Penn State recently revealed that they will go back to wearing the classic Nittany Lions uniforms, sans last names on the back, but along with it will they also bring back classic Penn State football?
"So many positive things falling into place for us right now. Penn State being able to get the scholarships back, having an opportunity to go to bowl games, the way recruiting is going, the way we played in the bowl, and the way the season ended. Just so many positive things falling into place right now," head coach James Franklin said at Big Ten Media Days. "Really happy for our kids and our program. We're coming into this season with nothing floating over our head. They have the ability to be able to chase their dreams at the very, very highest level. So really, really excited."
Franklin is heading into his second season with Penn State, and is trying to bring reprieve to a program that has faced grueling scrutiny since the Sandusky/Paterno aftermath. As a former quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator, his experience includes time at Kansas State and as head coach at Vanderbilt. This is the first big time program, however, in which Franklin is in the driver's seat, and the pressure to produce isn't lost on him.
"That's why you come to the Big Ten. That's why you come to Penn State. It's exciting that we're able to go to high schools and go to recruits and say - you have an opportunity to get a world-class education and play against the very best, which is what everybody wants to do."
Following a 7-6 season that included almost beating Ohio State, the eventual national champions, the Nittany Lions are pleased with their roster heading into the season, with offensive players like Christian Hackenberg (QB), Akeel Lynch (RB) and Kyle Carter (TE).
The quarterback position should provide the most hope for this team, as Hackenberg is often considered one of the better Big Ten players at the position. The young star has an enviable arm completing 501 passes for 5,932 yards and 32 touchdowns over his two collegiate seasons, both of which he's fought injuries. Be it his weakness or that of his receivers, he's also accumulated 25 interceptions the past two years. Another problem is the offensive line. Poor coverage and sack allowances have earned Hackenberg -162 career rushing yards.
Luckily, Hackenberg isn't expected to wholly carry the load with Akeel Lynch by his side. The 6'0, 220-pound rusher is heading into his redshirt junior season and is ready to take the rushing load. He's rushed 207 times for 1,036 yards and five touchdowns during his time at Penn State. In addition to Lynch, another offensive target will be Kyle Carter, a 6'3 241-pound tight end heading into his senior season. His career stats include 70 receptions for 828 yards and four touchdowns. With Jesse James now in the NFL, the position is primed for Carter to succeed.
"Hack's had a great summer, and really spring. He was on the kind of the quarterback circuit. Did some things this summer and had some unique experiences, which were awesome as well," Franklin said.
"But to me, the storyline is the same as it was last year. I told everybody our concern wasn't with Christian Hackenberg, it was all the pieces of the puzzle around Christian. Like I said, we had one returning starter on the offensive line last year. This year four," he added.
"Three of our four receivers last year were freshmen. We lost Adam Breneman, tight end, who we were expecting big things out of before the season started. And all those guys are back and with more experience. So I'm excited that Christian is going to be able to continue his development. Keep him upright, allow him to deliver the ball to the playmakers now."
The Penn State defense has seen a big improvement with the addition of Bob Shoop as defensive coordinator and safeties coach, leaving that side of the ball as their safety net. Shoop's addition ahead of the 2014 season, joining Franklin and what seemed like most of the Vanderbilt coaching staff, was best reflected by looking at the starting and ending field position rankings. From the beginning to end of the season, Shoop's defense jumped 113 rankings, to finish as the seventh best defense in the country.
In addition to the coaching help, veteran defensive lineman like Anthony Zettel will help shape how other offenses prepare for the Nittany Lions. The 6'4, 274-pound lineman is heading into his senior campaign and can boast 49 solo tackles (73 total), 16 sacks and four interceptions (one for a touchdown). His leadership on defense should keep the team in a good position against some of the nation's toughest offenses.
Despite a lot of young and exciting talent, there are still concerns about the offensive line and depth chart that could stymie the program from reaching their formerly held glory once again. The offensive line is blamed for the Nittany Lions allowing the third most sacks in the nation last season,and a lack-luster run game. Two early enrollees, Sterling Jenkins and Paris Palmer, chose to start college early and participate in spring practices to hopefully change this in 2015. Jenkins is a 6'8, 321-pound four-star recruit from Pittsburgh. Palmer was a junior college prospect with two years of eligibility left.
While the receiving corp is young, they are filled with talent and could give Hackenberg options downfield. Leading receiver DaeSean Hamilton made an big impact for Penn State his first year. He recorded 82 receptions for 899 yards and two touchdowns. He averaged 11.0 yards per reception, proving his value as a big-play maker, even as a freshman. Another rookie wideout, Chris Godwin, showed promise during the Pinstripe Bowl with seven catches for 140 yards. The Nittany Lions also have senior Geno Lewis, a 6'1 206-pound receiver with 73 career receptions for 985 yards and five touchdowns.
With another offseason to practice the relatively new schemes, Hackenberg and the rest of the offense should be able to fix a lot of the holes from last season. Only time will tell how the Nittany Lions stack up against the Big Ten this season, but they will definitely need to shore up their offense and offensive line in order to re-approach their former greatness.