The Penn State Nittany Lions are still rebuilding depth across the board, which means James Franklin’s squad is not quite ready to go head-to-head with the top of the Big Ten just yet. But they are getting there. In 2014 there were some bumps in the road in Franklin’s first season in Happy Valley, along with some head-scratching moments, but Year 2 of the Franklin era in State College has some good promise.
We have come to expect Penn State’s defense to be a steady force to reckon with, and that should once again be the case under defensive coordinator Bob Shoop, who chose to stay at Penn State instead of accept a rumored job offer from LSU. While Shoop does his thing to ensure Penn State’s defense is up to the task of locking down opponents, the offense looks to gain some momentum early on and prove just how much damage it is capable of doing. That work begins now, in fall camp.
Penn State’s Five Biggest Fall Camp Storylines
1. How Soon Can the Offensive Line Get in Sync?
The biggest weak spot for Penn State in 2014 was without question the performance of the offensive line. No other position was hit as hard from recent NCAA recruiting sanctions as the offensive line, but the depth issues are starting to be plugged through recruiting. Penn State had just one returning starter last season but returns four this season, while adding graduate transfer Kevin Reihner from Stanford and JUCO tackle Paris Palmer to beef things up a bit. Offensive line coach Herb Hand will be tasked with getting this line ready to show some strides in the fall, and that should pay dividends for the entire offensive production.
2. How Much Will Christian Hackenberg Rebound?
And who else would benefit more from improved offensive line play than the quarterback? Nobody. Hackenberg enters his junior season with plenty of starting experience behind him already. Hackenberg has started all 25 games since he arrived, and now he goes into a season with some coaching consistency and stability. At times it looked as though Hackenberg had regressed, but much of the concerns could be put on the offensive line, which may have led Hackenberg to try and force plays that had little chance of succeeding under duress. Look for a calmer and more mature Hackenberg to thrive in what could be looked upon as a rebound season.
3. Who’s Next at Linebacker U?
Much like the offensive line, linebackers seemed to be the defensive position hit hardest by NCAA sanctions recruiting-wise. For a school touted as Linebacker U, this was a bit of an oddity, but things should improve this season. Gone is leader Michael Hull, but an experienced Nyeem Wartman should prove worthy of filling the middle of the defense. With Brandon Bell to one side and either Ben Kline or Jason Cabinda to the other, Penn State’s first-team linebackers should be a legitimate unit. The depth also is padded as well as any position on the roster, with some young blood entering the mix, like Troy Reeder and Koa Farmer (both redshirted in 2014).
4. How Good is the Secondary?
Penn State’s secondary returns three starters between defensive back Trevor Williams and safeties Marcus Allen and Jordan Lucas. The secondary could be one of the best in the Big Ten outside of Columbus, and it may be tested at times. This unit should be difficult to find many openings against, and could be even better if the front seven on Penn State’s defense can apply pressure on opposing quarterbacks.
5. How Often Will Akeel Lynch Have Room to Run?
The Penn State offensive line should show improvement, and that should allow for the running game to finally get back on track. Lynch came on strong last season and showed what he can do. He ended his sophomore season leading the Nittany Lions with 678 yards rushing and was second on the team with four rushing touchdowns. He went over 130 yards in back-to-back games towards the end of the regular season and capped things off with 75 yards in a Pinstripe Bowl win over Boston College. Look for Lynch to lead the ground game from Week 1 and provide some opportunities to take the pressure off of Hackenberg behind an improved offensive line. He may not be Ezekiel Elliott, but Lynch should play a big part in Penn State’s offense this fall.
— Written by Kevin McGuire, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a member of the Football Writers Association of America and National Football Foundation. McGuire also writes for CollegeFootballTalk.com. Follow him on Twitter @KevinOnCFB.