Penn State finished the 2016 season with 11 wins, a Big Ten title and a trip to the Rose Bowl. The Nittany Lions will welcome back 16 starters for 2017, and are adding another talented recruiting class to the roster.
They’ve come a long way after three full recruiting classes by coach James Franklin and his staff from the days of a roster short on depth because of NCAA sanctions and attrition in the aftermath of the Jerry Sandusky scandal.
While the 2016 success was a surprise, the 2017 team will begin the season with significant expectations. Penn State will return the second-most productive offense in the Big Ten, according to SB Nation’s Bill Connelly, and easily the most productive offense of anyone in the conference.
What will the 2017 depth chart look like? It’s still early because there could be another defection or two. There could be injuries during the offseason as well as younger players making a push for playing time.
Let’s take a lot at that depth chart, and some potential positional battles.
NOTE: Returning starters are in bold.
Trace McSorley, redshirt junior
Tommy Stevens, redshirt sophomore
Jake Zembiec, redshirt freshman
Sean Clifford, freshman
Billy Fessler, redshirt junior
McSorley had a strong case to be first-team all-Big Ten at quarterback in 2016, and would have been had the voting taken place after the bowl games. Ohio State’s J.T. Barrett has a new offensive coordinator and new wide receivers that could help improve his play in 2017. They will likely be the two best quarterbacks in the conference again.
Stevens played well in limited duty last season, while McSorley remained healthy all year. He will need to fend off Zembiec and Clifford for the backup job. If Clifford isn’t second on the depth chart by the season opener against Akron, he’ll likely redshirt.
Saquon Barkley, junior
Miles Sanders, sophomore
Andre Robinson, junior
Mark Allen, redshirt junior
Journey Brown, freshman
Barkley is pretty good at this whole football thing. It will be interesting to monitor his workload next season. Part of that is the players behind him earning more snaps.
Sanders was never officially No. 2 on the depth chart last season, but it will be a disappointment if he doesn’t clearly establish himself as the second running back in 2017. Penn State could try to get creative and play Barkley and Sanders together at times.
Robinson and Allen were both solid options last year, though Allen’s touches waned during the second half of the season. If Sanders moves ahead of both of them, Allen could be a candidate to graduate and transfer for his final season in 2018. Brown seems pretty certain to redshirt unless there are multiple injuries.
Mike Gesicki, senior
Nick Bowers, sophomore
Tom Pancoast, redshirt senior
Danny Dalton, redshirt freshman
Gesicki will probably be preseason first-team all-Big Ten in every magazine and online preview. The Nittany Lions were fortunate that he made it through the entire season without missing any time, but they need to find a Plan B for next season.
Bowers missed 2016 with an injury. Dalton redshirted. Will either of them earn some playing time to help ease Gesicki’s workload? Pancoast was a walk-on and ascended to the backup role last year, but he didn’t have a catch.
There are three wide receiver spots, and there could be a lot of fluidity with the two outside spots before the season opens.
Saeed Blacknall, senior
Irv Charles, redshirt sophomore
Dae’Lun Darien, redshirt freshman
Josh McPhearson, redshirt senior
Blacknall has been a big-play guy for two seasons, and seems like a perfect target in Joe Moorhead’s passing attack. Will he become a reliable option on shorter-to-intermediate routes?
Charles could be the breakout star in 2017. Coaches and teammates have raved about his ability. Darien redshirted last year and McPhearson is a former walk-on and special teams ace who has reportedly earned a scholarship for his final year.
DaeSean Hamilton, redshirt senior
Brandon Polk, junior
KJ Hamler, freshman
Hamilton’s influence fluctuated greatly last year. He had a couple of big games. He needs 19 receptions to become the program’s all-time leader.
Polk and Hamler both missed most of last season with injuries. Polk didn’t really get a chance in Moorhead’s system, but maybe he and McSorley can reconnect on big plays like they had in high school.
Hamler is on campus already, and will be with the team during spring practice. If he can participate, he could battle for the backup role behind Hamilton and become a candidate to play as a true freshman.
DeAndre Thompkins, redshirt junior
Juwan Johnson, redshirt sophomore
Cameron Sullivan-Brown, freshman
Mac Hippenhammer, freshman
Thompkins became the No. 2 option among wideouts behind Chris Godwin at times last season, but had only nine catches in the final seven games (he did miss one of them). Johnson, like Charles, will be expected to contribute more. If both of those guys are ready to be consistent producers, the offense could be really special.
Sullivan-Brown and Hippenhammer seem pretty likely to redshirt. Hippenhammer could shift between one of the outside spots and the slot. He could also avoid a redshirt by earning time as a punt or kick returner.
Connor McGovern, sophomore
Michal Menet, redshirt freshman
Stephen Gonzalez, redshirt sophomore
Zach Simpson, redshirt sophomore
CJ Thorpe, freshman
Michael Miranda, freshman
Someone has to replace Brian Gaia at center. Simpson, a walk-on, was the backup last year but Gaia was the only lineman to start all 14 games at the same position. Penn State also loses backup guards Derek Dowrey and Wendy Laurent.
Ryan Bates could move back to guard (or be an option at center) after he shifted out to tackle at the end of the season. If Bates stays at tackle, then Thorpe or Miranda could be a candidate to avoid a redshirt. That said, if there were an injury to one of the three likely starters on the interior line, Plan B would likely be to kick Bates inside and let one of the more experienced linemen play at tackle.
Ryan Bates, redshirt sophomore
Andrew Nelson, redshirt senior
Brendan Mahon, redshirt senior
Chasz Wright, redshirt junior
Will Fries, redshirt freshman
Alex Gellerstedt, redshirt freshmen
Noah Beh, redshirt junior
Des Holmes, freshman
Robbie Martin, freshman
There is a lot of depth here, and probably some candidates to help out on the interior, if they don’t earn regular time at tackle. Nelson and Mahon both missed the end of last season with injuries, but both expect to play in 2017. Bates and Wright finished the year as the tackles.
Beh missed last season with a suspension. Fries and Gellerstedt redshirted but earned praise from Franklin as players who showed promise. Holmes and Martin will likely redshirt.
Torrence Brown, redshirt junior
Shareef Miller, redshirt sophomore
Ryan Buchholz, redshirt sophomore
Shane Simmons, redshirt freshman
Daniel Gibson, redshirt freshman
Shaka Toney, redshirt freshman
Yetur Matos, freshman
Damion Barber, freshman
Penn State loses both starters at defensive end: Garrett Sickels and Evan Schwan. Brown and Miller played a lot last year, and Buchholz saw action at end and tackle.
This is a position to watch with the new guys. Simmons was a huge recruit, while Gibson, Matos and Barber are all highly-touted prospects as well.
Given how much Penn State rotated players on the line in 2016, there certainly seems to be lots of playing time available if any of the five freshmen can ascend the depth chart.
Curtis Cothran, redshirt junior
Parker Cothren, redshirt junior
Kevin Givens, redshirt sophomore
Robert Windsor, redshirt sophomore
Tyrell Chavis, senior
Ellison Jordan, redshirt freshman
Antonio Shelton, redshirt freshman
Robert Hansard, freshman
Corey Bolds, freshman
Penn State returns five players here who had double-digit tackles last season, and that doesn’t count Buchholz. Cothran, Cothren and Givens all started at least six games.
Chavis, a junior college transfer last year, could earn a bigger role during his second season on campus. Despite all of the experience returning, Jordan and Hansard will be two players to monitor to see if they can crack the rotation.
Jason Cabinda, senior
Manny Bowen, junior
Jake Cooper, junior
Koa Farmer, redshirt junior
Cam Brown, sophomore
Brandon Smith, senior
Brelin Faison-Walden, freshman
Jarvis Brown, redshirt sophomore
Jonathan Thomas, redshirt junior
Ellis Brooks, freshman
Brailyn Franklin, freshman
The big question will be who starts next to Cabinda and Bowen. Cooper missed the end of last season with an injury, and Bowen was suspended for the Rose Bowl.
Farmer and Cam Brown could both push Cooper for the third starting role. Farmer, Brown and Smith saw plenty of playing time in 2016, and there shouldn’t be any disastrous situations like the Michigan game again anytime soon. Jarvis Brown was on the depth chart at safety last season, but he is listed as a linebacker on the current roster. Thomas moved from running back to linebacker last year.
Faison-Walden is on campus and will take part in spring practice, so that might give him an edge on the other two freshmen, but all three could end up redshirting. Farmer could be part of the competition to replace Golden at safety, though he seemed to adjust to his new position pretty well in the second half of last season.
John Reid, junior
Grant Haley, senior
Amani Oruwariye, redshirt junior
Christian Campbell, senior
Lamont Wade, freshman
Garrett Taylor, redshirt sophomore
Zech McPhearson, redshirt freshman
T.J. Johnson, redshirt freshman
Jabari Butler, junior
Donovan Johnson, freshman
Tariq Castro-Fields, freshman
D.J. Brown, freshman
The top four cornerbacks from last season are back, and there are four 4-star recruits vying for playing time (McPhearson redshirted last season plus Wade, Johnson and Castro-Fields). That’s a lot of talent to sort through.
Wade is probably going to play … somewhere. Assistant coach Terry Smith mentioned on signing day that Wade could end up in the mix as the nickel corner matched up against slot receivers. Penn State didn’t get out of the base 4-3 defense a lot, especially when Farmer, a former safety, was in at linebacker. Maybe Wade will convince the staff to play in the nickel defense more often.
Butler is a transfer from Abilene Christian. Johnson, Castro-Fields and Brown seem likely to redshirt, given the depth and returning experience.
One wrinkle here – just about anyone on this list outside of Reid could end up as a candidate to replace Golden at strong safety. If the coaching staff isn’t enamored with the current options, moving a talented cornerback to that spot seems like an idea worth checking out.
Marcus Allen, senior
Nick Scott, redshirt junior
Troy Apke, senior
Ayron Monroe, redshirt junior
Jonathan Sutherland, freshman
Penn State is much deeper at cornerback, hence the idea that someone from that group could move to safety this offseason. Replacing Golden will be one of the most important position battles of the offseason, if only because there aren’t as many experienced options like at other positions.
Scott, Apke or Monroe could take control of the job during spring practice, but, if there isn’t a clear-cut leader by fall camp, Sutherland could have a chance to make an immediate impact.
Tyler Davis, Joe Julius and Blake Gillikin are all locked into their roles. The interesting part is in the return game. Franklin said on signing day that getting more dynamic in the return game is an offseason priority.
Reid and Greg Garrity were the primary punt returners last season, while Sanders and Charles handled most of the kickoffs. This could become an open competition with lots of options.