Penn State’s preseason camp may not be scheduled to start until the first week of August. But for die-hard Nittany Lion fans, it is never too early to start breaking things down in preparation for the season.
So in the coming weeks we’ll be offering a variety of unique takes on James Franklin’s squad. Be sure to get in on the conversation on our premium forum.
In this segment, we talk about the top three Nittany Lions who are facing now-or-never situations. That is, if they don’t make a serious impact this season, we’re not sure they ever will.
It's Now Or Never
No. 3 RB Mark Allen
The diminutive running back is one of the most popular players in the program, because he works extremely hard, is selfless and is full of enthusiasm. He also is versatile and athletic, as we saw on a nifty 13-yard touchdown catch vs. San Diego State last season. So why is the redshirt sophomore already on this list?
Well, take a look around. Only a sophomore, projected starter Saquon Barkley is considered by many to be the best running back in the Big Ten and among the best in the nation. In the spring, redshirt freshman Andre Robinson drew praise for his power running, and it sure seems like he’ll be looked to in short-yardage situations. And later this month, Miles Sanders, who was considered the top high school running back in the nation in 2015, is coming on board. Sanders is known for being very well rounded for a young back and our guess is he’ll play as a true freshman.
That’s why veteran Akeel Lynch transferred to Nevada (and left on very good terms) and another young running back, Nick Scott, moved to defensive back.
Allen got a long look in the Blue-White game, with a total of 14 carries for 59 yards (4.2 ypc). He also caught five passes for 48 yards. That was a nice showing. But he is going to have to step his game up even more in preseason camp if he hopes to improve on last year’s offensive touches (27 carries for 98 yards and four catches for 44 yards).
It speaks to the depth Penn State has developed at running back when a good young player like Allen is going to have to scratch and claw for playing time on offense. The good news for him is that he’ll also be in the mix to return punts.
No. 2 DE Evan Schwan
The longtime backup is now a fifth-year senior, so the clock is really starting to wind down on his career. After a solid spring, his last chance to establish himself as an impact player will come in preseason camp.
Schwan’s name is all over the defensive line leader board when it comes to physical testing numbers, including the record 4.68 40-yard dash he posted in the winter. This for a 6-foot-6, 260-pounder. And yet, in his career to date, he has posted a total of 31 tackles, one tackle for loss and no sacks. Injuries have been a big part of the problem.
With All-American Carl Nassib gone, one starting end position is wide open. To grab it, Schwan is going to have to hold off the likes of Torrence Brown, Shareef Miller and Ryan Buchholz, to name just a few of the young, talented DEs in the program. And that does not even take into account incoming freshman Shane Simmons, who appears to have the physical tools to contribute as a rookie. He is going to have to stay healthy, too.
Will this be the second straight season we see a one-year wonder emerge at defensive end for the Lions? The opportunity is there for Schwan.
No. 1 TE Mike Gesicki
Considering he’s Penn State’s only scholarship tight end who has ever logged a college snap, Gesicki figures to be one of the more vital pieces of new coordinator Joe Moorhead’s offense. But which Mike Gesicki is going to show up for his junior season?
If it is the athletic freak who has been so dominant in offseason workouts and during practice, the Nittany Lions are going to have a real weapon on their hands. The 6-6, 250-pounder ran a 4.55 40 in the winter, and is the tight ends/fullbacks leader in the 40, NFL shuttle, vertical and broad jump. On the practice field, he catches everything thrown his way, often in high-flying fashion. And in the Blue-White Game, he had three catches for 30 yards, including a 22-yarder.
But in games last season, Gesicki struggled. He finished with only 13 catches for 125 yards and a score, and had at least half a dozen drops. The issues were clearly mental — he just seemed to lose focus. The staff thinks the grind of learning how to block (something Gesicki never did in high school) spilled over into the skills parts of the game that previously came so naturally to him.
Now people close to the program are saying he seems to have put the problems behind him.
If so, it will bode extremely well for the new offense. If not, well, the tight end position in all likelihood becomes a liability.
The only thing we know for sure at this point is we’re not really going to know if Gesicki is past his sophomore slump until we see him produce on the field come September.