James Franklin thinks Penn State offense set to thrive

(Allentown) Morning Call (TNS)
  • Offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead is bringing a new system to Penn State.
  • Sophomore Saquon Barkley and freshman Miles Sanders are expected to excel at running back.
  • Trace McSorley and Tommy Stevens are set to battle for the starting quarterback job.

STATE COLLEGE — During their series of interviews last winter, James Franklin and offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead concurred on their enthusiasm for the future of Penn State's offense.

Penn State running back Saquon Barkley is expected to be the featured piece in the Nittany Lions' offense this season.

They saw a refilled line with more experience, a collection of talented receivers, one of the nation's most promising backfields and quarterbacks who could run a new show. As a result, Franklin, the head coach, said Moorhead, the former Fordham head coach, arrived at Penn State just in time.

"I feel great about your scheme, feel great about your fit at Penn State, but I also feel great about the timing of it," Franklin said, recounting his early conversations with Moorhead. "You're going to come in here, and everything's in place for you, and for us, to be successful."

As Penn State heads into summer workouts — the 2016 recruiting class arrives this weekend — Franklin sounded enthusiastic about the progress of his redeveloped offense. Though he wants the quarterback position to remain "a legitimate competition" into training camp, Franklin said he sees experienced components blending around Moorhead's system.

At an impromptu media session Thursday in State College, Franklin left little doubt that he's more comfortable with the offensive direction in which Penn State is headed now than in the previous two seasons. Part of that comes from roster replenishment, particularly on the offensive line, and part comes from the fit of Penn State's skill position players with Moorhead's approach.

Franklin raved over his receivers and called the running backs — including Saquon Barkley and potentially freshman Miles Sanders — "one of the better position groups maybe in the country."

"All the things are in place for us to make a significant jump offensively," Franklin said. "And we knew that."

Penn State's Saquon Barkley aspiring for greatness

Quarterback question: The core question at quarterback, however, likely will remain through at least mid-August. Franklin called post-spring projections that Trace McSorley had won the job premature, saying he anticipates a "legitimate competition" lasting through the first few weeks of training camp.

McSorley went 23-for-27 for 281 yards and four touchdowns in the Blue-White Game, numbers affected by the game's format. McSorley played with Penn State's projected starting offense against the No. 2 defense.

Fellow quarterback Tommy Stevens, who went 10-for-17, received just one series with the No. 1 offense. Franklin had hoped to get Stevens two series with the first team.

The spring game was just a "glimpse" of Stevens' spring performance, Franklin said, and the competition is closer than the game indicated. Though McSorley enters camp with an edge, based on his two seasons as Christian Hackenberg's backup, Franklin said he intends to give Stevens a further opportunity to challenge for the job.

"Everybody rushed to judgment about the spring game. I don't think that's fair," Franklin said. "I want to give those guys a legitimate chance during camp to compete for the job. I do think there's a gap with Trace right now, from my last evaluation, but Tommy's a big, strong, athletic guy who does a lot of really good things."

Either way, Penn State will have a running threat at quarterback, which Franklin called a pivot point of the offense. The coach said that McSorley and/or Stevens could slow and fluster defenses with the ball, just as opposing quarterbacks frustrated Franklin in a similar way.

"There are so many aspects now that are falling into place that you're going to have to deal with defensively," Franklin said. "As we all know, you can be very, very successful with a traditional-style quarterback. But if you're going to do that, the complimentary pieces have got to be in place for you."

Steelers sign Johnson: The Pittsburgh Steelers signed former Penn State walk-on running back Brandon Johnson to a contract Friday. The Steelers invited Johnson to rookie minicamp last month.

Johnson played primarily special teams for Penn State, carrying the ball twice for 17 yards last season. That he could play football was surprising, since Johnson missed two high school seasons because of knee and leg injuries.

Those followed Johnson to Penn State.

"He was a tireless worker and valued member of our team," Franklin said. "Fans really didn't get to see everything Brandon was capable of because he battled some injuries during his time at Penn State, but he has a great chance to show his talent and work ethic at the next level."

Johnson is the ninth player from Penn State's 2015 team to sign an NFL contract. He also is the fourth former Lion to sign as a free agent, joining defensive lineman Tarow Barney (Jets), tight end Kyle Carter (Vikings) and defensive back Trevor Williams (Chargers).