Penn State might be returning most of its starters from last season, but a number of position battles have been going on in the weeks leading up to Blue-White. While a glorified scrimmage isn’t likely to completely change the trajectory of these position battles, Saturday is the perfect opportunity to see where each players stands in the competition — whether through their performances or the amount of time they see on the field compared to their counterpart.
Here are the biggest position battles heading into the weekend:
Marcus Allen will return again to start for the Nittany Lions, but who his partner will be in the spot that used to belong to Malik Golden is one of the biggest questions heading into spring ball. The two main players battling it out as we approach Blue-White are Nick Scott and Ayron Monroe.
Scott comes in as a veteran for the team with two years of play under his belt — first as a running back before transitioning ahead of his redshirt sophomore season — and played a major role on special teams before he was named captain for the upcoming season.
Monroe doesn’t have the overall experience, but the redshirt sophomore isn’t lagging behind Scott as both players enter just their second seasons at the position for Penn State and neither have seen much game time behind Golden. If Monroe has any sort of edge, it might be his sheer athleticism.
DaeSean Hamilton and Saeed Blacknall will return to their starting roles in 2017, so this battle comes down to who will replace Chris Godwin. Juwan Johnson didn’t have the breakout redshirt freshman season he hoped for with just two catches in 2016, but he’ll challenge Deandre Thompkins, who had a more prominent role early in the season while Blacknall was injured.
Johnson has been the talk of spring ball so far, making the most of his potential opportunity to replace Godwin. Part of that has to do with his work ethic off the field to reach this point.
“Every time I go into the building to do some extra work, Juwan is there or leaving because he just got done,” tight end Mike Gesicki said. “He’s staying after practice, doing extra catching. On his off days doing stretching, getting in the tubs, and making sure his body is right. I think Juwan is doing everything in his power to reach the success that he wants to.”
With both Garrett Sickels and Evan Schwan gone, Franklin has a world of depth to look at to fill in for the talented starting duo. Torrence Brown and Shareef Miller are the two most experienced potential starters for the season, but a versatile candidate and two redshirt freshmen have both impressed so far in spring practice.
Redshirt sophomore Ryan Buchholz should be on the field with a message to send this weekend. With an ability to play outside or inside, he’s a guy that could be a factor heading forward all along the defensive line.
Although they might not get their chance when the season finally comes around, the position has two of the most touted freshmen in Shaka Toney and Shane Simmons heading into Blue-White. The duo has been noticed by veteran offensive lineman Ryan Bates for the challenge they’ve given him in practice.
It isn’t a position with a ton of starting experience, but defensive end might be one of the deepest positions for James Franklin.
No one’s unseating Saquon Barkley from his perch at the top of the depth chart in the backfield, but all three running backs behind him played a role in the 2016 season. Especially after Barkley’s injury late last year, skillful and experienced backs who can take on a larger role are desperately needed.
In a game where we’re unlikely to see Barkley play, Blue-White represents the perfect opportunity to see where Mark Allen, Andre Robinson, and Miles Sanders stand after weeks of spring ball and to gauge who could have an edge.
Not much has been said about the trio behind Barkley after a few weeks of practice, but Sanders was singled out by Franklin for his offseason where he put on 19 pounds.
Penn State went into the offseason without a public plan for how it would replace Brian Gaia, but the end result might be a switch from guard to center for Connor McGovern. His competition for the spot is Gaia’s backup from last year, Zach Simpson, but Franklin did mention prior to spring ball that his preference is for last year’s starters to slide in wherever they’re needed.
“We want to get as many returning starters on the field as possible [on the offensive line],” Franklin said. “So the best way to do that is by moving a guy like Connor McGovern in there to center.”