Coming off back-to-back 11-win seasons, Penn State will start training camp Friday to launch Year 5 of the James Franklin era.
Not only do the Nittany Lions have to deal with the meat grinder that is Big Ten East, arguably the toughest FBS division in the country, but they also will have to play Wisconsin, one of the favorites to win the conference, as well as always-tough Iowa. And don’t forget their trip to archrival Pittsburgh in Week 2.
The Lions will open the season Saturday, Sept. 1, against Appalachian State at Beaver Stadium and begin their Big Ten Conference schedule on Sept. 21, a Friday night, at Illinois.
Here are five things to watch as camp opens:
1. Trace McSorley and the preseason hype: With Saquon Barkley wearing the blue of the New York Giants and not Penn State, Trace McSorley has all the eyeballs on him. The fifth-year senior quarterback finds himself in the preseason Heisman Trophy conversation, but he’s aware how fleeting that kind of consideration can be. Barkley was a consensus Heisman favorite before he even carried the ball for the first time last season, and he wound up not even receiving an invitation to New York as a finalist.
McSorley says that he’s “thankful and blessed” to be mentioned on a national scale but that his full attention will be on leading the Nittany Lions offense. With Barkley and offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead (now the head coach at Mississippi State), the attack was one of the best in the nation the last two seasons. So it’s up to McSorley and new OC Ricky Rahne to keep the level of play high, and do it without a play-making trio who were high-round draft choices: Barkley, wide receiver DaeSean Hamilton and tight end Mike Gesicki.
2. Finding playmakers on offense: So without Barkley, Hamilton and Gesicki, who combined to catch 21 of the team’s 32 touchdown passes last year, who will step up in their place?
Junior Miles Sanders, the likely successor to Barkley, was the nation’s No. 1 high school running back when Penn State signed him in 2016. He averaged 6.7 yards on 56 carries in his first two seasons. Redshirt junior Juwan Johnson (Glassboro) finally hit his stride last season with 54 catches, and fifth-year senior DeAndre Thompkins has a career average of nearly 16 yards per reception. Returning tight ends Jonathan Holland and Nick Bowers accounted for just four catches last year.
Newcomers out to impress in camp include four freshmen — running back Ricky Slade, wide receiver Justin Shorter, and tight ends Zack Kuntz and Pat Freiermuth — and three redshirt freshmen: wide receivers K.J. Hamler and Mac Hippenhammer and running back Journey Brown.
3. Uncertainty at middle linebacker: If there’s one area of particular concern for Franklin, it’s at middle linebacker, perennially a strength for the Nittany Lions, where Jason Cabinda is gone after having quarterbacked the defense for the better part of three seasons. The coach said he wants to find the starter in the middle to allow him to have “some moving parts” at the other positions, but he added, “I don’t know how quickly we’ll figure that out.”
Redshirt junior Jan Johnson, who has seen some action at middle linebacker, is “freakishly smart,” Franklin said, and has improved his athleticism. Freshman Micah Parsons, one of the nation’s top players in the 2018 recruiting class, played some there in the spring and could get a more extended look. Two more candidates are senior Jake Cooper (Archbishop Wood), whose career has been hampered by injuries, and another freshman, Jesse Luketa.
4. Freshmen and the new redshirt rule: Like his colleagues, Franklin loves the new rule that allows a player to compete in up to four games in a season without losing a year of eligibility. This certainly will give him a chance to give more freshmen the “green light,” meaning play right away, which in turn helps the team’s depth. This will benefit not only rookies who will compete at middle linebacker such as Parsons and Luketa, but also at defensive tackle, where the numbers are lacking a bit.
Judge Culpepper and P.J. Mustipher, each of whom tips the scales at around 300 pounds, will be given a chance to compete. That also will happen at tight end, where Kuntz and Freiermuth come in as highly regarded signees.
“We’re probably going to rely on some freshmen that we normally wouldn’t, and specifically at some positions where we normally wouldn’t, like at linebacker,” Franklin said.
5. Finding a new kicker: This could be the scariest task of all for Franklin, whose team went just 9 for 17 on field goals last season. The only scholarship kicker is incoming freshman Jake Pinegar, who made not one, but two field goals from 60 yards last year as a high school senior. He will be pushed by redshirt freshman walk-on Carson Landis, who did kick a 34-yard field goal in April’s Blue-White Game and boom nearly all his kickoffs into the end zone. Then there’s junior Blake Gillikin, the Lions’ outstanding punter, whom Franklin does not want handling double duty but would be available in a pinch on kickoffs.