Penn State opens its 2018 season at 3:30 p.m. Saturday against Appalachian State. Here are the five things you should keep an eye on.
Debut of Penn State’s true freshmen
The talent in this class is nearly unprecedented and, with the NCAA’s new redshirt rule, James Franklin could test out a number of new faces Saturday.
We know we’ll likely see at least seven true freshmen, as the head coach said earlier in the week that he plans to play them an awful lot this season: Linebackers Micah Parsons and Jesse Luketa, kickers Jake Pinegar and Rafael Checa, defensive tackle PJ Mustipher, running back Ricky Slade and tight end Pat Freiermuth.
Parsons and Mustipher are the two to especially keep an eye on. Parsons is already Penn State’s most athletic linebacker. The only thing keeping him from a starting spot is his on-field awareness, his knowledge of the scheme and playbook. That’ll come in time, and we’ll see how far along he is Saturday.
For Mustipher, he’ll be a part of the rotation ASAP. And he’s nearly a lock to wind up on the All-Big Ten freshman team.
Appalachian State RB Jalin Moore
Only six active FBS players have already rushed for back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons. Moore is one of them.
He’s as decorated as a Group of Five running back can get. He made the cut on Bruce Feldman’s annual “Freaks List,” and NFL.com named him No. 1 at his position on the list of “college football’s most freakish athletes.” He’s widely regarded as one of the top-20 running backs in the nation, and he could very well land in the NFL. (NFL Draft Scout projects him as the class’s ninth-best RB prospect.)
James Franklin rattled off his superlatives Tuesday and said he was impressed.
“He’s run 4.37 in a 40 — and 38.5 vertical jump, 11-1 broad jump, 390 bench,” Franklin said. “I mean, this guy obviously is a specimen and was the Sun Belt Offensive Player of the Year. So that will be challenging.”
Answers to the three big “question marks”
In case you haven’t been keep tracking at home, the three big question marks are defensive tackle, linebacker and kicker. So let’s break it down by position.
The starting ‘backers include Cam Brown, Koa Farmer and Jan Johnson. Brown should be fine at the SAM — Franklin said Tuesday he’s furthest along — but the questions really start with Farmer at the WILL and Johnson at the MIKE. This is Johnson’s first career start, and the spotlight should really be on him. If he can pull off a performance like Brandon Smith last season, where he’s not flashy but gets the job done, that’s all Penn State needs. But if he or Farmer struggles, Franklin has said the backups are not far behind them. We could see some mixing-and-matching Saturday.
At defensive tackle, Robert Windsor and Kevin Givens will get the nod. Windsor said earlier this week this position group has “All-Big Ten potential.” And he may not be wrong; this is more of a question mark simply because of the unknowns with talented-but-inexperienced depth. Keep an eye on backups Antonio Shelton and Mustipher.
And finally, at kicker, Checa will kick off and Pinegar will handle field goals and extra points. Backup Vlad Hilling is the least consistent of the three, so if Pinegar struggles Saturday, the Plan B is likely punter Blake Gillikin. But Franklin and Co. have expressed a lot of confidence in the true freshman.
Who’s getting Penn State’s passing targets?
Juwan Johnson is clearly the Nittany Lions’ favorite option right now. DeAndre Thompkins could be No. 2.
But after that? It’s not so easy to predict.
With so much experience gone from last season — Mike Gesicki, DaeSean Hamilton, Saquon Barkley — the Nittany Lions return players who accounted for just 38 percent of McSorley’s completions in 2017. That means there’s a whole lot of opportunity in 2018.
Can a tight end like Jon Holland fill Gesicki’s role as one of the top targets? Or will another receiver, like KJ Hamler, step up and be a top-three target? And how will Miles Sanders’ role differ from Barkley’s in the passing game? Barkley had 54 catches last year — that’s as many as Johnson — so, if Sanders doesn’t match that, who do those balls go to?
There are plenty of options here with guys like Brandon Polk, Danny Dalton and Jahan Dotson. And we should see Saturday who some of McSorley’s favorite targets this season might be.
Replacing Saquon Barkley
Miles Sanders is not Barkley. But he’s still a talented back, one that could still out-rush his predecessor thanks to an improved offensive line.
Sanders may not break one as often as Barkley, but keep an eye on how often he’s tackled behind the line of scrimmage. He’s more of a north-south runner than Barkley, so those tackles-for-losses should decrease.
Outside of Sanders, Mark Allen and Ricky Slade should also hear their numbers called quite a bit Saturday. The only thing stopping Slade from being the clear No. 2 is his pass-blocking and pass-catching. And as anyone who remembers Curtis Dukes will tell you, those two things can keep you off the field no matter how good of a runner you are.