One of the biggest joys of the bowl season is the chance to witness a young player put everything together during their final chance of the year to make a name for themselves. Take the 2014 version of Chris Godwin- during the regular season, he was known for receiving plenty of snaps with very little productivity. Then he exploded against a stout Boston College secondary in the Pinstripe Bowl for seven catches, 120 yards and touchdown. Godwin had no problem continuing the momentum into 2015, as he's proven to be one of the best receivers in the Big Ten with nearly unlimited potential heading into his junior campaign in 2016.
So which of the many young and talented Penn State players are ready to reach their potential and have fans stand up and take notice? Who is ready to be this year's Chris Godwin?
Matt: Troy Reeder
The season was not even a half old by the time Penn State's 2015 plan for its linebackers was in a state of flux. Nyeem Wartman-White of course went down for the year with a knee injury versus Temple, leaving Linebacker U in the hands of several young, and virtually untested players.
With Jason Cabinda sliding inside, the door was open outside for Reeder. While he has shown flashes, much like last year's breakout bowl player Chris Godwin did as a freshman in 2014, the complete game is yet to happen. With Georgia likely to run, run, and run some more on PSU's defense, five weeks between games, the redshirt freshman from Delaware is set up for a big game, and much bigger things in 2016.
Jared: Saeed Blacknall
We have been hearing quite a bit about Saeed Blacknall during the past two years, but have not seen much out of him outside of a couple big touchdown catches. That all changes against Georgia, as we prepare for Blacknall to become a much more regular presence in the Penn State offense.
There are many 5'10'' receivers with Blacknall's skillset throughout the nation. However, there are very few with his athleticism to go along with a lanky 6'4'' frame. Blacknell has rare athleticism for someone his height, and an overall ability that can create mismatches against even the most talented defenses on Penn State's schedule. We know Blacknall is a large and speedy target with good hands. Now, we just need to see him being used properly so that he can use his talents to make the Penn State offense extremely dangerous. What better time to start than showing off his talents against an SEC squad in the Taxslayer Bowl?
Chris: Garrett Sickels
The redshirt sophomore defensive end has had a solid season. Sickels is tied with Anthony Zettel for fourth place on the team in sacks with three. He has played in the shadows of future NFL defensive lineman Austin Johnson, Carl Nassib, and Zettel. Sickels will be counted on heavily next season to hold down the fort on the defensive line.
He has had production across the board in his first year starting, having 4.5 tackles for loss and tied for third on the team in forced fumbles. This could be the game where he stakes his claim as the torchbearer heading into next season. It's uncertain whether Johnson will leave for the NFL following the Taxslayer Bowl, but Nassib and Zettel are out of eligibility. It would be nice to see Sickels have a big game and take a clear leadership position on the defensive line heading into the offseason.
Dan: John Reid
This isn't to imply that Reid has been bad this season. In fact, he's been pretty good, especially for a true freshman. But there is going to be turnover in the secondary next season with Jordan Lucas and Trevor Williams graduating. Garrett Taylor is going to join Reid and Grant Haley next season, so the position should remain flush with talent, but with young players there is always uncertainty (see: Marcus Allen's step backwards this year at safety). I think a big game from Reid could be a nice statement heading into the offseason that things will be alright there.
Cari: Mike Gesicki
I know, I know--everyone's probably like, why'd you pick teflon hands Gesicki, Cari? Well, I'm here to tell you that I believe Ricky Rahne is going to be shifting to coaching the tight ends next year, and Mike's issues this year are clearly not physical--he has all of the tools to be a really good tight end at this level, he just needs to get his head in the game. With Joe Moorhead watching, and Rahne designing some plays to showcase his athletic ability and exploiting the mismatch opportunities with the UGA defense, I think that this would be the best time for Gesicki to finally showcase what all of us have been waiting to see from him since he committed to Penn State.
bscaff: DeAndre Thompkins
Fans think of his muffed punt(s) when DeAndre Thompkins is mentioned. But Thompkins possesses elite speed and change of direction, and those are two qualities this offense desperately needs. Even though he was targeted just six times all season in the passing game (seriously???), I'm hoping the temporary OC Ricky Rahne can get him a few looks in the Gator Bowl.
What are the chances he actually gets the ball thrown to him, though? Yeah, not so much. However, as a returner, Thompkins also gets half a dozen opportunities to break out. And against the Bulldogs, who rank "meh" nationally in both punt and kick coverage, he might just pop one (or two) of those. It's been a long, long time since Penn State's had a punt or kick return touchdown. Time to break the streak, and become a break out player.
Bill: Brandon Polk
I have hammered this point home, but I cannot repeat it enough: Brandon Polk had his redshirt burned to touch the ball 20 times on offense this year. This blows my mind, especially because the team could have just let DeAndre Thompkins do most of the things Polk did while he bulked up, got used to college life, all that stuff. I generally don't mind not redshirting guys so they can get game reps, but when having a guy play is more of a luxury than a necessity, I want them to redshirt. That's what I wanted to see for Polk, but that ended up not happening, which would have been fine if he touched the ball more.
Of course, the times Polk touched the ball, he looked like he could do some really special stuff. That's why I think we're going to see a heavy dose of the true freshman against Georgia's fast, athletic defense. He is really the one receiver who: A) gets consistent run and B) has speed that I would describe as "gamebreaking." If the coaching staff wants to somewhat justify burning his redshirt this year, I think the best way to do that would be to feed him early and often. If last year's bowl game's breakout star could be a wide receiver, why not try to go to that well again?
Eli: Paris Palmer
Palmer spent the entire season being a very hit or miss player, with a lot more misses than hits. However, the times he did perform well you could tell that he had the ability and talent to be a good lineman. He, along with a few others, had the misfortune of having started sooner than they were ready. Now that he's had the season to get acclimated to Division I game speed, the reps will allow him to slow everything down during these bowl practices. You'll see a more confident guy who will be able to protect Hackenberg's blind side for most of the game. Honorable mention goes to Brendan Mahon, who is in a similar position to Paris Palmer
Tim A.: Manny Bowen
Injuries at the linebacker position forced Bowen into significant game action much sooner than the coaching staff probably would've liked. However, the experience gained from being thrown into the fire early on could very well pay off come bowl time, whether it's being a gunner on special teams or wreaking havoc on opposing receivers/running backs/quarterbacks when in the game at linebacker. A solid showing in the bowl game could be a springboard to an even better sophomore campaign.