UNIVERSITY PARK — Football is so close yet so far away.
Penn State will begin spring practice on Monday with its first of 15 sessions leading up to the annual Blue-White game on April 12. And while the Nittany Lions won’t compete against another team for nearly six months — they’ll begin the 2014-15 season in Ireland against UCF on Aug. 30 — there will be plenty of competition within the team in the coming weeks.
At his introductory press conference on Jan. 12, new coach James Franklin vowed intrasquad competition would be an early hallmark in his first season as Penn State’s coach.
“These kids all start with a clean slate and they have an opportunity to earn starting jobs,” Franklin said. “There are no returning starters at any position — at any position. Every single day these guys are going to wake up in the morning and they’re going to earn their job. Obviously, we have guys that have tremendous experience and you guys all know who they are, but we’re going to create the most competitive environment we possibly can.”
Penn State returns 10 players with starting experience on offense and 13 more who started at least one game on defense last season. Some position groups are deeper than others while the Nittany Lions will rely on young players without much experience to fill out the squad and compete for extended playing time.
Here is a look at the state of the team, position-by-position heading into spring practice.
Key returnees: Christian Hackenberg, sophomore
Key losses: Tyler Ferguson, transferred to Louisville
Key newcomer: Michael O’Connor, freshman
The Nittany Lions enter spring practice with five quarterbacks on the roster. The big name with the big arm — Hackenberg — returns for his sophomore season after a promising rookie campaign saw him earn Big Ten Freshman of the Year honors.
Hackenberg started every game last season, developed a close bond and benefited from a positive working relationship with quarterback guru Bill O’Brien. Now he’ll look to make progress taking his cues from quarterbacks coach Ricky Rahne, offensive coordinator John Donovan and Franklin, himself a former quarterback for East Stroudsburg.
Hackenberg had a few rough games last season, a miserable outing against Ohio State and a lackluster effort in a driving rainstorm against Kent State. But for the most part, Hackenberg was solid in his first year at the helm of a pro style offense, finishing with 2,955 yards, 20 touchdowns and 10 interceptions on 231 of 392 attempts.
At the midpoint and toward the end of the season, Hackenberg’s development picked up. His penchant for taking chances was replaced with better decision making and Hackenberg limited his throws into tight coverages and learned to tuck the ball and earn yards with his feet rather than forcing the ball down the field. After tossing eight interceptions in the first seven games, Hackenberg threw only two picks over the last five.
But Hackenberg’s trust in himself to be able to make tough throws never wavered. Rewind the game-tying drive against Michigan or the overtime touchdown throw to Kyle Carter against Illinois for proof. Clutch.
If he can pick up where he left off — Hackenberg was electrifying in the season finale against Wisconsin, completing 21 of 30 passes for 339 yards and four touchdowns to sink the Badgers — Penn State’s offense will be in good hands.
A true freshman, O’Connor joins former walk-ons Jack Seymour and Austin Whipple to provide depth. None of them have thrown a pass in college.
Key returnees: Bill Belton, senior; Zach Zwinak, senior; Akeel Lynch, sophomore; Von Walker, sophomore
Key losses: Pat Zerbe, graduated
Key newcomers: None
New running backs coach Charles Huff has a lot to work with as Belton and Zwinak both return having played a lot of football over the past two seasons. Lynch is back too and will be looking to make a bigger impact.
Belton emerged as the team’s best back last season after a tough, injury-filled 2012 campaign. His strength at the point of contact was noticeable. His shiftiness was on display for most of the season — rarely was Belton stopped by the first defender — and he was counted on to contribute his blocking abilities in pass protection more than Zwinak and Lynch combined. In addition, Belton was used as a receiver out of the backfield. In total, he finished with 803 yards on 157 carries with five touchdowns and 15 receptions for 158 yards and two more scores. He missed the penultimate game against Nebraska with an injury.
For the most part, Belton proved himself a durable option. While Zwinak struggled with fumble issues midway through the season, Belton stepped up and handled heavy workloads against Michigan, Ohio State and Illinois. In that three-game stretch, Belton carried the ball 85 times for 384 yards.
Meanwhile, Zwinak does what he does. After a 1,000-yard season in 2012, Zwinak bashed his way for 989 more on 210 carries with 12 touchdowns last season. He relishes contact and presents a daunting task for opposing tacklers when he has the ball in his hands.
Can he hold onto it though? Zwinak has fumbled the ball eight times over the last two seasons and began wearing gloves midway through last season. It seemed to help. But his fumblitis proved to be contagious as Belton lost three fumbles over the last four games he played in.
A brutal position to play, it would be reasonable to expect Franklin and his crew to limit their running backs’ exposure to contact throughout the spring. Expect both backs to be used heavily once the season starts.
Meanwhile, Lynch will look to earn more playing time after carrying the ball just 60 times for 358 last season. A knee injury coupled with the dueling effectiveness of Belton and Zwinak kept Lynch on the sideline for most of the year. Of all three backs, Lynch stands to gain the most from a promising spring effort.
Key returnees: Geno Lewis, sophomore; Matt Zanallato, junior; Richy Anderson, sophomore
Key losses: Allen Robinson, left early for NFL Draft; Brandon Felder, graduated
Key newcomers: DaeSean Hamilton, redshirt freshman; De’Andre Thompkins, freshman
Robinson and Felder combined to catch 77 percent of Hackenberg’s passes and accounted for 80 percent of Penn State’s passing yardage to wideouts last season. So Penn State has a lot to replace.
Luckily, new wideouts coach Josh Gattis has plenty of options. Sure, it’ll be hard to replace a talent like Robinson, who finished with 97 catches for 1,432 yards, but the 6-foot-1, 201-pound Lewis got plenty of playing time last season and showed glimpses of playmaking ability. He finished with 18 catches for 234 yards and three touchdowns, two of which came against Wisconsin in the season finale. His toughness was on display as Lewis was often called on to block downfield or spring Robinson with crackback blocks on wide receiver screen passes.
Meanwhile, Anderson returns after seeing snaps in all but one game last season. The 5-foot-11, 175-pound receiver did most of his work from the slot and could have a leg up on the competition having played a season with Hackenberg. Zanellato has always been a reserve option for this team but is suddenly the biggest wideout on the roster. At 6-foot-3 and 203 pounds, Zanellato brings size to a position group lacking it.
A true freshman, Thompkins enrolled early and could instantly factor into the mix with his speed. Hamilton spent all of last season on the injured list with a wrist ailment.
Penn State will get a boost once training camp begins in August as vaunted recruits Saeed Blacknall (6-foot-3, 210 pounds), Chris Godwin (6-foot-1, 193 pounds) and Troy Apke (6-foot-1, 187 pounds) will join the team.
Key returnees: Jesse James, junior; Kyle Carter, junior; Adam Breneman, sophomore
Key losses: Matt Lehman, graduated (suffered ACL tear in first game last season)
Key newcomer: Brent Wilkerson, sophomore
All of Penn State’s tight ends got ample playing time under O’Brien and James, Carter and Breneman all enter the spring with plenty of experience behind them and upside remaining on their careers.
Carter had a breakout season two years ago but was slowed by an elbow injury sustained in the season opener last season. In addition, the tight ends didn’t factor as heavily into the offense last season due to O’Brien prefering to use half-field reads for most of the early going in order to ease Hackenberg’s transition. After Penn State’s Top 3 tight ends — Carter, James and Matt Lehman — caught 75 balls for 1,035 yards and 10 touchdowns in 2012, Carter, James and Breneman combined for just 58 catches, 741 yards and seven scores last season.
Breneman’s strong season ending performance in which he caught three passes for 78 yards and a touchdown against Wisconsin should bode well for him looking to make more of an offensive impact in 2014.
James, the biggest tight end of the bunch at 6-foot-7 and 257 pounds, can be a sturdy blocker and reliable redzone target but will be looking to be more consistent.
Wilkerson never got going last season as a back injury kept him on the injury report.
Key returnees: Miles Dieffenbach, senior; Donovan Smith, junior; Angelo Mangiro, junior; Anthony Alosi, junior; Wendy Laurent, sophomore
Key losses: John Urschel, graduated; Ty Howle, graduated; Garry Gilliam, graduated; Adam Gress, graduated; Eric Shrive, graduated
Key newcomers: Andrew Nelson, redshirt freshman; Brendan Mahon, redshirt freshman; Evan Galimberti, redshirt freshman; Andrew Terlingo, redshirt freshman; Chasz Wright, freshman
There are a lot of question marks here and this is the group — along with the linebackers — Penn State fans should be keeping the closest eye on this spring. The left side of the line should be fine with Smith back at tackle and Dieffenbach back at guard but Penn State must replace its center along with the right guard and tackle.
Mangiro (6-3, 304) has played guard and center and will be the early favorite to land the center spot vacated by Howle.
In the meantime, Nelson and Mahon have the early edge to fill out the right side of the line. The previous staff was high on Nelson (6-5, 297) and nearly inserted him into the lineup early last season, a rare achievement for a true freshman lineman. Expect Nelson to land the right tackle spot while the 6-foot-4, 305-pound Mahon will likely line up at right guard.
Alosi brings reserve experience and fits in as an option at right guard. Redshirt freshmen walk-ons Terlingo and State College High grad Galimberti add depth at guard. Early enrollee Wright checks in at 6-foot-7 but as a true freshman is undersized at 268 pounds.
Laurent will likely factor into the competition to anchor the line and could be an insurance option there if the coaching staff determines Mangiro is better suited to play right guard than one of Penn State’s younger players.
This team cannot afford an injury to any of its tackles right now as incoming recruits Noah Beh, Brendan Brosnan and Chance Sorrell won’t arrive until training camp.
Key returnees: C.J. Olaniyan, senior; Brad Bars, senior; Anthony Zettel, junior; Deion Barnes, junior; Carl Nassib, junior; Austin Johnson, sophomore; Brian Gaia, sophomore; Derek Dowrey, sophomore
Key losses: DaQuan Jones, graduated; Kyle Baublitz, graduated
Key newcomers: Garrett Sickels, redshirt freshman; Curtis Cothran, redshirt freshman; Tarow Barney, junior; Antoine White, freshman
Olaniyan had a breakout season in 2013 with five sacks and three forced fumbles, both team bests. He’s got the inside track to man one of the end spots in Bob Shoop’s defense while Barnes will likely look to return to his 2012 form when he was the Big Ten Freshman of the Year at the other. Barnes could greatly benefit from adding to his repetoir of pass rush moves as opponents scouted him well last season and accounted for his outside speed with a few simple adjustments.
Zettel is an interesting option for Penn State defensive line coach Sean Spencer. He’s primarily played end at Penn State but had discussions with the previous staff about moving to the inside. He’s added nearly 20 pounds of bulk in the offseason and weighs in around 270 pounds which seems to indicate he will indeed move to one of the tackle spots. Bars hasn’t played since 2012 and is another option at end after taking a redshirt season in 2013 due to a ruptured achilles tendon. Nassib earned a scholarship with his solid play in reserve time and adds depth at end.
Alongside Zettel, Johnson returns as the most experienced tackle on the roster following Jones’ departure. The 6-foot-4, 302-pound Johnson played in all 12 games last season with two starts and tallied 20 1/2 tackles and assisted on two sacks.
A handful of youngsters should see plenty of playing time this spring. Spencer said he could use as many as nine players in the defensive line rotation and he has plenty of players to pick from.
Gaia played well when used in five-man defensive fronts last season and Dowrey also returns to augment Penn State’s tackle depth. Keep your eyes on Sickels and Cothran, two O’Brien recruits who could factor into the rotation at some point.
White and Barney, two early enrollees will be battling for playing time, too.
Key returnees: Mike Hull, senior; Ben Kline, junior; Nyeem Wartman, sophomore; Brandon Bell, sophomore; Gary Wooten, sophomore
Key losses: Glenn Carson, graduated; Stephen Obeng-Agyapong, graduated
Key newcomers: None
Penn State has 14 linebackers listed on its spring roster. Only Hull, Kline, Wartman and Bell have played the position in game situations.
Kline battled injuries all season before his year finally came to an end after he tore a pectoral muscle against Minnesota. Hull was banged up too, playing on one good knee all season. Wartman started eight games last season and played in 11 but Bell’s emergence as a true freshman toward the end of the season — he started in place of Wartman in the last game — gives this unit some promise and some much needed experience. Wooten contributed sparingly on special teams.
Hull is the best player in the group and has one of the outside spots locked up. His coverage abilities will be valued again this season. Kline, Wartman, Bell and Wooten will all battle for the other two spots with a lot riding on their performances this spring.
The lack of a de facto middle linebacker is concerning, however. Some help could come in the form of a new, 4-2-5 look that Shoop has hinted at where Penn State will use two linebackers and a safety/linebacker hybrid.
Key returnees: Adrian Amos, senior; Ryan Keiser, senior; Jordan Lucas, junior; Jesse Della Valle, senior; Trevor Williams, junior; Da’Quan Davis, junior; Malik Golden, sophomore
Key losses: Malcolm Willis, graduated; Stephen Obeng-Agyapong, graduated
Key newcomers: None
It’s no secret that Amos is Penn State’s most versatile defensive player. He’ll likely be counted on to play multiple roles again in the upcoming season. For now, he’s back at safety after ending last season at corner alongside Lucas.
Lucas had a brilliant season and proved himself as Penn State’s most physical defensive back. He excelled playing both field and boundary corner spots and was utilized as the nickel back in most third-down passing situations. He was also called on to blitz more than any other defensive back.
Penn State needs another consistent corner to surface, however. Williams struggled in coverage after switching from wide receiver last season and could benefit the most from a strong spring.
A veteran and intelligent defender, Keiser will likely secure the other safety spot alongside Amos with Della Valle adding depth. Golden got into the mix on defense in the final game last season when Amos bowed out with an ankle injury just a few snaps in. He’s an intriguing option to earn playing time with plenty of speed.
Key returnees: Sam Ficken, senior; Zach Ladonis, sophomore
Key loss: Alex Butterworth, graduated
Key newcomer: Chris Gulla, redshirt freshman
Ficken is back as the team’s primary kicker and is accompanied by Gulla, who is the only other kicker on the roster. Gulla, a walk-on who joined the team last summer, is also listed as a punter and is the only one of those on the roster.
Longsnapping duties were split at times last season. Glenn Carson, Ty Howle, Ladonis and Anthony Smith all snapped on kicks. Ladonis is likely to land that gig as he’s the most experienced snapper.