The Blue-White Game marked the end of spring camp — and the end of an interesting evaluation period.
As the Penn State coaching staff holds individual, end-of-camp meetings with players, this is a time to reflect on what the Nittany Lions’ 15 practices offered in terms of insight. How will Penn State look in 2019? What did we learn?
There is still plenty to figure out between now and Penn State’s season opener on Aug. 31. But three significant questions were answered.
"A true competition:" When James Franklin said in February that Tommy Stevens would be Penn State’s starter entering spring camp, followed by Sean Clifford and then Will Levis, some read into that as Stevens being a shoo-in for the job come August. He’s the redshirt senior, the guy who waited behind Trace McSorley all those years, after all. And if he’s getting Franklin’s approval in the winter, that has to hold up, right?
Well, it seems Penn State’s impending quarterback battle will be a legitimate one. Franklin said as much after the Blue-White Game, when asked if Stevens would enter fall camp as the Nittany Lions’ No. 1.
“He’s got to go take it,” Franklin said, comparing Stevens to safety Garrett Taylor, who bided his time behind Marcus Allen before snatching the starting spot last season. “We want to be able to name the starter as soon as we possibly can, but we are not ready to do that right now. It’s going to need to be more of a true competition. ... Our coaching staff has all the belief in the world in Tommy, our coaching staff understands what Tommy has done and who he can be. But we also have belief in the other guys, and we’ve created real good competition in our quarterback room. We’ll see how this plays out.”
Ultimately, Stevens is still the favorite to be Penn State’s starter when the Nittany Lions open against Idaho on Aug. 31. If he isn’t the No. 1 guy? Well, he’ll likely be gone.
“We know that this is his last shot. If he’s not Penn State’s quarterback, he’s going to be somebody’s quarterback,” Stevens’ father, Tom, told the CDT. “Everyone already knows, if he’s not playing at Penn State this year, he’s probably going to leave. I don’t think that’s much news to anybody. He wants to be a starter.”
Blocking clarity: Entering spring practice, no one knew for sure what Penn State’s offensive line would look like. After Connor McGovern and (surprisingly) Ryan Bates bolted for the draft, how would Matt Limegrover replace a pair of long-time starters? Would Will Fries move from right tackle to the left side? Would Michal Menet switch from center back to guard, where he was recruited out of his school?
No, and no. Rasheed Walker — a redshirt freshman — took first-team snaps at left tackle while Fries stayed on the right side. Menet remained at center. Steven Gonzalez didn’t lose his grip on the left guard spot, while CJ Thorpe and Mike Miranda alternated throughout spring camp at right guard. Thorpe started the Blue-White Game, but Gonzalez said earlier this spring that the right guard duel will continue right up until Week 1.
While Thorpe has the advantage now, we don’t know who will start at right guard, rounding out Limegrover’s line. But we know the configuration. We know that — barring injury, a grad transfer or significant growth from JUCO signee Anthony Whigan — it’ll be Walker and Fries at tackle. It’ll be Menet at center. And, according to Franklin, all three guards will play in 2019.
That’s valuable insight fans and media alike didn’t have in February.
The anchor: On the opening day of spring ball, Franklin expressed a need to discover a two-deep at DT and safety. After 15 practices, it’s clear they’ve found that on the interior.
Robert Windsor will start at one spot; that’s a certainty. Antonio Shelton will likely line up next to the 300-pound nose tackle, with PJ Mustipher working in as a third-starter. Fred Hansard and Damion Barber impressed at the Blue-White Game, and a couple weeks ago, Franklin mentioned Judge Culpepper as someone who noticeably grew throughout the spring.
That is a significant win for the Penn State coaching staff. They’ll find out more about Shelton, Mustipher and company once Big Ten play rolls around. But entering the season with confidence at defensive tackle is important.
Combine that with a group of pass-rushers — Yetur Gross-Matos, Shaka Toney, Shane Simmons, Jayson Oweh and Daniel Joseph — that Franklin called the best he’s been around in two decades, the Nittany Lions’ front-four could lead the country in sacks per game in back-to-back years.
Assistant coach Sean Spencer said this defensive line has “a good chance” to be the best Penn State’s seen in the Franklin era.
“We are very, very talented,” Spencer said. “We are fast, and I think the cohesiveness of this group is tremendous right now.”