Penn State hasn't quite reached expectations in James Franklin's two seasons, but this team still has a lot of talent and the overall depth has improved. However, playing in one of the hardest divisions that college football has to offer is no small task. The Nittany Lions are looking for a spark on offense, with Franklin turning to former Fordham head coach Joe Moorhead as the program's new play-caller. Running back Saquon Barkley is one of the Big Ten's rising stars, but Penn State needs more from its offensive line and quarterback.
Follow Athlon Sports on Twitter:
Previewing Penn State’s Offense
The Lions will look very different this fall, and not just because their all-time passing yardage leader, Christian Hackenberg, is off to the NFL. New coordinator Joe Moorhead has been installing a no-huddle spread offense that won’t exactly rekindle memories of the Paterno era. It’s a scheme he deployed effectively as head coach at Fordham the past four years, and he’s got plenty of skill position talent to work with at Penn State, a list headlined by sophomore running back Saquon Barkley and junior wideout Chris Godwin. Barkley finished third in the Big Ten in rushing last season with 1,076 yards, while Godwin was second in receiving yards with 1,101.
The big questions on offense concern the line and the quarterback spot. Up front, the Lions return six players who started at least five games last season, but they will need to do better than simply pick up where they left off in 2015, as the team averaged only 104 yards rushing in its last three games. At quarterback, sophomore Trace McSorley is the only contender with any playing experience. Tommy Stevens is a redshirt freshman, and Jake Zembiec enrolled in January.
Previewing Penn State’s Defense
, which includes an in-depth look at all 14 teams, features and predictions for the upcoming season.
There’s plenty of rebuilding to do up front, where the lone holdover from last year’s starting front four is strong-side defensive end Garrett Sickels. Antoine White and Parker Cothren will likely take over at the tackle spots. At weak-side end, Torrence Brown looks to be a potential starter after seeing action late last season when Carl Nassib got hurt.
The linebacker unit isn’t unproven, but it isn’t deep, either. Much will depend on whether Nyeem Wartman-White is fully recovered from the season-ending knee injury he suffered last September at Temple. Wartman-White was limited in the spring but is expected to battle his replacement, Jason Cabinda, for the middle linebacker position. If he regains his starting spot, Cabinda will move back outside. Penn State is solid at the strong-side spot with Brandon Bell back for his senior year, and the secondary should be another strength with three experienced veterans returning: cornerback Grant Haley, free safety Marcus Allen and strong safety Malik Golden. John Reid, an impact freshman last year, is the likely starter at cornerback opposite Haley.
One priority will be to create more turnovers. Penn State’s defensive backs intercepted only six passes last season.
Previewing Penn State’s Specialists
Joey Julius and Tyler Davis combined to hit 18-of-20 field-goal attempts last year, but that success rate was partly a byproduct of Penn State’s poor red zone offense; only six of those 20 attempts were from 40 yards or more. Given the Lions’ problems on kickoffs and extra points (Julius missed four PATs), incoming freshman Alex Barbir will likely get a shot at the starting job in preseason practice. Another newcomer, punter Blake Gillikin, may get a chance to fix one of Penn State’s bigger liabilities the past two seasons.
The recruiting gains of the past two years are starting to have an impact, and the effect of the NCAA sanctions is fading, but this program is not in the clear just yet. Since the end of the 2015 regular season, James Franklin has replaced his offensive and defensive coordinators and also hired two new position coaches. The reconfigured staff will have to figure out a way to energize an offense that ranked 13th in the Big Ten last year in yards per game and 11th in scoring. It will also be looking to patch up a defense that lost three starters from a highly effective front four. Still, the Lions are welcoming their third consecutive top-25 recruiting class this summer, so there is reason to believe they have the necessary talent for a breakthrough season. Whether that breakthrough occurs in 2016 is a separate question.