Penn State's offense has hope as long as Christian Hackenberg is at the helm.
By Mark Dent / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Year one for James Franklin officially begins Monday. He has $4 million in the bank for his new job and unbridled enthusiasm, but wringing out an 8-4 or 7-5 season for Penn State could prove to be a greater challenge than Bill O'Brien faced in his two years. * Franklin's roster is young and inexperienced. Of the 121 players, 86 are freshmen or sophomores in terms of athletic eligibility. And though the NCAA reduced its sanctions of Penn State last year, the team can still only have a maximum of 75 scholarship players, 10 fewer than other Division I-A teams. * Depending on how Franklin shuffles his formations, he will likely have five returning starters on offense, including one of the best quarterbacks in the Big Ten Conference in Christian Hackenberg. On defense, he will have eight returning starters, including the entire secondary. * Those are the positives. Here are a few questions he will try to solve over the next few weeks
1. Will the offensive line develop into a formidable unit?
Offensive line coach Herb Hand has by far the most difficult job of the staff. With senior guard Miles Dieffenbach scheduled to miss the majority of this season or longer with a torn anterior cruciate ligament, Penn State has just one returning starter on the offensive line in left tackle Donovan Smith. The other players likely to get the most playing time on the line are Andrew Nelson at right tackle, Angelo Mangiro or Wendy Laurent at center, Brian Gaia at right guard, and Derek Dowrey or Brendan Mahon at left guard. Mahon and Nelson are redshirt freshmen, Dowrey and Gaia were defensive linemen last year and Mangiro and Laurent have played sparingly in their careers. As talented as Hackenberg is, he'll need a few seconds to find open receivers, and the line has to shape up quickly to give him that time.
2. Which wide receiver(s) will emerge?
As many know, wide receiver Allen Robinson is gone. He left early for the NFL (drafted in the second round by Jacksonville) and his departure, along with the graduation of Brandon Felder, means Penn State must start from scratch at this position. Robinson caught 40 percent of Penn State's completed passes. Throw in Felder, and the duo caught 52 percent of the team's completed passes. The good news is Penn State has several talented young receivers. Freshman DeAndre Thompkins has the fastest 40-yard-dash time on the team, according to Franklin, and freshman Saeed Blacknall was considered one of the top wide receiver recruits in the country. He committed to Penn State after Franklin was hired and had previously been committed to Rutgers.
3. Which linebackers will join Mike Hull as starters?
Mike Hull, barring injury, will be Penn State's premier linebacker this season. He has moved to the middle linebacker position, where he will anchor the defense. The two linebacker positions on his right and left sides are less settled. Nyeem Wartman, who started most of last year, is likely to assume one of those roles. He had 32 tackles last season. The other spot is up for grabs, with sophomore Brandon Bell as a possibility. Ben Kline would probably have competed for a starting spot, too, had he not suffered an injury to his Achilles.
4. Freshmen will play this season, but which ones?
Franklin is adamant about "creating" depth this year, so much so that he and his staff plan to carve out ideal amounts of playing time for their younger players and will try to stick to that plan in all the games. Top candidates to gain early playing time appear to be safety Koa Farmer, receivers Blacknall and Thompkins, and tight end Mike Gesicki. Freshmen offensive linemen could play their way into the lineup, too, given the glaring lack of experience at that position.
5. Will Franklin really use his best players on special teams?
Special teams were a major issue for Penn State last season, particularly late in the year. In November, the Nittany Lions gave up kick return touchdowns in consecutive weeks against Purdue and Nebraska. Last season, opponents averaged 24.2 yards per kick return. Comparatively, Penn State averaged 19.1 yards per kick return. Franklin has said he will play his best players on special teams. That's not unusual for most teams -- even O'Brien used standout linebacker Michael Mauti on punt and kickoff coverage in 2012 -- but Penn State's lack of depth makes doing that more difficult. Whether it's using star players such as Hull on special teams or some of the young players or walk-ons, the special teams unit for Penn State needs to improve.
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