STATE COLLEGE — For a team that’s being forced to whittle down scholarship depth, Penn State sure is developing a lot of options.
A youth movement on display at the Blue-White intrasquad scrimmage over the weekend was the first sign of potential contributors come fall.
Redshirt freshman Austin Johnson, vying to replace standout tackle Jordan Hill, had two sacks in the spring game. Another redshirt, tight end Brent Wilkerson, caught a touchdown and sought to prove he was ready to join a position that already had depth. A third redshirt freshman, Akeel Lynch, ran for 87 yards and showed he could be another backfield contributor for coach Bill O’Brien.
Now, it’s just a spring practice game with a scaled-down playbook and hitting. But even without a defined starting quarterback, the Nittany Lions appear to be in much better shape than O’Brien’s first spring a year ago, with players gaining from a year of experience in the ways and systems of the coaching staff.
“If they ask me to run down the field and knock a couple heads (on special teams), then I’ll definitely do that. If they ask me to carry the ball 30 times, I’ll do that,” a happy Lynch said Saturday after the Blue-White game. “Anything to help the team win. To put the team first before me.”
Getting younger players more playing time in the spring scrimmage was largely by design. Coaches know what they’re getting from veterans like linebackers Glenn Carson and Mike Hull, who played just a couple series before sitting out the rest of the afternoon.
Penn State is in the midst of a two-year process of whittling down the scholarship roster by 20 to 65 in 2014 because of NCAA sanctions. Keeping players healthy for the fall was of prime concern, so O’Brien limited full contact to once a week during spring practice.
Other key veterans like tight end Kyle Carter and safety Stephen Obeng-Agyapong sat out as a precaution because they are recovering from offseason surgeries. Players with minor bumps or bruises like running back Bill Belton and defensive tackle DaQuan Jones were also held out as a precaution. Zach Zwinak, a 1,000-yard rusher, sat out after hurting his left hand or wrist on the first series, though that injury doesn’t appear serious.
Secondary depth has been replenished with Malik Golden and Trevor Williams moving over from receiver.
Sophomore cornerback Jordan Lucas shared a practice award with end C.J. Olaniyan for the defensive players who showed the best conduct, attitude and improvement in spring drills.
There are three returning starters in the secondary: cornerback Adrian Amos and safeties Malcolm Willis and Obeng-Agyapong.