Cornerback Zech McPhearson knocks a pass away in last year’s Blue-White Game. He was one of three Penn State players who entered their names in the NCAA’s transfer portal over the weekend. JOE HERMITT, PENNLIVE.COM via ASSOCIATED PRESS

You can add a few more names to the list of Penn State players who have thrown their names into the NCAA’s very popular transfer portal.

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We’ll get the particulars out of the way quick:

  • Zech McPhearson is a good, solid player who chipped in when called upon and did a good, solid job. He was an important part of the secondary in the early going in 2018 while John Reid worked his way back into playing shape after the knee surgery, and down the stretch, he was pretty good on special teams. He had eight tackles and two PBUs this season.
  • Brandon Polk opened the season as a starting receiver and barely cracked the lineup down the stretch. Like so many others in that receiving corps, he struggled to catch the ball this season, and really wasn’t much of a factor in conference play. He had nine catches for 162 yards and two scores in ’18.
  • Lamont Wade moved to safety in 2018 and never did crack the lineup. But he, like McPhearson, was a useful backup who contributed on special teams. He had 18 tackles and a sack this season.

This brings the number of players who are at least exploring the transfer market to seven. Receiver Juwan Johnson and reserve linebacker Dae’lun Darien announced they were leaving the program recently, linebacker Brelin Faison-Walden is off to UNC-Charlotte, and safety Isaiah Humphries, who announced at the end of the regular season he was leaving, revealed early this morning he’s heading to Cal. Again, simply entering their names into the transfer portal does not mean that McPhearson, Polk and Wade must transfer; just that other schools interested in their services are free to contact them. It’s basically a marketplace for players to see what their opportunities are. But, there is some risk to simply exploring the market: The program can pull a player’s scholarship once he voluntarily enters his name in that portal. So, it’s fair to say that anyone who puts their name in the portal is seriously considering leaving their current program.

Penn State has now had 11 scholarship players who could have come back in 2019 indicating they won’t be returning, including the five players who will enter the NFL Draft a year early: Offensive linemen Connor McGovern and Ryan Bates, defensive linemen Kevin Givens and Shareef Miller, and running back Miles Sanders.

I’ve been getting quite a few emails about the amount of players who had eligibility next year for the Nittany Lions who are leaving the program early — which you’d expect, since this is all pretty new — and I’m going to try to answer some of them here. The important thing to remember, though, is that this is a new world in college football. All of this is pretty fluid right now, and other big-time programs are seeing this happen too.

Question: Losing this group of players…is it a big deal?

Well…you never want to lose depth. And Penn State is losing depth.

Wade was a top-four safety last season, for a team that is losing a starting safety. McPhearson was a top-five cornerback for a team that is losing a starting cornerback. The Penn State coverage units were not horrible last season, and these were two guys who played key roles.

You can say what you want about Johnson’s and Polk’s production last season, but they’re good guys and experienced hands in a group that really doesn’t have much experience due back in 2019, and they wouldn’t be the first players to turn around a bad season and have a pretty good one out of the chute the next year. Raise your hand if you thought Mike Gesicki was a total bust after 2015.

That said, while Penn State is losing depth, that’s one thing you have to admit James Franklin and his staff have been able to build during the last few years. Sanders, for example, leaves after a year when Penn State lands the top running back prospect in the nation (Ricky Slade) and in the year when it gets two of the top five (Noah Cain and Devyn Ford) in its 2019 recruiting class.

Strictly looking at the transfers, these are players that mostly weren’t guaranteed starting spots. Johnson seemed like the most likely to win a starting job, but Justin Shorter, Daniel George, K.J. Hamler and Jahan Dotson are clearly the future at wideout for Penn State. Maybe Wade goes down as the most surprising player to enter his name in the portal, because defensive coordinator Brent Pry and cornerbacks coach Terry Smith raved about him during bowl week — “He’s given us great depth this year in the secondary and continues to grow. Obviously, with the departure of Nick Scott, we’re looking for Lamont to step up (in 2019),” Smith said in Orlando. “He’s going to get a shot.” That said, Wade was a very highly recruited cornerback who the coaching staff deemed in about a year would help the program more as a safety, and then he didn’t get on the field much as a safety. He wasn’t playing nearly as often as Jonathan Sutherland, for example.

So, it’s worth wondering if the staff saw Wade — who is just 5-foot-9 and playing a position where the Nittany Lions have gone with bigger guys in seasons past — as a future starter or as a depth piece.

Question: Are kids these days really that unwilling to compete for a job?

I totally expected this question, although not in my inbox at 3 a.m. today.

Here’s the thing: I think kids are perfectly willing to compete for playing time early in their careers. I really do. I also think this coaching staff, in particular, is really honest with its players. If they don’t see a path to consistent playing time, or to opportunities the players really want to get, I would guess these are the types of guys who will let them know the score. And, that’s a good thing.

You really need to stop looking at this as a collective “Oh my god, 11 players are leaving” kind of thing and see it as 11 individual cases. I don’t think all of them were told they weren’t going to play, just like I don’t think all of them were upset with the coaching staff, just like I don’t think all of them have the same goals and strategies in mind. Johnson has graduated, and McPhearson is on target to get his degree after the spring semester. Maybe they want to pursue graduate programs elsewhere? This is a way to get a graduate degree paid for, and frankly, it makes sense to do it that way.

Is that the same situation for Humphries and Wade? Of course not. They want to play, and opportunities are different everywhere, and they essentially have the right to be free agents. So, why not be free agents? But either way, I don’t think this has anything to do with the character of the kids or the “Why should I have to earn it?” philosophy so many from older generations seem to think kids have these days.

 

Question: Is this the new normal?

Honestly, I don’t know how to answer this. Let’s see how it all goes this year.

There are a lot of names in the transfer portal right now, and Penn State isn’t the only program filling it. Are there as many opportunities out there as there are players looking for opportunities? We’ll see.

But I’ll say this: If Juwan Johnson and Lamont Wade and Zech McPhearson all find really great programs to play for and wind up excelling on the field elsewhere, then yeah, I think you can expect more Penn State players to look at this avenue down the road. If they have to go to lower divisions, or if they transfer and don’t find the grass greener at their new homes, it will probably lead to players thinking harder about it.

Like I said earlier though, this is a new world. Players have some rights now. A scholarship isn’t a four- or five-year contract anymore. These are not the halcyon days of Joe Paterno when every recruit signed in 1972 would run through the tunnel one last time in 1976, forced to live with the decision they played whether they were All-Americans or just carried the water. Every year, you’re probably going to get a handful of players — especially the ones on the cusp of playing time — wondering if they’re really maximizing the one chance they get to play college ball.

Question: Is this an indication that James Franklin is losing the locker room?

Definitely knew this one was coming, and I have one thing to say about it: It’s more a sign that James Franklin is improving the talent in the locker room than anything else.

Remember the scene in the movie Rudy — come on, I know you watched it, Penn State fans — when the team captain walked into Dan Devine’s office, his jersey folded in his hands, and put it on his desk, selflessly saying, “This is for Rudy.” And then you get four score of Fighting Irish players heaping their folded jerseys on the frustrated Devine’s desk “for Rudy.” (Now, I know you’re wiping away the tears just thinking about that.)

Great scene. Great story. If only it were true. Turns out, it’s pretty slanderous what the makers of that movie did to Dan Devine. Players didn’t beg for Rudy to get a roster spot. They didn’t throw their gear at their coach in protest. It was Devine’s idea to suit Rudy up! … And I tell you that to tell you this: That scene ruins Rudy for me. Not because it’s factually bunk. But because even if Devine had no intention of putting Rudy out there, there’s no way — none — he’d have been shocked and appalled that players would volunteer to give up their roster spots for him.

Bottom line is, coaches are never surprised by what’s going on with their players. They. Know. Everything. That. Is. Going. On.

The assumption (and I think many fans have it) that someone like Juwan Johnson walked into James Franklin’s office one day last week and said, “Coach, I’ve been thinking a lot about it, and I’ve decided to transfer, and that completely surprised the head coach of a major football program is pretty misguided, to me. Generally, players don’t make decisions on a whim. They think about them for a while. They discuss them with family. They discuss them with coaches. If there’s honest back and forth — and again, that seems to be the case at Penn State — coaches know which way the wind is blowing. So when Franklin is addressing the media on Dec. 14 and again a few weeks later before the bowl game and in the pregame press conference the day before the game and then after the game the next day…he knows Juwan Johnson and a few others are probably leaning toward a transfer. He or someone on his staff has probably, in most cases, been part of the decision-making process.

In the early signing period last month, Penn State landed two players from Lackawanna College, safety JaQuan Brisker and offensive lineman Anthony Whigan. Two of the top junior college prospects in the nation, really. Penn State does not have an extensive history recruiting at Lackawanna, even though it’s practically in the backyard, never mind an extensive history at other jucos.

Let’s take a look back at some of the players the Nittany Lions have taken from junior colleges since Franklin took over as head coach before the 2014 season:

2015: OT Paris Palmer
2016: DT Tyrell Chavis
2016: DT Brenon Thrift
2019: OL Anthony Whigan
2019: SAF JaQuan Brisker

In 2015, Penn State badly — and I mean, badly — needed help on the offensive line, and went to Lackawanna for Palmer. In 2016, the year after Anthony Zettel and Austin Johnson left for the NFL, and with Penn State in dire need for experienced backup help along the defensive line, they went to Nassau CC for Chavis and Lackawanna for Thrift.

See the pattern there? Desperate need at OT led to Palmer. Desperate need at DL led to Chavis and Thrift.

Do you think Franklin just got extremely lucky that they got an offensive lineman and a safety from Lackawanna in the recruiting class the same year they lost two offensive linemen and a safety to the Draft, and two other safeties to transfers? Or, is it much more likely they figured these NFL departures/transfers were coming for one reason or another and considered this a situation where they would need the help and recruited as such?

The latter is probably a good bet,

If you’ve got players leaving en masse because they dislike the coaching staff or the direction of the program, that’s one thing. But that doesn’t seem to be the case here; at least, players aren’t saying it’s the case.

Question: How does this affect the scholarship roster?

That’s a good question I’ve heard a few times, but nobody is going to be able to answer it with any certainty, because only the coaching staff really knows who is officially on scholarship.

Just about every beat reporter in some way keeps a running tab of the scholarship roster, and I’m no different.But word of advice: Most of us are going to have slightly different numbers.

I have the Nittany Lions, currently, at 76 scholarships issued for the fall, with 11 scholarship players certainly coming off the books following next season — QB Tommy Stevens, TEs Nick Bowers and Jonathan Holland, OG Steven Gonzalez, DT Robert Windsor, LBs Jan Johnson and Jarvis Miller, CB John Reid and safeties Ayron Monroe, John Petrishen and Garrett Taylor. There certainly will be more, of course, starting with the true seniors (Cam Brown, Blake Gillikin, et al) who technically still could use a redshirt season if there’s an injury.

It’s best to use that number as a guesstimate, though. Either way, even if the number is really 74 or 75 or 77 right now, Penn State probably factored in losing a few players, or more, when filling out the 2019 recruiting class. And, there could even be a bit of room to hand out a few scholarships to some walk-on players and, perhaps, even add a graduate transfer or two.

But, that’s another question, and another post for another day.