Franklin, Penn State Face Favorable Schedule
By SHAWN RINE
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — At first glance it might appear this is going to be a rebuilding season in Happy Valley. One would not be out of place coming to such a conclusion by looking at whom Penn State is missing from last season — Saquon Barkley, most of the back seven on defense and offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead, among others.
But dig a little deeper and the opposite argument could be made. Coach James Franklin returns one of the best quarterbacks America has to offer in Trace McSorely, and a favorable schedule sets up nicely for a run at a Big Ten title.
The Nittany Lions get two of their toughest three games — Ohio State and Wisconsin — at home, though a date with Michigan at The Big House looms. The out of conference schedule includes such heavyweights as Appalachian State, Kent State and Pittsburgh.
The offense, headed by McSorley, appears to have the ability to be potent. He became a much more adept passer last season as his career-high 66.5-percent completion percentage suggests. It’s no coincidence, however, that the transformation occurred, at least in part, due to McSorley not taking as many deep shots down the field — average completion dipped from 16.1 to 12.6 yards.
McSorley has a big target to throw to in 6-foot-4, 229-pound Juwan Johnson. He was second on the team as a sophomore with 54 catches and 701 yards.
Replacing Barkley will not be easy. But junior Miles Sanders gets the unenviable pressure of trying to do so. Sanders averaged 6.7 yards a carry his first two seasons.
However, Sanders won’t be expected to carry to load by himself. There’s a plethora of capable backs in seniors Mark Allen and Jonathan Thomas, as well as redshirt freshman Journey Brown and true freshman Ricky Slade, who will see carries.
With four starters returning along what promises to be one of the best offensive lines in the country, the skill players should have more than enough time to make an abundance of splash plays.
Defensively the path isn’t so clear. Penn State must find a pair of nose tackles and replace a couple middle linebackers, so it’s understandable that Franklin would tell reporters the Nittany Lions are going to be a bit green up the middle.
Juniors Kevin Givens and Robert Windor had the inside track at the tackle positions, but the battles raged deep into camp. Linebacker could be an issue. Prized recruit Micah Parsons came to Penn State as a defensive end but was immediately penciled in at middle linebacker, then moved again to the weakside.
Another freshman, redshirt Ellis Brooks, will probably see time at middle linebacker.
Shareef Miller, who led the team with five sacks last season, is back to spearhead what should be a nasty, aggressive group of ends.
In the secondary is where the most change will be seen. The Lions lost four starters but do have some experience back.
Senior corner Amani Oruwariye led the team with four interceptions last season despite operating primarily out of a reserve role. John Reed, a starter in 2016 who missed all of last season because of injury, is also back.
Punter Blake Gillikin returns for another season and owns a career average of 43 yards, which ranks highly in school history. Four unproven freshmen – one a walkon – were battling for the kicking duties.