100 Days Until Football: What To Watch For In 2015

by Doug Leeson and David Abruzzese

100 days from today, on Sept. 5, the Penn State football team will be in Philadelphia kicking off the season against the Temple Owls. Though the days are quickly ticking down, there are still plenty of questions surrounding the team. Because it’s never too early to write about football, we took a look at some of the most pressing issues surrounding Franklin and his Nittany Lions.

 Can Christian Hackenberg rebound after a disheartening sophomore year?

Best case scenario: Hackenberg and all of his receivers click and he enters his name in the Heisman Trophy discussion. Penn State’s offense can be one of the nation’s best if Hackenberg can be what the NFL thinks he is, and the Nittany Lions will be able to beat other teams by outgunning them rather than relying on their defense to keep the games close. Unfortunately for Penn State, if the best case scenario happens, Hackenberg will almost certainly declare for the NFL Draft.

Worst case scenario: Like last season, Hackenberg will finish with more interceptions than touchdown passes — not because of a lack of ability, but because of a lack of protection and experienced receivers. His offensive line will have performances reminiscent of last season, and Hamilton, Blacknall, and Gesicki will have sophomore slumps, not to mention Adam Breneman not being able to shake the rust off after missing last season due to injury. If Hackenberg has a bad season, it’ll likely be due to the team around him.

Our prediction: He’ll be fine. In his second year in the James Franklin/John Donovan offense, most of Hackenberg’s communication problems from last season should stay in the past. There will be the occasional missed screen pass, the occasional statue-esque stance in the pocket, and the occasional decision to throw into triple coverage — but much more often than not, Hackenberg will be finding the right receivers and delivering the ball to their numbers. He’ll surpass his stats from his phenomenal freshman year, and he’ll convince the NFL (maybe Bill O’Brien!) he should be the first quarterback taken in the Draft.

How will the offensive line perform?

Best case scenario: Despite losing the team’s anchor in three-year starter Donovan Smith, the unit lands squarely on its feet, replacing the new Tampa Bay Buccaneer with redshirt sophomore Andrew Nelson. Moving Nelson from the weakside to the strongside ensures that Christian Hackenberg’s blindside is fortified, while opening a door for either freshman behemoth Sterling Jenkins or JUCO transfer Paris Palmer to hold down the right side in Nelson’s place. With both tackle positions locked down, the team’s interior guards open up miles of daylight for redshirt junior tailback Akeel Lynch, who will serve as the team’s bellcow back in 2015. The unit that was chided game in and game out for its inconsistent play in 2014 pulls a 180, transforming into a more cohesive unit that propels Penn State’s talented offense to the top of the heap in James Franklin’s pivotal second season in Happy Valley.

Worst case scenario: Stagnant running game. Constant pressure causing the star quarterback to see ghosts. Seeing Deja Vu? The departure of Penn State’s anchor in Donovan Smith opens up a gaping hole on Christian Hackenberg’s blindside, and strips an inconsistent unit of its sole glimmer of consistency. With Smith out of the picture, the team fails to find its stride up front, leaving Hackenberg to fend for himself snap after snap. Inconsistent guard play without Miles Dieffenbach present to steady the ship, and Akeel Lynch is rendered helpless as he scrambles between the hashmarks in search of anything that resembles a running lane. What’s worse, Paris Palmer is lagging in development, and is still struggling to adjust to the speed of Big Ten football. If Penn State’s offensive line looks anything like it did in 2014, fans are in for a long, mind-numbingly frustrating season of anguish and ire.

Our prediction: The worst case scenario is quite the exaggeration, because in reality, the unit should be fine. The team returns five key players that started throughout various points in the season in Angelo Mangiro, Wendy Laurent, Andrew Nelson, Brian Gaia, and Derek Dowry. Those players enter 2015 with much-needed experience under their belts, and although the unit experienced some agonizing growing pains last season, they’re all going to be better players going forward because of it. As for the vacant left tackle position, expect Andrew Nelson to transition over to the left side, where he should seamlessly fill the void left by Smith. Remember, this is the same player that went up against the likes of Joey Bosa and Shilique Calhoun last season and held his own in the process. Paris Palmer might need to put on some more bulk, but the coaching staff is confident that he’ll get to where he needs to be come September. Whether it’s him or Sterling Jenkins getting the start at right tackle, both project to be solid additions to the team’s line given their otherworldly size and athleticism. Christian Hackenberg will be seeing less ghosts, and plenty more open targets in 2015, while Akeel Lynch takes some of the pressure off by dominating on the ground — all thanks to a battle-tested group of offensive linemen that should see plenty of success in the coming season.

Will the receiving corps live up to its potential?

Best case scenario: On paper, Penn State has one of the nation’s best young units. Receivers DaeSean Hamilton, Saeed Blacknall, and Chris Godwin are sophomores, DeAndre Thompkins will be a freshman, and Geno Lewis is only a junior. Tight ends Mike Gesicki and Adam Breneman will be sophomores as well. Almost all of those players have proven their potential, and if they can take the next step in their development then they can all be weapons at Hackenberg’s disposal. After a season where Jesse James was the only Nittany Lion with more than two touchdown catches, any member of next year’s receiving corps will be candidates any given week to have multiple touchdowns in a single game.

Worst case scenario: Two words: sophomore slumps. Five of the seven names that we listed in the last section could be victims of recession. Hamilton will most likely emerge as a No. 1 receiver, but Hackenberg could end up limited to Thompkins (who has no experience at the college level) and Lewis (who has had an impressive career at Penn State, but he’s no Allen Robinson). The worst case scenario will see Penn State haul in fewer touchdown catches than last season (an already-underwhelming 13 in 13 games).

Our prediction: Some players will take a step back while some will flourish. Hamilton and Hackenberg’s rapport will take another step forward, Gesicki and Blacknall will turn into reliable targets, and Lewis will continue his consistency. Thompkins will be a wild card and Breneman will have some rust to shake off early in the season, but doubling last year’s touchdown total is definitely attainable.

Will the defense maintain its dominance?

Best case scenario: Yes. In a big way. While the team loses its heart and soul in linebacker Mike Hull; Nyeem Wartman-White and Brandon Bell look poised to make names for themselves as they both assume new leadership roles. Bell will do his new number justice by channeling the spirit of the legend that made No. 11 famous, while Wartman-White makes the middle linebacker position his own as he takes over for the departed Hull as the defense’s pseudo-quarterback. Down on the line, Anthony Zettel continues his reign of dominance with brilliant play game in and game out, en route to Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year Honors — a distinction currently held by Ohio State’s Joey Bosa. The young secondary proves his worth, making life hell for opposing quarterbacks attempting to beat the unit deep. All in all, Penn State’s defensive unit has nowhere to go but up, continuing the streak of dominance under the watchful eye of defensive coordinator Bob Shoop.

Worst case scenario: The season could go one of two ways for Penn State defensively. The team could improve on its performance last season, developing into a monster waiting to prey on its helpless foes. Or, the losses of Mike Hull, Adrian Amos, Deion Barnes, and C.J. Olaniyan are felt on the field, as players like Wartman-White, Bell, etc. fail to take the next step and carry the torch. Worst case, the young secondary is not as trustworthy as previously imagined, as young corners like Grant Haley and Christian Campbell prove to be liabilities in certain coverage situations, while the defensive line struggles to put pressure on opposing quarterbacks, as Zettel’s play stagnates without the presence of veteran edge-rushers. With Hull gone, teams run rampant over a weakened run defense, putting even more pressure on the team’s offensive units to provide support in the form of points.

Our prediction: Wartman-White and Bell seem fully qualified to assume Hull’s leadership role. This unit has talent, and should continue to operate like the well-oiled machine it resembled last season — especially with the presence of Zettel up front, who should claim First Team All-American honors in 2015. The secondary is deep, and the mastermind behind it all is in his rightful place — at the right hand of Head Coach James Franklin. Penn State’s defense will be a force to be reckoned with in 2015. Expect this unit to be reminiscent of legendary defenses that gave Penn State its notorious defensive reputation.

Can Mike Hull be replaced?

Best case scenario: There are two players who have the ability to step up and carry the defense the way that Hull did last season: linebacker Nyeem Wartman-White and defensive tackle Anthony Zettel. If one or both of them can impose their will on every single play just like Hull did, then defensive coordinator Bob Shoop won’t have to worry about any major holes in the lineup.

Worst case scenario: Wartman-White stood out playing alongside Hull last year, but if he can’t step up and be the defense’s leader, he may be overwhelmed by the extra pressure. Zettel, on the other hand, is projected to have a solid season no matter what. He was named to the Big Ten First Team and Bowl Teams as a junior last season, so the concern about Zettel comes from him being a defensive lineman. Whereas Hull and Wartman-White’s assignments can range from pressuring the quarterback to dropping back in the secondary, Zettel is almost exclusively used for run defense, and won’t as noticeable on every play as his peers.

Our prediction: Zettel will follow up his All-Big Ten season with an even better senior campaign. He spent his offseason tackling trees, so Temple’s quarterback shouldn’t be an issue. Wartman-White, on the other hand, won’t match Hull’s production straight-up, but that doesn’t mean he won’t play a huge role on the unit. Wartman-White has more size than Hull, and he’ll continue the legacy of Linebacker U. If anyone can ease the pain of Hull’s graduation, he’s the man for the job.

Who will kick?

Best case scenario: Joe “The Big Toe” Julius playing as many downs as he can is the best case scenario for the entire season, period. Clocking in at a sturdy 5’11 and 244 pounds, Julius is a delight to watch and cheer for. Black Shoe Diaries broke down all of his potential nicknames last month, and Julius might just be the most nickname-able player in Penn State’s storied history.

Worst case scenario: Joey Julius doesn’t kick.

Our prediction: Before the Blue-White Game, five kickers took part in a placekicking competition on the field to imitate a gameday environment. Nick Boumerhi and Troy Stivason missed their first kicks, leaving three realistic candidates for the Nittany Lions’ starting job. Converted punter Chris Gulla was the next to bow out of the competition, leaving Tyler Davis and Julius as the last two kickers standing. They went kick-for-kick and the contest came to an anti-climactic end with no winner.

Gulla is the only player of the three with experience playing for Penn State, but the other two showed more promise, albeit in a tiny sample size. On difficult kicks, Davis would hit them straight and short, while Julius would blast them 60 yards and wide left or right. No matter who gets the call from James Franklin, don’t expect a second coming of Sam Ficken. None of the candidates have his experience or ability, at least not yet.

100 days until Penn State Football, and 107 days until we’re back in Beaver Stadium.

If you have hot takes about the upcoming season, let us know in the comments. 

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