Penn State Football: 5 Players with Most to Gain in Spring Practices
James Franklin's first spring as Penn State's head coach will surely be an important one.
While he inherits a handful of players who've already locked down certain positions, there are still a few holes on both sides of the ball. There will be plenty of fierce competition at those respective spots once spring practices get underway on March 17.
Entering this particular offseason, the playing field is a bit more leveled for the players involved. With a new staff, everyone on the roster needs to learn a new scheme and impress a new coach.
For some, the opportunity presents itself to lock up a starting job or earn some quality playing time. These designations will all depend on how well they are able to impress the coaching staff in the coming weeks. The annual Blue-White Game is April 12.
Here are five players with the most to gain during Penn State's spring practices.
There is a significant lack of depth and talent right now at the safety position. Because of this, redshirt sophomore Malik Golden will be a player to watch during spring practices.
A former wide receiver, Golden made the switch over to defense prior to the 2013 season. He saw action in all 12 games last year, but sparingly. Golden finished the season with eight tackles and a pass breakup, according to cfbstats.com.
At 6'1" and just south of 200 pounds, Golden has decent size to play safety. You'd have to think both his speed and hands are adequate considering his background as a wide receiver.
With two new safeties—Marcus Allen and Koa Farmer—scheduled to be on campus come summertime, spring practice will be Golden's best chance to impress the new staff. He could emerge as a starter if he's able to outplay the likes of Ryan Keiser and Jesse Della Valle.
Despite only being a freshman, De'Andre Thompkins has the chance to make an impact from the start.
Of the four wideouts who signed with Penn State in early February, Thompkins is the only one who enrolled early. This gives him a significant head start over the others in developing chemistry with quarterback Christian Hackenberg.
Thompkins won't be a starter right away, but a good showing in the spring could force Franklin's hand to get him quality snaps. After all, Penn State is basically starting from scratch at wideout after the departure of Allen Robinson.
Where Thompkins could make the biggest and most immediate impact is in the return game. Penn State's return units haven't been all that special the last few years, and a player like Thompkins would be an upgrade over past options. With sub-4.5 speed, he has the explosiveness and shiftiness to excel in the open field.
Fans should be excited about his potential in this sense. His playmaking ability is just what the doctor ordered for otherwise stale special teams play by the Nittany Lions the past couple of years.
For the second straight year, Penn State will look to find a replacement at center. Redshirt sophomore Wendy Laurent could wind up being that guy.
Laurent was a late pickup during the 2012 recruiting period, committing just days before Bill O'Brien signed his first class as head coach. A rather unheralded guy, the Nittany Lions were the only school from a BCS conference to offer him.
Before O'Brien left, he made it clear that Laurent and redshirt junior Angelo Mangiro would duke it out for the starting center job. It's unclear who James Franklin prefers at the position, but Laurent could wind up being the guy based off depth issues.
Miles Dieffenbach has one offensive guard spot locked up, but the other is up for grabs. This could force offensive line coach Herb Hand to move Mangiro over to guard, allowing Laurent to slide in at center. Both of these players would then be playing their natural position.
Like Thompkins, defensive tackle Tarow Barney also enrolled in classes last month. Considering what position he plays, this is huge for the Nittany Lions.
Penn State's defensive line was stripped thin after last year. DaQuan Jones graduated and is headed to the NFL, while Kyle Baublitz opted to forgo his final year of eligibility to pursue a teaching career. Both were huge pieces to the puzzle, along with now-redshirt sophomore Austin Johnson.
In comes Barney, who's already physically ready (6'1", 285 lbs) to play. An athletic player with a good motor, he was one of the top junior college prospects in 2013.
Given Penn State's lack of depth, he'll certainly see valuable playing time—and could even start from day one. With not much experience after Johnson, the door is wide open to see who Penn State's next defensive tackle will be. Barney will battle it out with guys like Derek Dowrey and Brian Gaia for the spot.
With an impressive spring showing, Barney could easily emerge as Johnson's counterpart.
If last year was any indication, Akeel Lynch will start spring practices as the third running back on the depth chart. But a good showing could help in determining how he's viewed by the coaches.
Now, he does have two guys ahead of him in Bill Belton and Zach Zwinak. Both players rushed for at least 800 yards last year, so Franklin won't be pulling the plug on these guys anytime soon. In this case, it's up to Lynch to earn more snaps.
He didn't play all that much last year, but he made it count when he did. Lynch rushed for 358 yards on 60 carries in 2013, good enough for an average of six yards per carry. Those stats came in only seven games, and Lynch rushed for 100 yards twice.
He's shown the potential. Now, it's time to show that his 2013 season was a result of pure talent and not strictly garbage-time reps.
This spring isn't only important for Lynch's 2014 outlook, but beyond as well. He needs to show the staff that he's ready to take the reins after Belton and Zwinak graduate. Penn State signed three running backs last month and already have one committed to the 2015 class, so competition is on the horizon.