Penn State returns a roster loaded with experienced underclassmen in 2017. However, the Nittany Lions will have a handful of interesting position battles to watch this spring following the NFL Draft declarations of Chris Godwin and Garrett Sickels.
Both enjoyed standout junior seasons, as Godwin finished his sterling three-year career in fourth place on the program’s all-time receiving yardage chart (2,421), behind only Bobby Engram, Deon Butler, and Allen Robinson. Sickels posted career-high numbers during his last campaign in the blue and white, registering 47 tackles (12 for loss) and six sacks. Here are three Nittany Lions primed for bigger roles in their absence.
Saeed Blacknall | Senior | Receiver
For the third year in a row, Blacknall made the most of limited opportunities in the passing game. The Manalapan, N.J., native was pressed into action as a true freshman in 2014, and though he showed flashes of his downfield potential a number of times, had yet to put it all together in a single game heading into the Big Ten Championship.
All of that changed against Wisconsin’s typically-stingy secondary, as Blacknall torched the Badgers for a career-high 155 yards and two touchdowns on only six catches. His Rose Bowl suspension couldn’t have come at a worse time, but now the speedy receiver has a chance to refocus and push to be Penn State’s top all-around receiver next season. Blacknall boasts tremendous speed for his 6-foot-3 frame and could very well turn into Trace McSorley’s favorite target.
Shane Simmons | Redshirt freshman | Defensive end
Simmons is the type of athlete and competitor who could’ve made a splash a true freshman, but given Sean Spencer’s deep rotation of linemen, he was afforded the luxury of a full season of preparation in the weight and film rooms. The former five-star prospect out of Maryland powerhouse DeMatha Catholic (running back Mark Allen’s alma mater) could lock down one of the newly-vacant starting defensive end spots opposite Torrence Brown.
Simmons, a 6-foot-3, 240-pound product of Laurel, Md., has it all from a pass-rushing standpoint. He typically beats offensive tackles with his speed off the edge, but doesn’t shy away from mixing it up with his hands inside either. Simmons could show Penn State fans exactly why he was billed as a can’t-miss recruit as soon as the Blue-White Game on April 22.
Michal Menet | Redshirt freshman | Offensive guard
Menet is one of the most promising offensive linemen to roll through Happy Valley in quite some time. Gaining the five-star recruit’s verbal commitment proved a major win for James Franklin and his staff, and Menet will likely see the field a lot this coming season. The Birdsboro, Pa., local has the athleticism and versatility to play virtually any position for Matt Limegrover, but he’ll likely compete for the starting guard job across from Ryan Bates if Connor McGovern moves to center as expected.
Menet, who joined Simmons at the Under Armour All-America Game, was considered the nation’s consensus top guard prospect for the Class of 2016, according to 247Sports. Now checking in at 6-foot-4, 296 pounds, Menet hasn’t lost the fast-twitch reaction time that made him a terribly difficult player to cover on the basketball court for Exeter Township. He’s got everything you look for in a long-term starter, and odds are that journey begins this spring and summer.