Nittany Notes: Spring Battles (Pt. 1)

With Penn State's spring practice drills passing the halfway point and the Coaches Clinic Scrimmage nearly upon us, several positions have seen some impressive battles to win starting jobs and playing time this coming season. Get a look at a handful of the top position battles the Nittany Lion staff has seen so far in off-season drills.

Defensive Tackle

Ed Johnson vs. Elijah Robinson

Lowdown: Robinson has seen the bulk first-team reps at defensive tackle, opposite Jay Alford, since the kickoff to spring practice back on March 25. Johnson returned to the team this semester riding a wave of buzz, though the coaches had him start off seeing third-team reps in drills.

Size: Other than Robinson having an inch or so over Johnson, they are comparable in size. Johnson is working to "get back into game condition," but is said by observers to be more "physically imposing" than Robinson. Advantage: Even

Strength: Both players are said to have "excellent power," though the sentiment is that Johnson is "among the strongest on the team." He has been compared to Jason Alford on his ability to bull rush, though he needs to brush up on his technique to get the most out of it. Advantage: Johnson

Agility: Robinson is "good on his feet" and "gets up on his toes." He has been described this spring as "quick off the blocks" and "nimble" by observers. Johnson gets off the snap quickly, but "plays more flat-footed," according to one observer. Many feel that as he gets more reps he will get his footwork back, with one observer explaining, "It wasn't a problem for him prior to his departure." Both guys have quickness for their size and get off the line cleanly. Advantage: Robinson

Fundamentals: With a year off, Johnson's technique is "not as sharp," but again with the off-season to refine his basics there is little concern among observers. Robinson is "sharp on footwork, but needs to focus on using his hands to apply pressure." Advantage: Robinson

Bottom Line: Despite Robinson having the early advantages on agility and fundamentals, the overall strength of Johnson could prove to be his biggest asset toward winning the starting job, something many observers feel he will eventually do once he nails down his technique.


Spencer Ridenhour vs. Donnie Johnson

Lowdown: With the staff looking to replace Chris Harrell and Calvin Lowry, it has been focusing a lot of practice time on assessing the defensive backs this spring. Two of the front-runners among the safeties are Johnson and Ridenhour. Johnson has most game experience among the prospects which gives him a clear early advantage. Ridenhour shifted from linebacker and has "made the most of the opportunity" so far.

Speed: Overall Johnson is fast and runs a low 4.40-range 40. He is particularly quick on reactions and "doesn't typically need to think to react because of his game experience." That is not to say Ridenhour is slow, as he runs the 40 in the 4.45 range. However, given his limited time at safety, he lacks the reaction time of Johnson as he is learning the position. Advantage: Johnson

Strength: Both players are built well and have rougly 6-foot frames with comparable sizes. Ridenhour may have the slight edge on sheer strength, but that advantage is likely nominal based on the needs of position. Advantage: Even

Fundamentals: Given his game experience, the safety position is second nature to Johnson, where as Ridenhour has only really seen a week or so in drills there, so the edge goes to Johnson. Ridenhour is picking up the role relatively quickly, but he has had a tendency to select poor pursuit angles at times. Advantage: Johnson

Aggression: Johnson is described as a "quiet guy in the huddle," whereas Ridenhour has been described as "nuts on the field." Ridenhour leverages the mental part of the game well and is more aggressive on hits that Johnson, "sacrificing his body at times." Advantage: Ridenhour

Botom Line: His experience provides Johnson a clear early edge, but Ridenhour is coming along to the point that when he gets consistent and comfortable he will make a strong run at the position. Either way the coaches are working to find a way to leverage both players' abilities this season.

Wide Receiver

James McDonald vs. Jordan Norwood

Lowdown: One of the "fab four" young receivers of 2005, Norwood has extensive game experience and an impressive package of skills. McDonald is coming off his redshirt year, where he impressed to the the staff so much they strongly debated whether to put him in the lineup when Derrick Williams was sidelined with a broken arm.

Speed: Norwood is quick and is "fluid" with his stride. He runs a sub 4.50 40 and has proven he has the ability to break off or counter defenders on routes. McDonald is not as quick as Norwood, but still runs a sub 4.60 40. "He is not nearly the quickest of the wideouts, but he compensates with his size," one observer shared. Advantage: Norwood

Size: At 6-foot-2 and around 194 pounds, McDonald has about four inches and 30 or so pounds on Norwood. McDonald's size is what gives him a clear advantage to make up for his relatively slower speed. Advantage: McDonald

Hands: Norwood has been described as a "clutch receiver," while McDonald has been described as having "the best overall consistent receiveing skills." Both receivers have the ability to make impressive catches consistently and have excellent receiving fundamentals. Advantage: Even

Fundamentals: Norwood "is a very sharp route-runner." He has a great stride, good receiving skills and looks to the ball. McDonald also has excellent hands and has shown to "run clean routes," though he "runs loose" from time to time. Advantage: Norwood

Bottom Line: Norwood's experience lend him a clear edge in this battle for the third receiver spot, but given the amount of focus on the wideout unit, both players will see significant playing time in three- and four-wide sets. With some experience, McDonald will provide the passing game with an added size dimension. The bottom line is both should be solid targets for Anthony Morelli to go to this year.


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