Five things to watch during Penn State's spring football practice

Mar. 11—Penn State begins spring football practice Tuesday with hopes again of making a run at the Big Ten championship and a berth in the College Football Playoff.

Things, however, are different for the Nittany Lions, the Big Ten and the sport as a whole.

Penn State coach James Franklin has new three coordinators for the first time during his tenure in State College, which began in 2014.

The addition of UCLA, USC, Oregon and Washington gives the Big Ten 18 teams from coast to coast. With the expansion, the conference will eliminate its two-division format for one.

The CFP also is expanding, going from four teams to 12 and increasing the Lions' chances of finally making the playoffs.

Penn State's journey to reach the CFP begins this week. Here are five things to watch during spring practice, which ends with the annual Blue-White Game April 13 at Beaver Stadium:

1.Change is constant

Staff changes have become common in college football, even at a place where they had seldom been made for more than four decades.

This is the seventh straight season that Franklin has at least one new staff member.

He knew he would have a new offensive coordinator once he fired Mike Yurcich last year with two games left in the regular season. But he didn't expect defensive coordinator Manny Diaz to leave to become head coach at Duke or special teams coordinator Stacy Collins to leave for the same job at Boise State to be closer to his roots.

Franklin hired Kansas offensive coordinator Andy Kotelnicki to replace Yurcich, ex-Indiana coach Tom Allen to replace Diaz and Vanderbilt assistant Justin Lustig to replace Collins. In addition, graduate assistant Danny O'Brien will coach the quarterbacks because Kotelnicki will spread his time among all the positions on offense.

Kotelnicki's hiring is the most interesting one. He spent the last 11 seasons working for Lance Leipold at Kansas, Buffalo and Wisconsin-Whitewater. Last year, the Jayhawks ranked eighth nationally in rushing, 17th in scoring and 21st in rushing.

Franklin picked Kotelnicki because Kansas ranked among the top 15 teams in the country in plays of 20-plus, 30 — plus and 40-plus yards. The Jayhawks averaged 5.51 yards per carry compared to 4.67 for the Lions and 10.04 yards per pass attempt compared to 6.77 for Penn State.

2. Carter gets down

Abdul Carter was productive in his first two college seasons at linebacker, receiving All-Big Ten recognition as a freshman (second team) and sophomore (first team).

So it was surprising when Carter's position was changed to defensive end on Penn State's online roster last month.

If Carter remains a down lineman, he will help the Lions replace Chop Robinson and Adisa Isaac, who both might be taken in the first two rounds of the NFL draft in April. They already have veterans Dani Dennis-Sutton, Amin Vanover and Zuriah Fisher and promising sophomore Jameial Lyons there, but Carter has been a very good pass rusher with 11 sacks.

Carter's position change also impacts the linebacker position, where Kobe King and Tyler Elsdon return in the middle. With Curtis Jacobs off to the NFL, Dominic DeLuca, Tony Rojas, Keon Wylie, Ta'Mere Robinson and Kaveion Keys will compete for the outside jobs.

3. Fleming can help receivers

Penn State hopes Julian Fleming can help the wide receivers with his skills and his leadership after he transferred from Ohio State in January.

Fleming chose the Buckeyes over the Lions when he came out of Southern Columbia as the top-rated high school player in Pennsylvania in 2019. He made 26 catches for 270 yards last season at Ohio State while playing in the shadow of Marvin Harrison Jr. and Emeka Egbuka.

Fleming's presence might light a fire under some Penn State receivers who have yet to meet their potential. Fleming, KeAndre Lambert-Smith and Tre Wallace appear to be the top candidates to start.

4. Tackling a couple voids

Olu Fashanu and Caedan Wallace were Penn State's starting offensive tackles the last two seasons. Now they're off to the NFL, Fashanu likely as a first-round pick.

Who replaces them?

Former Downingtown West star Drew Shelton started the final five games of the 2022 season as a freshman in place of the injured Fashanu at left tackle. Ex-Warwick star Nolan Rucci transferred from Wisconsin to Penn State, where his parents stood out in football and field hockey.

Then there's former Wyomissing star J'ven Williams and Anthony Donkoh, both highly rated members of the 2023 recruiting class who also are expected to be in the mix.

Whoever winds up playing tackle will have big shoes to fill. The Lions allowed just 16 sacks last season, second fewest in the Big Ten. Fashanu did not allow a sack the last two seasons.

5. Around the corners

Cornerbacks Kalen King, Johnny Dixon and Daequan Hardy (nickel back) all declared for the NFL draft, leaving Penn State to fill three holes in the secondary.

Cam Miller, who was a four-star prospect from Florida, has played in 24 games the last two seasons, including a start in the Peach Bowl against Ole Miss. He will be in the mix, along with sophomore Zion Tracy, who saw significant action against the Rebels.

The Lions also brought in transfers Jalen Kimber from Florida and A.J. Harris from Georgia, two former four-star prospects.

Expect those four to be part of Penn State's plans in the secondary in the fall.