Much has changed for Penn State since the last time the Nittany Lions gathered in Beaver Stadium for a Blue-White game.
Twelve months ago there were new coordinators on both sides of the ball, and there was an ongoing competition for the starting quarterback job. Fans were eager to get a peak at a new offensive system, and they were curious about what tweaks might be in store for the defense.
Penn State’s annual spring scrimmage certainly will have a different feel Saturday in State College. Some of the most intriguing players to watch might not even be starters, the product of returning more production than any team in the Big Ten for 2017.
The Nittany Lions are also the defending Big Ten champions and a consensus contender for the 2017 College Football Playoff. There weren’t many people in Beaver Stadium 12 months ago who could have predicted either of those developments.
Let’s take a look at five positions to keep an eye on Saturday:
There is plenty of talent and lots of excitement about this group. How the Nittany Lions go about replacing Chris Godwin is one of the key questions of the offseason.
The Nittany Lions have established options. DaeSean Hamilton is on pace to break the school record for career receptions. DeAndre Thompkins and Saeed Blacknall were productive in spurts last season.
It’s entirely possible that those three end up as the starters against Kent State in Week 1, but the less-established players could push them and give the offense more upside. Redshirt sophomores Juwan Johnson and Irv Charles have been tantalizing prospects since they arrived in Happy Valley.
Several teammates and coaches have praised Johnson as one of the team’s top performers during spring practice. Charles made one of the biggest plays of the 2016 season, an 80-yard touchdown against Minnesota.
Where will those two line up? How much will early enrollee K.J. Hamler, who missed his senior season in high school with a torn ACL, be involved? What about Brandon Polk, who showed a lot of promise as a freshman in 2015 but has struggled to remain healthy?
This was arguably the deepest position on the roster at the beginning of the spring, with the top four players from last season returning and the program’s most-hyped 2017 recruit on campus as an early enrollee. Then top corner John Reid reportedly sustained a major injury to his left knee, and things changed.
Reid is a fantastic player, but if he can’t play in 2017 it’s almost like he left for the NFL. Penn State would still have three of its top four corners back from last year and top-50 recruit Lamont Wade joining them.
Wade has earned plenty of plaudits for his work during spring practice, when he could have been plotting his prom plans. He might be the most intriguing player to watch Saturday. There’s been less chatter about FCS transfer Jabari Butler, but he’s another interesting player for a group that might have to replace a key component.
Marcus Allen could be one of the best safeties in America in 2017. Who plays next to him remains to be determined.
The Nittany Lions have to replace Malik Golden at strong safety, and four players — Nick Scott, Troy Apke, Ayron Monroe and cornerback-turned-safety Garrett Taylor — are battling for that spot. One of those four will likely start against Kent State, while one will likely end up as Allen’s primary backup at free safety.
Scott, Apke and Monroe are capable of playing both spots, and there isn’t a specific player behind Allen on the depth chart at this point. Like Taylor, Scott began his Penn State career at another position, but he’s been named captain of the special teams units.
Penn State has six players returning from 2016 who started at least three games. There has been a lot of shuffling, though, and there’s potential for more as the Nittany Lions try to establish a starting five and the top reserves from a large group of candidates.
Ryan Bates told reporters that he’s worked exclusively at left tackle, so he is a safe bet to start at that spot. Connor McGovern earned the first chance to replace Brian Gaia at center, but who else snaps the ball Saturday, and how often, should be interesting.
Despite all of the returning starters, two players who didn’t see the field in 2016 — redshirt freshman Michal Menet and early enrollee Michael Miranda — have earned work with the first team and should at least be candidates for playing time in the fall.
Seniors Andrew Nelson and Brendan Mahon sustained season-ending injuries and haven’t spoken to the media during spring practice. After they were injured, Chasz Wright finished last season as the starting right tackle.
It could be hard to take away much from Saturday about either senior, though. If they don’t play much, it could be because the coaching staff sees them as known commodities and wants to give more reps to less-experienced linemen.
The most Penn State fans are going to see of Saquon Barkley will probably be when the team is signing autographs before the game. Even if Barkley is a DNP-coach’s decision for the second straight spring game, the other options at running back offer some intrigue.
Miles Sanders offered glimpses of star potential as a true freshman in 2016. Andre Robinson proved to be steady and reliable and could get the chance to showcase more Saturday. Mark Allen’s touches decreased as last season progressed.
All three backs offer something a little different from the other two. They could all get plenty of chances if Barkley is a spectator.