Breaking down each position in Penn State's newly released football spring depth chart
Penn State football didn’t hold its annual Blue-White Game on Saturday due to concerns surrounding COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. But it still did release its annual spring depth chart.
Assistant coaches have said they’ve tried to quiz players and keep them accountable while they train away from Happy Valley, so the depth chart could certainly change — and almost certainly will — once the incoming freshmen join the team and the Nittany Lions finally get back on campus.
But, in the meantime, here’s a closer look at the depth chart and what it all means:
No surprises here. A banged-up Clifford wasn’t the same quarterback toward the end of last season, but it’s clear he’s the Nittany Lions’ top option here — especially with new offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca set to tap into his potential. A friendly reminder: In Clifford’s first eight starts, he had 113 more passing yards, eight more passing touchdowns and a completion rate 7 percentage points better than Trace McSorley over his first eight starts.
1. Journey Brown, RS Jr.
2. Noah Cain, Soph.
3. Devyn Ford, Soph.
4. Caziah Holmes, Fr.
5. Tank Smith, RS Fr.
If there was even an ounce of lingering doubt about Brown, he cleared it up with authority in the Cotton Bowl — with a Penn State-bowl record 202 rushing yards. So, really, the most interesting thing to come out of the RB depth chart is the fact that Cain is listed over Ford for now. Is that surprising? Not really, considering Cain’s bruising running style complements Brown’s so well and the fact that Cain proved early on he was one of the Nittany Lions’ top options at the position. (Take away each back’s longest run, and Cain averaged 5 yards per carry compared to Ford’s 4.2.)
Penn State will again utilize a by-committee approach. But it’s obvious Brown and Cain are the top-two options, and the spring depth chart at least reflects that.
1. Jahan Dotson, Jr.; Daniel George, RS. Soph.; TJ Jones, RS Fr.
2. Isaac Lutz, RS Sr.; Cam Sullivan-Brown, RS. Jr.; John Dunmore, RS Fr.
3. Justin Weller, RS Jr.; KeAndre Lambert-Smith, Fr.; Jaden Dottin, Fr.
4. Henry Fessler, RS Soph.; Benjamin Wilson, RS Sr.; Alec Berger, RS Jr.
5. Cameron Pica, RS. Jr.
If there’s one position’s depth chart that could be completely turned upside down by the end of the season, it’s this one. Only Dotson is a lock to start for the opener, but it’s important to see who has the early edge — and, right now, it’s the more-experienced George (not a surprise at this point) and Jones.
Dunmore has been a favorite breakout pick from other analysts, and it’s worth watching if he closes the gap against Jones. There’s also a plethora of talented incoming receivers set to join the team — Parker Washington, Malick Meiga, Norval Black — and young players like Lambert-Smith could also make an impact. They’re obviously hampered by the global pandemic, more than their more-veteran teammates, but they have the talent to make a push once the country starts reopening.
1. Pat Freiermuth, Jr.
2. Zack Kuntz, RS Soph.
3. Brenton Strange, RS Fr.
4. Theo Johnson, Fr.
5. Trevor Baker, RS Jr.
6. Grayson Kline, RS. Soph.
7. Tommy Friberg, RS. Fr.
Freiermuth might be the most talented tight end in the country ... so let’s just skip over him coming in at No. 1 on the depth chart. The real competition here was between Kuntz and Strange, and the No. 2 spot is nearly just as important with the Nittany Lions utilizing plenty of two tight-end sets.
Tight ends coach Tyler Bowen praised Kuntz a lot in a recent conference call with the media, explaining how he gained about 30 pounds of muscle since enrolling and how emotionally mature he’s been through it all. Kuntz played in 13 games last season; Strange in two.
“I’ve been really pleased with Zack’s development since he got here,” Bowen said.
1. Rasheed Walker, RS Soph.; Mike Miranda, RS Jr.; Michal Menet, RS Sr.; CJ Thorpe, RS. Jr.; Will Fries, RS. Sr.
2. Des Holmes, RS Jr.; Sal Wormley, RS Fr.; Juice Scruggs, RS. Soph.; Anthony Whigan, RS. Jr.; Caedan Wallace, RS. Fr.
3. Collin De Boef, RS. Soph.; Nick Dawkins, Fr.; Blake Zalar, RS. Fr.; Justin Kopko, RS. Fr.; Bryce Effner, RS. Soph.
4. Dalton Daddona, RS. Fr.; Will Knutsson, RS. Soph.; Kaleb Konigus, RS. Soph.
Every starter this season got the nod in at least four games last season and, overall, the line returns about 85 career starts. Clearly this is an experienced group — under a strong new position coach in Phil Trautwein — and improvement should be expected.
Outside of the starters, Des Holmes and Caedan Wallace are both worth keeping an eye on. Both have earned offseason praise, and both should still see plenty of time on the field in a backup capacity. But don’t expect any first-string changes from this part of the spring depth chart.
1. Shaka Toney, RS. Sr.; PJ Mustipher, Jr.; Antonio Shelton, RS Sr.; Jayson Oweh, RS. Soph.
2. Adisa Isaac, Soph.; Judge Culpepper, RS. Soph.; Fred Hansard, RS. Jr.; Shane Simmons, RS. Sr.
3. Nick Tarburton, RS. Soph.; Hakeem Beamon, RS. Fr.; Damion Barber, RS. Jr.; Smith Vilbert, RS. Fr.
4. Dan Vasey, RS. Jr.; Dvon Ellies, RS. Fr.; Joseph Appiah Darkwa, RS. Fr.; Bryce Mostella, Fr.
5. Aeneas Hawkins, RS. Soph.; Fatorma Mulbah, Fr.; Alex Furmanek, RS. Fr.
6. Evan Presta, RS. Jr.; Cole Brevard, Fr.
Even with losing a projected first-round NFL draft pick in Yetur Gross-Matos — along with DT Robert Windsor and defensive line coach Sean Spencer — this still remains one of the most-loaded lines in the conference. Most of the backups could find starting spots on other Big Ten teams, and there’s enough depth here that no player should have to feel winded in the fourth quarter.
Oweh’s progress will be especially important to this unit’s success, and if he can tap into his monstrous potential, he could post up Aaron Maybin-esque numbers. And if he comes up short? Well, Toney did already say Isaac is a future first-round pick.
1. Micah Parsons, Jr.; Ellis Brooks, RS Jr.; Brandon Smith, Soph.
2. Charlie Katshir, RS. Soph.; Jesse Luketa, Jr.; Lance Dixon, RS. Fr.
3. Robbie Dwyer, RS. Fr.; Max Chizmar, RS. Jr.; Denver Light, RS. Fr.
4. Tyler Elsdon, Fr.
The main battle here is Brooks vs. Luketa — and it’s interesting to note that Brooks has the edge. But no matter who wins out in the end, the “loser” will likely take on that fourth linebacker spot like Brooks did last year, when he racked up 39 tackles.
Defensive coordinator/linebackers coach Brent Pry has also said there’s a three-way competition at the outside spot opposite Parsons, between Smith, Dixon and Katshir. But it’d be a huge shock if Smith didn’t come out on top. Not only does Smith clearly have the highest ceiling, he also saw more time last season than the other two. He had 14 tackles, twice as many as Katshir (5) and Dixon (2) combined.
1. Tariq Castro-Fields, Sr.; Jaquan Brisker, Sr.; Lamont Wade, Sr.; Donovan Johnson, RS Jr.
2. Keaton Ellis, Soph.; Jonathan Sutherland, RS. Jr.; Tyler Rudolph, RS. Fr.; Marquis Wilson, Soph.
3. Daequan Hardy, RS Fr.; Enzo Jennings, Fr.; Trent Gordon, RS. Soph.; Joey Porter Jr., RS Fr.
4. Makai Self, RS. Fr.; CJ Holmes, RS. Jr.; Drew Hartlaub, RS. Jr.; Joseph Johnson III, Fr.
5. Sebastian Constantini, RS. Fr.; Dylan Farronato, RS. Fr.; Jaden Seider, RS. Fr.; Corey Melzer, RS. Fr.
Brisker is taking over for the graduated Garrett Taylor, and Johnson will move up to fill John Reid’s vacant spot. The latter is the biggest question mark in the secondary.
Johnson is in his fourth season with the program, while the two corners competing with him (Ellis, Wilson) are both true sophomores. Any one of those three could start come the season opener: Ellis is the fast prospect that’s given up some big plays but played a lot of snaps last season, Wilson is the ball hawk that came on later last year, and Johnson is the grizzled vet who missed most of last season with injuries.
Regardless, cornerbacks coach Terry Smith was adamant Johnson has the edge for that starting CB spot.
“Once we get back to ball, he’s gonna be the first guy on the field to play and compete,” Smith said earlier this month.
Punter: 1. Jordan Stout, RS. Jr.; 2. Carson Landis, RS. Jr.; 3. Bradley King, RS. Soph.
Kicker (FG): 1. Jake Pinegar, Jr.; 2. Jordan Stout, RS. Jr.
Kicker (Kickoff): 1. Jordan Stout, RS. Jr.; 2. Jake Pinegar, Jr.; 3. Rafael Checa, RS. Soph.; 4. Anthony DaSilva, RS. Fr.; 5. Vlad Hilling, RS. Soph.
Holder: 1. Jordan Stout, RS. Jr.; 2. Joe Calcagno, RS. Jr.; 3. Bradley King, RS. Soph.
Long snapper: 1. Chris Stoll, RS. Jr.; 2. Joe Calcagno, RS. Jr.
Kickoff returner: 1. Journey Brown, RS. Jr.; 2. Devyn Ford, Soph.
Kickoff “Off” returner: 1. Micah Parsons, Jr.; 2. Caziah Holmes, Fr.
Punt returner: 1. Jahan Dotson, Jr.; 2. Marquis Wilson, Soph.
Parsons was initially listed as the starting kick returner Saturday morning while Stout was the starting field-goal kicker, but Penn State issued a correction later Saturday afternoon. The returners, instead, are Brown and Ford — which makes a lot more sense — while Parsons and Holmes are the “off” returners, meaning they’ll usually act as the lead blocker. (Last season, KJ Hamler had 24 returns as the starter while Brown had three returns as the “off” returner.)
The biggest change from last season comes at punter, where four-year starter Blake Gillikin will be replaced by the strong-legged Stout. The Virginia Tech transfer nailed a school-record 57-yard field goal last season and, if he can fully transition to punter, he could be fun to watch.