Bowl prep time for Penn State is about more than preparing for a bowl. The Nittany Lion coaches use the early practices to focus on their own team and to spend more time with those players taking redshirts in 2015.
Here is how things stands for the key redshirts on the offensive side of the ball.
At 6-foot-4, Tommy Stevens weighed about 190 pounds when he arrived at Penn State as an early enrollee last January. Now he’s closing in on 220. And he’s improved his arm strength.
While he looks like a prototypical drop-back passer, there is more to his game than that. In fact, the coaching staff was comfortable using him as a running quarterback on the foreign team (in weeks where that mattered) because Stevens gave “a legitimate look” due to his “speed and timing.” He is also tough.
Can he compete for the starting job in 2016 if Christian Hackenberg makes an early exit to the NFL?
The tough thing about that is that current redshirt freshman Trace McSorley has a much better grasp of the offense right now — and for good reason. Though McSorley did not play in 2014, he practiced as the second-teamer behind Hackenberg (for precautionary reasons). So he has two full years of not only being in the system, but also of working with the travel team.
Speaking of which, Stevens did travel to every away game this year, but only to get the experience of going to road games.
With Saquon Barkley exploding onto the scene, Andre Robinson has flown way under the radar. At 5-9, 209, he’s a hard-nosed runner who “can get north and south.” He’s tough and durable and likes running between the tackles.
He also has deceptive speed.
It is obviously going to be a very crowded running back corps next year, especially if Miles Sanders makes good on his commitment.
Don’t be surprised if there is at least one position change that sees a back go from offense to defense.
But it won’t be Robinson. From what we understand, the coaches like him at running back.
Irvin Charles and Juwan Johnson are both listed at 6-4, 213 on the latest Penn State roster. Don’t believe it. Both are at least 225 now. And both have run 40s at or below 4.5 seconds. (Charles is said to be one of the fastest men on the team.) And both have the size and speed to be elite receivers. They gave the starting DBs and LBs all kinds of headaches in practice, particularly on throws to the end zone.
“They’ve been great to work against,” a defensive coach said during the season.
They also gave the coaching staff some headaches, though. Like many young receivers, they must become more consistent route-runners, and focus on looking the ball into their hands and securing the catch.
At 6-4, 260 pounds, Nick Bowers has the tools to develop into the strong blocking tight end PSU has lacked the last couple of years. In fact, in preparation for Army’s undersized offensive line early in the season, the staff stationed Bowers at offensive tackle, so the PSU D-linemen could get a feel for the type of quickness with which they’d be dealing.
And it didn’t end there. At another point, he lined up at center. And at yet another point, he lined up at wideout. Oh yeah, and he played some tight end, too.
Besides his versatility, Bowers has been praised for having “good movement and good toughness.”
Jonathan Holland is smaller (6-4, 240) and is not as advanced as Bowers on the blocking front. But he has “excellent ball skills” and is a good athlete for his size.
After nearly every open practice this year, both Bowers and Holland were spotted putting in extra work against defensive backs.
The two young linemen generating the most buzz are C/OG Ryan Bates and OG Steven Gonzalez, due in part to their “explosiveness.” As dicey as things have been on the O-line, and with Angelo Mangiro graduating, both guys ought to push for playing time in the spring.
Bates is an excellent athlete who is quickly adding good size. He is closing in on 290 pounds heading into the bowl and will likely be in the 300-pound range by next August.
Gonzalez is a wide-body (6-4, 324) who moves well for his size and brings the sort of nasty streak that’s been missing from the O-line the last couple of years.
Bates and Gonzalez both spent the season going up against Anthony Zettel and Austin Johnson in practice every day. So you can imagine how much of a positive learning experience that was for them.
Meanwhile, OT Sterling Jenkins is a massive human being. It is difficult to believe, but if you stand next to him, his listed size of 6-8, 329 seemed to be understating things.
Though he enrolled early, Jenkins was extremely raw fundamentally when he arrived on campus. The thought is that he got by in high school by simply overpowering people, and that — like many O-linemen at that level — he was not especially well coached.
He has improved since he’s been in the program, and his quickness and agility numbers are said to be impressive for someone of his size. But most seem to think he is at least one more season away from making an impact.