The 2017-2018 season was filled with highs and lows for the Nittany Lions that culminated in the second consecutive double-digit win season for the first time since 2008-2009. With spring practices for the upcoming season in full swing, James Franklin and his staff will have to deal with a lot of change on the roster.
With the 2018-2019 season over 130 days away, the Penn State Nittany Lions will be heading into the new year with a bunch of new faces when they take the field for the annual Blue and White game in comparison to when they left the field in Arizona after defeating Washington in the Fiesta Bowl.
The aftermath has led to the departures of players such as Saquon Barkley, Mike Gesicki, Marcus Allen and several others that brought Penn State back to the ranks of the elite college programs. Now, James Franklin will need to mold the new young talent on his roster into a collective unit that will compete for a Big Ten Championship this season.
So which players should you be paying extra attention to during the Blue and White game?
A former five-star recruit, Parsons naturally has some lofty expectations to live up to but the true freshman is transitioning to be the next middle linebacker for the Nittany Lions. Parsons’ athletic ability that he displayed in high school, where he played running back and defensive end, will hopefully make the physical transition easier to the college game. Pay attention to how he performs in coverage against the tight end/running backs as well as how handles staying in his gaps in the run game.
There’s no one man that can replace both the on-field production as well as the presence that defenses needed to account for on every play that Saquon Barkley demanded, but Miles Sanders seems up to the task.
A former 5-star recruit coming out of high school, Sanders has been buried behind Barkley, since he arrived in Happy Valley, but 2018 is his opportunity to make a name for himself.
Through two seasons as Barkley’s backup, Sanders has churned out an impressive 6.7 yards per carry on just 56 carries. The Woodland Hills alumnus has the tools to be an elite college running back and potential NFL draftee with his speed, elusiveness and growing physical running style.
With freshman Ricky Slade, another highly touted, former five-star running back not yet up at Happy Valley, Sanders has the chance to separate in the position battle this spring.
After a solid 2016-2017 season, John Reid was looked at as the potential number one corner heading into last season for the Nittany Lions, but a torn ACL during practice derailed his entire season.
One year later, The Blue and White Game will be the first time the redshirt junior corner will play in front of a crowd since the 2017 Rose Bowl. With the losses of Marcus Allen, Troy Apke, Grant Haley and Christian Campbell in the secondary, Reid’s experience will be an important presence for this unseasoned unit.
I’ll be looking at how his knee is progressing with his breaks on routes as well as his ability to handle deep routes. Also, whether or not he’s hesitant in his first live action back.
With the departure of tight end Mike Gesicki and slot receiver DaeSean Hamilton, the Nittany Lions will look to replace 110 receptions, over 1400 yards and 18 touchdowns from pass catchers.
Redshirt junior receiver Brandon Polk hasn’t made an immediate impact during his first 29 games of play in Happy Valley. Polk has recorded just 20 catches, 205 yards and two touchdowns, but the Virginia native has made the transition to the outside this spring lining up in the “z” receiver spot across from Juwan Johnson as new offensive coordinator Ricky Rahne tries to incorporate as many playmakers on the offensive side of the ball.
The key will be the adjustment to dealing with more consistent press coverage and tougher competition on the outside from corners in the Big Ten. Although Penn State’s secondary might not be as strong as the elite units in the conference at the moment, Polk’s ability to show this weekend he can get off the line successfully and deal with the physicality the “z” receiver deals with will be a promising sign in his progression for the upcoming season.