There is a lot going on with the Penn State offense this offseason. James Franklin’s unit features a new coordinator (Joe Moorhead), a new line coach (Matt Limegrover) and an open quarterback battle.
Come to think of it, there are any number of interesting position fights happening on this side of the ball. We find these to be the most interesting:
5. Receivers Not Named Chris Godwin
In winning second-team All-Big Ten honors as a sophomore, Godwin proved he could do it all. He was effective on long and short passes. He ran great routes and was a beast to bring down after making catches. And because of that, in what has become a loaded receiving corps, he is the one man we believe is assured of significant playing time.
Behind him, well, a good argument can be made that redshirt junior DaeSean Hamilton is a sure bet to pile up solid numbers. But remember, his production slipped significantly last year from 2014, in part because Godwin emerged. Now he and fellow veteran Saeed Blacknall are going to have to hold off two more young standouts.
Redshirt freshmen Irvin Charles and Juwan Johnson are both in the 6-foot-4, 225-pound range. Both run extremely well for their size. And both were a handful for the starting defense while playing on the foreign team last season.
The main questions now are how willing they are to bring it every single day in practice, how precise they can become in their route-running and how consistent they can become in catching the ball.
As an aside here, we’re anxious to see how Moorhead incorporates the speed of slot receivers Brandon Polk and DeAndre Thompkins into the offense. It sure seemed to us as if former OC John Donovan got a little stale in that area toward the end of last season.
4. Tight End
Kyle Carter has graduated after (what seemed like) 15 years in the program. Adam Breneman moved on due to injury. And the staff has to be preparing as if Brent Wilkerson won’t be back from his suspension while an alleged off-field issue is sorted out.
That leaves three scholarship players returning from last season. The one who played, junior Mike Gesicki, is an athletic freak but struggled with drops all year. The other two — Nick Bowers and Jonathan Holland — redshirted.
People in the program are expecting Gesicki to shake out of his 2015 funk, saying he did amazing things in practice. Indeed, some of those things were witnessed by reporters in open sessions. Unfortunately for the Lions, Gesicki’s going to have to wait until the actual season starts to prove he’s past the drops, because that’s when his issues began last year.
Among all of the PSU redshirt freshmen, Bowers is right up there in terms of the buzz that’s been generated. At 6-4, he has built himself up to 265 pounds. He played tight end and offensive tackle on the foreign team last season (the latter while preparing for opponents with smaller offensive lines). And this winter, he ran a 4.7 40 and 4.23 pro agility while posting 34.5 in the vertical and 10-1 in the broad.
Holland is lighter at 238. Carter actually told us that Holland reminds him a lot of himself — which is to say he is athletic and can line up all over the field. We don’t think Holland is quite as fast as Carter, though.
3. Backup Running Back
There’s a reason senior RB Akeel Lynch decided to transfer to Nevada — he realized there was no hope (short of injury) of unseating star sophomore Saquon Barkley. Same goes for redshirt sophomore Nick Scott, who decided to take his speed and quickness over to defensive back.
With five-star recruit Miles Sanders joining the program this summer, the heat is on for the remaining running backs in the program to make statements this spring.
We’re looking at you, Mark Allen, Johnathan Thomas and Andre Robinson. Allen and Thomas are both redshirt sophomores, while Robinson is a redshirt freshman.
Allen is a small, versatile type who probably could have been used more as a receiver out of the backfield last season. Thomas, meanwhile, has been slowed by injuries, so it has been difficult for anyone — including the coaching staff — to know exactly what he is capable of bringing to the table on a consistent basis.
We’re most anxious to see Robinson, a 5-9, 213-pounder who has been flying way under the radar after entering the program with Barkley. We’re told what may set him apart from the other backups this spring is the fact that he runs very well between the tackles, as evidenced by strong showings in the Lion’s Den scrums where he’s more than held his own against opposing linebackers. That could come in handy in short-yardage situations for a team that does not have a fullback and can’t expect Barkley to hurdle his way to a first down or touchdown all of the time.
2. Interior Offensive Line
A quick look at Penn State’s spring roster tells you all you need to know here. The interior offensive linemen are listed as G/C (or C/G), meaning the staff is looking to find the three best men for the positions even if one is not necessarily a pure center. That would seem to bode well for someone like redshirt freshman Ryan Bates, a high school tackle who will play guard or center for the Lions. Don’t expect him to be a starter early in camp, but to make a push for a job as drills go on. Fellow redshirt frosh Steven Gonzalez is big and strong, but not as technically sound. Translation: he’s got some work to do to unseat the veterans inside. Speaking of which…
The graybeards fighting to keep playing time are all experienced. But of that group, redshirt junior Brendan Mahon is the only one who fits the mold of linemen Franklin prefers — long and strong. Derek Dowrey is built like a truck but has a short arm. Brian Gaia is listed at 286 pounds on the spring roster, which is small even if he gets a look at center. Wendy Laurent is in the same neighborhood and is not as athletic as Gaia.
The wildcard — and perhaps the man with the biggest upside (literally and figuratively) — is true freshman early enrollee Connor McGovern. He’s 6-5, 306, and strong enough to play as a rookie. But he has to work on his quickness and technique. Spring ball is a great time to do that.
We got a glimpse of what 6-0, 199-pound redshirt sophomore Trace McSorley could do in leading PSU’s comeback against Georgia in the TaxSlayer Bowl. He moved well, made some big throws under pressure and became more and more of a leader as the game went along. He ran a sub-4.6 40 in winter workouts. But we also saw something else in the bowl game — McSorley, while able to make clutch throws, did not show great arm strength.
Even with a new offensive coordinator on board, McSorley entered spring ball with the edge in this competition based on the fact that he spent two seasons as Christian Hackenberg’s understudy, receiving second-team reps in practice and even traveling to away games both years.
But … don’t count out redshirt freshman Tommy Stevens. He’s bigger (6-4, 219) and has a stronger arm. And while Stevens’ winter 40 was more in the 4.74 range, Franklin said he is the type of player whose 40 is not a good indicator of his game speed (moving while wearing pads). Stevens also had the luxury of playing the roles of every different type of QB while on the scout team last season, from classic drop-back to pure read option guys.
The PSU QB — whoever lands the job — will be running the ball more in Moorhead’s offense. Both McSorley and Stevens are equipped to do that. It may not happen this spring, but we think eventually Stevens’ better arm will set him apart in this race.