Change is in the air in Happy Valley as Penn State moves one more year into the James Franklin era. Could this be the year the program begins to take a step forward as it comes closer to escaping the shadow of an abbreviated sanction era? This could prove to be an important season for Franklin, and it comes with plenty of changes in the makeup of the team's identity.
Penn State has a new offensive coordinator and has promoted from within to fill a vacancy at defensive coordinator after Bob Shoop left for Tennessee. Thanks to some early departures for the NFL Draft, Penn State has some key roster spots to fill as well, including quarterback and on the defensive line.
5 Storylines to Watch in Penn State's Spring Practice
1. Improving the Offensive Line
There is no sugarcoating the need to improve the offensive line at Penn State. It has been the biggest area of concern for the Nittany Lions the past two seasons and has shown no signs of progress. In 2016, that could change as recruiting has helped address the lack of depth on the line. There is also a new face in charge of coaching the line. After Herb Hand left for Auburn, Penn State brought in Matt Limegrover, previously of Minnesota. Four starters are back this year and the depth is improving. And it can't get worse, right?
2. Who Follows Christian Hackenberg at Quarterback?
The jury may still be out on Hackenberg, but his offensive line did him no good the last two seasons. Once the line is figured out, the question will be who will they be protecting? With Hackenberg off to the NFL, the search begins for a new QB. Trace McSorely got some playing time in Penn State's Gator Bowl loss to Georgia and will compete for the starting nod starting this spring. Freshman Jake Zembiec enrolled early this spring and should benefit from getting to practice this spring as well. Expect those two to be the leading contenders at the end of spring.
3. The Rise of Saquon Barkley
Penn State's best player is its running back. Coming off an impressive debut freshman season, Barkley is already turning heads this offseason by setting new program records for the 40-yard dash and weight lifting. He will enter the fall as Penn State's top running back. Later this summer Penn State will add Miles Sanders to the mix as the top recruit in the Class of 2016, but for now it is all about Barkley.
4. Penn State Going Up-Tempo with New Offensive Coordinator?
Between the quarterback battle and a need to improve the offensive line, new Penn State offensive coordinator Joe Moorehead has a lot on his plate as he joins the program. The former head coach of Fordham looks to bring a new look to Penn State's offense, which could include making changes on the fly and going no-huddle more routinely. How this all comes together with a handful of concerns on the offense remains to be seen, but the hope is Penn State's offense will be able to make better adjustments both at the line of scrimmage and as a game evolves, scrapping what doesn't work and finding plays that do without getting too complicated.
5. Keeping the Pressure Coming From the Defensive Line
Penn State's defensive line loses some star power this spring with the departures of Carl Nassib, Anthony Zettel and Austin Johnson, but that position group has typically been one of the more consistent in the program. Garrett Sickels will be the leader on the line, while others look to take on a larger role up front. Shareef Miller may be a name to watch emerge as the competition opens up to plug some holes on the line.
Pre-Spring Penn State Outlook in the Big Ten
Despite an offseason that was criticized from multiple angles considering the departure of two assistant coaches for lateral moves and some early departures to the NFL and a handful of transfers, there is a hint of optimism in the air at Penn State. The program is another year removed from the NCAA sanctions that slowed it down, there are some new coaches on the staff looking to rejuvenate the offense and there is competition for key positions on both sides of the football. That's the stuff James Franklin likes.
As for where Penn State stands in the Big Ten, they remain a wild card option at best in the East Division. Ohio State and Michigan State are going through some turnover as well this spring but figure to remain among the best the conference has to offer. Meanwhile, Jim Harbaugh has Michigan thinking big. Penn State will have to improve the offense if the Nittany Lions are to contend with any of those three division foes. Last year Penn State went 0-3 against those three. Going 2-1 this season might be a stretch, but if the offense does improve, it may not be an unrealistic possibility. But there is a lot of work to do, starting now.
- 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, TheComeback.com and hosts the No 2-Minute Warning Podcast. Follow him on Twitter @KevinOnCFB.