With 12 seniors having departed from last year’s team, and five others who saw significant playing time gone as well, Penn State coach James Franklin has kept a keen eye on some of the competition taking place during spring practice.
Two of the areas where big holes exist and spirited battles are taking place are at tight end and middle linebacker, since all-American tight end Mike Gesicki and all-Big Ten middle linebacker Jason Cabinda are honing their skills to play at the next level.
In a Big Ten conference call Wednesday, Franklin said he has candidates at tight end “that we’re excited about,” including holdovers Jonathan Holland and Nick Bowers. Holland, a regular on special teams last season, and Bowers combined for four receptions last year. Redshirt sophomore Danny Dalton stood out to the coaches in winter workouts.
“We’re not in a position right now to say, ‘This is who the starter is,’ ” Franklin said. “I think there’s going to be a really good battle. There’s competition, but I wouldn’t say at this point we’re comfortable in saying who the starter is going to be.”
One of the more intriguing candidates is 6-foot-7, 232-pound freshman Zack Kuntz, who enrolled in January. Kuntz caught 40 passes for 1,060 yards and nine touchdowns in his senior year at Camp Hill High School.
Franklin said last week that Kuntz has progressed well in the passing game but has “a lot of work to do” in the running game.
“It’s a little bit like when Mike Gesicki got here — he had never blocked, had never been in a three-point stance, and never been attached to the tackle,” the coach said. “So it’s a process. [Kuntz] is getting stronger. He’s getting more confident. He’s a really good kid, he learns well. But the area he’s got to improve dramatically is in the run game.”
At middle linebacker, Penn State lost Cabinda and backup Brandon Smith, who became the starter at weakside linebacker after the dismissal of Manny Bowen. Jan Johnson, a third-teamer in the middle last season, is one of the candidates, along with redshirt freshman Ellis Brooks and outside backer Cam Brown.
Among the true freshmen competing is Nick Tarburton, an early enrollee and former Pennridge High School star.
“We have some options,” Franklin said, “but I don’t know if I would say that we really feel like we know who those guys are.”
The Nittany Lions’ top 2018 recruit, Micah Parsons, who played defensive end at Harrisburg High School and enrolled in January, had worked with the middle linebackers, but Franklin said he’s been moved to weakside linebacker to “take a little bit off of his plate for right now.”
“He’s got a lot of ability,” Franklin said last week. “He learns really well. I think [the move] is going to help him grow and evolve the way we need him to. But so far, so good.”
Penn State will play its annual Blue-White game on April 21 at Beaver Stadium.