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Speed, scheme fortify Penn State

Speed and scheme highlight Penn State’s strengths as they gear up for their first game of the season against Appalachian State on Saturday afternoon.

Trace McSorley pulls the ball from Miles Sanders. -- Jarrod Prugar / DKPS

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. —After the portion of practice open to the media Wednesday night at the Lasch Football Complex, wide receiver DeAndre Thompkins was asked what he believed to be the strengths for Penn State this season.

His answer was simple and straight to the point.

“Speed. Speed everywhere. Everybody can run,” Thompkins said.

And while speed is the top strength Thompkins listed, it was not the only one the redshirt senior came up with after Penn State’s weekly media availability.

“I think just working in the scheme. Everybody knows the offense very well,” Thompkins raved. “Everybody is questioning everybody, so it’s good to see that we’re working inside the scheme and have questions and try to make sure everybody sees the same thing, and we’re all on the same page.”

That scheme is a strength for Penn State bodes well entering the season under first-year offensive coordinator Ricky Rahne after spending the past two seasons under the tutelage of now-Mississippi State head coach Joe Moorhead.

For as much that’s different with the Nittany Lions on offense personnel-wise, much has stayed the same schematically. The offense still will deploy a run-pass option style with quarterback and Heisman-hopeful Trace McSorley leading the way.

McSorley will be joined by speed in the backfield with Miles Sanders to his right or left and a plethora of speed at the receiver position, including Thompkins, junior Juwan Johnson and speedy redshirt freshman KJ Hamler.

As far as how that speed stacks up on the field, according to Thompkins, you’ll just have to wait until Saturday to see how it looks.

“You’re just going to have see when it comes game day how fast we are,” Thompkins said. “Right now, the three fastest guys are me, first — I don’t care what anybody says, I’m the fastest one — KJ’s up there, and Tariq (Castro-Fields) and Donovan (Johnson) are two guys who run very well, but always me first.”

From head coach James Franklin:

• On where Ricky Slade can improve: “I think, as always, in pass protection, but he’s further along there than we anticipated. The game makes sense to him. He’s picked it up faster than we thought. He’s probably more physically prepared, you guys look at him and he doesn’t necessarily look like a freshman back, and I think that extra month that he had here this summer, I think that’s been good for us. He’s a bit more physically prepared than I thought, and he’s tough. He runs like a tough guy. He’s very subtle and efficient with his movements. He’s not going to do things like Saquon that wow you, but he’s going to have these little, subtle moves that get people off balance. …I would think by the midpoint of the season, if not earlier, he’s got a chance to make a move.”

• On team leadership: “Instead of having a strong senior class where you have a bunch of older guys who are there setting the tone for the entire organization, we have that, but we just don’t have a lot of numbers. I just see more guys comfortable taking an active role in leadership. I hear more coaching going on on the field, and it might not be a senior. It might not be a junior, it might be a redshirt sophomore, guys that have been around that are comfortable enough to speak up. The locker room has been immaculate. I think that discipline off the field is going to show up on the field for us. These are habits I want them to take with them in life. I just see it showing up in the weight room, I hear it in the academic center, I hear it in the locker room.”

 On training on and training off: “Training on and training off is training on during the season, you don’t go out, you don’t go to frats, you don’t go to bars, you don’t do any of those things until we take training off like Saturday after the game, go out and enjoy yourself, be a regular student. You know, nothing crazy, but go be a regular student. We’ve kinda always controlled that as coaches. We did it my whole time at Vanderbilt, we’ve done it here and all the way back to Maryland, to be honest with you. We’ve now handed that over to the players, so the captains, the leadership council are running that. They’re deciding when training is on; they’re deciding when training is off. I think there’s just more ownership and those guys are doing really good job. … It’s one thing when I’m saying it, it’s another thing when 25 guys on the leadership council are saying it, and they’re enforcing it. I think we all know the best teams are player-led and player-driven, not coaches, and I think we’re really starting to get to that point.”

 On players earning playing time: “Let’s be honest, Mike Gesicki played before he probably should have. So I actually think guys having to be behind guys and have to grind through that and truly earn their opportunity to play on the field in a competitive atmosphere, I think is going to promote that. I think Mike, we were thin, we had some injuries, he had to play. I think with the competition we have now, pretty much across the board, guys know that you’re going to have to come in and compete. We talk about it during the recruiting process. They see it when they show up here. So I actually think our program is set up to enforce that more than in the past.”

• On Jan Johnson: “We have felt great about Jan Johnson for a long time. We used him as an example the other day in a team meeting. Here’s Jan Johnson who’s on the scout team, we travel him to Michigan, we have some injuries, and he’s on the field playing as the fifth-team middle linebacker. There were times the following year where the entire week, he was the scout team tight end because we didn’t have someone we felt could block well enough in practice to give us a look, and he did that while being a backup linebacker. I think he’s been an example of a guy that, whatever you asked him to do, he would do that was in the best interest of the team. He’s been unbelievably unselfish and just continues to get better.”

More from Thompkins:

• On Hamler: “KJ’s been very explosive. He’s a fast guy, very twitchy. He’s just been making plays. His personality’s just very hyper, a lot of energy. He’s one of those guys Coach Franklin talks about who does a back handspring out of bed each morning. He’s just a lot of fun to be around. He’s one of those guys who’s just contagious.”

• On Juwan Johnson being a potential first-round pick: “Me and Juwan push each other a lot, just the little things, we push each other a lot. His work ethic, everything he does, everything he challenges himself with everyday is something a first-rounder would do. I don’t doubt it. He’s my brother, he’s my best friend, so you know I don’t expect him to go any less than first round.”

• On having a short memory: “You gotta have a short memory, no matter what position you are on the field. If you have a drop, it’s a drop, oh well. Keep going and make a touchdown next play and forget about it. If you have a drop and you make a touchdown the next play, nobody’s going to talk about the drop.”

• On young guys embracing doing extra work after practice: “It just goes to show that work ethic and the drive and the things we instill as upperclassmen are being instilled in the freshmen. Obviously, we work hard, we do the little things right, and to see the young guys try to come in and do that, it means a lot because it takes a while to be an elite receiver. But once you start young, little by little, you get there. It just goes to show we expect a lot out of them, and they expect a lot out of themselves.”

• On having strong team leadership: “One thing Coach Franklin preaches is it’s a player-driven program. We’re going to go as far as we want to go, so it’ll show in our drive and our passion to not only be the best but also drag the people under us to be the best with us. His philosophy is you guys are going to be in control of it. As far as you want to go is how you’re going to dictate what you do, what other people are going to do.”