2014 College Football Preview: Penn State Nittany Lions

James Franklin

Two years ago after wins were vacated, scholarships removed, and bowl bans set into place upon the historic Penn State football program by the NCAA, Bill O’Brien was brought in to keep the football team together through the NCAA’s sanctions to rebuild the Penn State brand. Bill O’Brien certainly did an excellent job of starting to rebuild Penn State in the time he spent in Happy Valley, leading the Nittany Lions to consecutive winning seasons. As Bill O’Brien leaves to begin his head coaching career in the NFL with the Houston Texans, in comes former Vanderbilt head coach James Franklin to pick up where O’Brien left off. Let’s take a look back at how the Nittany Lions finished in O’Brien’s last season.

2013 Penn State Nittany Lions Season

The storyline entering 2013 for Penn State was freshman quarterback and top recruit Christian Hackenberg getting the keys to offense with Matt McGloin in the NFL. Bill O’Brien’s offense was set around utilizing the tight end position, packing two and even three tight ends in set plays. Early in games, Penn State would establish their running game to open up the play-action pass for Hackenberg, allowing the freshman to hit All-Big Ten wide out Allen Robinson. The Hackenberg-Robinson connection was definitely one of the major highlights for the 2013 Nittany Lions, as the duo connected on 97 occasions for 1,432 yards and six touchdowns. In Hackenberg’s first season, Penn State would finish a respectable 7-5, leaving Nittany Lion fans lots to look forward to in 2014. Two of Penn State’s biggest wins came against Michigan and Wisconsin. On homecoming weekend in Happy Valley, the Nittany Lions defeated the Michigan Wolverines in a four overtime thriller, and ended their season with a huge road win at Wisconsin.

Offense

Christian Hackenberg will miss his favorite target in Allen Robinson, who forwent his senior season to enter the NFL Draft, eventually landing in Jacksonville at the 61st overall pick. The sophomore quarterback also found out on Monday that one of his tight ends, Adam Breneman, will be “out indefintely” with an injury to his left knee that will likely require surgery. Before a football is even snapped in 2014 for Penn State, Hackenberg will already be without two targets who accounted for 112 receptions, 1,618 yards, and nine touchdowns in 2013.

Even though the Nittany Lion offense will be without two key pieces from 2013 in 2014, all four of their top recruits consist of potential replacements in wide receivers Saeed Blacknall, Chris Goodwin, and De’Andre Thompkins along with tight end Mike Gesicki. To go along with their top recruits, Penn State will also be returning tight ends Jesse James and Kyle Carter, and wide receiver Geno Lewis. Despite the losses of Robinson and Breneman, Christian Hackenberg will still have a plentiful amount of weapons to orchestrate¬†another successful passing game in his sophomore season at Penn State.

Even with youth molding most of Penn State’s air attack, James Franklin will have experience in the backfield in seniors Zach Zwinak and Bill Belton to establish and maintain an effective running game. In 2013, Belton and Zwinak combined for 1,792 rushing yards and 17 touchdowns on 367 carries. One of the biggest challenges facing Penn State’s rushing attack is the offensive line having to replace three starters from 2013. The two returning starters are Donovan Smith and George Dieffenbach, while Angelo Mangiro, Brian Gaia, and Brendan Mahon look to round out the new Nittany Lion front line. If the offensive line comes together, Penn State will have a balanced, efficient offense that can control the clock and put up points.

Defense

In 2013, Penn State allowed 381 yards and 26.2 points per game. With¬†nine out of the 11 starters from last year’s Nittany Lion defense returning, Penn State should see better numbers from their defense in Franklin’s first season. The two positions that will see new starters are in the interior defensive line. Austin Johnson and Anthony Zettel will seek to replace the defensive tackles on 2013’s defensive unit in Kyle Baublitz and DaQuan Jones. On the edge of Penn State’s defensive line are veterans C.J. Olaniyan and Deion Barnes who excel at rushing the quarterback and causing havoc for opposing teams behind the line of scrimmage.

Brandon Bell, Mike Hull, and Nyeem Wartman return to make up the Nittany Lion line backing core, while Jordan Lucas, Trevor Williams, Ryan Keiser, and Adrian Amos come together for another year in the defensive backfield.¬†Experience is essential for a successful defense, and Penn State does have any problems when it comes to leadership and communication on the defensive side of the football for the upcoming season. With James Franklin not having to worry about his defense’s chemistry and ability to execute game plans, opponents will have a tough time putting up big numbers against Penn State.

Special Teams

Sam Ficken is the only returning starter on the special teams unit at the kicking position. The senior kicker will look to improve his accuracy and range on field goal attempts in order to post better numbers over his mediocre 2013 season. Freshmen Chris Gulla and DeAndre Thompkins take over starting roles in the special teams as Gulla begins his Penn State career at punter, and Thompkins heads back on fourth downs to return punts. Although Akeel Lynch was on the team last season, 2014 will be his first year as a starter as he embraces the role as Penn State’s kick returner.

2014 Season Outlook

James Franklin begins his Penn State head coaching career with plenty of veteran pieces to work with in order to put together a successful season. Even though Penn State cannot advance to postseason play, the Nittany Lions still look to be a formidable opponent for fellow Big 10 oppositions.

Notable games for Penn State include their season opener in Dublin, Ireland against Central Florida, along with road games against Michigan, Indiana, and Illinois. The Nittany Lions also have two huge home games where they will face two preseason top-10 teams in Ohio State and Michigan State. James Franklin’s first year in charge will certainly be an exciting one for Penn State fans, as a new era in Happy Valley begins.

Image Source: Chris Dunn/AP Photo

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