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August 1, 2014

Column: Health, development creates balancing act

Rest the starters, develop the depth.

That's how the common thinking goes, anyway, for a Penn State team still struggling to find any sense of balance in the midst of the NCAA's sanctions against the program. With such a strong influx of young players - few of whom can counted on to assume the team's key positions in case of injury - the necessity to keep healthy the likes of Christian Hackenberg, Bill Belton, Zach Zwinak, Donovan Smith, Mike Hull or any of the other presumed starters becomes of utmost importance.

In speaking with Nittany Lions' head coach James Franklin in Chicago for the annual Big Ten Football Media Days, his philosophy doesn't necessarily include being overly cautious.

"I think those things always factor in, but we don't really have anybody that has arrived," he said. "In college football, you're in the business of developing. In college athletics, you're in the business of developing kids. In college football, you're in the business of developing football players, so we've got some guys that we know could help us, but they've still got a lot of room for growth as well.

"So that's the fine line, 'How do you continue getting those guys better so that instead of just being good players, they have a chance to be great players for you, while also creating depth and staying healthy?'"

There's some good news here, though, for Penn State.

Welcoming 24 true freshmen and a junior college transfer this offseason, Penn State's scholarship roster is expected to reach 72 players for preseason camp. Maybe more important, the preseason roster released in full this July indicated 121 total players carried.

Granted, only 105 combined scholarship and walk-on players can participate with the team during preseason camp in August, but the simple fact that Penn State will have enough bodies to be able to conduct practices to Franklin's liking will be crucial, he said.

"That's where the numbers help," he said. "The fact that we're going to have the full - which I've never had in all my years of being a head coach, I've never had the full amount that you're allowed to have by NCAA rule in camp, with 105. I've never had 105. And then being able to get to whatever Penn State is going to allow us to get to, whether it's 125 or 121 or whatever it may be for NCAA purposes with gender equity.

"I think those things help us, because my point is, there's going to be a lot more people getting reps and it's not just team reps, it's individual reps. So if you've got 15 wideouts, that's going to take some of the running off of your starters."

Balancing the necessity of continued development for even Penn State's most reliable starters against the crucial need for health, the story line will be one to watch closely as the 2014 season approaches.

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