Penn State’s offense has the potential to be something special in 2018. Not just highly productive like we’ve seen the last two seasons, but perhaps the best offense seen in Happy Valley since the legendary 1994 squad that produced five All-Americans and four first round picks in the ‘95 NFL Draft.
Before we get too far ahead of ourselves, there are still a few things that must be answered by September. While Penn State returns plenty of talent and a Heisman contender in senior quarterback Trace McSorley, the Nittany Lions also lost some major production and star power, and still need to resolve it’s largest issue that has prevented to offense from reaching its full potential in recent seasons. Let’s start with the elephant in the room:
The Offensive Line
Can Penn State’s offensive line finally turn the corner? Logic says yes when examining a roster filled with up-and-coming talent that finally has some depth. But they still need to go out and prove themselves in 2018.
This has been at the top of concerns for the offense on an annual basis for far too long. The hope was that 2017 would finally be the year when the offensive line transformed into a strength, but it proved to be a tall order. While there is plenty of reason to be optimistic about the offensive lines prospects in the future, it would likely be wise to remain in “wait-and-see” mode until they prove it on the field.
The Nittany Lions return most of its starting offensive line from a year ago, with the exception of Brendan Mahon, who just signed as an undrafted free agent with the Carolina Panthers. Underclassmen such as Mike Miranda, C.J. Thorpe and Alex Gellerstedt should also help with depth issues that plagued the team in the past- for instance, the struggles (to put it politely) against Ohio State’s front following Ryan Bates injury in 2017.
The talent and depth are there, but now they must come together and prove themselves. Better cohesion is an absolute must for the offense to avoid negative plays, which has been an all-too-common trend in recent years that has held the offense back from reaching its full potential.
Finding a Tight End
Mike Gesicki exited Penn State as the most productive tight end in program history. Where does the offense go without the playmaking tight end who had a penchant for creating mismatches and making big plays on a regular basis? That will be one of the biggest questions heading into 2018.
With Gesicki and his backup Tom Pancoast both departing, there is almost no prior experience at the position. Jonathan Holland saw time in 2018, but missed the spring session with an injury. Nick Bowers has shown potential, but has also had a difficult time staying healthy throughout his career. Incoming freshman Zack Kuntz is an intriguing prospect because of his size- at 6-7, he has the size to create mismatches and be a red zone threat, but will likely need time to develop and add weight to his 232 lb. frame.
Regardless, no one single tight end stepped up and claimed the role during the spring. While Penn State may just need to settle on its best healthy option come September, offensive coordinator Ricky Rahne could get creative with the lineup. Tommy Stevens seems to be preparing for more regular time in the ‘LION’ role, where he will share the backfield with Trace McSorley and Miles Sanders, or line up in different locations to keep the defense guessing. The Nittany Lions are also well stocked in at wide receiver position despite the departure of DaeSean Hamilton. With the emergence of freshmen Mac Hippenhamer and KJ Hamler, Rahne will have plenty of talent at his disposal to consider various four-receiver sets with no tight end in the lineup.
Replacing Saquon Barkley
Considering everything Barkley has meant to the program during the past three years, you would think this would be the very top of the list. Fortunately, Penn State’s backfield is still loaded with talent. But it will still be hard to replace such a dynamic back who was a home run threat with each touch and an incredibly broad skill set that made it nearly impossible to take him off the field.
If you’re searching for a silver lining in the post-Barkley era, it will now be next-to-impossible for defenses to key on one player. There will also more likely be a regular rotation at running back, meaning incoming starter Miles Sanders could be able to run with fresh legs in the second half, a luxury never afforded to Barkley.
Regardless, replacing #26 on the field and in the locker room will be no small task. Not only was Barkley the biggest weapon in Penn State’s prolific offense, he was also one of the primary leaders who led by example with his tireless work ethic. Not only will others be tasked with replacing his productivity, they must also become leaders to the latest batch of Nittany Lions.