PSU's new offense to be line friendly
- The Penn State football team begins spring drills on March 18.
- The Nittany Lions have a new offensive coordinator in Joe Moorhead.
- The Lions also have a new offensive line coach in Matt Limegrover.
Penn State's offense might look more theatrical next season, with its spread formations, sideline signals and no-huddle approach. At its core, though, the offense will be simpler than it has been, particularly for the offensive line.
In fact, head coach James Franklin called the Lions' new system "offensive-line friendly," which he expects will help ease some pressure the offense has faced the past two years.
"It's about simplifying things for the offensive line," Franklin said during a Friday visit to the Lehigh Valley. "There's nothing wrong with what we were doing before, but it put pressure on the unit where we probably had the least amount of experience."
Franklin returned to the area to address high school and college football coaches at the annual Nike Coach of the Year clinic. The three-day clinic, run by Easton High football coach Steve Shiffert, also featured two of Franklin's fellow Big Ten coaches: Mark Dantonio of Michigan State and Chris Ash of Rutgers.
Prior to his talk at the Holiday Inn Allentown, Franklin described in an interview how his program has changed over the past two years. Essentially free from the impacts of NCAA sanctions and roster limits, Franklin said he and his staff view their third season in State College as a fresh start.
"In a lot of ways, we look at this as Year One," Franklin said. "… During the interview process, the administration told me, and the previous staff told me, that years three and four [of the sanctions] would be the most challenging. Obviously, when you take over a job, you have such high expectations, and are so excited about the opportunities, that you put your head down and go to work.
"Yes, there were definitely some challenges. But now, we're in a position that we understand Penn State a lot better. We understand the community, the school and our roster from top to bottom."
For the roster's offensive players, this spring will be important. Penn State's offense already has changed under new coordinator Joe Moorhead, the former Fordham head coach.
The Lions, who begin spring drills March 18, have begun installing the new language, verbal and otherwise, that will guide the offense next fall.
It's an offense that will rely more on tempo, wider formations and what Franklin termed the "check-with-me" sideline looks that are functions of a no-huddle approach. Though the coach said the plays themselves won't change dramatically — "Everybody's running the same concepts," he said — their packaging will.
"We'll do less, but we'll do it at a faster pace," Franklin said. "It's all about getting the offense in the right play against specific defenses."
Penn State's two-year struggle offensively — it ranked no higher than 61st in the major statistical categories — hinged largely on its inexperienced, undermanned line. Those issues churned through a lack of scholarship linemen, which forced some players to shift from defense to offense and most to learn multiple positions.
In a recent conference call with reporters, new offensive line coach Matt Limegrover said he was surprised to learn that Franklin took over a team in 2014 with nine linemen on scholarship. In fact, he called that proposition "almost downright scary."
Penn State has replenished its supply of scholarship linemen, adding seven over the past two recruiting classes, and Franklin said they are growing into becoming a deeper unit. The head coach expects them to benefit from what he called a simplified offense.
Franklin said Moorhead's offense will release pressure from the offensive linemen by accelerating the pace and relying on the team's strengths, namely at receiver and running back.
In addition, it will allow Penn State to take advantage of what Franklin called the mobility and athleticism of quarterbacks Trace McSorley, Tommy Stevens and Jake Zembiec.
McSorley, beginning his third season in the program, guided Penn State's second-half rally against Georgia in the TaxSlayer Bowl. Stevens is a 6-4, 219-pound redshirt freshman, and Zembiec is a 6-3 true freshman who enrolled in January.
"One of our strengths is wide receiver, and this offense is going to play to that," Franklin said. "We also have two quarterbacks, and we'll see three now with [Zembiec], with good mobility and athleticism. Based on the two quarterbacks we have returning, a still-developing offensive line and strength at the wide receiver position, to me, this offense fits our personnel. This gives us the best chance to have success."
According to Limegrover, a veteran offensive line coach who came to Penn State from Minnesota, Moorhead's offense spreads itself (and defenders) across both the width and length of the field. For linemen, that reduces interior traffic and helps clarify their blocking targets.
"If you're running the traditional pro-set, or power, or counter, with I-backs, two backs and two tight ends in motion, that makes it hard on the offensive line to be physical and get movement and get space," Franklin said. "I think our offensive line is doing some nice things and is growing toward that, but this offense will help even more with their maturity and confidence.
"Where our challenges came were, we had a young, inexperienced line in an offense that was really driven around the offensive line. Now, we're running a system that's going to take some of the pressure off the offensive line."