In the past 48 seasons, the Penn State Nittany Lions have had three coaches, but with the departure of Bill O’Brien to the NFL, James Franklin will have made it two hires in three seasons. While Franklin doesn’t take over PSU within a firestorm of controversy like O’Brien, he still will be faced with challenges in Happy Valley, this time on the field as they only return three offensive starters from a team that went 7-6 in 2013.
The one position PSU fans won’t have to worry about is quarterback, as Christian Hackenberg looks to build upon a successful freshman season. Many questioned his decision to remain committed to Penn State despite the NCAA sanctions, but in his first season, he proved to many that he made the right decision as he passed for 2,955 yards with 20 TDs and led the team to victories over Michigan and Wisconsin. He faces a tougher challenge in 2014, as the offense will be replacing four lineman and his go-to receiver Allen Robinson. Sophomore Eugene “Geno” Lewis — 18 catches for 234 yards — will look to have a bigger role in the offense and expect Hackenberg to rely more on tight end Jesse James, 25 catches for 333 yards as well. PSU also recruited three highly touted receivers in 2014 — Saeed Blacknall, Chris Godwin and De’Andre Thompkins — and all three will be expected to contribute early to an unsettled receiver group.
The strength of the Nittany Lions’ offense will be the running game led by a trio of backs — Zach Zwinak, Bill Belton and Akeel Lynch. Zwinak, the bruiser of the group, was the leading rusher in 2013 with 989 yards despite only starting eight games. Belton contributed 1,036 total yards and provides both the size an the speed, while Lynch is a home run threat after averaging 6.0 yards per carry in limited action.
With the departure of All-Big 10 performer DeQuan Jones, Penn State will need someone on the defensive line to step up. Junior defensive end Dion Barnes will be the most likely candidate, especially if he is able to get back to the form that helped him win Big Ten Freshman of the Year in 2012. In 2013, there was a reduction in every defensive category — tackles, tackles for loss and sacks — but he has the talent to rebound. Joining him up front are returning starters senior C.J. Olaniyan, sophomore Austin Johnson and new starter defensive tackle junior Anthony Zettel.
The defensive backfield may have the most talent of the defensive units returning three starters: senior safety Adrian Amos, junior cornerback Jordan Lucas and junior cornerback Trevor Williams, and a reserve that saw extensive time in senior safety Ryan Keiser. Lucas tied for the team lead in interceptions (three), and was third on the team in tackles with 65 — a high number from that position, which shows his willingness to mix it up as a pass defender and in the run game.
The linebacker position will be led by senior Mike Hull, who is moving to the middle linebacker position to provide more stability at the position.
They open the 2014 season overseas as they travel to Dublin, Ireland to face UCF in a rematch of the 34-31 defeat. The Nittany Lions have an advantage with the Golden Knights breaking in a new quarterback.
They have three home non-conference games against “cupcake” teams Akron, UMASS, and Temple, which will give them three victories heading into Big 10 conference play.
Having to travel to Rutgers, Michigan, Indiana and Illinois won’t be an easy task for a team breaking in nine new starters, but 3-1 is feasible with victories coming against Rutgers, Indiana and Illinois. Defeating the Wolverines is also not out of the realm of possibility if Hackenberg is able to expose the defensive deficiencies at Michigan.
Home games against Northwestern, Ohio State, Maryland and Michigan State could very well be more daunting than the road schedule, considering two of the games are against the favorites to win the East Division. They face the Northwestern, OSU and Maryland in a four week stretch, with the U-M game sandwiched between facing the Wildcats and Buckeyes.
While two conference home wins will be the most that Nittany Lions fans can hope for, it still will be a successful first season for Franklin and his staff as they finish the year 8-4.
With the NCAA reducing more restrictions against the program this season could be the foundation of getting the team back to being conference contenders.