James Franklin’s debut at Penn State had its share of ups and downs, as the Nittany Lions started 4-0 but dropped six out of their last eight regular season games. A bowl win over Boston College propelled Franklin to a winning mark in his first season, and the program was able to ink a full class of players after NCAA sanctions limited scholarships in previous years. Penn State enters spring practice with question marks, but quarterback Christian Hackenberg is one of the Big Ten’s top players, and there’s plenty of returning talent on a defense that ranked among the nation’s best in 2014.
5 Storylines to Watch in Penn State’s Spring Practice
1. Improving the Offensive Line
Line coach Herb Hand is one of the best in the nation, and there’s no doubt Penn State’s offensive line should take a step forward in 2015. The Nittany Lions allowed 44 sacks last season, which was a big reason why the offense managed only 14 points per game in Big Ten play. How quickly can Penn State find the right mix up front? Keep an eye on junior college recruit Paris Palmer, along with redshirt freshman Chance Sorrell and incoming freshman Sterling Jenkins (enrolled in time to compete in spring ball) this offseason.
2. Depth at Running Back
Bill Belton and Zach Zwinak are out of eligibility, which leaves Akeel Lynch as the team’s only proven running back headed into spring practice. Lynch is capable of being an All-Big Ten back, but the Nittany Lions need depth here. Freshman Saquon Barkley will arrive this summer to add competition, but redshirt freshmen Nick Scott and Johnathan Thomas have a chance to push for the backup job this spring.
3. Reload at Defensive End
Penn State’s defense was one of the best in the nation last season, limiting opponents to just 4.3 yards per play. Coordinator Bob Shoop is an underrated coach, and with six starters back, the Nittany Lions should be able to keep the momentum on defense. Shoop has a few personnel questions to address this spring, including the end spot with the departures of C.J. Olaniyan and Deion Barnes. Garrett Sickels is a promising player for the defense, and redshirt freshman Torrence Brown is expected to push for snaps. Olaniyan and Barnes combined for nine of the defense’s 31 recorded sacks from 2014. Can that production be replaced?
4. Replacing Mike Hull at Linebacker
While the end spot is thin on proven options, the bigger concern for Shoop has to be the departure of linebacker Mike Hull. In his final season with the Nittany Lions, Hull registered 140 tackles and earned first-team All-Big Ten honors. Franklin mentioned Nyeem Wartman, Gary Wooten and Ben Kline as the likely replacements for Hull prior to spring practice. Can one player leave spring with a clear edge at middle linebacker?
5. Finding a New Kicker
It may seem like a small part of spring practice, but Penn State needs to find a replacement for Sam Ficken. As a senior last season, Ficken connected on 24 of 29 field goals and earned second-team All-Big Ten honors. The Nittany Lions won three games by three or less points last year. It’s critical to find a solid option this offseason.
Pre-Spring Outlook on Penn State in the Big Ten:
Penn State’s position in the East Division will largely be determined by how much its offensive line improves this offseason. Hackenberg is one of the Big Ten’s top quarterbacks, and there’s no shortage of skill talent. The defense has a few holes to address in the front seven, but this group should be near the top of the Big Ten. Ohio State is the clear favorite in the East, with Michigan State at No. 2. If the Nittany Lions get on track on offense, finishing third in the East with an improvement in the win column is very realistic.