For Penn State, the theme has been change and discomfort. This year's redshirt seniors have played for four head coaches, an unheard-of amount of attrition for a program that once defined head coaching stability. But it's also not the only thing that's been different about Penn State football. The offensive line last year was the program's worst, and yet no quarterback has been as prolific as Christian Hackenberg, either - he already holds the program record for 300-yard games. Times are changing in college football, and one of the game's most historic teams is being guided by James Franklin through a transition of sorts.... a baptism by fire.
In that light, a 38-25 stretch since 2010 doesn't seem nearly so arduous. Joe Paterno, a legend in State College whose impending retirement promised its own issues, and whose exit turned out to be much more painful than anybody expected, is now firmly in the rear-view mirror. The program has kept its positive traditions, and is building some new ones.
Now, attention is back to that oldest tradition, wins. From 1959 to 2009, dating back to "Rip" Engle's time as head coach, the Nittany Lions had won 9 games 31 times. They also won bowl games in more than half their seasons, despite playing in an age when bowl wins were much harder to come by. Penn State signified success, and especially post-season success. From 2010 to 2014, however, the Nittany Lions won 9 games only once, and won a bowl game only once. If they fail at either of those things in 2015, there will be disquiet in Pennsylvania. This year, finally, is Year 1.
Christian Hackenberg has been discussed a lot around college football, and most fans already understand what he brings: an unlimited ceiling.
Unfortunately, a constant barrage of pressure and a new offensive system caused Hack to lose both his temper and his way in 2014. Hackenberg simply wasn't ready to lead in that situation, and leadership was something that 2014's offense desperately needed. With another year, 2015 could be a different story.
And, if things go reasonably well, the Hack Attack might soon get retired in Happy Valley. The junior will be thought of highly in the draft, and though he hasn't discussed his motivations publicly, there's a chance he leaves after this year. As a result, James Franklin will probably want to give Tommy Stevens some garbage time experience, so you can expect to see him early on against Buffalo and Army. For his part, Stevens showed off some talent and potential in this year's spring game, and he even has a cannon for an arm similar to Hackenberg. Stevens is just an early-enrolled freshman, though, so the wheels will fall off if he sees any more than mop-up duty.
Akeel Lynch is ready for his time in the spotlight. The speedy 6'0", 220-pound junior is one of the more overlooked backs in the league, and he might get 1,000 yards if the offensive line can block for him. Lynch knows the game well, has good timing with his blocks, and knows when to break away from a play design and improvise for extra yards. The rest of Penn State's offense already appreciate the explosiveness he brings; they will benefit even more if he can be efficient and find positive plays most of the time he gets the ball. It'll be up to him and his offensive line to make that happen.
Behind Lynch, there is absolutely no college experience. Redshirt freshman Nick Scott has showed exciting speed in the past, but his game can grow a little more. Another option, perhaps later in the year, is Saquon Barkley, a true freshman out of Pennsylvania. Barkley was ranked just outside the top ten running backs in the country for the 2015 class, and he's also the highest-rated recruit for Penn State this year. The physical tools are all there.
This is a deep, talented and homogenous unit. The three leading wide receivers last year - DaeSean Hamilton, Geno Lewis, and Chris Godwin - all stack up between 6'1" and 6'2" and 206 to 211 pounds. All of them have compact, athletic bodies in the mold of Amari Cooper, but these guys are less athletic. Hamilton gets praise for his stats last year (team-leading 899 yards, team-leading 138 targets), but realistically, any of these three could have a great season depending on the work they do in the off-season and how they fit in the offense.
There's more talent as well: Saeed Blacknall is a little heavier at 6'3", 215, and DeAndre Thompkins is a little lighter at 5'11", 187. Both of them are former four-stars in their second year. The tight end stable is anonymous and trust-worthy, and some mix of Adam Breneman, Mike Gesicki and Kyle Carter should be able to replace Jesse James' 396 yards from last year.
Penn State fans will hope that these guys can take advantage of the off-season, working to get in sync with their quarterback and finding ways to break open consistently. Learning how to catch slightly inaccurate passes would also be a big help, as Hackenberg struggled with his accuracy under pressure. There were a lot of 50/50 drops that can get cleaned up.
Even with a young group of skill players and a defense that can't take many injuries, this is the part of his team that has James Franklin burning the midnight oil. And with good reason.
Last year, Franklin's best five linemen were as follows: a talented veteran left tackle with a poor work ethic (Mike Mayock said this: "[Donovan Smith] can play. The question is, does he love football?"), a true freshman at right tackle, a pretty good center who had to play guard and tackle because of injuries, a defensive player, and a guy who missed eight games with an ACL tear and struggled when he came back. Those were the starters, the reliable guys.
Behind that, there was another converted defensive player, a back-up center who'd never played a snap, and a redshirt freshman at guard. Only three of those eight players, obviously, had any experience at all entering the season. The attrition from 2013 to 2014 (64 starts lost) was not kind to James Franklin.
This year, things look more positive. The returning anchor is Angelo Mangiro, a 6'3", 315-pound center who's probably one of the better big guys in the Big Ten. He's strong and physical, he brings effort every play, and he's experienced. Mangiro will be flanked by Brian Gaia (one of the aforementioned converted defensive players), who has a year under his belt now, and Brendan Mahon, who's at least not a redshirt freshman anymore. The interior is now the strength of this unit, and that gives them the opportunity for consistency. One can see an offense of inside runs and quick throws to the outside working well for Penn State.
The outside, though, has problems. JUCO tackle Paris Palmer struggled in the spring game, and he showed slow footwork before that. Andrew Nelson (6'5", 310) is on the other side, and he has all the physical skills to succeed eventually. The problem is, he's also a true sophomore, who got thrown into the fire last year, and still hasn't gotten his head above water.
Their weakness is the offensive line's weakness: statuesque against athletic defenders, and unable to communicate enough to handle stunts and twists seamlessly. This is a beefy, deeply flawed unit that is learning on the fly. After all, the 305-pound average for this year's starters won't help if the guys can't get their hands on defenders and move their feet fast enough. It's up to Herb Hand to make his salary.
The heart of this defense lies right in the middle, with converted defensive end Anthony Zettel and the monstrous Austin Johnson. Zettel was asked by Franklin's staff to bulk up and move inside, and he did a fabulous job using quick footwork and awareness to disrupt plays. Zettel might have led the conference in making offensive players scramble immediately after the snap. As for Johnson, he was a 6'4", 325-pound fence in the middle. The depth is decent enough, but they won't want to lose those two guys.
On the ends, there's some turnover. Both of last year's starters and a reserve are gone, which leaves James Franklin and John Shoop with some questions. However, those questions are more about immediate play-making than depth or talent. One likely starter is Carl Nassib, who James Franklin said had "a sneaky good season" last year in limited snaps. He has good strength and speed to play a lot of roles in John Shoop's curveball defense, and he'll probably put up a fair share of stats. After Nassib, there's a logjam of talent that includes Garrett Sickels, Curtis Cothran, Evan Schwan and Torrence Brown. Those guys are still fighting for a starting spot, and combined for 14 tackles last year. In other words, they've very inexperienced.
Mike Hull, who almost transferred, helped revive the Linebacker U tradition at Penn State. The man was an All-American, diagnosing plays almost instantaneously and suffocating the options of would-be play-makers. As I said, the heart of this defense lay right in the middle. Hull was a terrific athlete who knew what the offense was going to do, and he got home quickly. It's a formula Penn State is trying to replicate this year.
As much as replacing any All-American can be easy, Penn State is set up well with Mike Hull's replacement, Nyeem Wartman. Like Hull, Wartman earned his chops on the outside, and there he showed great angles and play diagnosis. Wartman is an athletic freak, and even stronger than Hull at 240+ pounds. Wartman also had the benefit of watching Hull for a year.
"If I'm going to be the guy telling you the defense," Wartman said, "two minutes left to go with Ohio State going in to score to win the game, you want to look into that guy's eyes — we're all tired, and [Hull]'s not showing it. It's just, ‘Let's go.' If you're the guy who is supposed to be getting everyone set up and if you're lackadaisical about it, then that's how things are going to go."
Like Wartman in 2014, his teammates in 2015 will need some guidance. Depth is an issue that might finally rear its ugly head, and the other starters (Brandon Bell, Jason Cabinda) underwhelm. This staff has shown an ability to develop defenders quickly; it will need to do that here.
This is already a good group, and there are some mid-four stars on their way to campus. Adrian Amos and Ryan Keiser are gone, leaving a bit of an experience void at safety. As a result, Jordan Lucas is getting moved from his cornerback spot. He and Marcus Allen are a pair of physical guys with good coverage abilities; they probably won't make all-conference teams like the ones at Ohio State, MSU, or Minnesota might, but they can play well.
At corner, Trevor Williams is settling in after being displaced from wide receiver, and Grant Haley is athletic and has some experience. Also, there's depth. Not rock-solid, put-it-in-the-bank-and-call-me-next-year depth, but enough to where the coaches have options.
Overall, this is a Penn State team that's growing up. Depth is better than in years past, and athleticism is starting to filter in and make a statement. As soon as the roster matches up with what the coaches can scheme for, this is going to be a multifaceted and dangerous team. Life without Christian Hackenberg is on the horizon, but that's a problem for Year 2 or 3. Now, it's just win.