Beat writer Mark Dent breaks down three important areas for the Nittany Lions’ success in 2014.
1. Hackenberg must continue to progress under James Franklin
Say whatever you want about this year. Maybe it’ll be the hardest yet under the sanctions, maybe Penn State will defy expectations. Either way, the most important player on the team for the present and the future is sophomore quarterback Christian Hackenberg.
He passed for 2,955 yards and 20 touchdowns last season and is already being talked about as a future No. 1 overall NFL draft pick. But how will he do under his new coach?
It’s well known that Hackenberg and former coach Bill O’Brien developed a relationship in which they consulted each other when it came to important offensive decisions. Plus, O’Brien’s track record for preparing quarterbacks is top-notch. Franklin doesn’t quite have the same resume, but was a quarterback in college and has worked with several top-level quarterbacks, such as former NFL first-round pick Josh Freeman.
This season, Franklin must do two things: First, help Hackenberg acclimate to an offense that doesn’t have Allen Robinson. Hackenberg will automatically grow as a quarterback if he can adjust to not having the Big Ten’s best wide receiver and still excel.
Second, keep him well. If that means sacrificing some development this year, so be it. Penn State is built better to succeed in 2015, as long as Hackenberg stays in one piece.
2. Short-handed roster needs to stay healthy
Penn State has to stay healthy, given its 75-scholarship limit because of the NCAA sanctions. Unfortunately for the Nittany Lions, that’s much easier said than done.
Tight end Adam Breneman, offensive guard Miles Dieffenbach and linebacker Ben Kline already will miss all or most of the season, and the games haven’t even started. When you have a team as lacking in depth as Penn State, luck is needed — and Penn State hasn’t been lucky when it comes to injuries the past couple of years. Last year, tight end Kyle Carter and linebacker Mike Hull were injured in the first game.
Franklin even flew a white flag of sorts when talking about the sanctions last week. In the past several weeks, he had usually declined to discuss any difficulties with the sanctions, but did last Wednesday. He responded to a question about the possible challenges of this year by saying, “You guys would probably be better to state that than I would, but I do think the longer that you’re in the sanctions the more difficult it becomes.”
3. The offensive line must at least be adequate
Like health, discussing this aspect of Penn State’s season is probably already getting tiresome. But it’s true. A solid offensive line is crucial for the running and passing games.
Penn State’s offensive line, given the injury to Dieffenbach, features only one player — Donovan Smith — who has contributed in the past. Everyone else is new.
“We’ve still got some work to do, we really do in this last little over a week heading up to the game,” Franklin said last week. “And a lot of it is not just figuring out who the guys are, but all the moving parts that factor into it.”
That means cohesion and chemistry. Franklin said that because of nagging injuries, Penn State has rarely had an opportunity to have a consistent five on the practice field.
He also said that given the lack of players to choose from, linemen will have to know how to play the right and left sides. It’s a lot to ask of linemen with little experience, but Penn State doesn’t have a choice.