I’ve been writing these annual ‘3 reasons’ posts since joining BSD in February 2012. Each year, there has been a long list of concerns surrounding the offense that I whittled down to three. Now I seem to be having the opposite problem- finding three things about the offense to keep us up at night heading into 2017. So while some of the concerns below may seem minimal, keep this in mind- Penn State will enter the upcoming season with its highest expectations in some time. For them to meet these expectations and repeat as Big Ten champions while securing a spot in the playoffs, there will be little room for error in all three aspects of the game, as well as getting a few lucky bounces along the way. So without any further ado, here are three things that could potentially hold back the offense in 2017:
This is the one area that continued to hinder Penn State as it made its gigantic leap during the course of the 2016. Need proof? Go back and watch the Indiana game that amounted in 16 (!!) tackles for loss by the Hoosiers defense, tied for most in Indiana history. Or the last few series of the Rose Bowl, where a single first down would have allowed the Nittany Lions to gobble up the clock and clinch a huge victory in Pasadena.
Sure, on paper it seems as though this problem will solve itself in 2017. The offensive line will be much deeper, talented and experienced, with several young linemen well on their way to stardom. But first, they must go out and prove themselves. If they are able to open up lanes for Saquon Barkley and company, Penn State may very well have the nation’s best offense this season. If not, then the Nittany Lions could wind up letting a win or two slip away to dash their major aspirations.
Replacing Chris Godwin
Fortunately, Penn State’s wide receiver corps is brimming with experience and talent. However, there is no outright obvious answer for who will fill the massive shoes left behind by Chris Godwin. For the past two seasons, Godwin has been the do-everything receiver. Need a big play down the field? Godwin is your man. Need to find a reliable receiver over the middle on 3rd-and-seven to convert a crucial third down? Godwin was there to get the job done. How about just relying on a receiver to stay on his block for the entirety of a play, turning a 15-yard run by Saquon Barkley into 65-yard touchdown scamper? You knew Godwin was always up to the task.
There are several strong candidates who could emerge. DaeSean Hamilton led the Big Ten in receiving as a redshirt freshman in 2014, but has gradually seen his role decrease since. Saeed Blacknall channeled Godwin in the Big Ten Championship against Wisconsin, making it seem that he was finally prepared to break through and become an elite receiver. However, a suspension for the Rose Bowl made it difficult to predict if that performance was a flash in the pan or a sign of things to come. Juwan Johnson was the talk of the spring, but is coming off a season with just two receptions and still has a long ways to go to prove himself when it counts. The same can be said for Irvin Charles, who possesses the stunning athleticism and potential, but also needs to go out and get the job done every Saturday after just catching two passes as a redshirt freshman.
During his freshman season in 2015, the entire offense basically had to go through Saquon Barkley to have any chance for success, which is an awful lot to put on the shoulders of a true freshman. In 2016, the offense was not as reliant on Barkley, but he still carried a heavier workload than expected.
Penn State has plenty of talent at the running back position beyond Barkley. Heading into last season it seemed as though Barkley would share the load more as players like Andre Robinson and Miles Sanders would be just too good to keep off the field. Alas, it didn’t happen quite as thought. Robinson, Sanders and even Mark Allen contributed sporadically throughout the season, but it was always a carry here and a carry there- never really allowing for Barkley to rest for an entire series at a time.
Hopefully, the coaching staff feels more comfortable with the reserves this season, allowing Barkley to keep his legs fresh throughout the game and not wear down during the course of the season as we’ve seen in the past. You thought Penn State was an second half team in 2016? Just imagine a rested Barkley slicing through a fatigued defense in the fourth quarter. At the very least, a more rested Barkley would have had enough gas in the tank for one more first down burst to clinch a victory in Pasadena.
It makes perfect sense in theory, but the question Joe Moorhead must answer is how do you take the nation’s most dynamic playmaker off the field? Either way, it’s something that likely needs to be figured out for the Nittany Lions to meet the sky-high expectations that will come in 2017.