Apart from the fourth quarter at the TaxSlayer Bowl in January, momentum has been sliding in the wrong direction for Penn State the last five months.
The Nittany Lions lost their last four games – three of them against ranked teams, to be fair – then lost both coordinators and their offensive line coach. John Donovan was fired in November after his offense averaged only 23.2 points per game in 2015. Herb Hand struggled to make progress on the offensive line before departing for a job at Auburn. And Bob Shoop was wooed away to the SEC, where he’ll run Tennessee’s defense.
Coach James Franklin brought in some fresh blood for his third season running the program. He and his staff inherited a tough situation with the team still recovering from scholarship sanctions, but fans are starting to grow restless after setting high expectations a few years ago.
Spring schedule: Penn State opens practice Friday afternoon. The team will work for three days a week up until their scrimmage on Saturday, April 16.
What’s new? Shoop was replaced by linebackers coach Brent Pry, who has been with Franklin since their Vanderbilt days, so that shouldn’t require much of an adjustment. Joe Moorhead takes over the offense after four years at Fordham. He told reporters that he hopes to pick up the pace of the offense and work without a huddle more often. Next fall will also be the first time in three seasons that the Nittany Lions will be without Christian Hackenberg under center.
Three things we want to see
1. Who takes over on the defensive line? Penn State didn’t just lose a talented defensive coordinator. The defense also has to replace a trio of studs on the line. Carl Nassib, the nation’s leader in sacks, is gone, along with defensive tackles Anthony Zettel and Austin Johnson. Franklin said he plans to move defensive ends Curtis Cothran and Kevin Givens inside to create more depth. Garrett Sickels returns on the edge and will be key to the pass rush. They’ll need to find others this spring in order to keep that unit strong.
2. A new plan for the offensive line: Matt Limegrover inherits a small group of offensive linemen with college experience and a handful of younger guys Penn State believes will finally give that unit some depth. Franklin spoke highly about left tackle Paris Palmer, who had to work through some growing pains in his first season removed from junior college in 2015. The offensive line suffered as much any group on the team from scholarship sanctions and has been the weak link of the Lions’ roster since Franklin arrived. If they can’t clear paths for Saquon Barkley, an all-conference-caliber back heading into his sophomore season, and do a better job of protecting a young quarterback, improvement will be hard to come by in Happy Valley.
3. Can someone get the ball to a talented group of receivers? Trace McSorley and Tommy Stevens will battle through the spring to replace NFL-bound Hackenberg. McSorley got a major confidence boost by throwing two touchdowns in the fourth quarter of the Nittany Lions’ bowl loss to Georgia in January. Stevens, a redshirt freshman, has more of a traditional quarterback build (6-foot-4, 220 pounds), but McSorley has experience and an edge in athleticism. Franklin said that battle could continue all the way up to the opening game, but he’d be happy to name a starter in April if one separates himself. The more time the new guy has to build chemistry with a talented group of wide receivers, the better off Penn State’s 2016 passing attack will be.