14 Teams in 14 Days: Penn State Nittany Lions
Bill O'Brien did a more than admirable job leading the Nittany Lions after nuclear sanctions were levied upon them in 2012. In his two years at the helm O'Brien lead Penn State to a 15-9 record (no postseason eligibility) and was named the B1G Ten's coach of the year in 2012. In 2013 the Nittany Lions managed seven wins despite being hit hard by injuries, a lack of depth (thanks to scholarship restrictions) and a very young team, including a freshman quarterback. Those seven wins included victories over Michigan and Wisconsin, their high-point of the season, while taking Nebraska to the limit in overtime. The fact that O'Brien did anything better than going .500 at Happy Valley is truly a marvel.
After flirting with the NFL in early 2013, O'Brien finally took the leap after the 2013 season accepting the job as Head Coach of the Houston Texans. Taking over for O'Brien now is former Vanderbilt coach James Franklin.
Franklin is a Pennsylvania native and brings a winning pedigree with him, recently doing so in the toughest division in college football. The lack of depth and inexperience that O'Brien had to deal with is still there for Franklin, but so is sophomore quarterback Christian Hackenberg - arguably the best young quarterback in the B1G Ten.
Christian Hackenberg came to Penn State as one of the top quarterbacks of the 2013 class. A five-star recruit from Virginia, Hackenberg turned down overtures from Alabama, Florida, South Carolina, Tennessee and more, choosing the Nittany Lions instead. Despite committing to the Nittany Lions prior to the NCAA laying their sanctions down on Penn State in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky scandal, Hackenberg elected to stay committed to the program.
Hackenberg lived up to the hype in 2013 where as a true freshman, he broke 11 school records and finished third in conference in passing yards per game. He arguably saved his best for last, throwing for 339 yards and four touchdowns in a road-upset of Wisconsin in the season finale.
The trio of Zach Zwinak, Bill Belton and Akeel Lynch combined for 2.150 yards and 18 touchdowns last season. Penn State employed a running-back committee approach under O'Brien because he liked riding the hot-hand and also because Zwinak and Belton were plagued by putting the ball on the ground. If Franklin opts to steer towards one back that back will likely be Zwinak. The senior put up 989 yards last year, leading the team in rushing for the second year in a row.
Hackenberg can only be as good as his surrounding cast and that group took a hit when Allen Robinson departed for the NFL in the spring. A two-time B1G Ten receiver of the year, Robinson was responsible for nearly half of Hackenberg's passing yards last season (1,432 yards on 97 receptions).
Replacing Robinson as Hackenberg's primary go-to-guy is Geno Lewis. Lewis showed some promise down the stretch, catching seven passes for 119 yards and two touchdowns in the final three games of the season. The situation at tight end is much more resolved with Kyle Carter and Jesse James. Carter should be in the mix for all-B1G Ten honors. Injuries slowed him last season but he had a strong 2012. Joining those two are sophomore Adam Breneman and freshman Mike Gesicki, whom Franklin's staff is very high on.
Offensive line is where Penn State could unravel in 2014. When Franklin arrived on campus this spring he learned the Nittany Lions only had two scholarship tackles on campus. Making matters worse, fifth-year senior and returning starter at guard, Miles Dieffenbach tore his ACL in spring practice and is lost for the season. Left tackle Donovan Smith is the only returning starter on the line. The Lions did recruit four tackles in the 2014 class, some if not all of those will see some time this season.
All-B1G Ten defensive tackle DaQuan Jones is gone, but Penn State brings back all three other starting defensive linemen from 2013 - ends Deion Barnes and C.J. Olaniyan and tackle Austin Johnson. Anthony Zettel transitions from defensive end to the inside while freshman Antoine White and Northwest Mississippi Community College transfer, Tarow Barney figure to get some reps as well.
Glenn Carson anchored this defense for the past three years, making 36-consecutive starts and leading the team with 90 tackles last year. With Carson graduating in the spring, Penn State turns to Mike Hull who's making the move from outside linebacker to the middle. Flanking Hull on the outside will be Nyeem Wartman and Brandon Bell. Wartman started eight games last year while the freshman Bell saw more playing time down the stretch of the 2013 campaign.
The secondary brings back two starters in cornerback Jordan Lucas and safety Adrian Amos. Lucas enjoyed his best season in 2013 ranking third on the team in tackles and tied for the lead with three interceptions. Amos is making the transition from cornerback to safety, this time for good. O'Brien's staff tried to make the same transition last year but was forced to move Amos back to corner when they weren't able to find a suitable replacement there. Ryan Keiser is the other safety for now. He tied Lucas for the lead in interceptions last year but expected to get pushed by sophomore Malik Golden.
|10/25||vs OHIO STATE|
|11/29||vs MICHIGAN STATE|
Nebraska and Wisconsin fall off the schedule but Michigan State reappears. The Nittany Lions have a light non-conference schedule though and should be able to build momentum early and late in their slate of games with the real tests coming - for the most part - in October.
Penn State will go as Hackenberg goes and he won't be able to do it alone. Hackenberg could be the best quarterback in the B1G Ten and has a steady trio of running backs behind him, but who does he throw to and how much protection does he have? The defense lacks depth at linebacker but returns a strong line and some nice components in the secondary. As of right now they're still not eligible to play in any post-season games this year so this figures to be a building on the fly year for Franklin.