Breakout Players Set to Help Catapult Nittany Lions’ Offense
The Nittany Lions’ offense was one of the nation’s most explosive last season, when they averaged 41 points per contest.
So, who will be this year’s key contributors, and who will take on larger roles for Penn State’s offense? We take a look at five players to keep an eye on this season.
At the onset of spring practice, Coach James Franklin said the offensive line features a “legitimate two-deep” across the board, giving Penn State the opportunity to continue to compete and win in the Big Ten Conference.
At the center of this discussion (not literally) is Bates, a junior who played in 10 games last season and made eight starts at left tackle.
“Spring’s been going well for me, I feel like I’ve been doing a lot better,” Bates said in mid-April, leading up to the Blue-White game. “One thing I wanted to work on this offseason is my hands in the run-game and pass protection game, keep my hands inside and get better leverage, and lower hips, which I feel like I’ve been doing pretty well on so far.”
Overall, he felt like he’s progressed well, and the same could be said of the entire offensive line. Bates was listed on the roster for the blue team during Blue-White, putting him in the category of a projected starter.
“This year with the offensive line, we have a lot of experience coming back and a lot of competition,” Bates said. “We’re just making each other better. From spring ball, the first practice to where we’re at now, I feel like we’ve come a long way, especially from last season.”
Already being projected as a first-round NFL Draft pick (if he forgoes his senior season), Johnson looks to be Penn State’s No. 1 receiver, as the Nittany Lions look to replace the receiving production that Saquon Barkley, Mike Gesicki and DaeSean Hamilton provided last year.
Johnson certainly looks the part. At 6-foot-4, 229-pounds, he scored only one touchdown last season, though it was a memorable one — the game-winning score against Iowa as time expired.
The teammate who threw that pass, quarterback Trace McSorley, summarized Johnson’s impact this way:
“Juwan — the combination of his size and strength, coupled with his speed — I think it’s a matchup problem. Then, the experience that he brings, he’s a little bit mature beyond his years. You wouldn’t think that last year was really his first year of seeing playing time, but he’s mature in that way.”
A junior wide receiver from Ashburn, Va., Polk caught 10 passes for 130 yards and a touchdown (against Georgia State) last year. During spring practice, he moved from the slot position to outside, switching positions with DeAndre Thompkins, another receiver who’s proven capable of producing big plays.
Speaking about Polk and how much competition he faces in the wide receiver group, here’s what Franklin said during his spring practice press conference on March 19:
“He's the guy that can run, (and) he's the guy that's got natural ball skills. He's a little bit undersized obviously, but he's gotten stronger. He's obviously got great chemistry with Trace, because he and Trace played together in high school.
“So he's a guy that we're really excited about; (and we’re) looking for him to make a move, because of the other players that he's going to be competing with that we currently have in the room and also the group that's coming in. So it will be a great competition at that position.”
Nobody can blame Miles Sanders if this is what he’s thinking, after the much-heralded recruit watched Saquon Barkley catapult to an all-time Penn State legend the last two seasons. Now, it’s Sanders’ turn, and all indications are that he’s ready.
Here’s how Sanders assessed spring practice, following the Blue-White game:
“The spring was very positive for the whole team. For me personally, I think I worked on my blocking technique, getting better and catching the ball out of the backfield. I didn’t get any passes today (during Blue-White), but I think my catching skills coming out of the backfield have improved.”
Franklin had previously encountered this scenario — a super-talented newcomer waiting behind a firmly established superstar — when he was coaching with the Green Bay Packers and the team drafted quarterback Aaron Rodgers. Brett Favre was still in place as the starter, and Rodgers had the opportunity to wait, learn and develop as a player for a few years.
Franklin sees clear value in such a situation, and one with tangible, long-term benefits.
“I can't imagine that there is a better player for Miles to come up under than Saquon Barkley,” Franklin said at the beginning of spring practice. “You could make the argument, maybe he could have went to some other schools and played as a true freshman, but I don't know if his development would have been to the point where it is now. I think being behind really good players and being able to study them and grow and be challenged by them is really important.”
A fifth-year player, Thompkins has played in both the slot and outside in Penn State’s offense; and last season, he led the team with 24 punt returns for a 13.3 average, including a touchdown return in the season opener against Akron.
Now projected to occupy a spot on the outside as a receiver (near the sideline) in Penn State’s offense, Thompkins can build on his production last year, when he averaged 15.8 yards per catch on 28 receptions. For players with at least 20 catches last season, Thompkins had the second-best average, behind only DaeSean Hamilton.
In describing the receiving trio of Johnson, Polk and Thompkins, McSorley said speed was the common denominator, certainly a trait that bodes well for the Nittany Lions and Thompkins, who figures to provide more big-time plays in 2018.
“He’s very versatile, and you saw what he could do as a punt returner last year,” McSorley said. “So his ability when he gets the ball in his hands to be a big-play guy is something that I think we’re benefitting from, and we’re going to continue to benefit from.”