Five Nittany Lions With The Most To Prove During Spring Practice
Spring practice for Penn State is an important part of the season for numerous reasons. For one, it gives the coaching staff the ability to gauge the progression of younger players, while also giving them a chance to see new players in action for the first time. Coaches can test conditioning, system knowledge, and other aspects of a player’s football aptitude. More importantly, it gives unproven players a platform to get noticed by the coaching staff, an opportunity players can use to strengthen their case for increased playing time.
Five players stood out among the rest as those who could greatly benefit from an impressive spring practice, so read on to find out who needs to steal the spotlight during spring ball.
WR DeAndre Thompkins
Thompkins arrived in Happy Valley to high expectations. After all, he was one of James Franklin’s most coveted recruits of the Class of 2014. Franklin’s decision to redshirt the highly-touted Thompkins came as a surprise to most, but we now know there was method to his madness. Thompkins added some much-needed bulk over the course of his redshirt year, going from 173 last spring to his current weight of 187. Thompkins has the potential to be a home run threat every time the ball is in his hands — think former West Virginia star Tavon Austin. He fits the mold of a slot receiver perfectly, and has the speed to boot. Thompkins clocked in as the team’s fastest athlete last summer, and after a year waiting in the wings, he’s ready to showcase that speed on the field.
The only obstacle standing in his way is the plethora of young receiving talent in Penn State’s offense, so it will be up to him to stand out among the rest and carve a role for himself this spring. Playing in Thompkins’ court is the threat he brings to the table on special teams, be it returning kicks or fielding punts. He’ll have an opportunity to get meaningful reps with the first team offense this spring, and building a solid rapport with signal-caller Christian Hackenberg will be imperative to Thompkins’ success. He won’t beat out experienced players like Geno Lewis or DaeSean Hamilton, but should be able to get himself into the mix offensively with a stellar performance this spring. It seems as though he’s already catching the eye of his coaches, garnering praise from Franklin after day two of practice.
QB Trace McSorely
Before you question why a player who’s unlikely to see the field in 2015 would be included on this list, think of it from a different perspective. McSorely, despite redshirting in 2014, served as Penn State’s second-string quarterback all of last season. This meant he took all second-team reps, and actively contributed during games on the sideline, assisting with tasks like signaling plays to the offense. He was educated on the various intricacies of Penn State’s offensive system, learning the ropes behind one of the most gifted passers in the nation.
However, the arrival of three-star quarterback Tommy Stevens brings element of competition to the fold. Regardless of how much experience McSorley may have, there’s no guarantee that he holds onto his second-string job. He needs to prove to the coaches that he deserves the spot over the talented freshman with his play this spring, earning the job the hard way. McSorely will need to take advantage of every rep this spring to cement his name firmly ahead of Stevens on the depth chart headed into the regular season.
OT Paris Palmer
A JUCO transfer from Lackawanna College in Scranton, Pa, Paris Palmer arrives in Happy Valley with high expectations and two years of eligibility remaining. At 6-foot-7, he’s a physically imposing tackle with power forward type height, but it’s not his height that’s the issue; it’s his weight. Palmer enters spring camp weighing around 278 pounds, rather light for a Big Ten offensive tackle. Franklin took note of his rather slender figure after the second day of practice, quipping that “he looks like he should be suiting up for Pat Chambers right now.” That’s not to say Palmer can’t compete with the best in the conference, just that as it currently stands, he needs to add weight to maximize his effectiveness.
Palmer needs to use this spring — along with the subsequent months leading up to September — to turn some heads with his play, while working with the team’s strength coaches to reach an optimal playing weight. The weight issue isn’t something to be concerned about long-term, as it can easily be corrected. What’s more important right now is for Palmer to get a feel for the system, and create separation between himself and the other tackles vying for the starting left tackle job left vacant by Donovan Smith. Showing dedication to adding necessary bulk to his gargantuan frame should also reflect well as Palmer attempts to impress coaches.
LB Ben Kline
Coming off a season-ending torn achilles, Kline enters spring practice as a potential replacement for Mike Hull in the middle of Bob Shoop’s front seven. Kline won’t be the only competitor though, as sophomore Jason Cabinda, who became an active contributor defensively last season, and redshirt freshman Troy Reeder will be breathing down Kline’s neck. Kline is the most experienced of the bunch, but he needs to use the spring to shake off any rust and prove that he’s the man for the job. He has some big shoes to fill, but with a solid spring showing, Kline has an opportunity to gain the upper hand in the competition to anchor Penn State’s defense.
K Joey Julius
Yes, a kicker makes it onto our list for one obvious reason: Sam Ficken is gone, and somebody needs to replace him. Julius (or “Big Toe” as he’s referred to by the team) is considered the front-runner for the job, but that doesn’t mean the job is his. Julius will need to fend off a handful of eager suitors in order to secure the job permanently, including redshirt sophomore Chris Gulla. Gulla served as Penn State’s punter for about half of the 2014 season before being replaced by Aussie Daniel Pasquariello. Gulla will no longer focus on punting, because the coaches have informed him that he will switch to kicker full time. Gulla arrived on campus as a kicker, and now he’ll face off with Julius to see who will enter the regular season as Penn State’s starting kicker.
Julius has a big leg to complement his rather husky frame, and will need every bit of that “Big Toe” as he heads into spring practice in an effort to be named Sam Ficken’s replacement. If Julius wants to firmly grab hold of the starting spot, he’ll need to display both power and accuracy on a consistent basis. A few bad kicks could open the door for Gulla to leapfrog him, so he’ll need to make every opportunity count.