Penn State began the 2016 season with a lot of questions after back-to-back 7-win seasons and with three new members of the coaching staff.
The Nittany Lions ended it with 11 victories, a division title, a conference championship and one of the most memorable bowl games in school history. Players who were expected to be integral met or exceeded expectations, while new stars emerged, as well.
A new-look offense was a revelation. The defense remained sturdy, despite losing three defensive linemen to the NFL and the coordinator to the SEC.
Teams can’t win conference titles without contributions from a lot of important players. So who were the most important for Penn State in 2016?
16. Blake Gillikin, punter
In the previous four seasons, Penn State finished 102nd, 125th, 117th and 116th in the nation in punting. Each time, the Nittany Lions were 11th or worse in the Big Ten.
Gillikin was rated the No. 2 punter in the nation in the Class of 2016, and the freshman didn’t disappoint. He was an immediate upgrade for Penn State, and a big reason why the Nittany Lions were often able to control the field-position battle. Kickoff specialist Joey Julius deserves a nod here, as well.
Gillikin finished the season averaging nearly 43 yards per punt, which was good for third in the Big Ten and in the top 30 nationally.
15. Brandon Smith, linebacker
There are other players on the defense who were more productive but did not make this list. And it would be easy to understate Smith’s role in the defense. But his ability to step in and just be steady, let alone as productive as he was, when injuries ravaged the linebacking corps was critical.
Penn State was short three starting linebackers when Smith stepped in at middle linebacker. He had two sophomores flanking him, with a true freshman and a converted safety as the other options. When Smith was ejected for a bogus targeting call against Michigan, the Wolverines had no trouble rolling through the Penn State defense.
Smith had 8 tackles against Temple in the first significant experience of his career. He had 14 tackles against Maryland, and a huge interception against Purdue.
Brandon Smith's interception set up Chris Godwin's second touchdown of the day. pic.twitter.com/RVFfgd6tSh
— Roar Lions Roar (@RLRblog) October 29, 2016
The former walk-on finished with 54 tackles, including 4 for a loss, and 2 interceptions.
14. Connor McGovern, right guard
Penn State’s offensive line yielded 83 sacks in the past two season combined, but reduced that total to 24 in 2016. The offense really took off in Week 5, which also happens to be when McGovern, a true freshman, moved into the starting lineup.
McGovern was part of a highly touted offensive line class, but the only one who squeezed his way into the rotation. A few of his pals could join him in 2017, but once McGovern settled in at right guard, the line limited sacks and helped Trace McSorley limit turnovers. It also allowed him more time to throw the ball downfield, and that’s when Penn State’s offense really exploded.
13. Evan Schwan, defensive end
Schwan was one of Bill O’Brien’s first recruits, which is a nice way of saying he was a late addition near the end of the 2012 recruiting cycle when Penn State was reeling and desperate for bodies. He had 31 tackles and no sacks in his first three seasons, but the fifth-year senior became an integral part of the defense in 2016.
While Penn State did rotate up to 10 players along the defensive line, Schwan tied for the team lead in sacks with 6, all coming after the first four games. He also had 32 tackles and became one of the key leaders on the defense.
12. Garrett Sickels, defensive end
It’s a little tougher to pinpoint particular members of the defensive line because so many of them played — and often played well. After yielding at least 228 rushing yards three times in the first five games, Penn State allowed 170 or fewer in eight of the final nine contests.
Sickels was suspended for the first half against Ohio State, and then proceeded to dominate the Buckeyes in the final 30 minutes. He had 3.5 tackles for loss, including 2.5 sacks, to help the comeback effort.
He finished the season tied with Schwan for the team lead with 6 sacks and led all defensive linemen with 47 tackles. Sickels will skip his senior season and enter the NFL draft.
11. Chris Godwin, wide receiver
Penn State was very deep at wide receiver in 2016, but Godwin was clearly the team’s go-to option. Joe Moorhead’s offense spreads the ball around more than his predecessor did, but Godwin led the team with 59 catches for 982 yards and 11 touchdowns.
He had a monster game in the Rose Bowl, with 9 catches for 187 yards and 2 scores. Godwin made several incredible catches, and did so against a very talented Southern Cal secondary.
— uSTADIUM (@uSTADIUM) January 3, 2017
Like Sickels, he’s going to the NFL next season instead of returning for his senior season. He likely would have broken the school record for receptions and receiving yards had he returned.
10. Ryan Bates, offensive lineman
Bates started the first 10 games of the season at left guard, forming a solid interior with McGovern and senior center Brian Gaia. Then Penn State lost a third starting tackle to injury, and the Nittany Lions needed Bates to kick out to left tackle.
Given the lack of line depth the past two seasons, that type of attrition would have been devastating. Instead, the Nittany Lions scored 39, 45, 38 and 49 points in Bates’ four starts at left tackle.
9. Tyler Davis, kicker
Davis wanted to be a college soccer player, but ended up as an incredible find for Penn State’s special teams, instead. He took over the place-kicking duties midway through last season, and continued to be a steady presence for the Nittany Lions.
Davis had two field goals blocked this season, but still hasn’t missed a kick that went past the line of scrimmage. He made 22 of 24 field goals and all 62 extra points in 2016. A few of his teammates named him an unsung hero of the season.
8. Brandon Bell, linebacker
Penn State didn’t have Jason Cabinda against Pittsburgh, and Bell got hurt during that 42-39 loss. Bell missed the next four games, and the defense clearly missed him.
He returned against Ohio State and collected 18 tackles in a game that coach James Franklin wasn’t sure how many snaps he’d be able to handle. Bell finished second on the team in tackles with 88, and the defense was excellent when he was on the field.
Bell got hurt against Southern Cal in the Rose Bowl after a great interception, and the defense’s play dipped again. Playing without Bell is something the Nittany Lions will need to figure out next season.
7. John Reid, cornerback
Penn State dealt with losing three players on the defensive line to the NFL. The Nittany Lions endured three starting linebackers being hurt at the same time. The secondary wasn’t immune to attrition, either. Injuries took their toll.
But Reid was a constant, and he was excellent. He is the team’s top cornerback and a big part of why the team played so well against the pass. Reid was also strong in run support, and the team’s top punt returner.
He finished with 36 tackles, an interception and a fumble recovery. It was his dependable, high level of play that mattered most.
6. Brian Gaia, center
Gaia moved to center this season, and he did have some trouble with snapping the ball in Moorhead’s all-shotgun, all-the time offense. That said, he started all 14 games at center. He was the only player along the offensive line to start all 14 games in the same spot.
At certain points, there were two redshirt freshmen and a true freshman in the starting lineup, but Gaia kept the unit together. The line made dramatic improvements this season, and teammates praised Gaia for his role in that process.
5. Marcus Allen, free safety
The most obvious part of Allen’s value are the tackling statistics. He finished the season with 110 of them, including 22 against Minnesota in a critical overtime victory that launched the eight-game winning streak.
He also blocked the field goal against Ohio State, which Grant Haley returned for a game-winning touchdown. And Allen was in on the Big Ten-clinching tackle on fourth down against Wisconsin.
— Big Ten Network (@BigTenNetwork) October 23, 2016
He’s also clearly an energetic leader for the secondary, and the team in general. While wideout DaeSean Hamilton disputed his credentials, other teammates gave Allen credit for establishing the go-to celebration for members of the secondary.
4. Jason Cabinda, linebacker
Cabinda missed five games because of an injury. Penn State went 3-2 in those games, and allowed 1,103 rushing yards. That’s 220.6 per game.
Penn State allowed 1,015 rushing yards in the nine games Cabinda played. That’s 112.8 yards per game. Cabinda finished third on the team with 81 tackles despite missing all of that time.
3. Mike Gesicki, tight end
The Nittany Lions managed to survive losing all three starting linebackers at once, which was the second-least deep position on the roster. Tight end was actually the team’s biggest potential problem spot, but Gesicki played in every game.
He also became a star in this new offense. After collecting 24 receptions the previous two seasons, Gesicki had 48 for 679 yards and 5 touchdowns in 2016.
Penn State's Mike Gesicki made a jaw-dropping one-handed catch in the win over Temple! ?? pic.twitter.com/tRNhOSOsUm
— Campus Insiders (@CampusInsiders) September 17, 2016
He made dramatic catches. He found holes in the middle of defenses. He made plays downfield. With Godwin gone to the NFL, Gesicki could become the most-trusted weapon in the passing game in 2017.
2. Trace McSorley, quarterback
McSorley had, without question, one of the top 2 seasons by a quarterback in Penn State history. He set records for passing yards, total yards and touchdown passes. He became the leader of an incredible offensive explosion after Penn State struggled to score points the past two seasons despite having a touted NFL prospect at quarterback.
Maybe Kerry Collins had a better year in 1994, considering the era, the offense and the fact that McSorley played two extra games. Regardless, it was an amazing journey for a guy who had to win the job during the offseason and had a bunch of turnovers in the first four games.
By the end of the season, McSorley was giving defenses fits by escaping rushers and making plays down the field. Penn State became one of the best passing teams in the nation, something few people saw coming.
— Chat Sports (@ChatSports) January 2, 2017
1. Saquon Barkley, running back
None of what transpired with the Penn State passing game would have been possible without Barkley. He is one of the most talented running backs in the nation, and should start the 2017 season on the short list of top Heisman Trophy candidates.
ALL. HE. DOES. IS. MAKE. TUDDIES. pic.twitter.com/HwXWXBWHKj
— Roar Lions Roar (@RLRblog) January 3, 2017
He was the Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year, and racked up 249 yards of total offense in the Rose Bowl. Barkley finished with 1,496 yards and 18 rushing on the ground, along with 28 catches for 402 yards and 4 touchdowns receiving. He was also fantastic in pass protection, particularly early in the season while the offensive line was still figuring some things out.
Barkley will likely be a top prospect for the 2018 NFL Draft, and could be remembered as one of the best players in the history of the program.