Better or Worse in the Big Ten East in 2016: Penn State offense
Players and coaches come and go every year in the Big Ten, but oftentimes trends continue on offense even with the new faces. This week at Land of 10, we are going to take a look at every offense in the league and compare it to a year ago, making a determination if they should be better or worse in 2016. Next up is Penn State, a school with a new offensive coordinator, a new quarterback and plenty of questions.
The past two years Penn State, on the field at least, has been defined by its great defensive play and images of Christian Hackenberg on the turf.
Was the offensive line unable to protect him? Did the 5-star quarterback hold the ball too long? Did the play calling fail to mask the offense’s weaknesses? The answer was, at times, all of the above. Penn State allowed 44 sacks in 2014, and “improved” with 39 last season, but the Nittany Lions’ inability to protect the passer has disrupted the offense for two successive seasons.
Hackenberg is now in the NFL. There is a new offensive coordinator and a new offensive line coach.
There are also several reasons for guarded optimism. Despite the lingering effects from NCAA sanctions, Penn State has a wealth of talent and depth at its skill positions. Plus, depth has improved along the offensive line.
One of the best quarterbacks in program history is gone and his tenure will be remembered as one with unfulfilled potential, but his replacement is going to be more mobile and much less likely to spend his Saturday afternoons reaching for the hand of a teammate while laying on his back.
Joe Moorhead cultivated an offensive juggernaut at the FCS level during his time at Fordham. His system doesn’t have a catchy nickname like “Spread HD,” but it should give Penn State a new look and a better ability to avoid drive-crippling sacks.
Here’s what you need to know about both the old Penn State offense (and the shiny new one):
Penn State by the numbers
Total yards per game: 348.6 (13th in Big Ten/No. 105 nationally)
Rushing yards per game: 134.2 (12th in Big Ten/No. 105 nationally)
Passing yards per game: 214.5 (9th in Big Ten/No. 74 nationally)
Touchdowns: 15 rushing/20 passing
Key players lost: OL Angelo Mangiro, RB Akeel Lynch
Key returning players: RB Saquon Barkley, OL Andrew Nelson, OL Brian Gaia
The skinny: The rushing attack actually took a small step forward last season after an unmitigated disaster in 2014. The problems on the line weren’t just confined to yielding too many sacks. There are six linemen with at least nine career starts, and another five or six candidates to usurp their playing time.
It’s a long way from James Franklin being forced to have offensive linemen play on both sides in a scrimmage. An improved line could mean a monster season for Barkley, who hurdled and spun and steamrolled his way to a school record for rushing yards by a freshman in 2015: 1,076 net yards.
Better yet, the Nittany Lions have an interesting mix of backs behind Barkley. Mark Allen is tiny (5 feet 6, 180 pounds) but could find new ways to thrive in Moorhead’s offense. Andre Robinson is more of a bruiser, and blue-chip freshman Miles Sanders could force his way into the rotation.
Key players lost: QB Christian Hackenberg, WR Geno Lewis, TE Kyle Carter
Key returning players: QB Trace McSorley, TE Mike Gesicki, WR Chris Godwin
The skinny: Whoever replaces Hackenberg can target several talented receivers within a system designed to spread the ball around. Hamilton had a fantastic 2014, and Godwin was a breakout star in 2015.
Godwin and speedster Saeed Blacknall are likely to line up on the outside of Penn State’s spread-heavy, huddle-light offense, and there are a couple of tantalizing redshirt freshmen behind them. Hamilton will lead a trio of enticing options at slot receiver. The tight end was a priority in Bill O’Brien’s offense but less so in the first two years for Franklin. Expect Mike Gesicki to see the ball a lot more.
The offensive line still needs to prove it can protect the quarterback better, but Trace McSorley or Tommy Stevens will be in a pretty strong position to succeed if it does.
One stat that must improve
27.57 percent — The simple answer is all of them. Let’s pick one that basically encompasses everything. Penn State converted 27.57 percent of the time on third down in 2015. Negative plays either set up third-and-long or scuttled a potential conversion far too often.
1. Protecting the quarterback. McSorley and Stevens might be able to run around and improvise better than Hackenberg did, but any first-year starter is going to struggle if there’s no confidence in a proper pocket developing.
2. Finding a quarterback. The weapons are in place, but someone has to distribute the ball effectively. Someone has to force defenses not to focus solely on slowing down Barkley.
3. Adjusting to a new system. Moorhead’s offense lit up defenses at the FCS level, but Big Ten athletes could provide new challenges. The players are also going to have to adapt, and not mix up assignments when the Nittany Lions want to push the tempo.
Better or worse in 2016?
BETTER. There’s an element of “how could it not be?” but replacing Hackenberg and new coaches in key spots could lead to some early-season foibles. Still, just average play from the quarterback and an improvement to average play from the offensive line should equal a big step forward with Barkley, Godwin and Co. at the skill positions.
Follow Corey Masisak on Twitter @cmasisak22.