Power Ranking Penn State's Positional Units for 2014

Tim Tolley@@TimTolley_BRContributor IJune 28, 2014

Power Ranking Penn State's Positional Units for 2014

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Like any team, the 2014 Nittany Lions have some bright spots and some...not so bright spots on the roster. Christian Hackenberg and Jesse James are names people will know this fall. As long as the offensive line allows it, of course.

    Here's a look at each position on the Nittany Lions' roster from weakest to strongest.

9. Offensive Line

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    Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press
    Top Players: Donovan Smith 

    Question Marks: Andrew Nelson, Brendan Mahon, Brian Gaia, Derek Dowrey

    Why They're Ranked Here 
    It's not that this unit will necessarily be bad, it's just that no one really has any reason to be confident.

    Andrew Nelson and Brendan Mahon could be starters on the right side and have never taken a snap in a game. 

    Derek Dowrey is also in the mix for a starting gig at guard and he was a defensive tackle just a few months ago. 

    The loss of senior Miles Dieffenbach was critical for this unit but there is potential there. It's just hard to imagine such a green unit gelling without some severe hiccups along the way.

8. Linebackers

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    Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press
    Top Players: Mike Hull 

    Question Marks: 
    Nyeem Wartman, Brandon Bell, Gary Wooten, Troy Reeder

    Why They're Ranked Here 

    The recent loss of Ben Kline made an already thin group even thinner and with only Mike Hull as a veteran presence, the learning curve here could be unpleasant.

    Wartman and Bell both had bright spots last season but will need to be more consistent to be relied on. Wooten has had some time now to familiarize himself with the position and Reeder will be on campus soon, fighting for playing time as a true freshman.

    What this group lacks in experience, they make up for with athleticism but that might not be enough in the Big Ten.

7. Special Teams

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    Keith Srakocic/Associated Press
    Top Players: Sam Ficken

    Question Marks: 
    Chris Gulla, Dan Pasquariello, De'Andre Thompkins, Troy Apke

    Why They're Ranked Here 

    It's tough to grade a unit like this not knowing who will be returning punts and kicks so there are several question marks across the board.

    It's safe to assume that Ficken has the place-kicking duties locked up and if he can increase his consistency, he has the skills to succeed.

    Gulla and Pasquariello will battle for the open punting job and both are capable, though inexperienced.

    As far as returners and the units that will surround them, Penn State has several athletic options to fill those positions. Expect to see many of the freshmen get chances on the return teams and even back deep.

    Thompkins is a freshman but is going to push his way onto the field with his speed and playmaking ability. He could be the best returner Penn State has had since Chaz Powell or even Derrick Williams. 

6. Wide Receivers

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    Mike McGinnis/Getty Images
    Top Players: Geno Lewis

    Question Marks: 
    Every other receiver; Matt Zanellato, DaeSean Hamilton, Chris Godwin, De'Andre Thompkins, Saeed Blacknall, Troy Apke, Mike Gesicki

    Why They're Ranked Here 

    Aside from Lewis, the entire Penn State wide receiving corps has a total of six career catches. And Lewis' whopping 18 receptions doesn't exactly make him a savvy veteran.

    Hamilton redshirted last year but has the tools and Zanellato's size and hands will help out, but a few of the freshman are going to be forced into action and they'll need to learn fast. Luckily, talent won't be an issue. 

    Apke, Gesicki, Godwin, Blacknall and Thompkins are a diverse group who will help to fill every need this season. Gesicki will grow into a tight end but in 2014 he'll be used to create mismatches on the outside. Godwin and Blacknall have the makings of NFL receivers and Thompkins' speed sets him apart from the group. 

    People who follow recruiting think Apke could be the steal of the bunch with his sneaky speed and hands. 

    This group will be fun to watch as time goes on but will they be able to adjust to Big Ten football in the matter of a few weeks?

5. Secondary

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    Top Players: Adrian Amos, Jordan Lucas

    Question Marks: 
    Trevor Williams, Malik Golden, Von Walker, Anthony Smith, Da'Quan Davis, Jordan Smith

    Why They're Ranked Here 

    Amos is a versatile stud and Lucas has the tools to be a standout corner. As we learned last season, two out of four isn't enough.

    Trevor Williams will get the first shot at the corner spot opposite of Lucas, but he struggled at times in 2013. There are several athletic options on the team and more are on the way with the incoming freshman class. 

    This could be a fluid group all season or at least until the staff finds a foursome they are comfortable with.

4. Running Backs

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    Top Players: Zach Zwinak, Bill Belton

    Question Marks: 
    Akeel Lynch

    Why They're Ranked Here 

    Zwinak has a 1,000-yard season under his belt and was a couple of carries away from another last season. Belton may surpass him this summer as the focal back as reports during the spring were that he is faster and stronger than ever.

    Both backs are capable of big things and have styles that vary enough to both be effective. 

    Akeel Lynch looks like he could end up better than both but he has to improve his pass protections and learn the intricacies of the position.

    Freshmen Johnathan Thomas, Mark Allen and Nick Scott will provide depth but hopefully won't be counted on for much production.

3. Quarterbacks

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    Top Players: Christian Hackenberg

    Question Marks: 
    Michael O'Connor, D.J. Crook

    Why They're Ranked Here 

    Christian Hackenberg looks like a superstar in the making and will be asked to put this team on his shoulders at times in 2014. If he is what we think he is, big things are ahead for Penn State.

    The depth behind him is talented but both O'Connor and Crook are unknown commodities to an extent. Hopefully they'll only be called upon in practice situations.

2. Defensive Line

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    Top Players: Deion Barnes, C.J. Olaniyan, Anthony Zettel

    Question Marks: 
    Austin Johnson, Garrett Sickels, Tarow Barney, Brad Bars

    Why They're Ranked Here 

    The combo of Barnes, Zettel, Johnson and Olaniyan may be the best starting group on the team and the depth, specifically at end, isn't much of a dropoff.

    Olaniyan will be making his case for a shot in the NFL and Zettel will be using his defensive end explosion against slower interior linemen. 

    The line will need to be strong to take pressure off of the back seven but they should be up to the task.

1. Tight Ends

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    Justin K. Aller/Getty Images
    Top Players: Kyle Carter, Jesse James, Adam Breneman

    Question Marks: 
    Brent Wilkerson

    Why They're Ranked Here 

    Just about any team in the country would be happy going into battle with James, Breneman or Carter as their focal tight end while Penn State has the issue of figuring out how to get them all involved. 

    Breneman being 100 percent healed from a knee injury will only make him more dangerous and when Carter is healthy, he's as good as anybody in the conference. 

    The staff will surely try to use this group to mask the deficiencies and inexperience at receiver. With a little luck, these guys can all have big seasons while the offense flourishes.