Franklin Still Trying Get Penn State on Top
By TRACY WATSON
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — Penn State is a team in the Big Ten that could really make some noise in 2016,. But Coach James Franklin’s squad is also one that could struggle and fall by the wayside early on.
Franklin has guided the Nittany Lions to a 14-12 record during his first two seasons, but has only a 6-10 conference record, something that needs to improve quickly.
Penn State had a five-game winning streak in 2015, winning seven of eight games at one point, but dropped its final three regular-season games before falling to Georgia by a 24-17 margin in the TaxSlayer Bowl.
The Nittany Lions begin the season by playing host to Kent State before a Sept. 10 trip to Pittsburgh to renew their in-state rivalry with the Panthers. That will be followed by a game with Temple and the Big Ten opener at the Big House against Michigan.
While Franklin has guided the team to a pair of 7-6 records, he has also been saddled with the NCAA sanctions that hammered the team due to the Jerry Sandusky investigation. However, the team returns to full scholarship strength this season, suiting up 85 players for the first time since 2011.
“This is kind of a unique situation, because you’re having conversations about things that you, your staff and your players have nothing to do with and happened over 40 years ago,” Franklin told a Big Ten Conference press crew. “But you just want to make sure that you have open lines of communication, that you’re as transparent as you possibly can be.
“You get on the phone and reach out to people and answer questions and be as open, honest and truthful as you can be.”
Franklin will also watch a new era ushered in at Happy Valley with sophomore quarterback Trace McSorley taking over under center for Christian Hackenberg, who was drafted by the New York Jets last spring. In limited action last year McSorley completed 20 of 40 passes for 185 yards and two touchdowns while rushing for 43 yards.
Losing Hackenberg however, is the loss of a 2,500-yard passing quarterback who threw 16 touchdowns.
Freshman Tommy Stevens will be in the bullpen as McSorley’s backup.
On a brighter note Penn State does welcome back the team’s leading rusher as well as its leading receiver, both of whom were named second team All-Big Ten.
Sophomore Saquon Barkley rushed for 1,076 yards on 182 tries as a freshman, scoring seven touchdowns in only six starts, due to an ankle injury. Sophomore Mark Allen had 27 carries for 98 yards and will be the main backup.
The receiving corps is in good hands with the team’s top two pass-catchers back. Juniors Chris Godwin (69-1,101-5) and DaeSean Hamilton (45-580-6) combined for 114 catches, 1,681 yards and 11 scores. Junior Saeed Blacknall is the third receiver and had eight grabs for 248 and a score.
As far as reserve receivers the Nittany Lions are young with sophomore Brandon Polk and freshmen Juwan Johnson and Irvin Charles all fighting for playing time. Junior Mike Gasicki (13-125-1) will be the tight end.
More good news for McSorley is the fact Penn State has four returnees on the offensive line including senior Brian Gaia, who makes the move from guard to center, senior left tackle Paris Palmer, junior right guard Brendan Mahon and classmate Andrew Nelson at right tackle. The fifth spot on the line will go to senior left guard Derek Dowrey.
Backups on the line are senior Wendy Laurent at center, sophomore Chasz Wright and freshman Ryan Bates at guard, and sophomore Noah Beh and freshman Sterling Jenkins at tackle.
While the offense does have some pretty special skill players returning the defense took a major hit, losing six starters including a pair of first team Big-Ten honorees.
Defensive end Carl Nassib was not only first team, he was the conference defensive player of the year, while tackle Austin Johnson joined him on the honorary first-team unit. In all, six defensive starters are gone, including three on the line and two in the secondary.
The only returning starter on the line will be junior end Garrett Sickels, who will be joined on the other side by sophomore Torrence Brown. Senior Evan Schwan and freshman Ryan Buchholz are also available.
Both outside linebackers return in senior Brandon Bell and junior Jason Cabinda, with senior Nyeem Wartman-White the new middle backer. Sophomores Jake Cooper and Manny Bowen could also see playing time.
Juniors Grant Haley (corner) and Marcus Allen (free safety) are back in the secondary and will be joined by senior strong safety Malik Golden and sophomore corner John Reid. Others are junior Troy Apke, sophomore Amani Oruwariye and freshmen Jarvis Miller and Garrett Taylor.
Junior place-kicker Tyler Davis returns as does junior punter Daniel Pasquariello.
With a new quarterback, a revamped defense, new offensive and defensive coordinators and a tough Big Ten East Division that includes Ohio State, Michigan and Michigan State, things really could go either way for the Nittany Lions, who may need another season to grow.
“I think this is an exciting and pivotal time for Penn State football,” Franklin said. “I think overall its and exciting and pivotal time in all of college athletics right now.
“I think there’s very high expectations at Penn State, and there should be. I also would say that there’s very few programs that would have been able to come through what we’ve come through with the type of success that we’ve had, two bowl games in a row. Never had a losing season through the challenges. So there’s positives there to build on. There’s no doubt about it. But I think progress is going to come in every area.”