The talent level on Penn State’s roster has come a long way in a pretty short period of time, and the Nittany Lions’ improvement as this season has progressed is a huge indicator of that.
For the past few seasons, depth has been thin and injuries were damaging. This team has survived a rash of injuries on the defensive side of the ball and losing both starting offensive tackles to go 7-2 and climb to No. 10 in the College Football Playoff rankings.
This is also a very young roster, and Penn State should return loads of experienced, talented starters in 2017. There are four seniors in the projected starting lineup for the game Saturday against Indiana, two on defense and two on offense. There are no seniors listed on the entire depth chart at any of the skill positions on offense.
That should be cause for excitement in Happy Valley. It also is going to lead to the next step in James Franklin’s rebuilding project.
While this team is 7-2 and could reach a New Year’s Six bowl game, there are some very talented young players on this roster who are going to be ready for bigger or more defined roles as the 2016 season concludes and 2017 beckons.
That puts Franklin and his staff in a bit of a predicament, albeit a much, much better problem to have than simply not having enough depth or talent. There are players on the current roster who are starters or major contributors right now who are going to see their playing time decrease.
This is a product of improved recruiting and happens at lots of programs that are trying to build and move up in the college football hierarchy. A group of players helps the program improve, but then the school can recruit better players and some of them might be able to take those veterans’ jobs.
How the coaching staff manages all of the players, from the veterans who are wondering why they are losing playing time, to the highly touted kids who expect to play, is a delicate balance. It can screw with a team’s chemistry if the players don’t like the way it gets handled.
Penn State’s players and coaches have spent this entire season raving about how close the 2016 team is and how important that bond has become. As the talented young players mature, that will be tested.
It’s already happening in a couple of areas. The most obvious one is wide receiver, where DeAndre Thompkins has taken a big leap forward and younger players like Irvin Charles and Juwan Johnson are pushing for more playing time. The improved depth hasn’t affected Chris Godwin much, but it has cut into DaeSean Hamilton’s production.
“DaeSean has been a tremendous leader for us, a tremendous playmaker, but things have changed since our first year when guys were playing so many reps,” Franklin said. “Last year 75 scholarships to this year where we’re able to get a lot of guys involved. That’s really the model. We want a lot of guys to be able to make plays and be involved on offense, defense and special teams. That allows us to keep guys fresh and healthy, not only for the fourth quarter but for the entire season. We love DaeSean Hamilton. He’s a big part of what we’re doing and will continue to do so.”
Recruiting rankings aren’t everything, but they are a strong indicator of a team’s overall talent base. Penn State finished 31st, 46th and 33rd in the 247Sports composite rankings in the three years before Franklin arrived. The Nittany Lions were 24th in 2014, when Franklin’s staff had an abbreviated time frame, but then 15th and 20th the past two seasons.
In the wake of the NCAA sanctions, Penn State was scraping together scout teams and two-deep depth charts with walk-ons. Now the Nittany Lions have 4-star prospects eagerly waiting their turn and trying to push guys with multiple years of experience.
Miles Sanders was a huge recruit for Penn State, the No. 1 running back in the country. The true freshman began this season fourth on the depth chart. While Penn State hasn’t officially moved Sanders up to second behind Saquon Barkley, it is pretty clear he is the team’s second-best back. He also has nine carries in the past three games, while Mark Allen has six and Andre Robinson has five.
Connor McGovern has moved into the starting lineup on the offensive line. Two other freshmen, Michal Menet and Will Fries, are likely to push their way into the rotation by the start of next season.
The defensive line is already playing 10 or 11 guys per game, and that does not include true freshman Shane Simmons. He was a top-50 national recruit like Sanders and Menet. Only one of those defensive linemen, Evan Schwan, runs out of eligibility after this year.
Franklin and his staff are certainly enjoying the newfound depth and looking for ways to play as many players as possible. Joe Moorhead’s spread offense allows Penn State to play a bunch of wide receivers in a variety of roles. A new wrinkle of late is putting backup quarterback Tommy Stevens in at wide receiver. That led to a long touchdown run against Iowa.
This hasn’t happened yet, but don’t be surprised if Penn State looks for ways to get Barkley and Sanders on the field together at some point in the near future.
“It was awesome for us to be able to put that in and show that we can have a package where we have two quarterbacks in the game and there are so many different things that we can do,” starting quarterback Trace McSorley said. “It definitely puts a defense on their heels. From that play, just looking over the defense, once they realized that Tommy wasn’t a slot receiver, there was this kind of look of confusion on a lot of the guys on the defense, not really knowing how to approach it.”
A five-game winning streak and a No. 10 national ranking is a testament to Penn State’s improved talent and the work done by the coaching staff. There is also another recruiting class currently ranked in the top 20, with the potential to improve given the on-field surge this season, on its way for 2017.
Getting back to this point was a huge accomplishment for Franklin and his staff. Keeping all of these talented players happy and finding ways to maximize all of this talent is the next challenge. It is also one they are quite happy to deal with.