Last week I was Mr. Happy-Go-Lucky talking about all the things I liked about the Nittany Lions going into 2018. Oh, Trace McSorley this! And oh, John Reid that! Hey past me, future me says get out of here with that positivity. It’s time I dye my hair black, toss on a graphic tee, and rock out to “Perfect” by Simple Plan because I’m going straight emo today.
1. STARTING LINEBACKERS
This isn’t the first year I’ve had concerns about the linebackers. I had questions about the depth heading into 2016 and 2017, but for the most part, thought the starting units would be solid overall. This year — I don’t know. From the starting trio to the back-ups, I’m just not sure Penn State’s linebacker unit is good enough to anchor the defense of a program with hopes of winning a Big Ten title.
I like Koa Farmer and think he did an admirable job at the SAM last year, but is he the caliber of player who can lead a linebacker group? I know it took a little while for Farmer to fully transition to linebacker, and his stats are skewed because of it, but 76 total career tackles from your best returning linebacker doesn’t exactly make me tingly. Perhaps there’s a possibility of a redshirt senior year jump (like we saw with Malik Golden), but I don’t know how realistic that is.
Outside of Farmer, it’s really just unproven players. Cam Brown has played sparingly over the last two years at the WILL. He’s certainly someone with the size, quickness, and athleticism to thrive, but he’s yet to really flash as someone who can have an 80-plus tackle season.
Brown will be pushed by two true freshmen: Micah Parsons and Jesse Luketa. While I don’t think it’s inconceivable that one of them is ready to start from day one, box linebacker is one of the tougher spots for a freshman to make a starting impact because of the responsibilities throughout the defense. This is especially true of Parson because despite his elite attributes and instincts, he’s never played the position before.
Oddly enough, I might be higher on the MIKE linebackers than most. I don’t think there’s an all-conference performer here in 2018, and maybe it’s just me talking myself into them, but I think they might be serviceable. Right now, it seems like a three-man battle between Jake Cooper, Ellis Brooks, and walk-on Jan Johnson. To be honest, while I’m hopeful of Brooks taking the bull by the horns in August, I kind of like the walk-on here. Johnson (who turned down a scholarship from Akron) has the prerequisite size at 6-foot-2, 231 pounds, and I thought he played well last year when given the chance.
Looking at the group as a whole though, does a trio of Farmer, Johnson, and Brown inspire a ton of confidence when you consider where Penn State wants to be? Based on what we’ve seen to this point, I wouldn’t say so. I think unless there’s a big jump from a couple guys, this will be a unit that’s in the bottom half of the Big Ten, which is disappointing when you consider where Penn State’s other position groups are at.
All of this shouldn’t come as a surprise though. James Franklin has said himself that linebacker is Penn State’s biggest question mark. And all of this isn’t to say that the Nittany Lions don’t have talent here, because they do — I just think it’s a year away, unfortunately.
2. DEPTH AT DEFENSIVE TACKLE
Unlike linebacker, I actually have very little worries about the starters here. Robert Windsor and Kevin Givens have played a ton of football the last two years, and in my opinion, are two of the more underrated players on the roster. But with the way defensive line coach Sean Spencer likes to rotate the guys on the inside, it’s the lack of experience behind them that gives me a bit of trepidation.
Let’s start with the returning players: redshirt sophomores Antonio Shelton (1T) and Ellison Jordan (3T), and redshirt freshmen Fred Hansard (1T) and Damion Barber (3T). It’s a pretty talented crew all things considered, with Shelton being the lone non-four-star of the group. But none of these guys have seen much, if any, action. Jordan has the most experience, playing 10.9% of snaps last year, but he missed all of spring practice with a broken kneecap. While he appears healthy enough (he participated in Lift for Life) to be ready for August camp, missing a full spring of reps could be costly for the immediate future.
I really like the freshmen Penn State brought in. I’ve made myself the conductor of the PJ Mustipher Express, and I highlighted how Judge Culpepper could be one to surprise us all. But as James Franklin said about having to rely on redshirt freshmen at defensive tackle, the same is obviously the case of true freshmen — it’s less than ideal.
And that’s really where my concerns come from. I think Penn State can find two or three decent contributors out of Shelton, Jordan, Hansard, Barber, Mustipher, and Culpepper, but it’s just a situation you’d rather not be in. You look at last offseason where Penn State was returning five defensive tackles who played at least 21% of snaps, and that just isn’t the case this year.
What I said about the linebackers is also true about the two-deep here — they’re probably a year away.
3. THE KICKING GAME
The kicking game is a complete unknown. Punter Blake Gillikin has said that he’s willing to man all three duties of punting, placekicking, and kickoffs, but I doubt James Franklin would want to do that. Preferably though, one of Penn State’s true freshmen — scholarship freshman Jake Pinegar or walk-on freshman Vlad Hilling — would take the kicking reigns.
Obviously, one would imagine Pinegar has the upper-hand going into camp — being he’s the one who was offered a scholarship — but it’s been noted that while Pinegar has an incredibly strong leg, he’s struggled with consistency in the past. Perhaps now that he’s a full-time kicker, he’ll quickly work out those kinks, but having to potentially rely on an 18-year-old freshman kicker isn’t the optimal situation.
4. IOWA-MICHIGAN-WISCONSIN STRETCH
Last year Penn State was faced with a tough October-into-November three-game stretch of Michigan, at Ohio State, and at Michigan State, and this year will be no different. While 2018’s three-game stretch of Iowa, at Michigan, and Wisconsin doesn’t seem quite as daunting, it should still prove to be highly challenging.
Even though I’m emo in this article, let’s start with a positive: Penn State gets two of three games at home, and the only away game is at Michigan, which is probably the least daunting road atmosphere of the three. Apologies to the Big House, but it doesn’t compare to the crowds at Kinnick or Camp Randall.
Rather than looking at each individual game within itself, I think what makes this three-game stretch especially difficult is just the brand of football it’s going to be. Like Iowa may not actually be that good, but they’re a bunch of farmers who are going to be physical. Michigan still has trouble with the whole “forward” “pass” concept, but we know Harbaugh is going to be physical. And Wisconsin is physicality personified. Having to play Body Blow-esque teams back-to-back-to-back late in the season sucks, and makes those games more difficult than they would be if they were more spread out throughout the schedule.
5. POTENTIALLY SQUANDERING THE STEVENS PACKAGE
Okay, before I get into the nuts and bolts, I have to say: naming Stevens’ position the “Lion” kind of stinks. Really? Lion? That’s the best we can come up with? Northwestern is out here calling positions “Superbacks” and Penn State is going with Lion? Come on. Just take another awesome word, and toss a “-back” after it. Even calling him a “Lionback” is way cooler than just “Lion.”
Anyway, on an actual football note, Stevens returning is terrific for the 2019 season for the obvious reasons, but him coming back also means we still get the “Stevens Package” in 2018, which is also very cool. By and large, the package was a success last year, having much effectiveness against the likes of Akron, Northwestern, and Maryland.
You know who it wasn’t effective against? Ohio State and Michigan State (both of Penn State’s losses, if you remember) because the package wasn’t even used. I mean, what was the point of putting in the package, seeing it have success against Akron and Northwestern, but then not using it when Penn State really needed a first down or two? You see that clip above of Stevens going untouched into the end zone following a fake end around? Yeah, good thing Penn State saved that for the end of the season, and didn’t use it against Ohio State on third and goal instead.
That’s where my concern comes from for this upcoming season — will the Stevens Package continue to essentially be a gimmick used against teams that Penn State was going to blowout anyway, or will new offensive coordinator Ricky Rahne take more advantage of the unique opportunity that a McSorley-Stevens combination on the field presents? Because back-up quarterback or not, the 6-foot-5, 240-pound Stevens is one of the best offensive weapons Penn State has. He should be someone that plays in big moments of big games because he’s just that good of a football player.