Starting spots are up for grabs in Happy Valley.
On Thursday, Miles Sanders became Penn State’s fifth player to declare early for the 2019 NFL draft. He joins Shareef Miller, Connor McGovern, Ryan Bates and Kevin Givens in that category.
The departures of Sanders, Miller and McGovern were expected; Givens’ and Bates’ decisions were not. Either way, they need to be replaced in 2019.
Here’s an early look at who might fill the starting roles left behind by those who bolted for the NFL.
Digital Access For Only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
2018 departure: Miles Sanders
Replacement candidates: Ricky Slade, Noah Cain, Devyn Ford, Journey Brown, C.J. Holmes
2019 projection: Ricky Slade
The skinny: Losing one former five-star back and replacing him with another might seem to be the easiest decision of Ja’Juan Seider’s coaching career.
Slade — the No. 27 prospect in the 2018 class — scored six touchdowns and rushed for 257 yards on 45 carries (5.7 ypc) in his true freshman campaign. In extended action, the 5-foot-9, 200-pounder ripped through Illinois and Maryland’s defense for a combined 158 yards on 21 carries, showing power, speed and balance. He is the front-runner, no doubt.
But Cain — the No. 7 RB in the 2019 class — is coming in confident. The early enrollee told The Athletic that one of the reasons why he picked Penn State was an opportunity to play right away. Ford, the No. 5 RB this cycle, will make that push, too. So will Brown, a rising redshirt sophomore, and Holmes, a Notre Dame transfer who had to sit out 2018. So, even if Slade wins the job as expected, there will still be plenty of opportunities to make an impact as the change-of-pace back.
2018 departure: Connor McGovern
Candidates: Michal Menet, Des Holmes, Mike Miranda, CJ Thorpe, Caedan Wallace, Saleem Wormley
2019 projection: Mike Miranda
The skinny: Offensive line coach Matt Limegrover has to figure out where his pieces fit best.
Menet, who served adequately as Penn State’s 2018 center as a first-year starter, was recruited as a guard. Mike Miranda, Steven Gonzalez’s backup who saw time here and there, was a center prospect coming out of high school. Limegrover might decide to move Menet back to guard, putting Miranda at center. Or he could keep the status quo and slide Miranda into McGovern’s vacated spot.
Either way, expect Miranda — someone who impressed from the get-go as an early enrollee back in 2017 — to get the nod.
Keep an eye on the rest of those guys, though. Holmes — a raw, three-star tackle upon arrival in 2017 — has since added eight pounds and looks the part. Thorpe, the No. 7 guard in the 2017 cycle, could move back to his original position, but with a need at defensive tackle it’s likely he stays put. And Wallace, the No. 3 guard in 2019, is talented — but Franklin has said time and time again that the hardest position to play as a true freshman is offensive line. Don’t expect to see him or Wormley outside of garbage time in 2019.
2018 departure: Ryan Bates
Candidates: Will Fries, Alex Gellerstedt, Rasheed Walker, Des Holmes, Anthony Whigan
2019 projection: Rasheed Walker
The skinny: McGovern will be drafted higher than Bates, but the latter’s departure might hurt Penn State more. Because the Nittany Lions are not deep at tackle whatsoever.
Fries started the 2018 season at right tackle, sharing snaps with Chasz Wright, who is gone now, too. Fries later moved to left tackle where he looked more comfortable. It’s possible Limegrover slides him back to the right, but expect him to stay on the blindside.
So, that leaves Gellerstedt, Walker, Whigan and Holmes, if they switch him back from guard, as options at right tackle. Gellerstedt, a rising redshirt junior, is the oldest and was named Penn State’s scout team offensive player of the week twice in 2018. But he appeared in just one game. Holmes might stay at guard, while Whigan, even as a JUCO signee, probably won’t play right away.
There’s some intrigue around Walker, though. The No. 65 overall prospect in the 2018 class earned snaps in multiple games this year and even earned a post-Citrus Bowl shoutout from Trace McSorley. Walker’s ceiling is undoubtedly the highest of this group, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see the 6-foot-6, 308-pounder claim the starting gig.
2018 departure: Kevin Givens
Candidates: Antonio Shelton, PJ Mustipher, Fred Hansard, Damion Barber, CJ Thorpe, Judge Culpepper
2019 projection: PJ Mustipher
The skinny: Shelton is a leader; he’s outspoken, breaks the “Wild Dogs” down in the pregame huddle and knows how to light up a room with his humor. He’s also got a fine motor. But he might be perfect as Sean Spencer’s “third starter” at tackle, one Tyrell Chavis made his own in 2017.
Thorpe plays angry, and while that will be valuable on the defensive side of the ball, he might not be polished enough to start. Hansard started Week 1 when Givens was suspended, but the rising redshirt sophomore suffered a season-ending injury in October, and it’s unknown if he’ll be healthy for winter workouts. (He was seen wearing a walking boot watching Citrus Bowl practices from the sideline.) Barber isn’t ready to take on a starting role, and neither is Culpepper, who didn’t see the field in ‘18.
But Mustipher, after impressing down the stretch, might be able to fill Givens’ absence. The 6-foot-4, 300-pound lane-clogger was the No. 78 overall prospect and No. 5 DT in the 2018 cycle, and he showed that potential in Big Ten play with a pair of late-game tackles in Penn State’s ugly win over Wisconsin.
The situation at DT isn’t ideal with Givens’ surprising decision, but this could turn into a positive if Mustipher develops into what many think he can be. “He just does not look like a freshman,” Spencer said back in August. “He’s a great one to coach.”
2018 departure: Shareef Miller
Candidates: Shaka Toney, Shane Simmons, Daniel Joseph, Jayson Oweh, Nick Tarburton, Adisa Isaac, Hakeem Beamon
2019 projection: Shane Simmons
The skinny: Back in August, Spencer said that Simmons and Yetur Gross-Matos were in a “heated battle” for the starting defensive end job alongside Miller. Everyone saw how that turned out. Simmons picked up an injury that kept him out for nearly half the season, while Gross-Matos emerged as a superstar, racking up 20 tackles for loss and eight sacks.
This season was Gross-Matos’ coming out party. And 2019 might be Simmons’ turn.
The No. 41 prospect in the 2016 recruiting class, Simmons hasn’t necessarily lived up to the hype. The rising redshirt junior appeared in all 13 games last season and seven this go-around, but has recorded just one sack. But the talent is there, and Simmons is confident in himself moving forward. “2018 didn’t work the way I wanted it,” he tweeted after the Citrus Bowl. “But believe I will be back in 2019 and it will be one hell of a year.”
If Simmons doesn’t earn the job, Toney could take hold of it. The pass rusher has nine sacks in two seasons. Joseph has a motor and will serve as a solid second-teamer. Oweh possesses Gross-Matos level potential, but might still be too raw, while Isaac and Beamon are long-term promising projects.