James Franklin put out Penn State’s first official depth chart of the 2017 season Tuesday.
Compared to last season, the Nittany Lions opening weekend group will not have much of the unknown — Heisman contenders Trace McSorley and Saquon Barkley are back to lead the high-powered offense, while Bednarik Award watch listers Marcus Allen and Jason Cabinda return in control of Brent Pry’s defense.
After an offseason where he received praise from just about everyone in camp, redshirt sophomore Juwan Johnson received one of the three spots at the top of the wide receiver listing vacated by last season’s yards leader Chris Godwin. Key targets DeAndre Thompkins and DaeSean Hamilton, as well as tight end Mike Gesicki, also earned starting roles to begin 2017.
Saeed Blacknall slipped out of the top spot from last season at wide receiver, but Franklin still believes he’ll see a good amount of playing time.
“We could’ve listed [Thompkins and Blacknall] as an either/or,” Franklin said. “We look at both as starters.”
Starting as a guard in 2016, sophomore Connor McGovern will switch to center, replacing the offense’s other major loss in Brian Gaia at the top of the position’s listing. Ryan Bates, Steven Gonzalez, Brendan Mahon, and Chasz Wright fill out the rest of the offensive line.
“I think our offensive line situation has changed dramatically since we arrived till now,” Franklin said. “So we’re still young but I like where we’re at. I like our depth. I like our growth at that position and I feel like we do have confidence there. Especially comparatively speaking over the last couple years.”
With the team set at starting and backup quarterback, Franklin settled on true freshman Sean Clifford as the third string ahead of redshirt freshman Jake Zembiec.
“Sean Clifford is a guy that we were excited about,” Franklin said. “He’s much further ahead than we had anticipated coming in. He’s picked up the offense really quickly.”
Shareef Miller and Torrence Brown will replace Evan Schwan and Garrett Sickels at the top of the defensive end depth chart. Curtis Cothran and Parker Cothren return to fill out the starting roles on the defensive line at tackle.
Koa Farmer joins Jason Cabinda and Manny Bowen to lead “Linebacker U.”
Christian Campbell will replace the injured John Reid at the top of the cornerback depth chart, playing alongside returning starter Grant Haley at the position. Filling out the rest of the secondary, Troy Apke will replace Malik Golden and partner alongside All-Big Ten selection Marcus Allen at safety.
“[Apke] has always been an athletic guy,” Franklin said. “He’s a guy that’s got really good range. He’s got the size to be physical enough in the run game. He’s got tremendous maturity, which we also think is important.”
“You look at him and Marcus [Allen] and Christian [Campbell] and Grant [Haley]; that gives us a lot of guys that have played a lot of football. I think they are going to have a really, really good year for us.”
Franklin said that he will definitely burn redshirts on true freshman defensive end Yetur Matos, as well as cornerbacks Lamont Wade and Tariq Castro-Fields.
Tyler Davis returns for his third season as the team’s placekicker, and he’ll also assume Joey Julius’ role on the kickoff team after Julius left the team this offseason. Ray Guy watch lister Blake Gillikin sits atop the depth chart at punter for his sophomore season.
For kickoff and punt returns, Miles Sanders and DeAndre Thompkins lead the depth chart for the two positions, respectively. Sanders returned most of the kickoffs in 2016, while Thompkins takes over for the injured Reid as the main punt returner.
You can check out the full depth chart here.