As 19th-ranked Penn State’s highly anticipated season opener at No. 12 Wisconsin on Sept. 4 grows closer, Nittany Lions coach James Franklin spoke of how the competition for various jobs and within position groups was faring in a meeting Wednesday night with reporters at Beaver Stadium.

‘Best tight end group’

Franklin is high on the Nittany Lions’ three returning tight ends — redshirt sophomore Brenton Strange, sophomore Theo Johnson, and redshirt freshman Tyler Warren — and says they make up “the best tight end group I’ve ever been around in 25 years in college football.”

The coach also said he could “make the argument” that it’s one of the best tight end groups in the country, but right now that’s going on potential. The 6-foot-3, 256-pound Strange made five starts in 2020 after Pat Freiermuth suffered a season-ending shoulder injury and caught 17 passes for 164 yards and two touchdowns.

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“Brenton leads the way in terms of how he works and how he practices and how he trains, his playmaking ability,” Franklin said.

The 6-6, 250-pound Johnson played in seven games last season with one start and caught four passes. Warren, 6-6 and 249 pounds, saw action in two contests.

“I think we’re really well-rounded at the tight end position,” Franklin said. “Where in other years we had some guys that were really good at receiving or really good at blocking, I think this group is pretty well-rounded, all three of them.”

Who’s No. 2?

Franklin revealed he has selected a quarterback to be the backup to starter Sean Clifford, but he declined to identify him. However, since redshirt sophomore Ta’Quan Roberson is the only other QB on the roster to play in a game (he has played in two), the smart money is on him.

“We haven’t talked to the guys yet,” the coach said of the decision. “It wouldn’t be fair to tell you guys before they know. But it’s pretty settled. Even if you’d ask the guys, they know. It’s pretty obvious with all the data and how we’ve been practicing.”

Roberson has been competing with Christian Veilleux, a freshman from Canada who enrolled in January.

Other position battles are going on at left guard and at the safety position opposite preseason All-America Jaquan Brisker. Franklin mentioned “four to five” candidates who have been rotated into the guard spot, one of them believed to be redshirt senior Des Holmes, a former standout at Cardinal O’Hara High School.

At safety, the inside track is believed to be held by senior Ji’Ayir Brown, a teammate of Brisker’s from their days together at Lackawanna College.

Talented freshmen

Franklin has been impressed with several freshmen who appear to have a chance to gain some playing time this season, with the leader of the pack being cornerback Kalen King, who impressed during spring practice and in the closing scrimmage.

“Kalen has done some great things,” he said. “He just continues to grow and evolve. He’s a playmaker. He’s got tremendous confidence in himself. He’s a guy that’s stood out.”

Other freshmen mentioned Wednesday by Franklin were safety Jaylen Reed and wide receivers Trey Wallace and Liam Clifford. Clifford is the younger brother of Penn State’s starting quarterback.

A final tune-up

Franklin said the Nittany Lions will hold their final preseason scrimmage Saturday at Beaver Stadium. The schedule for the scrimmage will be the exact one the team will follow for the game at Wisconsin, which begins at 11 a.m. Central time.

“We’ll get ready for that,” he said. “That’s going to be an early game based on our guys’ body clocks, so we’ll do our pregame meal and the whole deal and start over here at the stadium at that exact time.”