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Talent and Experience of Penn State Over the Years

NCAA Football: Citrus Bowl-Kentucky vs Penn State Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

I just spent nearly an hour trying to figure out a good lede for this, but I couldn’t come up with anything. So let’s make this as basic as possible — this article goes through Penn State’s starting units the past three seasons (2016, 2017, and 2018) while also projecting onto 2019. It covers three things:

  1. Rating — the 247Sports Composite recruit ranking of each starter
  2. Year — what year the player is/was in the program (true freshman=1, redshirt senior=5)
  3. Experience — how many years the player has/had been a starter

That last one is the toughest to define because there’s some grey areas for each year. Like in 2016, who were the five starters on the offensive line? Should Andrew Nelson count because he started the first six games, or should Chasz Wright get the nod because he started the last five games? What about Steven Gonzalez? Same deal with Saeed Blacknall and DeAndre Thompkins, who pretty much spent the entire 2016 and 2017 seasons sharing a starting role. Then there’s someone like Kevin Givens who started games and played a ton of snaps in 2016 and 2017, but making him the starter would mean that Curtis Cothran wasn’t the starter which doesn’t seem right.

I bring this all up to say: this isn’t an exact science, but it should give you an idea on what the experience level was for Penn State during those years. So just keep that in mind before you email me to tell me that Givens started 10 games prior to the 2018 season. I already know that.

What’s the point of all this? Nothing really. It’s May and I finally had some time to workshop this post out. Basically, I just find this information interesting — seeing the trends from year-to-year — and think you will too.

Now for the most exciting words in capital-J Journalism: let’s get to the data, baby!

*Note: if you want to check out the spreadsheet for a little more info (i.e. which players are being accounted for) then copy and paste this:

**Double-note: I counted 12 starters defensively because we play a 4-2-5 so much that the third cornerback is essentially a starter. My spreadsheet, my rules.



Penn State was actually pretty talented offensively in 2016, with seven (Barkley, Godwin, Blacknall, Gesicki, Mahon, Bates, and McGovern) of the 11 staters being four-star prospects. What it wasn’t though was filled with fourth-or-fifth-year players — Gaia, Hamilton, and Mahon were the lone redshirt juniors or redshirt senior starting. As you’ll see in 2017, that changes quite a bit.


This is a theme you’ll continue to see through the years, but there’s a big talent gap between the offense and defense. For 2016, those also weren’t exactly experienced either as eight first-year starters — Sickels, Cothren, Cothran, Schwan, Bowen, Golden, Reid, and Campbell — took the field for Penn State.


OFFENSE RATING: 90.54 (+0.41)
OFFENSE YEAR: 3.45 (+0.45)
OFFENSE EXP: 2.18 (+0.36)

The reason Penn State didn’t see a big talent jump is because the majority of the offense returned. Having an experience level of 2.18 (meaning the average starter was more than a two-year starter) is just some ridiculous continuity.

P.S. It also helps to have Saquon Barkley.

DEFENSE RATING: 86.59 (0.00)
DEFENSE YEAR: 3.92 (+0.42)
DEFENSE EXP: 1.92 (+0.42)

Funny how the math works here: there’s no difference in rating between the 2016 and 2017 group even though Buchholz, Shareef, Koa, Apke, and Oruwariye jumped into the starting unit in 2017. Math is #fun.

You know what else is fun? Having that much experience defensively. Every single starter was a redshirt sophomore or higher, and it featured three three-or-four-year starters in Marcus Allen, Jason Cabinda, and Grant Haley. So while not the most talented unit in all the land, Penn State was the *most experienced.

*I don’t have proof of this, but I am rather confident that it was.


OFFENSE RATING: 91.64 (+1.10)
OFFENSE YEAR: 3.18 (-0.27)
OFFENSE EXP: 1.82 (-0.36)

Out went many of the vets and their experience, and in came the talent — 1.10 is a substantial jump. Unfortunately, the talent influx didn’t lead to all that many points in the final nine games of the season, but I don’t want to talk about that.

DEFENSE RATING: 87.65 (+1.06)
DEFENSE YEAR: 3.83 (-0.09)
DEFENSE EXP: 1.33 (-0.59)

Like the offense, the defense lost quite a bit of starting experience — eight new starters were being broken in, while the four other returning starters (Shareef, Koa, Reid, and Oruwariye) were only in their second year starting. For a defensive unit that previously had multiple three-year starters, that’s quite the change-up.

The talent did improve quite substantially though, and that’s especially the case when Jan Johnson’s 247 ranking of 75 really brings the rest of the group down.


OFFENSE RATING: 93.71 (+2.07)
OFFENSE YEAR: 2.91 (-0.27)
OFFENSE EXP: 1.64 (-0.18)

So this will be Penn State’s least experienced offense of the last four years which isn’t, uh, ideal. Fortunately though, the talent level continues to rise, with a jump of 2.07 to an average rating of 93.71 thanks to Ricky Slade, Justin Shorter, Jahan Dotson, Rasheed Walker, and CJ Thorpe projected to join the starting 11. If Penn State’s offense was a recruit, it would have been ranked No. 150 overall in the country in 2019 — not too shabby.

DEFENSE RATING: 89.56 (+1.91)
DEFENSE YEAR: 3.83 (0.00)
DEFENSE EXP: 1.67 (+0.34)

Oh, hello there. This is assuming that Antonio Shelton (82.84), Shaka Toney (84.98), and Lamont Wade (97.97) win their position battles, but after three years of mid-three star talent, Pry finally has a defensive unit with an average rating of a four-star. I mean, I really don’t think it can stated enough just how massive of a jump in talent it will be from last year to 2019 — and that’s not even considering the depth of four-stars (Shane Simmons, PJ Mustipher, Fred Hansard, Ellis Brooks, Jesse Luketa, Jaquan Brisker) that will be rotated in.

Unlike the offense, there isn’t just a talent jump for the 2019 unit — there’s also an experience jump. Besides for the ridiculously experienced 2017 defense, this will be the most experienced Penn State defense Pry has had in the last four years. Last year had zero three-year starters and just four two-year starters (Shareef, Koa, Reid, and Oruwariye), whereas the 2019 group is projected to have one three-year starter (Reid) and six two-year starters (Yetur Gross-Matos, Robert Windsor, Jan Johnson, Cam Brown, Garrett Taylor, and Tariq Castro-Fields).