It has been entirely too long since I checked in with one of these here opinion columns. I had hoped to get to one after Blue-White weekend, but then April became May, then it was almost June, and well, here we are. As you have no doubt noticed, it's been a slow month of news surrounding Penn State. Given the alternative, that is far from a bad thing. However, when you are tasked with writing your thoughts on something, it requires, well, something on which to give your thoughts.
Anyway, as we head from late spring into early summer, I thought it appropriate to share some random thoughts I have been kicking around in my head.
- I wrote back before the Blue-White game that practically everything you see should be taken with a grain of salt. While that most definitely remains the case, there is also cause for at least a glimmer of optimism on the offensive side of the field. Trace McSorley and Tommy Stevens appear at the very least competent under center, and the early returns on Joe Moorhead's offense are certainly positive. The questions about offensive lines, arm strength, and what not will be answered in about three and a half months, but for now, there appears to be, at the very least, some tangible evidence for your typical summer optimism.
- Switching gears, the lack of momentum on the recruiting trail for Penn State is glaring. In Franklin's first two seasons, the Lions were among the top classes in the country heading into the summer. This year, while PSU boasts 8 commitments, 50% of which qualify as blue chip prospects (4-stars or higher) on the 247Sports Composite, the buzz is just not there. While Penn State is certainly in contention for many of the top players, there seems to be a very clear "wait and see" attitude when it comes to the best of the best. There is no doubt James Franklin and this staff are among the best recruiters in the country, but last season's limp to a 7-6 finish gave many players pause when looking at the long term stability of the current administration in Happy Valley. With all of that said, a step or two towards competence on the offensive side of the ball, and maybe an additional win or two could provide the right answers when it comes to another top-15, or better, recruiting class.
- I do not believe it is a huge leap to say this is as talented as Penn State has been at the offensive skill positions since at least the 2008 season. Just take a look at this group of receivers, tailbacks, and tight ends: Chris Godwin, DaeSean Hamilton, Saeed Blacknall, Saquon Barkley, Miles Sanders, Andre Robinson, Mark Allen, Juwan Johnson, Irvin Charles, Brandon Polk, DeAndre Thompkins, and Mike Gesicki. Yes, some of them need to become more consistent, or show their talent on the field for the first time, but in pure skill, there has not been a group like this in Happy Valley for a long time.
- The key to all of that, as it has been since the dawn of football, is the play of the offensive line, and new quarterback. I have confidence in whoever the latter is, but the former is going to remain a question until this fall, and probably well into the season as everyone settles into a new offense. The numbers are finally there, but the experience is not. We all were saying this a year ago, but if the Lions get even a moderate improvement from the line, this could be a fun season.
- On the other side, Penn State has to replace three NFL players on the defensive line. Again, the numbers are there, but the experience is lacking. PSU will be relying on redshirt freshmen Robert Windsor and Kevin Givens more than they would like, but both players are certainly talented. Curtis Cothran, Parker Cothren, and Antoine White will be counted on to provide a veteran presence at tackle, while Garret Sickels will be leader of not only the ends, but the line as a whole. While the line will certainly be counted on to make their share of plays, the bigger goal, in my mind, will be to keep the linebackers behind them clean and free to make plays.
- Speaking of linebacker, Linebacker U has a starting trio of Nyeem Wartman-White, Jason Cabinda, and Brandon Bell that I am sure most fans are more than comfortable with. The questions start immediately behind them, where sophomores Manny Bowen and Jake Cooper, and senior Von Walker fill out the second string. The talent is there in all three backups, but as we saw a year ago, all three are currently better suited to spell the starters, rather than take over their jobs. More than any other spot on the field, PSU needs to stay very healthy here.
- There is no doubting special teams has been a weak spot the last two seasons. That's not just an issue at the kicking positions, but the special teams units as a whole. Between the freshman kicking and punting tandem of Alex Barbir and Blake Gilliken, the specialist positions will both be filled by recruited scholarship players. In front of them, there finally figures to be some talent to provide protection, or open up lanes for the host of skill players that will get a shot at returning kicks. At its heart, football is very much a game of field position, and the Lions feel poised to finally be able to compete on that level again.