Penn State was supposedly bringing in another offensive guru when it hired James Franklin as its head coach in 2014. But the offense that was promised to be dynamic under its newest leader has been mainly stoic during Franklin’s tenure.
In 2015, Penn State ranked 11th in the Big Ten in scoring offense (23.2 points per game) and 13th in total offense (348.6 yards per game). The year before, Penn State ranked 14th and 13th in the same respective categories. Forget being at the top of the Big Ten, Franklin has failed to produce a respectable offense at Penn State.
That all could change in 2016. Penn State’s offense is due for a better season in Franklin’s third year at the helm and a breakout season could be looming.
The Nittany Lions return nine starters from last year’s offense, including several skill position players. Running back Saquon Barkley is back for his sophomore season after performing tremendously as a freshman. Barkley finished third in the conference with 1,076 yards on the ground and should only get better with a full season under his belt.
Penn State will also have its three leading receivers back in 2016. Chris Godwin, DaeSean Hamilton and Saeed Blacknall are all back for another season. Godwin led the way last season with 69 receptions and also finished second in the Big Ten with 1,101 receiving yards. Hamilton wasn’t far behind with 45 catches for 580 yards and actually led the team with six touchdown receptions. Blacknall is a true game-breaker and racked up 248 yards and a touchdown on only eight catches last season.
Offensive line play was by far Penn State’s fatal flaw last season, but the unit should improve. Six linemen who played significantly last season are back and the unit has nowhere else to go but up.
Penn State also will debut a brand new system in Happy Valley and it’s so fast they might start calling it Frantic Valley. Franklin hired former Fordham head coach Joe Moorhead as his new offensive coordinator and Moorhead’s insanely fast-paced system will definitely give Penn State a fresh look.
Moorhead employed a no-huddle, spread offense that prides itself on getting to the line of scrimmage before the defense can catch its breath. Fordham moved at a rapid pace offensively and averaged 36.8 points per game and 453.2 yards per game last season.
Moorhead’s offense requires a dual-threat quarterback capable of making sound decisions with his arm and his feet. That’s where the biggest concern lies for the Nittany Lions. Trace McSorley appears to be the frontrunner to earn the starting quarterback job after Christian Hackenberg left for the pros. McSorley has a bit of playing experience and subbed in for the injured Hackenberg during Penn State’s loss to Georgia in the Gator Bowl. On the season, McSorley completed 20-of-40 passes for 185 yards and two touchdowns.
More importantly, McSorley thrived in Moorhead’s offense during Penn State’s spring game. He went 23-of-27 for 281 yards and four touchdowns during the annual scrimmage and might have put to rest some of the concerns regarding the quarterback situation.
At Vanderbilt, Franklin’s offense took a significant jump between years one and two. In 2011, the Commodores averaged 339 yards per game and scored 26.7 points per game. The following year, Vanderbilt averaged 379.7 yards per game and 30 points per game, a significant uptick.
That same trend could reoccur at Penn State, albeit a year later in Franklin’s tenure. The Nittany Lions return an abundance of skill position talent, will have better continuity along the offensive line, will utilize a frantic system that will improve offensive numbers by volume of plays alone and might have found a quarterback who seemed to have grasped the offense during spring practice.
Don’t be surprised if Penn State shows a ton of progress offensively in 2016. That improvement could help Penn State become more of a factor in the Big Ten East.