2016 Comprehensive Offseason Primer: Offense
The 2015 season is in the books, and while a 7-6 campaign — capped off by a 24-17 loss to Georgia in the TaxSlayer Bowl — isn’t exactly what the Nittany Lions had in mind, it’s time to turn the page and look forward to 2016.
Sure, the program’s first four-game losing streak since 2011 was underwhelming, but considering that mark wasn’t surpassed during the years directly following the sanctions is impressive enough. In case football already seems too far away, we went in-depth on the future of Penn State’s offense.
Everyone who follows Penn State football knew this day was coming eventually. Junior signal caller Christian Hackenberg, who largely re-wrote the Nittany Lion record books during a crucial three-year span in which his impact cannot be overstated, declared for the 2016 NFL Draft following the TaxSlayer Bowl in Jacksonville.
The move made sense for both sides given that new offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead’s spread system typically runs at a more fluid clip with a dual-threat quarterback at the helm. Hackenberg’s unmatched leadership will undoubtedly be missed, but it’s no secret he didn’t operate as efficiently when relegated to the shotgun formation, which Moorhead almost exclusively tends to deploy.
When Hackenberg left the bowl game early in the second quarter with a banged-up shoulder, it opened the door for rising redshirt sophomore Trace McSorley to provide an early preview of what’s to come next fall. By all current indications, McSorley is the guy for the job, as the Ashburn, Va., native earned the respect of his teammates both in the huddle and off the field as the primary backup the past two seasons.
McSorley’s a flat-out winner, as evidenced by his unparalleled success in leading Briar Woods High School to three state championships during his prep career, two of which with twice-teammate and rising sophomore receiver Brandon Polk. The 6-foot, 196-pounder beat out touted passer Michael O’Connor – who enrolled early at Penn State for the spring semester prior to the 2014 season – for QB2 duties in roughly two months following his summer arrival.
But, that doesn’t mean there won’t be a healthy amount of competition in the quarterbacks room this offseason, as redshirt freshman-to-be Tommy Stevens and three-star early enrollee Jake Zembiec will have ample opportunities to show what they can do with the reins to the offense. Stevens utilized his first season on campus about as well as one could expect. The Indianapolis product packed on 40 pounds of good weight to his frame and grew a full inch since joining the Penn State program last winter to reach a towering 6-foot-5, 225 pounds.
Zembiec recently turned in a stellar senior campaign for Aquinas Institute in Rochester, N.Y., leading his squad to a perfect 14-0 record and a New York Class AA state title. Prior to tossing 37 touchdowns against only seven picks and putting up 3,301 yards of total offense, Zembiec participated in the prestigious Elite 11 quarterback competition and 7-on-7 showcase The Opening at Nike’s World Headquarters in Beaverton, Ore., this past summer, where Hackenberg – an Elite 11 alum himself – served as a counselor.
Heading into 2015, many Penn State pundits figured Saquon Barkley could be special, but no one realistically expected him to surpass the legendary D.J. Dozier for the all-time program freshman rushing yards record (1,076). Barkley’s otherworldly athleticism allowed the Lehigh Valley native to receive his big break in a rain-drenched home opener against Buffalo in which he literally leaped into stardom.
Eight total touchdowns and an improved knack for catching the ball out of the backfield as the season wore on was more than enough to propel the 5-foot-11, 215-pound phenom into the unquestioned role of Charles Huff’s bell cow. Behind Barkley there’s plenty to be excited about as well.
Although he was effectively overshadowed by Barkley’s breakout and an untimely knee injury, redshirt senior-to-be Akeel Lynch is a reliable running back who can do a little bit of everything. The Toronto product will head into the offseason with the motivation to prove himself all over again and a hefty amount of veteran insight to draw upon while helping his younger teammates along as well.
Rising redshirt sophomores Nick Scott and Mark Allen flashed impressive versatility and a desire to help the team in whatever way possible, as both made an impact on special teams as well. Andre Robinson, who set the career touchdowns mark at Bishop McDevitt – the alma mater of Buffalo Bills running back LeSean McCoy – spent 2015 getting his frame college ready and absorbing the offense. Robinson is a bruising back with boatloads of upside, which could spell wonders for his prospects of cracking the rotation next fall.
Let’s not forget that recruiting whiz James Franklin’s first Class of 2016 commitment came from one of the nation’s top running back recruits in four-star Steel City sensation Miles Sanders, who rolled to countless records of his own during a gaudy four-year varsity career at WPIAL power Woodland Hills.
Sanders spent last week in Florida at the Under Armour All-America Game alongside fellow Penn State commits Michal Menet, Shane Simmons, and Ellison Jordan, where he rose to the occasion and showcased his elite skill set against many of the country’s best high school players. Needless to say, Sanders has a good chance to contribute from day one.
Few position groups on the Penn State roster boast the level of proven ability and rising talent as Josh Gattis’ wideouts. The Nittany Lions return each and every contributor for the second season in a row, which means this bunch isn’t just loaded with upside but also plenty of experience to boot.
Rising junior Chris Godwin solidified himself as the group’s most lethal downfield threat in 2015, capping off a 1,000-yard campaign thanks to a second straight big-time bowl performance. In fact, Godwin’s numbers (69 receptions for 1,101 yards and five touchdowns) were good enough for second place on the Nittany Lions single-season receiving yards list behind only Allen Robinson. The Middletown, Del., native also set the program mark for bowl receiving yards, passing Nittany Lion great Bobby Engram. Godwin should theoretically smash his own record around this time next year.
Slot receiver DaeSean Hamilton, who led the Big Ten with 82 receptions during his redshirt freshman campaign in 2014, improved his scoring output by finding the end zone a team-high six times this fall. Hamilton and Godwin will set the tone for their younger teammates this offseason and will almost certainly retain their starting roles despite a litany of impressive up-and-comers. Speaking of which, junior-to-be Saeed Blacknall has a ton of natural ability and although he didn’t see his name called often in 2015, he showcased a knack for hauling in big gains.
It seems like Geno Lewis has been around forever, and the explosive downfield threat has steadily improved each season since making his debut in 2012 as a redshirt freshman. Now the elder statesmen of the group, Lewis has one last shot to put it all together and post some more electrifying grabs and perhaps even another touchdown toss or two.
It’s no secret the coaching staff is doing its best to bring in 4.4 speed across the board and the wide receivers boast a bevy of burners among them. Rising sophomore Brandon Polk made a splash in 2015 as a jet-sweep nightmare for opposing teams, while also toting the rock on a few kick returns. Redshirt sophomore-to-be DeAndre Thompkins is another slot pass-catcher who has plenty of wheels and should be another prime candidate for space touches in Moorhead’s new offense.
Penn State also has a pair of towering talents waiting in the wings in 6-foot-4 behemoths Juwan Johnson and Irvin Charles, each of whom the coaching staff appeared comfortable playing in 2015 but simply didn’t have to given the supreme depth at the position. Following redshirt years that allowed them to get acclimated to the speed of the college game and polish their mechanics, the duo could be quite special as soon as next fall.
The Nittany Lions currently don’t have any wide receivers committed in their 2016 recruiting class, but four-star Melbourne, Fla., prospect Tre Nixon remains high on Penn State’s board of targets. Nixon, who holds an absurd 46 scholarship offers, is extremely fast (reported 4.38 second 40-yard dash) and can take the top off a defense with ease. Competition for Nixon’s verbal appears to have dwindled down to Georgia and home state Florida.
Although the loss of Kyle Carter – the last remaining member of the “Supa Six” – to graduation is a significant one, there are still plenty of talented blockers and pass catchers on the roster. The guy in charge of coaching them is still in question, however. Following John Donovan’s firing, the Nittany Lions have yet to officially name their next tight ends coach. Graduate assistant Tommy Galt, who played tight end during Franklin’s tenure at Maryland and is the son of director of performance enhancement Dwight Galt, spent time with the position group during bowl preparations, but it’s possible quarterbacks coach and brief interim offensive coordinator Ricky Rahne could step in full time.
Rising redshirt senior Brent Wilkerson and junior-to-be Mike Gesicki split time atop the depth chart in 2015, while Adam Breneman played for a few snaps in a few games but couldn’t get fully healthy. Wilkerson is a serviceable threat in the passing game but does most of his damage blocking. Gesicki has shown glimpses of the ridiculous athleticism that had analysts salivating at his ceiling during his first two years in the program, but has yet to put it all together, being plagued by some costly drops here and there.
Breneman came on strong toward the end of his true freshman campaign, catching a touchdown from classmate Christian Hackenberg in each of the last three games of 2013 before going down with a second serious knee injury. The Mechanicsburg, Pa., product has been an extremely positive leader in the program despite being forced to spend the entirety of 2014 and most of this past season hitting more books than opposing players. However, the added vigor in the classroom allowed him to graduate this fall with two years of eligibility remaining to go for a Master’s degree or more. Unfortunately for the on-field product, Breneman announced that his career was over due to lingering injuries.
Penn State has a pair of rising redshirt freshmen it feels very good about in Nick Bowers and Jon Holland. Both are solid athletes who spent 2015 filling out their frames in Dwight Galt’s strength and performance enhancement program. The Nittany Lions will need at least one of them to step up and play a meaningful role in the rotation. Early enrollee Danny Dalton will start his career shortly, going through spring practice with the team. The three-star prospect from Marshfield, Mass., turned in a tremendous senior season, for which he was named Massachusetts Gatorade Player of the Year.
Herb Hand loses his most experienced lineman in center/guard Angelo Mangiro, but there’s reason to believe the much-maligned group can finally become a middle-of-the-road unit in the Big Ten. Many close to the program thought 2015 would be the year Penn State’s trench game took a big step forward, and while the “Wild Dogs” they went up against in practice proved to be one of the best bunches in college football, countless combinations did little to ease the pass- and run-blocking woes.
The upcoming spring practices will be big for Hand’s line in terms of continuing to improve its mentality and overall confidence. Thankfully the coaching staff has proved excellent at bringing in the next generation of Penn State blockers who could seriously turn things around. It appears the two-deep is getting there and young guns that might not see the field for another two years or so are making solid improvements.
There are still a bunch of questions regarding who the starting five will be in the Blue-White Game, let alone the 2016 season opener. JuCo transfer Paris Palmer certainly dealt with his fair share of growing pains during his first year of Power 5 football, but the enormous 6-foot-7, 302-pounder made visible strides over the course of his first 13 games. Will Palmer retain his starting left tackle job, or is Andrew Nelson the guy going forward? The next few months will go a long way in beginning to answer that query.
Speaking of Nelson, the Hershey, Pa., native endured his fair share of struggles this past season as well, yet they manifested more in nagging injuries than mental lapses. Nelson went down with a knee issue in the Buffalo game and had a difficult time getting back to full strength. He showed noteworthy toughness throughout, however, always managing to find his way back into the lineup at right or even left tackle before long.
On the interior, Penn State has a bunch of different options for both its guard spots and starting center. Redshirt junior-to-be Brendan Mahon has two years of experience under his belt, as does rising redshirt senior Brian Gaia. Mahon showed the versatility at 6-foot-4, 318 pounds to play left guard and right tackle at various points throughout the year, while Gaia converted to the offensive side of the ball prior to 2014 after previously being a defensive tackle. The duo will be the favorites to lock down the starting guard spots this offseason but there will certainly be an open competition to find the right combination, a feat that has yet to be accomplished.
A fellow defensive tackle-convert, rising redshirt senior Derek Dowrey is perhaps the strongest player on the roster, routinely showing off his bar-bending squats. Redshirt senior-to-be Wendy Laurent’s development came along nicely this past season, as the Hamilton, N.J., native locked down the starting center job midway through the year, allowing Mangiro to slide to left guard. Look for Laurent to build on that confidence going forward.
Franklin did a nice job of flipping some of his Class of 2014 offensive line commits from Vanderbilt to join him in State College and one of them has already cracked the two-deep, with more to follow. Backup left tackle Chance Sorrell played some tight end in high school – which goes to show the level of athleticism he brings to the table – and, by all accounts, he’s improved by leaps and bounds during his first two years on campus.
Classmates and fellow tackles Noah Beh, Brendan Brosnan, and Chasz Wright have been able to get their feet wet thus far and could turn into solid options down the road. Ryan Bates, Steven Gonzalez, and Sterling Jenkins all have bright futures after spending their first season on campus redshirting, per usual for offensive linemen. There’s reason to be very excited about Bates, who will battle for playing time at center this offseason. Gonzalez has a guard-ready frame at 6-foot-4, 324 pounds, while the massive Jenkins – still a work in progress – could be a special left tackle once he’s comfortable and adds some more grit to his game.
The Nittany Lions are bringing in a great deal of talent in their 2016 recruiting class as well, and two of Hand’s newest linemen will get a head start on their path to playing time. Four-star center Connor McGovern, who’s in San Antonio this week for the prestigious U.S. Army All American Game, will head to Happy Valley immediately following the game on Jan. 9 in order to enroll early. Three-star tackle Alex Gellerstedt was named a First-Team All-Ohio Division I selection following his senior season – no small feat given the state’s deep talent pool – and he will also be given the chance to participate in spring ball.
As if that’s not enough to get fans excited for the future, Penn State’s bringing in another pair of high-upside prospects this summer. Four-star guard/tackle Michal Menet is one of the most athletic offensive linemen in the nation for 2016 and could literally play any of the five spots up front. Considered the top overall recruit in Pennsylvania, Menet has an enormous ceiling. Three-star tackle Will Fries, who hails from Cranford, N.J., and is fresh off a Garden State high school championship, is another guy to keep an eye on in the coming years.
No doubt Penn State has the pieces in place to take a giant step forward on offense in 2016. If Joe Moorhead can continue the level of success he’s experienced throughout his career by putting his players in the right position to make plays, the Nittany Lions’ scoring output could really take off. It will certainly be an exciting offseason, but waiting patiently ‘til Saturday, April 16 for the Blue-White Game is no easy task. Hunker down for the long haul, Penn Staters.
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