Penn State received help from a few members of the 2017 recruiting class this past season. Lamont Wade and Tariq Castro-Fields saw time at cornerback and on specials teams, while Yetur Gross-Matos saw his role expand once Torrence Brown and Ryan Buchholz went down with injuries. But, by and large, the Nittany Lions were able to redshirt the large majority of their freshmen class.
With the turnover of starters across the roster, let’s take a look at seven members of the 2017 recruiting class who will find themselves in battles for starting jobs this spring.
RB Journey Brown
Penn State is about to experience life after Saquon Barkley, and the redshirt freshman Journey Brown could be a big part of it. Brown was a standout on the scout team this fall, routinely receiving praise from James Franklin and players alike. At 5-foot-11, 200 pounds (though he’s probably closer to 215, at this point), Brown has the ideal size for a running back, but it’s his blazing speed (10.43-second 100M time, a PIAA record) that makes him a potential game changer.
While Miles Sanders is rightfully the leading candidate to takeover for Barkley, keep an eye on Brown. He may not have been the caliber of recruit Sanders was, but Brown is just as gifted athletically, if not even more so. Like most young running backs, he’ll need to clean up his pass protection, but if he can make strides there, he’ll legitimately challenge Sanders for carries in 2018.
WR/PR KJ Hamler
If not for an ACL tear the summer before his senior season of high school, there’s a good chance KJ Hamler would have played last season. Instead, the Nittany Lions staff decided to take it slow with the true freshman, who was still working his way back to full health. Now 100% healthy, Hamler is poised to make a mark as a slot receiver, but especially as a punter returner. Sure, the Nittany Lions return DeAndre Thompkins who was a pretty good returner himself, but Hamler has the potential to be one of the country’s best.
OG Mike Miranda
After enrolling early last year, Mike Miranda made a strong first impression at spring practice as he saw time with the ones. The feeling coming out of spring was that Miranda was good enough to play if needed. Fortunately for the Nittany Lions, the injury bug didn’t bite too badly on the interior, and Miranda’s redshirt was preserved. Now, he’s a prime candidate for the open right guard spot, although redshirt sophomore Michal Menet might have a slight leg up as things currently stand.
While Miranda has some physical limitations (i.e. a short wingspan) compared to those he’ll compete against, he checks the boxes everywhere else. He’s a better athlete than given credit for, has good size at 6-foot-3, 303 pounds, and plays with a nasty mean streak. There’s a reason he was pushing for playing time last spring, and that should only continue this offseason.
OG CJ Thorpe
Speaking of the right guard battle, CJ Thorpe will be a contender for the spot, too. While Miranda might be more along from a technique perspective, Thorpe is quite a bit bigger at 6-foot-3, 329 pounds, and has longer arms as well. He was the more highly-rated prospect coming out of high school, but Miranda’s extra semester on campus certainly evens this battle out. Should be a fun one to watch.
DT Fred Hansard
Although Robert Windsor will be the starter at the 1-Technique, Fred Hansard has a prime opportunity to be his back-up, which in Sean Spencer’s defensive line rotation, is essentially a starting spot.
Hansard is another big kid (6-foot-3, 310 pounds) who was a highly-touted prospect. From the moment he signed with Penn State, it was expected that he’d be the future at the 1-Technique. He showed some nice things on the scout team this season, but also battled nagging injuries that prevented him from being a full participant throughout the fall. Obviously, a healthy 2018 will be big for Hansard, who will battle redshirt sophomore Antonio Shelton in the spring, and then will welcome incoming freshman PJ Mustipher to the competition too.
LB Ellis Brooks
I think one of the more surprising developments from the 2017 class was that Ellis Brooks kept his redshirt. At least in my opinion, Brooks was as physically developed a linebacker recruit as I can remember, and knowing the pivotal role he would potentially play in 2018, I thought the Nittany Lions would want to get Brooks some run last season. Granted he too had some nagging injuries in the fall, but that even being the case, it didn’t seem like Brooks would play coming out of pre-season camp.
Whatever the case, Brooks heads into the spring right in the thick of things for the middle linebacker job. Brent Pry has said that a number of players will get some run there, but Brooks might *actually be the leading candidate. He has good size at 6-foot-1, 235 pounds (would like to see him drop a little more weight, to be honest), displays strong instincts, and has been noted for his high football I.Q. and leadership qualities. We’ll see if he can put it all together this spring, because man, Penn State needs a middle linebacker.
*Yes, I know we all love Micah Parsons, but it’s important to remember he’s just a true freshman who has never played the position.
Saf. Jonathan Sutherland
Another player who made a strong first impression, Jonathan Sutherland was one of the first freshmen to “earn their stripe.” He backed up the honor by being a standout on the scout team, and received praise from James Franklin on a few occasions.
Last year when Sutherland signed with Penn State, I said that while Sutherland didn’t have the length of Marcus Allen, their games were similar. Both are thickly built players who do their best work when providing run support. So now that Allen is gone, it only makes sense that Sutherland will vie for his spot.
Nick Scott might be the key to how much playing time Sutherland gets. Scott will more than likely be one of the starters at safety, but it remains to be seen which spot. He was listed on the depth chart last year at free safety (Marcus Allen’s spot), which in Penn State’s defense, can act as a de factor linebacker, usually coming near the line of scrimmage for nickel packages. Obviously, that spot would also best suit Sutherland, so if Scott sticks with free safety, it’s rather unlikely that Sutherland will start at strong safety, which favors quicker guys with more one-on-one cover ability like Lamont Wade, Garrett Taylor, and Ayron Monroe.