The starters, other than one or two spots, are set.
The players, other than one or two who are “dinged up,” are ready to go.
The Nittany Lions, James Franklin said, are “healthier and fresher than we’ve ever been” heading into Penn State’s season opener Saturday against Appalachian State.
“Great opening game one for us in Beaver Stadium,” the Penn State coach said Tuesday at his weekly press conference. “I know our coaches and players are excited. We’ve still got a few more days we need to clean up some things and get ready for this game and so we can go and play fast and aggressive come Saturday
“But I like where we’re at.”
With that, the Lions released their initial depth chart of the season. For the rest of the year, it will typically just reflect who started and played where in the previous game. But this one before the opener is a valuable glimpse behind the curtain.
There are only two spots that have an “OR” listed for the starters, both on offense. That would be at tight end — Jonathan Holland or Danny Dalton — and right tackle — Chasz Wright or Will Fries.
In both cases, the older player is listed first, meaning Holland and Wright will likely be introduced as starters on the videoboards before the game. But that could change quickly.
“Wright and Fries, that will probably be a gameday decision,” Franklin said. “But the reality of it is we feel like we can play — and play well — with either one of those guys. Neither one has completely separated themselves from the other, and a lot of times when that happens, you’re concerned because you’re not sure if you have one starter. I actually think we have two.”
Both have started multiple games in the past. The same can’t be said at tight end, where Holland caught three balls last year while backing up Mike Gesicki and Dalton has yet to appear in a game at all. Nick Bowers is the only tight end on the roster with a touchdown to his name and true freshman Pat Freiermuth will also play immediately.
“I think Holland and Dalton have had great camps,” Franklin said. “I think Bowers has shown flashes of being really special, really special.
“I would say our tight ends are a lot like our D-tackles. I think we are talented at both those positions but we still have a lot of question marks because we’re just relying on so many guys that haven’t played a whole lot of football for us at this point.”
Holland spoke to reporters earlier in the day and spoke as though he would be starting on Saturday.
“Being consistent day in and day out might have separated me in camp,” Holland said.
Breaking down the ‘backers
As Franklin had hinted at since the spring ended, walk-on Jan Johnson has won the starting job at middle linebacker, where he will be joined on the outside by Cam Brown and Koa Farmer.
“Jan has been very steady,” Franklin said. “He’s very smart. He’s very consistent. He’s very physical, especially within the box. … Probably one of the more intelligent players we have. Asks great questions of the coaches, and has been very productive in the classroom as well and has earned everybody’s respect. His teammates’ respect, the coaches’ respect and he’s earned that starting position.”
Of the three linebacker spots, however, only Brown at the strong-side (Sam) position is well ahead of the pack, according to Franklin.
With Manny Bowen again out of the picture, having decided to leave the team at the close of camp, that means more opportunity for the new guys.
In the middle, that’s redshirt freshman Ellis Brooks and true freshman Jesse Luketa. And on the weak-side (Will) that would be star recruit Micah Parsons.
“Being patient for your turn can be the most humbling process that can happen to you!” Parsons wrote on Twitter on Tuesday.
He may not have to wait long. Parsons figures to see the field plenty on Saturday and beyond as his pass-rushing skills in particular have translated well from his time as a defensive end in high school.
“I think Micah is making a strong push there,” Franklin said. “And then I think Jan, between Ellis and Luketa, there’s going to be a strong push there, and you’re going to see a lot of guys rotating and getting time.”
The only two notable names missing from the depth chart were sophomore defensive end Shane Simmons and true freshman wide receiver Justin Shorter, both of whom Franklin said were “dinged up” in camp.
Simmons was spotted at team photo day in a walking boot and carrying crutches, as was quarterback Tommy Stevens. But Stevens appeared on the depth chart at quarterback and his custom “Lion” position as an all-around threat.
“We do expect (Simmons) back,” Franklin said. “How quickly that is — unsure at this moment. We’ll know more on Thursday, but we feel really good about defensive end. Obviously getting Shane back will take it to a whole other level because he had a great spring and a great summer and a great camp.”
With Simmons on the shelf, true sophomore Yetur Gross-Matos will start at end opposite Shareef Miller.
“Yetur, he’s been dominant all camp,” said Fries, one of the tackles facing him in camp. “He’s a tall, long, strong, quick player. He gives you a variety of moves that’s difficult to deal with at offensive tackle. He’s been really impressive. Love competing against him.”
One of the big questions out of camp was who would handle kicking duties with Tyler Davis gone. That job will be split by a pair of freshman, with scholarship kicker Jake Pinegar on field goals and walk-on Rafael Checa on kickoffs.
“It’s the most competition we’ve had at the kicker position since we’ve been here,” Franklin said. “Not even close.”
Pinegar is one of seven scholarship true freshmen who the staff has given the “green light” to play throughout the season rather than redshirting. That list also includes Parsons, Luekta, Freiermuth, running back Ricky Slade and defensive tackle P.J. Mustipher.
Franklin didn’t have the seventh name off the top of his head, but unless Shorter’s injury turns out to be serious, he would be a good bet given that he was the nation’s top-rated wide receiver out of high school.
“He was really on a roll,” Franklin said. “Will probably see significant action early in the season, but was a little dinged up and missed some time. He’s big and physical and reminds you a lot of Juwan Johnson.”
One young receiver who is in line to make a quick impact is redshirt freshman K.J. Hamler.
The buzz of spring practice, Hamler is set to be the Lions’ third starting receiver, lining up on the outside opposite of Johnson with DeAndre Thompkins in the slot.
Hamler will also serve as Penn State’s primary kick returner and will back up Thompkins on punt returns.
“When you talk to our defensive coaches about guys that scare them when they’ve got the ball in their hand, K.J. is one of the guys at the top of the list,” Franklin said. “If we can get him involved in offense and get the ball in his hands — and if we can get the ball in his hands on special teams — then we’d like to be able to do that. Because he’s an explosive player and he’s also been a really good leader.”