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Spring checkup: Penn State Nittany Lions

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STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- James Franklin entered this spring with questions at defensive end since last season's starters both left as NFL hopefuls.

After 11 practices, Franklin said those questions are long gone.

"Those guys have played with great technique, they've played with great fundamentals, they're playing with really good confidence right now," he said Saturday. "And I'm excited about our D-ends, I really am."

Senior Carl Nassib and redshirt sophomore Garrett Sickels have spent most of their time with the first team, while three others -- Torrence Brown, Curtis Cothran, Evan Schwan -- have taken turns rotating.

Sickels especially impressed during the portion of practice open to the media, when he came off the edge and pressured Christian Hackenberg. During one particular play, with the pocket collapsing, Sickels nearly came away with a sack -- until Hackenberg fumbled with Sickels in his face.

Sickels and Nassib both saw limited time last season but played in every game. Nassib, a former walk-on, came away with a forced fumble and a sack in 2014. Sickels had two sacks.

"Nassib and Sickels are doing really well, playing at a high level. Really talented, very dependable," Franklin said. "But I'd say Curtis Cothran and Torrence Brown, to me, are exciting. And that doesn't slight the other guys, but those two guys -- for young guys that haven't played -- they are flashing some exciting things."

OL progress: Last year, nobody on the offensive line would take control because no one wanted to make mistakes. This year, Franklin said, it's a different story.

"Let's be honest," he said. "Understand where we started. We still got a long ways to go where we want to be, but we're communicating so much better."

Four starters from last year's unit return. But the big question mark remains at left tackle, where a lineman without game experience will be forced to start -- either junior college transfer Paris Palmer or redshirt freshman Chance Sorrell.

Franklin said Palmer's footwork has looked good, but he can still get overpowered. (The roster lists him at 278 pounds, but Franklin said he's 290.) He was the lineman whom Sickels overpowered to get to Hackenberg, and Franklin said he'd like to see Palmer between 300 and 305 pounds.

Kicking game: The starters here have yet to be settled, although Franklin has plenty of options. There are currently eight punters/kickers and four snappers on the roster.

"I see you guys making fun of us on social media and in your articles, talking about how many kickers and punters and snappers is Franklin going to bring in," Franklin said with a laugh. "Yeah, we've got like 35 of them; it's the biggest unit on the team."

The kickers have progressed more than the punters, whom Franklin said he'd rather see more out of. And he addressed just one player specifically -- redshirt freshman kicker Joe Julius.

"What I really like about Joe is he's not your typical kicker," Franklin said. "And what I mean by that is he was a high-level soccer player, so he is fiercely competitive. And when the pressure is on him, that's when he likes it the most. ... When he hits the ball, it just sounds different than the other guys. It jumps off his foot."

Leadership: Linebacker Mike Hull was the heart and soul of the defense last season so, naturally, he won't be easy to replace. But he wasn't the most vocal player.

"Mike probably said seven words and 16 grunts in the 16 months I was here," Franklin said. "He led by example, by how hard he worked, by his mentality, by his focus, by his attention to detail. ... I don't think you're going to replace Mike Hull's presence -- not with one person. It's going to be a combination of people who fill that role."

Franklin tried looking on the bright side of that, saying he prefers multiple players to step up. On past teams, he said, if the soul of the offense or defense would get injured, sometimes those teams would act lost without him.

Three such "replacements" immediately spring to mind. Safety Jordan Lucas is especially vocal, while Franklin and defensive coordinator Bob Shoop have pointed toward defensive tackle Anthony Zettel and middle linebacker Nyeem Wartman as potential leaders.