Saturday’s Blue-White game will be exciting for many, and not just because it’s the first true sign of spring for football fans.
It’ll also be the public debut of new offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead’s uptempo, no-huddle spread offense, one about which players and coaches alike are excited and optimistic — if not a little breathless.
Penn State has, however, been dealing with an unusually large number of injuries on almost every unit. So which players can fans expect to see at Beaver Stadium this weekend, and where?
Redshirt sophomore Trace McSorley is the clear frontrunner for the Nittany Lions, as previously documented all spring by the Centre Daily Times. Behind him (and above him, if we’re talking size) is redshirt freshman Tommy Stevens, who has made an impact with his completion percentage this spring while McSorley has been better known for responsibility in reads of coverages and progressions.
Billy Fessler seems to have the third-string spot locked up, and serves as placeholder for Penn State’s kickers. Freshman early enrollee Jake Zembiec, while a promising talent, still has a long way to go in terms of size and experience. He was also spotted in a light blue non-contact jersey (the team uses the color to signify an injury), which could be a reason why media has not seen him take any reps at practice.
Player to Watch: McSorley will be thrust into the spotlight for the first time since his comeback attempt in the TaxSlayer Bowl, and despite the casual nature of spring ball, he’ll be looking to prove those impressive touchdowns weren’t a fluke.
Many Penn State fans will cram into the stadium just to catch a glimpse of athletic phenom Saquon Barkley, who has solidified himself as the team’s top back after rushing for more than 1,000 yards last season despite only taking one snap in the opener and missing 2 1/2 games to injury.
But the team has a talented group of running backs behind Barkley who are all vying for that coveted two-spot. Redshirt freshman Andre Robinson has turned teammates’ and coaches’ heads this spring with his power-back style and reliable hands. Johnathan Thomas, who has battled a few injuries himself, could also see time while Mark Allen, the 5-foot-4 bubble of personality, is the best pass-blocker on the unit according to head coach James Franklin.
Player to Watch: Robinson’s talents have been discussed so often this spring, it’ll be interesting to see if he lives up to it.
All told, this is the deepest and most talented position group on Penn State’s roster — and fans are curious to see whether there are enough reps in Moorhead’s offense to go around (hint: There are).
Big, strong junior Chris Godwin still leads the pack and discussed at length this spring the meticulous length in which he prepares for his routes and contested catches. Also at the head of the group is redshirt junior DaeSean Hamilton, who has shifted inside to the slot receiver position this spring and will continue there this fall.
Junior Saeed Blacknall ran a 4.39-second 40-yard dash in winter workouts, and is looking to become more than the go-to wideout for deep balls this year, while small-but-speedy Brandon Polk was a top target of McSorley in high school and would do well utilized in some of Moorhead’s more creative concepts.
Redshirt freshmen Juwan Johnson and Irvin Charles, nicknamed “Twin Towers” for their identical 6-foot-4 frames and long arms, are poised for a larger role this season as well.
Player to Watch: Blacknall was known for clutch deep catches last year, so look for him to show his speed and hands on Saturday.
Junior tight end Mike Gesicki has a lot on his shoulders this year after a subpar 2015 campaign riddled with drops and poor blocking. He told the media two weeks ago that he’s glad he went through it mentally, and he’s ready for the season. Franklin agreed, saying this week that Gesicki’s inability to block effectively translated over into other parts of his game last season, and he’s confident the lanky tight end will look different in 2016.
Former walk-on Tom Pancoast, a redshirt junior, has stepped up in the absence of Brent Wilkerson, who is suspended from the team until further notice after misdemeanor indecent assault and summary harassment charges were filed against him.
Early enrollee Danny Dalton has worked hard this spring but likely won’t crack ranks until the fall, depending on Gesicki and Pancoast’s success.
Player to Watch: Pancoast has had an excellent spring, often wowing his teammates with big one-handed grabs in traffic and impressive speed despite a 6-foot-3, 232-pound frame. He’s built more like a “true” tight end in a spread system as opposed to the receiver-like Gesicki.
Often the topic of the most scrutiny among all units, the offensive line has seen some injuries and some re-shuffling this spring.
Andrew Nelson, a three-year starter, has replaced Paris Palmer at starting left tackle while Palmer has moved to the right. Brian Gaia, a fifth-year senior, has moved from guard to exclusively center.
As for the rest?
“Ryan Bates is at left guard (and) is playing really well,” said Franklin on Thursday via conference call. “Right guard, (Derek) Dowrey has done a nice job there, him and (Brendan) Mahon have been fighting for that spot. Those three guys, and then the fourth would be (Steven) Gonzalez inside. You kind of have Bates, Mahon, Dowrey, and Gonzo (Gonzalez) fighting for those two interior guard positions right now.”
Mahon is limited this spring, however, because of injury.
Player to Watch: Nelson has, by Franklin’s account, pushed himself above and beyond the rest of the linemen and that helped lead to the decision to stick him at left tackle. Can he provide solid protection?
Redshirt junior Garrett Sickels will be the anchor for a defensive line that has lost NFL prospects Carl Nassib, Anthony Zettel and Austin Johnson.
Sickels will have to step up in a leadership role, and plugging the outside hole will likely be the efforts of either Torrence Brown (notable for absolutely demolishing Michigan quarterback Jake Rudock last season) or 6-foot-6 senior Evan Schwan.
Inside, Antoine White appears set to take over the three-tech slot (formerly Johnson’s) and up-and-coming strongman Kevin Givens will likely play the one-tech (formerly Zettel’s). D-line coach Sean Spencer will also probably get creative with his stunt packages as seen last year, since both White and Givens are extremely quick — though neither quite has Johnson’s girth.
Also rotating through for reps will be defensive end Colin Castagna, an explosive former volleyball player, on the end, and possibly Parker Cothren inside, though he’s been limited this spring.
Player to watch: Sickels was overshadowed by the breakout season of Nassib last season, so fans should look for him funneling his prodigious talent into a stellar season of his own.
Always regarded at Penn State as one of the most traditional and power-packed units, this spring’s corps looks a little ragged.
There’s no lack of chemistry or energy, but both Nyeem Wartman-White and Brandon Bell are recovering from injury and Jason Cabinda continues to aggressively hold down the middle while providing tutelage to the younger ‘backers, Jake Cooper and Manny Bowen.
In fact, those (and Von Walker, who rotates in on second team) are the only linebackers Penn State currently has on scholarship after the departure of Troy Reeder.
The unit has been padded a bit with walk-on junior college transfer Jason Vranic and redshirt freshman Jan Johnson (who also wrestled heavyweight for Penn State this season), as well as redshirt junior Brandon Smith.
Player to Watch: Teammates have raved about the athleticism of Bowen all spring. Look for the sophomore to make a big play during live-action.
Junior Marcus Allen, at 6-foot-2 and 208 pounds, might be one of the most athletic defensive backs on the roster. He’ll likely continue to solidify his starting slot this season and has been said by teammates to have been a prolific ball-hawker this spring.
Nipping his heels are Troy Apke and Malik Golden, who also saw some time last season when injuries took their toll on the unit.
The unit is looking for leadership in general after the departure of senior captain Jordan Lucas.
Player to Watch: Allen made some impressive plays this spring and will be exciting to watch on Saturday.
The competition is fierce between the corners, where Grant Haley and John Reid have earned their spots at the top of the depth chart. But former running back Nick Scott is a stud athlete and has a little length on both of them, while Christian Campbell is finally healthy after some issues last year.
Amani Oruwariye is also hoping to make an impact after recovering from injury, and Troy Shorts and Kyle Alston hope to rotate in a few reps this spring, if not in the fall.
Player to Watch: Scott’s chatty, intense personality will make him very fun to watch this weekend, especially as he ball-hawks his former fellow running backs.
“We’re still friends…mostly,” he chuckled last week.
Penn State’s special teams won’t look much different until the arrival of scholarship punter Blake Gillikin and kicker Alex Barbir this fall.
Chris Gulla and Daniel Pasquariello will continue kickoff and punting duties, and it’s uncertain whether Joey “Big Toe” Julius will play at all after missing just about the entirety of spring ball. Julius has been spotted at the Lasch building and in the weight room, and Franklin said he’s “working through some issues.”
On kickoff and punt returns, Gregg Garrity Jr. has been a go-to and is becoming known for his sure hands. Mark Allen and Scott will continue return duties, as will Koa Farmer.
Player to Watch: Garrity caught punts against Georgia in the TaxSlayer Bowl, but it became apparent that he had been directed to not get too mobile with his play. It’ll be interesting to see whether he is an adept return man in the literal sense of the word.
Penn State kicks off its Blue-White game at 2 p.m., and it can be seen on tape-delay on the Big Ten Network at 7 p.m.