Here are my top 5 takeaways from what we heard and saw during Penn State media day Saturday at Beaver Stadium:
1: First and foremost, best wishes to James Franklin’s daughter, Addison, who is in the hospital. Franklin mentioned that during his press conference Saturday but didn’t provide any details, and there was not a follow-up question asked during his presser. Addison has sickle cell disease, an underlying condition that can be very dangerous with COVID. We do not know if COVID has anything to do with her being in the hospital, but certainly we wish her the best.
Mark Brennan from Lions247 was able to speak with Franklin briefly after the press conference and posted this update:
An update on @coachjfranklin noting his daughter is in the hospital. Talked to him quickly after the presser and he said it is for precautionary reasons. Best wishes to her and the family.
— Mark Brennan (@MarkXBrennan) August 7, 2021
2: The biggest football news of the day was the announcement that defensive end Adisa Isaac, a projected starter, likely will miss the entire season. Franklin said Isaac suffered an injury that took place away from football training. “He is doing unbelievably well, so you never know, the way medicine is now. Adisa has been phenomenal in terms of doing what he needs to do to get back as quickly as he possibly can. So, you never know. But he’ll be out for a significant amount of time.”
Isaac is a 6-foot-4, 244-pound junior. He played all nine games last year and had 13 tackles, 1.5 sacks and two QB hurries. The Lions already faced questions with the departures of starting ends Jayson Oweh and Shaka Toney to the NFL. Losing Isaac is a key blow because …
3: I can see the defensive front seven having some troubles this season. That was going to be the case for me even with Isaac in the mix, and without the projected starter, it creates another question mark. Let’s remember, the defense wasn’t very good last year, giving up tons and tons of big plays while missing a lot of tackles and playing sloppy, particularly during the 0-5 start.
One bit of good news is that defensive coordinator Brent Pry said the defense has a lot of good leadership. Here is Pry’s lengthy answer singling out players who have shown good leadership.
“We’re also very excited about Nick Tarburton. I’m a big Nick fan. He’s had some unfortunate circumstances with some injuries over the years that kept everyone from knowing what we know about him. He’s not just a very good defensive end prospect, but he’s one of the best leaders in our unit. We’re looking for a big season out of Nick.
“I’m very excited about AK (Arnold Ebiketie) and the transition he’s made. He’s not just a talented guy, but also an intelligent football player that has picked up our scheme and our system very well.
“And the guy that I’m probably most excited about from camp that’s just made great strides between spring and especially this summer with Coach (Dwight) Galt and his staff is Smith Vilbert. Smith has similar qualities to Yetur Gross-Matos. He has a basketball background, is very athletic and has good size. Smith’s finally turning the corner and really he’s a football player for the first time, not a basketball player playing football. He’s got tremendous size, tremendous length. When I watched Smith Vilbert play basketball in high school, you talk about me and [Sean Spencer] coming out of the gymnasium excited. We couldn’t get over the way he could move at that size. We’re excited about what Smith can do this camp to put himself in position to be a productive end for us this fall.
“And then obviously we talked about Jesse (Luketa). Jesse’s always had very good rush ability. If you go back to his film and look at the snaps where he’s blitzing for us, he’s hard to block. He has a good low shoulder rush. I consider his rush ability to be a real positive for him. And then I don’t want to discount a young guy, Zuriah Fisher, that we took as an inside linebacker. He’s made the transition to defensive end. Zuriah’s very athletic, has a great motor and he’s very eager. So I think we’ve got a pretty good group. It has us excited.
“We just recently decided Amin Vanover, a guy that’s got great size and is a physical player that we were comfortable moving inside, we’ve decided to move him out. He’s a little bit of a swing guy in my mind. Amin plays reckless, he’s physical. He’s just got to continue to soak up the position and learn it, but he’s a guy we’re excited about, as well. We’ve got a really good group.”
4: Franklin acknowledged one thing that is very important, which is that the offense can’t wait around until a few weeks into the season to start clicking. This team has to travel to Wisconsin to open the season, and to win that game, the Lions are going to have to play really well offensively.
Can they do that, in week one of a new offensive system under Mike Yurcich? Sure, it’s possible. Sean Clifford has played a lot of football, and there are a lot of weapons on offense. Still, it seems very likely to me that we could see something like we saw with the 2016 offense, when Joe Moorhead took over as OC. It took a few weeks before that offense really got going, then it became an explosive unit that could score from anywhere on the field. That team had a tremendous amount of talent, but we didn’t really know that at the beginning of the season with a new starting QB in Trace McSorley and some young running back named Saquon someting (wink wink).
This year’s team might be able to hit the ground running a little better with Clifford.
“Based on our schedule, it better be early, right?” Franklin said. “Everybody’s aware of that, so I think we’ve approached it that way, right? Whether you like to admit it or not, when the players see that game to open the season, it has an impact. I think the coaches always try to have a sense of urgency, we try to run a program where our players have a sense of urgency, and it’s not really dependent on the opponent, it’s about our process. But, we need to be shooting on all cylinders come week one.”
5: The coaches want to use Jesse Luketa (6-3, 247) as a hybrid linebacker/defensive end. This makes sense, given the depth concerns at the defensive end spot. “We’re kind of we’re going to split his time,” Franklin said. “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. 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.”
Here’s my concern with the whole shuffling Luketa idea: He’s a solid player, but he had some issues tackling last year at linebacker. While he has good upside, I don’t feel he has lived up to his potential so far. Now that he’s going to have to split time between two positions, you just have to wonder if he’ll ever become really good at either spot. And the Lions need him to be really good, since, as I mentioned, there are other concerns in the front seven.
Note: We will have much, much more from Penn State’s media day over the coming days.