Penn State Football: Position-by-Position Spring Practice Preview

Tim Tolley@@TimTolley_BRContributor IMarch 7, 2014

Penn State Football: Position-by-Position Spring Practice Preview

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    In just over a week, the Nittany Lions will take the field with new coaches, new playbooks and some new teammates as they formally begin the 2014 season with spring practice.

    Gone are familiar faces like Allen Robinson, Glenn Carson and Malcolm Willis. Replacing them are youngsters like De'Andre Thompkins, Michael O'Connor and Tarow Barney, who have begun their college careers a semester early.

    Very few positions have clear-cut starters at this point, and there will be fun battles at the offensive skill positions and the defensive back seven.

    Which running back will leave spring at the front of the pack? Will someone step up to fill the voids left by DaQuan Jones and Robinson? Where will Adrian Amos play?

    Here's a position-by-position breakdown of what to watch this spring as the new version the of the Nittany Lions football team takes shape.


    All stats courtesy of


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    At the top

    Christian Hackenberg


    In the mix

    Michael O'Connor

    Jack Seymour

    Austin Whipple

    D.J. Crook


    What to watch

    Who will back up Hack?


    Rather than giving the spiel about every position being up for grabs, the new staff has often gushed about Hackenberg. According to Mark Wogenrich of The Morning Call, James Franklin recently said about his sophomore quarterback, "From what I've seen, he's got a chance to be pretty good, am I right?"

    The intriguing battle here will be for second string. The staff would like to redshirt O'Connor to put a year of eligibility between him and Hackenberg, but one of the redshirt freshmen will need to step up to make that possible.

Running Backs

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    At the top

    Zach Zwinak

    Bill Belton


    In the mix

    Akeel Lynch


    What to watch

    Who will emerge as the man?


    Zwinak has been the workhorse for the last two seasons, but 2013 saw Belton step up when fumble issues cost Zwinak carries.

    Lynch took advantage of the opportunities he got last year, averaging 5.97 yards on 60 carries and may be the best all-around back on the team.

    Will the new staff favor the bruising Zwinak, the change-of-pace Belton or the inexperienced full package that Lynch provides?

Tight Ends

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    At the top

    Jesse James

    Kyle Carter


    In the mix

    Adam Breneman

    Brent Wilkerson


    What to watch

    First, second and third string.


    Bill O'Brien used two different tight end positions (F, Y) to differentiate between players. What will the new staff do to provide opportunities for all of the talented players on the tight end depth chart?

    Breneman played last season, just 14 months removed from an ACL tear. Wilkerson missed the campaign with a back injury, and Carter fought a wrist injury all year.

    Meanwhile, James led the unit in catches and was second on the team in receiving yards.

    Competition this spring will be heated at what could be the team's most talent-laden position. Every spot will be battled for.

Wide Receivers

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    At the top

    Geno Lewis


    In the mix

    Richy Anderson

    De'Andre Thompkins

    Matt Zanellato

    DaeSean Hamilton


    What to watch

    Who will pick up the slack?


    Allen Robinson and Brandon Felder accounted for nearly 77 percent of all passes caught by wide receivers last year.

    This spring, Lewis will have the opportunity to establish himself as the go-to target in the new offense, but equal opportunity will be given to the rest of the depth chart.

    Every receiver position is up for grabs, and it will be interesting to see how this diverse group ends up being slotted with the new staff.

    Will they put a premium on Zanellato's size or the speed of Thompkins? Hamilton missed his freshman season with an injury he's still nursing, but he might be the best athlete of the bunch.

Offensive Tackles

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    At the top

    Donovan Smith

    Andrew Nelson


    In the mix

    Chasz Wright

    Anthony Alosi


    What to watch

    Can someone provide depth?


    Smith is a proven asset, and big things are expected in Nelson's redshirt freshman season. All signs point to them starting at left and right tackle, respectively.

    But then what?

    Depth will be a huge concern leading up to the start of the season with Chasz Wright not being quite ready yet and Alosi being better fit to play on the interior of the line.

    It's possible that a walk-on like Austin Fielder or Evan Galimberti could step up and provide some relief, but they may still be a year or two away.

Guards, Centers

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    At the top

    Miles Dieffenbach

    Anthony Alosi

    Angelo Mangiro


    In the mix

    Wendy Laurent

    Brendan Mahon


    What to watch



    Dieffenbach will probably start. Somewhere. Mangiro could start at center if someone else steps up at guard. Mahon may be ready, but if Laurent is more ready and starts at center then Mahon may back up at guard. 

    Much like linebacker, which we'll get to, the inside of the offensive line is going to be a running experiment.

    The good news is that the odd man out here could end up in the rotation at tackle.

Defensive Tackles

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    At the top

    Austin Johnson


    In the mix

    Antoine White

    Derek Dowrey

    Tarow Barney

    Brian Gaia


    What to watch

    Is Barney ready?


    Penn State needed to find a JUCO tackle to add immediate depth, and Barney was that guy. If he can step up and earn a starting role, the position should be fine. If not, it will be interesting to see who lands beside Johnson.

    Gaia is still putting on weight, and White is a true freshman. Dowrey may be ready, but he recorded just one tackle in eight games last year.

    Keep an eye on Anthony Zettel, who has put on weight and could see snaps in the tackle rotation.

Defensive Ends

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    At the top

    Deion Barnes

    C.J. Olaniyan


    In the mix

    Anthony Zettel

    Evan Schwan

    Garrett Sickels


    What to watch

    Who's going to push the returning starters?


    It's hard to imagine anybody unseating Barnes or Olaniyan, but Zettel is a playmaker and Sickels was one of the highest-rated defensive line recruits in recent memory.

    The rotation here will be interesting, and it's not unfounded to think that a guy like Curtis Cothran or Brad Bars could steal some snaps based on performance at practice.


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    At the top

    Mike Hull


    In the mix

    Nyeem Wartman

    Ben Kline

    Brandon Bell

    Gary Wooten


    What to watch

    Everything but Hull.


    The different combinations that the coaches will use at linebacker this spring seems endless with Wooten, Wartman and Kline getting a shot in the middle to see who will play between Hull, Bell and...Kline or Wartman.

    This unit has some diversity and athleticism but very little certainty.

    Kline's lingering shoulder injury could give Bell extended snaps as he looks to build on a solid freshman season.


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    At the top

    Jordan Lucas


    In the mix

    Trevor Williams

    Da'Quan Davis

    Jordan Smith

    Anthony Smith


    What to watch

    Can someone keep Adrian Amos at safety?


    The new staff wants to move Amos away from the corner on the depth chart, but it's hard to say if anybody else is capable of filling in.

    Williams and Davis saw action over the last two years, but neither was particularly impressive on a consistent basis.

    The Smiths both offer the size that this coaching staff prefers at corner, but both are green.

    Luckily, only one position is up for grabs as Lucas hopes to take the next step toward becoming an elite corner.


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    At the top

    Adrian Amos


    In the mix

    Malik Golden

    Ryan Keiser

    Jesse Della Valle

    Kasey Gaines


    What to watch

    Who will roam next to Amos?


    Keiser and Della Valle played a ton at safety last year, but Malik Golden will be hard to fight off. 

    Meanwhile, Gaines is the fastest of this group but lacks experience.

    There's a chance that two of these guys could emerge and let Amos remain at corner, but more likely, it will turn into a three-way race to play beside Amos in center field.