Penn State football: Blue-White game sets stage for position battles
UNIVERSITY PARK — What a difference a year makes.
During last year’s buildup to the traditional Blue-White Game, Penn State football fans were discussing an enigmatic Nittany Lions team making big changes going into a difficult new season.
The team had a new offensive coordinator, a new offensive line coach, position changes and big shoes to fill left by players who moved on to the NFL.
Then came the mediocre 2-2 start that included a close loss at Pitt and a not-so-close one at Michigan.
There are theories after theories about what happened next and why. Suffice it to say that beginning with a big play early in the second half of the Minnesota game, Penn State began to play some seriously good football.
So good, in fact, that the Lions won the rest of their regular-season games — including a win over Ohio State — the Big Ten Championship Game and ended up with a marquee matchup against Southern Cal in the Rose Bowl. They almost made it into the National Championship Playoff.
Fast-forward a year, and there is a completely different vibe surrounding Penn State as it wraps up spring practice and heads into the 2017 Blue-White Game on Saturday, April 22, at Beaver Stadium.
There is talk about top-10 finishes, conference title possibilities, playoffs and individual national honors (particularly for running back Saquon Barkley and quarterback Trace McSorley).
In other words, Penn State is back in the conversations it has worked so hard to rejoin.
And the buzz surrounding this year’s spring game is almost completely centered, finally, on what the Nittany Lions can accomplish on the field in 2017.
That said, there will still be more than enough interesting things to take in as James Franklin coaches his third B-W game:
Franklin said early on that this game should be more competitive than the last two. It won’t look like the first-teamers on offense and defense against fourth-team guys fighting to make the roster.
"In the past it really has been 1s and 2s vs. 3s and 4s on another team, that kind of deal," Franklin said after a recent practice, as reported by StateCollege.com. "I'm really kind of hoping to go 1s vs 2s.
"I think we've always wanted to do that to make it a better game so you have a better evaluation," Franklin added.
Since the Lions are now at full strength, and so many more players have had game experience, there will naturally be a lot more competition for playing time and hence the game will be a chance for them to prove their cases. Fewer positions are a lock, and that competition will show up on the field.
Speaking of locks, McSorley’s spot at quarterback is probably as solid as any on the team, but for the first time, Franklin will have five scholarship quarterbacks on the roster. They are McSorley, redshirt sophomore Tommy Stevens, RS freshman Jake Zembiec, RS junior Billy Fessler and true freshman Sean Clifford, who joins the team this summer.
This will be a wide-open affair that will extend into the fall before Franklin announces the depth-chart. Stevens appears to be the real deal, and he’s been impressive in brief opportunities on the field, but it will be instructive to get looks at Zembiec and Fessler. Two years ago, Penn State was an injury away from disaster at quarterback, but that is certainly no longer the case.
Second-year coach Matt Limegrover + maturing players + added depth + emerging stars = a burgeoning strength of the team.
There is little question that the offensive line came into its own in 2016 and is poised to become a force in 2017. The list of players is impressive just in itself: Brendan Mahon, Andrew Nelson, Chasz Wright, Ryan Bates, Sterling Jenkins (6-8, 328), Connor McGovern, Steve Gonzalez, redshirt freshman Michal Menet, among others. And don’t forget freshmen Mike Miranda (an early enrollee), Desmond Holmes, Robbie Martin and C.J. Thorpe (all arriving this summer).
This group will no longer be forced to play people before they are ready, and there seems to be lots of them who are ready now. The game might give some ideas about who will end up where in the fall.
They are all back: Saquon Barkley, Mark Allen, Andre Robinson and Miles Sanders. Who plays when and how much behind Barkley during the season will be the only questions. It’s unlikely we’ll see Barkley in this game.
The big story, of course, was the early departure of go-to receiver Chris Godwin for the NFL. His speed, athleticism and ability to make catches in traffic will be difficult to replace, but there is a solid group of experienced veterans returning who will be asked to step up. That group includes senior DaeSean Hamilton, Saeed Blacknall, DeAndre Thompkins, Brandon Polk, Irvin Charles, Dae’lun Darien and Juwan Johnson.
The word is out of the practice sessions that Johnson has been turning lots of heads, and who can forget what Charles did in that aforementioned early third quarter play against Minnesota, taking a McSorley pass 80 yards for a touchdown.
Again, the game may answer some questions about how this group of players will be used in the fall.
Beside senior standout Mike Gesicki, Penn State has some building to do here. Players who will be vying for time include Tom Pancoast, Nick Bowers (hurt last year), Jonathan Holland and Danny Dalton.
Part of staging big comebacks in the second half of games, which Penn State became known for, is being able to hold the opponent down while your guys are scoring all those points. That’s what the Lions’ defense did last year (save for the Rose Bowl). Now, Franklin wants it to clamp down from the opening kickoff, something they will be more than capable of doing.
There is experience and young returning talent at every position: the defensive tackles and ends, linebacker and defensive backs.
There is some concern at linebacker following the loss of leader Brandon Bell to graduation, but Jason Cabinda, Manny Bowen, Brandon Smith, Koa Farmer, Jake Cooper and Cam Brown will be joined by a strong group of freshmen. Injury problems early with this group were a big factor in the team’s slow start in 2016.
Conerback John Reid was injured in spring practice, so it appears likely that he will have to be replaced in 2017. There are four seniors returning among the D-backs — Grant Haley, Christian Campbell, Marcus Allen and Troy Apke — so experience will not be a problem. Five-star recruit Lamont Wade, an early enrollee, has been drawing rave reviews in spring practice. This will likely be the most closely watched position in the game.
Penn State is in line to recruit another quality class in 2018, and many of those players will be in attendance at the game. Other not-committed players will be there as well, as will younger recruits. The crowd, the atmosphere and, of course, the game itself have always been big recruiting tools, and this year will be no exception.
For his part, Franklin is always upbeat about the whole weekend and thinks it is a big part of the overall Penn State experience.
“It (the game) also shows our players that we're all in this thing together,” he said. “Them practicing and working hard and sacrificing and sweating on the field, and the fans coming out and supporting us and sacrificing their time, I think it makes a statement. It makes a statement to our recruits, it makes a statement to our team, and it makes a statement to the country that football is a very important part of Penn State. No more important than anything else, but an important part of what Penn State is all about.”
Kickoff is at 3 p.m. Saturday, April 22, at Beaver Stadium. Admission is free.