Staff Picks: Penn State Football’s Top Breakout Candidate
2014 saw the breaking out of redshirt freshman DaeSean Hamilton, defensive tackle Anthony Zettel, and defensive coordinator Bob Shoop. The team’s first year under new head coach James Franklin saw its ups and downs en route to a 7-6 season, but year two is expected to see massive steps forward. So many key players are returning a year older and a year better, and the team will be supplemented by one of Penn State’s best recruiting classes in years. There are no shortage of players expected to have breakout years, so our staff asked itself: who will be Penn State’s biggest breakout?
Ben Berkman — Linebacker Brandon Bell
Despite a stellar season and mainstay as a starting outside linebacker, Brandon Bell’s 2014 campaign was largely overshadowed by Mike Hull, Penn State’s all-everything middle linebacker and defensive leader. For example, Bell’s 13 tackles against Ohio State would constitute an exceptional performance in any context, but it’s largely forgotten compared to Hull’s historic 19-tackle output against the Buckeyes. So, this year may not be as much of a breakout for Bell in terms of importance and stats, but look for him to see more recognition and attention, as he and Nyeem Wartman-White will now anchor the linebacker core. Bell, who stands 6-foot-1 and 231 pounds, missed the final two games of the regular season with an injury before his return in the Pinstripe Bowl. The junior made some airwaves earlier this offseason by switching his number from 26 to 11, of Lavar Arrngton fame. Bell stated he had always wanted the number, and neglected any added pressure it may bring. “I do recognize the player that wore the number before me but I think it’s just a number at the end of the day,” he said then. Added pressure or not, expect the athletic, versatile, and clearly confident Bell to shine in 2015.
Doug Leeson — Running Back Saquon Barkley
Sure, he hasn’t played a snap for Penn State yet, but I can still say with confidence that Mr. PA Football is the next big thing for the Nittany Lions. Barkley shone in his high school career with the Whitehall Zephyrs and was named Pennsylvania’s No. 1 recruit for the Class of 2015. Last season, the team’s runningbacks operated in a three-pronged attack, but two-thirds of that group have since graduated. Akeel Lynch is expected to claim the starting position this year, and his backup hasn’t been officially declared yet, but all signs point towards Barkley winning the spot. The first-team All-State selection rushed for 1,856 yards and 31 touchdowns in his senior season and has bulked up to 5-foot-11 and 215 pounds for this preseason. James Franklin has often referenced his knack for hurdling defenders while tight end Adam Breneman described him as a “twitchy athlete” — he’s one of the shiftiest runners Penn State has seen in a while, and not only should he break out this year, but he has as good of a chance as anyone to put together a career that stacks up with some all-time great Nittany Lions.
And even if he doesn’t show off his on-field talents this season, fans should still know his name for his off-the-field sportsmanship, like when he gave away his gold medal at Track and Field Districts to a girl who lost on a technicality. He’s a good player and an all-around great guy.
Sara Civian — Linebacker Jason Cabinda
With Nyeem Wartman-White moving to the middle of the defense due to Mike Hull’s graduation, a weak-side linebacker spot is up for grabs. This paves the way for sophomore Jason Cabinda to step up and have a breakout year. He is among the top competitors for the starting position. He made his first career appearance against Northwestern and made an impressive eight-tackle effort, landing him a spot in the linebacker rotation for the rest of his freshman year as a Nittany Lion. He also earned an honorable mention for the Big Ten All-Freshman team. The defense must continue its dominance for the team to succeed this season, and since offensive line coach Herb Hand has dubbed Cabinda a “workout warrior,” it appears as though he’s making the effort.
David Abruzzese — Wide Receiver DeAndre Thompkins
After his commitment on April 20 in 2013, it was easy for fans to envision coveted four-star wideout DeAndre Thompkins dazzling as a freshman, subsequently giving the Nittany Lions another game-changing weapon to add to the passing attack. James Franklin, on the other hand, had other plans. He opted to redshirt Thompkins, giving him time to acclimate and complete an offseason’s load of work in preparation for 2015. If you’re not familiar with Thompkins just yet, you will be by the time fall rolls around. At 5-foot-11, 185 pounds, Thompkins boasts the frame of an elite slot weapon. With a blazing 40-time that’s dipped into the low 4.4s, he figures to be a nightmare mismatch underneath. Although he’s yet to play a game for the Nittany Lions, Thompkins draws favorable comparisons to someone like Derrick Williams — both in size and potential. Thompkins won’t just be limited to work on the offensive side of the ball — he figures to provide an instant spark in the return game. Simply put, DeAndre Thompkins will be a beast in 2015, and it’s best to hop on the bandwagon now.
Jacob Abrams — Cornerback John Reid
Not many true freshmen get the nod as being the breakout player of the year, but John Reid should definitely be in consideration. Ranked by some as the best cornerback in Pennsylvania for the Class of 2015, Reid gives a lot of promise to the Nittany Lions defense. Reid has been described as being a great cover corner, while he also has the ability to read the quarterback and get on the ball quickly. He possesses long arms and can run well, giving receivers a hard time of getting to the ball with the amount of field he can cover. Reid played on both sides of the ball in high school, playing wide receiver and cornerback, and he hauled in 699 receiving yards his senior season. He also reached the end zone 12 times each of his final two seasons. Reid intercepted four passes his junior year and ran an interception back for a touchdown his senior year, showing his athleticism and playmaking ability on both sides of the ball. With Jordan Lucas moving from cornerback to safety this offseason, Reid should be able to showcase his abilities at the shallow position and be the breakout player for Penn State. Be on the lookout for No. 29 this season, you’ll be seeing a lot of him.
Ben Rappaport — Wide Receiver Chris Godwin
There are a lot of high expectations for different Penn State football players going into the upcoming season. However, no one is more ready for the season to start than sophomore wideout Chris Godwin. You may know him better as the man who ripped Boston College’s secondary apart in the Pinstripe Bowl last December. Catching a team-high seven receptions for 140 yards and a score, Godwin looked unstoppable. Especially on a 72-yard bomb from Hackenberg, Godwin exhibited all the traits you want in a receiver. Great speed and consistent hands, going along with trained route-running ability and excellent body control, the young receiver displayed it all and more in the biggest game of the season. Other than his uplifting performance in the bowl game, Godwin had an uninspiring first year, only tallying 19 catches for 198 yards and a touchdown. There were always glimpses of his true ability and now with an off-season under his belt to grow physically and mentally, Godwin is primed for a big season. He already has the size, being 6-foot-2, and has revealed flashes of what he can do when fully unleashed. Look for him to break out and help complete the Penn State offense that has shown itself to be one of the best in the Big Ten.