By the end of the 2016 season, Penn State possessed 1 of the most exciting offenses in the nation.
After toppling No. 2-ranked Ohio State on Oct. 22, the Nittany Lions scored at least 38 points in each of their final 7 games. They had the best offensive performance of the season, according to Bill Connelly’s percentile rankings, by any team against Iowa, Wisconsin and Southern Cal.
During those final 7 games, Penn State averaged 45.6 points per game. Western Kentucky led the country in scoring for the entire season at 45.5 points per contest. The Nittany Lions were 21st, at 37.6 for the full 14 games.
Penn State also returns 79 percent of its offensive production from last season, according to Connelly. There are 23 schools that return more than the Nittany Lions, but only 2 — Middle Tennessee and Memphis — also scored more points per game than Penn State last season.
Many of the top offenses from 2016 are near the bottom of Connelly’s returning-production rankings. Clemson, Navy, Louisiana Tech, Tulsa and the aforementioned Hilltoppers were ranked in the top 20 in points per game, but are in the bottom 10 in returning production.
That’s a lot of numbers that suggest Penn State’s offense could be among the best in the country in 2017. If anyone needs more anecdotal evidence, Fox Sports’ Bruce Feldman recently spent time with behind-the-scenes access in State College and told colleague Stewart Mandel on the The Audible podcast he thinks the Nittany Lions could have 1 of the best offenses in the country.
OK, so “1 of” the best offenses seems like the expectation, at a minimum. If the Nittany Lions don’t produce a top-20 offense, it will seem like a disappointment.
What is really possible though? Could Penn State have a top-10 offense? Top 5? Is it that crazy to suggest the team that looked lost on offense against Michigan in Week 4 of 2016 could lead the country in scoring, or end up as Connelly’s No. 1-ranked offense, in 2017?
It’s not that crazy. Penn State could have 2 Heisman Trophy candidates, 1 of the best tight ends in America, proven supplemental targets at wide receiver, and a young, but potentially improved, offensive line.
There are a couple of things, beyond the obvious such as “stay healthy” and “Saquon Barkley remains awesome” that need to happen if Penn State is going move into the upper echelon of offenses nationally and not just in the Big Ten.
Solidify the interior line
Brian Gaia was a stalwart at center in 2016. Connor McGovern became one at right guard. Ryan Bates was one at left guard, until injuries forced a move to left tackle.
None of those 3 players are likely to be in those spots in 2017. Bates is expected to stay at left tackle. Gaia has graduated. McGovern is getting the first chance to replace him. Top reserves at guard, Wendy Laurent and Derek Dowrey, are also gone.
Penn State needs to find 2 guards, and the options are mostly young and inexperienced. Steven Gonzalez became a starter late in the 2016 season and should end up as 1 of them. The other could come from the group of redshirt freshman Michal Menet, true freshmen Michael Miranda or C.J. Thorpe, or possibly 1 of the veteran tackles [Andrew Nelson, Brendan Mahon, Chasz Wright] that doesn’t win the job opposite of Bates.
The Nittany Lions need to be better in short-yardage situations and running the ball in the red zone. There is less experience in the middle of the line, but there might be more raw talent.
Find a dependable No. 1 wide receiver
Joe Moorhead’s offense doesn’t need someone to catch 80 passes. Last season Chris Godwin had 59 receptions — 50 in the first 13 games before he torched Southern Cal in the Rose Bowl.
There are solid options for check-downs and underneath throws such as DaeSean Hamilton and DeAndre Thompkins. There is an established home-run threat [Saeed Blacknall]. Mike Gesicki can do a little bit of everything at tight end.
That’s what Godwin did outside. He made tough catches over the middle. He turned intermediate passes into long gains.
Gesicki could be the No. 1 receiver for Penn State next season and earn the most targets from QB Trace McSorley. For the Nittany Lions to truly be potent, however, someone else is going to need to do what Godwin did.
There are lots of options. Redshirt sophomores Juwan Johnson and Irv Charles could be breakout stars who will leave people chuckling when they will look back at this time of uncertainty. It’s also possible that Hamilton, Thompkins or Blacknall could prove to be more of an all-around threat.
There are other tasks on the to-do list, albeit less crucial but still important. Establishing some real depth behind Gesicki to get him a rest on a few plays and provide insurance is one. Finding ways to get sophomore RB Miles Sanders more involved without diminishing Barkley’s impact is another.
The talent is in place. Penn State has as much proven experience returning on offense as anyone who had an excellent offense in 2016.
Other schools that were great in 2016 will reload. Some that were not will get better. The Nittany Lions have the chance to be better, as well.
Like “best offense in the nation” better. It’s not that crazy.