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Breaking down Penn State’s offensive depth chart, position battles

September 23, 2018

Penn State released its Week 1 depth chart on Tuesday afternoon, and while many starting spots were secured weeks and even months ago, there were still a couple of surprises.

Here is a breakdown of the offensive depth chart -- examining everything from an absence at receiver to a key battle along the offensive line.

Quarterback

1. Trace McSorley; 2. Tommy Stevens; 3. Sean Clifford

Breakdown: No need to go too deep here. McSorley is a Heisman Trophy candidate, Stevens -- when he’s not in a walking boot -- is arguably the most interesting backup quarterback in the country, and Clifford is “mobile just like Trace” and “knows the offense,” according to running back Miles Sanders. Ricky Rahne has to feel good about his quarterback room.

Running back

1. Miles Sanders; 2. Mark Allen; 3. Ricky Slade

Breakdown: Sanders is the heir apparent to Saquon Barkley, and his teammates, including corner Amani Oruwariye, believe he’s bound for a “huge year.” Allen is the veteran backup and believes the running back room as a whole will have a role in replacing Barkley. But don’t be surprised to see Slade -- one of seven true freshmen with the “green light” to play in 2018 -- step up and earn more opportunities to spell Sanders.

Wide receiver

1. Juwan Johnson; 2. Cam Sullivan-Brown; 3. Daniel George

1. DeAndre Thompkins; 2. Brandon Polk; 3. Isaac Lutz

1. KJ Hamler; 2. Mac Hippenhammer; 3. Jahan Dotson

Breakdown: Unlike previous years, Penn State is not distinguishing which receivers are at the X, Z and H positions. In other words, it’s unclear whether Thompkins or Hamler is starting in the slot. Thompkins was Penn State’s primary “Z” receiver in 2017 with Johnson at the “X” and DaeSean Hamilton working the slot. Thompkins and Hamler received reps outside and inside in the offseason.

The fact that Hamler is starting -- regardless of where he’s lined up -- is significant. A former four-star recruit, the redshirt freshman is nicknamed “The Human Joystick” with reason. He was the star of the spring, much like Johnson last year. “He’s improved dramatically,” Oruwariye said of Hamler. “He’s just a very quick, speedy guy. And along with that, he’s playing with confidence. So when you put those two together, it’s hard to stop.”

Another interesting nugget: Justin Shorter was not listed in the three-deep. The five-star freshman “got dinged up during camp,” James Franklin said, and missed some time. Still, Shorter should be expected to be on the field once healthy. He has drawn comparisons to Johnson and was the No. 1 wideout prospect in the nation in 2018. He and Jahan Dotson, who led the team in touchdowns during fall camp, should be considered in the “yellow light” category.

Tight end

1. Jonathan Holland OR Danny Dalton; 2. Nick Bowers; 3. Pat Freiermuth

Breakdown: Holland, Penn State’s Mackey Award watch list candidate, will likely be the first tight end out there on Saturday. And he’s confident in what he’s done this camp. “I feel like if you do everything you’re asked to do consistently, time and time over again, they kind of really can’t overlook that,” Holland said. “I think that’s something that might’ve separated me during camp.”

Still, don’t sleep on Penn State’s other options. Dalton ran with the first team this spring, Bowers hasn’t stayed healthy but seemingly is now, and Freiermuth, like Slade, is a “green light” true freshman.

Freiermuth’s potential is really intriguing. The 6-foot-5, 258-pounder -- who had 13 touchdowns as a senior and junior combined in high school -- is heavier and slightly taller than Holland and Dalton. Freiermuth’s frame makes him more ready-made than fellow freshman Zack Kuntz, who didn’t make the depth chart.

Tackle

Left: 1. Ryan Bates; 2. Des Holmes; 3. Rasheed Walker

Right: 1. Chasz Wright OR Will Fries; 2. Alex Gellerstedt

Breakdown: Fries said that Bates -- a redshirt junior and 22-game starter -- has “done a good job stepping up as a leader with the departure of Andrew Nelson and Brendan Mahon.” Holmes, who stands at 6-foot-5, 322 pounds, is a promising option when Bates moves on. But it’s unequivocally Bates’ job in 2018.

Right tackle is far, far more intriguing. Franklin said it will be a “gameday decision” over who starts, Wright or Fries. The former is a fifth-year senior with 14 starts to his name. The latter is a redshirt sophomore with nine starts last year. Wright has more big-game experience, starting during Penn State’s run to a Big Ten title and the Rose Bowl. But offensive line coach Matt Limegrover might choose youth and allow Fries to grow into the role.

Guard

Left: 1. Steven Gonzalez; 2. Mike Miranda; 3. Bryce Effner

Right: 1. Connor McGovern; 2. C.J. Thorpe; 3. Charlie Shuman

Breakdown: Nothing shocking at left guard, where Gonzalez will start yet again. The New Jersey native started all 13 games last year. Miranda garnered praise last offseason, but it’s Gonzalez’s job to lose.

McGovern’s move from center back to guard has been a known fact for a while now, as he fills the hole left by Mahon. While Franklin said in April that Thorpe “plays with an attitude,” McGovern started at guard nine times as a true freshman in 2016.

Center

1. Michal Menet; 2. Zach Simpson; 3. Juice Scruggs

Breakdown: Menet, the No. 28 player in the country in the 2016 class, is finally getting his chance. “I think he relishes the idea of playing center and being the de facto captain of that group up there and being the guy that’s kind of the quarterback of the O-line,” Limegrover said earlier this month.

Menet even drew a comparison to Stefen Wisniewski -- a Super Bowl champion, 2010 first-team All-American and two-time All-Big Ten selection. “I looked at Michal Menet and said, ’This kid looks like when Stefen Wisniewski comes back (out of his stance),” Limegrover said. “I know (Wisniewski’s) playing guard now, but he played center. And (Menet) just had the feel of a center.”

High praise for Penn State’s new starting center.

Placekicker

1. Jake Pinegar; 2. Vlad Hilling; 3. Justin Tobin

Breakdown: Pinegar, who enrolled this summer, won the job in camp -- beating out fellow true freshmen Hilling and Daniel Checa, Tobin and Carson Landis. Checa will assume kickoff duties. But it’s Pinegar -- who told the CDT last summer that he has hit 65- and 70-yard field goals in practice -- who will get the first crack at replacing longtime stalwart Tyler Davis.

“Jake’s been good. He’s been consistent,” Oruwariye said. “He’s kind of had his head down and just worked and just tried to perfect his craft.”

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