The Nittany Lions rank No. 11 in Athlon's Top 25 for 2018
Saquon Barkley is now in the NFL, but there is still plenty of talent left in Penn State's cupboard. James Franklin has consistently recruited well since coming to Happy Valley, and that work should pay off this fall. The Nittany Lions' offense will remain a dangerous threat even with a new running back and offensive coordinator thanks to steady presence and production of quarterback Trace McSorley. The bigger question marks are on defense, which is replacing nine starters. If that side of the ball can come together enough to at least slow down some Big Ten opponents, Penn State should find itself in the mix for another New Year's Six bowl appearance.
Previewing Penn State Football's Offense for 2018
Saquon Barkley may be gone, but he wasn't the only game wrecker on Penn State's offense last season. Quarterback Trace McSorley led the Big Ten in passing at 274.6 yards per game, and he's back for one more season. McSorley was less inclined to go for broke as a junior than he had been as a first-year starter in 2016, and while his average per completion declined from 16.1 to 12.6 yards, his completion rate went from 57.9 to 66.5 percent. McSorley has a big target in 6'4", 229-pound wideout Juwan Johnson, who finished second on the team with 54 catches for 701 yards as a sophomore. And keeping McSorley company in the backfield is a promising runner in junior Miles Sanders. During his first two seasons, Sanders averaged 6.7 yards on 56 carries. He surely won't account for 32.8 percent of Penn State's all-purpose yards, as Barkley did last year. But that's not what the coaching staff is looking for. Coach James Franklin expects to use a more equitable rotation this fall, with seniors Mark Allen and Johnathan Thomas, redshirt freshman Journey Brown and true freshman Ricky Slade competing for carries. There's ample room for improvement, as the Lions finished sixth in the Big Ten and 59th in the FBS in rushing in 2017.
With four starters returning on the offensive line, Franklin predicts that his running backs "are going to surprise some people."
Previewing Penn State Football's Defense for 2018
The Lions have some rebuilding to do in the middle. They need to find two new starters at defensive tackle and fill their box linebacker positions.
Juniors Kevin Givens and Robert Windsor were backups last year and appear to have the inside track at tackle, but Penn State may need its freshmen to make an early impact. The linebacker corps is so thin that five-star defensive end prospect Micah Parsons was moved to middle backer when he arrived in January. He was moved again in spring practice, this time to the Will outside spot, where the learning curve isn't quite so steep. But his most likely replacement in the middle is another freshman: redshirt Ellis Brooks.
The Lions are deep at defensive end after tying for the Big Ten lead with an average of 3.2 sacks per game in 2017. Shareef Miller led the way as a sophomore with a team-best five sacks.
The secondary might be fairly deep, too, despite the loss of all four starters. The Lions return senior cornerback Amani Oruwariye, a frequently used reserve who led the team with four interceptions a year ago. At the opposite spot, they're getting back John Reid, a starter in 2016 who missed last season with a knee injury.
Previewing Penn State Football's Specialists for 2018
Punter Blake Gillikin is one of the Big Ten's best. His career average of 43.0 yards ranks second in school history. But it's a much different story at placekicker. The Lions had only one kicker on campus in the spring, redshirt freshman walk-on Carson Landis. He'll be joined in preseason camp by scholarship freshman Jake Pinegar and walk-ons Rafael Checa and Vlad Hilling.
Barkley is someone else's problem now, but opponents should still be wary of this offense, especially if McSorley displays the kind of accuracy he showed while completing all 12 of his third-down passing attempts vs. Washington in the Fiesta Bowl. Penn State is going to get its points. But can a graduation-depleted defense stop opponents from getting theirs? That's what will determine whether this team earns its third consecutive New Year's Six bowl berth.