For two years running, Penn State has exceeded expectations and finished above .500. But with Sports Illustrated recently suggesting that Bill O’Brien is heading to the NFL, it doesn’t appear the sledding will get any easier in 2014.
Regardless of who’s coaching the Nittany Lions next season, certain players will need to step up if the team is to equal or improve on last season’s record. Penn State will likely lose some of its best players on either side of the ball including Allen Robinson, Glenn Carson and DaQuan Jones.
So who will need to step up in 2014 in order to replace their production? Read on to find out.
Christian Hackenberg heads into 2014 after posting a stellar freshman season. The 18-year-old was rightfully named the Big Ten Freshman of the Year after posting a 2-1 ratio of touchdowns to interceptions and nearly throwing for 3,000 passing yards.
However, if he is to even equal those statistics next year, he’ll have to significantly increase his level of play—especially if star wideout Allen Robinson decides to declare for the NFL draft, as many expect.
Should Robinson leave, he’ll be taking nearly half (1,432) of Penn State’s 3,110 passing yards with him. No other Nittany Lion had more than 333 receiving yards in 2013.
This means the onus will be on Hackenberg to lead Penn State’s passing game and establish a rapport with his talented yet largely inexperienced tight ends and receivers.
Which brings me to my next player whom Penn State will need to up his game next season.
Penn State fans got a glimpse of Geno Lewis’ big-play potential in 2013. In the first and last games of the season against Syracuse and Wisconsin, respectively, he managed to get behind the secondary for game-icing 50-plus-yard touchdowns.
However, the 10 games sandwiched between those performances leave fans doubtful that the redshirt freshman can handle being the team’s top target. And with Robinson and Brandon Felder both likely gone, Lewis may have the role by default.
In the 10 games between Syracuse and Wisconsin, Lewis managed only 13 catches and 81 receiving yards. Coupled with that, he was statistically blanked in five of those games and struggled with drops at times.
He doesn’t have to be Robinson, but if Penn State’s passing game is to remain a viable weapon, then he has to make the leap and prove worthy of being the top receiver in 2014.
Once again, Penn State is faced with the unenviable task of replacing a top-flight defensive tackle. Devon Still (2012) and Jordan Hill (2013) were both recent Day 2 draft picks at the defensive tackle spot, and DaQuan Jones will likely follow in their footsteps this spring.
Jones, a two-year starter, will be taking 56 tackles (most among defensive linemen) and a team-leading 11.5 tackles for loss with him when he departs for the NFL. For comparison’s sake, presumptive starters Kyle Baublitz and Austin Johnson managed six fewer tackles and 5.5 fewer tackles for loss between them this year.
Playing in the duo’s favor is the fact that they’ll be coached up by Larry Johnson Sr. He is regarded as one of the best defensive line coaches in the nation and was instrumental in the development of standouts like Jones, Still, Aaron Maybin and Tamba Hali.
It’s a testament to Johnson’s coaching that Penn State has consistently fielded dominant defensive linemen, and the Nittany Lions defense will need Baublitz and Johnson to keep that trend going.
Like his father before him, Mike Hull couldn’t resist the appeal of playing for “Linebacker U." And in 2014, he’ll get his shot to lead the Nittany Lions’ esteemed linebacker group.
With the graduation of leading tackler Glenn Carson, two youngsters in Nyeem Wartman and Brandon Bell will likely flank Hull, a senior. Both have shown flashes, but their inexperience leaves little question as to who will be the team’s defensive captain.
Hull will have some big shoes to fill next season, and it only starts with the departed Carson. From names like Jack Ham and Shane Conlan to more recent standouts like Paul Posluszny and Michael Mauti, expectations for Hull to carry on the rich linebacker tradition in Happy Valley will be high.
He has flashed the ability to swing momentum in a game, most memorably with an early blocked punt that led to a 7-0 lead against Ohio State in 2012. Nittany Lions fans can only hope that he will provide even more excitement in 2014.