Penn State Football: 5 Nittany Lions Who Could Surprise People This Spring

Tim TolleyContributor IMarch 4, 2014

Penn State Football: 5 Nittany Lions Who Could Surprise People This Spring

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    Gene J Puskar/Associated Press

    Each March, college football teams across the country relinquish early-morning workouts in shorts and shirts in favor of actual football practice.

    The Nittany Lions are less than two weeks away from spring practice, a four-week period that will culminate on Blue-White Weekend with the annual Blue-White spring game on April 12 at 1:30 p.m. ET.

    Penn State returns 15 starters including standouts Christian Hackenberg, Deion Barnes and Adrian Amos, but with a new coaching staff, there will be plenty of opportunity for movement across the depth chart. 

    Here's a look at a handful of players who will benefit from the "clean slate" and possibly make a big impact in the coming weeks.

     

    All stats courtesy of CFBStats.com.

RB Akeel Lynch

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    Matthew O'Haren-USA TODAY Sports

    The Nittany Lions return a trio of capable running backs including Zach Zwinak, who rushed for 989 yards last year and 1,000 yards in 2012, as well as Bill Belton, who averaged over five yards per carry en route to an 800-yard season last year.

    But Akeel Lynch, or "Big Maple" as he is affectionately referred to, has the tools and opportunity to jump to the head of the pack this spring.

    Despite seeing limited action in 2013, he impressed against Eastern Michigan and Kent State, rushing for 231 yards on just 27 carries against the MAC foes.

    He has since added weight and is up to 218 pounds, according to Jeff Rice of 247Sports, which should add durability and strength. The already versatile back will push those ahead of him and could emerge as a real player by the end of the spring.

LB Nyeem Wartman

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    Jamie Sabau/Getty Images

    Penn State will be looking for two linebackers to start alongside Mike Hull, and Wartman should be given a chance at both the middle and outside spots.

    Athleticism has never been a question with him, but he has occasionally seemed indecisive in action.

    2013 was the first year that he was able to see extensive action after redshirting as a true freshman following a lingering knee injury. 

    If new linebackers coach Brent Pry can get him to play more confidently, the redshirt sophomore from Philadelphia could give the Nittany Lions their fastest, most versatile middle linebacker since Dan Connor.

WR Matt Zanellato

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    Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

    Shortly after coming to Happy Valley, new head coach James Franklin added to an already strong receiver recruiting class when he secured a commitment from 6'3" Saeed Blacknall.

    According to 247Sports, seven of the 13 receivers with offers from Penn State are at least 6'2", while just three are less than 6 feet tall.

    In the short time he's been at Penn State, Franklin and his staff have shown some favoritism to big wide receivers.

    Insert Zanelatto, the tallest wide receiver on the spring roster.

    Known to have soft hands and above-average route-running ability, he can capitalize on a wide-open receiving depth chart that lost the top two pass-catchers from a year ago.

    Since he is a big target who has a year under his belt with Hackenberg, don't be surprised if Zanelatto gets some buzz this spring and into the summer.

S Malik Golden

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    Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

    With Malcolm Willis and Stephen Obeng-Agyapong's careers coming to a close, Penn State will be looking for new faces in the secondary this spring.

    Get used to hearing Golden's name.

    Adrian Amos could lock up one of the safety spots if he doesn't slide into the "Star" position or get moved back to corner.

    Golden was one of the few other players who took snaps as a safety, and he made an impact against Wisconsin. Recruited as an athlete, he played wide receiver and corner in high school and has put on some good weight since arriving at Penn State.

    This spring is his first opportunity to make a splash and establish himself as a key player on the defense, but he has all the tools and ability to compete.

DE/DT Anthony Zettel

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    Associated Press

    Zettel is one of the most intriguing players on the Penn State roster due to his size and the impact he makes on the field.

    At 6'4" and just over 270 pounds, he's bigger than most defensive ends and a little small for a defensive tackle, but when he is on the field at any position, he's a force.

    Don't be surprised to see him move up and down the line this spring as the new staff tries to figure out the best way to use the team's most versatile lineman.

    Zettel could emerge as the favorite to start at tackle, or he could unseat one of the incumbent starters at end.

    Either way, expect the redshirt junior from Michigan to get some pub as the trees in central Pennsylvania get their leaves back.