Penn State (2-0) kicks off its Week 3 matchup against Kent State (1-1) at noon Saturday in Beaver Stadium. Here are the five things you should keep an eye on:
LB Micah Parsons and his increasing playing time
There’s a reason why Parsons was a five-star prospect who was widely regarded as one of the top-10 high school players in the nation. In high school, at 241 pounds, he ran a laser-timed 4.66-second 40-yard dash. By comparison, fourth-round NFL draft pick Micah Kiser — a Virginia MLB who weighs 238 pounds — also ran a 4.66 at the NFL combine.
Parsons is clearly a “freak,” the word teammates most often use to describe him. He’s still learning the linebacker position — he played end in high school — but his athleticism is unparalleled among his LB teammates. He’s already made several highlight-worthy plays this season, where he’s out of position and then suddenly sheds a block, shows off his high motor and makes a stop across the field. He played about 49 percent of defensive snaps a week ago and, at the rate he’s going, those minutes should only increase as the season progresses.
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Pay attention to how often Koa Farmer is on the field compared to Parsons. The Harrisburg native could surpass Farmer’s minutes as early as this weekend. It’s only a matter of time before Parsons is starting. Enjoy him now, Penn State fans, there is virtually 0 percent chance he’s here for all four years.
Can the WRs stop the drops?
DeAndre Thompkins and Juwan Johnson have at least six combined drops through two games — and that might be the biggest surprise on this offense so far. Those two are the most experienced vets in the receiving corps, but they’ve produced way too many mistakes at this point.
Thompkins has at least been able to make an impact on special teams. But Johnson? He was supposed to be the star. In the offseason, one Sporting News writer projected him to be the first wideout off the board in the 2019 NFL draft. Yes, he projected Johnson to declare early for the draft and then go in the first round. No one saw Johnson’s struggles coming.
Head coach James Franklin said he’s not concerned. But that’s because it’s been just two games so far. A small sample size can quickly develop into a pattern. If these two struggle in another game, it’s time to start getting worried — even if Franklin is playing it cool now.
“I got tremendous confidence that those guys — we’re going to look back at the end of the year and say, wow, what huge years these guys had,” he said.
Kent State QB Woody Barrett could pose a challenge
We mentioned this earlier in the season, but it bears repeating: College football’s greatest upsets all started with the underdog quarterback. Appalachian State over Michigan in 2007? QB Armanti Edwards had 78 percent of the offense, to go along with four TDs. Forty-five point underdog Howard over UNLV last season? QB Caylin Newton had 190 rushing yards and 73 percent of the offense.
The odds the Golden Flashes pull off the upset here? Less than 1 percent. Still, Barrett is a talented player worth watching.
Barrett was a high-profile prospect in the 2016 recruiting class. He signed with Auburn, although he had offers from the likes of Alabama and Notre Dame. ESPN ranked him as the fifth-best dual-threat in the nation. He joined Auburn late in 2016, redshirted and then tumbled down the depth chart in the spring — so much that he decided to transfer. He attended a JUCO and then wound up at Kent State.
He showed what he was capable of in the opener. Against Illinois, he threw for 280 yards and ran for 117 yards. He also recorded three total touchdowns. Barrett shouldn’t win the war Saturday, but he might get the better of Penn State and win a few battles. He’ll likely be good for at least one pull-your-hair-out scramble on third-and-long.
Playing a strong first half offensively
Penn State’s halftime score against Appalachian State? 10-10. The halftime score against Pitt? A misleading 14-6, which was the result of sloppy play by the Nittany Lions but sloppier play by the Panthers.
Franklin’s squad still hasn’t strung together four complete quarters. And they’ll need to do so in time for the Sept. 29 game against Ohio State. That’s why it’s been such a big part of practice this week.
“The last two games, we nailed the score on the first drive but then we’ve hit a little bit of a wall in the first half,” quarterback Trace McSorley said. “That’s something we’ve been emphasizing a lot this week, getting that fast start like we have been but then maintaining it throughout the first half and the rest of the game.”
Much like the WR drops, this isn’t a point of concern just yet. But if Penn State again struggles in the first two quarters? It’s time to inch closer to that panic button; the Nittany Lions can’t do that against the better teams in the conference.
Rotation/lineup in the secondary
The rotation at linebacker and defensive line was more the talk of the offseason, but Penn State’s now in an interesting position in the secondary.
Cornerback John Reid was supposed to be a solid starter, but he was clearly frustrated with himself in the opener. Franklin acknowledged he still needs to shake off some rust after not playing for so long after 2017’s season-ending injury. He didn’t play last week, and he wasn’t practicing with the starters Wednesday.
In his place, Tariq Castro-Fields has done a good job. He was torched once so far, but the deep Appalachian State pass was placed perfectly. It’ll be interesting to see how much Reid plays, if at all. Cornerback Donovan Johnson has also had a strong beginning, starting at the nickel. He didn’t allow a reception last week.
At safety, Garrett Taylor hasn’t been perfect — and Lamont Wade is pushing for more time on the field. Some opposing coaches may not see Wade much yet, but he’s slowly changing that after transitioning from cornerback in the spring. In the second defensive series, Wade was on the field. There’s quite a bit of talent in Penn State’s defensive backfield, and it’s only getting better.