The start of college football season is just over a month away and Penn State has released its first depth chart.
But Nittany Lions fans won’t glean much information as to who the true starters will be in Ireland from glancing at the position groupings Penn State released Thursday.
According to Penn State, the team’s first depth chart is arranged by seniority. Head coach James Franklin has stated that all players will begin with “a clean slate” heading into training camp.
“There are no returning starters at any position,” Franklin said shortly after he was introduced as Bill O’Brien’s successor in January. “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.
“I want these recruits to feel they have the opportunity to impact the program and earn a spot. So that’s how we’ll approach it through spring ball, and that’s how we’ll approach it going into fall camp.”
As a result, the majority of the players listed as starters heading into training camp are seniors or fifth-year seniors. Among them, returning starting defenders C.J. Olaniyan and Mike Hull are already penciled in as starters at end and middle linebacker, respectively. Their fellow seniors — also returning starters — Adrian Amos and Ryan Keiser are listed as the team’s starters at the two safety spots.
While junior Jordan Lucas is listed behind senior Devin Pryor at cornerback, Franklin has praised Lucas’ play in the past and has committed to him as one of the team’s starting corners despite his spot on the current seniority-based list.
Lucas started all 12 games last season and emerged as one of Penn State’s most effective — and physical — defenders. He finished third in the Big Ten with 16 passes defended and was third on the team with 65 tackles. His three interceptions were tied with Keiser for the most on the team.
Amos spent time at cornerback and safety last season. He enters his final campaign as Penn State’s most experienced player with 25 career starts.
“We think Amos’ natural position is safety. That’s where we’re going to play him,” Franklin said in January. “I think, obviously he creates some flexibility the fact that he plays corner as well in a pinch. But I like him back there being a leader for us, and Jordan Lucas gives us two really veteran guys at both levels of the secondary.”
Meanwhile, Hull is the only returning starter listed as such among the team’s linebackers. He has switched from outside linebacker to the middle spot.
Ben Kline is listed as a starter at outside linebacker but Kline will be unavailable this season as he tore his left Achilles’ tendon earlier this summer. Sophomore Nyeem Wartman — who played in 11 games last season with eight starts — and sophomore Brandon Bell who saw action in 10 games with a start in the season finale — are believed to have the inside track to lock down spots alongside Hull.
Along the defensive line, junior Deion Barnes returns after earning the Big Ten’s Freshman of the Year award two seasons ago and will likely battle fifth-year senior Brad Bars for the other starting spot at defensive end. Bars missed all of last season with a torn Achilles’ tendon after playing in eight games in 2012. Barnes played in all 24 games the last two seasons with 18 starts under his belt.
On the inside, senior Tyrone Smith and junior college transfer Tarow Barney (junior eligibility) are listed as starters at defensive tackle. Smith has never started but played in eight games last season. Meanwhile, sophomore Austin Johnson and junior Anthony Zettel have the most experience with a combined four starts under their belts dating to last season.
Zettel earned two starts opposite Olaniyan at defensive end — where all of his playing time has come. But Zettel opted to pack on more weight and move inside this season. Defensive line coach Sean Spencer has said he plans to use as many players that are physically ready as he can in the team’s defensive line rotation, however.
Offensively, Christian Hackenberg’s job is safe after a breakout true freshman season in which he completed 59 percent of his passes for 2,955 yards with 20 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. Hackenberg threw just two interceptions and completed 61 percent of his passes over the last five games.
The quarterback he battled for the starting job in camp last season, Tyler Ferguson, transferred to Louisville in January.
Fifth-year senior Zach Zwinak is listed as the team’s starter at running back while senior Bill Belton is listed as the backup. They’ll likely both be called on this season to contribute heavily. Belton started four of the last six game in 2013 and emerged as the team’s most well-rounded back. Meanwhile, sophomore Akeel Lynch is hoping to get more playing time behind the one-two punch of Belton and Zwinak after knee injuries slowed his progress last season.
Penn State lists 11 players among its running back corps.
Sophomores Geno Lewis and Gregg Garrity and junior Matt Zanellato are the lone returning wide receivers with in-game experience following the graduation of Brandon Felder and Allen Robinson’s defection to the NFL. Robinson and Felder combined to haul in 51 percent of the team’s passes last season with Robinson accounting for 40 percent of Penn State’s aerial attack. Without them, the wideout position battle should be wide open heading into camp.
While Zanellato and Lewis played in every game last season — Lewis started the final two with four starts overall — a handful of true freshmen like Saeed Blacknall, DaeSean Hamilton, Chris Godwin, DeAndre Thompkins and Troy Apke will try to crack the rotation. Hamilton redshirted last season with a wrist injury while Richy Anderson, who caught 13 passes, transferred.
Penn State returns a talented trio of tight ends in Kyle Carter, Jesse James and Adam Breneman. Carter, a junior, is listed as the starter at ‘F’ tight end while James begins the preseason as the starting ‘Y’ tight end. Breneman is listed as the second ‘Y’ while sophomore Brent Wilkerson, who sat out last season with a back injury, is the second ‘F’.
All three contributed last season with James hauling in 25 passes for 333 yards and three touchdowns. Breneman emerged as the season wore on and caught six passes for 102 yards and three touchdowns over the last three games. Carter was slowed early by an elbow injury suffered in the season opener and his coaches and teammates have expressed interest in his ability to play a more traditional wide receiver role to offset the team’s inexperience at that position.
Only junior left tackle Donovan Smith returns from last season’s starting offensive line.
Smith is listed as the starter there for the preseason while redshirt freshman Andrew Nelson is listed as the starting right tackle. Angelo Mangiro, a junior, is listed as the starting center while sophomore Derek Dowrey is listed as the top left guard. Fifth-year senior Miles Dieffenbach is atop the depth chart at his familiar right guard spot but Dieffenbach tore an anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) during spring practice. Dieffenbach — who has 23 starts over the last two years — said he wants to return for the final three games of the season but is not expected to be ready for the season opener.
Sophomore Brian Gaia is listed as the backup at right guard while redshirt freshman Brendan Mahon is pegged as the backup left guard.
Gaia and Dowrey both played defensive tackle last season and saw action in a combined 20 games. Gaia played in all 12 while Dowrey earned playing time in eight.
Kicker Sam Ficken returns while Keiser (holder) and sophomore Zach Ladonis (long snapper) return to round out the kicking unit. Sophomore Tyler Yazujian is listed as the starting long-snapper but Ladonis — in addition to the departed Glenn Carson and Ty Howle — handled most of the long-snapping duties last season.
Ficken is also listed as the starting punter with redshirt freshman Chris Gulla as the second punter. Amos is listed along with six other players as possible options to return kicks while fifth-year senior Jesse Della Valle — who returned punts at times in 2013 — is listed with Lucas as the top two punt returners.
“The players will have a good idea of where everybody’s at,” Franklin said. “I want to make sure we create an environment where everybody knows you’re going to have to wake up every morning and compete like crazy for your job.”