1. From the good-problem-to-have department, Penn State went from fielding a thin, inexperienced receiver group at the start of the 2014 season to a much more seasoned and deep unit now. DaeSean Hamilton, Geno Lewis, Chris Godwin and Saeed Blacknall all made big plays for the Nittany Lions last season, and speedy DeAndre Thompkins is coming out of a redshirt.
So what’s the problem?
By all accounts, true freshmen Juwan Johnson, Irvin Charles and Brandon Polk have all acquitted themselves well in camp. All have received first-team reps at some point. There is obviously no rush, but at some stage the staff is going to have to make some tough decisions on redshirts for the young wideouts.
Johnson and Charles are practically clones, as both measure in at 6-foot-4 and 210-plus pounds. We could see both emerging as the sort of big target that was missing from the WR corps last season, especially in red-zone situations. But will it make any sense to have both on the same eligibility timeline?
Polk, meanwhile, may be the most explosive player on the offense. He could be the type of slot threat the attack lacked last year. But Thompkins is the same kind of player.
These decisions won’t be easy for the staff. But again, good problem to have.
2. Speaking of the receivers, I anticipate the short passing game being much better this season than it was last year. As noted, the primary pass-catchers are all experienced now, and that should lead to them doing a better job of getting off the line and knowing what to do in audible situations.
More importantly, expect junior quarterback Christian Hackenberg to make better quick decisions while under pressure. That’ll be in part because he’s simply gotten better in that area (we started to see it in the Pinstripe Bowl), but also because he’s more in sync with the wideouts.
The backs should help there, too. Hackenberg completed only 36 passes to running backs last season, and just one went for a score. He had 276 completions (and 13 TDs) overall.
3. Speaking of the short-passing game, look for a breakout year from sophomore tight end Mike Gesicki. In the spring and through camp, he has become a go-to guy for the quarterbacks. He’s big (6-6, 252), athletic and strong.
With Jesse James off to the NFL, Kyle Carter on the mend from an undisclosed injury and Adam Breneman shaking off the rust after missing 2014 due to knee issues, Gesicki is a pivotal player for Hackenberg and the passing game in general. With his tools, it’s practically a slam-dunk that he’ll deliver as a receiver.
But … there is an area of concern here. James had great pass-catching skills last season, too, but struggled when it came to blocking. And that proved to be a disaster when coupled with the issues along the offensive line.
Like so many high school “tight ends,” Gesicki never put his hand in the dirt until he arrived in a college program (meaning he was really a big wideout). So blocking has been a learning experience for him.
I’m anxious to see how he’s progressed in this area.
4. Speaking of blocking, and at the risk of beating the proverbial dead horse, towering junior college transfer Paris Palmer still does not look completely comfortable as the starter at left tackle. A lot of folks are pointing to PSU’s relatively soft non-conference schedule and thinking the 6-foot-7, 300-pounder has plenty of time to make the transition.
But fans should not look past Temple in the opener. You can bet the coaching staff is not. The Owls had the nation’s No. 4 scoring defense last year (17.5 ppg). The unit returns 11 starters, including sacks leader (7.5) and defensive end Praise Martin-Oguike.
That game, which will be played in Philadelphia, is just over two weeks away.
5. Speaking of the season starting soon, that means the staff is going to have to start making decisions on redshirts — and not only at receiver.
But that does not figure to be quite so tricky with the rest of the offense.
Outside of the receivers, running back Saquan Barkley appears to be the most likely offensive true freshman to play this year. And the staff may need to have one of the young tight ends ready to go — we’d guess Jonathan Holland — due to the injury history of three of the players there (Breneman, Carter and Brent Wilkerson).