The Nittany Lions return 13 starters from the Cotton Bowl (9 offense, 4 defense), giving the team a good mix of returning talent, and exciting up-and-comers. While some positions are going to be easy to replace, they are a few starting spots that will have to be won during these last few weeks of preseason prep. Let's take a look at the five biggest position battles for Penn State this fall.
Jahan Dotson and Daniel George will start, but that third spot is wide open. It's Cam Sullivan-Brown and trio of freshman TJ Jones, KeAndre Lambert-Smith, and Parker Washington who are the contenders here, with each bringing something different to the table. Cam Sullivan-Brown looked like he was making headway last year before he went down with an injury. He should get a long look as the veteran of the bunch. The redshirt freshman Jones is a great athlete and a flat-out playmaker. He was listed as the starter on the spring depth chart, but after these past few months that probably doesn't carry very much weight.
KLC early enrolled but didn't get an opportunity to fully take advantage of that extra time without a spring practice. A high four-star prospect, he has a remarkably high ceiling and is a true big-play threat every time he touches the ball. Parker Washington is the more Week 1-ready of these two, as coaches have raved about his maturity since his high school days.
This is a battle that will rage on throughout the first few months of the season, but all three are going to have a major impact throughout the season.
With the Micah Parsons opt-out, Penn State needs to replace all three starting linebackers from a year ago. Brandon Smith is the only true lock, while Ellis Brooks seems like he's in the driver's seat for the middle linebacker job. Jesse Luketa will get snaps there every game, but the Canadian will compete with Lance Dixon and Curtis Jacobs for a more permanent role as the outside linebacker.
Of this group, Dixon and Jacobs are the more natural outside players, but Luketa is far more experienced. This is a bit of a unique position battle since Luketa will likely share the field with Dixon or Jacobs a few times a game when at middle linebacker, so all of these dudes have to prepare like they're the starter.
Tariq Castro-Fields has one side locked down, but it's anyone's guess as to who lines up opposite of him. It seemed like Donovan Johnson had the inside track for this job, but more injury woes have already cost him the season. That leaves Keaton Ellis and Marquis Wilson as the main competitors.
Ellis was a green-light from day one as a true freshman and played pretty well as his role expanded with injuries piling up. Marquis Wilson forced himself on to the field and proved he had a knack for creating big plays, tying for the team lead in interceptions. Ellis seems more likely to win the other starting job, with Wilson as more of the slot corner, a role he will thrive in. Joey Porter Jr., who coaches have been hyping up so far this camp, could also be a factor here, but he's more likely to be the extra corner they bring on in obvious passing downs.
Whoever wins this job will have to follow the acts of Saquon Barkley and KJ Hamler, so no pressure. Jahan Dotson could be turned to, but the staff has never liked to have the same guy returning both punts and kicks. Caziah Holmes brings blazing speed and this would be a great way to get the true freshman running back on the field. Journey Brown could also handle this duty, but he's going to have a lot on his plate in what should be a run-heavy offense. Parker Washington would also make sense here, but if he's playing a big role at wide receiver it wouldn't be wise to add this to his plate.
Tight End No. 2
The fact that the backup tight end makes this list shows how well off Penn State is. Nick Bowers thrived in this role last season, thanks to the heavy use of two-tight end sets and the lack of competent receivers. Kirk Ciarrocca's offense hasn't relied heavily on tight ends in the past, but he's never had a room this stacked.
Zack Kuntz is the most logical option here. He won't play a Nick Bowers-type of TE2, but at 6'7 he could easily be a security blanket for Sean Clifford. Theo Johnson is a similar type of player, but an offseason injury throws a major wrench in how much he's ready to take on. Brenton Strange is more of a complete tight end, which is usually an advantage but he's not the receiving threat the other two are. Kuntz and Johnson should battle it out for the more full-time role, with Strange earning his way onto the field in jumbo packages and obvious running situations.