.
Still, his confidence didn’t waver.
“He’s real confident, high energy, but he’s real smart though,” Reid told me. “He knows what he’s doing. Great football player. He really knows the playbook and things like that. As a freshman, there’s always going to be a little bit of a transition at times going from one team to another, but I think he’s handled it well.”
• What was the most difficult part of the transition for Wade and fellow freshman cornerback Tariq Castro-Fields?
• Five-star signee Micah Parsons will get his first college action in spring ball where he’ll get tried in at middle linebacker. That much we’ve known since signing day, however, it sounds like Parsons will morph into more of a hybrid linebacker/defensive end, at least from what I’ve gathered after talking with defensive line coach Sean Spencer.
“We can do things in certain situations where he can play defensive end anyway,” Spencer told me. “He can play d-end right now so learning the Mike linebacker position is going to be a little harder for him. The challenge will be, Do you leave him in there as linebacker or do you moave him out at defensive end in rushing situations? That’s the beauty of getting such a talent. Josh (Gattis) could play him at receiver if he wanted to.”
Gattis, seated next to Spencer, smiled and joked that he’d throw Parsons out there on third down as a tight end if he had to.
• Saturday marks the end of the collegiate career of defensive tackle Tyrell Chavis. His two seasons with the Nittany Lions was highlighted by increased production this season, making him one of the more under-the-radar players whose departure will have an impact, especially considering starting interior linemen Parker Cothren and Curtis Cothran will be playing their final games as well.
Chavis’ story of inspiration and jovial personality made him a hit with teammates. He secured the Tim Shaw Inspiration award, one the Nittany Lions created this season just for Chavis. Spencer greeted Chavis on senior day along with the lineman’s mom, one sign of just how close their relationship is.
“We forget that these guys have a life sometimes,” Spencer said. “He asked me to walk with him on senior day. I was there with his mom and dad and that was one of the greatest honors that I’ve ever had.”
• Kevin Givens bounced outside to defensive end down the stretch as injuries mounted so the Lions could take advantage of his position flexibility. With Ryan Buchholz back healthy now and the Lions expected to have much more depth at defensive end next season, largely because of health and experience, Givens’ future will continue to be along the interior of the line.
“He definitely is going to start off inside,” Spencer said of Givens next season. “I’m not afraid to put him out there against certain teams. You get those teams that got those bigger tight ends and tackles, then you need a bigger presence. But we’re going to line up and when you got Bucholz in there you got 280, 285 and athletic so we’re excited about just having him and having the ability to put him in multiple positions, but I do think the 3-tech will be his position.”
• As Jason Cabinda put it, Penn State’s senior class was part of a team that, “were the most excited people on planet Earth to play in the Pinstripe Bowl.”
Remember, this senior class came to Penn State with the bowl ban still in place stemming from the NCAA sanctions so having a chance to play in the Pinstripe Bowl, TaxSlayer Bowl, Rose Bowl and Fiesta Bowl is something some of them still said they can’t wrap their heads around.
“That’s a big switch-up,” Cabinda said. “We’re just appreciative and grateful. It’s been a long journey and a lot of hard work has gone into this. … This year, we want to kind of make up for last year and end this thing on a high note.The taste from the Rose Bowl kind of still lingers so we want to get that taste out of our mouths and kind of finish this off the right way.”
• What has this senior class meant to Franklin?
• Players were arranged by major at Fiesta Bowl media day, certainly a different touch. What do some of them want to do after their playing careers are over? Quite a few want to go into the communications industry. Count Barkley among them.
“Talking about sports is fun to me and debating about sports and arguing about sports is something I do with my roommates and my teammates all the time,” Barkley said. “So you guys definitely are giving me a lot of help with the microphone in my face and cameras all in my face throughout these last three years.”
Tony Romo‘s transition from player to commentator resonated with Barkley, while safety Marcus Allen drew on his own experience out at Big Ten media day as a reason why he wants to lighten up the media room a little bit once his NFL career is done.
“I remember at Big Ten Media Day, it seemed like repetitive questions, and I thought, like, it was getting kind of boring at a point in time,” Allen said. “When I went back home, it was, like, I went and took notes and see what I would do, like, do different to make it more interesting, because some of the guys were, like, getting kind of bored and just out of it. So me personally I would want to be the type of person that would want to bring light to the interview and make the interview way more exciting.”
While walk-on Josh McPhearson was walking around interviewing teammates and trying to prep for his own career after football, Cabinda said he will be gearing up for the NFL Draft after Saturday, and then potentially eye a broadcasting job after his playing days are done.
“Might end up seeing me doing something similar to your job,” Cabinda said. “We’ll see.”
• What challenges will Washington have trying to slow down tight end Mike Gesicki?
• With running back Miles Sanders is expected to be the guy next season, what else is there to know about the former Woodland Hills standout?
“I don’t know,” Sanders told me. “I don’t get these interviews a lot. I’m a very quiet person. I’m comfortable around my teammates and my brothers, but I’m a very quiet person, laid back. I work hard and just try to perform when I get my chance.”
Castro-Fields, seated next to him, nodded along as Sanders spoke about putting in extra work.
• Former Nittany Lion standout Jimmy Kennedy was at Penn State’s practice this week since he resides in Phoenix. He’s been in contact with several defensive linemen since James Franklin reached out to him about getting in touch with the program as a letterman. While Shaka Toney was one of the players who was in close contact with Kennedy, texting him after every game, injured defensive end Torrence Brown talked with Kennedy at practice on Wednesday.
“We were just talking about d-line stuff like moves and things like that,” Brown told me. “He’s a good guy to have a part of this program and a good part of the d-line.”
Spencer welcomed the extra knowledge Kennedy provided, and that isn’t something that started out here. Kennedy has been in contact with these players, some of them at least, for a couple years.
“You can coach them all you want, but guys like him have instant credibility,” Spencer said. “They did it at the college level, did it at the professional level and I always embrace the knowledge of our former football players and the knowledge they can give our guys.”