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College Football: Penn State Preview

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With new coordinators on both sides of the ball, Penn State will have a decidedly different look when they take the field this weekend to open the 2016 season.

The new-look Lions may find themselves finishing with a similar record from 2015, but the latest edition of James Franklin’s Penn State squad is sure to get there differently.

In the course of just one offseason, the Nittany Lions managed to completely flip their identity. On the offensive side, that new identity brings hope for excitement under offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead and highlights from elite running back Saquon Barkley.

But defensively, fans in Happy Valley will need to adjust expectations and learn some new names, as the unit not only lost respected coordinator Bob Shoop, but also the front trio of Carl Nassib, Anthony Zettel and Austin Johnson, who combined for 26 sacks. Replacing Shoop will be former co-coordinator Brent Pry while former Illinois assistant Tim Banks was brought in to serve as co-coordinator and secondary coach.

“We got a new offensive coordinator, defensive coordinator and secondary coach and those guys have done a tremendous job,” Franklin said. “They have been a great fit for us and brought some new ideas.”

After four wildly successful years at Fordham, Moorhead is expected to bring that same magic that boosted the Ram’s offense to 5,439 total yards and 36.8 points per game last season. His high-tempo offense has already been a hit with Penn State players this offseason, particularly first-year starting quarterback Trace McSorley.

McSorley steps into the starting role left vacant by Christian Hackenberg’s leave for the NFL. After Hackenberg left January’s TaxSlayer Bowl injured in the second quarter, McSorely completed 14 of his 27 passes for 142 yards and a pair of touchdowns while nearly pulling Penn State out of a 21-point hole. The dual-threat quarterback showed the ability to extend plays and smoothly lead the offense, two characteristics that could greatly boost the Lions offense in 2016, especially considering the growing pains that may come with a new coordinator.

Along with hopes for McSorley and Moorhead, the loudest buzz around Happy Valley has surrounded Barkley. And rightly so.

After breaking out for 115 yards against Buffalo in week two, Barkley racked up a Penn State freshman record 1,076 yards last season on just 182 carries as he battled injuries. Now healthy, expectations are sky-high  as pundits have tossed around some mind-boggling stats the sophomore might hit, like 1,700 yards or 15 touchdowns. Or maybe both.

“I think you see a guy that has all the tools necessary to be a superstar. He has small back skills in a big back body,” Moorhead said of Barkley. “He can run by you, he can make you miss, he can run over you. He can hurdle you. He's good in pass protection… I think he's a great fit for what we're going to do offensively and has all the tools to be a special, special player.”

While the losses of Shoop, Nassib, Zettel and Johnson give the Penn State defensive a much different look, the returning players have immense trust that Pry can replicate last year’s success. Back are the leaders from the linebacking corp, Brandon Bell, Nyeem Wartman-White and Jason Cabinda, while returning starter Garrett Sickles will look to anchor a reloaded defensive line featuring Parker Cothran, Kevin Givens and Evan Schwan. Schwan is expected to start opposite Sickles while the freshman Givens garnered considerable buzz in the spring.

The Lions’ success in 2016 will largely hinge on how quickly players adjust to their new play styles and changes, but the schedule features at least seven games the Lions should expect to win and with some more Barkley magic, an eight-win season should be expected and a 9-3 season isn’t out of the question.Penn State James Franklin

THE PRESSURE IS ON: SAQUON BARKLEY, RB. The obvious choice, Barkley has the skill set to be among the nation’s best. Along with some potential contributions on special teams, Barkley could be the most valuable player in the whole conference.

BREAKOUT CANDIDATE: SAEED BLACKNALL, WR. The junior receiver has proven his big-play ability over the past two years, but expect him to develop a solid relationship with McSorley and start to contribute week-to-week in Geno Lewis’s absence.

TOP NEWCOMER: MILES SANDERS, RB. Another obvious choice, Sanders was one of the nation’s best high school backs last year and Moorhead has already expressed ideas to incorporate Sanders alongside Barkley.

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