Penn State football: Top 10 players on the 'please come back' list
Penn State’s outlook for 2023 brightened considerably a few days ago when Hunter Nourzad announced he’ll return for another season.
Yes, Nittany Lions fans, it is worth getting giddy over the Cornell transfer’s decision to cash in his bonus season. And if the 6-3, 312-pound offensive lineman, a quasi-starter in his first year in Happy Valley, starts a trend, all the better.
— Hunter Nourzad 🇮🇷 (@NourzadHunter) November 8, 2022
Teams can never have enough offensive line depth, a truism that came to the forefront Saturday when Penn State took the field at Indiana down 3 starters up front. The truism was reinforced Tuesday with James Franklin’s announcement that redshirt freshman left guard Landon Tengwall is done for the season.
True freshman Drew Shelton filled in admirably at left tackle, and the line continued its improved play. There will be tougher challenges over the remainder of this season than the Hoosiers put up, but the arrow is trending up. This isn’t a great group, but it is way better than in recent seasons. Scheme changes and an infusion of running back talent have helped change the narrative, but 3rd-year line coach Phil Trautwein’s men are making major strides too.
Hopefully, Tengwall will be able to return at full force from his unspecified injury in time for the opening of the 2023 season. He could be surrounded by all of his fellow top rotation guys, too.
None of Penn State’s 21 offensive linemen will be out of eligibility after this season, a fact I have messed up previously (my apologies).
Only 7 Lions will exhaust their eligibility this season: PJ Mustipher, Ji’Ayir Brown, Jonathan Sutherland, Mitchell Tinsley, punter Barney Amor, long snapper Chris Stoll and Sean Clifford. (I’ve tripled-checked. Franklin will have to move on to 5-star Drew Allar at QB next year.)
If all goes well, Allar will have a strong supporting cast around him. And, more importantly, in front of him.
Of course, not everyone who can come back will come back. Any player 3 years out of high school can try his luck with the NFL, and the transfer portal always works both ways.
Given that, here’s my list of guys I’d love to see stay but could easily decide to go, in order of how much I think they’d be missed:
1. Olu Fashanu, left tackle
He missed Saturday’s game with an injury and is week-to-week. Before getting injured late against Ohio State, he had played himself into a potential first-round NFL Draft pick in less than 10 college starts. Only 19 and reportedly a very serious student, he could stick around to grow further physically and academically. But NFL first-round money might be hard to turn down. If he stays, the prospects for the backfield of Allar and classmates Kaytron Allen and Nick Singleton get a huge boost.
2. Juice Scruggs, center
Scruggs has settled in as the anchor of the o-line, starting every game this season. He’s climbed the depth chart since arriving on campus in 2018 and is clearly the team’s 2nd-best lineman right now. He projects as a mid- to late-round pick, so he could take his NFL shot after 5 years in State College. Or he could take his bonus year and gamble on making himself a Day 1 pick.
3. Joey Porter Jr., cornerback
He still has 2 years of eligibility left, but he also has NFL size and athleticism that’ll make him a 1st or 2nd-round pick. I’m not sure what would motivate him to stay.
4. Parker Washington, wide receiver
With Tinsley leaving, Penn State should be begging Washington to stick around. If there’s NIL money to throw around, throw it this way. Washington has been catching everything thrown his way for 3 years now. Odds are good that he’ll use at least 1 of his 2 remaining years of eligibility. If he doesn’t, the Lions will have a lot of young, unproven receivers buddying up to Allar.
5. Sal Wormley, right guard
Wormley arrived at PSU in 2019 but had barely played before this season, missing all of 2021 with an injury. From an outside prospective, it makes sense for him to return, but you never know.
6. Curtis Jacobs, linebacker
He has the traits NFL teams seek, namely speed and athleticism. He’s been dinged up and missed some time this season, and his numbers (39 tackles, 1 sack, 1 INT) don’t jump off the stat sheet. His decision will come down to whether he wants to get on with his professional life or boost his stock with another college season.
7. Bryce Effner, offensive lineman
Effner has filled in at both guard spots and started at right tackle when Caedan Wallace has been out. As a multi-position backup, he’s upped his game tremendously this season. OC Mike Yurcich has even used him as a 6th lineman in some new-look sets. He’s been overmatched a few times, particularly against Ohio State’s freakishly athletic JT Tuimoloau. But otherwise, he’s been a valuable, versatile asset and veteran leader. A 6th year would be great for him and the program.
8. Brenton Strange, tight end
Thanks a to redshirt year in 2019 and the free-pass year in 2020, Strange — like several players on this list — remains a sophomore eligibility-wise. He’s sitting on career highs of 27 catches, 287 yards and 4 TDs through 9 games — while being drastically under-used. Given the projected roster makeup for next year, he might want to stick around to post a truly monster season. On the other hand, he’s NFL-ready at this point.
9. Jake Pinegar, kicker
Another guy you’d think must be done, but no. Pinegar redshirted last year, playing in only 2 games behind Jordan Stout, so he could come back in 2023. Now that he’s settled in as PSU’s kickoff man and is coming off a career-best 50-yard field goal against Indiana, why not? The other legs have been shaky this year on kickoffs. Let’s stick with the veteran.
10. Caedan Wallace, right tackle
Wallace has made 27 starts at right tackle for Penn State, but has plateaued. He’s probably been the least effective of the 7 players who get starter-level snaps for the Lions’ line. He’s been banged up recently but could return Saturday against Maryland. With 2 years of eligibility left, the 6-5, 300-pounder still offers upside. A position change, or just another off-season of work, might get him over the hump. Or he could go the way of Rasheed Walker last year and try to make an NFL roster as a late-round pick (Walker went in the 7th round) or undrafted free agent.