As you’ve likely noticed, we recently conducted a countdown of Penn State’s top 10 players heading into the 2018 season, based on staff voting. But what about the players who could make their way into the top 10 by the end of the season? To the roundtable we go!
Patrick: Yetur Gross-Matos
I will pause for a second on my Justin Shorter crusade to highlight what an absolute freak Yetur Gross-Matos is. At 6-foot-5, 262 pounds, Gross-Matos blends tremendous size and length to go along with an elite athletic profile. The fact he broke into the defensive end rotation last year should tell you what the staff thinks of Gross-Matos -- there was no point in a redshirt year, because this kid will have the NFL calling sooner rather than later.
I mentioned this when he signed with Penn State, but he reminds me of Clemson’s Clelin Ferrell. A long, rangy defensive end that is as adapt at getting after the quarterback as he is in taking on blockers in the run game. While the guys in front of him -- Shareef Miller and Ryan Buchholz -- are both very good defensive ends in their own right, I think there’s a chance Gross-Matos takes that jump from “raw athlete” to an All-Big Ten level type of player.
Marty: Micah Parsons
There are athletic freaks, and then there is Micah Parsons. He is big, fast, physical, and violent on the football field. There was no better pass rushing prospect in the country in the 2018 recruiting cycle than Parsons, and, to be honest, there may not have been a better football player, either. Parsons is the biggest athletic freak that the Nittany Lions have had on defense since LaVar Arrington.
Parsons has the ability to impact a game in many more ways than just tackles, sacks, and quarterback hurries. He is the type of defensive force that an opposing offense must game plan around. Parsons will demand extra attention and double teams from an offense that in turn helps free up other players on the defense and makes them better. Even Parsons lone job in 2018 is to go kill quarterbacks and blow up plays, he can become the most impactful defensive player on the team. When the 2018 season ends not only will Parsons be one of the 10 best players on Penn State’s roster, he may be one of the 10 best defensive players in the Big Ten.
Chris L: Justin Shorter
Shorter is joining the Penn State receiving corps just this summer, and is a true freshman. Normally that would lead to backup-at-best as the ceiling for a receiver, but I think Justin is going to force his way into the starting lineup. Juwan Johnson figures to have the WR-X position locked down, while Brandon Polk and DeAndre Thompkins have the inside track for the other starting positions.
However, both of those players have seen more time in the slot than outside, while backups KJ Hamler and Mac Hippenhammer are still green. Shorter will have to play catch up in learning the playbook, but his physical tools will allow him to excel on the outside, opposite Johnson. Especially since Penn State will probably opt for more four-receiver sets without a true home run threat at tight end, look for Justin to get on the field early in the season in situational roles, maximize his opportunities, and end the season as the starter at WR-Z.
Clay: Yetur Gross-Matos.
Gross-Matos is a physical specimen, standing at 6-foot-5, 262 pounds and not looking the slightest bit heavy. He was well ahead of where I expected him to be in the 2018 season and will only get better with another year of Wild Dogs (TM) training under his belt. Gross-Matos has the potential to be Carl Nassib with more physical prowess.
Not only has he already becomes an impressive pass rusher, his frame and strength allow him to be a stout run defender on first and second down. There’s a nonzero chance Gross-Matos jumps onto the scene in a big, big way. Not only could be make the top 10 list, he could be in the top five or higher.
Lando: Koa Farmer
As we all know, Farmer is a terrific athlete, possessing the speed, strength, and intelligence to make a huge impact on the field in 2018. As the only returning starter at linebacker, Farmer’s leadership will be invaluable, especially with his mentorship of Micah Parsons and the other fresh faces in the corps. I believe Koa is not getting the attention he deserves due to the higher-profile players around him, but he will be the reason whether the defense is great, or merely average thanks to his experience.
The senior will crack the top 10 by virtue of an all-around outstanding effort, upping all of his numbers from last season, especially turnovers forced. I wouldn’t be surprised for him to even get a few votes for All-Big Ten by the end of the 2018 season.
Cari: Lamont Wade
Though I am so close to going with all-everything five-star Micah Parsons, my gut is telling me to go with one of the returning starter defensive backs. Because Tariq Castro-Fields seems to be getting more love (especially from the mothership), I’m gonna go with Lamont Wade.
Wade saw significant playing time last season as a true freshman in a defensive backfield crowded with loads of talent now in the league. He was often first man off the bench for the safeties, and with the departure of Marcus Allen and Troy Apke (side note: I’m still baffled that my ‘Skins took a fourth round flier on him), Wade has a chance to shine. Amani Oruwariye and John Reid are the definite leaders on the outside of the backfield, but look for Wade to lock down the middle. His experience last year will pay off in spades, and he has the talent and innate ability to be an absolute force.
Also, last I heard there was an opening in the kick returner category...and Wade can be a force back there as well.
Aaron: Amani Oruwariye
Oruwariye led Penn State with four interceptions despite not starting a game last season. Now that he’s in a bigger role, opposing offenses might wise up and avoid him... or he’ll just turn more errant throws into extra Penn State possessions. Oruwariye is a key part of why I think the secondary could improve this year, so I’m optimistic in him having a productive senior campaign.
Jared: KJ Hamler
I’ve learned to buy into the hype when coaches and players can’t stop talking about a player throughout the spring and into the summer. Whether it’s an experienced player who turned the corner towards greatness (Carl Nassib, DaeSean Hamilton), someone ready for his breakout (Juwan Johnson) or a newcommer who is ready to make his presence known as soon as he steps on the field (Saquon Barkley), the most buzzworthy player during the offseason seems to always translate to major production on the field in the fall.
This spring, the buzz completely belonged to Hamler. He gave Penn State’s defense fits in practice sessions, and he should do the same to opponents as a redshirt freshman this fall. He has the speed and ability to be the X-factor in Penn State’s already-loaded offense. While he won’t be the primary receiver, he could be the one player that must always be accounted for, and new offensive coordinator Ricky Rahne will know how to get him the ball in the open field.