As Penn State continues to roll toward its Sept. 3 season-opener vs. Kent State, we thought it would be good to highlight a few of the units that have been turning heads in camp.
These are not necessarily the most powerful groups. But they are units that were surrounded by question marks heading into camp and have gone a long way toward providing positive answers.
Consensus All-American Carl Nassib is off to the NFL. So are the two standout defensive tackles who helped free up Nassib to make plays — Austin Johnson and Anthony Zettel.
Well, D-tackle may still be a work in progress for the Nittany Lions. But shed no tears for position coach Sean Spencer when it comes to his fleet of D-ends.
Returning starter Garrett Sickels is bigger and better than ever. Fifth-year senior Evan Schwan seems to have bloomed into the towering presence many expected him to become earlier in his career (in part because he’s finally been able to stay healthy).
But that is just the start. Torrence Brown will rotate with the first team, and brings speed and a burst off the edge. And it is going to be interesting to see how the staff decides to use redshirt freshman Ryan Buchholz, a massive 6-6, 270-pounder who got a look at tackle on the scout team last fall but was moved back to end in the spring. Like Brown, he has seen first-team reps.
Youngsters Shareef Miller and Shane Simmons are both physically prepared to make an impact this season. Either or both could be eased into the mix, as they’ve spent most of camp manning the second team.
Tempting though it may be to say someone in this group has a chance to be the next out-of-nowhere star — as many in the program are saying of Schwan — we don’t see that happening with any single player this year.
Oh, the big plays from the ends will come. They’ll just be more evenly distributed.
There has been a lot of talk about Penn State’s talented receiving corps this preseason, and with good reason. The Lions have not had this much quality depth at WR in nearly a decade.
But chat to people around the program and they’ll tell you an improved secondary is giving the receivers all they can handle and then some in camp. The back-and-forth is making both units better.
One of the real keys is having three legit corners in Grant Haley, John Reid and Christian Campbell. Rotating them in conventional sets allows all three to stay fresh. And Reid’s versatility allows the staff to use him in different areas in nickel situations.
Speaking of big plays, creating more turnovers has been a point of emphasis for the secondary in camp after players and coaches alike felt the unit did not capitalize on as many TO chances as it could have last fall.
PSU is still working at building great depth in the secondary. But remember, players like Haley, Allen, Campbell and Reid were all forced into roles as serious contributors when they were true freshmen. The secondary is now to the point where playing rookies will be a luxury as opposed to a necessity.
When people reflect on Penn State’s struggles of the last few years, this is one of the on-field elements that less savvy fans tend to overlook. Inconsistent punting has just killed the Nittany Lions in the fight for field position. PSU has not had a scholarship punter since NCAA sanctions hit in 2012.
So it is hardly coincidental that the program’s primary punter averaged better than 40 yards per kick in 14 of the 15 seasons heading into 2012. Including 2012, State has now gone four straight seasons with the primary punter averaging less than 40 yards per boot.
The biggest change this preseason has been the addition of rookie Blake Gillikin, PSU’s first scholarship punter since Anthony Fera handled the job in 2011. After some early inconsistency, Gillikin has been booming punts for most of camp. A strong showing in practice one day prompted a smart alec close to the program to quip. “That’s the first time I’ve seen back-to-back good punts since I’ve been here.”
Another thing to keep an eye on here is the coverage unit. Because many of PSU’s punts were so short last year, opponents averaged only 2.3 yards per return on all kicks (and yet the Lions’ net was still a lousy 35.7 yards, or 102nd in the nation). Long punts will likely require more athletic and aggressive coverage men.
That’s where getting back to close to the NCAA’s max of 85 scholarship players ought to pay immediate dividends for the Lions. Look for plenty of PSU’s top young athletes on both of the coverage units.