Penn State will host its annual spring scrimmage on Saturday, even if established stars like running back Saquon Barkley, tight end Mike Gesicki and linebacker Jason Cabinda are likely to be watching from the sidelines. However, that doesn’t mean there will be less for fans to see. A slew of players likely to be competing for and ultimately assuming important roles on the team this fall will see significant action, and this week on the Penn State Blog, we’ll be looking at the Top 5.
Today, we scout the highly regarded safety prospect who has finally gotten an opportunity, Ayron Monroe.
What he did in 2016: Unlike the first few players we looked at on this list, Monroe played quite a bit in 2016, and he did well as a cover man on special teams. He actually had 12 tackles, and was especially good on kick coverage in the win over Ohio State and the classic Rose Bowl against USC. As a backup on defense, he broke up a pass in the Big Ten Championship Game.
What he can show on Saturday: Monroe is in the mix for the vacant starting safety spot alongside the productive veteran Marcus Allen, and whatever it is he has to show, he’s sure going to get plenty of chances to display it.
But also unlike the others who have appeared on this list so far, he’s going to have to play better than some seasoned veterans to do it. He’ll be competing for that spot with Troy Apke, a senior who was Allen’s backup last season, as well as converted cornerback Garrett Taylor and special teams captain Nick Scott.
The question is, can Monroe — who has battled some injury issues the last few seasons — show the coaching staff that he is what he was thought to be coming out of high school: The most talented player in that bunch of contenders. To do so, he’s going to have to make an impact. The player with the biggest game on Saturday is certainly going to be seen as the favorite to claim that starting spot in August.
Why is he important for 2017: So many people around the Penn State program talk so much about what the Nittany Lions need to replace in 2017 if they want to go to the Big Ten title game again and compete for a national championship. They talk about Brandon Bell and Nyeem Wartman-White being gone from the linebacking corps, or how the Nittany Lions can replace defensive ends Garrett Sickels and Evan Schwan. Even at a talent-loaded position like wideout, Penn State has questions about how Chris Godwin’s production can be reproduced.
But too few talk about the impact Malik Golden had on the 2016 defense.
Golden was a solid all-around player, as a leader, a person and a safety. He was the fourth-leading tackler on the team (75), was sixth on the team in pass breakups, intercepted a pass, forced a fumble and played very well against the run, to boot. Was he the most physically gifted safety in the Big Ten? Not by a longshot. But he was smart and prepared and tough and productive and looked-up to. Golden is not going to be an easy man to replace on that defense. I’d dare argue that, after Bell, he’s the player Penn State will have the most difficult time replacing, on either side of the ball.
To do so, Penn State will have to find someone who can do a little bit of everything, and that was Monroe’s reputation coming out of high school in the class of 2015. Although maybe the most physically gifted in the group, Scott is still relatively new to the position. Taylor is a guy for which the team is still attempting to locate a true position, and while he has been a solid-enough backup, Apke has been somewhat inconsistent when he has gotten chances to play.
If Monroe is ever going to be able to separate himself from the pack and claim the long-term starting spot that he once seemed destined for, the time is now.
How you’ll know he did his job: He’s going to have to make a play.
You’d like to see him get some action in the spring-ending scrimmage against the first teamers, to see how he both handles a physical running game and works to prevent a big play offense from going over the top. This is probably the best test Monroe and the rest of the safeties are going to get in a game situation until Pitt comes to town, so it would help not just to be quietly solid, but to come up with a play that makes everyone take notice. There will be chances. The safety that takes advantage of one of those probably will do himself the most good on Saturday. Let’s give Monroe the early edge in that regard.
Penn State safety Ayron Monroe celebrated winning the Big Ten Championship in Indianapolis in December. Can he help the Nittany Lions do it again, this time as a safety? Associated Press photo.