Penn State debuted Thursday at No. 9 in the preseason coaches poll.
If the Nittany Lions are going to maintain that and post their third straight top-10 finish, it’s going to require some heavy lifting from new faces on defense and in the kicking game.
That means replacing the entire middle of the unit — both defensive tackles, a three-year starter at inside linebacker and two safeties who were selected in the NFL draft. Beyond that, the Lions will have to try out a small army of young, inexperienced kickers and hope to find one who sticks.
A quick look at the rest of the coaches poll shows why Penn State needs to have all of those spots solidified by the end of September.
The Lions are the third highest-ranked Big Ten team out of five in the top 15. And they have to play the other four in a span of seven weeks — No. 3 Ohio State on Sept. 29, No. 12 Michigan State on Oct. 13 after a bye, No. 14 Michigan on the road on Nov. 3 and then No. 7 Wisconsin on Nov. 10.
Curtis Cothran, Parker Cothren and Tyrell Chavis may not have been the most prominent names on last year’s defense, but losing them is one of the Lions’ most pressing concerns.
“Probably the biggest question marks for me going into the season are at defensive tackle,” coach James Franklin said last week at Big Ten media days in Chicago. “We graduated three senior tackles there.”
It would be a shock if the starters didn’t end up being juniors Kevin Givens and Robert Windsor, who have played the most by far. But in a defense that liberally rotates its linemen, depth could be a problem at a position that has no seniors.
Ellison Jordan missed the spring while recovering from offseason surgery. Fellow sophomore Antonio Shelton made strides. The other returning names are redshirt freshmen Fred Hansard and Damion Barber.
It adds up to a situation where true freshmen P.J. Mustipher and Judge Culpepper — son of former NFL lineman Brad — can make their case for early playing time.
Things are brighter at end, where the Lions have a wealth of options, including returning starters Shareef Miller and Ryan Buchholz.
Behind them are two sophomores who could be poised for breakouts themselves in Yetur Gross-Matos and Shane Simmons. And Shaka Toney has already shown to be a useful specialist on passing downs. With such a deep group of pass rushers, Penn State could again have Buchholz shift inside on third-and-long.
“Probably one of the strengths of our team, specifically on defense, is at defensive end,” Franklin said. “Excited about what those guys are going to be able to do.”
An Instagram post this summer by dismissed starter Manny Bowen hinted that his time with the Lions may not be over. But that doesn’t mean the senior-to-be will be on the roster to open camp.
Franklin would not address Bowen’s status last week when asked by reporters in Chicago, but he also didn’t flat out reject the idea of Bowen returning to a unit that could badly use his experience.
With Jason Cabinda and Brandon Smith gone, the linebackers are very much in flux. Senior Koa Farmer is the lone returning starter, but which of the three spots he’ll line up at is yet to be determined. The same goes for junior Cam Brown, who has the second-most experience out of the group.
At this point, the middle linebacker job is perhaps the biggest mystery on the team. Franklin said Jan Johnson has reminded him of another former walk-on in Smith — a high complement given Smith’s success replacing Bowen last year. Jake Cooper and Ellis Brooks were also in the mix during the spring.
Five-star All-America recruit Micah Parsons appears likely to open his career at the weak-side spot to help with his transition from defensive end. Given the uncertainty at all three spots, Parsons and fellow true freshman Jesse Luketa both have a big opportunity in camp.
“Whether they’re young players that played complementary roles in the past or freshmen, they’ll have to come in and compete,” Franklin said. “We have an exciting freshman class that’s going to be joining us, but it’s challenging to depend on those guys like that at those positions. It will be interesting to see how the whole thing plays out.”
All four starters from last year are gone — three having been drafted (Troy Apke, Marcus Allen, Christian Campbell) and another making early waves in training camp (Grant Haley). But the Lions enter the preseason feeling very good about their defensive backfield.
Penn State feels like it still has two returning starters at corner with junior John Reid coming back from a knee injury that cost him the entire 2017 season. And senior Amani Oruwariye led the team in interceptions despite seeing fewer snaps than Haley and Campbell.
Tariq Castro-Fields impressed enough as a true freshman that the Lions moved another blue-chip recruit in Lamont Wade to safety.
“There’s a lot of talk about us losing our secondary that all had opportunities at the NFL,” Franklin said. “But we have played so many guys in the secondary that a guy like Amani Oruwariye … last year finished second team All-Big Ten, had four interceptions, is stepping into a starting role for us.
“John Reid, who was a starter for us the year before, is coming back from an injury. We’re excited about what he’ll be able to do as well.”
Safety isn’t quite as settled. Senior captain Nick Scott looks to have a hold on one spot, while junior Garrett Taylor came out of the spring at the other.
With Wade and others like Ayron Monroe and Jonathan Sutherland pushing for jobs, however, that could change before the opener.
Penn State has one of the country’s very best punters and a whole lot of untested youth at kicker.
Blake Gillikin “has been fantastic since he stepped on campus,” according to Franklin, and it’s hard to argue as he instantly upgraded a position that had struggled through the NCAA sanctions. He enters his third year as the starting punter.
The Lions would love to replicate that feat at kicker, but it’s not going to be easy.
With Tyler Davis gone, the scholarship kicker is true freshman Jake Pinegar. But he won’t be handed the job as the Lions are also bringing in a handful of promising walk-ons, led by D.C. stalwart Rafael Checa and Hollidaysburg’s Vlad Hilling, who broke a Big 33 Game record with a 56-yard field goal in June. It’s possible one person ends up handling field goals while another does kickoffs.
“We’re going to have a number of young men that are going to be competing for that job, whether that’s guys that are already currently in our program or guys we recruited in this last class,” Franklin said. “Going to be some challenges there.”
Wallenpaupack’s Kyle Vasey earned a scholarship this summer as he enters his second year as the team’s long snapper.
The return game, as usual, won’t be sorted out until late in camp, though DeAndre Thompkins has proven to be an effective punt returner. There figures to be a deep competition to replace Saquon Barkley on kick returns.
Reach Derek Levarse at 570-991-6396 or on Twitter @TLdlevarse