With the departure of physical specimen Saquon Barkley to the NFL, and Joe Moorhead to Mississippi State, what will new offensive coordinator Ricky Rahne have to work with in 2018?
Starter: Trace McSorley
Reserves: Tommy Stevens, Sean Clifford
Just like last year, there will be no debate about who will be leading Penn State in 2018. Trace McSorley is already in the discussion as a Heisman hopeful in 2018, and will look to build on his 2017 campaign. Trace went from YOLO-Ball in 2016 to consistent and efficient in 2017. The game will only continue to slow down for him, and he should set just about every Penn State quarterback record before he departs.
The big question will be the backup quarterback spot. Tommy Stevens could easily start for the vast majority of Power 5 teams, but is faced with another year on the bench before McSorley moves on. Will he want to sit, or will he take his degree and graduate transfer somewhere to play for 2 years? That’s a question only he can answer. James Franklin and Ricky Rahne must do their best to keep the play maker involved, or he may opt to head out. Behind Tommy, it looks like Jake Zembiec has been officially passed by Sean Clifford. It would not surprise me to see Jake transfer this off season.
Starter: Miles Sanders
Reserves: Ricky Slade, Mark Allen, Journey Brown
With Saquon Barkley off to play on Sundays, Miles Sanders will finally take over the role as starter. I, for one, believe that we’ll see an increase in rushing performance next year. This is not a slight against Barkley whatsoever - it’s been amazing to watch him play the last three years, and I’ve had the privilege to write about his successes in the blue and white. But it’s been well-documented how much teams keyed on stopping Barkley at the expense of literally everyone else on the field. The run game will get better as defenses begin to play Penn State more straight up. I am a little worried about fumbles with Sanders, as Barkley basically refused to let go of the ball. But Miles was a five-star recruit for a reason, and will have an excellent 2018 – perhaps before he, too, leaves for the NFL.
There appears to be a bit of a quagmire at RB behind Sanders, and that has to do with the departure of Andre Robinson. Robinson probably would have been the true #2 behind Sanders, but now redshirt senior Mark Allen will have to duke it out with true freshman Ricky Slade and redshirt freshman Journey Brown for the backup role. All of these running backs should see meaningful playing time in 2018, but my money is on Slade taking over as the primary backup by the midpoint of the season.
Starters: X - Juwan Johnson, Z - DeAndre Thompkins, H - Brandon Polk
Reserves: X - Mac Hippenhammer, Z - Justin Shorter, H - KJ Hamler
The biggest loss to the wide receiving corps will of course be DaeSean Hamilton, whose reliability bailed the Penn State offense out of numerous third-and-long situations throughout the year. Still, this is a talented group, and Juwan Johnson and DeAndre Thompkins look to have the making of a fantastic one-two punch out wide. In the slot, speedy Brandon Polk will be tough for linebackers to cover.
There are a bunch of other wideouts on the roster, but the three reserves listed should see the most playing time. Mac and KJ, henceforth known as “Hip ‘n’ Hamler,” will be able backups for the starters, and provide a good combination of size and speed between them. But if I were you, I’d keep an eye on Justin Shorter. The only thing that prevented me from penciling Shorter in as the “Z” starter is that DeAndre Thompkins is a redshirt senior. That’s it. Justin will push for playing time from game one, and I would not be surprised whatsoever if he earns a starting role midway through next season.
Starter: Jon Holland
Reserves: Pat Freiermuth, Zack Kuntz, Nick Bowers, Danny Dalton
In what may be the biggest non-Barkley loss from the 2017 offense, Mike Gesicki is gone. After a shaky freshman season, Gesicki became a nightmare for opposing secondaries, as his height and athleticism made him a red zone threat against every team. Replacing that level of receiving productivity will be tough. But, for as good a receiver as Mike was, his blocking often left something to be desired.
Enter Jon Holland. While Holland will never duplicate Gesicki’s receiving success, he is an able pass-catcher who can actually do some blocking as well. Behind Holland, I would not be surprised to see either Freiermuth or Kuntz get playing time before Bowers or Dalton. Nick Bowers has shown flashes, but has been sidelined by numerous injuries through his career. And for whatever reason, Danny Dalton has not made any impact since coming to Penn State. One of these two may opt for a transfer this off season. At least one of the two stud true freshmen will probably work their way into meaningful snaps in 2018, if not both.
Starters: LT - Will Fries, LG - Steven Gonzalez, C - Connor McGovern, RG - Michal Menet, RT - Ryan Bates
Reserves: LT - Alex Gellerstedt, Sterling Jenkins; LG - Mike Miranda; C - Zach Simpson; RG - CJ Thorpe; RT - Chasz Wright
Right guard Brendan Mahon has graduated, but the other four offensive linemen return. With that, they all retain their positions, though Bates and Fries could swap, depending on how the off season goes. Michal Menet is the most likely choice to replace Mahon at RG, but CJ Thorpe may have something to say about that. Another year with a bunch of returning players, and I believe the offensive line will be better than it was in 2017. That may not be saying much, as Barkley often got tackled for losses behind suspect blocking. But I believe this line has a chance to be pretty solid, if not amazing.
As for the backups, I want to believe that Sterling Jenkins can make it into the two-deep as a redshirt junior, but if he doesn’t Alex Gellerstedt should be a solid backup. Mike Miranda’s name got thrown around as possibility to see the field as a true freshman, so expect to see him get some play on the interior of the line next year. Thorpe will make a name for himself as well, and Chasz “Big Bacon” Wright returns as the primary backup at right tackle. The backups have a good mix of age and experience for the first time in a while, and are not comprised entirely of freshmen and sophomores. If the line can build on its 2017 production, this offense could be scary good.
Starter: Tommy Stevens
Reserves: An actual mountain lion
New as of the Fiesta Bowl, Tommy Stevens has been listed as the starter in the “Lion” position. This basically is Franklin acknowledging that he has a star as a backup quarterback, and if he doesn’t get that player involved, that player is going to head for greener pastures. Will Franklin’s overtures be enough to keep Stevens on the roster for one more year? The jury is still out, but I can’t imagine what else the coaching staff could do to keep Tommy happy. For whatever it may be worth, Stevens seems like a team-first guy, but that only goes so far when he has the potential to play in the NFL someday.
Star Power and Experience
There are a handful of measurements that people like to use when talking about how good a team or unit may be. The two that have always piqued my interest are the recruiting ratings of the players, and their experience. As has been documented repeatedly, the amount of blue chip (four- and five-star players) on a roster has a direct correlation to the success a team may have in any given year. But stars don’t always tell the tale – we’ve all seen a five-star true freshman get trashed by a three-star redshirt senior. So how does the 2018 offense look in comparison to the 2017 offense, using these metrics?
First thing’s first – recruiting starzzz. For those that don’t know, the cutoff for a four-star recruit is a composite score of 0.8900. The starters on the 2017 Penn State offense did indeed average out as a four-star, coming in with a combined 0.8957 rating, per their 247 Composite recruiting profiles. The starters in 2018? 0.9141. This is helped by the inclusion of Miles Sanders over Saquon Barkley at running back (I know, recruiting doesn’t always tell the tale, but Sanders was a five-star recruit), and Michal Menet over Brendan Mahon on the line. Speaking of the offensive line, the 2017 version graded out as a high three-star recruit, averaging 0.8807. 2018? A solid four-star at 0.9175. In fact, for the first time since Franklin arrived, Penn State will have a blue-chip ratio greater than 50% of the roster – one of the most important keys to being a national title contender.
And how about experience? Between the eleven starters in the Fiesta Bowl, the players combined for 39 years of collegiate experience. This is simply the number of years each player has been in college – years to adjust to the rigors of D-1 football, juggling classes and football, time spent in a given offensive system, time doing film study, and of course time in the weight room. In 2018, the projected starters will combine for 42 years of experience. We all witnessed how much more confident McSorley was this year compared to 2016 - how will other starters on offense fare with a similar bump in experience?
In sum, the 2018 offense should be more talented and more experienced than its 2017 counterpart. Add on that rather than go for an outside hire, James Franklin opted instead to promote Ricky Rahne as the new offensive coordinator. Rahne is a young, intelligent guy that had been directly learning from Joe Moorhead the last few years, and who seemingly doesn’t have head coaching aspirations. With him at the helm, the offense should be run in a very similar fashion as 2017.
All of this combined is a big reason that I’m so bullish on the 2018 team – the offense should be even better than 2017, and if Penn State can continue to put up 35+ points per game, they should be able to mask a lot of the defensive personnel losses. All aboard the 2018 hype train!