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Penn State football: Projecting the Nittany Lions’ 2019 offensive depth chart

When Penn State’s 2018 season ended in Orlando, questions surrounding 2019 popped up. Since then, only more have arisen with five Nittany Lions declaring early for the NFL draft and 11 players announcing their intent to transfer or reportedly entering the transfer portal.

Penn State’s roster attrition might not be over. But in the meantime, we can start projecting answers for a few of those questions: Who will replace Trace McSorley? Who will start on the offensive line? Is Ricky Slade the guy at running back?

Later in the week, we’ll dive into the defensive side of the ball. But for now, here’s an early projection and breakdown of what Penn State’s 2019 offensive depth chart will look like.

Quarterback

Starter: Tommy Stevens

Backup: Sean Clifford

Reserves: Will Levis, Michael Johnson Jr., Ta’Quan Roberson

Breakdown: This is set up to be a true camp battle. But as long as he’s healthy, this ought to be Stevens’ job to lose. The rising redshirt senior has eagerly awaited this opportunity, going back to when he lost out to McSorley in 2016. Stevens, who decided not to transfer last offseason, kept his head down while McSorley became the program’s all-time winningest quarterback and performed the “Lion” role the best he could. Now, he should get his chance to run the offense for a season.

The only hangup with Stevens would be his health — and how Clifford might capitalize. Stevens missed all of last spring, part of fall camp and the first four games of 2018 with an unspecified injury. In the spring, Stevens watched practice from a motorized scooter and in August was seen wearing a walking boot. Most recently, the 6-foot-4 signal-caller had surgery in December and did not travel with the Nittany Lions to the Citrus Bowl in hopes of getting right for spring camp. If he’s not good to go, Clifford can make in-roads on the job in winter workouts and spring ball.

Clifford, who served as McSorley’s backup in Stevens’ absences, throws a pretty deep ball, that much we know. Outside of that, the rising redshirt sophomore hasn’t proved much in a Penn State uniform. Still, McSorley likes the youngster, saying, “He’s got everything that you need in a quarterback to be successful.” Offensive coordinator Ricky Rahne noted that Clifford grew “tenfold” from spring to the Citrus Bowl, and the quarterback’s high school coach told the CDT that he is “a born leader.” We’ll see if that’s enough to unseat Stevens, McSorley’s likely successor.

Also, keep an eye on Levis, Johnson Jr. and Roberson. All three will be in spring camp, with Johnson Jr. and Roberson enrolling early. It’ll be interesting to see if any of those three separate themselves and stake a claim to the No. 3 job.

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Penn State lion Tommy Stevens runs with the ball during the game against Maryland on Saturday, Nov. 24, 2018.

Abby Drey adrey@centredaily.com

Running back

Starter: Ricky Slade

Backups: Journey Brown, Noah Cain, Devyn Ford, C.J. Holmes

Breakdown: In 2017, Saquon Barkley accounted for 217 of Penn State’s 241 running back carries (90.04 percent). A year later, Miles Sanders recorded 220 of the 312 RB carries (70.52 percent). In Big Ten play, Sanders’ carry clip was 80.2 percent. When Penn State had a generational back in 2017 and when it mattered most in 2018, the Nittany Lions leaned on their bell-cow backs. Next season might be different.

Slade, a former five-star prospect, impressed in limited opportunity last season, rushing for 257 yards and six touchdowns on 45 carries. Slade disappeared from the rotation in the heart of the conference slate, not playing against Indiana, Iowa or Michigan after already burning his redshirt. Still, the rising sophomore is the clear front-runner.

But with Cain and Ford — a pair of highly-touted recruits with high expectations — entering the fold and Brown lurking, Ja’Juan Seider will likely employ a committee approach in 2019. Cain announced on signing day that he’d be taking his talents to Happy Valley for three to four years, indicating that he believes he can come in, make an impact and possibly leave for the NFL early. Cain has reason to be confident, of course. The early enrollee was the No. 7 running back recruit in the 2019 class. Ford, the No. 5 back, will enroll in June and compete for time, too.

Meanwhile, Brown, a high school track star, can be utilized as a change-of-pace back. And Holmes — a former four-star prospect who sat out last year after transferring from Notre Dame — is an option, as well.

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Penn State running back Ricky Slade outruns a Kentucky defender during the Citrus bowl on Tuesday, Jan. 1, 2019 at Camping World Stadium.

Abby Drey adrey@centredaily.com

Wide receiver

Starters: Justin Shorter, Jahan Dotson, KJ Hamler

Backups: Cam Sullivan-Brown, Daniel George, Mac Hippenhammer

Reserves: John Dunmore, Isaac Lutz, Alex Hoenstine, Brandon Clark

Breakdown: This group could add another member next month. James Franklin and his staff are still looking to fill out their 2019 recruiting class, and three-star prospect TJ Jones is considering Penn State, Texas A&M, Indiana, Texas Tech and a handful of other schools.

But even if Jones or another WR recruit signs on, Penn State’s 2019 two-deep looks set for Gerad Parker’s first season coaching the group. Shorter, the No. 8 overall prospect in the 2018 cycle, is a natural replacement for Juwan Johnson at the “X” receiver spot. Dotson emerged down the stretch as a true freshman, and Hamler locked up the slot with a team-leading campaign in catches and yards.

Behind those three, there’s clarity. Sullivan-Brown is often overlooked, and he’ll push Shorter for time. George is built at 6-foot-2, 220 pounds and showed his deep-ball ability on the 95-yard catch-and-run against Kent State. And Hippenhammer was worked into the offense during four-wide sets this year, and that shouldn’t change moving forward.

Missing from this group is Brandon Polk, who can technically still come back to Penn State after reportedly entering the transfer portal. But it’s not likely he will return; with so much young talent, he probably wouldn’t have cracked the two-deep, anyway.

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Penn State wide receiver Justin Shorter push away Kentucky cornerback Chris Westry during the Citrus bowl on Tuesday, Jan. 1, 2019 at Camping World Stadium.

Abby Drey adrey@centredaily.com

Tight end

Starter: Pat Freiermuth

Backups: Nick Bowers, Zack Kuntz, Jon Holland, Brenton Strange

Breakdown: No skill player has a stronger foothold on their position than Freiermuth. The breakout star’s eight touchdown catches led Penn State and ranked second in the country among tight ends, behind only Texas A&M’s Jace Sternberger, a consensus first-team All-American and projected 2019 draft pick. All year, Franklin and tight ends coach Tyler Bowen said the moment was never “too big” for Freiermuth, and he proved that, scoring in the Citrus Bowl.

Bowers also scored in Penn State’s narrow loss to Kentucky and could be considered a half-starter in a way. Penn State used 12 personnel (two tight ends, two receivers, one running back) frequently to get the running game going, and it was often Bowers out there alongside Freiermuth. Expect Bowers’ role to continue in 2019.

After him, it gets interesting. Danny Dalton isn’t listed here because he reportedly entered the transfer portal, which was somewhat expected. He can come back, but no one expected Penn State to enter 2019 with six scholarship tight ends. And there might be more attrition, too. But if Holland returns, don’t expect much. Kuntz has put on weight and should be ready to contribute as a redshirt freshman. Meanwhile, Strange is a prime redshirt candidate.

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Kentucky defenders can’t stop Penn State tight end Pat Freiermuth as he dives into the end zone for a touchdown during the Citrus Bowl on Tuesday, Jan. 1, 2019 at Camping World Stadium.

Abby Drey adrey@centredaily.com

Offensive line

Starters: Will Fries, LT; Steven Gonzalez, LG; Michal Menet, C; Mike Miranda, RG; Rasheed Walker, RT

Backups: Anthony Whigan, CJ Thorpe, Des Holmes, Juice Scruggs, Bryce Effner, Caedan Wallace

Breakdown: Working left to right, Fries should go uncontested at left tackle. He played on both the right and left sides in 2017 and 2018, but looked more comfortable at the latter each year. Gonzalez, who announced he was returning and not entering the draft, is locked in at left guard, as well.

Menet could theoretically move back to guard, the position that he was recruited at, to fill Connor McGovern’s vacated spot on the right side. But he quietly had a nice year at center as a first-year starter and keeping him there would be good for continuity.

The right side is where competition will heat up. While Thorpe might stay at defensive tackle, his nasty streak will put him in contention if he returns to guard. But Miranda, who garnered praise as a true freshman back in 2017, filled in for Gonzalez when needed in 2018 and should have a good chance to nail down that role.

At right tackle, it’ll be a battle between Walker and Whigan after Alex Gellerstedt reportedly entered the transfer portal. This isn’t necessarily a perfect situation for offensive line coach Matt Limegrover. Ryan Bates’ early departure for the NFL draft was stunning, leaving Limegrover to choose between a redshirt freshman and a JUCO signee. While Whigan has experience at Lackawanna, Walker has been on campus for a year, earned a post-Citrus Bowl shoutout by McSorley and was the No. 65 overall prospect in the 2018 class. Rankings don’t mean anything during a camp battle, but it’s indicative of Walker’s ceiling. Limegrover likely recognizes that potential, too.

As far as backups, it’ll be intriguing to see what Limegrover does with Holmes. The 6-foot-5, 322-pound rising redshirt sophomore moved from tackle to guard, but can play both. Redshirt junior Zach Simpson walked on Senior Day, which means Scruggs will be the No. 2 center. And Wallace, the No. 82 overall prospect and No. 3 guard in the 2019 class, is worth keeping an eye on when he arrives in the summer.

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Penn State offensive line coach Matt Limegrover and special teams coordinator Phil Galiano talk during the Citrus bowl against Kentucky on Tuesday, Jan. 1, 2019 at Camping World Stadium.

Abby Drey adrey@centredaily.com

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