Penn State must replace a significant portion of its roster following the departure of its seniors and junior running back Saquon Barkley. The Nittany Lions lost reliable playmakers following a second consecutive 11-win season, but sustained recruiting success should help James Franklin replenish a promising lineup.
Penn State signed a top-20 recruiting class in each of the past four cycles, rising to new heights in 2018 with college football’s fifth-ranked class on the 247Sports composite. Franklin built a foundation with his initial class (2014) on campus, and his staff steadily has developed the pieces for enhanced depth.
There is a reason a select few Power 5 programs manage to compete for championships on an annual basis. They avoid the rebuilding process by repeatedly reloading with an abundance of talented prospects who can provide an impact when called upon.
The correlation is evident. Urban Meyer has signed six top-two classes since 2006, claiming three national titles along the way. Nick Saban signed seven straight No. 1 classes from 2011 to 2017, resulting in four national championships.
Penn State faces another developmental test in 2018, tasked with replacing program record-setters such as Barkley, receiver DaeSean Hamilton and tight end Mike Gesicki, and leaders like linebacker Jason Cabinda and safety Marcus Allen.
Still a month away from the start of spring camp, depth chart predictions are speculative and based on what we learned last season, along with the anticipated progression of young players. Penn State played only three freshmen last season, so the Nittany Lions will enter next season with 41 scholarship athletes who’ve yet to compete in a college game.
One week after National Signing Day, here’s an early projection of how Penn State’s depth chart could settle on offense. Look for a defensive depth chart Thursday on Land of 10.
Starter: Trace McSorley (redshirt senior)
Next man up: Tommy Stevens (redshirt junior)
Others to know: Sean Clifford (redshirt freshman)
Trace McSorley carries an FBS-best 28-game streak of touchdown passes entering his third season as starting quarterback, and he’s the only player in Penn State history to surpass 50 career touchdown tosses (59). He will have an opportunity to cap off his Nittany Lions career as one of the program’s winningest and most productive players.
Tommy Stevens is considered a top-tier No. 2 quarterback across college football, and there’s no doubt plenty of programs would leap at an opportunity to implement him as starter in 2018. While waiting to take the torch from McSorley, Stevens has carved out a unique offensive role that includes rushes, pass routes and occasional passes.
Each college staff aspires to have two quarterbacks it’s confident can win now, along with at least one developmental passer who can assume that responsibility down the road. Penn State appears to have that in Sean Clifford, who earned the No. 3 job in his first preseason camp.
Starter: Miles Sanders (junior)
Next man up: Mark Allen (senior)
Others to know: Ricky Slade (freshman), Jonathan Thomas (senior), Journey Brown (redshirt freshman)
Miles Sanders was considered the nation’s No. 1 running back recruit in 2016 when he signed with Penn State. Patience was required while working behind Saquon Barkley, a high-volume target who rarely left the field, and Sanders logged only 56 carries (6.7-yard average and 3 touchdowns) during his first two college seasons.
Mark Allen and Jonathan Thomas are program veterans who’ve received limited touches but enter spring camp with an opportunity to compete for expanded roles. They’ll be challenged by 5-star signee Ricky Slade and rising redshirt freshman Journey Brown, who provides elite speed and by all accounts made strides last autumn.
Slade, an all-purpose phenom who totaled 2,700 yards and 40 touchdowns as a high school senior, aims to earn an immediate spot in the Nittany Lions rotation. If he doesn’t, history may repeat itself with another 5-star recruit waiting to enter the spotlight.
Penn State RB Miles Sanders arrived as a 5-star recruit in 2016. His opportunity awaits when Saquon Barkley heads to NFL.
James Franklin compared him to Aaron Rodgers behind Brett Favre (he was on Packers staff then).
What advice has Barkley given him? "Leave me some records." pic.twitter.com/9KgnWhWZd5
— Tyler Donohue (@TDsTake) December 15, 2017
Starters: Juwan Johnson (redshirt junior), DeAndre Thompkins (senior), Brandon Polk (redshirt junior)
Next men up: Justin Shorter (freshman), KJ Hamler (redshirt freshman), Mac Hippenhammer (redshirt freshman)
Others to know: Cam Sullivan-Brown (redshirt freshman), Daniel George (freshman), Jahan Dotson (freshman)
Juwan Johnson was the breakout star during 2017 spring camp and carried that momentum into his third college season. He caught at least 4 passes in 8 games, secured the winning touchdown reception at Iowa as time expired, and finished on a high note (22 catches for 312 yards in the final four games).
DeAndre Thompkins, an All-Big Ten return specialist, posted career-high production across the board (28 receptions for 443 yards and 3 scores) in 2017. His catch rate impressed throughout and a monster season could be in store if he can maintain that consistency with an increased share of targets.
The departure of all-time Penn State receptions leader DaeSean Hamilton leaves a sizable void at the slot position, and Brandon Polk — who played alongside McSorley at Briar Woods (Ashburn, Va.) High School — may be primed to emerge there.
KJ Hamler, one of three 2017 receiver signees who redshirted, is a scintillating talent in the slot and should be hungry to play his first live-action game since suffering an ACL tear in August 2016. Justin Shorter, the top-ranked 2018 receiver recruit, is simply too polished, poised and physically developed to spend his first college campaign on the sideline.
Starter: Jonathan Holland (redshirt junior)
Next man up: Nick Bowers (redshirt junior)
Others to know: Zack Kuntz (freshman), Pat Freiermuth (freshman)
Mike Gesicki dominated snaps at tight end during the past two seasons, creating an unpredictable situation this offseason. Jonathan Holland and Nick Bowers have 4 career catches combined, though Holland did turn heads with 8 receptions in the 2017 spring game.
Both program veterans have experience on their side and no one knows their strengths/weaknesses better than tight ends coach-turned-offensive coordinator Ricky Rahne. They’ll need to hold off a pair of top-10 tight end prospects from the 2018 class, including early enrollee Zack Kuntz.
Kuntz, who stands 6-foot-7, is further developed physically at this point than the Nittany Lions staff anticipated. Still, he’s never handled the comprehensive blend of blocking and receiving tasks this position requires in college. Pat Freiermuth is further along as a contributor in the run game and is also an adept pass target, but he’ll need to hit the ground running upon his early-summer arrival.
As is the case with backfield efforts after Barkley, a multi-player approach is probably required in replacement efforts here.
Starters: Ryan Bates (redshirt junior), Will Fries (redshirt sophomore)
Next men up: Chasz Wright (redshirt senior), Alex Gellerstedt (redshirt sophomore)
Others to know: Rasheed Walker (freshman), Des Holmes (redshirt freshman)
The versatility of Ryan Bates has proven valuable for Penn State, as he’s spent time at guard and tackle since 2016. If he settles in at tackle opposite of Will Fries, the Nittany Lions will go to work with a steady set of bookends who can keep McSorley clean.
Fries was thrust into action at right tackle midway through last season, then shifted to the left side after Bates suffered an injury. His presence provided an immediate boost and excitement has mounted within the Nittany Lions locker room about Fries’ long-term potential.
Chasz Wright started 9 games in 2017 and could provide quality insurance as a No. 3 tackle option if Bates stays in place. If Bates returns to guard, Wright would presumably start at tackle. Rasheed Walker, the final signee of Penn State’s 2018 class, and Nana Asiedu give the Nittany Lions two top-10 tackle recruits in this freshman class.
Starters: Steven Gonzalez (redshirt junior), Michal Menet (redshirt sophomore)
Next men up: C.J. Thorpe (redshirt freshman), Mike Miranda (redshirt freshman)
Others to know: Charlie Shuman (redshirt senior), Robert Martin (redshirt freshman)
Right guard Brendan Mahon is the lone subtraction from Penn State’s starting offensive line, resulting in a compelling competition for who steps up next. Bates could certainly shift back to guard, but we’ve left him at tackle here for now, setting the stage for a showdown between up-and-coming Nittany Lions linemen.
C.J. Thorpe was a top-100 overall prospect in the 2017 recruiting class, ranking highest among Penn State’s signees on offense. Fellow redshirt freshman Mike Miranda cracked the two-deep during his first college season, suggesting the staff was impressed by early efforts. Michal Menet appeared in every game last season, and his time with the program may provide an edge.
Steven Gonzalez, a mainstay in the trenches for Penn State last season, has 16 career starts to his credit.
Starter: Connor McGovern (junior)
Next man up: Zach Simpson (redshirt junior)
Others to know: Fredrick Scruggs (freshman)
Connor McGovern impressed as a freshman guard in 2016, then transitioned to center in 2017. His 22 career starts through two college campaigns signify his importance to Penn State’s offensive front.
Zach Simpson has experience on special teams and saw some time at center in relief of McGovern last season. Fredrick Scruggs, the top-ranked prep lineman in Pennsylvania, starred at tackle in high school but will slide inside in State College.
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