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‘Competing Like Crazy’: Penn State Football’s Tightest Position Battles

Penn State’s spring practice concluded with Saturday’s Blue-White game, but the offseason is far from over. Summer practice is the last chance for players to make an impression, and could force some shakeups in Penn State’s lineup when the Lions head to Lincoln Financial Field to face Temple on Sept. 5 to begin the season.

James Franklin and the Penn State coaching staff will use the next few months recruiting to continue the goal of building a competitive atmosphere in practice. For the first time in four seasons, Penn State will have a full complement of scholarships on the roster jockeying for position to make the first team, a welcome sign for a coach in need of talent at multiple positions.

“We want to get to the point where we want to have the most competitive practices in the country, with a three deep at every position that are competing like crazy to take each other’s jobs and make each other better,” Franklin said after Saturday’s scrimmage. “We are working really hard on that and we are working really hard on developing the players that we have.”

Without further ado, here are the key positional battles to keep an eye on prior to the start of summer practice:

Offensive Line

Photo: Jack Lukow
Photo: Jack Lukow

Outside of Ohio State’s remarkable quarterback situation, there isn’t a more talked about position group in the Big Ten the last year and a half than Penn State’s offensive line. With just over 40 scholarship players last season as a result of the most crippling year of the now-repealed sanctions, Penn State’s front five was worn impossibly thin. Following Miles Dieffenbach’s injury that would sideline the standout guard for most of the season, left tackle Donovan Smith was the only remaining scholarship player on the offensive line. In stepped a cast of walk-ons and former defensive tackles to protect the team’s most prized possession, and as you might have guessed, it ended in disaster. Christian Hackenberg was dropped 44 times last season, the second-most among Big Ten signal callers in the last decade.

With a new season approaching, hope springs eternal for Penn State’s most-maligned unit. Though Donovan Smith bolted for the NFL leaving a 6-foot-5, 335-pound hole at left tackle, in steps JUCO transfer Paris Palmer. With two years of playing experience under his belt, Palmer is the most qualified to protect Hackenberg’s blindside, but the 6-foot-8, 290-pound prospect is still raw — and growing.

“He’s where the rest of the offensive line was last year,” Franklin said during spring practice. “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.”

Palmer and 6-foot-8, 321-pound true freshman Sterling Jenkins received praise this spring for their development, and the rest of the offensive line is beginning to notice. For a struggling unit, the cavalry has arrived.

“When Paris and Sterling came in, two 6-foot-8 guys, all you can really say is ‘wow,'” Brandon Mahon said, who projects to start at one of the guard positions. “I’m 6-foot-4 and they both just tower over us, but I definitely can tell that Paris has played at the college level with his work ethic and mentality as a whole coming in.”

While Palmer figures to bookend the left side, fans will keep a close eye on Andrew Nelson at right tackle. Nelson’s low point as a true freshman last season was blocking his own teammate on a fourth-and-1 in the Lions’ eventual 29-6 loss to Northwestern, but rest assured, the 6-foot-5, 310-pounder is ready to start throwing his new and improved physique around against the opposing team.

“He is a great athlete; he has gained some weight,” offensive coordinator John Donovan said. “He has been working on becoming more stout and not getting run through as much. He is just going to keep getting better and better. For a redshirt freshman playing the way he has, he is only going to improve and I look forward to seeing that happen.”

Running Back

Photo: Dana Lipshutz

There’s no debate that Akeel Lynch will be the starting ball carrier, but the competition to be his primary backup is fierce. While the absence of Jonathan Thomas and Brandon Johnson, and the continuing struggles of the offensive line in the Blue-White game, made it difficult to evaluate the unit as a whole, Nick Scott stood head and shoulders above the field thanks to an impressive 52-yard touchdown run.

Okay, so maybe Anthony Zettel let him go because he thought the play was dead. Regardless, the redshirt freshman showed incredible balance and awareness, flashing impressive breakaway speed. Franklin labeled Scott as a hybrid running back, with a combination of Mark Allen’s quickness and Thomas’s bruising power. Behind Lynch, the head coach will have a solid contingent of backs with complimenting styles to plug in depending on the situation.

“I know today Nick Scott made a couple of big runs and that’s a positive,” Franklin said. “I am really happy to see that, but I think overall, Mark Allen had a really strong spring. We did have Jonathan Thomas, a guy we are really excited about, and I am hoping he will be ready to go by camp.”

Saquon Barkley and Andre Robinson, while facing likely redshirts, will be the two players to watch this summer. Barkley was named Mr. PA Football after finishing his senior season with 1,856 rushing yards and a single-season record 29 touchdowns, while Robinson amassed more than 4,000 yards and 60 touchdowns during his time at Bishop McDevitt. Both are ranked among the top-15 running back recruits in the country.

“We got some guys coming in as well that I think are going to be able to compete and create some competitive environments in practice with Saquon [Barkley] and Andre [Robinson], so we are excited about those guys too,” Franklin said.

Defensive Line

Photo: Morton Lin

Based on comments from coaches and players, Carl Nassib is the standout performer of the spring. The former walk-on is projected to have a breakout season, aiming to replace the production left behind by the departure of Deion Barnes and C.J. Olanyian at defensive end.

Franklin called Nassib “Mr. Consistent” prior to spring practice and raved about his leadership and work ethic after the Blue-White game. If you’re looking for something more tangible, Nassib’s grown into an intimidating presence, filing the mold of a typical outside rusher. Since his time at Penn State, Nassib has grown two inches and gained 55 pounds into a 6-foot-7, 273-pound force.

“He’s a beast,” Shoop said. “He’s the type of guy who I think will come out of nowhere and has the type of year that could be an All-Big Ten caliber year. He’s going to be that guy that goes ‘Boy, I didn’t even think about him, but he could be a five- or ten-year veteran in the NFL.’ He’s got a lot of potential. He’s very serious; he’s a pre-med student. He’s got one of the best personalities on the team. He’s very prideful. I think I’ve told this story before: he came to me numerous times during the winter and spring and said ‘Coach, invest in me. I’m a good investment.’ And I’m excited to work with him.”

While Nassib earned most of the praise this spring, other players to watch on the defensive line include defensive ends Garret Sickels, Torrence Brown, and Evan Schwan and defensive tackles Tarow Barney, Curtis Cothran, and Parker Cothren. Schwan and Cothran both impressed on Saturday, each with two “sacks” after seeing limited action last season. Brown and Barney also got into the action with a sack each.

“I thought all spring our defensive ends played really well,” Franklin said. “I made a comment a couple of weeks ago that I didn’t think that would be a question mark anymore.  Most of the guys we are talking about, Tarow Barney at defensive tackle, Parker Cothren at defensive tackle, [Garrett] Sickels at defensive end, [Evan] Schwan. All those guys played a decent amount and we are talking 30 reps a game.”

“I feel like we have a really, really, really good situation at [defensive line],” Shoop added. “Those guys are playing exceptionally well.”


Photo: 247 Sports
Photo: 247 Sports

The obvious question: Who’s going to replace Sam Ficken?

While it’s rare to see kickers develop during the offseason outside of practice, Franklin put his on display in front of 68,000 fans prior to the Blue-White game. In the pregame kicking competition, two players separated themselves from the pack: Joey Julius and Tyler Davis. Both nailed kicks in the 37-50 yard range, and both also connected from 55 yards, tying the Penn State in-game record set by Chris Bahr in 1975.

Julius, who resembles a short defensive tackle at 5-foot-11, 244 pounds, figures to take over both the title of starting kicker and crowd favorite with Ficken gone. The “Big Toe” wowed the crowd with his leg strength, blasting a few early kicks that would have been good from 60.

“Joey Julius, he’s not your typical kicker,” Franklin said after the game. “He was a high level soccer player, so he is a very competitive guy. I have been very, very pleased with his leg strength, but there is still a lot of things fundamentally that we have to get cleaned up. I thought he had a good spring and I think he showed that today. All of his kickoffs were eight or nine yards deep in the end zone.”

The unique competition offered a rare glimpse at how the kickers would perform under pressure (albeit a quiet crowd that needed to be enticed by the PA announcer), and from how both Julius and Davis performed, it seems Penn State’s kicking game is in capable hands this season. However, Franklin would still like to see some improvement by the beginning of September.

“I would have liked to see those guys to be a little more consistent, especially on the shorter range kicks,” Franklin said. “Once it got deeper, I know who they are in that circumstance.”

Julius is already drawing comparisons to perennial NFL All-Pro Sebastian Janikowski for his size and leg strength, but it will be awhile before any NFL team even thinks about offering a first-round pick for his services. His first priority will be outperforming Davis in practice, the sophomore preferred walk-on from Illinois, and a five-star kicking prospect in his own right.

Regardless of who wins the starting job, it will be fun to see what kind of long kicks Franklin tries this season with both Julius and Davis itching to put another 55-yarder through the Beaver Stadium uprights.

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About the Author

CJ Doon

CJ is a senior journalism major from Long Island and Onward State's Sports Editor. He is a third-generation Penn Stater, and his grandfather wrestled for the university back in the 1930s under coach Charlie “Doc” Speidel. Besides writing, one of his favorite activities is making sea puns. You can follow him on Twitter @CJDoon, and send your best puns to [email protected], just for the halibut.

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