Monday marks the first day of Penn State football’s spring practice — and with it, like any other season, comes an array of question marks and storylines.
Here’s what you should keep an eye on until practice culminates in the Blue-White Game on April 21:
Moving on from Saquon Barkley
Barkley was one of the Nittany Lions’ greatest-ever players, the program’s best all-around back and a player who will sorely be missed. There is no replacing someone who can turn a five-yard loss into a 55-yard touchdown scamper. But, for the first time since 2014, Penn State will have to find some way without Barkley to manufacture an explosive offense.
That doesn’t just mean at running back, either. This is Trace McSorley’s offense now, and he’ll have to be on top of his game to ensure the Nittany Lions can again score 40-plus points per contest. Barkley won’t be there to set up the pass anymore, so McSorley will have to take it upon himself to create some mismatches.
At running back, with the transfer of Andre Robinson, that means a lot of the production will fall on the shoulders of Miles Sanders. Mark Allen, Journey Brown and Johnathan Thomas will provide some depth in the spring — with true freshman phenom Ricky Slade set to join the program over the summer.
But Sanders is the leader of this running back room now. With a new assistant coach, Sanders will be be charged with getting everyone to buy in. He’ll have to set the tone, show up early and stay late. It’s a lot of responsibility, and fans and reporters alike should find out soon how exactly he plans to step up.
Lamont Wade’s move to safety
Wade’s switch from cornerback this offseason made a lot of sense.
With redshirt junior cornerback John Reid returning from last year’s injury and Amani Oruwariye coming back after a solid campaign — not to mention Tariq Castro-Fields’ time on the field last year — the Nittany Lions weren’t exactly in need of more bodies at the position. At safety, on the other hand? With two starters who’ll soon be playing in the NFL, Penn State needed some help at the position.
Wade will compete for one of those starting safety spots, along with Nick Scott, Ayron Monroe, Garrett Taylor and John Petrishen. The better he fares this spring, the better off Penn State will be this fall.
Some analysts will undoubtedly point to Adrian Amos’ position switch and how it helped him the long run — and it did. But that first season didn’t go entirely smoothly, and Amos certainly dealt with his own frustrations. How soon will Wade adapt, and can he take the reins to the position early on in camp? That’s something every reporter will be watching at practice.
What’s going on at defensive tackle?
James Franklin knows this position is a big question mark. With both starters gone, along with Tyrell Chavis, it’s hard to see it any other way.
“We have some challenges up front,” Franklin said last month. “We lost three defensive tackles, senior defensive tackles, so that’s an area that’s a concern for us. I feel really good about D-end, but D-tackle is an area that we’re going to have to develop.”
Kevin Givens, the spring breakout two years ago, will be asked to lead the way. He started five games last season — the only remaining DT who technically started a game — while there should be plenty of competition brewing here with three others vying for more playing time in Ellison Jordan, Robert Windsor and Antonio Shelton.
If someone in this group differentiates himself this spring, it’ll be a big boon to this entire defense. Especially with other questions in the middle, such as …
Battle at MLB between Micah Parsons and Ellis Brooks
Few experts pegged Parsons at middle linebacker, but that’s where he’ll be given a chance this spring — and it won’t be an easy one.
Franklin has given Parsons some stiff competition in Brooks, a Corps of Cadets first lieutenant who oozes leadership like Jason Cabinda. Parsons is an athletic freak who’s still trying to gain a real understanding of the position; Brooks is a solid prospect who knows what he needs to do there.
Will Parsons struggle with his assignments? Or will his athleticism allow him to make up for some mental mistakes now and then? Can Brooks stake his claim this spring to the starting job?
It’s obviously hard to get read on this position battle since Parsons hasn’t yet been seen at middle linebacker. But, if he struggles, he could certainly be moved — which is why it’s worth keeping an eye on this position. The defense needs a leader and a playmaker. It might discover it’s already found both … at the same position.
New-look offensive staff
The only coach on offense who will have the same title he did last season is offensive line coach Matt Limegrover. Everyone else is different.
Former tight ends coach Ricky Rahne is now the offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach. Tyler Bowen will take over tight ends. Running backs coach Charles Huff is gone, replaced by Ja’Juan Seider. Wide receivers coach Josh Gattis also left town and has been replaced with David Corley.
That’s a lot of change in one short offseason. The playbook won’t differ dramatically, and the scheme should be nearly identical, but that’s still a lot to get used to in a short period of time. Can Rahne help McSorley take another step forward? With the help of Corley, will Juwan Johnson break out this season as the offense’s star receiver?
Franklin has proved himself time and time again to be an elite CEO of football, a coach who can pick out his assistants well and find what works for this team. Seider and Corley both have great reputations, so it’ll be interesting to see how they fit in during the flow of practice.