STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — Penn State wrapped up spring practice on Saturday in front of an estimated crowd of 71,000 in Beaver Stadium and in the process continued to show flashes of what’s ahead.
The Nittany Lions will end the spring semester within the next two weeks and shortly after that the players will be in a next cycle of training, this one taking them all the way up to fall camp.
While Penn State didn’t issue a depth chart this spring, it’s safe to say these five Nittany Lions were among those who helped themselves the most during the 15 practices.
The darling of spring ball, KJ Hamler impressed from the first workout when he operated out of the slot and beat the defense for a shot play. The good news for Penn State is there are at least two redshirt freshmen who are pushing for time there, with classmate Mac Hippenhammer also turning in a strong spring.
Hamler could see some work as a punt returner during camp, but as Penn State showed during the spring game when Hamler got a reverse, there’s a next level of quickness he accelerates to that is special. Now, there’s still a ways to go as his fumble proved to be a teachable moment, but Hamler was the player teammates consistently pointed to as the standout of the spring.
Penn State’s secondary is loaded and despite losing both of last season’s starting cornerbacks to the NFL, its strength should again be in the depth that’s being built. Count redshirt sophomore cornerback Zech McPhearson among those who impressed, especially during the 15th and final practice of spring.
“The guy that kind of stood out to me was Zech McPhearson,” coach James Franklin said. “I thought he made a bunch of plays and played with a lot of confidence. It was great to see that.”
McPhearson should have plenty of opportunities to carve out some type of role either on defense or special teams this season.
Penn State entered spring ball with one starting spot realistically up for grabs along the offensive line, and by the end of the spring it looks as if that position will be held by Michal Menet.
Penn State’s vacant right guard position was one that Menet was expected to step into at some point, but keeping him healthy all spring was just as important as the progress he’s made behind the scenes. It’s a process that was held up by injuries, but Menet could impact this team anywhere along the interior of the offensive line, Franklin said.
Staying patient throughout the process wasn’t necessarily a challenge, the redshirt sophomore said.
“I think I just needed a little bit more time to develop and to get to where I am, but the competition though has really driven me and made me a better player because I know I have to have all my ducks in a row every day in order to stay where I am and get better,” he said.
Penn State moved Lamont Wade from cornerback to safety this winter, but it was Garrett Taylor who teamed up with Nick Scott as the projected starting safeties this spring.
Taylor underwent the switch from corner to safety before and it takes time overcoming the learning curve and figuring out the entire defense, something that Taylor put together this spring while Wade will continue to work to do so this summer. The benefit for the defense is while it continues building depth at safety — a spot with two starters gone — it looks as if there won’t be much of a drop-off next season.
“It was a good spring for me,” Taylor said. “I took a lot of good steps forward in terms of development and my safety play. I think I was playing a lot more confident and a lot faster, making plays on the ball, so I think it was a good step for me in terms of stepping into that new role.”
Penn State has the luxury of knowing Wade can play corner and will settle in at safety. That gives the Nittany Lions valuable versatility behind Scott and Taylor, whose improved confidence and comfort was on display this spring.
Penn State needs depth at defensive tackle behind Rob Windsor and Kevin Givens. Look for redshirt sophomore Antonio Shelton to be a part of those plans this fall. While Franklin said toward the end of spring ball he wasn’t ready to settle on who would project where, Penn State made strides toward filling in a spot that lost three seniors.
“Fred Hansard is a twitched-up guy, good movements, good rush ability,” defensive coordinator Brent Pry said. “Antonio Shelton is one of maybe our more-improved players on defense — big and strong– one of our stronger guys. He’s learning the position and he’s more and more accountable. Of course, Ellison Jordan wasn’t out there this spring but we’re excited about him and the movement and the way he plays the game. Damion Barber is a guy who is still kind of scratching the surface but he’s grown tremendously in size and strength, his whole body changed. He looks like a Big Ten defensive tackle now.”
Penn State’s three signees who arrive this summer will come in and push for time as well, Pry said.