When Penn State takes the field against UCF in Ireland on Labor Day weekend, there will be several new faces wearing white helmets. On offense alone, up to seven players could be starting for the first time in their careers.
Four new offensive linemen, a new group of receivers and mixups with the defensive line and linebackers will likely lead to some growing pains.
A year from now, a favorable amount of those "new faces" will be savvy veterans and returning starters.
A quick look at Penn State's roster shows 11 players who will use their last year of eligibility in 2014. Only about half of them are expected to be significant contributors, meaning the Nittany Lions will be returning an overwhelming majority of their key players in 2015.
|Nittany Lions With No Eligibility After 2014|
|Jesse Della Valle||DB|
Guys like Brendan Mahon, Garrett Sickels and Andrew Nelson have high ceilings and will shed their redshirts this season. Nelson is projected to start at right tackle, while Mahon could wind up next to him in the huddle. Sickels will be in the rotation at defensive end behind two of the conference's best. He'll be expected to start in 2015.
No amount of hype or coaching in the past will fuel their success as much as a season on the field is going to.
Perhaps the position that will see the most progress from 2014 to 2015 is wide receiver. The depth chart is wide open, and the incoming group of freshmen could include several key players. Nick Polak, the recruiting analyst for BlackShoeDiaries.com, thinks De'Andre Thompkins and Saeed Blacknall could be early contributors of that bunch: "Thompkins already seems to have etched his name into early playing time," said Polak, adding "Blacknall is immensely talented, especially on the outside, and could easily play his way into the starting lineup."
Joining them will be Troy Apke and Chris Godwin, both of whom are capable of seeing snaps this year. That experience, plus the chance to gain familiarity with quarterback Christian Hackenberg, will pay dividends in 2015.
Defensively, several young linebackers will get a shot this fall and only Mike Hull will move on following the season. Who does Polak think will start in 2015? "Brandon Bell, Troy Reeder, Nyeem Wartman."
Polak has high expectations for true freshman Reeder, saying "I think Reeder will be a part-time starter by the end of the season in 2014 and will show enough to take over the middle linebacker role for 2015, keeping Bell on the outside." If he's right, Reeder will be flanked by two linebackers with two years of experience each.
Players like Hackenberg and defensive lineman Anthony Zettel will only improve with another year of experience, and there will be other young players who pop.
Malik Golden in the secondary and Mike Gesicki somewhere on the perimeter of the offense both expect to see the field this season. They'll be learning on the go but in 2015, they'll be comfortable and ready to play significant roles.
If the youth Penn State has on its roster can learn fast, they may be playing significant roles on one of the best teams in the Big Ten when that time comes.
All quotes obtained firsthand.
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