Big Ten East spotlight: 3 burning questions for Penn State entering media days
The dog days are coming, and that’s a good thing. With Big Ten Media Days kicking off on Monday, Land Of 10 is breaking down the three biggest questions each team is hoping to answer coming out of Chicago. We’ll post two per day, with one from each division, turning this time in the Big Ten East to a juggernaut trying to keep up with the rising tide in the division.
PENN STATE NITTANY LIONS
1. Do the offensive woes leave with Christian Hackenberg and John Donovan?
It’s shocking to think that Penn State reached bowl games in each of James Franklin’s first two years with the offensive numbers it posted. The Nittany Lions were a woeful 111th out of 128 teams in America in total offense in 2014, and it wasn’t much better in 2015, checking in at 105th.
It was just as stunning to see a talent like Christian Hackenberg — the Big Ten’s Freshman of the Year under coach Bill O’Brien in 2013 and the second-round draft pick of the New York Jets this spring — not improve one iota in three years on campus.
Everyone was left to wonder which mixture of people was right to blame. Such as:
- Was it Hackenberg himself?
- Was it former offensive coordinator John Donovan, whom Franklin fired after his second season?
- Was it Franklin, whom Hackenberg specifically left out of a long thank-you note that even included Penn State’s trainer and video coordinator?
- Or was it the talent around the quarterback?
It’s that unanswered question that will decide the most for Penn State going forward under Franklin, both this year and beyond. Right now, the Nittany Lions seem to be excited about what this year could bring under new offensive coordinator Joe Moorehead, who will install a spacing-based, get-it-and-go offense after riding it to instant success at the FCS level as the head coach at Fordham the past four seasons.
He’ll have some talent and experience to work with, too:
- Sophomore running back Saquon Barkley, who set a school freshman record last year with 1,076 rushing yards.
- Junior wideout Chris Godwin, who finished second in the league with 1,101 receiving yards last season.
- Four returning starters on the offensive line.
Proponents of Hackenberg’s game will point to how many times he was hit behind that struggling offensive line, how his receivers often dropped balls at critical times and how he was placed in so many lose-lose situations based on Donovan’s play-calling. Critics will show that the excuses still don’t explain Hackenberg’s woeful decision-making, his suspect accuracy or the ceiling he showed after his freshman season.
Whether Hackenberg was holding his teammates back or the other way around is up for debate, and the answer will decide plenty for whether this new offense will work in the Big Ten East, this season — and beyond.
2. Will it be Trace McSorley or Tommy Stevens at quarterback?
Replacing Hackenberg is Step No. 1 for this offense to rise, and Franklin has said he won’t be giving the answer as to who it will be until after camp begins in August.
He has a choice between two intriguing young players:
- Redshirt sophomore Trace McSorley, who relieved an injured Hackenberg in the TaxSlayer Bowl against Georgia and showed toughness and poise in a comeback bid that fell short.
- Redshirt freshman Tommy Stevens, a former three-star dual-threat prospect out of Indianapolis.
McSorley would figure to be the leader in the clubhouse because of his extra year of experience and what he showed in the bowl game. He also has the benefit of being impressive in the spring game, where he completed 23 of 27 passes for 281 yards and two scores. (Stevens was 10 of 17 for 100 yards.)
But Moorhead’s system is new and different, so years on campus lose some value. Both quarterbacks appear to have the mobility to fit well with the new playbook, which will aim to move them around and create openings for skill players.
Finding solidity behind center is always helpful, so picking the right young starter is an important decision. And Penn State will just have to hope the next three-year starting career turns out better than the one it follows.
3. Can Penn State reload on the defensive line the way it used to?
By used to, that means under Larry Johnson, who was the only holdover from Joe Paterno’s staff when Bill O’Brien arrived and who felt like he’d always coach the defensive line since he joined the staff in 1996. That was until Urban Meyer pulled him over to Ohio State upon Franklin’s arrival in 2014.
Johnson was a steadying presence in Happy Valley who had a way of making the departures of All-American defensive linemen feel like no big deal at all. He moved seamlessly from Courtney Brown to Michael Haynes to Jimmy Kennedy to Tamba Hali to Devon Still while consistently turning out one of the best units in the Big Ten.
Now, the Nittany Lions face the prospect of losing three NFL draft picks on the defensive line, including the nation’s sack leader in Carl Nassib, without an overlord like Johnson instilling that sigh of relief.
Their departures leave promising junior Garrett Sickels as the lone returning starter up front and a challenge for the current defensive line coach, Sean Spencer. Entering his third year at Penn State and sixth overall under Franklin, Spencer should be commended for his development of Nassib, who went from a complete nobody entering last season to arguably the best defender in the country.
But has he stocked the cupboard enough to replace three starters up front with mostly unknown players? It’s a crucial question for Penn State because that defensive line carries the Lions’ woeful offense the past two years.
In a physical league like the Big Ten, matching teams pound-for-pound up front is critical. How Penn State answers questions on the offensive and defensive lines will likely define whether it’ll be a seven-win team again or if it can become the surprise team of a loaded division.