Just days away from its season opener against Akron, Penn State released its first official depth chart on Tuesday afternoon.
Save for a few surprises, the three-deep is as expected. Here are notes on how the Nittany Lions will look on Saturday:
Troy Apke won the starting job at strong safety alongside Marcus Allen, beating out Ayron Monroe and Nick Scott.
Apke, a senior who has two starts under his belt, was lauded by James Franklin at the start and end of fall camp. That didn’t stop at his Tuesday press conference.
“He’s always been one of the more athletic guys based on vertical jump, broad jump, 40. He’s always had those things,” Franklin said. “He’s a guy who played as a freshman for us because we felt so highly of him on special teams and in other areas. He’s kind of been what you want. You want a guy that continues to work hard and embrace the role he has, but continues to strive for more. He’s done that.”
Apke takes over for Malik Golden, who tallied 17 starts throughout his Penn State career.
Monroe is the second-string strong safety, followed by fall camp “takeaway king” Garrett Taylor. Scott is the second-team free safety.
Nelson, Wright tackle battle
Clarity emerged at right tackle. Chasz Wright will start at the position instead of graduate senior Andrew Nelson. Wright, a redshirt junior, started the final five games of the 2016 season.
Franklin said Nelson is “working through some issues” and isn’t ready to play on Saturday. Still, the coach believes Nelson will play a “significant” role for the Nittany Lions down the line.
“I think he’s as talented as an offensive tackle as there is in the country,” Franklin said. “We really could’ve listed that as an ‘either or’ with him and Chasz. ...He’s going to play a lot for us.”
Starters, backups solidified
As expected, the rest of the offensive line will line up in the following way: Ryan Bates, left tackle; Steven Gonzalez, right guard; Connor McGovern, center; and Brendan Mahon, right guard.
Franklin is pleased to have Mahon back with the unit. The graduate senior, who left last year’s Iowa game early and was admitted to Hershey Medical Center a few days later with an unspecified injury, has logged 29 starts over three years.
“Mahon’s a guy who’s been through a lot in his time at Penn State,” Franklin said. “Obviously he was limited during spring ball, but he’s been full-go for the last I don’t know how many weeks. He’s embraced it.”
Redshirt freshman Will Fries and true freshman Mike Miranda are the second-team left tackle and left guard, respectively.
Bates was complimentary when asked about Fries and Miranda.
“Where (Miranda) is now, he’s better than I was when I was at that stage,” Bates said. “And Will Fries, he’s progressing a lot at left tackle. He’s moved around a bit from left tackle to right tackle. He’s actually taking some guard reps, too, and having that versatility is key.”
Wide receivers coach Josh Gattis said last week that he’s comfortable with six guys starting at the position, but three in particular were listed as first-teamers for Week 1.
Juwan Johnson, DaeSean Hamilton and DeAndre Thompkins were named starters at the X, H and Z receiver spots, respectively.
Thompkins beat out Saeed Blacknall, who starred in the Big Ten title game with 155 yards and two touchdowns. Franklin said that spot on the depth chart could’ve been an “OR,” but is pleased with Thompkins’ work so far.
“We have a lot of confidence in DeAndre,” Franklin said. “When he first got here, he could run, but he was undersized and more of an athlete playing wide receiver. He didn’t really have the fundamentals and technique down. He wasn’t durable enough. ...Now, he’s a guy that has the strength, has the speed, has the durability, has the quickness and the movement. We think he has a chance to be a complete wide receiver.”
Thompkins is also the starting punt returner, followed by Mark Allen and Josh McPhearson, respectively.
As expected, the starters along Penn State’s front-four are Shareef Miller and Torrence Borwn at defensive end and Parker Cothren and Curtis Cothran at defensive tackle.
The starting linebackers are Jason Cabinda in the middle, flanked by Koa Farmer and Manny Bowen. Senior Brandon Smith is the backup in the middle, and Cam Brown and Jarvis Miller are second-teamers on the outside.
No. 3 quarterback
Should anything happen to Trace McSorley and Tommy Stevens, the quarterback job would fall to true freshman Sean Clifford. A four-star signal-caller out of Ohio, Clifford beat out Jake Zembiec, a redshirt freshman.
Franklin, who complimented Clifford throughout fall camp, continued to do so on Tuesday.
“He was probably much further ahead than we had anticipated mentally. He has really picked this offense up quickly,” the coach said. “He’s locked in. He takes great notes. He’s right on coach Moorhead and Trace and Tommy’s hips all the time. At practice, he takes mental reps. ...He runs better than anticipated, as well. He shows that athleticism, and he’s got some of the ‘it’ factor that people have been trying to figure out and describe for 25 years at that position. Maybe longer than that.
“We’re excited about him.”