Penn State football: Top takeaways from start of Nittany Lions spring practice

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — Penn State opened 2018 spring practice Monday afternoon, starting a 15-session schedule that will culminate with the Blue-White Game on April 21. Nittany Lions coach James Franklin discussed roster developments prior to the first practice, which featured the on-field debut of six freshmen.

After a second straight 11-win season, Penn State suffered key losses across its starting lineup but return with perhaps the deepest roster of Franklin’s tenure. Here are key storylines discussed Monday that should continue to command attention moving toward the Sept. 1 season opener vs. Appalachian State.

Penn State expects a competitive atmosphere at linebacker

The Nittany Lions no longer have experienced linebackers Jason Cabinda, Brandon Smith or Manny Bowen, though Koa Farmer is a returning starter. Penn State especially faces a challenge replacing Cabinda, a three-year starter and team captain.

“We’ve got to find a two-deep at middle linebacker,” Franklin said of the depth chart. “I think that’s a critical question going into the spring. A two-deep we can win with. … There’s a number of guys who’ve been kind of waiting their turn with Jason Cabinda holding down that position for a long time. We’re just trying to create as much competition at that position as we can.”

Cam Brown, Jake Cooper, Jan Johnson and Jarvis Miller are among the more seasoned competitors here, while redshirt freshman Ellis Brooks and newcomers Jesse Luketa and Micah Parsons provide the Penn State staff with plenty to consider. Parsons, the highest-ranked Nittany Lions signee since 2005, has attracted a spotlight since early days of his high school career and that attention carries into his collegiate career.

“You talk about a guy who has the body type, the strength and quickness — I think he has a chance,” Franklin said. “Since he showed up on campus, he’s done a really good job.”

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Micah Parsons earned All-American honors at Harrisburg (Pa.) High School. He is now competing for an early role at Penn State. (Tyler Donohue/Land of 10)

Enhanced depth a key advantage along offensive line

Franklin inherited a roster impacted by scholarship restrictions and depth issues in 2014. Following his fifth National Signing Day in Happy Valley, things now have a much different feel across the roster.

This is particularly apparent on the offensive front, which returns four starters. The Nittany Lions have assembled the pieces for a compelling, and potentially dominant, group that boasts crucial depth.

“I think last year, and maybe the end of the previous year, we got to the point where we had a scholarship two-deep for the first time,” Franklin said. “And now, we’re what I would call ‘legitimate two-deep.'”

Top-10 tackle recruits Rasheed Walker and Nana Asiedu join the mix in June, along with 4-star center Fredrick Scruggs and guard/tackle Bryce Effner. Franklin also referenced the development of sophomores Alex Gellerstedt and Michal Menet.

Last year, an injury to tackle Ryan Bates placed pressure on the depth chart. In the process, Will Fries emerged as an intriguing force. This group has the ability to make a major leap in 2018, and that would be huge for the sustained success of an offensive attack that must replace several key skill players.

Position change suits Lamont Wade well, strengthens secondary

Lamont Wade, the top-ranked prospect in Penn State’s 2017 recruiting class, was one of three freshmen who saw action last season. Though he saw the field at cornerback, a winter roster update revealed his career will continue at safety.

“We feel really good about the depth we have and are creating at the corner position. We have a few more question marks at safety,” Franklin said. “Lamont is a football player and although he’s not the longest guy in terms of height, he’s put together. He’ll hit you and we just felt like it probably played to a little bit more of his strengths.”

Wade is one of several Penn State safeties attempting to replace 2017 starters Marcus Allen and Troy Apke. Cornerback should remain a position of strength for the Nittany Lions, boosted by the return of John Reid, who missed last season with a torn left ACL. Amani Oruwariye led the team with 4 interceptions in 2017, while sophomore Tariq Castro-Fields received substantial reps last season.

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Lamont Wade will compete for reps at safety after spending his freshman campaign at cornerback. (Matthew Holst/Getty Images)

Brandon Polk is the early leader to replace DaeSean Hamilton

Penn State must replace a massive amount of pass targets in 2018. All-time Nittany Lions receptions leader DaeSean Hamilton leaves behind quite a legacy, and puts pressure on current players to step up.

Brandon Polk, who played alongside quarterback Trace McSorley at Briar Woods (Va.) High School, is a leading candidate to do just that.

“He’s listed right now as a starter,” Franklin said. “There’s going to be tremendous competition with him as well, but he’s going to be the guy that goes out with the first group in the first practice.”

DeAndre Thompkins and Juwan Johnson return at receiver after productive 2017 seasons, while redshirt freshmen KJ Hamler and Mac Hippenhammer were also mentioned by Franklin on Monday. It’s important to remember Penn State welcomes three freshmen receivers to campus in June, including 5-star prospect Justin Shorter.

Trace McSorley figures to be center of attention

Saquon Barkley couldn’t do much on campus in 2017 without drawing a crowd. The legendary Nittany Lions running back dealt with Heisman Trophy hype, NFL draft speculation and, most importantly for Penn State, expanded attention from opposing defenses.

Barkley is now preparing for the next phase of his football career.  McSorley, a senior coming off a career-best campaign, steps into an expanded spotlight as a result. He’ll be able to rely on several impressive weapons, but the offensive attack clearly revolves around what No. 9 can accomplish.

“I think in years past, you said we’re not going to allow Saquon Barkley to beat us,” Franklin said of opposing defenses. “I think now people are going to go into the approach where they say, we are not going to allow Trace McSorley to beat us.”

McSorley completed 67 percent of pass attempts in 2017, while accounting for 4,061 yards of total offense and 39 total touchdowns. He has thrown for a score in 28 consecutive games, and already owns many notable program records.

The difference moving forward is McSorley will no longer operate with Barkley by his side. How the offense evolves, and defenses adapt, will determine plenty this autumn.

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Trace McSorley is preparing for his third season as Penn State’s starting quarterback. (Tyler Donohue/Land of 10)

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