I’ll let you in on a little secret- Penn State’s not going to compete for the Big Ten next year. There are still too many question marks and holes to fill before the Nittany Lions can start expecting to haul in championships. The offensive line has been a complete mess for two years, and while help is on the way, there is still plenty of rebuilding ahead. On the other side of the ball, Penn State needs to find a way to replace three outstanding starters on the defensive line, including a former All-American and two others who could be drafted as high as the second round in the upcoming NFL Draft. The offense is still young overall, and the growing pains of learning a new, and what should be much more complex, offense will be inevitable. There’s also the case of breaking in a new starting quarterback, who at most, will have a handful of plays and three quarters of a second-tier bowl game under his belt. On top of that, Michigan State and Ohio State are in a position to reload while Michigan should continue to climb in Jim Harbaugh’s second year leading the helm.
With expectations limited heading into 2016, why not use the season to break in the quarterback with the highest ceiling - true freshman Jake Zembiec.
While it’s always a tall order for a true freshman to enter the season as the starting quarterback, especially for a program like Penn State, Zembiec will have one major advantage over Christian Hackenberg in 2013. Zembiec entered Penn State as an early enrollee in January and will have a full offseason to work with a talented set of receivers, learn the offense and acclimate to college life. The extra time will also help him to establish himself in the locker room with his new teammates, which will make it much easier for him to slide into a leadership role by the time September rolls around. By the time Kent State comes to town to open the 2016 season, Zembiec will have had nearly eight months on campus under his belt.
Zembiec seems to be making the most of the opportunity as well. He’s quickly made an impression on James Franklin, who already had praise for the freshman in his initial press conference of the year.
Franklin said "young pup" Zembiec is "right there with" Trace and Tommy.— Jourdan Rodrigue (@JourdanRodrigue) March 14, 2016
For someone who is basically still a high school student, Zembiec has all the tools to succeed at the next level, and likely one day, on Sundays. He has prototypical size at 6’3" and 210 lbs. with a cannon for an arm. Zembiec has excellent touch on his passes for his age and seems to have a knack for getting the ball in just the right spot on deep balls- something that wil help him fit well with upcoming vertical threats Juwan Johnson and Irvin Charles, as well as a bevy of other talented receivers who will help re-shape the Penn State offense.
While he has the tools to become an outstanding pocket passer, he also has the athleticism to not just be a threat to scramble and pick up major yardage when unattended in the pocket, but also to perform as an extra back on designed run plays. He also displays excellent vision in the open field that allows him to gain additional yardage and pick up key first downs when other options become limited. That vision also extends to the pocket, where he has the ability to avoid rushers to extend plays. There’s little doubt Moorhead is already drawing up ways to add this extra wrinkle to the offense once Zembiec is ready to see the field.
While Zembiec lacks the time with the program that give Trace McSorley and Tommy Stevens a leg up, there's no doubt that he has the intangibles that make him a leader who knows how to win. As the top prospect to come out of New York this past season, he led his team to two undefeated seasons that ended with him hoisting a state championship trophy. Plus, the experience of the other two quarterbacks may not be much of a factor as Zembiec will have as much exposure to Moorhead's offense as McSorley and Stevens.
While going with a more experienced, steady hand at quarterback might seem to make the most sense in 2016, Zembiec should get every chance to shine and lead the team to a new era of Penn State football in 2017 and beyond.