STATE COLLEGE – For a team that’s being forced to whittle down scholarship depth, Penn State sure is developing a lot of options.
A youth movement on display at the Blue-White intrasquad scrimmage over the weekend was the first sign of potential contributors come fall.
Redshirt freshman Austin Johnson, vying to replace standout tackle Jordan Hill, had two sacks in the spring game. Another redshirt, tight end Brent Wilkerson, caught a touchdown and sought to prove he was ready to join a position that already had depth. A third redshirt freshman, Akeel Lynch, ran for 87 yards and showed he could be another backfield contributor for coach Bill O’Brien.
Now, it’s just a spring practice game with a scaled-down playbook and hitting. But even without a defined starting quarterback, the Nittany Lions appear to be in much better shape than O’Brien’s first spring a year ago, with players gaining from a year of experience in the ways and systems of the coaching staff.
“If they ask me to run down the field and knock a couple heads (on special teams), then I’ll definitely do that. If they ask me to carry the ball 30 times, I’ll do that,” a happy Lynch said Saturday after the Blue-White game. “Anything to help the team win. To put the team first before me.”
Getting younger players more playing time in the spring scrimmage was largely by design. Coaches know what they’re getting from veterans like linebackers Glenn Carson and Mike Hull, who played just a couple series before sitting out the rest of the afternoon.
Penn State is in the midst of a two-year process of whittling down the scholarship roster by 20 to 65 in 2014 because of NCAA sanctions. Keeping players healthy for the fall was of prime concern, so O’Brien limited full contact to once a week during spring practice.
Other key veterans like tight end Kyle Carter and safety Stephen Obeng-Agyapong sat out as a precaution because they were recovering from offseason surgeries. Players with minor bumps or bruises like running back Bill Belton and defensive tackle DaQuan Jones were also held out as a precaution. Zach Zwinak, a 1,000-yard rusher, sat out after hurting his left hand or wrist on the first series, though that injury doesn’t appear serious.
“We’ll have to do a good job in training camp of monitoring the health of the football team. I’m pretty pleased with where we’re at right now,” O’Brien said.
That left players like Lynch to seize an opportunity for more plays.
“Get your pads down Akeel,” O’Brien urged at one point while wearing a stadium microphone for the first series of the second half.
“I’m always stressing with Akeel getting his pads down and running with his pads out over his toes,” O’Brien said. “I think he did a good job of that.”
The Nittany Lions could also have another threat at tight end in Wilkerson, a 6-foot-3 target who hopes to complement an already stocked position that includes the 6-foot-3 Carter, the 6-foot-7 Jesse James and the 6-foot-6 Matt Lehman.
Lehman and 6-foot-4 freshman Adam Breneman, a prized freshman recruit, also didn’t play Saturday. In the span of a year under O’Brien, the tight end position has transformed from a question mark to an embarrassment of riches.
“We just have to define our roles and just practice hard ... just compete and practice,” Wilkerson said. “And we encourage each other and keep each other up and just work hard and let the coaches decide what happens from there.”
Secondary depth has been replenished with Malik Golden and Trevor Williams moving over from receiver. Sophomore cornerback Jordan Lucas shared a practice award with end C.J. Olaniyan for the defensive players who showed the best conduct, attitude and improvement in spring drills.
Two incoming freshmen defensive backs joined the team in January, too, to take part in spring practice. With three returning starters in the secondary including cornerback Adrian Amos and safeties Malcolm Willis and Obeng-Agyapong, the Nittany Lions have an opportunity to play more nickel and even dime coverages in the fall after staying in the base 4-3 for most of last year.
That could also ease the issues at linebacker, which has a lack of depth after the presumed starting trio of Carson, Hull and Nyeem Wartman.
“I think as a unit, collectively, the secondary and everybody on defense is just light years ahead of where were (last year) at this time. Just because of familiarity,” said defensive coordinator John Butler, who was promoted from secondary coach.
“Just that comfort level. Nothing is really new anymore. If nothing’s new, you’re going to play better and faster.”
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