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Scout teams help Penn State to the heights

From freshmen teams to high school to college, scout teams are often the heart and soul of football programs across the country.

Trace McSorley runs against the scout team Wednesday at practice. - Jarrod Prugar / DKPS

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — From freshmen teams to high school to college, scout teams are often the heart and soul of football programs across the country. At Penn State, it’s no different. In fact, the scout teams for the Nittany Lions are helping their counterparts reach success more than you would think.

“One of the biggest things that doesn’t get talked about enough is the scout teams,” James Franklin said after practice at the Lasch Football Complex on Wednesday night. “Our scout teams are completely different from what they were four years ago, three years ago, two years ago.”

The ability of the scout team for Penn State has come along way since Franklin and company took over five years ago, and now they’re one of the primary reasons the entire team gets better each week and claimed a Big Ten championship and a win in the Fiesta Bowl last season.

“The first couple of years, we had some challenges with scholarship numbers alone and putting together a starting squad,” Franklin said. “I think you spend so much time talking about how many guys play as true freshmen, but the developmental aspect of college football almost seems like it’s a dying breed. You don’t focus on that as much anymore. It’s all about coming in and playing as a true freshman and trying to leave after three years.”

When riddled with sanctions reducing scholarships, the Nittany Lions struggled on the field because of their lack of depth on the field and quality of their scout team. Now, with full scholarships and back-to-back 10-win seasons, Penn State has put forth what seems to be an incredibly deep team on game day and on the practice field.

“It’s much more competitive. They have a legitimate ability to replicate what we’re going to face. In years past, you’d get the speed of the game on Saturday, and you wouldn’t really get it unless you went good-on-good,” Franklin said. “Ours is getting to a point where the scout players are getting better and having fun. They’re competing and they’re challenging, where in years past, you’d be fighting like crazy to be getting those guys to practice at a certain level, then when they would, the travel squad, the varsity guys wouldn’t be ready for it, and it just would be a mess.”

The added depth has allowed for game-like practices where the Nittany Lions are able to take advantage of their athleticism and get more out of mundane practices.

“We’re athletic enough that we’re able to play that fast, and we’re able to play that aggressive without people falling all over the ground,” Franklin said.

Being able to limit injury risks is imperative to the success of a program ranked in the top 10, and for the most part, Penn State has been relatively healthy this season. That health and wellness have allowed the Nittany Lions to be in great shape heading into this weekend’s game against Michigan State.

“I thought Tuesday was the best practice we had in four years since we’ve been here,” Franklin said.

Franklin wasn’t the only person who raved about the practice Penn State had Tuesday. Safety Nick Scott was still talking about the quality of practice Wednesday night.

“I thought it was really sharp, easily could’ve been one of our best all-time.” Scott said. “I think it started with special teams. That’s a group pretty much driven by younger guys, so to see them coming out and starting the way they did with a tremendous amount of focus, it set the tone for the whole practice.”

Having quality practices midway through the season is something most coaches dream of, especially as the Nittany Lions are facing the bulk of their Big Ten schedule. As the season goes on, though, Franklin has his mind set on development and getting better each week rather than winning games.

“That’s one of the things we’ve done a pretty good job of over our eight years is developing guys all the way back to our time at Vanderbilt,” Franklin said. “There’s this impression out there that we’re recruiters, but let’s be honest, at Vanderbilt we were able to get some guys that hadn’t really gotten there before, but who were we really competing against for recruits? We developed guys there and had success, and we’ve been able to do the same things here.”

The life of a scout teamer is far from easy, as they routinely get beat up by first-string players and scholarship athletes each day, and most of them are not on scholarship. They’re charged with running opposing team’s plays on offense and defense, and to do that, they must read play cards and learn quickly prior to each down.

“It shouldn’t be as hard as you think. We literally show them a card all drawn up, lines where they’re supposed to go,” Franklin said. “Our (graduate assistants) do an unbelievable job: the defensive line’s in one color, linebackers are in another color, DBs are in another color.”

Having players on the scout team who have the talent to make a difference in their current role and also in the game, should they be called upon, is integral to the long-term success of the team. As they continue to get better, good things will continue to happen Penn State, but there’s still a lot to be done as far as growth and depth are concerned.

“I think thats one of the biggest improvements in our program right now, the depth of our scout teams,” Franklin said. “The next step is the depth of the guys we play on Saturdays.”

More from Franklin:

• On Trace McSorley as a Heisman candidate: “You wouldn’t write him off after the Ohio State game. He was the Big Ten Player of the Week in my opinion, I don’t care what anybody says. He played like crazy. Those things are not things we spend a lot of time talking about or worrying about.”

• On the success of the running game: “It’s a combination of our O-line and our tight ends. I also think it’s a combination of Trace’s production running the ball, as well. It’s all of those things. I think you’ll see a really good combination of Miles (Sanders) and Ricky (Slade) this week. We got a challenge. The thing we can’t do — we gotta be patient with the run game. These guys are giving up 33 yards a game running. I think the mistake you make when you play a team like that is you abort the run and go all pass, which is what they want you to do.”

• On having a scoring mentality: “It’s always, always about points. And those points are impacted by our offense, those points are impacted by our defense, those points are impacted by special teams, all of it. It’s never about yards, it’s always about points. Offensively, it’s always about scoring one more point. It’s not about scoring 50 points, it’s about scoring one more point than our defense gives up.”

More from Scott:

• On Michigan State quarterback Brian Lewerke: “He’s extremely talented, he’s a guy that can make all the throws. I think you look at the film last year, he did a really nice job finding the holes in the defense. He’s a guy that’s gonna scramble to pass, he can also move.”

• On not letting losses linger: “Last year, I think we got away from our one-game-a-week mantra. After what happened last year, we were focused on what we needed to do to be in a certain position at the end of the season rather than focusing on the task at hand, and, obviously, we felt the consequences. This year, guys are being extremely mature. We’ve moved on from last week, and we’re 100-percent focused on Michigan State, trying to make sure we don’t have a repeat of what happened last year.”

• On tackling: “I think that we, obviously, can always get better in that area, as well as other areas. That’s one that’s sort of stood out, just because a lot of big plays have come from missed tackles, bad angles, things like that. That’s something you see all the time. You see that with inexperienced teams and experienced teams. It’s something we’re working on, something we’re taking very seriously in practice.”