If not for an NCAA decision midway through 2014, the highlight of last season may have been a win over UCF on Aug. 30 across the Atlantic Ocean. The Nittany Lions started 4-0 but struggled through most of the season thanks largely to a thin offensive line. They did, however, get to six wins, key since the NCAA lifted their bowl ban. Penn State took advantage by defeating Boston College 31-30 in the Pinstripe Bowl. That progress should continue in the second season under James Franklin and the first full season as returns to full strength.
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Previewing Penn State’s Offense in 2015
Christian Hackenberg is looking for a bounce-back season after seeing his touchdown-interception ratio go from 20-to-10 as a freshman to 12-to-15 as a sophomore. But most of the questions on offense concern his supporting cast.
Hackenberg was sacked a Big Ten-worst 44 times last year, so figuring out how to protect No. 14 is high on the to-do list. The Lions have six linemen with starting experience back, a big improvement over last year, when only one member of the first-team unit had ever started a college game prior to opening day.
The receiving corps mirrors the line, in that it’s looking to reap the benefits of last year’s trial by fire. Sophomores DaeSean Hamilton, Chris Godwin and Saeed Blacknall all saw extensive action in 2014, with Hamilton catching a league-best 82 passes.
In the backfield, the Lions welcome back last year’s leading rusher, junior Akeel Lynch, along with a quintet of highly regarded freshmen.
With most of his supporting cast returning, hopes are ratcheting back up for Hackenberg’s junior season. In the two games last season in which he was healthy and well-protected — the opener vs. UCF and the Pinstripe Bowl vs. Boston College — he combined to complete 68 percent of his passes for 825 yards, with five touchdowns and two interceptions. That’ll do nicely.
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Previewing Penn State’s Defense in 2015
Tackles Austin Johnson and Anthony Zettel are rock solid. The 6'4", 325-pound Johnson was the unsung hero of a Penn State defense that last season ranked third nationally against the run. Zettel, meanwhile, played a very prominent role, leading the team in tackles for a loss (17) and sacks (eight) and tying for the lead in interceptions (three).
The Lions will have two holes to fill at defensive end — Garrett Sickels and Carl Nassib are the leading candidates — but their biggest vacancy is at middle linebacker, where someone needs to replace last year’s Big Ten tackling leader, Mike Hull. Junior Nyeem Wartman, a two-year starter at outside backer, slid inside in spring practice, with returning starter Brandon Bell and sophomore Jason Cabinda outside.
The secondary returns three starters and should be a strength. Marcus Allen started the last seven games of his true freshman season and “played as well as any safety in college football the second half of the year,” defensive coordinator Bob Shoop says. At free safety, the Lions will rely on Jordan Lucas, a two-year starter at cornerback. Sophomore Grant Haley looks like the leading contender for Lucas’ former position, while senior Trevor Williams returns at the opposite cornerback spot.
Previewing Penn State’s Specialists in 2015
Franklin referred to walk-on Joey Julius as “Big Toe” this spring. A redshirt freshman, Julius has yet to attempt a field goal or PAT in a college game, but he’s battling deposed punter Chris Gulla for the job. The Lions punted erratically last season, so there’s a competition under way between Daniel Pasquariello and Robby Liebel.
The Lions have addressed their glaring weakness, building depth and experience along a patchwork offensive line. They’ll still be young up front, with only one senior on the projected two-deep (two if you count incoming graduate transfer Kevin Reihner), but the line probably won’t be as big of a liability. On the opposite side of the ball, they return seven starters from what was, statistically, the Big Ten’s best defense last season.
Of Penn State’s six losses last fall, only two were by more than a touchdown. If the defense holds strong and Hackenberg gets a chance to show what he can do, it’s not hard to imagine the Lions turning a few of those close losses into close wins in 2015.