Nick Scott is back in Happy Valley. Well, temporarily. Penn State’s 2018 defensive captain is in town to train ahead of next Tuesday’s Pro Day, along with Trace McSorley, Miles Sanders and more NFL prospects.
Having Scott and company back in the Lasch Building made James Franklin a bit nostalgic. But the head coach knows that sooner rather than later, those program stalwarts will leave State College for good. And when they do, the Nittany Lions will be in the midst of figuring out their replacements.
Quarterback is straight-forward with Tommy Stevens waiting in the wings. Sanders’ successor will likely be Ricky Slade. But the safety position — finding Scott’s substitute and establishing the two-deep in spring camp and beyond — is trickier.
“I think we’ve got a good group of guys that we feel good about,” Franklin said. “But obviously we have to answer some questions.”
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That’s after the safety position endured serious attrition in the offseason. Scott moved on, but so did Ayron Monroe and Isaiah Humphries. The former — a limited contributor who never really made good on his potential — left the program, while the latter, just a freshman, transferred to Cal.
Lamont Wade almost bolted, too, but returned to Penn State after entering the transfer portal and posting an empty locker to his Instagram story in January. Wade’s decision must have been a sigh of relief for Franklin and safeties coach Tim Banks, considering the former five-star prospect’s place on the depth chart entering spring camp.
Franklin said at field safety — what most would call free safety — Wade is the No. 1 option, followed in order by John Petrishen, Tyler Rudolph and Drew Hartlaub. Opposite Scott’s old spot, Garrett Taylor will start the 2019 season at box safety. Behind him, Jonathan Sutherland is champing at the bit, followed by Central Mountain walk-on Justin Neff and Cody Romano.
Seems cut and dried, right? Not quite.
“They are moving parts,” Franklin said. “If you’re the backup at one (safety position), but you’re one of our two best safeties, we’ll move it around and plug-and-play.”
That speaks specifically to the case of Sutherland — a hard-hitter who should be viewed as the natural heir apparent at box safety when Taylor, a rising redshirt senior, runs out of eligibility. Sutherland’s teammates call him “The Assassin”; that should be enough explanation as to why the rising redshirt sophomore would thrive in a position that Marcus Allen recently made his own.
“There’s some aspects where we like to drop one safety into the box more and play to their strengths,” the coach added. “That’s something that Sutherland does extremely well.”
But without Scott, Penn State’s staff might need to shift Sutherland’s focus. If Wade — a former cornerback — turns out to not be the right man for the job, Taylor could theoretically move to field safety for his final season, giving the box safety reins to Sutherland. But Franklin never mentioned that as a possibility Wednesday.
What’s more likely: The Nittany Lions keep Taylor where he is, roll with Wade this spring and let him prove himself, work in Sutherland at both spots and wait for reinforcements before making a final call on Scott’s successor. Yes, reinforcements.
Jaquan Brisker — a member of Penn State’s 2019 recruiting class — is a four-star safety from Lackawanna and contender for Scott’s job. He was the No. 12 JUCO prospect in the country, earning offers from Alabama, Maryland, Mississippi State and more. Brian Dohn, a national recruiting analyst for 247 Sports, compared Brisker to Pro Bowl and All-American safety HaHa Clinton-Dix, projecting the Pittsburgh native as a future second- or third-round pick.
Unfortunately for the Nittany Lions, Brisker won’t arrive on campus until after spring camp. But the safety has remained on the mind of Franklin any way he can. The coach said Brisker will be on campus this weekend to be around the team and has been sending the staff workout videos throughout the offseason.
“He blows me up constantly,” Franklin said laughing. “He’s excited.”
And the feeling seems mutual from the staff. Defensive recruiting coordinator and cornerbacks coach Terry Smith said in December that Brisker will have “an opportunity” to compete for the vacant field safety gig. Franklin said the same.
That’s why this battle will likely wage on into fall camp. Sure, it’s possible Wade puts his stamp on Scott’s old spot in spring camp. Sutherland could prove himself versatile enough to start opposite Taylor. Rudolph, a four-star prospect in the 2019 class, can show what he has, as well.
This 15-practice tryout over March and April will be crucial to the staff’s future decision at field safety. And it’ll be interesting to see what the position looks like by time Brisker arrives.
“We’re really excited about what Wade’s done this offseason. Really excited about what Petrishen has done. ... Sutherland just continues to show up,” Franklin said. “So it’s going to be a great competition. ... We feel good about the group.”