Last week, before the season opener against the Akron Zips, Penn State football released its 2017 depth chart.
While there were some surprises, Penn State’s depth chart remained very similar to the 2016 edition, as expected because of the 16 returning starters.
The Nittany Lions have some of the best talent in the Big Ten this season. Every player on the roster is highly skilled, but some guys are better than others.
In addition, some players are more important than others, given their position or the depth at a position.
Here is my ranking of every Penn State football player listed on the depth chart. The rankings are based on a combination of ability and production, along with a player’s value to the team.
- RB Saquon Barkley (No. 1 RB)
This ranking almost does not need an explanation because Saquon Barkley is the face of Penn State football. Barkley was a preseason Heisman candidate after a stellar 2016 season, in which he broke out and posted 1898 total offensive yards and 22 touchdowns. The beast can do it all on the field, he is an incredible leader and one of the most liked players just by his personality and character.
2. QB Trace McSorley (No. 1 QB)
Like Barkley, redshirt junior quarterback Trace McSorley turned in a breakout campaign in 2016. After assuming the starter role due to the departure of current Jets QB Christian Hackenberg, McSorley showed why he is a lethal athlete. He amassed 3,614 passing yards and 365 rushing yards, while contributing 29 TD’s through the air and seven more with his legs. It earned in him national recognition and a preseason Heisman candidacy selection, as well.
3. LB Jason Cabinda (No. 1 LB)
Jason Cabinda is the leader of the Penn State defense. While Cabinda was injured for parts of the 2016 season, his presence was felt and an impact was made when he was on the turf, rather than the sideline. One of Cabinda’s best performances came against Penn State’s most important regular season opponent in the Ohio State Buckeyes. On the big stage, Cabinda helped hold OSU to 21 total points and made 13 tackles. If he can remain healthy, he has the potential to be remembered as one the Nittany Lion linebacker greats.
4. S Marcus Allen (No. 1 S)
Marcus Allen is one of the most enjoyable and talented safeties to watch. In 2016, Allen led the team in tackles with 110 total tackles, 22 of which came against the Minnesota Golden Gophers in an overtime thriller. A lot of fans love the energy and personality Allen brings to the field. He has gone viral on social media plenty of times with his postgame locker room videos.
🙄 talk to me pic.twitter.com/I8snOXDFnM— Marcus Allen (@Chico_Hndrxx) September 2, 2017
Back to football, Allen has a nose for where the ball is headed, and is always in or near the heart of every play.
5. TE Mike Gesicki (No. 1 TE)
This breakout season theme is quite common among Penn State’s top players, but Mike Gesicki also surprised the masses by emerging as a star TE in 2016. Now a preseason AP All-American, Gesicki went from 13 receptions and 125 receiving yards, to 48 receptions and 679 yards in season production. Gesicki could be the first tight end off the board in the 2018 draft. Luckily for Penn State, the senior has one more year to dominate college football before going pro.
6. WR Juwan Johnson (No. 1 WR)
Who is going to replace Chris Godwin, who left for the National Football League? Meet Juwan Johnson. A 6-foot-4 wide receiver who was once a heavily recruited four-star player out of high school. In addition to size, Johnson possesses all the intangibles to make an immediate impact for the Nittany Lions. For a man this tall, he has incredible athleticism and speed which will allow him to bully opposing corners on the field. The redshirt sophomore is expected to do great things and more in his first year as a starter.
7. OL Ryan Bates (No. 1 OL)
The best player on the Penn State offensive line is Ryan Bates. The redshirt sophomore started last season and became a major asset to the O-line’s success. Bates, showing his versatility, has moved from guard to left tackle where he will protect McSorley’s blind side. Bates is one of the quickest offensive linemen anyone will ever see, and strength seems almost natural to him. Off the field, Bates is an incredible leader at the early stages of his career and heavily involved in the Lift for Life.
8. QB Tommy Stevens (No. 2 QB)
This is where the importance factor comes in. While Tommy Stevens is talented, he is not the eighth best player solely because of skill. Although fans’ eyes might hurt reading this, what if McSorley was lost due to an unexpected injury? It is a scary occurrence to think about, yet a realistic one. The Nittany Lions are in good hands if Stevens were to take over at QB for some time. Stevens is a freak of an athlete with a cannon for an arm and the ability to run people over like a bulldozer. Numerous schools would love to sport Stevens as their QB, but fortunately for Penn State, he is top quality insurance for a possible McSorley injury.
9. LB Manny Bowen (No. 2 LB)
Thrust into the spotlight after Cabinda and former linebacker Brandon Bell were sidelined due to health, Bowen took on the responsibility well as a redshirt sophomore. Now, Bowen has the experience needed to accompany his superb athleticism. In 2016, Bowen had 67 tackles and two sacks, with his best game coming against Ohio State where he had 12 stops. Bowen is one of the fastest linebackers on the field and is a major threat on stunt blitzes. No. 43 will help Cabinda command the defense and lead the linebacker corps throughout this season.
10. DE Shareef Miller (No. 1 DE)
Rounding out the top ten is defensive end Shareef Miller. Miller is poised for a breakout season this year as one of the returning veteran defensive linemen. Penn State runs a special rotation at defensive line that keeps each unit on the field with fresh legs. Miller battled injuries in 2016 and was only able to collect two sacks, but the redshirt junior has plenty of upside. At 6-foot-5 and 250 pounds, Miller is a tough block for opposing tackles and has a quick step to compliment his size. If Miller can remain healthy, the Philadelphia native should be a force on Saturdays.
11. WR DeAndre Thompkins (No. 2 WR)
DeAndre Thompkins has been one of the more overlooked receivers during his career at Penn State. Thompkins does not blow defenders away with his size, but he makes up for it with his athleticism, and especially his field vision. Thompkins is amazing on the open turf and can easily be described as a human joystick. He is an excellent deep threat and should have an exciting redshirt junior year.
12. WR DaeSean Hamilton (No. 3 WR)
DaeSean Hamilton is the third wide receiver on this list because he lacks the pure ability and talent that Johnson and Thompkins bring to the table. Hamilton is tough, smart, strong and quick, but he falls short when compared to top tier talent. Hamilton has seen his production slashed each season since his freshman year. The senior captain was effective in the past, but lost targets due to the arrival of Chris Godwin and other phenomenal recruits. Hamilton is important because he is one of the few veteran receivers among the corps, and can offer a lot of knowledge to the younger guys.
13. RB Andre Robinson (No. 2 RB)
Similarly to Stevens’ value to a McSorley absence, Andre Robinson falls under that category, as well. The Mechanicsburg native would be called upon immediately if Barkley needed a play off, or worse. Robinson filled in nicely as a back a season ago, and proved to be more serviceable than both senior Mark Allen and sophomore Miles Sanders. Robinson does not have blazing speed, but has quality vision and ball carrier skills like Barkley. Robinson is a downhill runner and is not afraid to hit the hole at full speed.
14. P Blake Gillikin (No. 1 P)
Why is a punter ranked No. 14 on the depth chart when there are guys who are highly more valuable than a player with a strong right leg? The difference is that Blake Gillikin is not an ordinary punter, and should be considered one of the best in the country. In 2016, Gillikin was selected to ESPN’s freshmen All-America team, and broke the Penn State freshman punter season average record with 42.8 yards per punt. Usually punters do not deserve to be ranked top 20 in anything, but Gillikin’s impressive skill set could be the difference in close games for Penn State.
15. DT Curtis Cothran (No. 1 DT)
The redshirt senior is getting his first chance to start as a Nittany Lion. Cothran is one of the veteran leaders of this team, even though he was not elected to be a captain. Cothran did not play much last year, but does possess valuable size, strength and awareness to make him a force in the middle.
16. DE Torrence Brown (No. 2 DE)
Like Miller, Torrence Brown is another defensive end expected to break through the glass ceiling in 2017. As a backup, Brown provided only a half of a sack, but did force three fumbles and collected 32 total tackles. The redshirt junior always attacks the ball and is hard to get away from once he wraps up for a tackle. Those two skills should continue to translate well in the Big Ten.
17. WR Saeed Blacknall (No. 4 WR)
One could argue that Saeed Blacknall is good enough to be a starter, but that is just how much depth Penn State has at WR. Blacknall has had a quiet career in Happy Valley, up until when it mattered most in the Big Ten Championship. Six receptions, 155 yards and two touchdowns had everyone scratching their heads and thinking “where was this for the past few years?” Blacknall’s size stands out first, but the senior has great hands and deep threat capabilities.
18. OL Brendan Mahon (No. 2 OL)
Brendan Mahon is one of the most versatile offensive lineman on the roster. Mahon’s ability to move around from left to right and tackle to guard shows that he can learn quickly and perform the technique at each spot well.
19. CB Grant Haley (No. 1 CB)
Known for his scoop and score against Ohio State, Grant Haley is the top cornerback on the Penn State roster. His veteran status and open field tackling ability set him apart from other cornerbacks. Haley is solid in coverage, but excels more at stopping the run. No. 15’s other great play often gets over looked, but he made the game saving tackle on 4th and 1 against Wisconsin to secure the conference championship victory.
20. DE Ryan Buchholz (No. 3 DE)
Ryan Buchholz should instantaneously remind Penn State fans of former defensive end Carl Nassib. Buchholz is physical and uses his hands to shed blocks and get after the quarterback. He will be an excellent change of pace pass rusher when defensive coordinator Brent Pry rotates the lines.
21. CB Christian Campbell (No. 2 CB)
22. DT Kevin Givens (No. 2 DT)
23. OL Steven Gonzalez (No. 3 OL)
24. DT Parker Cothren (No. 3 DT)
25. LB Koa Farmer (No. 3 LB)
26. K Tyler Davis (No. 1 K)
27. LB Cam Brown (No. 4 LB)
28. CB Amani Oruwariye (No. 3 CB)
29. OL Connor McGovern (No. 4 OL)
30. S Troy Apke (No. 2 S)
31. S Nick Scott (No. 3 S)
32. LB Jarvis Miller (No. 5 LB)
33. OL Chasz Wright (No. 5 OL)
34. DE Shaka Toney (No. 4 DE)
35. WR Irvin Charles (No. 5 WR)
36. RB Miles Sanders (No. 3 RB)
37. LB Brandon Smith (No. 6 LB)
38. WR Brandon Polk (No. 6 WR)
39. OL Mike Miranda (No. 6 OL)
40. CB Lamont Wade (No. 4 CB)
41. TE Jonathan Holland (No. 2 TE)
42. DT Robert Windsor (No. 4 DT)
43. S Garrett Taylor (No. 4 S)
44. DE Colin Castagna (No. 5 DE)
45. TE Nick Bowers (No. 3 TE)
46. OL Andrew Nelson (No. 7 OL)
47. RB Mark Allen (No. 4 RB)
48. DT Ellison Jordan (No. 5 DT)
49. DE Shane Simmons (No. 6 DE)
50. CB Tariq Castro-Fields (No. 5 CB)
51. S Ayron Monroe (No. 5 S)
52. OL Will Fries (No. 8 OL)
53. LB Jake Cooper (No. 7 LB)
54. QB Sean Clifford (No. 3 QB)
55. LS Kyle Vasey (No. 1 LS)
56. WR KJ Hamler (No. 7 WR)
57. DT Antonio Shelton (No. 6 DT)
58. CB Zech McPhearson (No. 6 CB)
59. OL C.J. Thorpe (No. 9 OL)
60. OL Michal Menet (No. 10 OL)
61. K Alex Barbir (No. 2 K)
62. P Daniel Pasquariello (No. 2 P)
63. OL Zach Simpson (No. 11 OL)
64. DT Tyrell Chavis (No. 7 DT)
65. TE Tom Pancoast (No. 4 TE)
66. OL Alex Gellerstedt (No. 12 OL)
67. WR Dae’Lun Darien (No. 8 WR)
68. WR Mac Hippenhammer (No. 9 WR)
69. OL Charlie Shuman (No. 13 OL)
70. OL Sterling Jenkins (No. 14 OL)
71. QB/H Billy Fessler (No. 5 QB, No. 1 H)
72. P/K Carson Landis (No. 3 P, No. 3 K)
73. LS Jan Johnson (No. 2 LS)
74. LS Joe Calcagno (No. 3 LS)
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