In case you can’t tell by looking out your window — and if you live in the Scranton area, here’s guessing you can not — today is actually the first day of spring. Winter is over! You made it…barely!
For Penn State fans, though, it’s probably safer to give it a few extra days before we say it’s officially spring. Because the Nittany Lions’ 2017 spring practices don’t start until Wednesday.
As you know, there will be 15 of those practices, culminating in the annual Blue-White Game on April 22. And, head coach James Franklin will hold his annual spring press conference at noon on Tuesday to update everyone on what he’ll be looking for during those sessions.
Seems like as good a time as any to look at the five very early storylines that should be important to Nittany Lions fans as the team nears that first big step toward what this program hopes will be an historic 2017 season.
1.) Who will emerge as starters along the offensive line?
I guess this question has been a big one for a few years now, but it’s a bit different this time around. Penn State’s offensive line might have been the biggest reason for the team’s turnaround in 2016, and it is returning six players who started a game last season, in addition to a pair of highly regarded redshirt freshmen — guard Michal Menet and tackle Will Fries — who were close to playing last season.
But while this group returns largely intact, the one player it does have to replace is an important one: center Brian Gaia. Not to mention, tackles Andrew Nelson and Brendan Mahon battled injury last season.
The Nittany Lions will likely spend the spring developing some backup plans for the two tackles spots — or looking at players who could take the jobs from Nelson and Mahon outright. And from what I’m hearing, it appears as if Lake-Lehman grad Connor McGovern is going to get the first and perhaps strongest look at center to replace Gaia, even though the staff will want to see Menet there, as well. Once those positions are shored up, Penn State can then look to guard, where the versatility and depth that began to develop under Herb Hand two years ago and really accelerated under Matt Limegrover’s tutelage last year will be a benefit.
2.) Will this program finally be dangerous in the return game?
I’m sure we could have a lively discussion about this opinion, but to me, the return game is the area where there is the biggest gap between Penn State and teams like Alabama and USC and Clemson right now. Those programs have weapons there. But for as much as the Nittany Lions have talked over the years about recruiting that type of player and implementing him into the special teams, they haven’t been close to achieving sustained success.
Of course, guys like Nick Scott and John Reid and even Koa Farmer have shown some flashes. But those guys also play a lot outside of special teams; and the way the Nittany Lions were playing offense last year, it made it a very tempting decision on punts to just throw a guy like Gregg Garrity back there to catch the ball cleanly, make a smart decision and not fumble away a possession likely to end up with points on the board anyway.
But Garrity is gone, and the Nittany Lions once again recruited some players who had been successful high school return men. Some of them, Mac Hippenhammer comes to mind, won’t be joining the program until the summer. But KJ Hamler enrolled early, and judging by the depth at receiver, his main role this season would likely be as a special teamer if he’s able to come back rather quickly from a torn ACL suffered last August. If he or another of the more dynamic young receivers or backs gets some significant run on return teams, you’ll know the coaching staff is looking to rebuild there from the ground up and maybe take a chance that it can find someone dynamic.
3.) Which redshirted Class of 2016 player can make the biggest impact?
Everyone talks so much about recruits on signing day, then the ones who play as true freshmen the obviously get plenty of attention. But the players who are going to fill the gaps are going to be the somewhat-forgotten guys whose talent we generally stopped talking about a while ago because they were preparing themselves behind the scenes. (Shareef Miller is a good example. Writers spent some time talking about the impact he could make on the program when he signed in February of 2015, but he was hardly a guy that received much attention when we wrote about depth at the end spot heading into the 2016 season. Turned out, he’s a pretty good player and a likely starter in 2017.)
We talked about Fries and Menet as possibilities here, and I’d suppose Alex Gellerstedt might be as well. Danny Dalton might get some run at tight end, too, and Zech McPhearson could be one of those guys who finds a role as a backup corner.
But let’s face it: Defensive end Shane Simmons is the most interesting player the Nittany Lions will likely put on the field for the Blue-White Game. This is a big-time prospect, after all, with game-breaking pass-rushing ability, and he’s playing a position where Penn State will have to replace both starters. Of course, the question is how many strides he was able to make on the scout team and in the weight room last season, and that will determine his role. But there doesn’t seem to be any doubt that, of all the players who will be on the 2017 team that didn’t play a down in 2016, Simmons is the guy Penn State most needs to be a contributor.
4.) Is it time to expect different from the current receivers?
Those who know me well enough know that I’ll always, eventually, make a reference to the 1980 Miracle on Ice team, because I know that team so well and so much about that team and that tournament and that famous game against the USSR somehow holds true in every sport. So, I’m going to use something I immediately took away from that game when I started reading about it and studying it, and it’s something the great Ken Dryden said during the ABC pregame show. To paraphrase, it’s one thing to be young and talented; it’s another thing to be good.
Just my opinion, but largely, I thought the Penn State receiving corps was more young and talented last year that it was good, on an individual by individual basis. Of course, Chris Godwin was both. So was Mike Gesicki. And having two guys who are both can bail an offense out of a lot of problems. Just think back to how many big catches Godwin and Gesicki made last year if you want proof of just how many.
But now, Godwin is gone. While Gesicki returns, it’s fair to question what kind of contribution he’ll make — and for that matter, what Saquon Barkley can do in the passing game, as well — if Penn State doesn’t get more consistency out of the players who will be replacing Godwin. DaeSean Hamilton is what he is at this point: A very solid contributor, but really not a gamebreaker. DeAndre Thompkins is a speedy guy, but he has not been very consistent and was such a disaster early on in the Rose Bowl that be became a nonfactor. Saeed Blacknall is an extremely explosive player…when he’s on the field, which wasn’t in Pasadena, and hasn’t been nearly often enough over the years.
Penn State has some true freshmen — Hippenhammer and Cameron Sullivan-Brown — who could help arriving over the summer. But this spring is probably going to be more about whether guys like Juwan Johnson and Irvin Charles can find some niche and use what has been billed as tremendous physical talent to force their way into the lineup. It’s probably time for one of those two guys to emerge as a go-to target for quarterback Trace McSorley.
5.) How will the onset of high expectations affect this team?
This is not going to be a common team come August.
Sports Illustrated has already thrown down the gauntlet, saying it would rank Penn State as the No. 3 team in the nation heading into the 2017 season. It’s early, though. And for sure, preseason polls are stupid and should not exist. But they do, and the fact that Penn State is almost a certainty to open the season in the top 10, and perhaps in the top 5, that will open the season with a tremendous advantage.
That said, they will also open it with tremendous pressure.
We’ll see soon enough how the coaching staff and these players approach a season in which they’re going to be under a microscope from the beginning, a season in which they will be the ones who get every opponent’s best shot. And that’s going to be important to monitor, because this group has never been in a position like this. It was the underdog story of 2016, for sure. Now, though, they might be the favorite in the Big Ten, which should put the Nittany Lions in the thick of the College Football Playoff hunt.
For sure, Franklin and the players will say they want to maintain the same mindset they had last season. But that might not be easy.