Not only is it James Franklin’s first year at the helm of the Nittany Lions, but his preseason seniority depth chart didn’t reveal anything about his 2014 lineup plans, so today’s training camp opening comes full of questions.
Luckily for all of the information-starved fans, today is football’s Media Day, so Franklin and Co. should give new glimpses into the state of the program as the Aug. 30 opener in Ireland dawns. Here are some things to keep an eye on until we have football again:
Who emerges on the offensive line
Senior Donovan Smith will start at left tackle…and that’s all we know with any certainty about Penn State’s front five. With graduations of John Urschel, Adam Gress, Ty Howle, and Garry Gilliam and a likely-season-ending ACL tear for guard Miles Dieffenbach, the line is the biggest wild card on the team.
At center, it’ll be either rising redshirt sophomore Wendy Laurent or rising redshirt junior Angelo Mangiro. Neither of them have ever started a game. At the guard positions, Derek Dowrey and Brian Gaia are probably the best candidates, both rising redshirt sophomores and the eldest incumbents…but this is their first season on the offensive side of the line. It’s fair to expect some mixture of them and rising redshirt freshmen Brandon Mahon and Andrew Nelson in the mix for the lion’s share of the playing time along the line.
The good news is that Smith has been placed on the Outland Award watchlist, so he’ll provide stability. As for the rest? Godspeed, Coach Hand.
The development of the linebackers
Linebacker U. will really have to work to earn that title in 2014. Mike Hull is a stalwart in the middle, but his neighbors aren’t what fans are used to seeing. Ben Kline went down with an Achilles injury this summer, so he’s out of the picture. Rising redshirt sophomore Nyeem Wartman looks likely to be a factor at one of the outside positions after starting eight games in 2013, while the other spot should be rising sophomore Brandon Bell’s to lose. Gary Wooten and Matthew Baney have also gotten some preseason attention. But like the offensive line, the good news is that Hull should be in for a good final season — he’s a member of the Butkus Award watchlist.
Usage of tight ends
The tight end foundation laid by Bill O’Brien has resulted in a very impressive corps entering 2014. In Jesse James, Kyle Carter, and Adam Breneman, the Lions return combined 2013 stats of 58 catches for 741 yards. But more importantly, they bring depth, which Penn State has lacked in many positions recently for obvious reasons. Throw rising redshirt sophomore Brent Wilkerson in the mix, who should be ready to go this season after he was sidelined with a back injury in 2013. O’Brien used his tight ends for big numbers; we’ll see how Franklin employs this deep group.
Wide receiver situation
Here’s a stat for ya: Penn State returns only two wide receivers (Geno Lewis and Matt Zanellato) who caught a pass in 2013, and they combined for a whopping 22 receptions (Allen Robinson alone had 97). Robinson is in the NFL, Brandon Felder graduated, and Richy Anderson and Alex Kenney transferred, so who will catch most of Christian Hackenberg’s 2014 passes?
Incumbent Lewis brings back significant experience, so he should be the No. 1. We can expect rising redshirt freshman DaeSean Hamilton to see some playing time, as he came to Penn State a four-star recruit but missed all of last season with a wrist injury. While De’Andre Thompkins enters Happy Valley as a true freshman this season, his four-star billing should give him some looks as well. Don’t forget about Saeed Blacknell, who flipped his commitment from Rutgers to Penn State when Franklin switched schools, and Chris Godwin, another pair of four-star receivers.
Christian Hackenberg’s health
Penn State has not entered a season with expectations this high for its quarterback since Daryll Clark in 2009. The first few paragraphs of this put his one year of success into some perspective. For once, there is no controversy or question marks surrounding Penn State’s signal caller entering the season. The worst thing that could happen to this bunch of Nittany Lions is a major injury to Hackenberg, as the best back-up option is true freshman Michael O’Connor. Expect the coaching staff to take every precaution to protect the man of 2,955 yards and 20 touchdowns, who was recently ranked a top-40 player in the nation.
Is Sam Ficken ready to put it all together?
Sam Ficken, 2012: Made 14 of 21 overall kicks, finished year making 12 of 13 kicks.
Sam Ficken, 2013: Made 15 of 23 overall kicks, began year making nine of 11 kicks.
You can do the math. He started 2012 terribly and rebounded, while 2013 was quite the opposite. If he could string together some more consistency, the Lions would love it. It’s worth noting that Ficken certainly has the leg strength to boom it — his career long is a 54-yarder against Kent State.
Uniforms, of course!
James Franklin recently said this on ESPN, according to PennLive:
“I’ve always been a big fan of what Oregon has done, and my time at Maryland, so I think we’re going to do something similar to that,” Franklin said with a smile and a laugh. “We’re not going to do anything gradual. We’re just going to go right after it.”
That was tongue-in-cheek, but the season looms, and Franklin has yet to confirm his uniform plans. The numbered helmet might have been shot down, but that won’t cool fans’ speculation.