This spring promises to bring one of the more entertaining and exciting Blue White Games in recent years. For the second year in a row, the game will be televised throughout Pennsylvania, but the place to be on April 26th is the University Park campus and Beaver Stadium.
The annual Blue White Game caps off 15 spring practice sessions that began on March 29th. The Penn State staff will use these sessions to try a few players at new positions and to get as much work in as possible before entering the longest stretch of the year without football.
From a purely football oriented perspective, do not look at formations, play calls, alignments, or anything else of a strategic game planning nature at the annual Blue White Game. If that is what you are looking for you won't find much value in the game. This is a fan's game that is meant more for enjoyment than anything else, but there are some things you can look for to glean some hint as to what you might expect in the fall.
I mainly want to see how each player looks after having completed a grueling winter conditioning period. Winter conditioning is a catch phrase to describe the intensive Strength and Conditioning workouts demanded of the players by S&C Coach John Thomas. The truly motivated athlete will emerge from winter conditioning a stronger and more fit athlete than he had been the prior fall. The somewhat lesser motivated player will not.
Discounting players injured or coming off injury, this basic premise should hold true for all players no matter where in the program they might be. A group of highly motivated players will look ready, even in the spring, and this is what I hope to see each year at the Blue White Game.
The Blue White game is a time to catch up with old friends and classmates. It's a time to bring the family back to Penn State for some fun. This is the one time of year the players sign autographs and mingle with the fans on the field before the game, so if you know a youngster who likes Penn State football, why not bring him or her along to meet the team and perhaps get an autograph.
If you are there mainly to contemplate the progress of the team and get some specifics for your "unofficial depth chart", keep reading for information on what you can expect at this year's Blue White game.
There has been much speculation this off-season that Zack Mills played hurt last year. Your probably even wondered yourself if he had an ailing shoulder after witnessing the Capital One Bowl.
Paterno did not directly address the off-season speculation that Mills might have had minor surgery after playing last season with nagging shoulder and elbow injuries. "Zack's done all the winter workouts," Paterno said. "I've been to most of them. He's worked at it hard. They were a little bit concerned. Unless they tell me he can't do something, I'm figuring he's 100 percent. They haven't said one word to me about Zack in two months."
Sophomore Michael Robinson will have a chance to challenge junior Zack Mills, but Paterno said Mills will go into the spring as the No. 1 quarterback and there won't be an open audition.
"My reaction to that is it's not open," Paterno said. "I think Zack Mills is the quarterback and it's up to Michael Robinson to beat him out or Chris Ganter. When you go into spring practice and have a guy who's done as well as Zack Mills has done for us in a lot of very tough games, I think somebody has to beat him out."
Look for two things at the spring football game. One, expect all of the QB's to be dressed in the red "no contact" jerseys at the Blue White Game. Also look to see how well the QB's are making their throws. I say this because it would be expected that a 100% healthy Zack Mills would be able to throw crisp passes, and along a similar line of thinking, you want to see how far along Michael Robinson has come with his progress and the only gauge the fans would have is to see how well he can put the ball on the money during the game.
Lost in all of this is Chris Ganter, a good quarterback in his own right. It won't shock me if he gets more spring game reps than any other QB on the depth chart.
This spring you can expect to see Mike Gasparato with the first unit. He has the most experience by far, but even his playing time up to this point has been limited. Look to find a spirited competition between Mike and all three of the other scholarship tailbacks. Penn State has three true freshmen coming in this August at tailback, so the incumbents will need to solidify their standing on the depth chart right now.
Tim Shaw is the biggest of the three backs at over 225lbs., and he may be the fastest as well. Donnie Johnson is at about 207lbs. and has a lot of speed and wiggle in his game. Pete Gilmore is a good athlete at over 200lbs., but he has to really step it up this year or risk being passed on the depth chart.
Sean McHugh and Paul Jefferson are solidly entrenched at the top of the fullback depth chart. I expect to see only minimal spring game reps from these two players. Ricky Upton is entering his final year and should also see limited spring game reps.
The two guys that every fan should be absolutely zoned in on are BranDon Snow and Chris Wilson. Both of these players are extremely high-end athletes as true freshman go. Snow is 6-1 and 235lbs while Wilson is 6-2 and 230lbs. We are talking about two players that were named Gatorade Players of the Year coming out of Delaware and Maryland respectively.
Snow had nearly 50 offers and, having seen him play in high school, is one of the best pure blocking backs I have ever seen. Chris Wilson entered Penn State at over 250lbs but has since trimmed down to a very fit 230lbs. Rumor has it that he is ripping it up in the early practice sessions.
Tony Johnson is returning for his final year at Penn State, but given he is our only proven commodity, expect to see very little of him in the spring game.
I expect a fierce three-way battle this spring to see which receiver can win that other WR spot. Gerald Smith, Ernie Terrell, and Kinta Palmer were all seeing spot duty at the end of last year and Penn State really needs to see one or more of them really step it up a notch this spring.
Smith is the same 5-11 height that Johnson is, but he is physically smaller at about 190lbs. But what he lacks in size he more than makes up for in sheer toughness. Someone close to the program once told me that, aside from Smith's speed and quickness, Gerald Smith plays because he is fearless.
Terrell and Palmer are both 6-3 and make for big pass targets for the QB's. Terrell is one of the fastest players in the entire league, but he needs to work on his side-to-side cutting ability. Palmer runs extremely good routes and has very soft hands that he uses to catch everything in sight. Palmer came in here a year and a half ago at about 170lbs but has been reported to have gained some muscle this off-season. He is now reportedly up to 188lbs.
Penn State has Terrance Phillips at WR still, but many think he might be at d-back by the time the spring game rolls around. While at the game you'll want to see if that is the case.
The only other scholarship WR we have is true freshman Josh Hannum. Josh is a very talented recruit out of that renowned program at Strath Haven HS in Delaware County. Josh had originally committed to Notre Dame, but switched to Penn State when the Irish were in the middle of a coaching change in December 2001. When you look for Josh, don't blink. Hannum is one very fast football player.
Casey Williams and Mike Lukac were the top two TE's last fall, and both of them are entering their final year of eligibility. I would expect to see them receive only scant action in the spring game.
The buzz in the early reports on PSUPlaybook suggests that Matt Kranchik has gotten both bigger and faster. Reports say he looks very, very good. Expect to see him used a lot in this game and look out to see if those early reports are accurate. Andrew Richardson and Isaac Smolko round out the depth chart. Both have three years remaining and look to be used a lot in this game.
Williams is the smallest TE on the team at 5-11 and 233lbs. He isn't small in deed though as he led all TE's in receptions last year. Richardson is over 260lbs right now and the others are all around 255lbs. This is a position with great depth this year.
Penn State opens spring practice on Saturday having to groom four new offensive line starters. "We've got to come up with an offensive line," coach Joe Paterno on Wednesday in his pre-spring practice news conference.
Paterno said senior David Costlow is one player he doesn't have to challenge. Costlow, a 280lb. kid, started out here at defensive end a few years ago, then moved to offensive guard, and finally to center where he spent all of last year as Joe Iorio's primary back up. I would be looking to see Costlow play about a half in this game.
Nick Marmo and Robert Price are fighting it out to back up Costlow at center. Marmo is a 6-5 300lb. kid while Price is a stout 6-0 300lbs. Expect to see a lot of both of these players in the game.'
As should be the case with all of the linemen, you'll want to look at how well they can move on their feet and how physically strong they appear. Take notice of which linemen win the physical battles because they are the ones you'll be seeing in action in the fall.
Penn State will need a solidified offensive line now that Larry Johnson, the nation's leading rusher last season, is gone. Paterno often challenged the understudies last season.
"We really have some people on the offensive line that certainly have the ability but they have yet to show me that they have the kind of intensity it's going to take to do all the kinds of things that a good offensive lineman has to do," Paterno said. "Some of those people have had some experience and have been in the program a couple of years."
Redshirt sophomore E.Z. Smith was a part-time starter at guard last season but may not practice at all this spring following January shoulder surgery, so there is hardly any guarantee we will see him in the spring game. PSUPlaybook has announced that, according to sources, Tyler Reed and Scott Davis were running first team in week one of spring practice. Davis has added about 15lbs. of muscle this off-season and now checks in at 294lbs.
Tyler Reed is perhaps the most heralded lineman to come out of Pennsylvania in 20 years. I'm certain that the coaching staff expects very big things from Reed this year. Mark Farris, a high school all American at Pittsburgh North Hills HS, will be at one of the other guard spots in the spring game. Farris is a very quick lineman with excellent technique.
Two other kids that could possibly see time at guard are Charles Rush and Lee Lispi. The rumor mill is in overdrive about the possibility that Rush, previously at DT, will be switched to offensive guard. As of this writing it is unclear whether Lispi, a true freshman, will play at guard or tackle.
Chris McKelvey is the lone returning starter along the offensive line. However, he's not running with the first unit this spring. There is speculation that the reason for that is McKelvey's weight. Chris is reportedly 327lbs right now, and that is probably a little more weight than what the coaches want to see on Chris.
The first unit has Damone Jones at left tackle and Tom McHugh on the right side of the ball. John Wilson is getting backup reps right now and Chris Auletta is coming off August 2002 knee surgery. I am unsure if we will see Auletta play in the spring game, but right now it looks good for everyone else.
Penn State's defensive line also is being reworked this spring as only one starter returns in junior end John Bronson. Penn State loses All-Americans Jimmy Kennedy and Michael Haynes up front as well as Anthony Adams. Paterno likes the young talent along the defensive front although he described it as being "inexperienced" and undersized.
Redshirt freshman defensive tackle Levi Brown, a 6-foot-5, 312lbs tackle from Norfolk, Va., could be ticketed for a spot on the offensive line as well as at defensive tackle. "He wants to play defense and I'm not sure that's the best spot for him," Paterno said. Many pundits feel that Brown may be moved to one of the offensive tackle spots. Look to see where he plays this spring, and then look to see whom he is pushing around. Levi is one of the best big athletes Penn State has anywhere on the squad.
Right now Tamba Hali and Jason Robinson are the frontrunners at defensive tackle. Hali and Robinson are both at about 275lbs, light compared to the defensive tackles we have had here in recent years. But, they are very quick. If Levi Brown and Charles Rush are both on offense, you will want to check out Edward Johnson and Jason Alford at the back up DT spots.
True freshman Alford, like Hali, was a high school All-American from New Jersey. Edward Johnson, yet another true freshman, was the #4 rated player in Michigan coming out of high school according to the Detroit Free Press. Early word from practice is that all four of the top players at DT are extremely quick and athletic.
True freshman Steve Roach, a wide body at 6-0 300lbs., rounds out the DT rotation.
John Bronson is the lone returning starter on the defensive line and he looks to repeat what Michael Haynes did one year ago. This spring there is going to be a heated battle to see who wins the spot opposite Bronson. Sam Ruhe has moved back to DE after a one-year injury plagued stint at MLB.
Ruhe will be competing with the cat-quick and long-armed Lavon Chisley in the race to man that other DE spot. You may recall Chisley batting down several passes in last year's spring game. While Ruhe is moving from MLB back to DE, Chisley may be going the other way. Paterno has hinted at trying Chisley out at the weak side OLB spot this spring.
Another player who could easily win a starting position at defensive end is sophomore Matt Rice. Rice saw a lot of playing time last year and is a very physical player. Junior Jeremiah Davis will also be in the mix at DE.
Paterno said that he plans to look at seven players on both sides of the ball or at different positions. That includes linebacker Scott Paxson, who will get work at defensive end and at TE or even OG on offense. I wrote two years ago at Big33 that Paxson reminded me of John Gerak, the former Penn State TE who worked to get bigger and stronger and wound up working his way into the NFL as an offensive guard. You heard it here first, for the second time; Scott Paxson will play out of a three-point stance at Penn State.
One other player to watch out for is true freshman Patrick Hall. Patrick practiced at MLB in the fall but has reportedly been moved to DE this spring.
Gino Capone is a returning starter at MLB. I would not expect to see much more than one quarter of play from Capone this spring, but his primary backups, Tim Johnson and Andy Ryland, should get a lot of action. Johnson, according to the Penn State spring press release, has gotten bigger.
Tim Johnson is now at about 245lbs. Tim arrived at Penn State three years ago a two-time New Jersey Defensive Player of the Year. If he ever intends on making a mark at Penn State this spring would be a good time to start.
Sophomore Dethrell Garcia is coming off a shoulder injury and true freshman Pat Bedics, a greyshirt who enrolled this past January, round out the middle linebackers.
Senior Deryck Toles might see time at both running back and linebacker this spring. Toles is still limited by the same enzyme disorder that has prevented him from playing more than about 35 plays per game his entire career. Right now though, he and Derek Wake are the first unit outside linebackers with the 213lb. Toles on the weak side and 242lb. Derek Wake on the strong side.
True freshman J.R. Zwierzynski, the Dick Butkis National High School Player of the Year coming out of Joliet Catholic High school in Joliet, Illinois backs up Wake on the strong side. This is a special young player to keep an eye on in the spring game.
Jimi Mitchell, T.C. Cosby, and Andy Guman are backing up Toles on the weak side of the ball. Guman has gained a little weight and now goes 214lbs. and will play linebacker after having moved up from safety.
One player you might not see this spring is Lamar Stewart. Stewart was a hard-hitting starting linebacker last year but has rumored grade issues to work on.
Penn State lost two starters in the secondary and defensive back Anwar Phillips' future with the team is uncertain as a result of a two-semester university expulsion for sexual assault and aggravated indecent sexual assault charges. Safety Yaacov Yisrael is returning from knee surgery but Paterno said "If we practice him three times in pads in the spring, that may be more than I would like."
Calvin Lowry and Chris Harrell both return with part-time starter experience. I very much believe these two players will emerge as the starting safeties in 2003. I like both of them as big time hitters and defenders and think either, or both, can play at an All-Big10 level.
Redshirt freshman Paul Cronin and true freshmen Jim Kanuch and Vince Gliatta should also see a lot of action this spring. Gliatta was recruited as an athlete who might be able to play quarterback, but it now appears he is destined to play one of the safety spots.
Reserve safety Jesse Neumeyer, who had two seasons of eligibility remaining, is done with football. He had knee surgery and further playing could result in an arthritic condition later in life. He'll graduate this summer and pursue an MBA.
Richard Gardner returns at one corner spot and will no doubt start again in 2003. I don't expect him to play more than about one quarter in the spring game.
Paterno said the medical staff will be "very careful" with reserve cornerback Alan Zemaitis, who suffered head lacerations in a winter automobile accident. Zemaitis is a cat-quick, tall corner who has the inside track to replace Bryan Scott opposite Gardner. If he is good to go, you can expect to see a lot of him this spring.
Maurice Humphrey, a redshirt freshman who did not play last season, will challenge at cornerback. Humphrey first made a name as the scout team version of Nebraska QB Jamal Lord. Humphrey also garnered rave reviews from some of the departing seniors.
Redshirt freshman Gio Vendemia looked good in last year's spring game and he'll be seeing plenty of action again this year.
Penn State fans should be very familiar with Dave Kimball and Robbie Gould. Kimball has been booming kickoffs through the end zone for three years now and Gould was our starting field goal kicker last year. Jeremy Kapinos is a 6-0 234-pound freshman punter from Virginia who will be counted on to replace David Royer this fall.
You can expect to see each of the above kickers as well as several walk on kickers and punters getting spring game reps.