In 2016, we’ve penned in nine teams that will appear on our schedule more than one time. Here are some of the advantages and disadvantages we’re hearing about as these teams practice for their upcoming intrasquad spring scrimmages. It’ll give us an idea of what the teams will be focusing on before we get to see them play in the fall. As this is our last spring preview, we will be attending this year’s annual Blue-White game up at State College this Saturday. Look for me in my blue #119 jersey and stop by and say hello.
Penn State (2 games) – Pennsylvania’s nickname is the Keystone State, and we think that’s appropriate this year because we think this is a keystone season for the Penn State football program. There are a lot of changes going on possibly for the good, but there have also been some things that could cause them to take a step back. Of the nine teams we analyzed this spring, the Nittany Lions are our toughest to figure out.
Offensively, PSU loses Christian Hackenberg after three seasons as their starting QB. Under former HC Bill O’Brien during his frosh season, he was very impressive. Since O’Brien left for the Texans, under new HC James Franklin, things didn’t seem to go as well. Some say it’s because Franklin had adjusted his offensive style to utilize Hack’s strengths as opposed to utilizing his preferred attack having a QB who can run as well as throw. On the other hand, we saw Hackenberg struggle with accuracy. He went down to injury in last season’s Taxslayer Bowl where he left early to be replaced by RS Frosh Trace McSorley who is more akin to the offensive QB play Franklin wants to run. It was short notice and the Lions got back into the game against Georgia, but there was not enough time for the adjustment to be made as the Lions fell, 24-17.
McSorley looks to have a good shot to start this year. He has the most game experience at QB having played in seven of last year’s games basically seeing spot duty. This year Soph QB Tommy Stevens will be his greatest challenger to see some action. RB Saquon Barkley comes in ready for a big season after rushing 1,145 yards for seven TDs last season as a freshman. Soph Mark Allen is expected to step up. The Receiving Corps looks to be in good shape with Justin Godwin returning with 69 catches for 1,101 yards and five TDS a year ago. Saied Blacknall (Manalapan, NJ) is expected to become a primary target in this program along with Godwin and DaeSean Hamilton who grabbed 45 passes for 580 yards and six TDs. The coaching staff is expecting big things from Junior TE Mike Gesicki (Manahawkin, NJ) returning with 13 snags in eight starts a season ago. Of course, none of these playmakers can expect to do much without the horses up front to give them that big push. It’s been a group where improvement must come from as they Lions have struggled, though with slight improvement last year. Brian Gaia could move from guard to center while experienced players like G Brendan Mahon and T Andrew Nelson will be looked to for needed improvements. G Ryan Bates, SR JC transfer Paris Palmer, Soph Sterling Jenkins, and Soph Noah Beh can all be looked at as possible replacements to shore up what has been an area of concern for the Nittany Loins during the past three years. The key to this unit’s success will fall into the hands of new offensive line coach Matt Limegrover with 25 years of coaching experience. His last few were under HC Jerry Kill at Minnesota where we saw the Gophers face Mizzou in the 2015 Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl. They came in with a vaunted rushing attack spearheaded by Limegrover’s front five. We look for him to bring renewed toughness and physicality to the PSU offensive line. In addition to Limegrover, to improve upon this offensive attack overall, James Franklin hired Joe Moorhead, formerly the Head Coach at Fordham the last four years as his new offensive coordinator. We’ve seen Moorhead’s Rams play the last two of three years and we’re very excited about this move. We watched Frosh RB Chase Edmonds there two years ago develop quickly into one of the top FCS RBs in the nation. With Moorhead’s game planning and player developmental skills, we’re anxious to see what he can do with more elite athletes at this level.
Defensively, the Lions will build up front around Curtis Cothran and Antoine White to replace three stalwarts – DE Carl Nassib, DT Anthony Zettlel, and DT Austin Johnson who all graduated. DE Garrett Sickles (Red Bank, NJ) returns and the Lions look to senior letterman Eric Schwan to step up from the other side. The LB corps looks good with returning starters Jason Cabinda (Hunterdon Central, Flemington, NJ), Nyeem Wartman, and Brandon Bell with experience from a year ago. A strong, experienced secondary returns with Juniors Marcus Allen and Grant Haley returning at the corners. John Reid, Christian Campbell, and Amani Oruwariye return for time to play in the secondary. Sorting out and developing that talent will be left with new secondary coach Tim Banks, formerly of Illinois.
New coaching talent was hired at key positions on the offense to pump new blood into a struggling offense. The big questions to us still remain with the man at the top. Known for his stellar recruiting capabilities, has he been able to keep up with the Joneses (Meyer and Harbaugh) at the talent level. Granted he has some work cut out for him after facing recruiting sanctions from the Sandusky scandal, but on the other hand his game day preparations seemed to be lacking. Was it due to running an offense he was incapable of, players who were a bit short on the talents side especially on the offensive line, or just gamed day coaching incompetency? He seems to have made some good moves from what we’ve seen in Limegrover and Moorhead, but will he keep tight reins on the game plan or let them do their jobs. It may be the final year of the transition as the team takes on more of what he needs to rebuild this program into a perennial national contender. If these Lions can win eight or nine games with an offense that protects its QB and can open some holes, the future looks bright again in Happy Valley. If we see the same struggling offense as in the past few years, James Franklin may be looking for employment elsewhere where his selling acumen can be better utilized. We’re hoping for the former. We hope to come back with a glint of optimism after this Saturday.
Penn State games we will see this season: Oct 22 vs. Ohio State; November 26 vs, Michigan State
Spring game: April 16