How can Penn State football rebound? 5 things to watch from the Blue-White Game

Frank Bodani
York Daily Record

The freshman took the hand-off during a Penn State spring practice session.

And the rest of the team saw why Nick Singleton just may be the nation's top incoming running back − why so many have been talking about him, why all eyes will be on him during Saturday's Blue-White Game in Beaver Stadium.

The magic happened on a simple, ordinary running play.

"He pressed the line hard, saw a hole, saw something ... and he cut it back for an 80-yard touchdown. Got up to full speed … it was impressive," said defensive end Nick Tarburton.  

"The (running back) room is stacked. It’s been kind of cool to see them work this spring ..."  

Penn State football hopes to signal a revised, uplifting course during its annual free scrimmage − the first open to the public since 2019 because of the pandemic. Freeing those talented running backs, including rushing leader Keyvone Lee and newcomers like Singleton, has become a top priority for a team that surprisingly has lost as many games as its won the past two years.

Penn State Nittany Lions running back Keyvone Lee (24) runs around the outside of Michigan Wolverines defensive back Rod Moore (19) during the fourth quarter at Beaver Stadium. Michigan defeated Penn State 21-17 on Nov. 13, 2021.

The Blue-White Game should provide valuable insight going forward, particularly at running back, receiver and, to some extent, quarterback. Some other key spots may take longer to fill out, like the defensive line.

Who will make an early name for themselves?

Here are five things to look for from Saturday's fan-favorite scrimmage:

A QB pecking order: Christian Veilleux, Drew Allar and Beau Pribula

How quickly can Penn State freshman Drew Allar build on his extreme talents? He gets his first shot at proving his 5-star recruiting prestige Saturday in Beaver Stadium.
(Photo: Jeff Harwell/MaxPreps.com)

Four-year starters don't have much to prove in April.

So Sean Clifford should be more of a coach and cheerleader than performer on Saturday. How can he continue to help prepare his backups − Christian Veilleux, Drew Allar and Beau Pribula? These Lions certainly don't want to be in the same predicament as last year when a Clifford injury ruined an undefeated start and helped sink the season.

While Veilleux's growth and preparedness will be worth monitoring, fans will probably be most excited to glimpse their highly-touted true freshmen.

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What can Allar, a 5-star prospect, and Central York's Pribula offer in terms of poise, feel for the game and throwing accuracy so soon? There still is a battle for the No. 2 spot behind Clifford, and both are talented enough to push Veilleux.

Allar is Penn State's highest-rated QB recruit since Christian Hackenberg and Pribula is a two-time Pennsylvania player of the year and possibly the first Nittany Lion scholarship QB from York and Adams counties.

Mitch Tinsley ready for next step to stardom?

Michigan State's Payton Ma'a Gaoteote, left, tackles Western Kentucky's Mitchell Tinsley during the first quarter on Saturday, Oct. 2, 2021, at Spartan Stadium in East Lansing.

Receiver Mitch Tinsley seems ready for his biggest proving ground yet.

The senior transfer has been sensational in junior college and at small-time Division I Western Kentucky. He seems polished, poised and confident to succeed in the Big Ten − and do a decent job replacing the prolific Jahan Dotson, a possible first-round NFL Draft choice next week.

Tinsley will wear Dotson's No. 5 uniform and could put on a show Saturday, with the right opportunities.

He expects to pair well with ultra-reliable returner Parker Washington and KeAndre Lambert-Smith, who may finally be ready for a true breakout season. The 6-foot-4 Malick Meiga, just a sophomore, may own the most intriguing upside of a suddenly deep position room and figures to be a major player Saturday.

There's more young talent to show off here too, starting with Clifford's younger brother, Liam.

Someone, anyone, stand out on the offensive line

The Lions are alarmingly thin across their blocking front this spring.

Franklin has already talked about the need to possibly modify the Blue-White Game to account for less than a dozen healthy, available linemen. Almost certainly, some guys will be asked to block for both sides.

The key will be getting some positive reviews from expected starters. First up will be potential starting left tackle Olu Fashanu and guard Landon Tengwall. Both are young but will be counted on to fill reliable roles and help re-shape this long-standing issue under Franklin.

Simply enough, the offensive line has not produced any kind of consistent push up front in the ground game for most of Franklin's eight-year tenure.

It's imperative a couple of guys take hold of spots before help arrives this summer from transfer Hunter Nourzad and incoming rookies Drew Shelton, Vega Ioane and Maleek McNeil

Tight ends (finally) to the rescue: Theo Johnson, Brenton Strange and Tyler Warren

Penn State's Theo Johnson (84) makes a catch for 37 yards during the first quarter against Auburn at Beaver Stadium on Saturday, Sept. 18, 2021, in State College.

Penn State really needed these three guys to carry a bigger part of the load last fall.

And the opposite happened as the season progressed.

No matter, this still may be the most talented tight end room in the Big Ten. Junior Theo Johnson looks the part of a future NFL star, Brenton Strange should be a consistent field-stretcher and Tyler Warren, the youngest and most versatile, may just be in line for the biggest performance jump.

These guys must become more consistent blockers and hang on to their big-moment, game-changing pass opportunities. Some of that renewed focus and improvement must show on Saturday.

Actually, expect one of these big, easy targets to dominate the field at times.

Penn State's man in the middle: Kobe King or Tyler Elsdon

Safety Jonathan Sutherland (0) will make a key move to linebacker this season. Here, he helps knock off the helmet of Iowa tight end Sam LaPorta (84) during last year's Big Ten game at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City, Iowa.
(Photo: Joseph Cress/Iowa City Press-Citizen)

The are also alarmingly thin at linebacker, at least in terms of proven playmakers.

They especially need someone in the middle to lead the way. For now, that battle goes to young backups Kobe King and Tyler Elsdon.

Elsdon is a smart, hard worker who may be ready to rise. King is even more intriguing. The redshirt freshman carries a big frame well (6-foot-1, 240 pounds) and is talked about as a potential leader. His twin is possible starter cornerback Kalen King.

There's a lot of hope for these two linebackers to succeed. The only other options are outside linebacker Curtis Jacobs, the closest thing to a star, converted safety Jonathan Sutherland and little-used reserves Jamari Buddin and Charlie Katshir.

The staff is high on incoming freshman Abdul Carter, another potential middle man, but he doesn't arrive on campus until the summer.

Frank Bodani covers Penn State football for the York Daily Record and USA Today Network. Contact him atfbodani@ydr.com and follow him on Twitter @YDRPennState.