Bill O’Brien was exactly what Penn State needed.
He was an outsider who kept the program together and, more importantly, competitive during the worst scandal in NCAA history. In the face of horrific sanctions, not only did O’Brien win games but he also recruited extremely well. So when James Franklin, a Pennsylvania native, returned home to assume control of the historic program, the cupboard wasn’t even close to being bare.
Franklin arrives in Happy Valley off of the most successful run of football in Vanderbilt school history. He beat his rivals, he recruited at an unprecedented level and inspired a once dormant community of fans in Nashville. At Penn State, Franklin won’t have to work nearly as hard to recruit and certainly won’t have to beg fans to come to games any longer.
Franklin now has all of the natural advantages at his disposal in order to compete for national championships — something that could not be said on West End. O’Brien was a perfect bridge from one State College lifer to what could turn out to be another.
Penn State Nittany Lions 2014 Spring Preview
2013 Record: 7-5 (4-4 Big Ten)
Spring Practice Opens: March 17
Spring Game: April 12
Three Things to Watch in Penn State's 2014 Spring Practice
Replace Allen Robinson
Big Ten Freshman of the Year Christian Hackenberg returns for his second full season as the starting quarterback with massive expectations. But who will catch his passes? Allen Robinson was a Biltenikoff candidate for much of the year because he made huge plays in critical situations — in particular, vertically down the field. Robinson is arguably the best wideout ever to play in Happy Valley and replacing his 97 receptions and 1,432 yards won’t be easy. Eugene Lewis, Richy Anderson, Alex Kenney and Matt Zanellato caught 38 passes combined last year with Lewis’ 18 catches leading the way among all returning wideouts. One of these names needs to step into a bigger role and offer Hackenberg a trusty go-to target on the outside. The development of tight ends Jesse James, Kyle Carter and Adam Breneman, all of whom are very talented, will help the situation. Franklin boasted the SEC’s all-time leading receiver last year at Vanderbilt in Jordan Matthews so he clearly knows how to get his playmakers the ball. But unless he can find a top target, it won’t matter how talented his signal-caller may be, defenses won’t respect the downfield passing game.
Plug holes along the O-line
Two All-Big Ten blockers in guard John Urschel and center Ty Howle have moved on as well as tackle Adam Gress (nine starts). With an elite quarterback and a trio of excellent running backs — Bill Belton, Zach Zwinak, Akeel Lynch — protecting his offensive assets becomes a huge focus this spring for Franklin and the Lions. Offensive line coach Herb Hand is one of the most dynamic personalities the SEC had a year ago and now his first job is to rebuild the Lions' front five. Left tackle Donovan Smith is a great place to start and Miles Dieffenbach has begun to live up to the recruiting hype. Still, other names need to step into bigger roles. Stabilizing the line is imperative if Penn State wants to move the ball on the ground and keep its star signal-caller upright.
Find leadership and depth at linebacker
Two years ago, O’Brien had to step into a horrendous situation few would be willing to attack. But he did so with the help and leadership of Gerald Hodges and Michael Mauti at linebacker. Those two seniors helped galvanize the Penn State locker room and family in 2012. Last year, senior Glenn Carson played that role for a team that won seven games. Mike Hull returns after 78 tackles a year ago but Franklin and defensive coordinator Bob Shoop need to find playmakers and depth around him at linebacker. This is Penn State, Linebacker U, and not having star power at this position is borderline unacceptable. Nyeem Wartman (32 tackles), Brandon Bell (23 tackles) and Ben Kline (18) have some experience and upside but need to take on more ownership of the defense. Shoop has a talented defensive line returning and lots of options in the secondary, so finding playmakers and depth at linebacker is key this spring.
2014 Early Projected Win Range: 8-10
There is a lot to like about this team. The new regime was a proven commodity in the big bad SEC and now it’s facing a much less daunting Big Ten schedule. There is plenty of talent left on the roster after O’Brien surprised with his high level of recruiting during his two-year tenure. Having Hackenberg in place for the next two seasons is a luxury most new coaches rarely get and Franklin will maximize his quarterback’s enormous upside. And with a defense that returns a lot of weapons, filling in holes around the star quarterback will be critical this offseason. Getting both Ohio State and Michigan State at home are huge and the conference road slate is extremely manageable — at Michigan is the toughest task. This is a very talented team working under a very talented coaching staff with a schedule that sets up nicely for a postseason run — should the NCAA lift the bowl ban in the next few months.