All the success Penn State’s enjoyed the past two seasons has caught many college football fans by surprise. Maybe 15-9 overall 10-6 in a struggling Big Ten isn’t the stuff of legend. But when all that occurs coupled with what the Nittany Lions were up against, it’s just as impressive as a conference championship.
Perhaps the most surprising development was Penn State’s recruiting took a minimal hit. And ever since James Franklin replaced Bill O’Brien, the Nittany Lions roar has been heard from coast to coast. Recruiting, the lifeblood of every football program in America, is keeping Penn State afloat. And quarterback Christian Hackenberg is the biggest contributor.
Hackenberg garnered freshman All-America honors and was named the Big Ten’s freshman of the year after leading Penn State to seven wins and throwing for nearly 3,000 yards and 20 touchdowns. He went to State College with hype and lived up to it.
Tom Brady and Andrew Luck he is not – yet – but Hackenberg has many believing he could be the next great NFL quarterback. For now, it’s another two or three seasons in college. In 2014 and beyond, he’ll be without O’Brien and wide receiver Allen Robinson. As accurate and efficient as Hackenberg is, finding new targets probably won’t prove too difficult.
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“Every offense is going to vary a little, but the particulars of it are very similar with pro style,” Hackenberg said of the new system. “After you run one for a year and start getting used to it, it’s tough to learn a completely new one. But really, they’re pretty similar.”
A bigger concern than receivers might be the offensive line. Penn State only returns two starting linemen, and every coach, player and fan knows the importance of cohesion and depth on the offensive line. During the spring Franklin even said it would take more than just a quarterback to be successful on offense.
“We’re thin at [offensive line], there’s no doubt about it,” Franklin said. “We’ve got a lot of work to do.”
Penn State’s loses on the line are magnified because they’re John Urschel and Ty Howle. Searching for help doesn’t just mean keeping Hackenberg protected. Running backs Bill Belton, Zach Zwinak and Akeel Lynch also need room to roam.
“I think D-line and running backs are probably the positions where we have the most talent and depth,” Franklin said. “I think we have three running backs that we feel really good about and I would even say a fourth in Cole Chiappialle. He’s done a great job, and they’re very impressed with him.”
Success on offense will require plenty of replacements, because the Nittany Lions only have four starters back on the entire unit – six on defense. The receiving corps will feature an assortment of unheralded – and unfamiliar – names. Eugene Lewis’s 18 receptions are the most by a returning receiver. The tight end position could be home to more talent, with Jesse James, Kyle Carter and one-time Ohio State commit Adam Breneman filling the depth chart.
That same depth isn’t present at linebacker, where the Nittany Lions are not so Linebacker U. this season. There’s no Michael Mauti, Gerald Hodges or Glenn Carson in 2014. The leadership role now falls on Mike Hull. His 78 tackles tops the combined 73 from Nyeem Wartman, Brandon Bell and Ben Kline.
“Last year, I was a lead by example guy. Now, I realize I have to step up and talk and get everybody where they need to be,” Hull said. “I'm trying to get to the point where Mauti was at – expecting a lot out of guys and letting them know, and being intense and vocal out there every single time. I think I’ve learned a lot on how to be an effective vocal leader. I think it’s really starting to mesh and take off.”
The defensive line lost All-Big Ten tackle DaQuan Jones, but the return of Deion Barnes, C.J. Olaniyan and Austin Johnson softens the blow considerably. Former line coach Larry Johnson left the position in good hands, with an eight-man rotation that gives Penn State one of the deepest defensive lines in the Big Ten.
Experience in the secondary bodes well for the backend of the defense. Adrian Amos, Jordan Lucas and Ryan Keiser complete an underrated unit. As important as Hackenberg is to Penn State, if the defense performs at an adequate level, the Nittany Lions could overachieve for a third consecutive season.
With NCAA scholarship restrictions being lessened, the sun is finally rising over Happy Valley again. But it’s possible Year 3 of sanctions could rid the team of meaningful second- and third-string players. After a rough winter, patching potholes won’t be the only labor in Central Pennsylvania. There’s plenty of sorting out to be done on the football field.
But the talent level is only getting better, pointing to a Penn State resurgence. Franklin isn’t one to shy away from the expectations.
“We're going to wake up every single morning, do a back handspring out of bed, excited about the opportunity to represent this great institution," he said.