Despite all the annual excitement surrounding college football spring games, it’s imperative to remember these are glorified public practice sessions. Each program takes a different approach, and Saturday was Penn State’s turn as Nittany Lions coaches and players returned to the field at Beaver Stadium.
Attempting to understand the intricacies of a live-action football game from the press box is an extremely tough task, as so much in the scheme department remains concealed. This effort becomes even more difficult when focusing on a spring game, which features far different scenarios and routinely sticks to a script developed by the coaching staff.
In a regular-season game, the goal is a victory, regardless of how much adaptation is required. In a spring game, targets aren’t nearly as tangible and typically focus on long-term development rather than instant results. Also worth noting — spring game action routinely features matchups between starters and backups.
With all that said, Nittany Lions fans are undoubtedly searching for some clarity after five weeks of spring camp. So, in keeping up with the spirit of potentially overanalyzing spring games, here’s a rundown of all three phases of the game for Penn State, with grades ranging from one star to five stars.
Offense (4 stars)
Quarterback Trace McSorley looked as sharp as you’d expect for a third-year starter, which is a huge advantage for first-year offensive coordinator Ricky Rahne. The Nittany Lions offensive captain, who carries several school records into his senior season, completed 10 of 14 pass attempts for 107 yards and 1 touchdown.
Tommy Stevens, Penn State’s compelling No. 2 quarterback and the 2017 Blue-White Game offensive MVP, didn’t compete because of an undisclosed injury that landed him in a walking boot for some time earlier this year. That opened the door for redshirt freshman Sean Clifford to handle expanded duties and, despite a recent hamstring “tweak”, he largely impressed, as Land of 10’s Audrey Snyder noted.
“[Sean] lived in the training room and he was able to get out there and get some work done,” Franklin said. “I thought overall this spring he did some really good things, but one of his strengths within our offense is obviously his mobility and that was a little bit limited this week, but I thought he did some really good things. He got a lot of reps to be able to grow.”
In the past, Franklin has described an ideal quarterback blueprint in college that includes two starting-caliber competitors and at least one younger player who carries serious potential. Penn State seems to have it in place this year, and that’s an edge over the vast majority of Power 5 programs.
Nittany Lions fans who are excited to watch the debut of the Miles Sanders Show will need to wait until September. The perceived main replacement for Saquon Barkley at running back, he logged 3 carries for 6 yards on Saturday. Meanwhile, senior Mark Allen (6 yards per carry, 3 receptions and 1 rushing touchdown) continues to show he may be ready to make a late impact.
Penn State, also tasked with replacing all-time program performers Mike Gesicki and DaeSean Hamilton, operated Saturday without veteran receivers Juwan Johnson and DeAndre Thompkins. This allowed an opportunity for young pass targets to step up, and Mac Hippenhammer took the lead, catching 2 touchdowns.
The redshirt freshman trio of Hippenhammer, KJ Hamler and Cam Sullivan-Brown combined to catch 8 passes, resulting in 130 yards and 2 scores for Team Blue in a 21-10 win. These rising playmakers, along with the impending arrival of three blue-chip receiver recruits (headlined by 5-star prospect Justin Shorter) should have Rahne excited for the future.
Franklin has discussed the importance of Penn State’s increased depth along the offensive front, and we’re seeing that play out with a legitimate, dependable two-deep that features substantial starting history.
Defense (4 stars)
Micah Parsons didn’t disappoint in his Nittany Lions debut, pleasing an excited Beaver Stadium crowd by picking up a sack and tying for the team lead with 8 tackles. Fellow freshman linebacker Jesse Luketa also received significant snaps, and it will be interesting to see how both factor into the development of a group that must replace two 2017 starters.
Koa Farmer is the lone returning starter, while Ellis Brooks, Cam Brown, Jake Cooper and Jarvis Miller are among those looking to stake their claim for expansive reps. Expect these battles to extend deep into summer.
Just like on offense, we didn’t witness the full defensive roster in action. This provided an opportunity to rising talents to display their skills.
Cornerback Zech McPhearson is a name to know, considering his name was the first mentioned by James Franklin when the coach considered who stood out Saturday. He tallied 3 pass deflections, providing another reason to feel good about Penn State’s cornerback group (led by John Reid, Amani Oruwariye and Tariq Castro-Fields) despite the loss of two projected NFL draft picks.
Veteran safeties Garrett Taylor and Nick Scott are in line to enter fall camp as starters, but the continued growth of younger players is pivotal. Redshirt freshman Jonathan Sutherland and sophomore Lamont Wade, who converted from cornerback this spring, appeared to impress in the spring game.
The defensive front is an area of impressive depth off the edge, but questions remain about formulating a two-deep at defensive tackle. It was good to see redshirt freshmen Damion Barber, Corey Bolds and Fred Hansard each flash at one point or another as action progressed. Nick Tarburton, an early enrollee who transitioned to defensive end from linebacker this spring, also got into the mix with a sack.
Special teams (5 stars)
In many ways, this is the most difficult phase to delve into based on spring game action. There were no live returns or attempts to block punts, and we don’t yet know how the Nittany Lions will handle a new NCAA rule that allows fair catches on kickoffs.
The perception of this special teams performance was ultimately going to be determined by how redshirt freshman kicker Carson Landis fared. The Nittany Lions walk-on handled field-goal and extra-point duties throughout the spring, and media members had one chance to assess his development a few weeks ago.
That did not go well, and it cast some doubt on how Penn State will replace Tyler Davis, who connected on 39 field-goal makes during his college career. Another rough performance in front of 71,000 people at Beaver Stadium could’ve sent this situation spiraling in a negative direction.
Instead, Landis converted all 4 extra-point opportunities and a 34-yard field goal. His makes won’t be the talk of the town in State College this week, but a series of misses may have been.
Yes, it’s a simple way to assess things, but the avoidance of any kind of crisis here, along with crucial inflated confidence for Landis, results in a 5-star appraisal. Special teams coordinator Phil Galiano made it clear incoming freshman Jake Pinegar, a scholarship player, will have an opportunity to compete for the job following his June arrival.