Previewing Penn State’s Early Season Offensive Starters

PASADENA, CA - JANUARY 02: Running back Saquon Barkley #26 of the Penn State Nittany Lions celebrates with quarterback Trace McSorley #9 after rushing for a 79-yard touchdown in the third quarter against the USC Trojans during the 2017 Rose Bowl Game presented by Northwestern Mutual at the Rose Bowl on January 2, 2017 in Pasadena, California. (Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)
PASADENA, CA - JANUARY 02: Running back Saquon Barkley #26 of the Penn State Nittany Lions celebrates with quarterback Trace McSorley #9 after rushing for a 79-yard touchdown in the third quarter against the USC Trojans during the 2017 Rose Bowl Game presented by Northwestern Mutual at the Rose Bowl on January 2, 2017 in Pasadena, California. (Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images) /

 Can you feel the excitement?  The Nittany Lions’ regular season opener is in one week. Penn State is hungry for a shot at national prominence, so who will be the offensive starters leading the way?

The crack of the helmets and the thud of the shoulder pads means fall practice is in high gear.  Fall workouts at Penn State in preparation for a repeat of the Big Ten title have been ongoing for about four weeks.  The time for bluster and coach-speak are nearly over, and the time for action is near.

With an eye towards the September 2nd home opener against Akron, most starting positions have already been decided.  In fact, Penn State returns 16 starters on both sides of the ball from its 2016 Big Ten title winning squad.  However, some key position battles still remain.  

While an official depth chart has yet to be released, James Franklin talked with the media after practice on Wednesday and alluded to depth chart alignment and other position battles, “I think we’ve got a pretty good idea now of where we’re at,”  the 4th year head coach said. “We’re into Akron now. We’ve kind of shifted from focusing on Penn State to focusing on Akron, so I think what you saw today is probably a good indicator of what our depth chart would look like. We won’t officially make those decisions until next week, but we’re close.” (Video courtesy of GOPSUtv). 

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While Franklin isn’t ready to give his stamp on the season’s starters; I will!  In today’s segment I will breakdown how I see Penn State’s offense lining up against Akron.  

Quarterback:  Trace McSorley

Narrative:  Absolutely no reservations about this choice.  Trace McSorley rose to prominence in 2016 by leading Penn State to Big Ten East and outright Big Ten titles.  As a sophomore, McSorley set Penn State passing records in the following categories: single-season passing yards, single-season total yards, single-season passing touchdowns, and most single-season 300-yard passing games.  Now as a redshirt junior, McSorley looks to build upon those impressive sophomore stats and once again be one of the Big Ten’s best quarterbacks.  

Running Back:  Saquon Barkley

Narrative:  Once again, this pick is an overwhelming obvious choice.  Saquon Barkley is a legitimate Heisman Trophy candidate this season.  Barkley set team records for most rushing yards by a freshman (1,072 yards) and most rushing yards by a sophomore (1,496 yards).  The Whitehall native was also the Big Ten’s Running Back of the Year and the Big Ten’s Player of t

he Year in 2016.  This season Barkley is a preseason AP First-Team All- American and looks poised to once again help the Lions deliver a Big Ten title and drive his potential NFL draft stock even higher.

Wide Receivers / Slot:  

  • Juwan Johnson (WR – X)

  • Saeed Blacknall (WR – Z)

  • DaeSean Hamilton (WR – H)

Narrative:  Who helps to fill the void left by the departure of Chris Godwin?  Juwan Johnson has had, by all accounts, a tremendous fall training camp. During Wednesday’s media scrum, Franklin spoke highly of the redshirt sophomore. “I think Juwan [Johnson] is the guy that stands out overall, just during this time period,” Franklin extolled. “I think he’s got a chance to have a really big year.”  The six-foot-four receiver saw limited exposure in 2016.  However, his seven reception, 81 yards receiving and one touchdown performance in the 2017 Blue-White game are just a glimpse as to what this highly sought-after talent can bring to Penn State.

Senior Saeed Blacknall is coming off a 2016 season that saw him set a Big Ten title game receiving record with 155 yards.  His two touchdowns helped the Lions secure a comeback victory over the Wisconsin Badgers.  In 2017, the Manalapan, NJ native will need to remain Penn State’s deep threat.  His size and speed can easily make the difference down the field.

DaeSean Hamilton is one of the few remaining Bill O’Brien recruits.  The sure-handed slot receiver has had his share of ups-and-downs at Penn State.  In 2014, as a redshirt freshman, Hamilton led the Big Ten with 82 receptions.  In the past two seasons, DaeSean has seen his reception totals drop each season.  This year, the fifth year senior looks to rebound.  He sits a mere 19 receptions away from breaking the Penn State career receptions mark.

Tight End:  Mike Gesicki

Narrative:  Since breaking out of Jesse James’ shadow, Mike Gesicki has become one of the premier pass-catching tight ends in the country.  Gesicki, along with running back Saquon Barkley, was recently named a 2017 preseason AP First-Team All-American.  

The Manahawkin, NJ senior returned to the Nittany Lions in 2017 rather than turning pro.  He hopes to capitalize on rapport he has cultivated with quarterback Trace McSorley.  Gesicki’s  hulking 6’ 6” frame and ultra-soft hands allowed him to reel in a Penn State tight end record 48 catches for 679 yards.  As long as he stays healthy, he will remain one of Trace McSorley’s favorite receiving weapons and could improve on his record breaking 2016 totals.

Offensive Line:

  • Ryan Bates (LT)

  • Steven Gonzalez (LG)

  • Connor McGovern (C)

  • Brendan Mahon (RG)

  • Chasz Wright / Andrew Nelson (RT)

Narrative:  This unit was much-maligned entering 2016 due to its insufficient depth.  While this would become a setback for most teams, the Nittany Lions were able to explore their depth. Players like Ryan Bates and Steven Gonzalez stepped to the forefront to become key contributors.  The 2017 season looks to build upon that cohesiveness.  

Ryan Bates is a redshirt sophomore who, along with Brian Gaia, were the only offensive linemen to start all 14 games last year. He bounced between left guard and left tackle, but his true position is left tackle. Look for Bates to man McSorley’s blind side this season

Steven Gonzalez is also a redshirt sophomore who did not start until game 11 at Rutgers.  Since then, he has been a fixture on the Lions O-line, shuffling between left and right guard. On Wednesday he was positively called out by Franklin saying, “On the offensive side of the ball I think [Steven] Gonzalez has also shown some really good things at times but [previously] hadn’t been as consistent in practices and games as he’s needed to be and he’s been much better in that area.”

Connor McGovern spent much of last season at right guard.  In 2017, the true sophomore will be asked to make line calls and adjustments at center replacing the departed Brian Gaia.  

On the right side of the offensive line, Brendan Mahon looks to make his return after being injured against Iowa.  The redshirt senior is the veteran of 2017 offensiveline.  His veteran presence should help solidify the right side.

Redshirt junior Chasz Wright stepped in at left tackle last season after Mahon went down with an injury and remained the starter for the final five games.  With Bates firmly entrenched at left tackle this year, Wright logically shifts to the right side.  Once Andrew Nelson is healed though, look for Wright to have a battle on his hands for playing time.

Final Thoughts

So there you have it.  On September 2nd against Akron, this is how I see Penn State lining up on offense. While many positions have long been set ahead of the release of next week’s initial depth chart, much intrigue still remains and could come down to the last few practices.