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Penn State football enters new phase of preseason practice while remaining cautious

The Nittany Lions practiced in helmets and shoulder pads Wednesday for the first time. James Franklin said he plans to go "above and beyond" in his program to keep everyone safe.

Penn State head coach James Franklin and his team during a game against Michigan in 2018.
Penn State head coach James Franklin and his team during a game against Michigan in 2018.Read morePaul Sancya / AP

In a college football year that’s been anything but normal, Penn State coach James Franklin likes the fact that a shred of normalcy returned Wednesday when his players practiced for the first time in helmets and shoulder pads looking forward to their long-delayed Oct. 24 season opener.

Then again, Franklin freely admits that he wants to go “above and beyond to keep everybody safe,” the most essential message of the preseason.

When the Big Ten decided on Sept. 16 to green-light a 2020 football season, it mandated daily COVID-19 testing by no later than Sept. 30. Franklin, however, said people mistakenly think that the new protocol is a “cure-all, [but] that doesn’t solve your issues.”

“The most important thing that we can do is our behaviors, our choices of social distancing, wearing masks,” the coach said Wednesday in a Zoom call with reporters. "I think for us, we’ve gotten to a pretty good place and I think the communication has been the most important part of all of it. But our behaviors are the most important thing that we’ve got to continue working on.

“I think some of the other leagues, once they started testing every single day, especially some of the professional leagues from the feedback we’ve gotten, it kind of gave everybody a false sense of security. They felt like they could just go back to living the way they were living and you’re not going to do this. This is the new normal and we all have to embrace that.”

» READ MORE: Penn State to open Big Ten season Oct. 24 at Indiana, takes on Ohio State in Week 2 at home

Franklin said the Nittany Lions began full practices last week. All his players will continue to wear what he called “the full visor, or a visor and the cloth” mask during the workouts.

Another example of his “going above and beyond” message is “to make sure that we have as clean of a playing surface and office as we possibly can. But I still want to make sure that we’re making all the other [right] choices when we’re away from Penn State football as well.”

Franklin said things are going well with practice and the installation of the offense and the defense. With a new offensive coordinator in Kirk Ciarrocca, formerly of Minnesota, the offense will be the object of much attention.

On defense, the fact that there was no spring football, which was scheduled to begin just a few days after the coronavirus shut down the campus, puts an extra emphasis on hitting and tackling.

“It’s not like you can go from not doing any of it, then go into a game and it’s the first time anybody’s ever tackled,” Franklin said. "What we try to do is, you try to do things in as controlled environments as possible.

“Instead of doing a full scrimmage, maybe you do just tackling drills. We’ve been doing tackling drills for the last couple of weeks but they’ve been more tag-off where now we may go to a ‘thud’ tempo where we’re going to bang and wrap without going to the ground. Those types of things, we get to build in stages.”

» READ MORE: Coach James Franklin is satisfied with the Big Ten football decision, but more challenges await Penn State

Franklin said he plans “some form of scrimmage” later in the preseason.

The coach also said the Nittany Lions will continue with Zoom meetings until doctors decide that it would be safe to have in-person meetings — socially distanced, of course.

“As we practice as a full team,” he said, “and the everyday testing that’s going on, if it looks like we’re getting into a pretty good routine with that, and our medical people feel that we can get back to full meetings. ... If we do it, I think for all of us, we can’t think of comparing it to how we used to do it.”