Replacing NFL Draft Prospects Jesse James, Donovan Smith, and Deion Barnes
Penn State will be losing three of its most talented players going into the 2015 season, as tackle Donovan Smith, tight end Jesse James, and defensive end Deion Barnes have all decided to enter the 2015 NFL Draft. With the talented trio moving on to the next level, their production will have to be replaced somehow. Here is a list of potential replacements and what might be expected of them moving forward.
Smith, Christian Hackenberg’s blindside protector for the past two seasons, leaves a big hole at the left tackle position with his decision to enter the draft. He was widely considered Penn State’s best offensive lineman, and was usually the one consistent player on a line that struggled mightily at points throughout the season. There are a number of players that could replace Smith, starting with rising redshirt sophomore right tackle Andrew Nelson.
Nelson, who contributed right away after redshirting in 2013, seems like the most likely candidate to replace Smith given his experience and potential. Although he struggled at points throughout the season, Nelson progressed significantly going up against top-level Big Ten competition. He is more than deserving of a promotion, and could emerge as Penn State’s anchor on the left side for the foreseeable future. One of Penn State’s highly touted young prospects like Sterling Jenkins, Chasz Wright, or Paris Palmer could also slide into a role on the left side, although it would be unlikely given their lack of experience.
Another option would be to keep Nelson at right tackle, and have newcomer Palmer take over on the left side. This move is unlikely, as Nelson already has one year in the system under his belt, but is still feasible given Palmer’s size and experience at the junior college level. Palmer, a 6-foot-8, 300-pound tackle, arrives in Happy Valley with two years of eligibility remaining, and could be inserted into the starting lineup immediately.
Young players like Noah Beh, Charlie Shuman, and incoming prospect Ryan Bates will provide solid depth at tackle, but still need time to develop. Rising redshirt junior Albert Hall could also be thrown into the mix, but seeing as 2014 was his first season playing offensive tackle, he will most likely be used as a reserve as he continues to develop and get stronger.
The tight end position is arguably Penn State’s deepest position going into the 2015 season, so while losing a player like Jesse James hurts, it’s not the end of the world. First in line to replace him will be rising senior Kyle Carter, who split time with James over the past three years to create a formidable two-headed pass catching threat. With James gone however, it will be Carter’s turn in the spotlight as the team’s primary tight end. Carter will be expected to have a big season as the No. 1 tight end, and given his rapport with quarterback Christian Hackenberg, a big year is not out of the question, especially given his impressive effort in the Pinstripe Bowl.
Expect sophomores Mike Gesicki and Adam Breneman (who will have three seasons of eligibility after receiving a medical redshirt in 2014) to be involved in the passing game, playing second-fiddle to Carter. Gesicki, who had 11 catches for 114 yards as a freshman in 2014, will be used more as a pass-catcher than a blocker, similar to the role Carter played this season behind James. Breneman will be used in both roles, and could see time all over the field given his versatility. Breneman is the best blocker out of the three players, but is a legitimate threat in the passing game, and can split out wide, on the line, or as an H-back. Although they won’t be starting, Gesicki and Breneman will play important roles, and both will see plenty of action.
Rising redshirt junior Brent Wilkerson will be the team’s No. 4 tight end, and unless injuries hit, he will be used mainly on special teams. Wilkerson is a solid route runner and pass catcher, catching one touchdown this season against UMass, and could easily be plugged into the lineup if needed.
This will be a position to watch in spring camp, as Penn State will need to replace two of its top defensive linemen from last season. Deion Barnes is gone, but so is C.J. Olanyian, who is set to graduate. The top candidate to fill in at the end spot will be rising redshirt senior Carl Nassib. Nassib has been more of a role player over the past two seasons, recording 18 tackles (two for a loss), two sacks, one fumble recovery, and one pass breakup in two seasons of game action. At 6-foot-6, 258 pounds, Nassib provides an edge rushing threat, and will be counted on to pick up right where Barnes left off. He’s waited in the wings for quite some time, but all of that patience is about to pay off.
On the other side, former four-star recruit Garrett Sickels and Evan Schwan will battle it out in camp for a starting job. Both are highly talented, but I see Sickels coming out on top. Sickels was a monster in high school, a two-time All-American who posted 75 tackles, nine sacks, and three forced fumbles as a senior. He was one of the prizes of Bill O’Brien’s 2013 recruiting class, and with three seasons of eligibility remaining, could become a dominant force on the edge for years to come.
Schwan could compete for both starting jobs, given his strength against the run. He is one of the team’s more experienced defensive ends, and has the size to boot. Another one of Schwan’s best features is his versatility. Schwan can line up at either end spot, while also excelling on special teams. Curtis Cothran and Torrence Brown figure to provide depth, but will most likely see the field in reserve roles for defensive coordinator Bob Shoop, who likes to keep the team’s front four fresh with different player packages.
It’s never easy losing players as talented as Smith, James, and Barnes, all of whom made a great impact in 2014. That said, the Penn State football’s future looks awfully bright.