What to watch: Penn State spring scrimmage


STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- It's been 111 days since the Nittany Lions last stormed the field -- but fans have to wait just one more day for a respite of sorts with the annual scrimmage.

More than 70,000 filled Beaver Stadium for the Blue-White Game last year, and the weather Saturday afternoon is again expected to be clear and warm. The scrimmage kicks off at 4 p.m.

Here's what you should keep an eye on:

New starters at defensive end: Carl Nassib and Garrett Sickels may have seen limited time last season, but James Franklin said last week that he no longer has any questions about this unit. These two have earned a lot of praise this spring, and fans will finally have a chance Saturday to get a prolonged look at them.

As a former walk-on, Nassib -- the brother of New York Giants' quarterback Ryan Nassib -- is especially intriguing. Even before Franklin's arrival, Bill O'Brien often lauded Nassib's work ethic and progress. Nassib just didn't see much time sitting behind entrenched starters Deion Barnes and C.J. Olaniyan. Plus, he plans to become a doctor. So, yeah, he's unique.

Extra speed: Penn State has historically produced stout defenses, NFL-caliber linebackers and strong running games. But no one's mistaken this program for boasting "SEC speed." That seems to be changing.

Last year, one player ran the 40-yard dash in 4.49 seconds or better. This year? Five. Last year, 11 players ran a 4.59 or better. This spring? Twenty. A lot of that speed has been injected from the underclassmen, such as cornerback Grant Haley and wideout DeAndre Thompkins, and that speed should be on display Saturday. There's definite home-run potential here.

Future at quarterback: Let's be realistic; it would be a monumental surprise to see Christian Hackenberg not declare for the NFL draft after the season. So, who takes over after he's gone? Say hello to this year's backup, redshirt freshman Trace McSorley.

Hackenberg really has nothing to prove in this scrimmage, so he's not expected to be in the game long. McSorley, on the other hand, should see a lot more reps. He doesn't have the size or arm strength as Hackenberg, but he is much faster. This will be the first time fans and media really see him perform in a game-type atmosphere.

“There's a buzz in our program about him," Franklin said Thursday.

Spot at left tackle: This is the big question on the offensive line. At one corner of the competition is junior college transfer Paris Palmer, who boasts good quickness but is still working on technique and getting bigger. He's currently listed at 6-foot-7, 278 pounds but looks even skinnier. At the other corner is redshirt freshman Chance Sorrell, who has yet to log any game experience. He's 6-foot-5, 285 pounds. They're both markedly smaller than the rest of the starters, each of whom weigh in at more than 300 pounds.

One of those two will be protecting Hackenberg's blind side this season. The defense likely won't throw too many blitzes at the line Saturday -- in keeping with Franklin's "bring-the-OL-along-slowly" approach -- so, if the ends constantly get pressure on the quarterback, that won't be a great harbinger of the fall to come.

Kickers/punters: The scrimmage will feature a kicking competition of sorts, and that'll be something to look forward to -- considering both of these positions remain in flux. Penn State ranked No. 106 nationally in net punting (34.34 yards) last season, and Franklin hasn't been happy with the rate at which the punters have progressed this spring.

Franklin also needs to find a way to replace kicker Sam Ficken, who might've been the Nittany Lions' top offensive weapon last year. Seriously. Ficken nailed 24-of-29 field goals; the offense combined for 28 touchdowns. The competition for his replacement appears to be between Joe "The Toe" Julius (yes, they really call him that) and kicker-turned-punter-turned-kicker Chris Gulla. Franklin has praised Julius' leg strength but said the consistency for both players must improve.