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John McGonigal | Centre Daily Times | July 31, 2017

Four Penn State football storylines to watch

  Penn State head coach James Franklin has high expectations for his team as it enters the new season.

Fall camp starts Monday for Penn State, and the 2017 season is within sight — which means there are plenty of storylines to keep an eye on.

Here's what to watch in the coming weeks:

1. Battle at safety

For the past two seasons, Penn State has been solid at the safety spot as Marcus Allen and Malik Golden patrolled the secondary. This year, though, the Nittany Lions will be without the latter.

Golden, widely viewed as an underrated piece of Penn State's defense in 2016, moves on to the NFL, leaving a starting spot open next to Allen.

The question is, who will fill it?

There wasn't much clarity that came out of spring camp; James Franklin said at the time that it was tough to gauge a position like safety without the full-go intensity of fall camp.

The three real options Penn State has are Nick Scott, Troy Apke and Ayron Monroe.

Scott, a special teams captain, is a hard-hitting converted running back who has never started on defense. Apke, a senior, has made two career starts at safety, while Monroe appeared in 10 games as a redshirt freshman in 2016.

Whoever steps in for Golden likely won't do it alone. It'd be a tall task to ask a new starter to replace the seniority and sure-tackling (75 stops in 2016) that Golden left behind by himself.

Regardless, it'll be interesting to see who emerges in that battle before the opener.

RELATED: When does college football start?

2. Projected offensive line

Franklin, when asked Tuesday about returning stars at skills positions, mentioned a group that doesn't get a lot of love: the offensive line.

"The thing we're most excited about on both sides of the ball, but specifically on offense, is the offensive line," Franklin said at Big Ten media days. "Saquon Barkley has done some great things so far, but to think about him having a chance now this season to play behind what ... we feel like has got a chance to be one of the better offensive lines in the Big Ten, there's so much value in that."

Now with depth at a past position of weakness, it comes down to where those bodies fit best.

Franklin said seniors Andrew Nelson and Brendan Mahon — who combined to miss 13 games to injury in 2016 — are expected to be good-to-go for camp.

Redshirt sophomore tackle Ryan Bates, sophomore center Connor McGovern, redshirt sophomore guard Steven Gonzalez and redshirt junior tackle Chasz Wright all return starting experience.

Meanwhile, redshirt freshmen Michal Menet and Will Fries are players to watch.

As long as the seniors are good to go, a starting five of Bates-Gonzalez-McGovern-Mahon-Nelson wouldn't be surprising.

But we'll see how it plays out in the coming weeks.

3. Front-four fixtures

When asked at Big Ten media days for a sleeper or two on the defensive side of the ball, linebacker Jason Cabinda uttered three names without hesitation: Torrence Brown, Shareef Miller and Shane Simmons.

Brown and Miller figure to earn the starting spots at defensive end. The duo combined for 11.5 tackles for loss in 2016, making them explosive and experienced enough to take over for the departing Garrett Sickels and Evan Schwan.

But Simmons is a guy to follow. He could've contributed last season as a pass rusher, but the Nittany Lions redshirted him instead to have him bulk up.

After signing with Penn State last February at 230 pounds, Simmons is a lean 250 and ready to make an impact in the fall

4. Mike Gesicki's future successor?

In two years at Penn State, Nick Bowers has yet to play a down for the Nittany Lions.

But the redshirt sophomore tight end could see meaningful snaps in 2017. Bowers -- a 6-foot-4, 265-pounder at Joe Moorhead's disposal -- is medically cleared for camp after missing 2016 to a season-ending injury.

RELATED: Perseverance paying off for Penn State's Gesicki

And the guy ahead of him on the depth chart, All-Big Ten tight end Mike Gesicki, believes Bowers will be utilized in his first season of action.

"Nick is an unbelievable athlete. Prior to the injury he was an unbelievable athlete, and again, now that's he's 100 percent recovered, he's a great athlete," Gesicki said. "Carrying that much weight at 265, he moves just as well as I do. He has great ball skills, and being that big and that strong, he's a physical player.

"He's somebody that will find a role in our offense."

Now that he's healthy again, look for Bowers to turn heads in fall camp.

This article is written by John McGonigal from Centre Daily Times and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to legal@newscred.com.

 

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