BIG Team Overview: Penn State Nittany Lions

A Big Ten fan's guide to the Penn State Nittany Lions heading into the 2016 season.

PENN STATE OVERVIEW

The Nittany Lions may be back to 85 available scholarships, but they are still feeling the impact of NCAA sanctions stemming from the Sandusky scandal. 

As of this writing, James Franklin had 81 players on scholarship, and two thirds of them (54) had freshman or sophomore eligibility. That included 35 true and redshirt freshmen, athletes who have never logged a college snap.

So after back-to-back 7-6 seasons, the Nittany Lions are not exactly poised to climb back into Big Ten title contention. But they don’t appear as if they are going to backslide, either. Ideally, this will be a springboard to much bigger and better things in 2017, when the bulk of the program finally begins to come of age.

OFFENSE

Harvey Levine/FOS

From the outside looking in, the key would seem to be replacing three-year starting QB Christian Hackenberg. And indeed, much focus was on that battle in the spring, which saw redshirt sophomore Trace McSorley (above right) emerge as the clear frontrunner ahead of redshirt freshman Tommy Stevens (above left).

But the more important story was how PSU adapted to the spread, up-tempo, check-with-me system new offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead brought with him after a record-setting run as head coach at Fordham. With the mobile McSorley and Stevens running it in the spring, the Lions were able to better exploit their extremely talented backs and receivers while masking the continued issues along the offensive line. It is all about keeping opposing defenses honest, which was an issue the last two seasons due to the bad line, poor pre-snap adjustments and a stationary QB.

Even with a struggling line (which is where the youth of the team has shown the most), RB Saquon Barkley cut loose for a PSU rookie record 1,076 yards in 2015. That included 194 in a loss at Ohio State.

PSU’s WR corps is experienced and deep. But it will be important for junior TE Mike Gesicki to pick up his game after a disappointing sophomore campaign.

DEFENSE

Harvey Levine/FOS

Penn State’s formidable defensive line made the linebackers and defensive backs look that much better last season. With Austin Johnson, Carl Nassib and Anthony Zettel off to the NFL, the back seven is going to have to return the favor in new coordinator Brent Pry's defense.

If healthy, linebacker will be a real strength. But that is a big “if.” Nyeem Wartman-White is returning from an ACL injury that knocked him out of most of 2015 and limited him in the spring. OLB Brandon Bell was limited in the spring due to an undisclosed injury. That left talented MLB Jason Cabinda (shown above) working with a bunch of underclassmen and walk-ons. The good news for Penn State fans is that the coaching staff believes everyone will be full go in time for camp, and a starting unit of Cabinda flanked by Bell and Wartman-White would be legit.

There are no superstars in the secondary, just a lot of good players who have played a lot of football. Penn State has the bodies to go big, small, nickel, dime — you name it. The starting CBs (Grant Haley and John Reid) are undersized but get after it.

Up front, PSU will be fine at end, with 2015 starter Garrett Sickels back, and players like Evan Schwan, Torrence Brown and @Shareef primed to step up. But keep an eye on the tackles, where Parker Cothren and Antoine "Salt" White are the only returnees with experience. Juco transfer Tyrell Chavis may be forced into a primary role early.

As for Pry, technically he was co-defensive coordinator with the since-departed Bob Shoop last year. So don’t expect any major changes in scheme.

SPECIAL TEAMS

While dealing with the sanctions, PSU felt it was unwise to spend scholarships on specialists. It showed last season, when the Lions struggled on kickoffs, extra points and punts, and only attempted one field goal longer than 50 yards (it was blocked).

Expect a pair of true freshmen from Georgia — punter Blake Gillikin and punter Alex Barbir — to push for starting jobs immediately.

PROJECTED MVP

Harvey Levine/FOS

If Barkley rushed for more than 1,000 yards in a struggling offense and behind one of the worst O-lines in school history, he has a chance to do some really special things moving forward. He is big (5-foot-11, 220), fast (team-best 4.39 40) and strong (check YouTube).

SUDDEN IMPACT

Harvey Levine/FOS

We’d say the punter Gillikin, but have a feeling readers would feel a little cheated. So we’ll go with Scout five-star RB Miles Sanders (above left). Yes, he plays the same position as Barkley. But Sanders is a terrific all-around back who can be used in tandem with Barkley or as a very capable relief runner.

FAST FACTS

2015 Record: 7-6 (4-4 B1G)

2015 Final Rank: Unranked

2015 Postseason: 24-17 loss to Georgia (TaxSlayer Bowl)

Lettermen Returning: 40 (16 O, 19 D, 5 ST)

Lettermen Lost: 19 (10 O, 9 D, 0 ST)

Starters Returning: 16 (8 O, 5 D, 3 ST)

Starters Lost: 9 (3 O, 6 D, 0 ST)

COACHING CHANGES

Harvey Levine/FOS

Out: OC John Donovan (fired), OL Herb Hand (Auburn), DC Bob Shoop (Tennessee)

In: OC Joe Moorhead, OL Matt Limegrover, S Tim Banks

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