PSU: Eight things to watch in 2016
"Now, the real work starts," Penn State quarterback Trace McSorley said before leaving EverBank Field, where he gamely led a second-half comeback against Georgia in the TaxSlayer Bowl on Saturday.
Following a repeat 7-6 season, the Nittany Lions completed a stretch in which they took some pride: They did not have a losing season while under the primary effects of the 2012 NCAA sanctions.
Now, however, it's time to advance. Even after the 24-17 loss to Georgia, Penn State coach James Franklin sounded another hopeful note for the future.
"There is progress being made," Franklin said.
Will that progress be noticeable next season? Here are eight reasons why they might — and might not.
1. Penn State returns to full scholarship strength.
The Lions will have 85 scholarship players for the first time since 2011, a significant factor in their drive to re-emerge as a national player. Franklin has called this among his biggest "challenges" through the first two seasons.
Further, with three of his recruiting classes in place, Franklin will have a roster consisting primarily of players he selected. The 2016 team really will be his, for better and worse.
"There's an excitement that next year is the first year post-sanctions, where we'll be back to the 85 scholarships and have the depth and continue to be able to develop our guys," Franklin said.
2. It also will break in a new offense.
Joe Moorhead, the former Fordham head coach, was in Jacksonville all week preparing for his new job as Penn State's offensive coordinator. Moorhead appears to be developing relationships with players quickly.
Prior to the bowl game, Moorhead watched film with several offensive players. On Saturday, he spent time with the quarterbacks during pre-game warmups. And Moorhead sat in the coaches' booth during the game.
His offense, with more tempo and different terminology, will take some time to install. But players said they liked what they saw initially.
"It's pretty exciting," receiver DaeSean Hamilton said. "We talked about three- and four- wide-receiver sets most of the time, getting guys into space. He had three 1,000-yard receivers [in 2013 and 2014], and seeing that success in the passing game is exciting for our offense."
3. Will there be more staff changes?
After firing offensive coordinator John Donovan, Franklin said that he was hopeful the staff changes were complete. That might not be the case.
Several assistants (including defensive coordinator Bob Shoop and associate head coach Brent Pry) turned down offers from other programs. Other coaches could be weighing their futures as well.
The likely decisive point will come at next week's coaches convention in San Antonio.
"It's not over," Franklin said before the bowl game. "It won't be over until after the convention. But so far, so good, on being able to keep the staff together."
4. There will be growing pains at quarterback.
McSorley, a redshirt freshman, generated some offensive pop in his long-term debut Saturday. He went 14-for-27, threw the first two touchdown passes of his career and completed two critical fourth-down throws.
Quarterbacks coach Ricky Rahne has described McSorley as a "winner," and teammates responded to McSorley's energy in the bowl game. Still, McSorley could have some competition from true freshman Tommy Stevens and incoming freshman Jake Zembiec, a 6-foot-3 quarterback who has enrolled and will participate in spring practice.
"Our entire staff, including Joe Moorhead, is really excited about all the quarterbacks on our roster," Rahne said, "and I think those guys can take us into the future."
5. Time to shake up the offensive line.
Among Franklin's primary concerns upon taking the job was the lack of scholarship linemen. Now, the position is replenished: Penn State will have more than 20 linemen on the roster next year.
The team graduates just one bowl-game line starter (center Angelo Mangiro) and returns six players with starting experience. Tackle Paris Palmer improved later in the season, and a healthy Andrew Nelson could be a standout.
Still, it might be time for Franklin to introduce some of his recruits. He was close to playing true freshman guard/center Ryan Bates, noted that fellow freshman Christian Gonzalez has hit 330 pounds and called freshman Sterling Jenkins (a 6-8, 330-pound tackle) one of the team's most improved players.
A new line joining a new quarterback in a new offense might be overwhelming. It also might be the right call.
6. What to do with all the running backs?
There's likely to be some attrition, or position changes, here with Saquon Barkley's emergence and the expected arrival of Miles Sanders, the nation's No. 2 running back prospect. When Sanders enrolls, Penn State will have seven scholarship running backs. That will change.
Akeel Lynch, who carried the ball twice in the last five games, must decide whether he'll return or transfer. There are three redshirt freshmen who played sparingly after Barkley returned from injury.
Among them, Nick Scott said he considered running back his best position but was eager to help the team in whatever capacity. Not to mention Barkley's classmate, Andre Robinson, who redshirted this season.
7. The defensive line will lose three NFL players.
That's a jolt no matter how much playing time the backups received. In declaring for the NFL draft, nose tackle Austin Johnson said one contributing reason was the departures of fellow linemen Anthony Zettel and Carl Nassib.
During the regular season, the group combined for 159 sacks (421/2 of them for losses) and 24 sacks. That amount of production is irreplaceable.
Still, position coach Sean Spencer smartly played his No. 2 line for long stretches, with some positive results. Half of defensive end Torrence Brown's 11 tackles were for loss. Tackle Parker Cothren, playing behind Johnson, had 21/2 sacks. Tarow Barney and Antoine White contributed as well.
8. Making the special teams special.
This unit has been a two-year work in progress, with inconsistent kicking, punting and coverage, which were mitigated by few big plays.
Penn State has not returned a kickoff for a touchdown in four years or a punt for a score in seven.
The Lions have recruited both a scholarship kicker and punter, which will help (should both enroll). Elsewhere, they'll need special teams coordinator Charles Huff to make some big strides in Year 3.
PENN STATE'S 2016 SCHEDULE
Circle Sept. 10 on the calendar: Penn State-Pitt at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh.
Sept. 3: KENT STATE
Sept. 10: at Pitt (Heinz Field)
Sept. 17: TEMPLE
Sept. 24: at Michigan
Oct. 1: MINNESOTA
Oct. 8: MARYLAND
Oct. 22: OHIO STATE
Oct. 29: at Purdue
Nov. 5: IOWA
Nov. 12: at Indiana
Nov. 19: at Rutgers
Nov. 26: MICHIGAN STATE
(Home games in caps)