Since we’re in the midst of a bye week that just so happens to come precisely at the halfway point of Penn State’s football season, I figured I would give the fruitless exercise of coming up with mid-season position grades a try. As always, there is no exact science to this, so naturally, each position grade given will be both too harsh and too lenient, according to the commentariat.
Anyway, without further ado, here goes something:
Trace McSorley currently has 13 touchdown passes to just four interceptions and is completing 67% of his passes. While he’s looked shaky at times throwing the ball, there is no questioning his potential, which was showcased by his leading the team on a game-winning touchdown drive down the field at Iowa to preserve PSU’s undefeated record. As PSU enters its brutal three-game stretch against Michigan, Ohio State, and Michigan State, consistency will become even more key. Tommy Stevens has been a very good solider, helping his team out in any way possible, such as catching the touchdown pass from Trace against Northwestern last week. It’s nice to see the coaching staff working in the two-quarterback package at times during the season, let’s hope there’s more to come.
Running Back: A-
What more can we say about Saquon Barkley at this juncture? Despite being held (relatively) in check the last couple of games, he is deservedly the Heisman Trophy frontrunner. When he’s not busting huge gains on the ground, he is busy acting as a receiving threat or in Indiana’s case, a passing threat. He is currently the team’s leading rusher and receiver, which is a stat you don’t see very often. Miles Sanders and Andre Robinson have had their moments as backups, with each racking up a touchdown this season.
Wide Receiver/Tight End: B+
While nobody has become a clear heir apparent to Chris Godwin, we’ve seen the likes of DaeSean Hamilton (who recently surpassed Deon Butler’s school record for career receptions with 180 and counting) and Mike Gesicki grab four touchdowns apiece, while DeAndre Thompkins, Saeed Blacknall, and even Brandon Polk have made some noise. Oh, and I haven’t forgotten you, Juwan Johnson, you may have only one touchdown grab on the season, but it’s by far been the most important one.
Offensive Line: C-
We already know the run blocking has been downright horrendous lately, but even pass protection has looked a little more shaky, as Trace has been sacked 13 times in the past three games. With ferocious defensive lines such as Michigan’s and Ohio State’s coming up, this unit is going to have to take a great leap forward in their progression if this team is going to recognize its dream of making the playoffs.
Defensive Line: A-
Remember when one of our concerns during the offseason was who was going to fill the void left by the likes of Garrett Sickels and Evan Schwan? Those were fun times, indeed. Shareef Miller, Shaka Toney, Ryan Buchholz, and Curtis Cothran have laid to rest those concerns, as they have been terrors for opposing backfields and quarterbacks alike.
Led by Jason Cabinda manning the middle, this unit has shown steady improvement through the first six games, with the Northwestern game showing their ability to contain an opponent’s star running back, holding Justin Jackson to just 66 yards rushing. If the defensive line alone can get regular pressure on opposing QB’s, it will make Brent Pry’s life a lot easier knowing that he won’t have to call as many blitzes from the linebacking crew.
Dare I say, this is the best unit on the entire team. Whether it’s Marcus Allen delivering jarring hits and being that extra man in run support (along with fellow safety Troy Apke) or whether it’s Amani Oruwariye or Grant Haley snagging interceptions (Amani and Grant have three and two picks each, respectively, combining for over half of PSU’s nine interceptions as a team), the secondary is likely the biggest reason why the Nittany Lion defense is allowing an astonishing nine points per game. Given how Michigan QB John O’Korn struggled against Michigan State last week and how Ohio State’s JT Barrett has had his issues with throwing the ball, this unit surely has to be licking their chops at the opportunity to further solidify their reputation as one of the best secondaries in PSU history.
Special Teams: B+
It’s so nice to finally have kickoff and punt returners who are threats to take one back to the house every time they get a shot at a return. DeAndre Thompkins scored PSU’s first points of the 2017 season when he took back a punt in the rain against Akron while Saquon Barkley had his now-famous 98-yard opening kickoff return for a TD against Indiana. The kick and punt coverage units have been excellent, as well, as no huge returns (i.e. 30+ yards) have been given up this year. Blake Gillikin of course, has been clutch as a punter, whether it’s delivering a booming punt to flip field position, or helping to pin an opponent inside their own 10-yard line (and the best part about Blake is, he’s only a sophomore). Unfortunately, Tyler Davis’ woeful 6-for-13 field goal kicking is keeping this unit from what would be an otherwise well-deserved A-grade. Here’s to hoping that whatever is ailing Davis’ superb kicking potential is exorcised over the latter half of this season, because sooner or later, the team will have to rely on him to make a kick that could make or break PSU’s season.