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Spring wrap-up: Penn State Nittany Lions

4/20/2015

James Franklin had a message for his players following the conclusion of spring practice: It’s up to you now.

“I just told our players, ‘This has to be a player-driven program now until we start camp,’ ” he said Saturday. “They need to take ownership of the program. We will be as good as they decide to be in the offseason with their preparation and work.”

Overall, Franklin was pleased with the progress this spring. For the first time in these players’ careers, they had their head coach and both coordinators return, allowing more of a foundation to build off. Plus, the Nittany Lions were actually able to field two full teams for the spring scrimmage – which was a change from last year, thanks to the limited depth.

So, what are the positives Penn State can draw from the spring? And what are the question marks moving forward?

Reasons for optimism:

Defense boasts more depth, remains a strength: Sure, the Nittany Lions lost safety Adrian Amos, linebacker Mike Hull and both starting defensive ends. But it was able to retain defensive coordinator Bob Shoop, who flirted with LSU. That was the defense’s most important return this spring.

There’s now more speed in the secondary, the linebackers remain strong and – in what was the biggest question mark on the defense – the line looks just fine without Deion Barnes and C.J. Olaniyan. The second-string defensive line finished with five sacks Saturday against mostly the first-team offensive line. There are four quality ends on this team now but Shoop, understandably, appears more excited about the interior.

“Arguably, we should have as good a situation at defensive tackle as anyone in our conference,” Shoop said. “I think Austin Johnson and Anthony Zettel should start to get the recognition they deserve. They were big-time players.”

Wideouts more experienced, showing flashes: DeAndre Thompkins has been limited this spring and Chris Godwin didn’t play in the scrimmage, but there’s still a lot to be excited about here. DaeSean Hamilton, who led the B1G in receptions last season, returns as the No. 1 target. And Saeed Blacknall, a sophomore, showed good hands and separation Saturday with six catches for 71 yards.

“We were really young at that position last year,” Franklin said, “so I thought, overall, they took a real strong step here.”

Even Geno Lewis looked good Saturday. He caught four balls during one drive, was able to get open and really seemed to be a threat on slants. This corps was talented last season but was young and inexperienced. This season? It looks as if Christian Hackenberg should have plenty to work with, which brings us to …

Hackenberg incredibly talented: Cue the rush to point out his lackluster stats a season ago (12 TDs, 15 INTs), but it’s still difficult to deny his ability. He looked noticeably bigger this spring, and his touch was on display Saturday during a 41-yard pass right into the arms of a sprinting Blacknall.

When Hackenberg is at his best, few are better. The problem is that he has been handicapped by this offensive line, which allowed 44 sacks in 2014. On the positive end, this line can’t be any worse than last year.

Question marks (besides the offensive line):

Who will back up Akeel Lynch at running back? Redshirt freshman Nick Scott had the play of the Blue-White Game with a 51-yard TD run but, based on what Franklin said after the game, it sure seems premature to label him the No. 2.

“I know today Nick Scott had a couple big runs and flashed, and that’s a positive,” Franklin said. “I am really happy to see that. But I think, overall, Mark Allen had a really strong spring. We didn’t have Johnathan Thomas, who’s a guy we’re really, really excited about, so I’m hoping he’ll be ready to go come camp. And we have some guys coming in as well that I think are going to be able to compete and create some competitive environments in practice with Saquon [Barkley] and Andre [Robinson].”

Just how good is backup QB Trace McSorley? He was the player to watch at the spring scrimmage … until he didn’t play for undisclosed reasons. It’s difficult to rate his ability based upon a handful of open practices – most of which the media was asked to leave following warm-ups – so McSorley remains a mystery to fans and reporters alike. Fans haven’t even seen the redshirt freshman throw a pass.

Still, he’s a player whom Franklin and his teammates have raved about this spring. Franklin went so far as to say there’s a “buzz” in the program about him.

How will MLB be without Mike Hull? His replacement, Nyeem Wartman, is undoubtedly a talented player, but Hull was among the best in the nation. (Insert jab at Butkus Award committee here.) Hull finished with 140 tackles last season; PSU’s No.2-tackler had just 75. That’s a lot of production to replace.

The problem this spring is that Wartman has been limited. He didn’t play in the annual scrimmage, and that has made it difficult to gauge how this defense will look without its best player from a year ago. Middle linebacker was among Franklin’s biggest question marks, too. It doesn’t help, either, that Wartman is transitioning from the outside to the inside.