For me, one of the biggest joys of the college football season is witnessing players come completely out of nowhere to become a dominant force. It just happens- all of a sudden you find yourself riveted by a game between two teams you normally couldn't care less about just to get a look at a certain running back or linebacker you didn't even know existed at the beginning of the season. Take for instance a certain quarterback who had me going out of my way to watch every Central Florida game last season, despite breaking my heart with his brilliant play against Penn State in week three. Or how about our very own Allen Robinson, who went from a three-catch season as a lightly recruited freshman and went on to shatter several records during his sophomore campaign? Needless to say, there will be a few players who come out of nowhere to play a major role in the success of the team this fall. Here is my list of players who could make a name for themselves in 2014.
OT Andrew Nelson
Thanks to attrition through graduation (John Urschel, Ty Howle and Adam Gress), injury (Miles Diffenbach), and off the field issues (Anthony Alosi), Nelson is the probable starter at right tackle before even playing a down at Penn State. In this case, it may not be an entirely bad thing. Nelson used his redshirt season wisely, transforming himself from an undersized prospect to a Big Ten-ready lineman thanks to his hard work in the weight room. He's received steady accolades for his potential and work-ethic ever since he came to Penn State, and his performance could help quash all of the hand-wringing over the offensive line.
DE Garrett Sickels
Sickels also used his redshirt season to add some weight, and should see the benefits quickly in 2014. The New Jersey product had a long list of college football powerhouses knocking at his door, yet committed to Penn State, then re-committed following the announcement of the NCAA sanctions. Barring a meteoric rise this summer, Sickels should be more of a situational player rather than a full-time starter to begin 2014. However, he has fantastic speed to go with a large frame and 2014 will just be the start of what should be a very accomplished career as a Nittany Lion.
DE Evan Schwan
Schwan has one of the more interesting recruiting stories at Penn State. After suffering a major back injury as a junior in high school, his wide range of college suitors quickly dissipated. Even Purdue, where his dad was a former All-Big Ten guard for the Boilermakers, wouldn't return his calls. But he always remained on Penn State's radar, and that loyalty paid off once Schwan committed and made his doubters look silly while racking up 16.5 sacks and 72 tackles as a senior. Following an extremely impressive Blue-White Game performance, Schwan collected four tackles and 0.5 sacks while playing sparingly in 2013. He should take on a more prominent role this fall, and has the potential for a breakout season.
RB Akeel Lynch
I get it- Lynch isn't a typical "surprise" player. In fact, many Penn State fans were clamoring for Lynch to become the starter following 100 yard-plus performances against Eastern Michigan (108) and Kent State (123) in early 2013. But as the season progressed, we saw less and less of Lynch. The redshirt sophomore struggled with pass-blocking, but displayed tremendous vision of the field to go along with a versatile running game. With some improvement from 2013, Lynch has the opportunity to become the most complete running back on Penn State's roster and force his way into a starring role.
LB Von Walker
Walker came out of nowhere to find his way onto the field in 2013. As an undersized walk-on freshman, Walker's fate seemed to be limited to scout team duty and hoping to have the opportunity to dress on Saturdays. But after an impressive summer, Walker earned his way onto the majority of the special team units, regularly making downfield tackles thanks to a kamikaze playing style. He even was able to showcase his skills by returning kickoffs and performing admirably at running back in garbage time duties. As a sophomore, Walker will work to contribute at linebacker. Don't be surprised if Walker has another strong summer and becomes a regular part of the linebacker rotation by August 30.