Roaring Into Spring

More than 7,500 fans attended today’s spring practice, with head coach James Franklin saying that after last season, the number felt more like 75,000. Photo: Penn State Athletics

For a few hours Saturday afternoon, Beaver Stadium temporarily reverted back to its old self.

The band played “Hey Baby,” special guests visited to say hello, fans cheered on the Nittany Lions. Even the sun momentarily appeared, never guaranteed in April in Happy Valley. However, considering the type of day it was, it should have seemed inevitable.

Because for the first time since 2019, Beaver Stadium opened back up beyond parents’ families, with first-year students, the Blue Band, Penn State Cheerleaders, and Lionettes providing the signature soundtrack to Happy Valley football. And for everyone wondering, yes, even “Sweet Caroline” was heard over the speakers.

So if it’s a yes/no question, the answer is the former. Yes, Beaver Stadium roared back to life this weekend.

The announced attendance was 7,521, with students and players’ families socially distanced throughout the stadium, and their impact was evident.

“After last season, it felt like 75,000,” head coach James Franklin said. “It really felt good to be in there with our freshmen students and our parents. It was really good work for us. Obviously, there are a lot of thing we’ve got to get cleaned up, but being back in the stadium, I thought was a real positive for us and we’ll build on that.”

Along with Franklin, defensive coordinator Brent Pry knows what Beaver Stadium typically feels like. The rocking atmosphere is a big reason why many recruits choose to play for the blue and white. When talking about today, his mind first went back to last season, equal parts spooky and surreal.

“Last fall, there were a lot of times when you’d run out of that tunnel and it was like an Alfred Hitchcock show or The Twilight Zone. It was weird, coming out of that tunnel and nobody in those seats,” Pry said. “Just the energy today that that number of fans provided was outstanding. Our guys feel that stuff. That’s a big reason why a lot of our guys come to Penn State, is the environment they get to play in.

I’ve so appreciative of everybody coming out and supporting these guys. It’s just outstanding to get a little bit, a little taste of what hopefully we’ll get back to in the fall. And for the guys, it meant a lot. For the guys who were out there last fall, that was a tough situation being in a 107,00-seat stadium with nobody in it, so it was nice today.”

The scoring started with the White squad, with Sean Clifford finding Cam Sullivan-Brown along the visitor’s sideline for a long pass, setting up a field goal four plays later. Sullivan-Brown adjusted to the ball nicely, catching it with his outstretched hands right next to the sideline.

Later on, Clifford threw a scoring strike, a 45-yard touchdown to tight end Brenton Strange, who got loose in the secondary along the home sideline. Clifford faked a quick throw and found Strange around the 15-yard line. Strange outraced a defender and was tackled into the end zone. It took a possession or two for Clifford to find some rhythm with his receivers, though he got there, and all the quarterbacks dealt with pressure that was nicely provided by the Nittany Lions’ defensive line on both teams.

Sophomore running back Devyn Ford bursts through the line during Saturday’s spring practice at Beaver Stadium. Photo: Penn State Athletics

Redshirt sophomore quarterback Ta’Quan Roberson looked crisp on a lot of his passes, and he also rushed for a touchdown late in the scrimmage, scampering in from about 10-15 yards, as Penn State switched to having the offense start at the 25-yard line. Devyn Ford put together a nice 10-yard burst, running into a crowd. It would’ve been a shorter gain, but he bounced off for an extra five or six yards. Ford carried the ball for the White squad, while Caziah Holmes was the featured back on the Blue team. Holmes looked fresh, gaining yards and also catching a touchdown out of the backfield from freshman quarterback Christian Veilleux.

Prior to the practice, Blue Band Director Greg Drane led the crowd through a series of fight songs, the Lionettes performed, and Alumni Association CEO Paul Clifford greeted the first-year students in attendance through a “We Are” cheer.

Former Nittany Lions and current pros (and one future pro) Marcus Allen, Pat Freiermuth, Blake Gillikin, Yetur Gross-Matos, KJ Hamler, and Miles Sanders were in the house to support the team and give shoutouts to the crowd. Former All-American cornerback Alan Zemaitis also was on hand, with the former Nittany Lion now serving as a recruiting coordinator for the program.

Franklin hired Zemaitis earlier this year, saying that Zemaitis had worked at a few Penn State camps and that everyone who he sought out spoke highly of the standout cornerback. Zemaitis was previously an assistant football coach at in-state school Susquehanna University, and he was featured on the blog and on The Football Letter Live last season.

On the field, there was some rustiness, to be sure, and that’s standard with spring practice. But there were enough highlights to provide a sense that Penn State should be ranked in preseason polls, with most early forecasts placing the Nittany Lions between tenth and fifteenth.

Freshman cornerback Kalen King picked off two passes, including one for a score that he returned for about 25 yards to give the Blue squad its score of the day. As usual, Franklin watched the action right on the field, and the quarterbacks not in play were nearby, mirroring the action of snap and dropping back, while the team scrimmaged about 10-15 yards in front.

Keyvone Lee had a number of impressive runs and freshman Tank Smith scored twice. Yes, the freshman running back from Penn Hills in Pittsbugh has one of the coolest names you could hope for — Tank Smith — and maximized his opportunity when he entered the practice later on. He scored once on the ground and caught a short pass for his second score in the waning moments of the practice, before the place-kickers booted some simulated kickoffs.

Penn State will close out spring practice next week, with the final workout coming Friday at Beaver Stadium, which seniors are invite to attend. Full details on that are available online.

Sophomore defensive tackle Aeneas Hawkins (27) goes through drills during Saturday’s practice at Beaver Stadium. Photo: Penn State Athletics

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