Surviving through and then coming out of NCAA sanctions the last few years, Penn State has fielded an extremely young team. Sooner or later, that is bound to end.
But even though the Nittany Lions are once again closing in on having the NCAA maximum of 85 scholarship athletes (by our count they are at 82 now), they remain extremely short on seniors.
As of this writing, there were only eight initial scholarship seniors on the active roster — three on offense and five on defense. There is also one junior college transfer senior, as well as three walk-ons who have earned scholarships.
At quarterback and running back, there are zero initial scholarship seniors or juniors. There are also no initial scholarship seniors at receiver and tight end (thanks to a suspension). At offensive tackle, the only scholarship senior is second-year juco transfer Paris Palmer.
The only positions with more than one initial scholarship senior are offensive guard (two) and linebacker (two).
Finally, the only initial scholarship specialists are incoming freshmen Alex Barbir (K) and Blake Gillikan (P).
Why are these numbers so low?
Scandal & Sanctions
The recruiting classes that are feeding this senior class — 2012 and 2013 — came together during the most tumultuous time in program history. The Sandusky scandal, coaching instability, and NCAA sanctions allowing transfers and limiting scholarships all took a toll.
Members of the 2012 class were allowed to transfer without penalty or leave the program but keep their PSU scholarships. That immediately knocked out DT Jamil Pollard (in hindsight, his transfer to Rutgers was a blessing in disguise) and later claimed OL Anthony Stanko and WR Jonathan Warner (both of whom quit the team but stayed at PSU).
And the 2013 class — which was better than anyone could have imagined considering it signed AFTER the sanctions hit — nevertheless included some real gambles who never panned out. DB Neiko Robinson was an academic risk who was ruled ineligible before playing a down for the Lions. Worse, LB Zayd Issah was a legal risk whose off-field antics caused him to be kicked of the team before he enrolled at PSU.
There were also some real reaches talent-wise in those classes, players who read the proverbial writing on the wall and decided to move on fairly quickly. No need to call them out there. Again, nobody is blaming Bill O'Brien for taking chances — he was in a tough spot and scrambled to prevent what could have been outfight disasters in 2012 and ’13.
Finally, with scholarships at a premium, PSU did not spend any on specialists from 2012 through 2015.
EVERY program loses players to stuff like injuries, senior transfers and legal problems. The difference at PSU is those things have been piled atop everything else that went down in Happy Valley the last four or five years.
Class of 2012 member Austin Johnson and Class of 2013 member Christian Hackenberg should both be entering their senior seasons of eligibility. But both declared for the 2016 NFL Draft.
RB Akeel Lynch and WR Geno Lewis both could have been productive backups this year but decided to make senior transfers (to Nevada and Oklahoma, respectively) in search of more playing time.
TE Brent Wilkerson has become entangled in a legal situation and, while still listed on the roster, has been indefinitely suspended from the team.
Jake Kiley, who struggled to find a position and playing time during his PSU career, decided to hang up the cleats following the 2015 season despite having another year of eligibility remaining.
Two other players who actually saw the field as true freshmen in 2013 — TE Adam Breneman and DB Anthony Smith — have since seen their PSU football careers cut short by injuries. Without those injuries, both would likely be entering their senior seasons this year.
Again, these are the sorts of things that happen at every program. But the impact was compounded at Penn State.
How soon is this lack of seniors going to change? Well, as comprised, the 2016 roster includes players with the following remaining eligibility…
8 initial scholarship, three former walk-ons, one juco transfer.
14 initial scholarship, one juco transfer.
18 initial scholarship, one juco transfer.
36 initial scholarship
So roughly 44 percent of the scholarship athletes on the team have freshman eligibility and 67 percent have freshman or sophomore eligibility.
What does that mean? Well, it is still going to be a couple of years until James Franklin’s team has a normal senior class.
Here is the breakdown of this year’s group…
Initial Scholarship Seniors
Derek Dowrey (OL)
Brian Gaia (OL)
Wendy Laurent (OL)
Brandon Bell (LB)
Malik Golden (S)
Evan Schwan (DE)
Jordan Smith (DB)
Nyeem Wartman-White (LB)
Scholarship Juco Transfer Senior
Paris Palmer (OT)
Walk-On Seniors Now With Scholarships
Gregg Garrity (WR)
Von Walker (LB)
Special Teams (1)
Tyler Yazujian (LS)