Today Penn State Head Coach James Franklin released his initial depth chart for the season opener against the UCF Knights this Saturday in Dublin, Ireland.
Coach Franklin’s first depth chart features many of the names tossed around during the summer and fall camp, but there are a few items that stick out. Listed below are my initial observations after looking through the list.
- Freshman QB Trace McSorley has beaten out popular back-up pick Michael O’Connor. Coach Franklin was singing the praises of true-freshman Trace McSorley in his attempt to beat out another true freshman Michael O’Connor. Perhaps it is a gut reaction, but I think Coach Franklin is looking to provide separation between starting quarterback Christian Hackenberg and O’Connor. With Hackenberg being a sophomore, many people project he could be a top NFL draft pick if he were to declare for the draft after his junior season next year. If Hackenberg does leave after next season, O’Connor would have three more seasons (as a red shirt sophomore in 2016) to guide the Nittany Lions. Stern competition, however, could also come from the highly touted 2015 commit Brandon Wimbush.
- True Freshman Wide Receivers are going to make an early impact! Saeed Blacknall and Chris Godwin are two young players at wide receiver who are going to make immediate impacts. Both are true freshman who have great speed and strong hands. While both are listed as backups to starters Geno Lewis and DaeSean Hamilton, don’t be surprised to see wide receivers coach Josh Gattis get these two athletes on the field quickly. Blacknall was one of Coach Franklin’s highest-rated commits after he got to Penn State. According to the 247 Sports Composite Rankings, Blacknall was the #3-rated player in New Jersey in 2014. Chris Godwin, another highly touted scholastic player recruited by Coach Franklin, was the #1 player in Delaware, per the 247 Sports, in 2014. Both should see plenty of action not only against UCF, but also the rest of the year.
- Bill Belton listed ahead of Zach Zwinak. Senior Bill Belton has really embraced the challenges laid before him by the Nittany Lions coaching staff -tabbing him to be one of the four Penn State players to attend Big Ten Media Days at the end of July. However, don’t be fooled into thinking Zach Zwinak won’t get his fair share of carries. Franklin is known for utilizing two solid running backs and the contrast between Belton and Zwinak couldn’t be more stark. Zwinak is the tough, bruising running back who can put his head down and get the tough yards, while Belton is more finesse, make people miss in the open-field type of runner. Both backs will see plenty of carries in Saturday’s contest.
- Gone are the “Y” and “F” Tight End (TE) formations. There is only one TE position listed and Jesse James sits atop the list. The 6-foot-seven-inch junior and Sporting News first-team preseason All-Big Ten is a handful for teams to tackle. His ability to make catches and shed tacklers makes him one of quarterback Christian Hackenberg’s top threats over the middle. Red shirt senior Kyle Carter is listed just behind James, but according to Coach Franklin expect to see many 2-tight end formations with both James and Carter on the field. Also, true freshman Mike Gesicki was another player singled-out by Coach Franklin for his excellent fall camp. He is one of Penn State’s best true athletes. I will not be shocked, at a position stacked with depth, to see Gesicki get some game action on Saturday.
- Left Guard is a position still up for grabs. Speculation on who will start on the offensive line has been rampant since injuries and graduation have depleted an already thin unit. In the spring, Coach Franklin moved defensive lineman Brian Gaia and Derek Dowrey to the offensive line. While Gaia has secured his spot at right guard, who will be one of the people charged with protecting Christian Hackenberg’s blind side has not. The expectation is that Dowrey will get the start, but the “OR” designation on the depth chart indicates that red shirt freshman Brendan Mahon has been making significant strides. Since depth along the Penn State offensive line is thin, I would expect both Dowrey and Mahon to see time on Saturday to get both players game experience.
- The defensive line should be very good this season! The d-line returns all of its players led by red shirt senior CJ Olaniyan and red shirt junior Deion Barnes at the defensive end positions. Backing up both players are red shirt senior Brad Bars and red shirt junior Carl Nassib. The coaching staff has been pleased at how Nassib has been flying around at practice. On the interior, newly converted defensive tackle Anthony Zettel should be able to play a speed game while sophomore Austin Johnson plays a power game. The defensive line should be one of Penn State’s stronger units this season.
- Wartman and Bell to start at the outside linebacker spots. Not much surprise in those picks, nor was their any surprise that senior Mike Hull was named the starter at middle linebacker. Bell was a strong player down the stretch for the Nittany Lions in 2013. Wartman has always been highly touted by the coaching staffs but injuries have plagued him for most of his career. When he has played he’s been very effective. The most interesting note is that true freshman Jason Cabinda has the best shot at seeing the field as an outside backer over the other Penn State freshman linebackers Troy Reeder and Koa Farmer. Farmer may still be used in a hybrid type role (linebacker/defensive back).
- Depth in the secondary is a concern. The names and positions you’ve heard before…Jordan Lucas – cornerback, Ryan Keiser – free safety, Adrian Amos – strong safety, and Trevor Williams OR Da’Quan Davis – cornerback. To most, those names have been familiar ones over the last year or so. What strikes me as an obvious sign of concern is the lack of depth behind these players in case of injury. True freshman has tremendous speed (fastest player on the team) and looks to be a very capable player, but he is listed as Jordan Lucas’s backup. After that it is a list that is terribly short on game experience. Penn State has the greatest secondary depth at the safety position where red shirt senior Jesse Della Valle and red shirt sophomore Malik Golden are the backups. Here’s hoping for no prolonged injuries in the defensive backfield this season!
- Chris Gulla has won the punting job. One of the last positions to be be decided was team punter. Red shirt freshman Chris Gulla won the job from freshman Danny Pasquariello. Gulla has been more consistent as of late, something Coach Franklin indicated was a key to the position. While this should be an on-going battle, Gulla is the winner, at least for this week.
- Lynch and Lewis are the top kick return men. As expected Coach Franklin has installed both third-string running back Akeel Lynch and top wide receiver as his top two kick return men. Coach Franklin floated the idea of using Lynch as a returner last week in his press conference. Head Coach James Franklin and Special Teams coordinator Charles Huff have been trying to find ways to pump some life in to Penn State’s anemic special teams game, a by-product of scholarship limitations imposed by the NCAA. One way they found was to have their under-used tailback Akeel Lynch touch the ball. Both Geno Lewis and Akeel Lynch have good vision and ability to hit an open hole quickly. The addition of Lynch to the kick return team should provide a boost to that unit.
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