It's never too early to predict who may start for Penn State a few years down the road.
The Nittany Lions have a relatively young roster. Some key players have come via the last few recruiting classes, and they should be around for a few more seasons. Head coach James Franklin has a solid foundation in which to build on.
Players recently signed to Penn State's 2014 recruiting class were also factored into the projections. These players are the ones listed as either juniors or redshirt sophomores.
It's not worth it to speculate, so players from future recruiting classes are not referenced by name. Placeholders (i.e. "2015 Recruit") will show that Penn State will probably have to find its starter in 2016 by way of the upcoming recruiting period.
Here's what the starters could look like in 2016.
Note: Star rankings and recruiting information courtesy of 247Sports.
Starter: Christian Hackenberg (Sr.)
For right now, this projection is an easy one. Christian Hackenberg started all 12 games as a freshman in 2013, and he showed a great deal of potential. He could turn out to be a really special player in a few years.
However, there's always the chance he decides to forgo his senior season and enter the 2016 NFL draft. If his stock is high enough, he might find that the best route to take is the one that leads to the pros.
In this case, current freshman Michael O'Connor would take over the reigns. If O'Connor redshirts this season—which you'd think Franklin would like to do—he'd be a redshirt sophomore in 2016. O'Connor would then have three years of eligibility remaining.
The situation will all depend on how scouts view Hackenberg after his junior year, but Penn State looks to be in a good place even if he leaves.
Starter: Akeel Lynch (RS-Sr.)
If you spent time on Twitter last year during games, you'd see fans calling for more opportunities for Akeel Lynch. He played sparingly behind Bill Belton and Zach Zwinak, rushing for 358 yards on 60 carries. That's good for an average of six yards per touch.
Lynch will likely spend another season in a running back rotation before assuming the full-time role in 2015.
Penn State did bring in three running backs by way of its 2014 recruiting class—Mark Allen, Nick Scott and Johnathan Thomas. While all three possess different skills sets, they all weren't incredibly heralded recruits.
Franklin will be able to recruit two full classes before the start of the 2016 season. He should be able to recruit a top-notch running back, who will be positioned to follow the Lynch era. However, Lynch should still be the guy three years from now.
Tight end Adam Breneman.
Starters (WR): Geno Lewis (RS-Sr.), Saeed Blacknall (Jr.) and Chris Godwin (Jr.)
Starter (TE): Adam Breneman (Sr.)
Come 2016, the group of Nittany Lion pass-catchers could be the most talented on the roster.
Of the four players listed above, each was rated as a 4-star recruit. Lewis and Breneman both had three touchdown catches in 2013. Blacknall and Godwin will be freshman in 2014, and they should expect to be factors in the offense.
The reality is that who the starters are really won't matter too much. Penn State will have some pretty solid depth at both positions. Wide receivers Troy Apke (RS-So.), De'Andre Thompkins (Jr.) and DaeSean Hamilton (RS-Jr.) will all be in the mix for catches while tight end Mike Gesicki (Jr.) will be heavily involved alongside Breneman.
There's no doubt that Franklin will still try to bring in more offensive weapons, but for now, Penn State looks pretty set for 2016 with the ones on the roster.
Center Wendy Laurent.
Starters (OT): Andrew Nelson (RS-Jr.) and 2015 Recruit
Starters (OG): Brendan Mahon (RS-Jr.) and 2015 Recruit
Starter (C): Wendy Laurent (RS-Sr.)
Offensive line will be an area of focus in recruiting for the next few years. This is especially true for next season, when Penn State will look to bring in top talent at the position.
Andrew Nelson and Brendan Mahon were both a part of Penn State's 2013 recruiting class. After redshirting this past year, the two are well on their way to holding down starting spots in the future. Nelson will probably be the starter at right tackle in 2014 while Mahon will prove to be a key reserve.
Wendy Laurent will likely battle Angelo Mangiro for the starting center job this summer in camp. Depth issues, however, could push Mangiro over to guard, so Laurent's journey to being relied on in 2016 could begin now.
As for the two unknown starters, the Nittany Lions have already offered 19 class of 2015 offensive lineman (13 tackles, five guards and one center). They could find their starters for the 2016 season this way.
Defensive tackle Austin Johnson.
Starters (DE): Garrett Sickels (RS-Jr.) and Curtis Cothran (RS-Jr.)
Starters (DT): Austin Johnson (RS-Sr.) and Derek Dowrey (RS-Sr.)
While the defensive line will have some decent depth the next few seasons, the pressure is on Franklin and his staff to bring in some talented prospects for the future.
For a projected 2016 lineup, blue-chipper Garrett Sickels and Pennsylvania native Curtis Cothran look to be options coming off the edge. Sickels is a quick and powerful player, while Cothran is a long and rangy pass-rusher with a good first step.
From the interior, Austin Johnson will likely anchor the defensive line at one tackle spot. By 2016, Johnson will enter his fourth season of legitimate playing time, so he'll probably be the leader of the entire defense as well.
Had Thomas Holley stayed committed to the 2014 class, he'd be lining up next to Johnson. Since he isn't, Penn State will have to dig deep in recruiting next year and try to add a stud interior lineman. I'll pencil in Derek Dowrey as the projected starter for now, but that could change with Franklin's upcoming recruiting class.
Linebacker Nyeem Wartman.
Starters: Nyeem Wartman (RS-Sr.), Troy Reeder (Jr.) and Brandon Bell (Sr.)
The linebacking corps will be scarce on depth in 2014. This could be a blessing though, as younger guys could see a lot of playing time.
Both Nyeem Wartman and Brandon Bell saw a decent amount of snaps in 2013. Wartman was limited at times due to an injury while Bell emerged late in his freshman campaign. Regardless, both should be seasoned veterans on the defense by 2016.
Reeder recently signed his letter of intent and could challenge for playing time as a true freshman this year. He's a physical player who has a nose for the ball, and his versatility to play both inside and outside could help the team.
Penn State will need to load up on linebacking depth with the next few recruiting classes, but it already has three guys who could project to be solid players in the coming years.
Starters (CB): Amani Oruwariye (Jr.) and 2015 Recruit
Starters (S): Marcus Allen (Jr.) and Koa Farmer (Jr.)
Of the projected secondary, none of these players have yet to play a snap at Penn State.
Even though the Nittany Lions just signed a handful of cornerbacks, the jury is still out on some of them. To me, Amani Oruwariye is the player I think will develop quite nicely. He's a big, physical corner with good ability to change direction. This should help him defend the tough receivers of the Big Ten.
As for the safeties, newcomers Marcus Allen and Koa Farmer could be the safety duo of the future. Both have good size and play instinctively. With Penn State's lack of talent at safety right now, they should see valuable snaps early on in their careers. The two should be very comfortable in the defense come 2016.
The search is already on to find the next impact corner for Penn State's defense; the coaching staff has already extended 10 offers to players from the 2015 class.