Five questions for Penn State as spring football concludes

NCAA Football 2017: Penn State vs Ohio State OCT 28
Penn State’s Jonathan Holland (18), here celebrating a touchdown last season, is in the mix for the starting tight-end job.

Spring football will conclude for Penn State with Saturday’s Blue-White game, but questions remain that will follow the Nittany Lions into the start of preseason camp in late July. That’s particularly true on the defensive side of the football, where the Lions need to replace eight starters. The competition has been fierce throughout the spring, and figures to be the same in camp.

Here are five of the bigger questions:

Who will play middle linebacker?

Jason Cabinda, Penn State’s rock in the middle of the defense for the last three seasons, is gone, and there are a number of talented but inexperienced candidates – “too many to list,” according to head coach James Franklin – seeking to take his place. Franklin is looking for someone who is both physically and mentally able to handle the position and can confidently bark out defensive signals. It’s a big responsibility, and Franklin said this week: “Right now, I wouldn’t say that we know what the answer is.” Look for this battle to continue well into training camp.

What other positions carry some uncertainty?

The tight-end group would appear to be a wide-open battle, with holdovers Jonathan Holland and Nick Bowers, plus Danny Dalton, who didn’t play last year, as the top contenders. There are set starters at defensive tackle in Kevin Givens and Robert Windsor, but the Lions must build depth at the position with young, inexperienced players. In addition, the Lions had but one full-time kicker – walk-on Carson Landis – during the spring, while they wait for freshman Jake Pinegar’s arrival on campus this summer. The question for Franklin is whether he’ll have all-Big Ten punter Blake Gillikin add kickoff duties to his job description, something he’s said he’d rather not do.

How will Miles Sanders handle being Saquon Barkley’s successor?

It won’t be easy to replace Barkley, a three-year starter who set program records for all-purpose yards and rushing touchdowns and finished second all-time in rushing yards. Sanders is no Barkley, but he’s no slouch, either. Pennsylvania’s top high school recruit when he signed with the Nittany Lions in 2016, he has shown flashes of explosiveness and versatility, being able to run and catch and return kickoffs. He has not rushed more than seven times in a game, so it will be interesting to see how he’ll do with more work as the starter.

Should we be concerned by “lapses of discipline” in practice?

At media availabilities last week and earlier this week, Franklin talked about sloppy work by his players during practice. Last week, he had his team run sprints at the end of the workout, which he called “junior-high stuff.” On Monday, he said there were “lapses of discipline that I wasn’t really happy with.” While he is happy overall with spring practices, he said, “We’ve just got to mature at a few spots so that doesn’t happen.” He said he wants his team to “play with passion and emotion and have fun, but not ever cross the line.” You know he will fix this by the start of preseason.

Who are some of the young players to watch?

Among the players who have impressed in the spring are four who bring a significant talent to the field – the speed of redshirt freshman wide receiver KJ Hamler, the power of redshirt sophomore guard-center Michal Menet, the strength of redshirt freshman defensive tackle Fred Hansard, and the outrageous athleticism of true freshman Micah Parsons. The 6-foot-3, 241-pound Parsons, one of the nation’s top 2018 recruits, began the spring at middle linebacker but moved to weakside linebacker later in the sessions, though he’s still a candidate in the middle. He has impressed Franklin. “There’s times where he’ll back-door a play and go two gaps back, and you shouldn’t really do that, and you’re saying, ‘No, no, no.’ But then he makes a tackle for loss in the backfield,” Franklin said, “and it’s like, ‘Yes, yes, yes.’ ”