The beauty of the game of football is that it is a total team sport. On any given play, 10 men on the field can execute perfectly, only to have one misstep result in complete disaster. The old saying that a chain is only as strong as its weakest link cannot be made any more evident than by watching a football game on an level.
However, every team has that one player who is absolutely indispensable for the team's overall success. Today, the BSD staff enjoys a healthy debate on who exactly that player is on this season's Nittany Lions squad.
Eli: LB Nyeem Wartman-White
One would think the obvious answer is Saquon Barkley, as he's our best player heading into the season. However, I'm going with Nyeem Wartman-White. Linebacker is one of the few positions where Penn State is not yet deep enough to afford a loss to a leader (or any loss, for that matter). The contrast between having him and not was visibly apparent in the Temple game last season (albeit stats might not fully agree). With Wartman-White, Cabinda, and Bell, this linebacking corps can be one of the best in the Big Ten. Without him, there would be some growing pains.
Patrick: WR Chris Godwin
Despite Penn State's passing troubles offensively last season, one of the few bright spot was Chris Godwin. And now with another year of experience under his belt, Godwin will be playing a crucial role for Joe Moorhead's unit. Transitioning to a new quarterback isn't always a seamless process, but for whichever quarterback wins the starting job, they'll have a bonafide number one receiver in Godwin as a safety valve. Similar to when Christian Hackenberg took over in 2013, then number one wide receiver Allen Robinson made Hackenberg's life much easier, and I would expect the same from Godwin this season.
While the rising junior may not quite be on the level of Robinson, Godwin's breakout year last season wasn't too shabby, hauling in 69 receptions for 1,101 yards and 5 touchdowns. What makes Godwin special is his ability to do it all. Whether it's making leaping catches as a deep threat 35 yards down the field or running a slant and carrying defenders for a first down, his versatility proves to be invaluable for a Penn State offense that will be trying to get out of the cellar of the Big Ten.
Chris L.: DT Kevin Givens
I'm going off the beaten path and saying that the most indispensable player will be a heretofore unknown: defensive tackle Kevin Givens. Givens, a member of the 2015 recruiting class, played both linebacker and defensive end in high school. He used his redshirt season to bulk up, and currently sits at 6'1" and 267 lbs. While he needs to continue to grow, his current stats are not that far off from one Anthony Zettel, a physical specimen who loved creating chaos.
Givens was incredibly disruptive in the Blue-White game, tallying 3.5 tackles for loss, and 2 sacks. The coaching staff raved about him all spring, and they've been pretty accurate with their post-spring assessments: this time last year, James Franklin mentioned a mostly unknown player on the defensive line that he believed would have a breakout season - Carl Nassib. If the coaches are correct in their analysis of Givens, 2016 could be an entertaining year for him.
Most importantly, Givens fills a position of need. Gone from the interior of the defensive line are Austin Johnson and Anthony Zettel, both currently playing in the NFL. For the first time in years, the defensive line is a question mark - if young players don't step up to fill big shoes and the defense struggles, any gains on offense may be for naught. While Parker Cothren and Curtis Cothran should be the starting DTs on September 3rd, Kevin will find himself firmly in the defensive tackle rotation. Given how much Sean Spencer likes to rotate his Wild Dogs, it's of utmost importance that the second- and third-string players continue to grow and improve. Otherwise the starting DTs will find themselves gassed late in games, which could be the difference in tight contests. At a position with a fair amount of bodies but not much experience, Givens' emergence and continued growth will make him indispensable in 2016.
Lando: OT Andrew Nelson
I'll continue the unpredictability and go with redshirt junior offensive tackle Andrew Nelson. Coming off of an injury-plagued 2015, Nelson is one of the only offensive linemen with substantial experience in the position group that needs to improve the most (Paris Palmer also has starting experience, but did not make the progress many expected by the end of his first year on campus). The Hershey native's experience and ability will prove valuable whether he lines up on the left or right side of the line, especially with a first-year starter at quarterback. This is why James Franklin has indicated that Nelson has been the only offensive lineman to sew up a starting spot on the line.
Nelson's 6'6'', 295 lb. frame will not only help protect Trace McSorley, Tommy Stevens, or Jake Zembiec, but also help pave the way for what is expected to be an explosive running attack, led by super sophomore Saquon Barkley and true freshman Miles Sanders (also, don't sleep on Andre Robinson). Unless Barkley is the second coming of Barry Sanders (he has shown flashes of that elusiveness), he needs a solid offensive line to open holes for him. Having a dependable cornerstone like Nelson pancaking defensive linemen and linebackers could lead to a 1,500 yard season for Barkley.
Although having Nelson perform to his ability doesn't guarantee success, losing a right or left tackle like No. 59 would be a crushing blow to the offensive's progress. Nelson has also demonstrated an ability to be a vocal leader in various interviews about the team. The Nittany Lions haven't had a vocal leader on the offensive line since current Baltimore Raven and overall genius John Urschel suited up. Although Nelson could lead from the sidelines if necessary, having that presence on the field with you seems to inspire elevated play (See: Mauti, Michael). This is why I believe Andrew Nelson is the most important player to Penn State's success this season.
Chris T.: QB Trace McSorley
While it is not yet generally accepted that Trace McSorley will be the starting quarterback, he is the most indispensable player. The only quarterback on the roster with game experience, McSorley has also been on campus for two complete seasons. His play in the second-half of the TaxSlayer Bowl speaks for itself. Against one of the fiercest passing defenses in NCAA football, down 21 points in the fourth quarter, he nearly led a comeback. That's pretty impressive for a player that had never seen meaningful playing time at the collegiate level. Sure the final drive fell short mostly due to time, but the skill that he showed keeping plays alive, getting the ball out on time, should not be overlooked.
It has been well-documented that McSorley led his high school team to four state championships, winning three. The leadership that he showed in the brief time that he had to display it last year should be seen for what it is: moxie. No one would have blamed him if he was unable to lead a near-comeback, simply handing the ball off, making safe throws, and letting the clock run down with the score 24-3. The defiance that he showed is the type of example that the team could use in this transitional period. While there are other quarterbacks on the roster that have joined Penn State with higher recruiting ratings, those circles do not seem to grade integrity, leadership, the will to win, moxie, accurately. The last McQuarterback that PSU had on the team was of a similar background. Few people are advocating for McSorely, but when we look back in a few years, we will wonder how we could have gotten by without him. Were he not to play for some reason this year, he would be McSorley missed.
Cari: DE Garrett Sickels
When you lose three of your four starters on the defensive line, your most indispensable player has got to be that fourth returning starter. Garrett Sickels started 12 of the 13 games last season and logged 35 tackles (13 solo), five TFLs and three sacks for 19 yards lost--and he also led the team in fumble recoveries with two (and was 2nd in the Big Ten). He took a big step up in his redshirt sophomore campaign after seeing mostly mop up time his first season on the field, and he'll be the veteran on the line.
Where the front seven goes much of the defense goes, as John Butler knows all too well. And though we don't have a lot of depth at linebacker, we do have three returning starters--and we're losing three starters at the line. Sickels, and his health and experience, are key to helping Coach Chaos reload instead of rebuild.
Garrett: TE Mike Gesicki
I'm going to think outside the box and pick someone with tremendous upside, but who really struggled last year, and that is Mike Gesicki. This time last year, Penn State had a lot of depth at tight end with Gesicki, Brent Wilkerson, and Kyle Carter all as players who got snaps the year before, and Adam Breneman scheduled to return to the field. Breneman never really recovered from his terrible knee injuries and ended his career, Carter graduated, and Wilkerson was kicked off the team. It will be up to Gesicki as the only TE who has played meaningful snaps on the roster to bring some much needed consistency to a position that is probably the most thin position on the team. Gesicki has all the athletic tools to be an All-Big Ten performer in his final two years at Penn State, he just needs to put it together. His ability to cause mismatches with his size, speed and strength combination will be a huge asset for new offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead because Gesicki can not only lineup as an inline tight end, but he can split out wide and be a threat to run a good route and catch a pass, or be a great lead blocker for a WR screen play.
However, if we lose Gesicki, there's really no one you feel great about behind him to take his spot. Redshirt Freshman Nick Bowers got good reviews last year in scout team action, and fellow classmate Jonathon Holland has pretty good athleticism, but both were considered projects at tight end and certainly will not be ready to be contributors at the level Penn State needs out of their tight end position if they wish to compete in the Big Ten East next season. Early Enrollee Danny Dalton adds some promise for the future, but again, he will simply not be ready for the rigors of big-time college football come this fall. An injury to Gesicki could really hinder the Penn State offense, and in turn cost the Lions a game or two they would otherwise win.
Ross: P Blake Gilliken
If you've watched this team at all over the past few years, you shouldn't find my pick of Blake Gillikin to be all that crazy. Touted as one of the top freshman punters in the country, Gillikin has the opportunity to fill a position of need from day one. Being able to switch the field on special teams can provide a huge boost to a team with a young and inexperienced quarterback. As we have seen too many times over the past seasons the defense can been put in difficult situations because of poor punting, and having an above-average punter that can pin opposing teams deep can help to win tight games.
Hopefully Penn State won't rely on the punter this year as much as they have in the past two years due to an offense that struggled to move the chains, and hopefully the November 12th game against Indiana doesn't turn into Gillikin's Heisman audition - either way, if he is as-advertised, Gillikin may provide the biggest upgrade at a position coming into the 2016 season.
Tim: RB Saquon Barkley
Well, since everybody else seems to be trying their best to cover anyone but Saquon Barkley, I'm going to be that guy that go with the obvious choice. Saquon was the only reason why last year's clusterf**k of an offense was even semi-watchable. Despite missing two-and-a-half games and playing behind a porous O-line, Saquon managed to become the first freshman to ever run over 1,000 yards and was established himself as a big-play threat who you felt had a chance to take one to the house every time the ball touched his hands. With Joe Moorhead upgrading the offense to actually fit the skill set of the team, I would look for Barkley to further establish himself since opposing defenses won't be able to key in solely on him.
Oh, and I did I neglect to mention that he accomplished everything on the field last season without a full offseason to break the team bench-press record and run the fastest 40-yard dash? While it will be nice to see guys like Miles Sanders, Andre Robinson, and Mark Allen take some of the load off his shoulders, Saquon is arguably the most critical cog of this offensive machine and losing him for any significant length of time is a situation that I do not want to find myself thinking about.
Jared: LB Brandon Bell
I covered this in a recent MMQB column, but in case you missed it here's my rational for selecting Brandon Bell as the one player Penn State can't afford to lose:
What could be the most crushing blow to a developing team would be the loss of senior linebacker Brandon Bell. Donning the honorable number 11 jersey, Bell has established himself as an intense and disruptive force at outside linebacker. He will be one of the most productive defenders for the Nittany Lions in 2016, and is coming off a junior season where he was simply everywhere, finishing with 65 tackles, 12.5 negative hits, 5.5 sacks, three forced fumbles and if not for the team's struggles on offense, what would have been a huge momentum-turning interception return against Michigan.
Bell also brings the type of intangibles that will be in demand for a defense that could be facing a step back after losing three extremely productive defensive lineman to the NFL. He's the vocal leader of the squad who leaves everything he has on the field and creates an energy that feeds his teammates throughout each game. He's the type of player who sets an example for the younger guys on the field to play until the whistle. They will depend on him to be a leader on and off-the-field as the program continues to find its way.
Additionally, Bell will likely be counted on as an edge-rusher, perhaps his greatest asset on the field. He can disrupt a play in a split-second, and in a season where Penn State may struggle to develop pressure from a four-man front, Bell's ability to get in the backfield may be desperately needed to keep the defense off the field. Penn State is also short on experience at the linebacker outside of the three starters, meaning it will be absolutely crucial for Bell, along with Nyeem Wartman-White and Jason Cabinda, to remain healthy throughout the upcoming season.
Adam: Trace McSorley
I'm with Chris. Trace McSorley is our "most indispensable" player. Until Tommy Touchdowns proves otherwise, McSorley is the only quarterback on the roster with (a) any game reps and (b) a real rapport among the entire squad. He appears to have the skill set to match Joltin' Joe Moorhead's offense, where accuracy and quick feet are at a premium, and arm strength isn't a prerequisite.
Outside of actual win-loss record, McSorley is most indispensable on the recruiting trail. James Franklin has done well by pulling in quality talent across the board during his time in Happy Valley despite a record hovering just above .500. At this point, highly-regarded recruits on the offensive side of the football appear to be in wait-and-see mode - they were not thrilled with John Donovan, and now they want to see results. With McSorley at the helm, Penn State has the opportunity to put together a quality offensive season where the team shows progress. Or, as most teams call it, scoring points. They don't have to be the second coming of Oregon, or our own 1994 Nittany Lions, but they do need to show some consistency. McSorley is the guy who can put that all together.