Countdown To Blue-White: Spring Position Battles
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James Franklin’s Nittany Lions have their sights set on an improved 2016 season, and it all starts with 15 spring practices leading up to the team’s annual Blue-White Game on Saturday, April 16.
Like most offseasons, addressing positional needs takes center stage during spring ball, but for the first time in three years, Penn State is searching for a new starting quarterback. On top of the competition brewing at signal caller, the Nittany Lions have a handful of starting jobs up for grabs at key positions — mainly defensive tackle and tight end. We broke down each position battle and the players vying for those coveted spots.
Projected Starter: Trace McSorley
In The Mix: Tommy Stevens and Jake Zembiec
Trace McSorley has the inside track at earning the keys to Penn State’s offense after a standout two-touchdown performance in relief of an injured Christian Hackenberg in the TaxSlayer Bowl. However, Hackenberg’s two-year backup doesn’t have as much of a leg up on the competition as many would assume given the new system his OC and position coach Joe Moorhead is busy installing this spring.
The clear objection to this notion is the fact that Moorhead’s track record suggests he’s an ace at developing the talent at his disposal — particularly dual-threat quarterbacks, of which McSorley certainly fits the bill. Despite his 6-foot, 199-pound frame, the Ashburn, Va., native is a proven winner (he led Briar Woods High School to four straight state championship games, winning three). After guiding the Falcons to a sterling 55-5 record during his prep career, McSorley appeared to be headed to Vanderbilt, but James Franklin convinced him to flip to Penn State.
As a true freshman, McSorley beat out the more touted prospect in Michael O’Connor for the backup job despite arriving several months after the four-star passer, who enrolled early. Following the 2014 season, O’Connor transferred to the University of British Columbia and led the Thunderbirds to their fourth Vanier Cup — the National Championship of collegiate Canadian football — in school history.
McSorley has spent the past two seasons building a rapport with coach Josh Gattis’ talented bunch of Nittany Lion receivers — his high school teammate and slot burner Brandon Polk being one of them. McSorley has an edge over redshirt freshman Tommy Stevens and true freshman early enrollee Jake Zembiec in the experience department, but the process of naming Hackenberg’s successor may stretch past the Blue-White Game and spill into preseason camp.
Stevens, who played his high school ball at Decatur Central in Indianapolis, Ind., took a redshirt season this past fall to get himself acclimated to Big Ten football. His time spent in the weight room with Dwight Galt paid big dividends in a short period of time, as Stevens put on about 40 pounds of muscle and grew an inch. Now, checking in at 6-foot-5, 219 pounds, Stevens is ready to give McSorley all he can handle on the gridiron and in the quarterbacks room. It wouldn’t be that big of a shock to see Stevens take the opening snap against Kent State on Sept. 3 in Beaver Stadium given his talent level and football IQ.
Zembiec graduated early from the Aquinas Institute in Rochester, N.Y., after piloting the L’il Irish to a Class AA state title season that saw him earn the prestigious New York Gatorade State Player of the Year nod. Zembiec is also the first Nittany Lion signal caller since Hackenberg to participate in the Elite 11 showcase at Nike’s Beaverton, Ore., headquarters. Getting a leg up on the playbook in spring ball is invaluable to Zembiec’s development, as the 6-foot-3, 202-pound gunslinger will have 15 additional practices to learn under the tutelage of the noted quarterback whisperer Moorhead.
While a winner likely won’t be declared until this summer, the next few weeks will go a long way in determining the all-important pecking order of snaps. Fans and analysts alike will have a keen eye fixed on McSorley, Stevens, and Zembiec during the Blue-White Game.
Projected Starter: Mike Gesicki
In The Mix: Nick Bowers, Jon Holland, and Danny Dalton
It would be an understatement to say things have changed drastically since 2012, but one position in particular looks a lot different than it did during Bill O’Brien’s first campaign: Tight end. Gone are the days of spectacular catches by Jesse James and Kyle Carter. James declared a year early after last season and was taken by the Pittsburgh Steelers with their fifth-round selection. Carter put up solid testing numbers last Thursday during Penn State’s Pro Day and has a chance to join his former teammate in the NFL.
Adam Breneman announced his retirement this offseason after battling a serious nagging knee injury, but he the next chapter of his life is off to a great start, as he was named the campaign manager for Pennsylvania Senate hopeful Mike Regan in January. Penn State recently lost another tight end after senior Brent Wilkerson was suspended indefinitely for his involvement in an indecent assault and harassment case that was brought to light last week.
New tight ends coach Ricky Rahne, who was in charge of the quarterbacks the past two seasons, is down to only four scholarship Nittany Lions, but the unit’s combination of size and skill gives it a chance to take a step forward this fall. Junior Mike Gesicki has everything you look for in a tight end, but despite seeing the field a fair amount during his first two years on campus, a handful of costly drops loomed over the highlights. However, the 6-foot-6, 250-pounder is one heck of an athlete, showcased by his ridiculous testing numbers this winter. The Manahawkin, N.J., native finished near the top of each explosiveness drill, posting a 36.5 vertical leap (T-2nd), 10-foot-10-inch broad jump (1st), and 365-pound power clean (T-2nd).
Gesicki split reps with Wilkerson last fall, starting eight of the 12 games he played in for the Nittany Lions. He even caught his first touchdown — a 33-yard gem in the driving rain against Army — on his birthday. Now it’s his job for the taking, and experience in the trenches will go a long way in solidifying his role in the offense.
Penn State took a pair of tight ends in its 2015 recruiting class, which turned out to be a genius call on the part of the coaching staff. Nick Bowers flipped his commitment from Pitt to the Nittany Lions late in the process, and they couldn’t be happier to have the 6-foot-4, 265-pound redshirt freshman on their roster come Sept. 10 at Heinz Field. Joining Bowers in the tight ends room is classmate Jon Holland, who many analysts had pegged as a defensive end coming out of The Bullis School in Potomac, Md. At 6-foot-4, 238 pounds, Holland looks more like a pass catcher than a blocker at this point in his career, but make no mistake, he’ll have every opportunity to build confidence along the line of scrimmage this offseason.
The Nittany Lions landed a big-time prospect this past recruiting cycle in Marshfield, Mass., native Danny Dalton, who, like Zembiec, enrolled early this January after capturing Gatorade State Player of the Year honors of his own. Dalton was once committed to play for Boston College, but after visiting State College, the 6-foot-4, 241-pounder picked the Nittany Lions over notable offers from Alabama and Nebraska. Dalton also played lacrosse in high school, so the athleticism is clearly there. What once looked like a redshirt season-to-be for Dalton in 2016 may not be the case anymore given Penn State’s minimal depth at his position.
Projected Starters: Parker Cothren and Antoine White
In The Mix: Curtis Cothran, Robert Windsor, Kam Carter, Kevin Givens, and Ryan Monk
When the dust settles this offseason and the calendar flips to September, the biggest shoes to fill on the entire roster will almost certainly be at defensive tackle. It’s not often that a team has the luxury of anchoring its defense behind two future NFL talents for 26-straight games, but that’s exactly what Austin Johnson and Anthony Zettel provided for the Nittany Lions over the past two years.
Finding replacements for Johnson and Zettel in the middle will likely take on a committee approach this offseason and perhaps throughout 2016. The top contenders for the Lions’ share of reps this spring are veterans Parker Cothren and Antoine White, a redshirt junior and redshirt sophomore, respectively. Cothren saw action in all 13 games last season, recording 13 total tackles and half a sack, while White followed immediately on his heels with 12 total tackles and one sack in 10 contests.
At 6-foot-4, 302 pounds, Cothren has the physical tools necessary to step up and play a more involved role on the defense this coming season at the one-technique (4-3 nose tackle). The Huntsville, Ala., product has been with the program the longest, so defensive line coach Sean Spencer will lean on his hulking tackle to bring the youngsters under his wing. White, who hails from Millville, N.J., has packed on plenty of muscle during his first two years at Penn State, as he currently checks in at 6-foot-2, 283 pounds — perfect for the three-technique (4-3 pass-rush tackle).
Spencer made the decision to slide redshirt junior Curtis Cothran inside from his original spot at defensive end in hopes of solidifying the underclassman-heavy group. At 6-foot-5, 262 pounds, Cothran will need to add some weight this spring and summer like Zettel did upon transitioning from the edge two seasons ago, but the potential is there for Cothran to have a breakout year.
The Nittany Lions have a trio of redshirt freshmen raring to go this spring with playing time on the line, as Robert Windsor, Kam Carter, and Kevin Givens will give the vets all they can handle. Windsor saw his stock rise significantly after a standout senior season for Wisconsin’s Fond Du Lac High School and even had a chance to see the field as a true freshman last fall if called upon. The 6-foot-4, 285-pounder could push the older guys for snaps this spring. Carter, who played quarterback at times during his career at Gaithersburg (Md.) High School, is another guy who drew high praise for his work ethic last season on the scout team. Already up to 6-foot-4, 305 pounds, Carter should factor in heavily to the competition.
Givens turned heads at nearby Altoona High School as one of the strongest prep players around. Although somewhat undersized at 6-foot-1, 267 pounds, Givens isn’t afraid to throw around some serious iron in the weight-room. In fact, the former shot put standout posted the team’s top one-rep max in the squat a few weeks ago at a bar-bending 635 pounds. If Givens can continue to add muscle to his frame, opposing offensive lines better watch out.
Despite playing a relatively unnoticed role for the Nittany Lions last fall as a walk-on redshirt, Monk apparently made quite the impression on James Franklin for his motor and dedication to the team. In a pinch, Penn State could give the 6-foot-1, 279-pound Monk a look to create more game-day depth for the unit.
Spring practice will go a long way in determining the trajectory of Penn State’s preseason camp, and inevitably, its 2016 campaign. We’ll have a chance to check in on the Nittany Lions’ progress during the Blue-White Game on April 16.
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