Breaking news, rankings, predictions and analysis all in one place.

College Football Preview 2017-2018: 8. Penn State Nittany Lions

8. Penn State Nittany Lions

Last year was no fluke; this team is extremely talented and well-coached

  • Location: State College, PA.
  • Conference: Big Ten (East)
  • Schedule
  • Roster
  • Coach: James Franklin (fourth year)
  • Last Years Record: 11-3 (8-1 Big Ten)
  • Bowl Result: Loss in Rose Bowl


Few people outside of State College could have predicted what Penn State would do over the course of the 2016 season. Most of the talk surrounding the Nittany Lions were of James Franklin's future, which looked questionable after two consecutive 7-6 campaigns. Instead, Penn State recovered from a 3-2 start to finish off the regular season with seven straight victories. They then capped that off with a thrilling comeback against Wisconsin in the Big Ten Championship Game. It was clearly a breakthrough for Franklin and his staff but begs the question: what do they do for an encore? With a tremendous 1-2 punch at quarterback and running back, along with a talented defense, there is no reason the Nittany Lions can't once more repeat as conference champs, and perhaps do even more.

Mike Gesicki
Offense: Few coaching changes in the country made quite the impact that Joe Moorhead's arrival as offensive coordinator did for Penn State in 2016. Moorhead, the former head coach at Fordham, completely revamped the Nittany Lion offense, opening it up and allowing players more freedom. It worked wonders, as PSU averaged 37.6 points per game and consistently moved the ball with confidence. Junior quarterback Trace McSorley was the engineer of a lot of the team's big plays, throwing for 3,614 yards and 29 touchdowns. McSorley still did have issues with decision-making and accuracy at times (like any first-year starter likely will) but made up for it with his rocket arm and ability to extend plays. If he can continue to improve in some of the finer parts of the game, there's no reason why he can't be one of the nation's best quarterbacks and a Heisman candidate. His backup, sophomore Tommy Stevens, should also see action in exotic offensive sets. The Nittany Lions used Stevens a lot as solely a runner, and he averaged 9.4 yards on the ground. PSU is blessed with perhaps the nation's top running back in junior Saquon Barkley. After impressing his freshman year in 2015, Barkley really came into his own in '16, finishing up the season with 1,496 yards and 18 touchdowns. The electrifying tailback has blazing fast speed (4.33 40-yard-dash) and squats over 600 pounds; he's an absolute freak. With defenses so worried about McSorley and the home run ball, Barkley took advantage of some of the big holes that would sprout up, which he should continue to do throughout 2017. He is joined in the backfield by a number of solid backups, including sophomore Miles Sanders and junior Andre Robinson. Sanders was a very highly touted recruit a year ago and played very well without very many carries, while Robinson is a terrific threat near the goal line (29 attempts, five touchdowns in '16). In the receivers corps, Penn State will surely miss leading receiver Chris Godwin, but that doesn't mean the position should be an issue, as it's ripe with playmakers. Senior DaeSean Hamilton is an extremely talented wide out that should have no trouble sliding into the No. 1 spot. Hamilton may not have Godwin's hands or size, but is a little quicker and more agile. Senior Saeed Blacknall and junior DeAndre Thompkins should also have no problem sliding into a larger role. Blacknall is perhaps the Nittany Lions' top deep threat, averaging 23.1 yards per catch in 2016, while Thompkins has very reliable hands. Sophomore Juwan Johnson will see a much larger role in 2017, and the young speedster is certainly a breakout candidate. Tight end will certainly be a strength for Penn State as senior Mike Gesicki returns after flirting with the idea of the NFL. Gesicki set the school record for receiving yards by a tight end with 679 a year ago and made some truly spectacular plays. His speed and athleticism will certainly be utilized quite a bit in the up-tempo, spread attack. Another thing working in the offenses' favor will be the offensive line, which has plenty returning. Former Minnesota offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover did a wonderful job with the unit in his first season as OL coach in '16, and sophomore center Connor McGovern and senior guard Andrew Nelson are All-Conference candidates.

Marcus Allen
Defense: While the Nittany Lion offense got a lot of attention for its play last season, the defense and it's bend-not-break attitude definitely played a huge role in the 11-3 record. The defensive line plays with a ton of energy and passion every time it goes out there, but will have to recover from the absence of All-Big Ten defensive end Garrett Sickels, who had six sacks. Even so, the unit has plenty of talent and experience starting in the interior, where seniors Curtis Cothran and Parker Cothren are both returning. Neither are going to stuff the stat sheet full, but play an important role providing pressure up the middle and both are very good run defenders. Sophomore Shareef Miller has a very high ceiling, and could be a real star. At 6'5", 260 pounds Miller uses plenty of power but has very good athleticism and quickness for his size. Paired with junior end Torrence Brown, the Nittany Lions have two underrated guys that can cause chaos off the edge. Expect young guys like redshirt freshman Shane Simmons and newcomers Yetur Gross-Matos to also factor in on the D-Line. Penn State has produced plenty of talent at linebacker over the years and has even become known as "Linebacker U" by plenty around the country. They are well-stocked at the position once more, particularly with senior leader Jason Cabinda back in the fold. Cabinda had injuries earlier in 2016 but when he recovered, was easily one of the conference's premier defenders. The hard-hitting middle linebacker recorded 81 tackles last season and should once again be the guy in the middle for the Nittany Lions. Junior outside linebacker Manny Bowen is back alongside him after managing 68 tackles and 6.5 tackles for loss a season ago. Penn State will miss outside 'backer Brandon Bell dearly as he graduated. Bell had 88 tackles and four sacks in just 10 starts, and gave this team a real playmaker at that OLB spot. Junior Koa Farmer is the favorite to take over his vacant starting spot after recording 29 tackles and three sacks in 2016, but expect plenty of resistance from sophomore Cam Brown and plenty of others. In the secondary, PSU has two real stars in corner Grant Haley and safety Marcus Allen. Haley will go down as a Penn State legend forever for taking back a blocked field goal for a touchdown to help upset second-ranked Ohio State. Now a senior, the veteran hopes to become a better all-around cornerback. Meanwhile, Allen led the Nittany Lions in tackles in 2016, finishing off the season with 110 tackles and six tackles for loss. The senior is allowed to completely roam the backend of the field at his free safety spot, and his speed and athleticism enable him to do a great job. His return almost certainly ensures PSU will be a very tough team to pass the ball against. The unit will certainly miss safety Malik Golden and cornerbacks John Reid and Jordan Smith, which should leave some competition battles for the rest of fall camp and into the season. Senior Christian Campbell is expected to start at the corner spot opposite of Haley and has shown plenty of talent in a reserve role. However, true freshman Lamont Wade, considered by many to be the gem of this year's recruiting class, could push him for snaps. It is unclear who will replace Golden at strong safety, but senior Troy Apke (28 tackles in 2016) is definitely the favorite.

Special Teams: Special teams should be a strength for Penn State in 2017, thanks in large part to the return of All-Big Ten kicker Tyler Davis. Davis knocked down 22 of 24 field goals a year ago but has to improve his range, managing just a long of 40. Expect sophomore punter Blake Gillikin to have a great season, while the return game has tons of potential weapons. Kickoff specialist Joey Julius was a highlight-reel machine for his hits on kickoffs throughout 2016, but taken a leave of absence from the team as he deals with personal issues.

While last season was surprising for most, Penn State proved they were legit by taking down Wisconsin and coming within inches of a victory over USC in the Rose Bowl. They will be very tough again in 2017 because so much of their strengths from last year's run are back. McSorley will lead a passing game that will be dangerous and also incredibly fun to watch, Barkley will run wild, and the defense will be rock-solid. If the Nittany Lions can take care of an average non-conference and survive a stretch of three weeks in which they face Michigan and then Ohio State and Michigan State on the road, the sky is the limit for this team. A second straight Big Ten title is very tough no matter who you are but the momentum this program is building should once more carry them to a special season.

Player to Watch
Shane Simmons, DE
Penn State has produced three terrific (and currently in the NFL) defensive linemen in Carl Nassib, Anthony Zettel and Garrett Sickels just over the past few seasons. With Sickels now gone, they are looking for a new star to arrive, and Simmons could be that guy. Simmons was one of the biggest gets of the 2016 recruiting cycle for the Nittany Lions before taking a redshirt. An impressive spring has him primed as a possible breakout star.

Five-Year Trend
2012: 8-4 (6-2 Big Ten)
2013: 7-5 (4-4 Big Ten)
2014: 7-6 (2-6 Big Ten)*
2015: 7-6 (4-4 Big Ten)*
2016: 11-3 (8-1 Big Ten)*

*= Bowl appearance

No comments:

Theme images by LUGO. Powered by Blogger.