While Penn State’s new head coach James Franklin is certainly not “famous Uncle Tony,” the parallel needs to be drawn between he and State’s franchise player. When Bill O’Brien bolted from University Park, the effect that his departure had on Christian Hackenberg was much deeper than most either realize or care to admit. There will be (and probably, as with any healthy relationship, needs to be) an adjustment period during which Franklin and his offensive coaching staff get to know Hackenberg both personally and athletically. It’s natural.
More than any other off-the-field story that will take shape this season, the relationship between Franklin and Hackenberg will intrigue – if for no other reason than O’Brien was the (then) rookie’s play-caller, position coach (for all intents and purposes) and personal mentor. Franklin runs a different ship (or is it shop?) than his predecessor and in order for this team to reach its potential, the star and the CEO must be on the same page in all aspects of collegiate football life.
Obviously the quarterback spot is set with Hackenberg, who earlier in August became the first sophomore team captain in the 127-year history of Penn State’s storied program. Hackenberg made tremendous strides last season under Bill O’Brien and will look to offensive coordinator John Donovan to take his game to the next level. The pro-style offense that O’Brien ran suited Hackenberg perfectly; a better match could not have existed which allowed for Hackenberg’s beyond-his-years play-action body movements to flourish. Franklin does not employ the same type of scheme as O’Brien, but has made it clear that he and Donovan will tailor their playbook to fit Hackenberg’s strengths.
There was some concern about inflammation of Hackenberg’s shoulder recently; concern that, quite frankly, caused a bit of panic. The signal-caller missed at least three days of practice in the middle of the month and upon his return, was not throwing the ball with the same tightness and velocity as his teammates (and coaches) were/are accustomed to. Further updates have not been made available to Lion’s Pride, so keep an eye on Hackenberg’s throwing motion on Saturday. If the franchise player is still suffering lingering effects of that shoulder stiffness, it will be curtains on this season right out of the gate.
Accepting the football from Hackenberg out of the backfield will be starter Billy Belton. Last season, Belton was clearly the personal favorite of O’Brien and despite early struggles was kept in constant motion, albeit somewhat due to Zach Zwinak’s case of fumbleitis. The senior duo returns in 2014 and although Belton has received the starting nod, Zwinak – as well as sophomore Akeel Lynch – will get significant carries.
Quite obviously the loss of wide receiver Allen Robinson created a void but if the overall talent is examined, substantial ground at that position will be gained by the time Franklin and his troops go to Ann Arbor. Sophomore Geno Lewis and freshmen DaeSean Hamilton and Chris Godwin, who is every bit of his 6-foot-2, 210-pound listing, can all stretch the field. In addition to those top three, another rookie in the form of Saeed Blacknall will add another weapon to Hackenberg’s arsenal.
If any singular season-ending injury had to occur during preseason camp, tight end is the one position in which the Nittany Lions could have “afforded” it. The loss of Adam Breneman to an injury redshirt (left knee) will be mitigated by the best TE tandem in the nation – Jesse James and Kyle Carter. The former has the body of a pro right now and could have the type of season which leads to him to play on Sundays in 2015. He’s that good. Carter would be the outright starter on any team in college football, so the fact that he will play second-fiddle to James creates an embarrassment of riches for Donovan to work with.
As great as both James and Carter are, true freshman Mike Gesicki might be the best of the bunch. Gesicki chose Penn State over Florida State and Ohio State (as well as Al Golden’s best efforts from Coral Gables) and Franklin would love to park him in the garage and dress him in a shirt of the maroon variety this season. However, given Breneman’s injury and the already-limited depth throughout the roster, that might not be possible if another injury unfolds. Gesicki was also a standout prep star in both hoops and volleyball, so in the coming years, expect the Pam Ward “Did you know that Evan Royster was an all-state lacrosse player?”-style anecdote relating to this 6-foot-5, 250-pounder.
Along the line of scrimmage, junior blind-side protector Donovan Smith will anchor a thin and inexperienced unit. Not being able to rely on the only other returning starter, Miles Dieffenbach, will leave a void not easily nor quickly filled. Dieffenbach suffered an ACL tear in the wee hours of spring practice and at the time, most felt that his 2014 season was over. Usually the recovery time for this now-common injury is about eight months, but the senior has been seen at practice in pads, although he has yet to participate in any drills or activity of note. It is the staff’s hope that an early November return is plausible, but don’t discount Dieffenbach seeing live action when Urban Meyer and the Buckeyes roll into town on October 25.
His replacement will be one of two sophomore guards who have been converted from defensive tackle. Franklin’s goal is to create a more athletic group, and both Brian Gaia and Derek Dowrey fit the bill well. Gaia will start at right guard while Dowrey will line up directly to the right of Smith. Until late last week there was a raging battle between Dowrey and Brendan Mahon. While Dowrey won the job, Mahon will rotate in.
The good news for PSU fans is that during the final 10 days of camp, there were signs of slow yet steady growth. Starting right tackle and redshirt freshman Andrew Nelson improved drastically but not as much as junior center Angelo Mangiro. In fact, Mangiro was dubbed the best overall lineman during camp. Take that with a grain of salt because it could be viewed as being the best of a bad group, but from what Lion’s Pride has learned, the coming out party of Mangiro and the sophomore guards has given Franklin increased hope for this team’s clear cold sore.
Defense. That is what this program was built on for 40-plus years under Joe Paterno. And defense will again be the strength of Penn State’s 2014 outfit.
The front four will consist of Austin Johnson and Anthony Zettel on the inside surrounded by C.J. Olaniyan and Deion Barnes on the ends. Barnes needs to recapture the All-American potential he flashed at times during his freshman season in 2012. In the words of Bill Cowher, “rush the quarterback” – plain and simple. Not only is the starting quartet strong, the rotation unit of Brad Bars, Tyrone Smith, Carl Nassib (who some inside the program believe has the best all-around potential of the bunch), Parker Cothren and former New Jersey star Garrett Sickels.
The linebackers, when defensive coordinator Bob Shoop employs the base 4-3 scheme, will be fifth-year senior Mike Hull in the middle with Nyeem Wartman and Brandon Bell on the outside. Bell turned heads during camp and most believe this will be a breakout season for the true sophomore. Wartman was downright awful in stretches last season but has the raw athletic ability to play the position effectively. He better – freshman Jason Cabinda is hot on his tail. The good news here is that position coach Brent Pry is widely considered to be one of the best in the business. The hope is that Pry can pry (sorry, too easy) that extra mustard out of Wartman and elevate him to where he needs to be. Candidly, Wartman is not where he needs to be.
When State faces a mostly aerial attack and pulls one of the linebackers off the field, Franklin’s “star” position will be inserted as a hybrid linebacker/safety. The recent movement of Koa Farmer to linebacker was executed specifically to develop him into this unique position. Farmer will redshirt and is expected to begin his playing career in 2015 once he adds 10-12 pounds in the weight room.
As for this season’s hybrid (read: a juiced-up nickelback)? The jury is still out.
The starting backfield will look like Jordan Lucas and Da’Quan “Bull” Davis on the corners with seniors Adrian Amos and Ryan Keiser at safety. Shoop has heaped extraordinary praise on Keiser throughout the preseason; he loves the kid. Davis has outplayed the very disappointing Trevor Williams, who showed so much promise in the 2013 Blue White game after O’Brien moved him to defense from his recruited position of receiver. Expect Davis and Williams to split time, but Davis appears to have won the starting job.
Backing up Amos is Malik Golden, a redshirt sophomore who stuck with the program and retained his commitment during the early stages of the scandal. Golden, like Williams, was moved to the defensive backfield in lieu of wideout and should see heavy special teams minutes. It’s important to keep an eye on him; when Amos leaves, Golden will likely take his spot next season. Keiser’s backup, at least for the time being, is Jesse Della Valle. Della Valle has a wonderful personality…how ’bout those Flyers?
In other news, the frosh class of DBs has blown the coaching staff away. Amani Oruwariye and Grant Haley are ready to play right now and the staff probably will not redshirt either one of them. Lucas, Williams and Davis (who all have a redshirt option remaining) are juniors, which works out perfectly – the staff can insert Oruwariye and Haley as junior starters in 2016 and the decision (to not redshirt them) will avoid hesitation from juniors in high school (the class who will sign in February of 2016) from seeing a logjam on the depth chart.
WHAT WILL THE 2014 WIN/LOSS COLUMN LOOK LIKE?
With the talent level as it currently stands, this team should win eight games. A realistically look at the schedule produces one probable loss in at least one of the four non-conference games, and Nittany Nation should not freak out if that one loss occurs in the opener. Not only did Central Florida finish 12-1 and win the Fiesta Bowl last season, this will be Franklin’s first game with a new team and scheme. Don’t forget what happened in O’Brien’s debut against an opponent from an inferior conference.
Temple could be the other non-conference loss. The Owls continue to improve every season, have been inching closer and closer to beating State over the last decade, and the game is sandwiched between two league road games in mid-November when the Nittany Lions will be worn down due to the roster/depth restrictions.
So pick your poison – for argument’s sake, choose one of the two above and accept it as a loss. That creates a 3-1 record outside of the conference.
Now look at the league schedule. What was originally planned as the “big” non-conference opponent of the season when it was scheduled (thanks, Jeff Nelson) years ago is now the Big Ten opener for State when it travels to New Jersey to play Rutgers in two weeks. This situation was, of course, created when Jim Delaney opted for the money grab and snatched up the New York City and Washington, D.C. metro areas for the Big Ten Network with the additions of Rutgers and Maryland to the conference.
Following a win in what will effectively be a home game in Piscataway, PSU will improve to 2-0 with a victory over Northwestern in late September. Despite having a bye week before both Michigan and Ohio State, both contests will likely fall into the loss column. From there, however, the only foreseeable opponent who poses a serious threat is the season finale against Michigan State.
Add it all up and an 8-4 mark (5-3, 3-1) would be a nice, solid achievement for Franklin in his first season in charge.