Penn State enters 2018 football season with youth, inexperience — and talent
Like almost all his colleagues in the high-powered profession of college football head coach, James Franklin worries.
With the effects of the 2012 NCAA sanctions finally diminished, Franklin turned Penn State around the last two years with back-to-back 11-win seasons and appearances in consecutive New Year's Six bowl games. In the eyes of Nittany Nation, the program was back, baby!
Maybe it was, but college football programs change every year, and the Nittany Lions felt it last season. Before the year ended, offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead left to become Mississippi State's head coach. One day after the team's Fiesta Bowl win over Washington, Saquon Barkley surprised absolutely no one by taking his talents to the NFL.
The Lions lost a mountain of production. In addition to Barkley, tight end Mike Gesicki and wide receiver DaeSean Hamilton left. The Lions saw the entire middle of their defense depart: sturdy tackles Curtis Cothran and Parker Cothren, linebacker Jason Cabinda, and safety Marcus Allen.
Amid all the back-slapping, Franklin had a message.
"My concern is, I don't want us to take a deep breath and feel like we're back — we've had a couple of good years — because we're not," he said at the start of training camp. "We've still got a lot of work to do. We've done some really nice things, but we've got a lot of work to do to get to where we want to be."
Strong camp: However, as Penn State prepares for its season opener Saturday at Beaver Stadium against Appalachian State and for the battles in the Big Ten that lie ahead, Franklin doesn't seem so worried. Sure, he wants his team focused and prepared, but he feels his team had a fine training camp with competition for positions throughout.
"I've been very impressed," he said Tuesday at his weekly teleconference. "I think our culture is really strong right now. I think our chemistry is really strong. I think our leadership is different in terms of, we don't have a huge senior class. But yeah, I like where we're at. I really do."
Only 11 seniors are listed on the depth chart, which goes three players deep at every position. Yet the Lions have just eight first-time starters. Even on defense, which lost eight starters from the Fiesta Bowl squad, eight players on the first team have at least one career start.
At cornerback, John Reid started all 14 games during the 2016 season but had to sit out last year with a knee injury. The Lions' other cornerback, Amani Oruwariye, will make his first start Saturday but played well enough last year to be named second-team all-Big Ten.
Starting linebacker Cam Brown said he and his teammates aren't satisfied with what they've done, but are pushing ahead by "doing a little bit everywhere, [which] makes a big difference.
"We've been stepping it up a notch and trying to go a little bit harder in practice," he said, "going harder off the field doing the little things like taking care of our bodies, making sure everybody is as healthy as can be. We're watching more film. We're trying to chip away at everything that we needed to improve on."
McSorley the leader: Regarding senior leadership, there is no one better anywhere than quarterback Trace McSorley, who enters his third season at the controls holding or sharing 15 Penn State records. He already owns the school mark for total offense (8,268 yards) and needs 1,089 passing yards to top Christian Hackenberg's career record of 8,457.
Gesicki, Barkley and Hamilton combined for 164 catches, 2,052 receiving yards and 21 touchdowns last year, but McSorley insists he has "complete trust in all the guys we've got out there now.
"If we were to go out and face a tough third down right now … we understand the game plan and what we're trying to attack," he said. "We feel confident in what we're running, that those guys are going to do their job and be able to get out there and make the play."
Receivers: Juwan Johnson caught 54 balls for 701 yards last season, and DeAndre Thompkins averaged 15.8 yards per reception. Redshirt freshman wideouts K.J. Hamler and Mac Hippenhammer have impressed. In place of Gesicki, tight end likely will be manned by committee, with Jonathan Holland and Danny Dalton the top two candidates to start.
On defense, Franklin said competition has been keen at both tackle spots and at middle linebacker and no one really has separated from the pack. Young players, such as two true freshmen, tackle P.J. Mustipher and linebacker Jesse Luketa, will be in the mix.
Speaking of true freshmen, Franklin likes the group he has. Micah Parsons has impressed at outside linebacker, and tight end Pat Freiermuth could get some playing time before long. And both kickers — field-goal specialist Jake Pinegar and kickoff man Rafael Checa — are first-year players.
"I'm excited," Franklin said. "We've got a good-looking football team. We're athletic. We're inexperienced, but we're talented."