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More Work to Do at Penn State

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Stepping into Beaver Stadium sporting traditional, nameless navy blue and white jerseys, Penn State football intends to chase a championship under second-year head coach James Franklin.

The Nittany Lions have plenty of issues to fix in Franklin's second go-round in Happy Valley, while simultaneously having reasons to be proud of how they’ve far come.

The restoration of football scholarships lost after the fallout of the Sandusky scandal is a major advantage for the squad. Penn State welcomes a top-15 recruiting class with a total of 18 commitments under Franklin’s watch.

Yet, based on the team’s less-than-stellar results in 2014 Big Ten play (7-6 overall but 2-6 in the conference), Franklin is battling the perception that he is more of  a head recruiter than a head coach.

That criticism may be off-base because Franklin was handling a team that was slightly inexperienced and ultimately trained for Bill O’Brien (now coaching the NFL’s Houston Texans).

The criticism was unavoidable, however, due in large part to Penn State’s poor offense, which was only as good as its undermanned offensive line in 2014. The allowed 44 sacks to promising quarterback Christian Hackenburg, while paving the way for only 2.9 yards per carry on the ground. 

Only three teams (Wyoming, SMU and Wake Forest) allowed more sacks than the Nittany Lions. Penn State’s Blue and White game in late April showed minor improvement in its O-line but still allowed five sacks on Hackenburg.

While Hackenburg has steadfastly maintained confidence in his line, the team is sure to miss current Tampa Bay Buccaneers offensive tackle Donovan Smith, who decided to leave Penn State with a year left of eligibility. Center Angelo Mangiro will be expected to provide the glue for a line that has to improve for the offense to reach its potential.

A comforting plus for the Blue and White is the amount of weapons surrounding Hackenburg. One of the many is lethal wide receiver DaeSean Hamilton, who tallied in 82 receptions for 899 yards and two touchdowns.

Alongside Hamilton is Geno Lewis, who had a standout performance towards the summation of last year’s season. Lewis totaled 751 reception yards with a pair of touchdowns as well.

Tight end Kyle Carter (18 catches for 222 yards) and junior running back Akeel Lynch, who rushed for 678 yards on 147 carries with four touchdowns last season, add to the vast array of talent around Hackenburg.

Defensively, the challenge for the Lions will be replacing linebacker Mike Hull, now with the Miami Dolphins, who totaled 140 tackles, averaging nearly 11 per game. With Hull’s help, cfbstats.com ranked Penn State’s defense second best in the nation after allowing just 278.7 yards per game.

Senior Nyeem Wartman, who totaled 75 tackles in 2014, will be looked to help fill Hull’s big shoes.

Up front, defensive tackle Anthony Zettel anchors the defensive line. After moving from end to tackle in 2014, Zettel enjoyed his most productive season with 17 tackles-for-loss and 8 sacks.

Senior cornerback Jordan Lucas is the unquestioned leader of the secondary. His 58 stops in 2014 ranked third on the team and his nine pass breakups ranked among the best in the Big Ten.

NITTANY LIONS TO WATCH
Breakout Star: Six-foot-four, 334-lb. defensive tackle Austin Johnson is huge in size but light on his feet, showing his ability to run from sideline to Penn State Austin Johnsonsideline with six tackles for loss in 2014. Johnson is an extremely physical player with a tough mindset and a non-stop motor. The New Jersey native could follow in the footsteps of recent Penn State defensive lineman in the NFL, like Jay Alford, Devon Still and Jordan Hill.

On the Hot Seat: No matter how you look at it, Penn State’s success ultimately rests on the shoulders of Hackenburg. Since the day he signed with the Nittany Lions, Hackenburg has always been under pressure to perform at a high level. Last season’s 44 sacks were blamed on the offensive line, but the 15 picks he gave away were his mistakes.

Newcomer to Watch: After verbally committing to Franklin while he was with Vanderbilt, quarterback Trace McSorley followed the head coach to Happy Valley, providing a necessary asset to the squad. With the offensive line still an unknown commodity, McSorley may be needed to step in for Hackenburg at some point this season. The Nittany Lions’ QB of the future may have to prove his value sooner than expected.

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