After a mostly disastrous season for the Penn State offense, there are plenty of questions of what to expect in 2015. Below we take a look at look at each position group to identify one burning question for each unit heading into year two of the James Franklin era.
QB: Will junior Christian Hackenberg be closer to freshman Christian Hackenberg or sophomore Christian Hackenberg?
Logically speaking, yes. Hackenberg is in year two of the James Franklin/John Donovan offense, which means he should have a better understanding of what he needs to do. His offensive line should be better by nature of it being two-deep at every position and it having basically six returning starters (Mangiro, Nelson, Gaia, Laurent, Dowrey, Mahon). The wide receivers/tight ends are insane, and there is a plethora of talented running backs. Just in terms of the talent around him, this team is really, really good, and Hackenberg should have plenty of toys to play with.
If anything keeps Christian Hackenberg from being a monster next season, it will probably be a nasty case of PTSD. We've seen this plenty of times: a quarterback gets beaten up while he's still young, and he never totally recovers. Fortunately Hackenberg seems like a really confident dude -- which is fine as long as he's not trying to squeeze balls into triple-coverage -- so this may not be an issue, but if he gets hit a few times during a game, it'll be really interesting to see how he responds. Still, he has so much help around him that I can't imagine him struggling as much as he did in 2014.
RB: Who will be the No. 2 running back behind Akeel Lynch?
There's no doubt Lynch will be Penn State's main running back this fall as he is poised for a true breakout year. But what to expect after Lynch is much more opaque. Mark Allen, Nick Scott and Johnathan Thomas are all entering their redshirt freshman seasons and will be itching to get carries this fall. You can bet your last dollar these three are battling intently to stand out among the group throughout the spring and summer practice sessions.
Allen seems poised to become a third-down back to take advantage of his slippery speed while being used in various lineups to create mismatches. Scott and Thomas are more likely to become all-purpose running backs. Each entered Penn State as three-star prospects, with Thomas being the more highly-regarded of the two. Thomas has the size and speed to succeed despite his inexperience, and could have the leg up if he proves to be an effective pass-blocker as well.
Keep an eye out for true freshman Saquon Barkley, who may leapfrog up the depth chart to be the primary back behind Lynch. Barkley comes in as the number 117 overall player in the 2015 recruiting class and boasted an impressive offer sheet that included Ohio State and Notre Dame. He's an extremely versatile running back with incredible field vision. His ability to see the entire field combined with his overall skill set could translate into plenty of playing time for the true freshman.
WR: How is Penn State going to get all of its talented wide receivers playing time?
The short answer: I have no idea but I don't care because the wide receivers are amazing.
The longer answer: Let's operate under the assumption that Juwan Johnson, Irvin Charles and Brandon Polk all redshirt, which is not a given, especially with Johnson and Charles, who are both matchup nightmares and conceivably could play right away (Polk will almost certainly redshirt because he's 163 lbs.).
That means Penn State will have DaeSean Hamilton, Geno Lewis, Chris Godwin and Saeed Blacknall with a year of running this offense under their belts. Penn State will also bring in DeAndre Thompkins, who has the potential to be the kind of special player who is a touchdown threat every time he touches the ball. While we know what we have in the first four guys, Thompkins is a bit of a question mark. However, he is apparently killing it in spring practices, which should add an extra dimension to the Nittany Lion offense.
I wouldn't be surprised if we see a lot of three wide receiver sets this year with Godwin and Blacknall on the outside, Lewis and Hamilton rotating between the outside and the slot and Thompkins as a slot receiver. But honestly, someone is probably going to be upset about playing time. Penn State is so loaded at wide receiver that there's just no way for everyone to play as much at they want. This is a good problem, but still a bit of the problem. As long as Hackenberg's happy, that's all that matters, and I'm willing to wager that the amount of talent around him will make him a very happy guy.
TE: How good are Penn State’s tight ends? Are they overrated, underrated or properly rated?
I'm willing to say that we all overrated Penn State's group of tight ends last year. We kind of forgot that: 1) Jesse James couldn't block and sometimes had a case of the dropsies, 2) Kyle Carter has struggled to get back to his 2012 form and 3) Mike Gesicki was a freshman.
But heading into this year, I'm willing to say this group is a bit underrated. It's something I'll harp on all offseason, but this is the second year in this offense, so both Carter and Gesicki should improve (especially Gesicki, who is a monster). Adam Breneman is going to be back and healthy, and his ability as a blocker should make a huge difference along the line. He's also, as we all know, a great pass catcher, which means he's another weapon at Hackenberg's disposal. Nick Bowers is talented, but there's no word on how he will get assimilated to the offense or if he'll even play.
Most importantly, with how talented the wide receivers are, there should be a ton of space for these guys to exploit all over the field. Tight ends are a quarterback's best friend, and this group should get a ton of targets by Hackenberg.
OL: How much will the offensive line improve over last year’s tire fire?
I'll answer this with an anecdote about the month of March in Northeast Ohio. Throughout January and February, it's brutally cold- on most days, the highs are just above zero with lows in the negatives, and a wind chill consistently around -20. Then March rolls around and you get that first day where it reaches the 40s, and everywhere you look people are running around in shorts and driving around with tops off their convertibles. Is a cloudy 40-degree day considered nice weather? Hell no. However, you can certainly appreciate the 60-degree swing after growing accustomed to the frigid temperatures.
Penn State's offensive line still probably won't be that great, but improving from "absolutely dreadful" to "barely mediocre" will have huge implications for the team. The Nittany Lions return six offensive linemen with starting experience and bring in two transfer players with immediate eligibility, as well as a slew of redshirt and true freshmen who if nothing else can provide depth that was sorely lacking in 2014.
It will still be an uphill battle, but the continuity, depth and experience should make a huge difference from a year ago. The crux of the struggles seemed to be that so many linemen were forced into action when they would normally be redshirting/playing reserve roles while they continue to adjust to the college game. Penn State could run into similar issues as they will rely on some of the younger players in the unit, but the it will not be across the board as it was a year ago.
A dreadful offensive line will mean a similar output from 2014. With the talent and experience throughout the offense in 2015, just having a mediocre offensive line could lead to a very exciting season.
K: Who is going to be tasked with trying to replace Sam Ficken?
Of course, this is a bit of a crapshoot, because there are a bunch of guys on the roster who are listed as a placekicker and none of them have ever kicked a field goal in a game. Chris Gulla can probably kick if nobody sticks out, but I think someone will eventually stick out.
Enter Joey Julius.
By the end of the year, this guy is going to be a fan favorite. He's a confident dude who has a strong leg (he has range out to 57 yards) and has plenty of experience kicking in high school. He's worked with former Nittany Lion Chris Bahr in the past, and while I have zero insight on this, I think he'll be the starting kicker. Also: he's 5'11" and weighs 244 lbs., which is one pound heavier than Nyeem Wartman. Heck yeah.