Penn State's 2017 roster has plenty of returning talent

(Wilkes-Barre) Times-Leader (TNS)
  • As it stands now, Penn State has just four players who started in the Rose Bowl who are leaving.
  • The exiting players are Brian Gaia, Brandon Bell, Evan Schwan and Malik Golden.
  • Chris Godwin, Garrett Sickels and Marcus Allen are mulling entering the NFL draft.

Well, topping that isn’t going to be easy.

Penn State players and coaches had a 2016 season to remember, though their challenge this week will be to not dwell too much on an agonizing last-second loss in the Rose Bowl.

Penn State safety Marcus Allen hams it up while getting his photo taken during media day for the Rose Bowl. Allen has yet to make a decision if he will return to PSU next season, or declare for the NFL draft.

One thing that will help in that regard is the fact that the Nittany Lions are slated to return all but a handful of starters from their Big Ten championship squad in 2017.

As it is, there are a few juniors who still must make a decision about whether to return or move on to the NFL. At the top of that list is wideout Chris Godwin, defensive end Garrett Sickels and safety Marcus Allen. The deadline for underclassmen to declare for the draft is Jan. 15.

But tight end Mike Gesicki and linebacker Jason Cabinda have already announced they will return for their senior seasons. As it stands now, Penn State has just four players who started in the Rose Bowl who are leaving — center Brian Gaia, linebacker Brandon Bell, defensive end Evan Schwan and safety Malik Golden.

“We’ve got a lot of work to do,” Franklin said after Monday’s 52-49 loss to USC. “There are programs that have been playing like this at this level for a number of years, and we’ve got a lot of work to do to catch up. It’s going to be a long, steady, difficult climb. As difficult as this year was to have, we’re going to have to fight even more to be able to sustain it. And there’s a lot of things that are going to go into that.

“But with the young men that we’ve got in this locker room and the staff that I’ve been fortunate enough to surround myself with … if we just realize we’ve got a great opportunity right now and capitalize on it, keep working, I think we can continue to build this thing and continue to do special things.”

Quarterback: At Fordham, offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead saw a big jump in his second year with the same starting quarterback.

After smashing several Penn State single-season records, Trace McSorley still has room to grow and can build on what was an up-and-down September.

Backup Tommy Stevens told Blue White Illustrated on Monday that he had no plans to transfer, meaning Penn State could have a full complement of scholarship quarterbacks for the first time in years — McSorley, Stevens, Jake Zembiec and incoming freshman Sean Clifford.

Running back: If it wasn’t already clear that Saquon Barkley was capable of playing in the NFL right now, he proved his point with a ridiculous 79-yard touchdown run through the USC defense.

But rules are rules, and the Lions will have Barkley in the backfield for one more year, giving them a shot to defend their conference title. The supporting cast of Andre Robinson, Mark Allen and Miles Sanders will return as well.

Receiver: Gesicki’s return at tight end was big news simply because Penn State doesn’t have anyone else with experience at the position.

Should Godwin decide to leave — and his nine-catch, 187-yard, two-touchdown performance vs. the Trojans had to impress NFL scouts — the Lions will be better equipped to replace him.

Between DaeSean Hamilton, Saeed Blacknall, DeAndre Thompkins, Irvin Charles, Juwan Johnson and the return of Brandon Polk from injury, there will be plenty of options at wideout.

Offensive line: For the first time in several years, the Lions will enter the season with the offensive line as a strength.

Teammates have said they expect injured tackles Brendan Mahon and Andrew Nelson to both return for a fifth year, adding experience to young guard Ryan Bates and Connor McGovern.

The main question will be replacing Brian Gaia at center. Last summer, the Lions had planned to use McGovern there — the same position he played at Lake-Lehman — his improving work at right guard as a true freshman may keep him there. Classmate Michal Menet, who redshirted this year, could be a candidate to play center.

Defensive line: If he decides to leave, Sickels would be a big loss — look no further than his second-half performance again Ohio State — but this again is a spot where Penn State has plenty of bodies.

Torrence Brown and Shareef Miller have both flashed at end and Ryan Buchholz could challenge to start as well. Parker Cothren, Curtis Cothran and Kevin Givens will lead the tackles.

A large group of redshirt freshmen led by Shane Simmons will be added to the Lions’ deep rotation as well. It will be a tough competition for playing time across the board.

Linebacker: If there’s one spot where depth remains an issue, it’s here. The Lions badly missed Bell when he missed time in 2016 and the defense had to play much more conservatively without him in there, especially down the stretch in the Rose Bowl loss.

There will be more time to work around that now, of course, with Manny Bowen possibly moving over to weak-side spot to play in the box with Cabinda. If coordinator Brent Pry goes that route, then Koa Farmer could start on the strong-side, as he did in the Rose Bowl.

Brandon Smith is expected to return for a fifth year, but the rest of the corps figures to be young — the Lions may again have to turn to freshmen to fill out the two-deep.

Secondary: The Lions are hoping Allen returns so they don’t have to replace both starting safeties. More than that, Allen is an emotional leader of the team and could very well be a captain if he’s back for 2017.

With Golden gone, Troy Apke will be a frontrunner to start, though the Lions could opt to move someone over from corner, where they are deeper right now. John Reid, Grant Haley and Christian Campbell make for a solid, veteran group on the outside.

Prized recruit Lamont Wade is one of the top defensive back prospects in the country and could see the field right away as well.

Special teams: The Lions’ improvement here with Blake Gillikin on punts and Tyler Davis on field goals played a huge role in their 11-win season.

The next step? Developing a consistent return game. Penn State hasn’t returned a kickoff for a touchdown since 2011 and hasn’t taken a punt all the way back since — amazingly — 2008.

Sanders and Reid both have the talent to do the job, but the results aren’t there just yet.