Springing ahead: 5 players to watch

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- With spring practice less than two weeks away, NittanyNation takes a look at five players fans should keep an eye on.

5. CB Da'Quan Davis, sophomore

Last year's stat line: Five tackles, one fumble recovery, three pass breakups

Behind the numbers: He saw time in 11 games, but played sparingly at cornerback. When Stephon Morris went down, he was next in line -- but Penn State didn't trust him enough to implement the nickel and have him as a nickelback in his first season.

Why watch him? With the graduation of Morris, someone will have to step up. Davis appears to be the obvious choice since he's really the only option with experience. He weighed in at just 161 pounds last season, so he needed to bulk up over the winter. Fans should see where his weight is at this spring and what kind of strides he's made since last season. Davis is the least-experienced member of this secondary, so he'll likely be targeted quite a bit.

4. DT DaQuan Jones, senior

Last year's stat line: 22 tackles, two tackles for loss, one fumble recovery.

Behind the numbers: Outgoing DT Jordan Hill was double-teamed a lot in the first three games of the season, and Jones picked up 10 tackles in that span. Jones then followed that up by going seven games without recording a solo tackle, finishing with 12 total stops in the remaining eight games.

Why watch him? At more than 320 pounds, he'll definitely clog up the line. The real question is, if he's double-teamed, will he be able to handle it? And just how effective can he be now that Hill's gone? Jones' performance will very likely have a ripple effect on this defense. Middle linebacker Glenn Carson has become a little spoiled the past two seasons with such great interior strength in front of him, and there are still quite a few unknowns surrounding this veteran. Jones is definitely a player to watch.

3. LB Nyeem Wartman, redshirt freshman

Last year's stat line: One tackle, one blocked kick.

Behind the numbers: He earned a medical redshirt because he was injured in the second game of the season. Wartman turned quite a few heads early on with a punt block against Ohio that set up a touchdown.

Why watch him? He'll likely compete with Ben Kline for the starting outside job. It's not clear who might win yet, but Wartman definitely appears to have the higher ceiling. Fans were only able to catch a glimpse of what he could accomplish on a handful of plays last season -- and everyone still knows his name. Could he be a four-year starter? We might just find out this spring.

2. LT Donovan Smith, redshirt sophomore

Last year's stat line: Nine starts, played in 10 games, helped spring Zach Zwinak to a 1,000-yard rushing season.

Behind the numbers: Smith broke his right hand and was forced to wear a cast for much of the season, which is why he missed a few games. Plus, he had some lingering hamstring issues in the preseason.

Why watch him? The offensive line was so much better with Smith-Mike Farrell than Farrell-Adam Gress at the tackles, even when Smith was less than 100 percent. John Urschel has sung his praises, and NittanyNation ranked him as the player most likely to break out this season. He could be the next Levi Brown or Stefen Wisniewski, and that should become more evident this spring and this season.

1. QB Steven Bench, sophomore

Last year's stat line: 2-for-8, 12 yards. Three carries for 18 yards.

Behind the numbers: He played in just two games last season and threw only when Matt McGloin was hurt. It didn't take him long, however, to win the backup job over third-year QB Paul Jones, who later left the team.

Why watch him? Bench didn't get to show a whole lot last season, but he could be the key to the offense this year. Bill O'Brien said he likely wouldn't name a starter in the spring but, if he does, it will almost certainly be Bench. NittanyNation projects Bench to be the opening-day starter, and it'll be interesting to finally see what O'Brien's first PSU-recruited QB can do. He's confident and he's smart. Remind you of anyone?