James Franklin and the defending Big Ten champion Nittany Lions enter the spring with plenty of momentum and high expectations
Coming off its first outright Big Ten championship since the 1994 season, Penn State has raised the bar for success and is aiming higher in 2017. The Nittany Lions bring back a loaded offense highlighted by not one, but two, potential Heisman Trophy candidates and a sense of confidence in the program not seen in some time. The road back from the rubble of the fall of 2011 has been a bumpy one at times, but Penn State roared back to national prominence last season and begins the spring looking to bounce back for some unfinished business.
Penn State celebrated a Big Ten championship and was minutes away from adding a Rose Bowl trophy to the shelf before letting one slip away against USC. Penn State also may have deserved a spot in the College Football Playoff but became the first power conference champion to be bypassed by the selection committee for a division rival it beat head-to-head during the regular season (Ohio State). All of this gives Penn State some fuel to run on this spring and offseason leading up to the 2017 season.
5 Storylines to Watch During Penn State’s Spring Practice
1. Offense is back in gear
This spring it looks as though Penn State offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead will have little to be concerned about with his offense. With a healthy stable of running backs led by Saquon Barkley and Trace McSorley back at quarterback, Penn State will be in good hands. For Moorhead, the task will be getting some new faces involved to take some of the pressure off of Barkley and McSorley, and he’ll have options to play with.
2. Replacing Chris Godwin? No problem
Godwin is off to the NFL, leaving Penn State with one fewer experienced wide receiver to rely on, but the program has accumulated some pass catchers more than capable of stepping into a starting role. Having DeAndre Thompkins and DaeSean Hamilton back ensures there is still some veteran leadership in the open field, but players like Irvin Charles and freshman KJ Hamler also will get some opportunities that will hopefully pay off. Penn State also has Saeed Blacknall, who was suspended for the Rose Bowl, to look to.
3. Living up to Linebacker U reputation
Penn State’s linebackers have been reliable but some may say the level of play at the signature position has not quite been up to par with the greats of the past in State College. This season could see some new faces emerge in the middle of the defense alongside returning starter Jason Cabinda. Manny Bowen is expected to lock down a starting role, but who else joins them is a mystery. If there is one position Penn State could benefit from building depth, it may be the linebacker position.
4. Defensive line has holes to plug once again
The defensive line has been a strength of Penn State in recent years. Despite having to replace three NFL-caliber players last year, the Penn State front line showed it had players more than capable of stepping in to fill some big shoes. That will have to be the case once again this spring with two starters gone from last year. The good news for Penn State is there are options and depth to rely on. Redshirt freshman Shane Simmons will draw the most attention as the highly-rated recruit gets a chance to contribute.
5. How to deal with expectations
It has been a while since Penn State entered a spring with such lofty national expectations, which means head coach James Franklin and his staff will have to focus on not allowing egos to get inflated while also building off the success of last season. A game-by-game approach was well-executed last season as the possibility of playing for a Big Ten championship started to come into view. Keeping that mentality going this spring should be managed well after seeing the season end with a blown fourth-quarter lead in the Rose Bowl against USC.
Pre-Spring Outlook for Penn State in the Big Ten
Penn State should be in a position to once again contend for the Big Ten championship, and it will not come as a surprise this season. Penn State’s offense could potentially improve and avoid some disastrous slow starts that came back to haunt them last season, and the roster is built to once again thrive and be considered among the best offenses in school history. The offense will be among the Big Ten’s best and the defense should be in a position to potentially improve in spots.
The schedule features a road trip to Ohio State, which is never easy, but Penn State will host the two teams that handed the Nittany Lions their losses in the regular season last year, Pitt and Michigan. Those games will carry quite the revenge factor as those losses were ultimately what left Penn State out of the College Football Playoff last season despite winning the Big Ten championship.
Penn State’s Big Ten championship may have been a surprise last season, but it would not be a shock at all in 2017.
— 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 contributes to College Football Talk and The Comeback as well as hosts the No 2-Minute Warning Podcast. Follow him on Twitter @KevinOnCFB and Like him on Facebook.