It is a memory of long ago, but in the spring of 2017, 1994 remains the only offense that compares to the one James Franklin has assembled in Happy Valley. Today we take a look at that offense as spring practice continues and the comparisons to that ’94 juggernaut are far too similar to ignore. By the end of 2016, Penn State’s offense was firing on all cylinders and impossible to stop. The scary part is, it’s an offense that returns 9 of its 11 starters from one year ago, and has a plethora of talent waiting in the wings. Scary indeed. Buckle your seatbelts folks, we're getting ready to take the ride of our lives!
Led by the architect and returning offensive coordinator, Joe Moorhead, as well as two legitimate Heisman Trophy-candidates, it’s an offense that looks to keep its momentum as well as incorporate a few new tricks into the playbook this spring. Trace McSorley is firmly cemented in the driver’s seat and represents one half of the dynamic duo in the backfield. Saquon Barkley is the stud of the bunch and in my opinion, Penn State’s trophy case should already have a spot reserved next to John Cappalletti’s 1973 award for its second Heisman Trophy. Those two young men are only one piece of the puzzle that makes this offense tick. It all begins up front, and after a few years’ worth of being pushed around in the trenches, the “Big Handsomes” refuse to be pushed around any longer.
Gone is Brian Gaia at center, but stepping in to replace him is a sophomore that made a huge impact at multiple spots a year ago, Connor McGovern. McGovern found immediate playing time as a freshman at guard and helped stabilize an injury-depleted line late in the year at tackle. It was announced before spring began that he would take over at center and you can expect him to hold down that position for the next three seasons. His counterpart at guard in 2016, Ryan Bates, returns after starting every game as a redshirt freshman. Michael Menet, one of the nation’s top-ranked lineman in high school, is expected to make his debut after a redshirt year and should occupy the other guard spot by the end of spring with stiff competition coming from Steven Gonzalez, who more than held his own down the stretch. Other options at guard include Alex Gellerstedt, Hunter Kelly, and Mike Miranda, an early enrollee.
At tackle both Andrew Nelson and Brendan Mahon are expected to be completely healthy for their senior years after having last season cut short by injury. Chasz Wright was forced to fill in and performed well, while mammoth Sterling Jenkins appears ready to make a push as well. Will Fries preserved his redshirt and will add his name to the mix with an eye towards occupying a spot down the road. THON dancer-extraordinaire Charlie Shuman will also be an option if needed.
At tight-end Mike Gesicki gave everyone a breath of relief back in January by announcing his intent to return for his senior year shortly after the Rose Bowl defeat. At times, opposing defenses had no answer for him and his return only makes the prospects of this offense that much better, as Gesicki clearly wants to end his career on a high note. Behind him, Tom Pancoast returns, as does Jon Holland, Danny Dalton, and Nick Bowers. However, this position is clearly in the hands of Gesicki as he represents the heart and soul of the roller coaster ride Penn State has been on since James Franklin arrived in 2014.
Chris Godwin has taken his talents to the next level but the wide receiving corps is as stacked as it’s ever been. DeaSean Hamilton returns for one final hurrah as does fellow senior Saeed Blacknall both of whom have been a major part of the offense since their freshman years. DeAndre Thompkins finally lived up to his billing as a speed burner in 2016 and had a knack for making spectacular catches as well. The departure of Godwin leaves the door open for sophomores Juwan Johnson and Irvin Charles who both showed flashes at times and have major potential. The return of Brandon Polk, of the “Jet Sweep” infamy of 2015, after a redshirt year due to injury adds even more speed to an already fast offense. It is something that Franklin has clearly focused on since his arrival and is beginning to pay huge dividends.
Last but not least, we return for a look at one of the most explosive backfields in college football. During the early part of 2016, Barkley carried the weight of the team on his shoulders as the newly implemented Joe Moorhead offense found its way. As the season wore on, Trace McSorley got more comfortable running the show and by the season’s end, the offense ran directly through him with precision and poise. As mentioned, both enter this spring as potential Heisman Trophy candidates and with a year under their belts together, the sky is the limit in 2017. Backing them up in case of the unthinkable is not much of a drop-off. Tommy Stevens is the clear No.2 at QB and the much-heralded Jake Zembiec enters the equation as a redshirt freshman. At RB, Miles Sanders is the heir-apparent once Barkley moves on, while Andre Robinson made his mark by scoring 6 TD's of his own a year ago, providing a more “inside the tackles” presence coming out of the backfield.
Whether this offense ends up ranked alongside or even better than the legendary offense of ’94 is a tall order and remains to be seen, but with most of the key components returning from last year, the pieces are definitely in place to make a serious run at cementing a strong legacy. Unlike 1994, most of the politics that plagued another JoePa-led undefeated season no longer exist. If Penn State can take care of business week in and week out, the opportunity awaits to settle it all on the field. Judging by the way that offense ended in 2016, good luck to any defense that thinks they can stop it. They’re going to need speed, resilience and them some to stop the Nittany Lion locomotive James Franklin has put together in Happy Valley!