James Franklin takes over at Penn State after a successful three-year stint at Vanderbilt. Franklin raised the bar for the Commodores, guiding the program to three bowl appearances and back-to-back nine-win seasons. The Nittany Lions are still under NCAA sanctions, so depth is an issue and there’s no postseason possibility. However, with a rising star at quarterback, combined with one of the top coaching staffs in the nation, Penn State could push for 10 wins this year.
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Previewing Penn State’s Offense for 2014:
New Lions coach James Franklin has said that he and his staff are going to play to the strengths they inherited rather than asking players to fit into schemes for which they weren’t recruited. And right now, the offense’s primary strength is sophomore quarterback Christian Hackenberg, who broke 11 school records and finished third in the Big Ten in passing yards per game (246.3) as a true freshman. Hackenberg added about 15 pounds of muscle during the off-season and now stands 6'4", 234 pounds. He should vie for All-Big Ten honors if the rest of the offense comes together. But that’s no sure thing.
The Lions are thin up front, with junior left tackle Donovan Smith the only healthy returning starter on the line. None of the other first-team hopefuls — tackles Andrew Nelson and Brendan Mahon, centers Angelo Mangiro and Wendy Laurent, guards Derek Dowrey and Brian Gaia — has started a single game. Likewise, the receiver corps is being restocked following Allen Robinson’s decision to forgo his senior year. The key returnee is Geno Lewis, who came on strong at the end of last season, catching seven passes for 119 yards and two touchdowns in the team’s last three games. After Lewis, the depth chart is a jumble.
The one area that survived graduation day unscathed is the backfield. Bill Belton, Zach Zwinak and Akeel Lynch are all back after combining for 2,150 rushing yards last season, led by Zwinak’s 989 yards.
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Previewing Penn State’s Defense for 2014:
Three defensive linemen with starting experience are back — ends Deion Barnes and C.J. Olaniyan and tackle Austin Johnson — so the Nittany Lions should be able to withstand the loss of All-Big Ten defensive tackle DaQuan Jones. In fact, this is one of the few position groups at which they appear to have real depth. The Lions also have some experience in the secondary with cornerback Jordan Lucas, safety Ryan Keiser and cornerback-turned-safety Adrian Amos.
The biggest changes on defense are at linebacker, where Mike Hull is moving inside after starting at an outside spot last year. Hull doesn’t have prototypical middle-linebacker size (6'0", 227), but he’s a big hitter with sideline-to-sideline range and enough experience to ensure that the defense is properly aligned. Flanking Hull will be Nyeem Wartman and most likely Brandon Bell. Wartman started eight games last year, while Bell shined at the end of his freshman season.
Previewing Penn State’s Specialists for 2014:
The new coaching staff has talked a lot about making special teams a priority. The Lions finished eighth in the Big Ten in punt returns and dead last in kickoff returns a year ago, but now they have a dedicated special teams coach in Charles Huff. They also have a talented freshman return man in De’Andre Thompkins, who could make an impact. Penn State looks to be solid at kicker, with Sam Ficken back after hitting 15-of-23 field goal attempts as a junior. Ficken also practiced at punter in the spring, but that job will most likely go to walk-on Chris Gulla.
Things are looking up at Penn State following the NCAA’s decision last fall to reduce its scholarship penalties. But until they get their numbers back up, the Nittany Lions will have to improvise. They raided their defensive line this spring to patch holes on the offensive front, and even with the extra manpower, the unit looks precariously thin. The Lions also lack experience at wideout and depth at linebacker. The freshman class will help when it arrives this summer, but there’s no quick fix for the problems Penn State is facing this fall. Says Franklin, “I think we’ve got really good football players and great kids here. We just don’t have enough of them. That’s the reality.”
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Five Reasons Why Athlon Sports is Picking Penn State No. 22:
1. James Franklin is one of the top coaching hires for 2014
Bill O’Brien stabilized Penn State’s program through some turmoil, but James Franklin is the right coach to take the Nittany Lions to the next level. Franklin maximized his talent at Vanderbilt and will do the same in Happy Valley. And if you need any evidence about the future of Penn State, take a look at the recruiting rankings for 2015.
2. Christian Hackenberg’s development
As a true freshman in 2013, Hackenberg threw for 2,955 yards and 20 touchdowns. Top receiver Allen Robinson must be replaced, but Hackenberg should take the next step in his development under Franklin’s watch.
3. Offensive line concerns
Line coach Herb Hand is one of the best in the nation, but he will have his hands full this fall. Guard Miles Dieffenbach suffered a torn ACL in the spring and is expected to miss 2014. With Dieffenbach out, left tackle Donovan Smith is the only returning starter on the line. Depth is also a concern for this unit.
4. Six starters back on defense
2013 was not a vintage year for Penn State’s defense, as the Nittany Lions allowed 5.7 yards per play in conference games. But with six starters back, along with the addition of coordinator Bob Shoop, Penn State is primed for a turnaround on defense. Ends Deion Barnes and C.J. Olaniyan, linebacker Mike Hull, cornerback Jordan Lucas and safety Adrian Amos could be All-Big Ten performers in 2014.
5. Favorable schedule
Penn State could be favored to win at least nine games in 2014. Road trips to Michigan and home dates against Michigan State and Ohio State are swing contests, but with a favorable schedule, the Nittany Lions could finish 10-2 this year.