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What I’m watching for at the Blue-White Game

I’ve compiled a list of questions, in no particular order, of what I’m keeping a keen (well, as keen as I have the ability to) eye on to get answers to at Penn State’s Blue-White Game on Saturday (not necessarily in order of relevance). Feel free to watch for the same things. Suggest something I might be missing via email or comment below. Or ignore me altogether. Most do.

 

Enjoy the game. Looks like a beautiful day is on tap in bucolic* Happy Valley.

 

(*-word stolen from 93.7 The Fan’s Chris Mueller)

 

 

 

 

Who starts on the offensive line?

This is the most cut-and-dried issue we’ll see addressed. We know Donovan Smith is the left tackle. After that, what do we know? There are inexperience and injury concerns abound.

 

Does Michael O’Connor have any “Hack” in him?

It might be telling (or it might not be) that true freshman January enrollee O’Connor is on the team with the starters (“Blue”). Is that a sign that the plan is for him to be the backup come fall? He’s unquestionably the most talented of the three quarterbacks behind Christian Hackenberg (D.J. Crook and Austin Whipple were true freshman walk-ons last season). But, the thought goes, O’Connor would earn an extra year to start if he redshirted. My guess (and it’s only a guess): Crook and Whipple, to use a baseball analogy, are the “short relief men” used late in blowouts or if Hackenberg is dinged up for a play or two. If Hackenberg suffers serious injury, though, O’Connor is the “long man” to replace him as the starter the remainder of the season. We’ll get our first chance to see him in live action Saturday.

 

Who’ll be the second and third cornerbacks behind Jordan Lucas?

Trevor Williams and Jordan Smith are on the “Blue” roster, indicating they are the favorites to be so come fall. Williams started the first half of last season. Da’Quan Davis, as I’ve opined many times, is an intriguing candidate because he played extensively as a true freshman in 2012 and showed decent promise. Then last season, under the same coaching staff and with a dearth of bodies at the position, he barely saw the field on defense. Davis is athletic – but he is undersized, and this staff has stressed it prefers bigger defensive backs.

 

What is James Franklin’s sideline demeanor like?

This is Franklin’s first public appearance in a football setting at Beaver Stadium. A smart man savvy in selling himself and the program he represents, Franklin knows this. He has made no secret of his desire to put on a show for the fans – fans he hopes come in droves (in part, many will just to see him). I could envision Franklin playing to the crowd, almost pro wrestling-style. Or, perhaps he will take a more business-like, let’s-get-to-work approach. In the end, this is a minor detail that doesn’t really matter. But we’re all still learning the intricacies of the engaging James Franklin peresona.

 

Is Gary Wooten a breakout candidate?

Canon-McMillan’s Mike Hull strikes me as a young man who is calculated when he speaks. He isn’t cavalier with quotes in an interview setting. And I think he’s even more aware of what he is saying (and when) this season, when he will be a fifth-year senior captain and undisputed team leader. Both times Hull has been available to the media, Hull has pointed out the strong spring that Wooten is having. Hull is a definite starter, of course, at middle linebacker. Who will flank him (and be Hull’s primary backup) is up for debate. It most likely is some combination of Ben Kline, Nyeem Wartman, Brandon Bell and Wooten.

 

Is DeAndre Thompkins a star in the making?

A freshman early enrollee, it’s obvious Thompkins has been turning heads through 14 spring practices.  A 5-11, 171-pound North Carolina native, Thompkins might have instantly become Penn State’s fastest receiver. He also, arguably, became the Nittany Lions’ top return man right away. We’ll see how he is doing at picking up some of the finer points of the college game (route-running, blocking, etc.) to be trusted to be on the field regularly immediately as a freshman, but there seems little questioning that Thompkins has the type skill set that will raise fans’ eyebrows in a spring game-type setting.

 

Who’ll play on special teams?

Franklin has said he won’t shy away from playing his starters on special teams. This is a stark departure from the Bill O’Brien philosophy. O’Brien relied on a bevy of freshman and walk-ons (including several freshman walk-ons) for his special teams. The result was a below-average unit that multiple Penn State players have called a weak point on the 2013 team. That said, you can’t blame O’Brien – if a starter got hurt on a meaningless extra-point attempt, for example, the results would have been devastating to a thin roster. It’s likely even Franklin will back off his “the best guys will play on special teams” mantra during a glorified intrasquad scrimmage, so who knows if we’ll get answers Saturday? But I certainly will be looking to see who is on the kick return and coverage and punt return and coverage teams, in particular. The most visible of both – and the one we’re most likely to get answers on – come at the actual returners. Thompkins, for instance, is expected to handle some of those duties.

 

Does the defensive line have the quantity and quality of players that PSU hopes/believes it does?

On a team razor-thin in no shortage of areas, Franklin this week pointed to the defensive line (along with running back) as positions of depth. Telling that these comments were made after the Lions moved two defensive tackles to the offensive line! Imagine how deep the defensive line corps could have been? Signs are pointing to a seasoned and largely-proven starting unit of Deion Barnes and C.J. Olaniyan at the ends and Austin Johnson and Anthony Zettel at the tackles. But redshirt freshman Garrett Sickels has the pedigree to make an impact at end. Also, end Brad Bars is back from injury, and newcomer tackles Tarow Barney (a junior college transfer) and Antoine White (a freshman) are worth getting your first peek at. Zettel packed on 20 pounds to move from end.

 

What about the local guys?

I’ll always have a soft spot for the WPIAL and City League players. As a bonus: I’ve found the ones on this team that I’ve interacted with to be really good guys. So I’ll keep an eye out for any of them on the field. We know about Hull and tight end Jesse James (South Allegheny HS), both of whom we’ll see playing on Sundays in the future. Unfortunately, guard Miles Diffenbach (Fox Chapel) has a knee injury so his status is in limbo. Shaler’s Jesse Della Valle earned increasing playing time on defense as last season went on, and he was a primary punt returner. Will he hold onto his spots on both depth charts? Can Whipple, who played at Pine-Richland, beat out Crook? Franklin went out of his way to praise Blackhawk grad Cole Chiappialle when talking about the running backs Thursday. That’s a crowded position, but maybe Chiappialle is more prominent on several special teams, too? Chiappialle and Langley grad Tyrone Smith, a defensive tackle, are on the “Blue” roster with the starters. Belle Vernon cornerback Adam Cole, North Allegheny receiver Gregg Garrity and Franklin Regional linebacker Carter Henderson also are worth tracking. Garrity was used in the return game at times last season.

 

 

Author: Chris Adamski

Chris Adamski has been tirelessly working in Pittsburgh sports media for more than 12 years. He has extensively covered the Steelers, Pirates, Penguins, Pitt, Duquesne and the WPIAL and been a fixture at the biggest events in town over that time -- two Stanley Cup Finals, two AFC Championship games, the 2006 MLB All-Star Game and the 2011 NHL Winter Classic, just to name a few. Chris has been the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review's Penn State football beat writer since the start of the 2013 season. His primary offseason responsibility is assisting in the Trib's Penguins hockey coverage.

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