What are the 3 biggest position battles at Penn State?
Penn State lost a superstar in the offseason, and probably one of the best players in the program’s illustrious history.
Even a top-notch program does not replace Saquon Barkley just by snapping its fingers, waving a wand, or even wiggling its collective noses Bewitched style.
But the Nittany Lions still return enough talent for the Associated Press to rank them 10th in its preseason Top 25 poll, released Monday. That talent is especially evident on offense, where PSU brings back star quarterback Trace McSorley and almost the entire line on a team which ranked fifth in the country in scoring in 2017.
But that Barkley-sized hole at running back is the biggest priority for coach James Franklin to fill if Penn State is to contend in the rugged Big Ten East Division.
Here is our look at the three biggest position battles in Penn State’s fall camp and why they matter.
Summary: Miles Sanders seems to be leading a crowded field. The junior saw little action behind Barkley the past couple of seasons but had a career-high seven carries for 42 yards in the regular-season finale against Maryland, then got six totes including a touchdown in December’s 35-28 victory over Washington in the Fiesta Bowl. Other contenders include senior Mark Allen and freshman Journey Brown.
Why it’s important: For all of Barkley’s spectacular runs, it seems surprising that the team only finished sixth in the Big Ten and 59th in the country in rushing last season at 170.2 yards per game. McSorley has a lot of weapons but the Happy Valley gang needs to keep moving the ball on the ground to take a bit of pressure off the quarterback. A committee approach might be best but this is a thin unit; only seven RBs are listed on the official roster.
Summary: Juniors Jonathan Holland and Nick Bowers are competing for playing time, but indications so far are that Holland has the edge just a couple of weeks before the season. Holland, at 6 feet 4, 252 pounds, has just three career catches for 16 yards coming into this season.
Why it’s important: Mike Gesicki was the media’s All-Big Ten first-team pick at tight end in 2017 and was a second-round selection by the Miami Dolphins in this year’s NFL Draft. Even with Barkley around, McSorley found Gesicki 57 times for 563 yards and nine touchdowns last season. So PSU clearly likes to throw to its tight ends a fair bit. When even a solid offensive line like Penn State’s encounters a D-line as fierce as, say, Michigan’s or Ohio State’s, the tight end needs to either provide an extra block or an outlet for a pass.
Summary: Kevin Givens (above) and Robert Windsor, both juniors, had the inside track coming out of spring ball and stayed there early in camp. There is some experience behind them in 300-pounders Antonio Shelton and Fred Hansard, plus freshman PJ Mustipher, another 300-pounder who was rated PSU’s No. 6 prospect in its recruiting Class of 2018.
Why it’s important: A good defense starts with the big brutes in the middle. Good DTs can drill opposing running backs before they get started and make quarterbacks nervous before they’re even done dropping back to pass. One big concern for the Nittany Lions in the offseason was that they lost most of their starting defense from last year, and three defensive players have announced their retirements in the past week because of injuries. A decent number of PSU’s opponents will want to establish the run first, so denying that is critical for the Nittany Lions.