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Blue-White Game Countdown / 28 Days: Penn State Spring Practice Primer

Cameron Hart

The temperatures are beginning to rise, snow is beginning to melt, and the first day of spring is upon us, which means it’s time for spring ball to finally begin. While the team isn’t losing an Allen Robinson type of threat on the offensive side of the ball, there will be some holes to patch up along the offensive line. Changes will also be coming on the defensive side, as the team looks to replace the production of Mike Hull and Adrian Amos–two of the team’s defensive stalwarts of the past few seasons.

Change occurs each year in college football; players graduate or leave for the NFL Draft, while recruits and experienced players alike step into the mix in an effort to earn their stripes and forge their own path. Here is all you’ll need to know as the Nittany Lions begin spring practices.

*Editor’s Note* All incoming recruits from the 2015 class will not be included in this article, since they won’t be on campus until summer camps begin. Only recruits who enrolled early will be included.

Image: Bobby Chen
Image: Bobby Chen

Quarterback 

Who’s Leaving: D.J. Crook (transfer to Albany), Michael O’Connor (transfer to University of British Columbia)

Key Returning Players: Christian Hackenberg (duh)

New Faces: Tommy Stevens (freshman), Trace McSorely (redshirt)

Spring camp for the quarterback position will be less about the starting gig–Christian Hackenberg has that locked down pat–and revolve mostly around the competition for the backup role between newcomer Tommy Stevens and redshirt freshman Trace McSorely. Both players are mobile, with Stevens the larger of the two signal callers at 6-foot-4, compared to McSorely at 6-foot. McSorely holds the upper hand after spending the entirety of his redshirt year taking second-team reps in practice, beating out (and ultimately forcing out) Crook and O’Connor–who arrived in Happy Valley as a highly regarded prospect. Both players are talented, and although it may not seem as important as other positional battles, the team will need a competent backup to take over in the event that Hackenberg goes down.

Image: Bobby Chen
Image: Bobby Chen

Running Back 

Who’s Leaving: Bill Belton (graduation/NFL), Zach Zwinak (graduation/NFL), Cole Chiappialle (transfer to Shippensburg)

Key Returning Players: Akeel Lynch

New Faces: Mark Allen (redshirt), Johnathan Thomas (redshirt), Brandon Johnson (redshirt)

The running back position will definitely be a position of intrigue, as the Nittany Lions lose a former 1,000 yard rusher in Zach Zwinak–doing so in 2012–along with change of pace back Bill Belton, who was a versatile runner and receiver during his time in Happy Valley. But Akeel Lynch, the man who will be replacing Zwinak and Belton, has a chance to forge his own path in a featured role. Lynch is a star in the making, and now that he’s at the top of the depth chart for the first time in his career, don’t be surprised if he bursts onto the scene with a monster season. He has the talent to do it all–bowl over tacklers, juke defenders, bounce runs to the outside, and pose a home run threat every time he touches the ball. Lynch has been patient during his first two years at Penn State, but that patience is about to pay off in a big way.

As for the team’s other backs, James Franklin said that there will be plenty of options heading into spring ball.

“I’m excited to see what Scott, Johnson and Allen are going to be able to do.  Scott and Allen redshirting, and Johnson is actually the biggest, strongest, fastest guy on our team, so we’re going to see if it’s going to translate.” Said Franklin in his spring press conference. “Obviously Thomas is a guy we’re excited about as well, but he’ll be somewhat limited during the spring. All those guys redshirted except for Johnson last year, so we’re excited to see what they’re going to be able to do. They’re all different. Thomas is the big, physical guy, Allen is the quick scat back, and Scott is kind of a combination of the two. We’re going to need those guys to step up.”

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Wide Receiver 

Who’s Leaving: Nobody

Key Returning Players: Geno Lewis, DaeSean Hamilton, Chris Godwin, Saeed Blackall

New Faces: DeAndre Thompkins (redshirt)

Wide receiver is the position that saw the least turnover out of any for the Nittany Lions, as every single receiver who worked into last year’s rotation returns. The experience that these players gained last season will be imperative to their continued success in 2015, and not only will they benefit, but their quarterback will as well. Christian Hackenberg’s up and down play last season garnered criticism from pundits around the country, and while some of it was warranted, there were many underlying causes that factored into his play. Part of the problem was that Hackenberg’s favorite target in 2013–Allen Robinson–bolted for the NFL, leaving him to become familiar with a new group of wideouts, most of whom were freshmen. Fast forward one year and you’ll see a new rapport between receiver and quarterback headed into 2015, both with a season of familiarity and work under their belts.

Look for DaeSean Hamilton to build off of his stellar All-Big Ten Freshman season–where he put up 82 catches, 899 yards, and two touchdowns, developing into a home run threat as he becomes Hackenberg’s new favorite receiver. Chris Godwin, Saeed Blacknall, and Geno Lewis should enjoy similar success, and look for redshirt freshman DeAndre Tompkins–who some say is the fastest player on the team–to thrive in the slot, and give Penn State a legitimate scoring threat on special teams. It’s early, but as it currently stands, Penn State is set to have a monster season through the air.

Image: Bobby Chen
Image: Bobby Chen

Tight End 

Who’s Leaving: Jesse James (NFL Draft)

Key Returning Players: Adam Breneman, Kyle Carter, Mike Gesicki

New Faces: None

The tight end group will feature one less familiar face in 2015, as the Nittany Lions lose Jesse James to the NFL Draft. While James’ massive presence posed a serious red-zone threat, the unit will survive without him on the field. Kyle Carter–the final member of the “Supa Six” remaining at Penn State and he of Pinstripe Bowl glory–grabs hold of the reins in his senior season, knowing that he’ll be counted on in a big way. The team’s biggest “acquisition” will be the return of Adam Breneman, who provides exceptional run blocking support and can be used in multiple spots around the field. Mike Gesicki is also player to keep an eye on, as he looks to expand upon his pass-catching role behind Carter. Gesicki is fearless across the middle, and is quicker than his sturdy build might suggest. The tight end position is in good hands going into next season.

Image: Bobby Chen
Image: Bobby Chen

Offensive Line 

Who’s Leaving: OT Donovan Smith (NFL Draft), OG Miles Dieffenbach (graduation/NFL)

Key Returning Players: G/C Angelo Mangiro, OT Andrew Nelson, G/C Brian Gaia, OG Derek Dowrey, C Wendy Laurent, OG Brendan Mahon

New Faces: OT Charlie Shuman (redshirt), OT Chasz Wright (redshirt), OT Brendan Brosnan (redshirt), OT Sterling Jenkins (freshman), OT Noah Beh (redshirt), OT Paris Palmer (JUCO transfer)

There will be two important positions for the Nittany Lions to fill up front–left tackle and left guard. The team loses two extremely talented players in Donovan Smith and Miles Dieffenbach, and will need to turn to young, inexperienced players to fill the void. The team returns some notable players, none more important than Andrew Nelson, despite being only a redshirt sophomore. Nelson locked down the right side in 2014, facing some of the Big Ten’s top defensive ends–including Ohio State’s Joey Bosa and Michigan State’s Shilique Calhoun. There is plenty of uncertainty as to what the Nittany Lions will do regarding the now vacant left tackle position; will Franklin slide the experienced Nelson over to the left side? Or will he trust blue-chip recruit Sterling Jenkins–a player held in high regard within team circles–and leave Nelson on the right side? Paris Palmer is also a player who could step in and immediately make an impact.

Coach Franklin addressed the left tackle position in his press conference with the media earlier this week.

“I think we’re going to have to count on a redshirt, we really don’t have any other choice. The guys we’re kind of looking at right now are Hall, Palmer, Sorrell and Jenkins, but that doesn’t mean that Nelson couldn’t fill in as well.” Franklin said. “It’s going to be a young, inexperienced player, newer player to our program to take that job unless one of the other right tackles come on strong like Brosnan, Beh, or Shuman. This allows us to move Nelson over, or one of those left tackles we’re starting with moves to right tackle. Basically we’re going to try to find the four best tackles we can and put them in the best positions to help our team.”

Image: Bobby Chen
Image: Bobby Chen

Defensive Line 

Who’s Leaving: DE Deion Barnes (NFL Draft), DE C.J. Olaniyan (graduation/NFL), DE Brad Bars (graduation/NFL)

Key Returning Players: DT Anthony Zettel, DT Austin Johnson, DE Garrett Sickels, DE Carl Nassib, DE Evan Schwan

New Faces: DE Torrance Brown (redshirt), DT Antoine White (redshirt)

Deion Barnes and C.J. Olaniyan will be a tough duo to replace, but despite the loss, Garrett Sickels and Carl Nassib should fit in admirably. Both are pass rushing threats, who can also defend the run. The most pressure will be on Anthony Zettel to replicate the unbelievable year he had last season. With most teams sure to key in on him, finding capable ends will be top priority for Franklin and line coach Sean Spencer. The defensive end position will definitely be one to keep an eye on as we approach spring ball.

“He’s [Nassib] Mr. Consistent. He does everything right,” Franklin said at Tuesday’s press conference. “He’s extremely strong, extremely athletic, and comes from an unbelievably athletic family. He has the work ethic, the mentality, intelligence.  I think he’s a premed major doing extremely well.”

After an encouraging offseason that saw big winter gains for much of Penn State’s roster under second-year strength coach Dwight Galt, it appears Franklin is pleased with the developing talent and depth on the defensive line.

“What’s exciting about our defensive ends, as big as they are, they still look skinny, and they’re moving better,” he said. “So all of their agility, all their 40 times went down, and they all put on between 12 and 15 pounds. You look at Nassib, Cothran, Brown, we’re excited about all those guys. Cothran is a guy about 260 pounds, and looks beautiful. Brown, guy who played running back in high school, almost 260 pounds now. You have Sickels, you have Schwan, again a guy who is big, strong, athletic, tests extremely well.”

Image: Bobby Chen

Linebacker 

Who’s Leaving: Mike Hull (graduation/NFL)

Key Returning Players: Nyeem Wartman, Gary Wooten, Brandon Bell, Ben Kline, Jason Cabinda

New Faces: Troy Reeder (redshirt), Koa Farmer (redshirt)

The linebacking corps will need to replace one major player, but that player happens to be one of the best tacklers in recent memory. Replacing Mike Hull will not be an easy task, but the Nittany Lions do possess the ability to do so. The outside slots will be set as Nyeem Wartman and Brandon Bell look to improve off of successful sophomore campaigns, meaning senior Ben Kline and sophomore Jason Cabinda, along with junior Gary Wooten, will all receive looks at the middle linebacker spot this spring. Though it’s only one player, replacing 140 tackles and vocal leadership isn’t easy to replace.

“There’s a lot of options there,” Franklin said. “I think Wartman is an option, he’s a big, strong, physical guy who moves very, very well. He’s got experience now playing the position. You’d like to have a Mike linebacker with a guy who has played enough football.”

“I think the fact that these guys actually watched Mike Hull for the last couple years is valuable, as well, just how the guy practiced and prepared,” he added. “But he’s an option for us. Wooten is an option for us, as he’s played the position before. We need the guys to be more verbal on the field, but he’s done some really nice things. Kline is a guy we’re hoping is going to be a pleasant surprise. You talk to our players, he’s unbelievably respected on our team as a leader.”

Whoever anchors the spot in the middle will have some big shoes to fill.

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Secondary

Who’s Leaving: S Adrian Amos (graduation/NFL), S Ryan Keiser (graduation)

Key Returning Players: CB Grant Haley, S Jordan Lucas, CB Christian Campbell, CB Trevor Williams, S Marcus Allen

New Faces: None

Adrian Amos will no longer be roaming the secondary, meaning the Nittany Lions will turn to seniors Jordan Lucas and Trevor Williams for veteran leadership. Lucas will be transitioning from cornerback to safety, a move made mainly to utilize Lucas’ strengths as well as make room for the group of young corners Penn State will feature next season. Look for Grant Haley, Christian Campbell, and Marcus Allen–three players coming off solid true freshman campaigns–to continue to develop and blossom into a fearsome unit.

Coach Franklin touched on his decision to move Lucas from corner to safety.

“I think long‑term what we try to do is we try to do things that are not only best for Penn State and our football program specifically, but also in these guys’ long‑term potential.” Franklin said. “I think Jordan is a guy who could play corner here and at the next level as well. I think he has a chance to maybe be special at safety.”

Image: Bobby Chen
Image: Bobby Chen

Special Teams 

Who’s Leaving: K Sam Ficken (graduation/NFL)

Key Returning Players: K Chris Gulla, P Daniel Pasquariello

New Faces: K Joe Julius

Yes, the legend that is Sam Ficken will no longer be kicking in Beaver Stadium as he takes his booming leg to the professional ranks. That means there will be a new kicker for Penn State in 2015, and the competition will be headlined by redshirt sophomore Chris Gulla and redshirt freshman Joe Julius. Gulla, who saw the field last season as a punter, will focus solely on kicking as he moves forward in his Nittany Lion career.

There is plenty to be excited about regarding Penn State football as we inch closer and closer to the Blue and White game. Be sure to keep an eye out for our positional highlights in the weeks prior to the game.

Football season is almost here. Rejoice.

Photo: Cameron Hart/Penn State

About the Author

David Abruzzese

David is a senior from Rochester, NY, nestled right in beautiful Western New York. He is majoring in Broadcast Journalism, and as an avid sports fan, he passionately supports the Buffalo Bills and Buffalo Sabres. He is the first Penn Stater from his family, and couldn’t be prouder to represent Penn State University. In his free time, he likes to alpine ski, and play golf. You can follow him on Twitter @abruz11, and can contact him via email at [email protected]

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