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Penn State spring game: What we learned

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STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Christian Hackenberg played for three quarters during Saturday’s annual Blue-White Game, something even coach James Franklin hadn’t anticipated.

The Penn State junior stayed in the game because his backup, Trace McSorley, was unable to play for unspecified reasons. At one point in the second quarter, Hackenberg limped briefly -- but Franklin said he was fine and never thought about taking him out.

“No, no, he got stepped on. That’s football,” Franklin said. “He reached down, touched his toe, shook his foot and went back.”

That came as good news to the 68,000 announced fans who showed up to Penn State’s spring scrimmage -- especially considering Hackenberg is the only quarterback with any kind of game experience on the roster. He finished three quarters of work by going 17-of-29 for 180 yards with one interception and one touchdown.

Hackenberg’s team, Blue, beat the White by a score of 17-7.

Here are five observations from the spring scrimmage:

1. Offensive line still needs work: Franklin said this unit was progressing -- but it still had a long way to go. By halftime, the latter was evident.

“Obviously, our defensive line holds the advantage over our offensive line,” Franklin said after the game. “That’s going to be a work in progress.”

The Blue offensive line, made up of starters, allowed five sacks and seven tackles-for-loss against a defense made up primarily of second- and third-stringers. (Again, that was in just the first half.) Left tackle Paris Palmer made his PSU debut as a junior-college transfer, but he had a first half to forget. He showed some quickness … but that’s to be expected at 278 pounds. He was noticeably lighter and less powerful than his counterparts.

This offensive line was the biggest question mark to start the spring, and Palmer was looked upon as the weakest link since the other four starters returned. Now, at the end of spring? Nothing’s changed in either regard.

2. Running backs definitely more of a home-run threat this year: Akeel Lynch and Nick Scott both had days to remember for the Nittany Lions, but Scott -- who could back up Lynch this season -- easily had the offensive play of the day.

Just when it looked as if he was tackled in the backfield, he regained his balance and shot up the middle for a 51-yard score. He was hit twice within the 10-yard line but spun, maintained his balance and grabbed the touchdown. His knee might’ve been down in the backfield -- and maybe his larger, defensive counterparts just wanted to avoid hurting him -- but it was still impressive to watch Scott outrun the first-team secondary.

Lynch finished the game with nine carries for 50 yards, while Scott had nine carries for 77 yards. Franklin said afterward that Scott flashed a lot Saturday, but Mark Allen “had a really strong spring.”

3. Kicker Joe “The Toe” Julius has a powerful leg -- just as advertised: The Nittany Lions opened the annual Blue-White Game with a new kicking competition, and Julius had the fans cheering even before the opening kickoff. He nailed a pair of 55-yard field goals, but that wasn’t even the most impressive part. Both of those kicks traveled at least an additional five and 10 yards, respectively, beyond the goal post.

Julius still needs to work on his consistency, and his trajectory was a bit low at times. But when he’s at his best, it sure looks as if he’ll be tough to beat for the starting job. The longest PSU field goal came from Chris Bahr exactly 40 years ago and went 55 yards. So, needless to say, it’s not all that often PSU fans see a kicker with Julius’ power.

“I thought he had a good spring,” Franklin said, “and he showed that today.”

4. Passing game still searching for consistency: Without McSorley, Hackenberg saw more time than most expected Saturday afternoon. And, throughout those three quarters, he continued to show just why he remains a first-round NFL projection -- while, at the same time, making a surprising mistake or two. He was picked off by 5-foot-9 DB Bryant Harper and nearly threw at least one more interception. But, on the other end of it, he made several nice, quick throws into small windows -- and tossed a great, 41-yard pass straight into the streaking arms of Saeed Blacknall.

The quarterbacks behind McSorley both struggled Saturday, but one is a walk-on and the other arrived on campus in January. Their struggles weren’t particularly alarming.

5. Very little drop-off at defensive end: Sure, longtime starters Deion Barnes and C.J. Olaniyan are headed to the NFL -- but the players taking over showed Saturday this will still be an incredibly strong unit.

Carl Nassib broke up two passes and made a stop in the backfield, while fellow starter Garrett Sickels was honored at halftime with the Jim O’Hora Award as the most-improved defensive player. On top of that, the backup DEs -- who should still see quite a bit of time under defensive coordinator Bob Shoop’s system -- put up even more impressive numbers. Both Evan Schwan and Curtis Cothran registered two sacks and 2.5 TFLs apiece.

Franklin said he had his own questions before the spring about the defensive line. Now? They’re long gone.