A breakout 2016 season for Penn State coincided with the emergence of an explosive Nittany Lions offensive attack. That record-setting offense now faces expectations to build off that performance, and there’s reason for optimism about sustained success in the foreseeable future.
The combination of incoming freshmen and a loaded 2018 recruiting class can stir excitement that resonates beyond the era of RB Saquon Barkley, TE Mike Gesicki and QB Trace McSorley. But before we get too far ahead of ourselves, let’s examine just how far Penn State’s offense has come since back-to-back seven-win seasons in 2014 and 2015.
Joe Moorhead, recognized by 247Sports as 2016 National Offensive Coordinator of the Year, led the Nittany Lions to the program-best production last season. Penn State set school records for total offensive yards (6,056) and passing yards (3,650) and matched the all-time mark for single-season scoring (526 points).
The Nittany Lions averaged 37.6 points per game, representing a 14.4-point increase from 2015. Momentum mounted as the season progressed, and Penn State posted at least 38 points in its final seven contests, surpassing 40 points in five of those games.
Offensive fireworks were most notably on display during the Big Ten Championship victory over Wisconsin, as the Nittany Lions rallied from a three-touchdown deficit. Penn State followed that effort with 49 points through three quarters of Rose Bowl action, but fell victim to a Southern Cal comeback.
It was the culmination of a mission set in motion by the December 2015 hiring of Moorhead, he told Mark Wogenrich of The Morning Call.
It was pretty simple and well-defined. When Coach Franklin brought me in, there was an expectation level that we were going to be able to elevate the offense’s productivity to a high level. The big thing we talk about with our offense is establishing a mindset and a culture of success built on our preparation, our effort and our execution. And really, quite frankly in its simplest form, the ability to put points on the board.
Along the way, individual achievements occurred throughout the offense.
McSorley established Penn State single-season records for passing yards (3,614), touchdowns tosses (29) and 300-yard passing games (5). Gesicki set single-season program tight end records for catches (48) and receiving yards (679).
— Penn State Football (@PennStateFball) December 6, 2016
Barkley collected 1,898 rushing/receiving yards and 22 touchdowns. No Nittany Lions junior ever caught more touchdowns in a single season (11) than WR Chris Godwin, a 2017 Tampa Bay Buccaneers draft selection.
Barkley and McSorley should step onto the field this fall with Heisman Trophy buzz swirling. Along with Gesicki, both are legitimate All-America candidates.
There’s a chance all three could join Godwin in the NFL next year, though Barkley and McSorley maintain collegiate eligibility through 2018.
So how will the offense fare beyond 2017? Based on roster projections and an influx of highly touted prospects, Penn State can anticipate pieces in place for the deepest depth chart on that side of the ball in a long time.
Remember, Moorhead and his fellow Nittany Lions staff members led the team to school-best production while operating with a roster still feeling the effects of previous scholarship sanctions. Each passing recruiting cycle brings Penn State closer to a full stockpile of top-tier talent, and the 2017 signees should help make a difference.
Incoming QB Sean Clifford was a 2016 Elite 11 finalist. The St. Xavier (Cincinnati) High School product, listed No. 8 among pro-style passers in 247Sports’ 2017 composite rankings, adds to a quarterback room that features 2017 spring game offensive MVP Tommy Stevens.
— Tyler Donohue (@TDsTake) June 5, 2016
Detroit-area WR K.J. Hamler was practically uncoverable throughout a national camp circuit before his senior season at IMG Academy (Bradenton, Fla.). His short-area quickness and straight-line speed provide Penn State with a dynamic option in the short- and long-distance passing games.
Hamler and redshirt sophomore Juwan Johnson — a 2017 spring camp star — are primed to play big roles as things progress. Instant-impact potential also exists in the trenches, where a group of blockers headlined by early enrollee Michael Miranda and top-100 2017 recruit C.J. Thorpe add options.
RB Journey Brown, a late addition to the 2017 class, brings world-class speed to a Penn State backfield that also features promising sophomore Miles Sanders. Brown rushed for more than 7,000 yards and 100 touchdowns in high school, and he set a Pennsylvania high school record last Saturday by finishing the 100-meter dash in 10.43 seconds at the state track and field championships.
With all due respect to the 2017 signees, Franklin is in the process of putting together a 2018 offensive haul that rivals any in college football. The group includes five top-100 overall prospects in the 247Sports’ composite rankings, led by 5-star QB Justin Fields.
This 6-foot-3, 221-pound playmaker from Harrison (Kennesaw, Ga.) High is considered the No. 6 overall recruit and is charging hard toward Clemson commit Trevor Lawrence for the top spot among quarterbacks. Still pursued by schools such as Auburn, Florida, Florida State, Georgia and LSU, Fields committed to Penn State in December.
“Even though he’s a 5-star recruit, I’m still not sure people fully understand what Justin brings to the table,” Nittany Lions linebacker pledge Jesse Luketa told Land of 10. “He’s one of the most athletic individuals I’ve ever seen. The kid is gifted, and when he steps foot on campus, he’s going to impress a lot of people. His film doesn’t lie, and he’s going to dominate.”
Justin Shorter, a 4-star receiver commit, referred to Fields as a “dream quarterback” last month during a conversation with Land of 10.
247Sports compared him to two-time Heisman Trophy finalist Deshaun Watson when it elevated him in a May rankings reboot. Rivals.com opted for a Cam Newton comparison earlier this week when it updated rankings.
If Fields follows through with his commitment and lands in Happy Valley next year, he could contend with Clifford and Stevens for starting duties upon McSorley’s departure, though that might not occur until 2019.
Shorter is just one of four blue-chip skill position players who offer potential as Fields’ future supporting cast. The 6-4, 216-pound pass target has dominated showcase camps this spring and now sits at No. 8 among receivers in composite rankings.
“Justin is the type of receiver who can get open no matter what,” Elite 11 finalist Devin Leary said after throwing his way at multiple spring camps. “It seems as if wherever you throw the ball – even if it’s behind him or a little above his head – he’s going to come down with it. As a quarterback, a guy like him makes your job 10 times easier.”
Simply put, he's impressive.
I put together these highlights.
— Tyler Donohue (@TDsTake) May 21, 2017
Penn State also holds pledges from top-10 tight end prospects Pat Freiermuth and Zack Kuntz, who earned a Pennsylvania state title in 110-meter hurdles last Saturday.
Kuntz and Shorter received an invitation to The Opening finals, to be held June 28-July 3 in Beaverton, Ore., at Nike’s world headquarters. They will be joined by 5-star RB commit Ricky Slade, who follows a path to Happy Valley like former fellow Virginia rushers Tony Hunt and Evan Royster did.
The No. 1 all-purpose back in composite rankings, Slade is also an asset downfield (25 receptions and 4 touchdown catches last fall, per MaxPreps). He averaged 9.2 yards per carry as a junior, rushing for 1,509 yards and 16 scores in 10 games.
Slade and Fields combine to create 10-star backfield potential, a rarity on the recruiting landscape.
“Thinking about those two guys playing next to each other is pretty special,” Shorter said. “That makes things tough for any defense and creates opportunities for everyone else on offense.”
Fields, who will compete at the Elite 11 finals in Los Angeles this weekend, would join his fellow Penn State pledges at The Opening if he advances. Event staff typically places common commits on the same 7-on-7 squad.
“If they put us all on the same team, it would be huge to play together for the first time,” Shorter said. “We can really see how each other work on the field, and it’s going to build great chemistry overall. When we get to campus next year, we’ll already know each other well because of that experience.”
Of course, it’s important to note each of these standouts will have a difficult time finding the end zone without quality protection up front. Penn State picked up three offensive linemen during a two-week span this spring — Nana Asiedu of Virginia, Bryce Effner of Illinois and Antwan Reed of Michigan.
Asiedu, considered the No. 6 offensive tackle in composite rankings, carries the most clout. He leads a trio that will be counted on to help maintain positive momentum among Nittany Lions linemen.
Penn State surrendered 83 total sacks during the 2014 and 2015 seasons. The Nittany Lions cut that number to 24 during Moorhead’s first year on campus.
Aside from players who are already on board with the 2018 class, Penn State is in good shape for other possible offensive additions. This list includes 4-star WR Jahan Dotson of New Jersey, 4-star OT Rasheed Walker of Maryland and 6-9, 290-pound junior college OT T.J. Bradley.
If things go according to plan and health remains intact, the Nittany Lions should field one of college football’s most potent offenses this fall. Ultimately, the goal for Franklin & Co. is geared toward long-term contention. Consistent efforts on the recruiting trail should keep Beaver Stadium scoreboard operators busy for years to come.