Penn State begins spring football practice Monday, bringing a collection of offensive changes to the field for the first time.
With a new offensive coordinator and two new coaches, and without three of their most important offensive players, the Lions are confronting some necessary changes.\
Spring is the best time to do that.
Here are five questions the Lions look to answer over the next month, culminating with the Blue-White Game on April 21.
How will Trace McSorley (and Ricky Rahne) handle the departures? Saquon Barkley, Mike Gesicki and DaeSean Hamilton combined for 41 of the team’s 72 touchdowns last season, a productivity triangle that can’t be replicated but can be mirrored.
With running back Miles Sanders and receiver Juwan Johnson, the Lions have positional foundations upon which to build. But they need a productive tight end to keep that midfield as a throwing threat for McSorley. Danny Dalton, Jonathan Holland and Nick Bowers hold the keys there.
Further, how will Rahne and McSorley tweak their scheme to protect the quarterback from the acute defensive pressure he figures to face? Rahne promised no dramatic changes to Penn State’s offense but has to make sure McSorley isn’t running either for his life or every first down.
Another step for Juwan Johnson? James Franklin made Johnson, a 6-4 receiver, the most talked-about player of spring drills last year, and that led to a 54-catch season.
Johnson was one of four players with more than 50 receptions. The other three are gone, leaving the redshirt junior as Penn State’s top returning pass-catcher. With another exceptional preseason, Johnson has the potential to turn himself into a high-round draft pick. Based on winter workouts, he’s continuing in that direction.
“DaeSean Hamilton kind of left his legacy with Juwan Johnson,” Dwight Galt, Penn State’s director of performance enhancement, told reporters in State College last month. “He is a trained killer. He’s done a great job and he’s one of our top, top guys.”
Could a true freshman really start at middle linebacker? Franklin teased this idea before the Fiesta Bowl, saying that five-star freshman Micah Parsons will begin his career at middle linebacker. The Lions need a new one having lost three players experienced at the position, including starter Jason Cabinda.
Cabinda said Parsons certainly could start, and the idea gained a boost when Parsons received No. 11, worn previously by linebackers LaVar Arrington, NaVorro Bowman and Brandon Bell.
“Every time he kind of does something great everyone is like, ‘Wow.’ And I’m like, ‘Did you watch his high school film? Why are you surprised?’” Galt said. “He can run. He can jump. He’s strong. He’s powerful. He’s got all the ingredients that we would expect from him and that we saw in his film.”
Resetting the secondary? At the NFL Scouting Combine, former Penn State cornerback Grant Haley said he wanted the program to be known as “Defensive Back U.” as well as “Linebacker U.”
The Lions’ entire starting secondary was invited to the combine, a first in the program’s history. But with Haley, Christian Campbell, Marcus Allen and Grant Apke gone, defensive coordinator Brent Pry has to find another unit with such chemistry. The good news is, Pry has a deep talent pool.
Cornerback will remain a strength, with experienced players Amani Oruwariye and Tariq Castro-Fields returning along with John Reid. Among the team’s best defensive players in 2016, Reid missed last season with a knee injury but is back from rehab this spring.
Safety is an intriguing position. Fifth-year senior Nick Scott, who will be 23 at the start of next season, is among the team’s most respected players and poised to be a full-time starter. Then there’s sophomore Lamont Wade, who played cornerback in 2017 and switched to safety during the offseason.
What about kicker? With Tyler Davis gone, Penn State needs a kicker, and Franklin might want two: one for kickoffs, another for field goals.
Emmaus High graduate Carson Landis will be in the mix with his exceptionally strong leg, and punter Blake Gillikin said he might want a shot at the job. The Lions also have an incoming scholarship kicker in Jake Pinegar, along with several walk-ons, vying for the job.