Spring practice starts this week for Penn State, the reigning Big Ten champion. Who is coming back? Which starters need to be replaced? Who could be a breakout star? We’ll get everyone ready for the Blue-White game.
Penn State begins spring practice Wednesday, and coach James Franklin met with the media Tuesday for about an hour. There was plenty of talk about the big picture, the future, and how Penn State can build on the success it had in 2016.
The Nittany Lions have loads of talent and experience returning from a team that won a Big Ten championship, so expectations are high. When the first of 15 spring practices begins in State College, there will be plenty of focus on several positions that need retooling.
Let’s take a look at some key competitions to monitor leading up to the Blue-White game April 22.
Penn State spring football: ‘X’ wide receiver
Chris Godwin is off to the NFL after a sensational performance against Southern Cal’s talented secondary in the Rose Bowl. He led Penn State with 59 catches and 99 targets. That was 28 more targets than anyone else (Mike Gesicki) and 37 more than second wide receiver DaeSean Hamilton.
There are lots of options at this spot. One possibility is to slide Saeed Blacknall or DeAndre Thompkins across the field.
Two other possibilities are redshirt sophomores Irv Charles and Juwan Johnson. Both were blue-chip prospects, and both have earned rave reviews from teammates and coaches the past two seasons. They combined for four catches and 176 yards in 2016, but they could be breakout candidates in 2017.
“Irv has a lot of ability, probably as much as any guy I’ve been around in college,” Franklin said Tuesday.
That’s not the first time Franklin has used a similar superlative to describe Charles. He also said the coaching staff expects big things from Blacknall after injuries held him back last year.
Penn State spring football: ‘Z’ wide receiver
This is the other outside wide receiver spot. Blacknall and Thompkins split time here in 2016, with Hamilton getting the majority of the snaps at ‘Y’ in the slot. Brandon Polk is back from an injury-plagued year to push Hamilton, and true freshman KJ Hamler might be a factor there as well.
What happens at ‘Z’ could be determined by what transpires at ‘X.’ If Charles or Johnson (or both) look ready to be big contributors, that could leave Blacknall and Thompkins competing for playing time instead of one of them filling Godwin’s spot. Or Thompkins could get pushed inside to compete with Hamilton and Polk.
Penn State spring football: Center
Brian Gaia was the only starter on the offensive line who played 14 games at the same position. Franklin said sophomore Connor McGovern, who started nine games at right guard as a true freshman, will get the first chance to replace Gaia.
Franklin mentioned wanting players with center experience. That’s important because of Penn State’s shotgun-only attack. He basically doesn’t want guys getting frustrated because the ball keeps getting snapped into the ground or over the quarterback’s head.
So McGovern and redshirt sophomore Zach Simpson (Gaia’s primary backup last year) will begin the spring at center. Redshirt freshman Michal Menet and early enrollee Mike Miranda will start as guard while rotating in at center. Franklin also mentioned redshirt sophomore Ryan Bates, who started games at guard and tackle last season, as a possibility, but that might be more of a “if these other guys don’t work out” idea.
Penn State spring football: Defensive end(s)
The Nittany Lions have to replace both starting defensive ends. This is another spot where there are guys with lots of experience and a few exciting young players who could push them.
Shareef Miller and Torrance Brown were the primary reserves behind Garrett Sickels and Evan Schawn last season. Ryan Buccholz saw time at end and defensive tackle.
There are three redshirt freshmen who could find spots on the depth chart. Shane Simmons was the highest-rated recruit. Franklin spoke highly of Shaka Toney on Tuesday, noting that he has tested well. Daniel Joseph is the third redshirt freshman to watch.
Sickels, Schawn and departed linebacker Brandon Bell combined for 14 sacks last season, and finding new pass-rushers will be a priority.
Penn State spring football: ‘Sam’ and ‘Will’ linebacker
This might have been the most interesting portion of Franklin’s press conference. He discussed the linebackers in this order:
Sam: Koa Farmer, Jarvis Miller (moving from safety), Brelin Faison-Walden (early enrollee)
Mike: Jason Cabinda, Brandon Smith
Will: Cam Brown, Manny Bowen
One important name (Jake Cooper) was missing. After a follow-up question, Franklin said Cooper would be more of a factor in the summer and fall camps than in the spring, which certainly makes it seem like Cooper’s season-ending injury from 2016 is still an issue.
Bowen started 11 games at Will and one at Mike last season. He was the first linebacker up when injuries mounted early in the season. He also was suspended for the Rose Bowl for a violation of team rules.
Did Franklin mention Brown, who started two games early last season at Sam as a true freshman, before Bowen on purpose? He also raved about the work Brown has done this offseason, saying “he has muscles I didn’t even know existed.”
We’re a long way from the season opener against Akron. Maybe Franklin feels the need to motivate Bowen. It would be surprising if he isn’t one of the three starting linebackers against the Zips, though.
This might also give Farmer and Miller a chance to get more practice reps at linebacker. Both began last season as safeties. Farmer moved during the season because of injuries, playing a lot near the end of the season.
Penn State spring football: Strong safety
The Nittany Lions have their top four cornerbacks returning plus a potential All-America at free safety. Who plays next to Marcus Allen is the big question for what should again be one of the team strengths.
Nick Scott finished the season as Malik Golden’s primary backup. Troy Apke started the one game (Minnesota) that Golden missed. Franklin raved Tuesday about Ayron Monroe’s personal growth, but has he done enough to compete for a starting job?
Would one of the four returning cornerbacks move? What about early enrollee Lamont Wade, or FCS transfer Jabari Butler? There are a lot of talented defensive backs on this team. Trying to get them on the field could be a challenge.
Penn State spring football: Kick/punt return
Franklin mentioned at the end of last season that he wants to see improvement in the return game. The Nittany Lions returned 30 punts for 194 yards (6.47 average) and 49 kicks for 965 yards (19.69).
John Reid had a couple nice punt returns early in the season, but wasn’t much of a factor later in the year. Miles Sanders and Nick Scott were OK on kick returns, and Saquon Barkley even got involved a few times when Penn State was looking for a big return (like late in the Rose Bowl).
There are plenty of candidates to sort through beyond Reid, Sanders and Scott. Franklin mentioned that Josh McPhearson is shifting from wideout to running back in the spring so he can spend more time with the ball in his hands. He’s been earmarked as a potential return specialist.
Early enrollees KJ Hamler and Lamont Wade could be options, though the Nittany Lions may want Wade to focus on his reps in the secondary. Grant Haley flashed some solid return skills when he scooped up that blocked kick against Ohio State — and he ran a sub-4.4 40-yard dash during offseason workouts.
Penn State spring game: Date, time, TV channel
The Blue-White spring game at Beaver Stadium will be April 22 (3 p.m. ET). It will be broadcast on the Big Ten Network. Admission is free.
Penn State spring football: Offense remains loaded
Penn State spring football: Defense has key leaders to replace
Penn State spring football: What James Franklin said