Penn State Football looking ahead: 5 key question


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Coach James Franklin will put his new team through spring paces for the first time Monday.

The Nittany Lions will try to deal with numerous issues before playing the Blue-White game April 12. Among them ...

1. What should be expected of James Franklin's new offensive system?

The reputation of Vanderbilt's offense under Franklin was steady. The Commodores didn't do anything too flashy or incorporate unorthodox formations as Bill O'Brien did. It was a middle-of-the-pack offense in 2013. Vanderbilt ranked eighth in the Southeastern Conference in scoring offense, 14th in rushing offense and ninth in passing offense. Expect offensive coordinator John Donovan to call plays. Though Franklin didn't rule out the possibility of calling the plays. Donovan did at Vanderbilt.

For the players, this spring will entail learning the playbook. Many of the veteran players have dealt with this change before when O'Brien was hired two years ago, and Franklin brings a simpler offense that is also a pro style. Penn State's offense under O'Brien was balanced -- averaging 36 passes and 41 rushes per game over the past two years, but Franklin has chosen to run the ball more. Vanderbilt the past three years has averaged 39 rushes and 28 passes per game.

2. Who will replace Glenn Carson at linebacker?

Penn State's linebackers didn't have a banner year in 2013, with Mike Hull battling an injury and Nyeem Wartman attempting to find consistency in his first full year with the program. The foundation of the linebacking core was Carson, who led the team with 66.5 tackles. Someone will need to fill his position at middle linebacker. The most obvious candidate at this point is sophomore Brandon Bell. Bell played in the middle in high school but often played outside linebacker for Penn State in 2013 behind Hull or Wartman. Ben Kline, who missed most of the season with injury in 2013, and Gary Wooten also will compete at middle linebacker.

Given that players such as Bell, Wartman and Kline are young and relatively inexperienced, each could play in the middle or on the outside. Hull should be set as an outside linebacker.

3. Will the adjustment to the new system affect the progress of Christian Hackenberg?

While everyone on Penn State must get used to Franklin's new system, Hackenberg matters the most. He said in January he had been watching Vanderbilt games to prepare and he obviously picked up O'Brien's offense quickly in the summer and fall of 2013. His development is paramount to Penn State's success, as will be his relationship with Franklin. Franklin has worked with top quarterbacks in the past, including Josh Freeman at Kansas State, but Hackenberg is more talented than anyone he has worked with at Maryland and Vanderbilt the past several years.

4. What impact will the new guys have?

Freshmen Tarow Barney, Michael O'Connor, DeAndre Thompkins, Chasz Wright and Antoine White graduated from high school early and will participate in spring practice. O'Connor will be competing for the backup quarterback position with walk-ons Austin Whipple and D.J. Crook.

Thompkins could be the most important of the five. A highly ranked wide receiver, he will have the opportunity to earn significant playing time given the departure of Allen Robinson and Brandon Felder, who combined for more than half of Penn State's receptions and receiving yards in 2013. Barney, a defensive tackle who played the past two years in junior college, will be expected to compete for playing time as the replacement for DaQuan Jones.

5. Will any running back distance himself from the competition?

It never quite happened in 2013. Though Zach Zwinak was getting the majority of the carries at the end of the season, he was still splitting time with Bill Belton and, to a lesser extent, Akeel Lynch. All three are back, meaning a group that contributed more than 2,000 rushing yards is intact. Vanderbilt had a propensity for splitting its carries. Five running backs had 75 or more rushing attempts.

Mark Dent: mdent@post-gazette.com, 412-439-3791 and Twitter @mdent05.


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