1) Herb Hand is Not, Quite Literally, a God. So, Herb Hand seems to be everyone's favorite assistant since...ever?--from his must-follow twitter account to the pizza crawl arranged in his honor--and we're almost as excited to see his coaching skills in action. But, uh, have you guys seen the depth chart? Because unless Herb is capable of acts of actual magic, we might be screwed.
The best returning lineman, Miles Dieffenbach, is probably out for the season with a torn ACL. Anthony Alosi, a presumptive starter somewhere along the line, is facing assault charges, and is facing either expulsion, suspension, or at the very least an extended stay in James Franklin's doghouse. There's Donovan Smith, who's started for two seasons and, physically, looks the part of a first round pick but has been a bit inconsistent, and Angelo Mangiro, who has exactly one modicum of experience, and...a couple converted defensive tackles, freshmen--true and redshirt--and other assorted forgotten recruits from unheralded classes.
There are some positions that you can cobble together with spare parts. Offensive line is not one of them. You simply can't be an upper-echelon offense with so many question marks and so little depth in the trenches. We saw what happened in the Blue/White Game, even if the first team didn't get too much burn: it was rare that the quarterbacks would have much time to throw and few big holes opened up in the run game. The good news is that this is going to be an extremely young unit, one that will only improve as the year goes on, but it's going to be ugly to start.
2) Allen Robinson Doesn't Play Here Anymore. Remember how Bill O'Brien guided Matt McGloin to one of the best seasons ever by a Penn State quarterback, and Christian Hackenberg to a year that was solid by any metric but crazy good for a true freshman? It turns out that having one of the best wide receivers in the country probably helped with that.
There's an Allen Robinson-sized hole in this Penn State offense that might take four or five receivers to fill, and even then, only nominally. Robinson had more catches than the next four receivers combined, and as many yards as the next six. Long stretches of O'Brien's gameplan alternated "throw a bomb down the sideline and let Allen Robinson go up and get it" and "throw a screen pass and let Allen Robinson deke out five defenders." It's hard to put into words just how good Robinson was, and harder too to define how important he was to this offense. It's simplest to say that he's irreplaceable, no matter how excited we get about Geno Lewis or DeAndre Thompkins, or Juwan Johnson, or anyone else on the roster this fall.
Yes, there are enough bodies, enough prospects who were what Phil Steele calls VHTs--very highly touted--that James Franklin and wide receiver coach Josh Gattis will almost certainly manage to construct a perfectly competent receiving corps. Heck, maybe we even hit on a bunch, and get a redux of that magical 2005 four-freshman season. But perfectly competent isn't what Hack had last year, and the fact that he's out both of his top wideouts from last season mean he's going to have to develop chemistry with guys who were backups, scout teamers, or in high school last year. Kyle Carter better have a bounceback year in store.
3) I'mma Let You Start, but... Few fanbases, seemingly, have ever been as fired up about a new coaching regime as Penn Staters are now; the honeymoon phase hasn't just lagged, but rather James Franklin has managed to build up more and more excitement as the offseason continues. He's charmed the pants off everyone from [insert towns on opposite sides of Pennsylvania], he's doing things on the recruiting trail that shouldn't be legal, and he's made good on every promise he made at what was the most explosive introductory press conference we've seen in a long time. But, and here's the but...he's still a new coach, he's still getting to know his players, and he's following in the footsteps of a head coach who, more than anything else, knew offense.
Bill O'Brien is, quite simply, one of the better offensive minds in the country, at any level of football. He was successful in the NFL, he was transcendent at Penn State, and he rightfully earned the job in one of the best pro vacancies the League has seen in years. We criticized him at times, and not always unfairly, but he brought Penn State football, especially its offense, into the 21st century, and left the place better than he found it.
John Donovan is not Bill O'Brien. Every single statistic needs to come with the caveat--yes, I know, it was Vanderbilt, and Vanderbilt was a football cesspool for decades, and just not being an embarrassment was an achievement, and OKAY FINE JUST SHUT UP ALREADY--but his units were not particularly good ones. Last year, his group was 83rd in total and 56th in scoring offense. In 2012, they ranked 81st and 73rd, respectively. The Commodores were one of the few teams that were worse than Penn State on third downs last year, converting an almost impossible bad just 33.1%.
There's no doubt that these Nittany Lions--no matter how much I've damned them earlier in this post--offer a distinct talent upgrade from his past digs. But John Donovan is going to take a giant step forward in his own development as a coach to wring out the most from a group that has as much upside as it does potential for disaster. And let's not forget how difficult it can be for first-year coordinators in a new job: We all remember how poorly Ted Roof fared early in his lone season in Happy Valley, before making adjustments on his personnel; and how it took John Butler about 11 weeks to do the same. I will, of course, give Donovan the benefit of the doubt, but that doesn't imply willful ignorance should be our collective bliss.