STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — It was a fleeting moment during one of Penn State’s 15 spring practices, but it was clear quarterback Trace McSorley wasn’t wasting time thinking about the past or the weapons his offense lost.
As the quarterback pulled aside tight end Danny Dalton in Holuba Hall and delivered an earful after a turnover, and then finished with an encouraging tap on the helmet, it was one of many examples of this season of change for Penn State. While McSorley orchestrated the Blue team for most of the first half during the Blue-White game, those who used to take handoffs from him, block for him and catch his passes during the Nittany Lions’ back-to-back 11-win seasons were in street clothes and waving to fans.
“We still got a little bit of a ways to go,” McSorley said after the conclusion of spring ball. “Last year is last year, we can’t lean on any of that. We got to put all of that away and get ready to work for this year. That’s the kind of mentality that we are able to come out of the spring knowing that last year is not going to have any effect on this year, and this year is going to be brand new.”
During the course of the Blue-White game, one where several Saquon Barkley No. 26 jerseys were among the crowd of 71,000, Penn State continued answering questions that were at the forefront of spring ball. They don’t yet have all the answers, but they started getting a clearer picture of this team, its needs and what has to happen between now and fall camp.
The need to replace tight end Mike Gesicki’s production was a focal point this spring. And while injuries plagued the group — so much so that the two-back sets the Lions rolled out against the White squad were the direct result of not having enough healthy tight ends for the scrimmage — offensive coordinator Ricky Rahne’s confidence in his old position group hasn’t wavered.
Dalton spearheaded the group this spring and Rahne praised Dalton’s blocking and ability to convert a few first downs during spring practices. Nick Bowers and Jon Holland were limited while Zack Kuntz learned the ropes during his first semester on campus.
“I think we got good tight ends. I really do,” Rahne said. “I like the guys that come back and everyone is ready to go. I think we have some guys who will surprise some people, so I’m excited about what our tight ends can do and I’m excited about the tight ends that we have coming in as well. … This offense runs best when we have a great tight end.”
Establishing quality depth was a theme during spring ball. Coach James Franklin mentioned it before the first practice, and it was echoed Saturday evening after the final practice was in the books.
This offensive line is deeper and has more position flexibility. Michal Menet could play either guard or center, Franklin said, and center Connor McGovern gives it options between center and guard. The line returns four starters and has three tackles with Big Ten game experience. Chasz Wright worked with the first team at right tackle on Saturday and Will Fries backed up Ryan Bates at left tackle.
“That’s probably the main difference that we’ve had over the last four or five years is we have upwards of eight to 10 offensive linemen that can go into a game and feel really good about,” Rahne said. Menet was the starter at right guard this spring and was one of the team’s most improved players, according to Franklin. “That’s a blessing.”
On defense, the linebacker corps is a work in progress. But the spring proved that Micah Parsons will be utilized in some capacity at the Will spot and Penn State will continue working to find the best combination possible.
The linebackers position battle won’t be much different from how the Lions iron out the depth chart at safety, where Nick Scott and Garrett Taylor separated themselves, but there’s a ways to go until anything is settled.
“I tell those guys, ‘It doesn’t matter where you’re playing right now,’ ” defensive coordinator Brent Pry said of the linebackers and safeties. ” ‘Learn the position, learn the concepts, learn the traits, but ultimately you can end up somewhere else; if you’re one of the top two or three at the position, we’re gonna get you on the field.’ ”
Take Lamont Wade, for instance. Wade spent the spring undergoing a transition from cornerback to safety. As he works to learn more about the position, he now knows how to play corner and safety.
Pry left the door open for Wade to potentially line up at either spot, which would bode well for the defense. Coaches like his physicality at safety but there is plenty of depth at corner.
Pry said he now knows what he’s getting from defensive lineman Kevin Givens. He hinted at Penn State potentially lining up Givens at defensive end again next season if the right match-up presents itself.
“Now you got a guy who can play defensive end, he can play nose tackle, he can play 3-technique, he can go into three down and play the end spot, he can play the zero,” Pry said. “He makes plays.”
The depth will continue being built behind Givens and Rob Windsor, but this spring, Givens proved to Pry that he can be consistent. That helped ease Pry’s mind.
“You want to feel really good about what you’re putting out there at each of those 11 spots and now I feel like with Kevin, we know what we’re going to get when we put him out there,” Pry said. “There’s not going to be a lapse in his play. He’s in a good place and he’s gotta go out there and do it this fall and that’ll be an important piece for us defensively for him to play that way week in and week out.”