Dallastown’s Kline on Lott watch list

Penn State linebacker and Dallastown alum Ben Kline is on this year’s Lott Impact Award watch list.  Kline is one of 42 players on the list.

The award is named for two-time All-American and Pro Football Hall of Famer Ronnie Lott, known as one of the fiercest hitters on the field when he patrolled the defensive backfield for the San Francisco 49ers during their championship days.  The award is given to college football’s defensive impact player of the year and is based on “equal weight to personal character as well as athletic performance from a defensive player.”

Kudos to Kline for getting on this list.  His making it is a testament to what he has shown in flashes during his oft-injured career in State College, as well as his 3.90 GPA in finance, and his presidency of the Penn State Chapter of Uplifting Athletes, which raises money to fight rare diseases.

Kline has starred over the past two years on special teams, and at times, has made plays at linebacker.  He missed spring practice recovering from a torn pectoral muscle suffered late last season.  If he can stay healthy, Ben would be a big help as a possible starter at linebacker, or at least providing much needed depth at the Lions’ thinnest position.

Kline has been slow and steady in his growth as a player at Penn State.  That’s not surprising, as that’s how I saw him progress at Dallastown.  He wasn’t one of those guys who instantly jumped out at you, like Chaz Powell did with his speed and moves at Susquehannock, or South Western’s Mike Felton, whose hits you could feel up in the broadcast booth.  Kline would blend in at tight end and linebacker, until he made a play.  Then he’d blend in again until he made another play.  Then another.  By the end of the game you’d realize he’d made more big plays than anybody else on the field.

The Lions could really use Kline’s football ability and veteran presence on the field for all 12 games this year.  For most of the game, you might not notice him.  Just every now and then you’ll see him make a play.  Then another, then another.  And, then you’ll realize he’s made quite a few.

Just like the Lott Award people did.

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Schedule may help get through tough year

While Happy Valley has lived up to its name a bit more in recent weeks with the seemingly continual news of James Franklin’s recruiting success, let us remember these are verbal commitments for 2015.  Nobody in this supposedly vaunted group of 16 and 17 year olds signs on any dotted lines for another nine months.  Some may choose to go elsewhere in that time, but none will be on the Beaver Stadium turf until September, 2015.

For a moment, then, let us come back to earth and consider 2014.  It could be a tough year.

Everyone is learning a new system, for some players, the third in four years.  The scholarship sanctions have decimated depth, especially at linebacker and the defensive line, the offensive line is a big question, and while QB Christian Hackenberg is back, the receiver to which he threw most often, at times almost exclusively, is getting ready for NFL camp.  Guys who would normally never see the field in any game that is within 30 points will make up the special teams.

So, what’s the good news?  Maybe, the schedule.

Penn State travels to Ireland to open against Central Florida, which beat the Lions in Beaver Stadium last year.  But that was with the first quarterback taken in the draft, Blake Bortels.  UCF likely won’t be as good as last year, and with the travel and hoopla surrounding this game, who knows how 18 to 22 year olds will react.  After that, PSU has three winnable games against Akron, Rutgers, and Massachusetts.  Northwestern follows at State College, and the Huskies are not figured to be as tough as last year, either.

PSU then has a week off before traveling to Michigan for a big prime time game.  That is followed by another bye, before hosting Ohio State in another night contest.  Yep, you can hear ‘em in Ann Arbor and Columbus already.  Penn State has byes before both Michigan and Ohio State.  With the depleted ranks due to scholarship limits, those off weeks probably couldn’t come at a better time.  Don’t tell Mark Emerick, he’ll probably say the schedulers were involved in a conspiracy.

But, I digress.  After the OSU game, Penn State hosts Randy Edsall and Maryland, the goes to Indiana, then hosts Temple.  Even if the Michigan and Ohio State games go badly, Franklin should be able to get his guys together to win these three.  At improving Illinois and home to tough Michigan State finish the slate.

Closer analysis of each game will come later.  But, as a whole, if anything gives James Franklin a shot at a winning first year, it could be that schedule.

Lion fans may see in this a sliver of justice.  Or the fates finally turning at least a half kind eye toward Penn State.  Just don’t expect Michigan or Ohio State to agree.

 

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NFL draft may keep recruiting hot

Penn State is likely to have a few players’ names called  over the next couple days as the NFL conducts its annual draft.  While it’s always gratifying for Lions’ fans to see the guys they watched on Saturdays get the chance to play on Sundays, PSU’s continued success in the draft also helps James Franklin’s pitch to high school blue chippers.

Penn State’s draft history is a bit checkered.  High profile picks Courtney Brown, Ki-Jana Carter, Blair Thomas, Curtis Enis, and a few others, are generally regarded as busts in that their NFL careers didn’t live up to their draft position.  Carter’s was largely due to injuries, but the stigma remains.

Still, many Penn Staters have and continue to enjoy solid NFL careers.  Michael Robinson recently made the pro bowl, and caught a pass in Seattle’s Super Bowl win in February.  Paul Pozlusny is a top quality linebacker.  As is Sean Lee.  Tamba Hali is a star in Kansas City, and several others are doing well in markets and at positions that don’t necessarily get a lot of the limelight.

But the top high schoolers, who believe they can play in the NFL, like to see players from the school to which they are going moving on to the top ranks.  It helps validate their choices.  They may even get to mingle with NFL players on a gameday visit on the sidelines.  It says this coaching staff can develop pro players.

While the players likely to be drafted this week–Allen Robinson, DaQuann Jones, John Urschel–are products of Joe Paterno and Bill O’Brien, their selections will still help cement in potential recruits’ minds that Penn State is among the top schools in the college football world, and take their minds off the scandal issues that have dominated the news for the past two and a half years.

So, the guys who will trade Nittany Lion blue and white for new NFL colors this week aren’t James Franklin’s guys, but they will still be helping him keep the tradition going in future years.

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Franklin recruiting northeast well

As James Franklin continues to prepare for his first year as Penn State head coach, he is making good on one early promise:  to ramp up Penn State’s recruiting in Pennsylvania and the northeast, which may be considered somewhat home turf for the Nittany Lions. 

Franklin, you may recall, promised Lions’ fans Penn State would dominate recruiting in Pennsylvania going forward.  While this was never an easy task, it got harder this year with long time Lion coach and lead recruiter Larry Johnson moving to Ohio State, and nearby competitiors Maryland and Rutgers joining the Big Ten.

But, Franklin’s so far stellar early commitment class of 2015 is showing he is winning the battle for nearby talent, at least for now.  As Pennlive.com’s Audrey Snyder points out in this interesting piece, 11 of Franklin’s 12 2015 early commits are from within six hours of State College. 

There is certainly talent to be mined in this six hour radius.  It includes all of Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Maryland, Delaware, New York City, Washington, D.C., a bit of northern Virginia, most of West Virginia, eastern Ohio, and pretty much all of New York State.  You could probably throw in a bit of western Connecticut, too.

While Franklin is on target with focusing his efforts in this typically talent-rich area, he should not, and I am sure, will not, overlook the rest of the country, either.  Big time recruiting has been a national game for a long time, and Penn State still has a name that resonates in most corners of the country.

But, firmly establishing, and winning on, that home court never hurts.

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Keep 2014 expectations real

Many blue and white fans have gotten caught up in the recent hype around James Franklin’s 2015 recruiting class being ranked #1 in the country, or at least in the top two or three, by different recruiting sources.  I admit it turned my head.

While this success should not be downplayed, fans would do well to keep it in perspective.  And not get hopes too high for Franklin’s first Penn State team this fall.  I say this for several reasons.

  • The recruiting class is for 2015.  None of these players will be on the field this year.
  • It is a recruiting class that has given verbal commitments.  None of these will become binding until next February.
  • The 2014 team will labor under severe scholarship restrictions which will mean an ever greater depth problem than we saw on the field last year.
  • The offensive line and linebacker positions are particularly thin, with largely unknown and unproven players filling the #2 slots on the depth chart.
  • Even the top players, QB Christian Hackenberg, the running back trio, tight ends, some D linemen and D backs, will be playing under a new regime, some for the third in their college careers.  There will be an adjustment period.

Franklin seems to be a very positive guy, who kept most of Bill O’Brien’s recruits, and inherits the nucleus of a good team.  He seems as though he’ll get the guys to play hard each Saturday.  But, on some Saturdays, maybe five or six, that may not be good enough this year.

Here’s hoping the scholarship limits continue being lifted at an accelerated pace, and the bowl bans goes away as soon as this year.  That will help.  But all Nittany Lion faithful should understand the scope of the challenge Franklin faces.  He takes over a program in worse shape than the one O’Brien inherited.  That program was in shellshock, but still had four full recruiting classes of mostly top notch players. 

That’s no so now.  Remember:  patience is a virtue.

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