Penn State will open training camp in early August with some lingering questions it didn’t fully answer during spring drills. Time will be imperative, as the Lions open the season Sept. 1 at Purdue with a vital early-season Big Ten game.
After taking a vacation in July, Penn State’s coaching staff will return to find these three groups of positions at the top of their to-do list when camp begins.
The offensive line
Yes, it’s an annual refrain. Big Ten analyst Matt Millen pointed this out in a recent interview.
“The most important thing is that they have to straighten out that offensive line or they’ll have the same problems they had a year ago,” Millen said. “They have to move people. Until it’s legit, things will be the same.
Coach James Franklin seemed to agree.
“Can we step where you guys [in the media] ask about the offensive line, I say something and then we back it up?” Franklin asked last spring.
Penn State won’t be able to answer the question until at least mid-September. The Lions have been playing shorthanded on the line all spring, carrying only 6-7 healthy linemen at a time. At least that meant more reps for the attendees.
Left tackle Olu Fashanu said the line had made “positivity” its code word for spring. Fashanu clearly thrived as he likely got the starting spot. Caedan Wallace is back at right tackle and Juice Scruggs has moved smoothly from center guard.
But these guard places will be open during the training camp. Sal Wormley, a projected starter who was injured last season, returned this spring looking to reclaim his spot. Redshirt rookie Landon Tengwall is set to be another starter, with transfer Cornell Hunter Nourzad, an FCS All-American last season, and redshirt second Nick Dawkins also in the running. In fact, line coach Phil Trautwein called Dawkins the most improved player on the line.
But even with a strong core, the offensive line knows it has a lot of ground to cover.
Franklin said Penn State had lost “power” at linebacker, referring to likely NFL draft picks Brandon Smith and Ellis Brooks. Curtis Jacobs returns, at a new spot, but the other two starters will be new. And behind them is an inexperienced group.
Jonathan Sutherland, a sixth-year senior, moved from safety to outside linebacker, a move Franklin said was beneficial for him and the team. Franklin said the same thing last year about Jesse Luketa, who went from linebacker to defensive end. He was right then; is he still right?
Defensive coordinator Manny Diaz thinks so.
“He’s what everyone is looking for in the age of college football,” Diaz said of Sutherland. “He’s got DB-like coverage skills and he’s got linebacker toughness.
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At center linebacker, Kobe King and Tyler Elsdon will continue their competition in camp. King, who led the Penn State defense with five tackles in the Blue-White Game, drew praise from teammates for his rise. So did Elsdon, who didn’t play in the spring game.
Elsewhere, Penn State needs to develop some depth at the position. One player to watch is incoming rookie Abdul Carter, who has already hit a big milestone in Penn State football. He claimed the No. 11 linebacker as a true freshman.
Jordan Stout, now with the Baltimore Ravens, did everything but hold out last season, so Penn State has openings at punter, field goal kicker and kickoff specialist. Sander Sahaydak and Jake Pinegar will duel, or possibly split, the kicking role. The punter, meanwhile, might be new to campus.
Sahaydak, a freshman in a red shirt, has the strongest leg on the list. He had a 47-yard field goal in the Blue-White game and has the power to kick off. Stout said last year that the ball had a different sound coming off Sahaydak’s foot.
Pinegar has been around for a while. The fifth-year senior was the starting kicker in 2018, went 11-for-12 in 2019 and gradually began to share the role more with Stout.
Last year, Stout did it all while Pinegar was nursing an injury. But Pinegar stayed with the program.
“I wasn’t as healthy as I wanted or needed to be,” Pinegar said. “But I played here for three years. One year doesn’t suit you, you don’t leave. You stay here and finish what you built. So that was my mindset.”
Franklin and special teams coach Stacy Collins liked what they saw last spring from punters, including Gabe Nwosu, a 6-foot-6, 278-pound redshirt freshman. “It was great to see Gabe Nwosu get the ball out,” Franklin said after the Blue-White game. “He hadn’t done this all spring to be honest with you.”
But the Penn State punter could still be a real freshman. Alex Bacchetta, the nation’s No. 1 punter in the 2022 recruiting class according to Kohl’s Kicking, graduated from the same Georgia high school as former Penn State punter Blake Gillikin.
Gillikin worked with Bacchetta and offered this scouting report.
“Blake says he’s the best freshman he’s ever seen,” Franklin said. “So we’ll see how it goes.”
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AllPennState is the place for Penn State news, views and insights on the SI.com Network. Editor Mark Wogenrich covered Penn State for more than 20 years, tracking three coaching teams, three Big Ten titles and a catalog of great stories. Follow him on Twitter @MarkWogenrich. And remember to subscribe (button on the homepage) for more quality content on the SI.com network.