It’s a time of transition for Penn State. Longtime stalwarts like Jason Cabinda, Marcus Allen, and Saquon Barkley are gone, but there are still many reasons for optimism in Happy Valley.
1. DEPTH AT DEFENSIVE END
In the time since James Franklin took over in Happy Valley, the one thing that’s true pretty much across the board is how much the overall depth has improved in the program. Nowhere is that more evident than at defensive end, where the Nittany Lions blend experience with talented youth to build a legitimate three-deep on the edge.
Veterans Shareef Miller and Ryan Buchholz headline the unit, with each having seen a lot of football over the last two seasons. Miller led the team in sacks (5) and TFLs (11.5) last year, while Buchholz does all the dirty things at defensive end — setting the edge, taking on double-teams, and simply just making the life easier for everyone else. It was no coincidence that when Buchholz went down against Ohio State, Penn State’s defensive line began to falter.
But for as good as Miller and Buchholz are, it’s what’s behind them that makes this unit possibly the best in the Big Ten. Sean Spencer believes strongly in rotating his defensive ends, which means that Shaka Toney, Shane Simmons, and Yetur Gross-Matos will all see big roles this upcoming year, looking to build off the emerging seasons each had in 2017.
This type of depth at defensive end should allow Penn State to get creative on obvious passing downs. We’ve seen the Nittany Lions move Buchholz inside, but he’s usually been flanked by another true defensive tackle. This coming year, I don’t think it’s out of the realm of possibility to have a four-man front of something like Miller, Gross-Matos, Buchholz, and Toney or Simmons on a third-and-8 situation.
We’ve seen Ohio State do this over the years, most notably in 2016 with Tyquan Lewis, Nick Bosa, Jalyn Holmes, and Sam Hubbard. While Buckeyes group had a little more size (average height/weight of 6-foot-4.5/268 pounds) compared to Penn State’s crew (6-foot-4.75, 258 pounds), it’s the same idea of bringing in the best combination of length, size, and athleticism to get after the quarterback.
2. STARTING CORNERBACKS
Penn State will have to replace both of its starting cornerbacks from last year in Grant Haley and Christian Campbell, two players who played a ton of football in Happy Valley. Normally, replacing that type of talent, experience, and production would leave a unit deprived, but that’s certainly not the case for the Nittany Lions in 2018.
First and foremost, John Reid is back. The rising redshirt junior was Penn State’s top cornerback in 2016, and will be a full 17 months removed from a torn ACL that costed him last season. There shouldn’t be any lingering effects from the injury, allowing Reid to pick up where he left off as one of the best cornerbacks in the country — whether that’s on the outside, or on the inside covering the slot.
Amani Oruwariye and Tarqis Castro-Fields will compete for the other starting cornerback spot, but both should see ample playing time. Oruwariye returns with the most career interceptions (5) on the team and is a talented dude in his own right, but it’s Castro-Fields who excites me the most. The rising sophomore was the star of preseason camp last season, forcing his way into playing time when most thought a redshirt year would be in order. With a full offseason with the program now under his belt, the sky is the limit for Castro-Fields. It would not be a surprise if he pushes for all-conference honors — he’s that good.
As you’ll see in the coming days, I have some concerns about other spots within the defense, but having championship-caliber units at defensive end and cornerback (the two most important spots on a defense?) surely makes up for some questions elsewhere.
3. SKILL POSITION FRESHMEN
Penn State loses a lot of productivity at running back, wide receiver, and tight end with the departures of Saquon Barkley, DaeSean Hamilton, and Mike Gesicki. Fortunately, the Nittany Lions are reaching a level recruiting-wise where aspects of the “reload” can be shouldered by some true freshmen — and in this case, Ricky Slade, Justin Shorter, and Pat Freiermuth.
This isn’t to say the expectation for Ricky Slade is 1,000 yards, or that Justin Shorter should have a 60-plus reception season, or that Pat Freiermuth is going to be Kyle Brady 2.0 right away. Those types of freshman year performances are few and far between. But in an offense that is seeing its fair share of turnover at the skill positions, the opportunity to make an impact will be there, and all these guys are talented enough to break through. Call it a hunch, but I think a few of them will.
4. THE FIRST HALF OF THE SCHEDULE
Penn State’s first six games of the season certainly aren’t what I would consider easy, but the first half of the schedule actually sets up quite nicely for the Nittany Lions. The first four games specifically aren’t exactly a murderers’ row, but it’s a nice balance of gimme-wins (Kent State and @Illinois) and should-be-wins (App State and @Pitt) that will still test and prepare the Nittany Lions for what lies ahead.
Where I really like the schedule though is how Ohio State and Michigan State are set up. No offense to a Friday game in Champaign, but that’s pretty much a semi-bye week for Penn State. And I don’t mean that from the “Oh, they get an extra day off” perspective either, I mean that from the “Illinois is awful, Penn State could punt on every third down and win” perspective — just so we’re clear on that.
We saw last year just how difficult back-to-back games are against ranked teams on the road, so getting a bye week inbetween Ohio State and Michigan State and getting both at home instead? Uh, that’s pretty sweet. There are challenges beyond the first six games, of course, but I don’t think Penn State could have asked for a better spot to get the Buckeyes and Sparty.
5. HAVING THE BEST QUARTERBACK IN AMERICA
I don’t have anything left to say about Trace McSorley that I haven’t already said. The time for talk is over, now Trace and I will let our actions speak themselves. But I do want to reiterate that he is the best quarterback in the country, and I want to thank the tremendous people at Sporting News for joining my fight in bringing this to the national spotlight.