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Spring checkup: Penn State Nittany Lions

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- James Franklin doesn't want his team to forget about last season's losses to Illinois and Maryland. At least not entirely.

During Saturday's fifth spring practice, the Nittany Lions lined up and did their best to mimic the four-minute situation against Illinois. Franklin reminded his players of those parameters -- 3:29 left on their own 32, Penn State leading 14-13 -- but he likely didn't need to remind them of the outcome. Penn State lost 16-14 after a three-and-out led to an Illini field goal.

Penn State's mission Saturday? Change the outcome, at least on the practice field.

"We've taken all these situations from the games last year, and we want to play them out and learn from some of the mistakes we made last year," Franklin said. "And the offense was able to line up in a four-minute offense and play pretty good and win both of those situations, in terms of eating up the clock."

Penn State faced a similar situation against Maryland last season. The Lions led 19-17 until a three-and-out with 3:22 left led to a game-winning Terps field goal.

Franklin said he'll put his team in other unique situations, maybe one from the AFC Championship or a past Big Ten title game. But he finds past Penn Sate examples to be especially valuable.

"If I get up there and just say four-minute situation -- three minutes and 10 seconds left, two timeouts, I'm just coming up with something," Franklin said. "But if I can tell them, 'This is the situation, and this is where we were last year at Illinois ... it carries more weight -- especially when it was a situation we weren't successful at."

Easing into it: Penn State's struggles on the offensive line have been documented pretty well here, here and here.

Naturally, the Lions are trying something a bit different this offseason. Instead of constant blitzes and tricky looks, defensive coordinator Bob Shoop is trying to make it a bit more vanilla. That way, the offensive line isn't hit with everything at once and young linemen/potential starters -- such as redshirt freshman Chance Sorrell and early enrollee Paris Palmer -- aren't overloaded with material.

"I thought last year our defense built up a lot of confidence, and our offense was young enough that it was seeing too many looks early on," Franklin said. "Plus, this gives you a better opportunity to evaluate the guys."

Running back progress: Gone from the group of running backs are three-year starters Zach Zwinak and Bill Belton. But Franklin isn't expecting a dropoff.

Akeel Lynch has generated a buzz among the Penn State fan base since flashing his breakaway speed at the 2013 Blue-White Game. He'll be the main ball-carrier now; Franklin said he's "looking like the workhorse we think he can be."

The bigger question is who else might get a lot if carries this season. When asked about the other running backs, Franklin praised Nick Scott, who's "really showing some flashes," and also said Mark Allen "has done some nice things."

"What I like is we're being a lot more definitive," Franklin said. "There's less hesitation. ... We're just so much stronger and explosive than we were last year."

Finding leadership: Middle linebacker Mike Hull was the leader of the defense and the heartbeat of the team in 2014, so obviously there's a void to fill. So, who will replace Hull's leadership?

Franklin said the ideal replacement would be another middle linebacker, as they're involved in both pass coverage and run defense. Or maybe even a safety. This season, however, that title could fall to defensive tackle Anthony Zettel, who's the Lions' top returning defensive player.

"We like it to be a linebacker, but I've been at places where the D-lineman is your leader," Franklin said, "so that can happen."

Improved measurements: Before the first spring practice, Franklin shared how the Lions fared this offseason compared to the last.

Six players were able to bench-press more than 400 pounds last season. This season? Eleven. Other categories: Power-clean (300 pounds) -- 28 in 2014, 47 in 2015; Broad-jump (10-foot) -- five in 2014, 23 in 2015; 40-yard dash (4.59 or better) -- 11 in 2014, 20 in 2015.