Friday, June 16, 2017

Bilo's 2017 College Football Previews: Penn State Nittany Lions

Penn State Nittany Lions
Penn State certainly did not look like a football team that would win the Big 10 early on in the 2016 season, but they did just that. They turned their season around in conference play after a bad loss to Michigan, and they never lost again in a miracle run that saw the Nittany Lions fall just short of winning the Rose Bowl in what was an all-time classic in the longest running bowl game ever. This fall, targets will be squarely on the backs of this football team, as they will surprise no one. James Franklin has plenty of weapons coming back to make another run, but can Penn State move past Ohio State in the East and make a national title run in 2017?
What To Be Excited About: Offense
There is always a great deal of importance with an offensive line, especially with this particular team. Four starters return to the fold in 2017, including Ryan Bates, Brendan Mahon, Connor McGovern, and Andrew Nelson. This is important because of the talent that will be lining up behind this group and around them as we head into fall camp.
Penn State will certainly boast one of the more talented backfields in the Big 10, if not the nation this season. Trace McSorley completely evolved last season as the year wore on, and became a star at QB. He passed for 3614 yards and 28 TDs to just nine INTs, and was just a different player at the end of the season than he was at the start. He also managed to rush for seven more scores and averaged 258.1 yards passing per game. If he can get a full season of big time production under him, he could be on that Heisman  list by the end of the season.
Joining McSorley in potential Heisman talk is RB Saquon Barkley. Barkley exploded last fall for 1496 yards and 18 TDs, while averaging 5.5 yards per carry on 19.43 carries per game. He could very well be one of the best RBs in the game this season if he stays healthy, and has an incredible line to run behind.
Not many teams still implement a true TE in the offense, but Penn State is old school that way, and they have one of the best returning TEs in the nation in Mike Gesicki. He caught 48 passes last fall for 689 yards and five scores, while averaging 14.15 yards per grab, and is the leading returning receiver. DaeSean Hamilton and DeAndre Tompkins will both be back after combining for 61 receptions for 946 yards and two scores. Tomkins has serious big play ability, as he averaged 16.3 yards per reception. They will have to step up to replace the production of last fall's leader Curtis Godwin, who has moved on to the NFL. Saeed Blacknall is also back to give the Lions a decent third receiver option.
Tyler Davis also returns as one of the better PKs nationally after hitting 22/24 attempts last season. An added bonus is that he also made all 62 of his PAT tries.
What To Be Concerned About: Offense
There is not a glaring concern anywhere on offense, but if I had to pick one, it would be a concern for depth at WR. After the initial top three receivers in Hamilton, Tompkins, and Blacknall, experience is scarce. Finding depth in fall camp among a group of freshmen and sophomores will be a big project.
What To Be Excited About: Defense
The middle of the line should be a major strength this fall for Penn State as both DTs return in Parker Cothran and Curtis Cothran. They combined for 10 TFLs last fall, and also combined for 47 tackles while clearing space for a talented LB corps.
Jason Cabinda and Manny Bowen will both be back at LB. Bowen finished the season with 8.5 TFLs, while Cabinda finished with 81 tackles. Bowen finished with 68 total tackles, and it looks as if Koa Farmer will get first crack at replacing Brandon Bell after finishing with 29 tackles last season.
Three starters return in the secondary, including both CBs in John Reid and Grant Haley. Redi finished with eight PBUs last fall, and Haley finished with four, and they combined for 75 tackles. The third starter to return will be S Marcus Allen. Allen led the team with 110 tackles, and added six for loss, and may be the heart of the defense this fall.
Torrance Brown will compete for an open DE spot and has starting experience. Others who return with starting experience at various positions on defense will be: S Troy Apke, LB Cam Brown, CB Christian Campbell, LB Jake Cooper, DT Kevin Givens, S Nick Scott, LB Brandon Smith, and DT Robert Windsor.
Blake Gillikin is back at Punter after a huge freshman season. He averaged 42.8 yards per punt, and was one of the best freshman special teamers in the nation.
What To Be Concerned About: Defense
Again, there is not much to be concerned about. The Lions have some losses, but they have a ton of experience coming back, and as one can see, plenty of depth with players returning with some starting experience.
There are two holes at DE, and the loss of Evan Schwan is a big hit. Brandon Bell being gone at LB is a huge hit as well, as he was a defensive star of the Rose Bowl until he was injured. USC took big advantage of his absence on their final drive.
Finding key replacements up front should not be tough for this staff, especially with the talent that has been amassed, but some the less experienced players have to step up and show what they have.
2017 Schedule: 9/2 Akron, 9/9 Pittsburgh, 9/16 Georgia State, 9/23 at Iowa, 9/30 Indiana, 10/7 at Northwestern, 10/21 Michigan, 10/28 at Ohio State, 11/4 at Michigan State, 11/11 Rutgers, 11/18 Nebraska, 11/25 at Maryland
Final Overview
Penn State is one of my top ten teams by far, and may be top five or six as we enter the season. James Franklin picked up the torch from Bill O'Brien in getting this program back on the rails after the darkest of times almost destroyed it. Penn State has enough weapons, specifically on offense, to push themselves back into the Big 10 title game, but there are a couple of road blocks, and Penn State must get past those trap games, but they have a punchers chance at getting back to the conference title game, and into a national semi-final.

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