Countdown To Blue-White: Players With Most To Gain/Lose
The 2016 Blue-White Game is almost upon us, as the beloved annual scrimmage will take place this Saturday at 2 p.m. in Beaver Stadium, concluding 15 spring practices for the Nittany Lions.
We’ve aqlready taken a look at the strides Matt Limegrover has made with the offensive line, and some of the key position battles that could stretch into the summer, so let’s switch gears and analyze the players who have the most to prove this weekend.
Most To Gain
Andre Robinson | Running back | Redshirt freshman
Sophomore phenom Saquon Barkley’s talents are well known, so don’t expect No. 26 to stay on the field much longer than a few series this Saturday. Incoming freshman Miles Sanders, the nation’s top-ranked 2016 running back recruit, won’t arrive until this summer, which means there will be plenty of carries to go around for Robinson and redshirt sophomores Mark Allen and Johnathan Thomas.
While Robinson’s name often gets overlooked given the deserving excitement surrounding Barkley and Sanders, the nearby Harrisburg, Pa., product turned in a tremendous career at Bishop-McDevitt. In fact, Robinson holds the Crusaders’ career touchdowns record. Not even Buffalo Bills star LeSean McCoy found the end zone more often in high school than the 5-foot-9, 213-pound bruiser.
Ryan Bates/Steven Gonzalez | Offensive guards | Redshirt freshmen
Penn State’s offensive line induced far more headaches than jubilation over the past two seasons, but the Nittany Lions may finally have the pieces in place to take a step forward in 2016. Perhaps the best remedy for the oft-maligned unit is a little youth infusion, which Bates and Gonzalez would certainly provide. A former Under Armour All-American, Bates and sophomore linebacker Jake Cooper were instrumental in bringing home back-to-back PIAA AAA State Championships for Archbishop Wood in Warminster, Pa. Coincidentally, Wood bested Robinson and McDevitt 22-10 in 2013.
Gonzalez was named a First-Team All-New Jersey selection his senior season at Union City and, like Bates, already looks the part of a nasty interior lineman. Standing a mammoth 6-foot-4, 339 pounds, Gonzalez has ample opportunity to snatch one of the starting guard spots from veterans Derek Dowrey or Brendan Mahon. Though James Franklin prefers to wait for his offensive linemen to marinate in the weight training program until their redshirt sophomore year, the future of Limegrover’s bunch seems best served with Bates and Gonzalez.
Nick Scott | Safety | Redshirt sophomore
Scott came to Penn State as a running back, but after posting 133 rushing yards and a touchdown on 30 carries this past fall, good for fourth on the team, the coaching staff decided his speed would be better utilized on defense. The Fairfax, Va., native also fielded 13 kickoffs in 2015 for 310 yards, with a long of 58 in the rain against Buffalo, while making eight tackles with the coverage units. Scott’s performance earned him the John Bruno Memorial Award for excellence on special teams at the postseason banquet.
By all accounts, Scott’s transition to corner, then safety, this spring has been a smooth one given his versatility and eagerness to learn. Despite moving from one crowded position group to another, it’s undeniable that he’ll have a better chance to make an impact with Tim Banks’ posy. Marcus Allen has already locked down the starting free safety role, but keep an eye on Scott’s battle at strong safety with Malik Golden and Koa Farmer this Saturday.
Most To Lose
DeAndre Thompkins | Wide receiver/punt returner | Redshirt sophomore
The Hubert, N.C., speedster spent 2014 getting his frame ready for the Big Ten, and he did just that under the tutelage of Director of Performance Enhancement Dwight Galt. When Thompkins made his much-anticipated debut last fall, he was eased into the offense and made most of the damage on special teams as Charles Huff’s primary punt returner. The electric Thompkins took his first return 58 yards against Buffalo, but struggled to hold on to the football as the season wore on, losing three fumbles in costly situations.
Thompkins scored his first career touchdown on a six-yard run against Rutgers, but only caught three passes for 33 yards. Following redshirt junior DaeSean Hamilton’s move to the slot, and an overall abundance of talent at wide receiver, playing time may be somewhat hard to come by for Thompkins, at least early on. If sophomore Brandon Polk continues to gain confidence across the middle, and senior Gregg Garrity, Jr. takes control of the starting punt returner role, Thompkins could be the odd-man out.
Derek Dowrey/Brendan Mahon | Offensive guards | Graduate senior/redshirt junior
Both Dowrey and Mahon have seen plenty of action over the past two seasons, but neither has played particularly inspiring football in the trenches. Dowrey and classmate Brian Gaia moved over from defensive tackle prior to the 2014 season in order to shore up the depth situation, but despite moving some serious weight around in the Lasch gym (he benched a single-rep of 440 pounds during max-out testing), he’s still trying to translate that strength to the gridiron.
Mahon, a former U.S. Army All-American out of Randolph, N.J., saw the field early in his career out of necessity more than anything, but the 6-foot-4, 316-pounder performed adequately at both guard and, in a pinch, tackle. However, if he doesn’t show major strides in his development soon, there’s a strong chance Bates or Gonzalez could take his job this summer.
Okay, this isn’t a specific player, but it’s well known Penn State has dealt with its fair share of struggles in the kicking and punting game of late. Though Joey Julius and Tyler Davis were money from short range, combining to go 18-of-21 (85.7%) — good for tops in the Big Ten, both had a hard time being consistent on kickoffs, and Julius missed four extra points.
The Nittany Lions haven’t had a spectacular punter since Anthony Fera transferred to Texas prior to the 2012 season, and it’s really hurt them in the field-position battle. The committee approach by junior Daniel Pasquariello and redshirt junior Chris Gulla has failed to eclipse the 40-yard mark on average, which isn’t particularly encouraging, but the more troubling notion is their inability to be consistent whatsoever. Penn State’s incoming scholarship specialists — kicker Alex Barbir and punter Blake Gillikin — could become instant starters when they arrive this summer if notable progress isn’t shown this weekend by the specialists that are already on campus.
Saturday’s Blue-White Game will offer a glimpse into the hard work the Nittany Lions have put in this offseason, but it certainly isn’t the be-all, end-all. It’ll be fun to see which players have benefited the most from spring practice and who will step up, though.