Blue-White Game Preview: Players To Watch
By C.J. Doon and David Abruzzese
Penn State’s spring practice season officially comes to a close this Saturday with the annual Blue-White scrimmage, held at 4 p.m. for the first time in the game’s history. While the glorified practice attracts tens of thousands of fans back to State College for the festivities and tailgating, the game is the first opportunity for fans to catch a glimpse of emerging talent and see which returning players made the most progress during the offseason.
Without further ado, here’s a list of the players to watch heading into Blue-White.
C.J. Doon: Offense
QB Trace McSorley
The redshirt freshman is entering his second season at Penn State after a decorated four-year high school career that saw the Ashburn, Va. native and Briar Woods High School product lead his team to four straight state championships. McSorley led the Falcons to a 55-5 record, amassing more than 12,000 yards of total offense and 150 career touchdowns, owning almost all of the school’s passing records.
But college football is an entirely different beast. We didn’t see any of McSorley in real game situations last year, and barring a catastrophic injury to Hackenberg, we won’t this year either. What’s important for McSorley this Saturday is to showcase some of the progress he’s made while learning offensive coordinator John Donovan’s system from the sidelines. A shifty runner, it will be interesting to see how a dual-threat quarterback runs the Penn State offense, similar to what we saw from former quarterback D.J. Crook in the few snaps he played last season against UMass.
QB Tommy Stevens
Stevens figures to step into McSorley’s role from last season as a redshirt backup, learning from the sidelines and working on his development in practice. Like McSorley, the three-star recruit from Indiana is a true dual-threat, throwing for 1,891 yards and 16 touchdowns in his senior season and adding another 842 yards and 10 scores on the ground. The 21st-ranked quarterback was originally pledged to Indiana, but after Brandon Winbush’s decommitment opened up the door for another scholarship signal caller, Penn State offered and stole Stevens from the Hoosiers.
While most likely being relegated to the scout team after the Blue-White game, Stevens could provide an interesting glimpse into the future of Penn State’s quarterbacks next season, assuming Hackenberg declares for the NFL Draft.
RB Mark Allen
Not to be confused with safety Marcus Allen, running back Mark Allen looks to take his place as the primary backup to Akeel Lynch, who will assume the lead ball carrying duties this season following the departure of Bill Belton and Zach Zwinak.
At 5-foot-7, 186 pounds, Allen is a shiftier back compared to the 6-foot, 220 pound Lynch, able to make people miss in between the tackles, a similar play style to Belton during his time in Blue and White. A former top-40 recruit from Maryland, Allen ran for 682 yards on 101 carries and caught seven passes for 79 yards as a junior for DeMatha Catholic before an injury forced him to miss time during his senior year.
Franklin called Allen the “quick, scat back” before spring practice, and with bruisers Jonathan Thomas (5-foot-11, 215 pounds), Nick Scott (5-11, 201 pounds), and Brandon Johnson (6-foot-1, 229 pounds) on the roster, it will be important for Allen to separate himself as the change-of-pace back.
WR DeAndre Thompkins
There’s no player on the Penn State roster that exudes as much excitement and potential as Thompkins, a speedster from Hubert, N.C. that owns the fastest 40-yard dash time on the roster. Thompkins committed to Penn State in 2014, and redshirted last season to bulk up his 5-foot-11, 187 pound frame in preparation for the physical demands of college football.
A two-time letterwinner at Swansboro High School, Thompkins was ranked 66th in the 2014 ESPN 300 and played in the Under Armour All-America game, adding more than 2,000 all-purpose yards during his junior season and nearly 1,500 all-purpose yards as a senior.
Franklin said Thompkins “looks like a different guy” heading into spring ball, but has been limited in practice of late, sitting out drills without pads. It remains unclear if he’ll play on Saturday, but if he does, keep your eyes on No. 3.
OTs Paris Palmer and Sterling Jenkins
A JUCO transfer entering his junior year, Paris Palmer figures to take over the starting tackle position vacated by the departure of Donovan Smith to the NFL. Alongside Andrew Nelson, the 6-foot-8, 290 pound prospect will be called upon to play a big role this season on the end of a re-tooled offensive line, but will need to add some weight before he really starts to turn heads.
“He’s where the rest of the offensive line was last year,” Franklin said of Palmer. “He’s kind of different because he has the footwork to get to position and make the plays, but at this level, he can get overpowered because he’s right around 290 pounds. He’s 6-foot-8, 290 and he looks like he’s 247. So the combination of experience this spring, all summer working, I think he has the chance to be in the 300-305 pound range against Temple, and that’s going to help because size matters. Mass moves mass. You can afford to have some of the mistakes because you have the size.”
For Sterling Jenkins, Saturday’s game will be an opportunity to show off his massive 6-foot-8, 321 pound frame, but he’s not expected to have an impact this year, facing a likely redshirt as a true freshman. Jenkins has the potential to become a mammoth bookend, the type of anchor that holds down the line for years to come. While still raw, having an opportunity to learn and develop in practice this season will do wonders for the 2015 Under Armour All-American.
TE Mike Gesicki
It will be interesting to see how Adam Breneman plays after missing a whole season due to injury, but we’ve already talked about him at length. Where Penn State’s tight end corps has the most potential is in 6-foot-6, 255 pound New Jersey native Mike Gesicki.
As a true freshman, Gesicki saw his fair share of the field last season, catching 11 passes for 114 yards. The former Under Armour All-American and four-star recruit figures to do even more for the offense this season, pairing with Breneman and Kyle Carter to form a dynamic pass catching threat. A former high school basketball standout, named MVP of the East/West Basketball All-Star game and champion of the 2014 state dunk contest, Gesicki has all the physical tools to become a breakout player this season.
David Abruzzese: Defense/Special Teams
P Robby Liebel
The IMG Academy product enters the annual scrimmage with a unique opportunity, given the uncertainty surrounding Penn State’s punting situation. At last Saturday’s open practice, James Franklin noted that the team’s punting had not progressed like he had previously hoped — a sign that incumbent starter Daniel Pasquariello’s job is far from secure. Liebel can insert himself ahead of Pasquariello heading into summer camp with a strong punting performance on Saturday, while inspiring hope to an otherwise questionable unit.
LB Ben Kline
The senior linebacker enters his final season with a big opportunity to fill the void left by Mike Hull in the Penn State front seven, but he’ll be joined by a number of worthy suitors in camp. Coming off a season-ending achilles injury, there will be more questions surrounding his health. In the Blue-White game, Kline will have the chance to dispel any lingering health concerns with sharp play and fluid movement. He’ll also get to shake off any rust after being held out of a live-game scenario for over a year. The competition to replace Hull’s presence will be fierce, but with a solid performance, he’ll be able to set himself apart from the field.
LB Koa Farmer
Entering his redshirt freshman season, Farmer is one of the more intriguing players on Penn State’s roster. He’s an athletic freak, and as a converted safety, possesses the type of speed rarely found in linebackers. It’s that athleticism that’s caught the attention of his fellow linebackers, including leadership council member Nyeem Wartman. Farmer will get a chance to put those remarkable athletic traits on display during the Blue-White game, and with a good performance, might be able to set himself apart from his teammates as he strives to carve out a role for himself. Farmer reminds me a lot of former USC standout Taylor Mays, only about two inches shorter and 10 pounds lighter. Farmer, like Mays, can cover the field, while posing a legitimate threat against the run. He’s one of Penn State’s more versatile defenders, and that raw athletic prowess will be sure to catch the eye of fans and coaches alike on Saturday.