Due to NCAA sanctions, the Penn State football team has just 67 players on scholarship this season. Not all of them are healthy.
With injuries inherent to the game, coach Bill O’Brien and his staff are taking early precautions to shore up depth at certain positions where the Nittany Lions need bodies. Specifically, O’Brien is already eyeballing a number of young, up-and-coming players he hopes can step into bigger roles this season along the defensive line and at linebacker.
Although the majority of them lack crucial, in-game experience, they’ll get plenty of chances to prove their worth over the remaining 25 practices before the season kicks off against Syracuse on Aug. 31 at MetLife Stadium.
“Let’s say you get 50 to 60 reps in practice,” O’Brien said. “One thing we try to do is get our No. 1 groups quality, good reps. We don’t want to give them 50 million reps in practice but we want to get them quality, good reps. Then we try to get the younger players a lot of reps. Get those guys in there and let them play football.”
Michael Mauti and Gerald Hodges vacated their spots and while Glenn Carson and Mike Hull played significant roles last season at linebacker, redshirt freshman Nyeem Wartman is fairly green. Wartman played in the first two games last season but was injured on the opening kickoff of the second contest and took a medical redshirt.
Those behind them on the team’s preseason depth chart will see their first significant action this season.
“We also have some young players there,” O’Brien said. “Brandon Bell who’s a (true) freshman. Gary Wooten who’s basically a (redshirt) freshman. Those guys have improved. That’s an area where the depth is more of a concern.”
O’Brien reinforced the idea that safeties Adrian Amos and Stephen Obeng-Agyapong will help out at linebacker.
“Both of those guys are multiple players,” O’Brien said. “Both of those guys are safeties and they’ve come back in really good physical condition and we’ll train them in a lot of different spots.”
Penn State took a hit along the defensive line when Brad Bars went down with a season-ending achilles injury earlier this summer. O’Brien said defensive tackle Kyle Baublitz, who has played some defensive end in the past, could play both positions to help returning starter Deion Barnes and C.J. Olaniyan who is expected to nail down the other defensive end spot.
Evan Schwan, who redshirted last season, will join the rotation and O’Brien is confident true freshmen Curtis Cothran and Garrett Sickels can have an impact on the outside. DaQuan Jones and Austin Jones will join Baublitz on the inside.
“We might play some guys a little longer in some situations,” Johnson said. “We just have to be careful how we substitute. Right now we‘re going to play eight or nine guys in the course of the game. We have to. No guy can play 85 plays full speed and expect to be productive.”
The Nittany Lions will be without one player for the entirety of the season and another could miss significant time.
True freshman wide receiver DaeSean Hamilton is not fully recovered from a wrist injury he sustained in high school and will not play this season, O’Brien said. O’Brien also revealed redshirt freshman tight end Brent Wilkerson “will be out for a while” with a back injury.
Meanwhile, sophomore linebacker Ben Kline continues to recover from offseason shoulder surgery and his status is questionable. O’Brien said his hope is that Kline will be ready for the season opener but he said Kline will be “in and out.” Kline was out for the portion of Thursday’s practice open to the media.
Notably, Kline was not wearing a medical red jersey but did not wear a helmet or shoulder pads during drills. Zach Zwinak was the lone non-quarterback that donned the red jersey signifying his noncontact status. But Zwinak was able to take handoffs and took part in a fumble drill as teammates swatted at the ball in his grasp despite wearing a wrap on his left hand. Zwinak was hurt early in April’s Blue-White game. O’Brien expects him to be ready for the opener.
When asked about his tendency to go for it on fourth downs, O’Brien was blunt.
“Yeah, we’re going to go for it on fourth down,” O’Brien said. “If we get the ball on the 50-yard-line going in and we’ve got an advantageous fourth down, the momentum of the game, there are a lot of different factors that go into it.”
The Penn State offense converted 19 of 34 fourth down plays last season for a 56 percent success rate. Only five other teams — Air Force (43), Army (41), Georgia Tech (37), Tulsa (37) and Louisiana-Monroe (35) — attempted more fourth-down plays than Penn State.
Louisiana-Monroe (68 percent), Georgia Tech (62) and Air Force (58) had higher success rates.
But O’Brien played down the notion that he is a gambler when it comes to play calls on the final down.
“Obviously we’re not going to be dumb about it,” O’Brien said. “If we feel like we’re in a good spot and we can punt the ball and pooch it inside the 5-yard-line that’s what we’re going to try to do. Last year was a little bit unique in that we had a lot of fourth-and-short situations. Will that happen this year? Who knows.”
Ten different NFL teams were represented at Penn State’s fourth training camp practice.
Scouts from the Green Bay Packers, San Diego Chargers, Washington Redskins, Kansas City Chiefs, New York Jets, Buffalo Bills, Pittsburgh Steelers, New England Patriots, New Orleans Saints and Detroit Lions attended the afternoon session.
The majority of those scouts congregated around Johnson’s defensive line corps and watched those drills intently.
NFL Draft guru Gil Brandt recently named Penn State’s Jones the top defensive tackle who will be eligible in next year’s draft.
Want to know who will be the team captains? You’ll have to wait to see shortly before kickoff.
Penn State will use the same system as last season when captains were named before each game and were different week to week. O’Brien said final captains — the ones that go into the history books — will be named before the last game.