Penn State might have tallied its fourth consecutive winning season after the NCAA sanctions, coming in at 7-6 last year. But in many ways, the Nittany Lions have yet to make a mark in this new era.
Coach James Franklin will look to remedy that in his third year at the helm.
The Nittany Lions lost their final four games of the season last year and failed to notch any wins against ranked teams. But with 17 returning starters — nine on offense, five on defense and three on special teams — along with 15 additional players with starting experience also back, the team will look for that marquee performance in 2016.
Heading into the start of spring football practice Friday, here are five things Penn State will need to address in the coming weeks:
1. Who will be quarterback?
With Christian Hackenberg departing for the NFL after posting several school records his junior season, including career passing yards (8,457), touchdowns (48) and total offense (8,215), the Nittany Lions are in the market for a new quarterback. And while the choice might seem obvious, Franklin is keeping the competition open.
Redshirt sophomore Trace McSorley and redshirt freshman Tommy Stevens will go head-to-head for the starting spot, though Franklin didn’t rule out freshman Jake Zembiec. McSorley has the most experience as Hackenberg’s backup last season. He came in when the former quarterback left with an injury in the second quarter of January’s TaxSlayer Bowl against Georgia and completed 5 of 8 passes for 39 yards.
2. How will the offensive line hold up?
Speaking of Hackenberg, opponents sacked him more than 100 times in his career. The offensive line improved marginally last year, allowing 39 sacks compared to 44 in 2014.
Franklin hired Matt Limegrover as the new offensive line coach. The former Minnesota assistant head coach, offensive coordinator and offensive line coach has 25 years of college coaching experience and was an offensive lineman in his playing days. So his experience should help shape a young line, including buzzed-about freshman Connor McGovern.
3. What will the new offense look like?
Also good for the line is Penn State’s new offense, which Franklin said would put less pressure on the more inexperienced unit. New offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead, most recently Fordham’s head coach, will install an offense that focuses on the team’s strengths at wide receiver and running back with a faster pace and wider formations.
Sophomore Saquon Barkley will be back after a productive winter in the weight room, where he matched a team record for power cleaning 390 pounds to go with his freshman season rushing record of 1,076 yards. The team also returns four receivers, including junior Chris Godwin, who caught 69 passes for 1,101 yards.
4. Who will step up on defense?
Anthony Zettel, Austin Johnson and national award winner Carl Nassib all left for the NFL, leaving holes to fill on defense. While several players will come in this summer to bolster personnel, there are many that will look to make a statement this spring, including redshirt sophomore Antoine White, redshirt freshman Robert Windsor and redshirt freshman Kam Carter. Redshirt junior Curtis Cothran and redshirt freshman Kevin Givens switched from defensive end to defensive tackle, while newly promoted defensive coordinator Brent Pry will seek to continue the success of last season on the defensive line.
5. Will special teams improve?
Consistency is the key here. With the combination of returners and new recruits, as well as some needed scheme adjustments, Franklin said he is hoping it’s an area of improvement. The Nittany Lions’ punting has been giving opponents great field positions for the past two seasons, and while the team was 18 for 20 last season in field goals, all were 42 yards or less.