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Penn State Football 2014: New Opportunities

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After 45 years of one head coach and two more of another, a different figure will be pacing up and down the sidelines at Beaver Stadium this season.

New head coach James Franklin inherits a 2014 Nittany Lions squad that is stocked in some areas and thin in others as the team looks to build off last year’s 7-5 season under former head coach Bill O’Brien.

Franklin comes in to Happy Valley after leading Vanderbilt to consecutive Associated Press Top 25 finishes in 2012 and 2013 and bowl games in each of his three seasons with the Commodores.

One proven talent returning for Franklin is sophomore quarterback Christian Hackenberg, who gained the starting job as a true freshman in 2013 and led the team to seven wins while throwing for 2,955 yards and 20 touchdowns with just 10 interceptions.

“I just want to be the best player for this team and help these guys in any way that I can and help this team be successful,” Hackenberg said after the Blue-White scrimmage in April.

The Lions also feature a solid stable of running backs, as Zach Zwinak and Bill Belton each return for their final season at Penn State — Zwinak as a graduate student and Belton as a senior.

Franklin noted after the Blue-White game that the wildcat offense, with the running backs taking direct snaps, could be a part of the game plan in the fall.

Zwinak handled the bulk of the carries last year, rushing for 989 yards on 210 attempts with 12 touchdowns, but Belton was not far behind with 803 yards on 157 attempts and five touchdowns, including the game winner in an exciting 43-40 four-overtime win against Michigan.

“We are both working hard,” Belton said after the Blue-White scrimmage. “Whoever gets the starting job, we’ll see come Ireland.”
Penn State Bill Belton
With the loss of wide receiver Allen Robinson to the NFL, Hackenberg loses his number one target as Robinson had 1,432 receiving yards on 97 catches last year and pulled in six touchdowns.

The Lions could turn to wide-out Eugene Lewis, who hauled in three touchdowns and had 234 yards last year as the Lions’ fourth leading receiver, to attempt to fill Robinson’s shoes.

Hackenberg will also have other targets, as the team’s third leading receiver returns in Jesse James, who led the tight ends in 2013 with 333 yards on 25 catches with three touchdowns.

One shaky spot in the offense will be on the line, where Miles Dieffenbach and Donovan Smith will try to anchor a front five that lost Adam Gress, Gary Gilliam, Ty Howle and John Urschel from 2013.

Hackenberg said he believes in his new protectors, like Angelo Mangiro, who saw time last year and Derek Dowrey, who made the switch from d-line in the offseason.

“I have a ton of confidence in those guys and I know the coaching staff does,” Hackenberg said of his offensive line. “They’re going to do a great job for us.”

On defense, Jordan Lucas will be key in the secondary, as the team’s 2013 co-leader in interceptions with three, enters his junior season.

At safety, Adrian Amos and Ryan Keiser, who also had three picks last year, enter their senior seasons in 2014.

Fifth year senior C.J. Olaniyan (five sacks) returns to the defensive line, while Anthony Zettel (four sacks) will be back for his redshirt-junior season as well.

“I think we’ve got depth and I think we’ve got talent on the defensive line,” Franklin said.

Mike Hull, who was second on the team in total tackles with 78, highlights a linebacker corps that could also feature Ben Kline and Nyeem Wartman, who both saw action last season.

In terms of special teams, Sam Ficken is back for his senior season after hitting 15 of 23 field goals in 2013, including a long of 54 yards.

The Lions open their season in Dublin, Ireland against Central Florida on August 30. Last season, the Knights edged the lions 34-31 in an exciting game at Beaver Stadium.

Penn State Jesse JamesThe team also travels to Michigan and hosts Big 10 powers Ohio State and Michigan State.

While the squad still can’t go to a bowl game, it can still compete for a Big 10 East Division title.

“I think we’re in a good position as a unit to move forward,” Hackenberg said. “We’re very excited we have about the opportunity that we have next year.”

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