Penn State football: Coach James Franklin finding a fit for freshman

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UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — One of the toughest decisions to make when coaching Koa Farmer is where to play him. Where can an athlete with his size and speed best impact the team?

Penn State coach James Franklin decided last week that Farmer’s position is linebacker, after originally slating him to be a safety. Now, Farmer is going to travel the same path as Gerald Hodges, a highly touted recruit who switched from safety to linebacker.

“As you know, we have some depth concerns at linebacker,” Franklin said. “That gives us another guy that gives us the size we’re looking for and that has the movement.”

The past four years in southern California, Notre Dame High School coach Kevin Rooney faced the same decision with Farmer. Where to play him? All Rooney knew is that whatever position Farmer played had to be one that involved him as much as possible.

“He’s very athletic, and he’s a big, strong kid and very smart,” Rooney said. “So we tried offensively to put him in as many positions he could get the ball as he could. He was capable of making the big plays. Defensively he could have played linebacker or safety or corner — or whatever he wanted really.”

On offense, Farmer mainly played wide receiver but was also used as a running back and wildcat quarterback. One time as quarterback, he ran for what should have been a solid gain before encountering a safety primed to make the tackle. Instead of going down, Farmer leaped over him. He went on to score an 82-yard touchdown.

He became interested in Penn State after Franklin was hired in January. Farmer had originally committed to California but as of early December was considering other options, including Vanderbilt, which was still coached by Franklin at the time.

Farmer played at around 205 pounds his last year of high school (he is 6 feet 2). Franklin said he came to Penn State weighing 215 pounds and running a 4.4 40-yard dash.

Right away, the coaching staff thought Farmer would be a good candidate to turn into a linebacker.

Franklin figured Farmer would gain 10 pounds easily by spring practice next year and thought about genetics, too. Farmer’s father, Jamal Farmer, played running back in college and weighed more than 230 pounds. So the position switch became official.

Hodges was the last high-profile Penn State player to make a similar change. He came to Penn State as a 6-2, 220-pound safety. By the end of September 2009, he was playing, sparingly, at linebacker, totaling three tackles that year.

With Farmer designated as a linebacker, a redshirt year is a possibility. Position switches, even for the best athletes, often entail a learning curve and time to strengthen and reshape their bodies — especially in the case of going from the secondary to linebacker.

But Penn State’s depth, particularly at linebacker, is a problem. Farmer would also be valuable on special teams, and Franklin has stressed the importance of that ability.

Wednesday, Franklin didn’t discuss specific players regarding redshirts. But he said the staff has been going through the roster and starting to choose which freshmen would be best served with a redshirt and which freshmen they might use, given their readiness and depth concerns.

Concerning Farmer, it is another tough decision for Franklin: to play him or not to play him?

Mark Dent: and Twitter @mdent05.

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