It’s been a long, cold winter filled with Pat Chambers bickering, but none of that matters because finally — football is back. We are just one week away from the start of spring practice in Happy Valley, so let’s take a look at three intriguing position battles that will take place this March and April.
CJ Thorpe vs. Mike Miranda vs. Juice Scruggs
With the departure of Connor McGovern, Penn State will have a new full-time starting right guard for the first time since 2015. The likely leader for that spot heading into the spring? Redshirt sophomore CJ Thorpe, who makes the move back to the offensive line (much to chagrin of Sean Spencer, I’m sure) after spending the conference portion of the 2018 schedule at defensive tackle.
Thorpe checks a lot of the boxes you look for in a offensive guard. He has good size at 6-foot-3, 328 pounds, moves very well for his size, and — I mean this in the most respectful way possible — is an absolute psychopath when it comes to finishing his blocks.
I mean, sheesh. That is playing through the whistle.
The question for Thorpe though this spring won’t be about his love for punishing opponents in the run game, but rather, how much he’s progressed as a pass blocker. He looked pretty solid during his time against Kent State, but being that he played the rest of the season at defensive tackle, there’s reason to question his progression since then.
If Thorpe proves rusty, fellow redshirt sophomore Mike Miranda should be ready to take ahold the starting job. Miranda has his limitations physically — he’s a good thirty pounds smaller than Thorpe, and has Derek Dowrey-level arm length — but the kid is a natural along the offensive front. He stepped in for an injured Michal Menet against Maryland, and performed admirably on an offensive line that paved the way for 310 yards on the ground.
Miranda might not have the upside of his competition, but he’s dependable, smart player. On an offensive front that had a little trouble with consistency last year, having someone like Miranda man the right guard spot might be a good thing.
While Thorpe and Miranda are certainly the favorites, keep an eye on redshirt freshman Juice Scruggs. He impressed enough as a 278-pound freshman to get some run during the Maryland game, so with an offseason to to add bulk, he’s a darkhorse candidate to win the job.
PJ Mustipher vs. Antonio Shelton
We know Robert Windsor will be one of the starting defensive tackles, but the other spot remains up for grabs. While there are a myriad (10 other defensive tackles on the roster, to be exact) of options on the interior, redshirt junior Antonio Shelton and sophomore PJ Mustipher are likely your most realistic options. Neither player put up gaudy stats last season, but both were playing their best football by season’s end. Shelton in particular I thought really progressed as the year went along, culminating with a solid performance in the Citrus Bowl where he stepped in for a suspended Windsor.
Shelton isn’t the most nimble big guy on the team, but he has good size at 6-foot-2, 310 pounds, and is one of the stronger players on the roster. If he wins the job, I’d imagine he’d stay at the 1-Tech where his strength and run-stopping ability would be more helpful, with Windsor moving over to the 3-Tech.
Meanwhile, Mustipher offers you a little more positional versatility. He has the length and athleticism to play the 3-Tech, while an offseason of adding mass with Dwight Galt should help him as a 1-Tech. Although he was listed at 300 pounds, it was clear that Mustipher’s frame wasn’t close to filled out. At least body wise, expect a big jump from year one to two for Mustipher.
From a talent perspective, I don’t think Penn State has had someone of Mustipher’s level at defensive tackle since Austin Johnson. To steal a Mayockism, he’s a dancing bear. Will he be ready for the full-time gig? We shall see, but with this battle in particular, I think you’ll see quite a bit of Mustipher and Shelton regardless of who is the “starter.” Just the way defensive line coach Sean Spencer would like to operate with his rotations on the interior.
Tommy Stevens vs. Sean Clifford
Tommy Stevens will start the spring atop the depth chart, but it remains to be seen just how active of a participant he’ll be this March and April. He’s coming off what was essentially a year long foot injury, and while he’s no longer in a walking boot, one would imagine Penn State is going to be cautious with Stevens after his foot complications in 2018. Because of that, Sean Clifford is going to have a prime opportunity to get a ton of first team reps, which can only be beneficial down the line.
Will Tommy Stevens be the starting quarterback for Penn State come Idaho? Most likely. And to be honest, I hope that’s the case. But from what we know about Clifford, he’s an absurd competitor. I wouldn’t be surprised if he takes the bull by the horns this spring, and makes this thing a little tighter than James Franklin and Ricky Rahne expected.