Analysis: Position-by-position breakdown for Penn State reveals depth improvements, areas of need
Scholarship limitations imposed by the NCAA in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky scandal at Penn State had not begun before the 2013 season, but fallout from reports of the horrific details, the ensuing NCAA investigation and the initial sanctions ruling already had a dramatic effect on the football program.
The Nittany Lions didn’t have to be down to 65 scholarship players until 2014 but defections from the program left Penn State nearly that low a year early, which proved to Bill O’Brien’s final one in Happy Valley.
Three years later, the amended NCAA sanctions are no more, and Penn State is allowed to have 85 scholarship players again. The Nittany Lions aren’t quite there yet, though they could give a few walk-ons a reward and reach 85 for 2016. They are at least one more recruiting class away from normalcy, at least as measured by typical high-level college football program standards.
As O’Brien’s staff prepared for the 2013 season, they did so with 67 scholarship players. Where have the numbers improved for Penn State, three years later? Where could they be even better, were it not for more players leaving the program?
Let’s take a look at where things stood in May 2013, when Bob Flounders from PennLive.com broke down the roster, and where Franklin’s team is now as the Nittany Lions prepare to face Kent State to open the season Saturday at Beaver Stadium.
2013: Two scholarship players
Skinny: O’Brien’s options were already limited after the 2012 season, but then Stephen Bench transferred to South Florida after spring practice, leaving only Tyler Ferguson and a much-hyped incoming freshman named Christian Hackenberg.
Franklin has three quarterbacks who have not started a college game, but Trace McSorley has more experience than either of the guys did three years ago. There could be two more quarterbacks available, but Hackenberg left a year early for the NFL and Michael O’Connor left the program before last season.
Building depth at this position is a challenge for any program, because so many players transfer seeking a better path to playing time. That said, if McSorley or Tommy Stevens handle the snaps this season, freshman Jake Zembiec can redshirt and will someday compete with 4-star commit Sean Clifford for the starting job.
2013: Three scholarship players
Skinny: Penn State could have seven running backs this season, but Akeel Lynch opted to leave as a graduate transfer to Nevada after Saquon Barkley became the present and future at the position last year and two others switched to defense. O’Brien’s team was short on numbers, but all three players, Zach Zwinak, Bill Belton and Lynch, were solid contributors.
None of them were Barkley, of course. Or freshman Miles Sanders, the No. 1-rated back in the class of 2016. Add in a physical runner like Andre Robinson and a speedy option like Mark Allen, and the Nittany Lions could be very productive at this position for the next two-plus seasons. They missed out on elite 2017 prospect D’Andre Swift this week, but adding another elite recruit behind Barkley and Sanders was going to be a huge challenge in this cycle.
2013: Eight scholarship players
Skinny: Two of the guys from 2013 that could still be in State College have left. Geno Lewis is a graduate transfer at Oklahoma, and Richy Anderson went to Temple and then Towson. That team had a star in Allen Robinson and a lot of question marks behind him.
Penn State could have all of its top seven receivers around for at least the next two seasons. Chris Godwin or DeSean Hamilton could leave for the NFL after a huge 2016, or one of the younger guys could get impatient and transfer, but the Nittany Lions are loaded with depth and talent here as well. They also have two commits in the 2017 class and Justin Shorter, a top-5 wideout in the nation, for 2018.
2013: Five scholarship players
Skinny: O’Brien really liked using tight ends, and had Penn State well-stocked. The most highly touted of the bunch was 5-star prospect Adam Breneman, whose career was derailed by injuries. He is going to try and play at UMass in 2016.
Franklin is really down to three tight ends, because Nick Bowers is out for the season with an injury. Walk-on Tom Pancoast is currently second on the depth chart. If something happens to Mike Gesicki, the Nittany Lions might use the tight end even less than they did the past two seasons before new offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead arrived. It’s a long way to go, but a top-10 tight end in the class of 2018, Pat Freiermuth, is committed.
2013: 13 scholarship players
Skinny: The group from three years ago included four seniors and a converted tight end, a pretty good indicator of the woes to come in 2014 and 2015. One of the four freshmen, Tanner Hartman, transferred to Liberty, an FCS school.
There are two true freshmen on Penn State’s two-deep for Kent State, but this is one of the areas where the depth has improved the most. There are guys who didn’t make the depth chart for the season opener who could still contribute. The days of a lineman playing two or even three positions in one game are likely gone. Also, the four true freshmen are all ranked among the top-100 offensive linemen in the class of 2016, per the 247Sports composite.
The Nittany Lions will lose key interior lineman Brian Gaia and Derek Dowrey next season, but freshmen Michal Menet and Connor McGovern could be ready, and another 4-star interior line prospect, C.J. Thorpe, is committed for 2017.
2013: 14 scholarship players
Skinny: Gaia and Dowery were defensive linemen in May 2013, but moving them to offense didn’t hurt much last season when former walk-on Carl Nassib became a star. The defensive line has remained a strength for the program through everything in the past four years.
After losing three players to the NFL, it is now a big question mark. Not having Austin Johnson because he declared for the draft early hurts. This could be a transition year, but 11 of the 12 names on the season-opening depth chart are eligible through at least 2017.
There are two defensive ends committed in the class of 2017, and the long-term jewel could be Micah Parsons, a 5-star prospect and the No. 5 player in the country in the class of 2018, if the Nittany Lions can keep his commitment.
2013: Six scholarship players
Skinny: Given Penn State’s history and tradition at linebacker, the past few years have been pretty startling. The Nittany Lions only have five recruited linebackers, because senior Von Walker was originally a walk-on, and another, Jonathan Thomas, came to Penn State as a running back. Two linebackers, Troy Reeder and Gary Wooten, transferred to lower-division programs after 2015.
It’s basically the three starters, plus sophomores Manny Bowen and Jake Cooper, who were both supposed to be redshirted last season but ended up playing on opening day. Nyeem Whartman-White and Brandon Bell are both seniors, so linebacker is obviously a priority in the 2017 and 2018 recruiting classes.
Two outside linebackers, including 4 -star prospect Dylan Rivers, are committed for next season. Penn State might need to get creative and either shift another player or two here, or plan on using packages with fewer linebackers more often if there are injuries or more turnover.
2013: 14 scholarship players
Skinny: O’Brien’s team was really thin in the secondary going into that season. Six of the 14 were players with freshmen eligibility and two were walk-ons who earned scholarships. Of those six freshmen, only two, Malik Golden and Jordan Smith, are going to fulfill their eligibility at Penn State. The other four combined for one tackle, though Neiko Robinson never made it to campus and Jake Kiley eventually switched to wide receiver.
Penn State’s 2016 depth chart is loaded with juniors and sophomores, so there’s a blend of experience but also long-term stability provided safety Marcus Allen doesn’t leave for the NFL. There is also quality depth behind Golden and Allen at safety, and 4-star prospect Jonathan Sutherland committed for the class of 2017.
2013: Two scholarship players
Skinny: Had the NCAA sanctions lasted four years, Penn State may have eventually had no specialists on scholarship. Three years ago, the Nittany Lions had a much-maligned junior kicker, Sam Ficken, and a walk-on senior punter, Alex Butterworth, who was given a scholarship for 2013.
One of the three this season is senior long snapper Tyler Yazujian. The others are freshmen, though it appears punter Blake Gillikin will play right away while kicker Alex Barbir will have to wait. Coaches are loathe to spend two scholarships at kicker or punter, so if Gillikin and Barbir meet expectations, the staff won’t be looking for a new player at either position for a while.