Spring camp is days away — and so are the position battles fans and media alike are itching to watch unfold.
Senior leaders Trace McSorley, Nick Scott and Amani Oruwariye ran out of eligibility. Starting underclassmen Miles Sanders, Shareef Miller, Connor McGovern, Ryan Bates and Kevin Givens left for the NFL. And Juwan Johnson and a host of contributors bolted for playing time via the transfer portal.
It has been an offseason of movement for the Nittany Lions, and that isn’t even considering the coaching changes — dropping David Corley, saying good-bye to Phil Galiano and adding Gerad Parker and Joe Lorig.
But, according to new team leaders like Jan Johnson and Michal Menet, the Nittany Lions aren’t focused on who left and the headlines that have surrounded the program. They’re eying spring camp and the 2019 campaign.
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With that in mind, let’s take a look at four offensive position battles to watch.
Note: Defensive position battles will be broken down the next day.
Gone: Trace McSorley
Returners: Tommy Stevens, Sean Clifford, Will Levis
Newcomers: Ta’Quan Roberson (spring), Michael Johnson Jr. (spring)
Outlook: On National Signing Day in early February, James Franklin said Stevens would be the No. 1 quarterback, followed by Clifford and Levis, when asked about a future spring depth chart. However, he noted that, like every position, quarterback will be an open competition.
Stevens didn’t travel to Orlando after picking up what Franklin called a “pretty significant injury” during the regular season and undergoing surgery prior to the Citrus Bowl. The hope was, at the time, that Stevens would be ready for spring camp.
Now, Stevens was seen performing leg-presses at Penn State’s open weightlifting session last week. But does that mean he’ll be a full participant in spring camp, right out of the gate? We’re not sure.
If Stevens misses time in the spring, it’ll be beneficial for Clifford to get the extra reps. If Stevens is full-go, then the open competition — in which Stevens is the clear front-runner — will begin.
“I’ve got so much confidence in Tommy. It’s going to be a tremendous spring. It’s going to be a tremendous summer. And I’ve got a lot of confidence in the guys that we have in our quarterback room,” Franklin said. “I really do.”
Gone: Juwan Johnson, DeAndre Thompkins, Brandon Polk
Returners: KJ Hamler, Jahan Dotson, Justin Shorter, Mac Hippenhammer, Daniel George, Cam Sullivan-Brown
Newcomers: John Dunmore (fall), TJ Jones (fall), George Campbell (fall)
Outlook: Penn State’s starting three at receiver might seem simple. Hamler, after leading the team in catches and receptions in 2018, was electrifying. Dotson, who started the final four games as a true freshman, boasted reliability. And Shorter is a former five-star freak athlete just waiting to break out.
But there’s more to Gerad Parker’s room than the presumed first-teamers. Hippenhammer wedged his way into four-wide sets all season long, and George, a former four-star prospect, is built at 6-foot-2, 220 pounds. And Sullivan-Brown, despite reportedly entering the transfer portal, will stay at Penn State for at least another year.
This spring is important to Hamler, Dotson and Shorter, no doubt. But it’s perhaps more important for Hippenhammer, George and Sullivan-Brown. It’s an opportunity for them to flourish without Johnson, Polk or Thompkins in the picture. And it’s a chance for them to do so before Dunmore, Jones and Campbell enter the fold.
George, Hippenhammer and Sullivan-Brown are talented, and they’ll compete with Dotson and Shorter for looks. But they’ll also get a jump-start on the two-deep battle that lies ahead in fall camp.
Gone: Connor McGovern, Zach Simpson
Returners: Steven Gonzalez, CJ Thorpe, Mike Miranda, Des Holmes, Juice Scruggs
Newcomers: Caedan Wallace (fall), Saleem Wormley (fall)
Outlook: The loss of McGovern to the NFL stings. As described by NFL Network draft analyst Daniel Jeremiah, McGovern made a name for himself at Penn State as a “drive blocker” and “finisher.” Now, it’s Matt Limegrover’s job to find a replacement for the possible second-round selection.
Thorpe ought to be considered a front-runner. The lineman who plays with what Franklin once called “nastiness” was moved to defensive tackle in 2018 to provide depth at the depleted position. But he’s back on Limegrover’s side, and the former No. 89 overall prospect in the 2017 recruiting class will make his case this spring.
Miranda will also have a shot. The rising redshirt sophomore impressed in his first spring at Penn State and started against Maryland last season. Meanwhile, Holmes might swing back to tackle if he’s needed, and Scruggs — the Nittany Lions’ third-string center as a true freshman — could find his way onto the two-deep at guard.
Simpson, Penn State’s No. 2 center in 2018, was added to the departure list here because his presence in 2019 would have given Limegrover more options. Michal Menet, seemingly entrenched as the Nittany Lions’ starting center, was recruited as a guard and could have theoretically moved back to the position if Simpson was around and Limegrover felt good about him starting at center. However, Simpson, a redshirt junior, decided to forfeit his final year of eligiblity and walk at Senior Day.
Wallace and Wormley, while promising as prospects, won’t start as true freshmen and should be considered redshirt candidates, especially with the newly implemented four-game rule.
Gone: Ryan Bates, Chasz Wright, Alex Gellerstedt
Returners: Will Fries, Rasheed Walker, Des Holmes
Newcomer: Anthony Whigan (spring)
Outlook: Outside of whatever the quarterback duel has in store, right tackle provides the most intriguing storyline of the spring.
Why? Because there are really only two starting options — and they’re both relatively new players eager to cement themselves as a starter for 2019 and beyond.
Bates’ somewhat unexpected departure leaves the position vacant. Wright’s graduation, Gellerstedt’s transfer to Virginia and Fries’ comfort on the left side make this a two-man race between Walker and Whigan. Holmes, of course, could make a run. But after spending last season at guard, it would be quite a leap to start at tackle against Idaho come Aug. 31.
Walker, a redshirt freshman who gained some experience last season, was the No. 65 overall prospect and No. 6 tackle in the 2018 class. His ceiling is undeniable. Whigan, meanwhile, played two years at Lackawanna C.C. and has two years of eligibility in State College.
Even if it was at the JUCO level, Whigan — who also received offers from Oklahoma, TCU, Pittsburgh, South Carolina and Nebraska — holds the edge in experience over Walker. But if Walker impresses in spring camp, it will be tempting to reward him with the job and let him grow into the role over several seasons.
That’s the wrinkle that will make this battle so intriguing not only in the spring, but also the fall.