Penn State Football

‘Players to Watch’ as Penn State spring practices begin

Head coach James Franklin.
Head coach James Franklin. CDT Photo

Penn State football began its spring practices on Friday to mark the start of on-field preparation for what might be the team’s most intriguing season in the last three years.

New offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead has a spread offense to install, the likes of which hasn’t truly ever been seen at Penn State. How the players respond to this scheme won’t be seen until April 16 when the team holds its annual Blue White game, and even then it’s likely fans will only see a sliver of what Moorhead has planned.

Despite a new offensive system, Penn State’s defense isn’t without its questions — and to players, the departure of linebacker Troy Reeder, cornerback Trevor Williams, safety Jordan Lucas, defensive tackles Anthony Zettel and Austin Johnson and defensive end Carl Nassib have paved the way for plenty of opportunities to make an impact this spring.

Offensive players to watch:

Trace McSorley — Quarterback

Though all of the quarterbacks currently on campus are starting even from a playbook perspective, after watching McSorley at Penn State Max-Out sessions and factoring in his performance in the TaxSlayer Bowl, the redshirt sophomore is the clear frontrunner for the position.

However, that certainly doesn’t rule out redshirt freshman Tommy Stevens.

Franklin said during Monday’s spring presser that McSorley and Stevens have been paired up in weight training and related workouts and are competing “fiercely.”

“And what's great about it, they have a very close relationship,” he added. “So it's one of these competitions where they have a lot of respect and really like each other, but they truly are really competing in everything.”

Early enrollee Jake Zembiec is an intriguing prospect, but more so to gauge his development as the spring and fall unfold.

Saquon Barkley — Running back

After rushing for 1,077 yards despite missing 2 1/2 games to injury during his freshman season, where else could there be to go for Barkley?

He put up NFL numbers during weight sessions, testing out with a 390-pound clean, six squat reps at 495 pounds and ran a 4.38-second 40-yard dash, a physical ceiling that’s unmatched by some professional players, let alone other players his own age.

Physically, you look at his size and strength and speed numbers, they are good. They are as good as anywhere in the country, college or I would even say the NFL. His numbers are really good. He has the experience now. He's played some football. He's had some success. He's met some challenges.

Head coach James Franklin on running back Saquon Barkley

“I think it's the knowledge,” said Franklin. “Physically, you look at his size and strength and speed numbers, they are good. They are as good as anywhere in the country, college or I would even say the NFL. His numbers are really good. He has the experience now. He's played some football. He's had some success. He's met some challenges.

“So that's the next step. It's how can we continue giving him the reps that he needs to grow and develop. How can we get the game to slow down for him so he can play aggressive and be decisive in his pass protection and things like that, anticipate when things are going to come. And that's really when you become more aggressive. That's when you become more physical and that's when you actually play faster.”

Saeed Blacknall — Wide Receiver

Blacknall wasn’t a top target of Christian Hackenberg last season, but when he was thrown to it was usually for a deep ball. The 6-foot-3, 211-pound wideout caught just eight passes in 2015 but led the team in yards per catch with an average of 31. Blacknall certainly has the size and speed to keep up with Moorhead’s uptempo offense — he ran the second-fastest 40-yard dash on the team at 4.39 seconds.

McSorley told the Centre Daily Times in early March that he has been organizing route sessions with top receiver Chris Godwin as well as Blacknall, and the latter seems to be a favorite target of McSorley.

Connor McGovern — Center

An early enrollee who arrived on campus in January, McGovern’s 6-foot-4, 305-pound frame and talent at the position gives him a shot to play in the fall.

“He's a little bit different than most freshmen,” said Franklin. “He's going to have a chance to legitimately compete at that position because of his demeanor, because of his work ethic and because of his size. He's a grown man right now. We'll see if that translates on to the field with the speed of the game, which is always the difference for these guys.”

Defensive players to watch:

Nick Scott — Defensive back

Scott made the switch from running back (he spent most of his minutes playing on special teams last season) to cornerback following the TaxSlayer Bowl. Barkley’s dominant presence as a back, plus the entrance of talented back Miles Sanders in the fall prompted the switch.

Position coach Terry Smith said Scott’s outspoken, competitive demeanor “fits right in” with the mentality needed on his unit. Scott is one of the best all-around athletes on the team, so it’ll be interesting to see how he adapts to the change.

“If you can find a six-foot corner who can run the way he can run and has the length to get his hands on you at the line of scrimmage...” said Franklin. “Obviously as a running back has great feet and hips. So it's just learning the position.

“I would say safety, there's a lot more learning that goes along with it. Corner, there's a lot more techniques that go along with it. So we are excited. I know I was kind of impressed in the morning work outs just watching them, the first couple days, I thought he would actually look a little bit more uncomfortable than he did. He looked pretty comfortable the first day out there and that got us excited.”

Jason Cabinda/Nyeem Wartman-White — Middle Linebackers

Strong side linebacker Brandon Bell has established himself as the leader of the linebacker unit, but the battle between Cabinda and Wartman-White at middle linebacker will be interesting to watch — though perhaps the meat of it will occur in fall camp.

Franklin said Wartman-White will be limited this spring after tearing his ACL in the first half against Temple last season. Cabinda approached then-defensive coordinator Bob Shoop and urged the coach to let him fill in at the spot, and took to it well.

Still, Wartman-White was fully prepared to take over the vacancy left by Mike Hull — Franklin said neither Cabinda nor Wartman-White are willing to give it up. Luckily for the player who does, though, Penn State’s Mike and weak side (Will) ‘backers are often interchangeable in the box, and the team may get creative with star and stud packages.

Colin Costagna — Defensive end

Costagna’s 6-foot-4, 254-pound frame may have prompted Franklin to get a little excited (“He looks like a Greek God,” the head coach said. “He had his shirt off the other day, I said, ‘if I had a body like you, I would show up to the press conference with no shirt on.’ He is just beautiful.”), but his strength and explosiveness are quite intriguing.

With Garrett Sickels expected to once again man the strong side defensive end spot, Penn State needs a replacement for star pass-rusher Nassib on the weak side.

Costagna may need work on his technique, but the physical gifts are there: He recorded a 10-foot-4 broad jump, a 365-pound clean, a 465-pound bench press and, importantly, ran a 4.8-second 40-yard dash during testing last month.

Finally, special teams will get an influx of young talent, but it won’t be until the fall as incoming freshmen punter Blake Gillikin and kicker Alex Barbir arrive on campus.

Franklin said special teams coach Charles Huff has repeated his “world tour” from last season, during which Huff has traveled from team to team and various special teams seminars to glean some useful tips for the unit.

“I think we're going to have a more competitive two-deep this year, which I think is going to help there probably as much as anywhere,” said Franklin. “I think our kicking, the consistency in our kicking, is going to be really important. The height of our kicks, the hang time of our kicks, the kick location, the depth.

“We know that that's an area that we have to improve. We need that to be an area that we are winning games, not an area that has had a major factor in us losing games.”

Jourdan Rodrigue: 814-231-4629, @JourdanRodrigue