As spring practice continues and Penn State works to defend its Big Ten crown in 2017, we take a close look at some of the major questions facing the program as the Nittany Lions look to build on the surprise success of 2016. Let’s start with a big one...
Can Penn State make its first appearance in the College Football Playoff?
For the first time since 2009, Penn State enters the season with expectations- and sky-high expectations at that. The Nittany Lions return a strong majority of their starters and key reserves this fall, and year two of Joe Moorhead’s revolutionary offense could see Penn State lighting up scoreboards on a weekly basis. Winning the Big Ten East is a huge task, let alone taking the conference crown once again. However, this team has proven to be a focused and tenacious group, and it should continue with its rapid ascension that began after being humiliated by Michigan in week four. If the front seven can be shored up, the sky is the limit for Penn State in 2017.
Can Saquon Barkley become Penn State’s second Heisman Trophy winner?
Yes he can. It’s a deep pool of Heisman candidates heading into the season, but Barkley enters the 2017 as the de facto top running back in the nation, and easily among the top players overall. Not only has Barkley been working nonstop this offseason to improve his strength and explosiveness, for the first time in his Penn State career he should be running behind an offensive line that in which run blocking is a strength, rather than a weakness. Barkley will command attention from a national perspective from week one, and should have the opportunity to showcase his tremendous ability in several spotlight games throughout the season.
Who will fill the massive leadership and play-making void on defense left behind by Brandon Bell?
Brandon Bell will not be easy to replace. Not only was he the team’s emotional leader, he had a penchant for making momentum-shifting plays when the team needed it the most. Fortunately, the defense seems to have several players who possess the leadership needed for a championship-caliber team. Linebacker and team captain Jason Cabinda is a bundle of energy in the middle who is constantly working to keep his teammates motivated. In the secondary, Grant Haley, John Reid and Marcus Allen are all known for providing a spark and leading by example. Reid especially is notorious for his tedious preparation in the film room, which demonstrates the level of commitment needed to be a top-flight shutdown corner. Penn State’s defensive line is young but incredibly talented, and tackles Parker Cothren and Curtis Cothran should lead the way for a group that has the potential to develop into the nation’s best in the near future.
What’s the team’s biggest weakness that needs addressed?
I’m not sure how such a thing can happen at Penn State with a nearly endless revolving door of legends at the position, but linebacker is the biggest question mark heading into 2017. The team is set in the middle with the return of Jason Cabinda and backup Brandon Smith, but the SAM and WILL spots remain somewhat of a mystery. Manny Bowen should be set, and his absence due to a suspension was notable during the Rose Bowl loss to USC. He performed well as a sophomore, but still needs plenty of improvement to meet the lofty standards at Linebacker U. Cam Brown and Koa Farmer will compete for the other spot, but each has a long way to go as an every-down player. With some young talent adding depth, the linebacker position could ultimately become a strength this fall, but as of now its the biggest unknown for a team looking to defend its status as Big Ten champions.
Who will replace the productivity of Chris Godwin in the passing game?
Although Godwin was among the best receivers in school history, no one seemed to hit the panic button after he decided to eschew his final year of eligibility. That’s because Penn State still has a stable of heavily talented players at the position. Expectations are high for Saeed Blacknall to finally become a consistent threat, especially following his eye-popping performance against the tough Wisconsin secondary in the Big Ten Championship Game. DaeSean Hamilton led the Big Ten in receiving as a freshman and figures to play a major part of the passing attack in his senior season. DeAndre Thompkins and Brandon Polk both have the speed to stretch the field, and Moorhead will work to get them the ball in open space. The twin towers of Irvin Charles and Juwan Johnson have incredible potential, and each could become an All-American during their Penn State careers once they put it all together. And lets not forget about Mike Gesicki, who is probably the best pass-catching tight end in the nation heading into 2017.
Check back tomorrow for part two!