Penn State Football: Strengths, Weaknesses and Secret Weapons

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Penn State Football: Strengths, Weaknesses and Secret Weapons
Bill Kostroun/Associated Press

The Nittany Lions won't have everything they need to chase a Big Ten divisional crown in 2014, but not all hope should be lost. This team has several bright spots and players to build on this year and beyond.

There are also a few spots the team will need to cover up in order to succeed.

New head coach James Franklin will have his hands full, but with a little luck, a stellar 2014 campaign is not out of the question with this Penn State squad.


Strengths 

Any team in the conference would be pleased with the depth Penn State has at tight end, running back and along its defensive line. 

Jesse James, Kyle Carter and Adam Breneman accounted for 58 catches, more than the tight ends for Ohio State and Michigan State combined. They'll be joined this season by Brent Wilkerson, who redshirted last season.

Franklin will have to get creative when it comes to using his tight ends as effectively as possible, but that's a good problem to have.

Along with the tight ends, Franklin has a stable of running backs to lean on in Zach Zwinak, Bill Belton, Akeel Lynch and his incoming freshmen who will be battling for reps. Zwinak has just less than 2,000 yards since the start of the 2012 season, and Belton seems primed for a breakout season.

Those two groups will help Penn State's greatest single offensive asset: sophomore quarterback Christian Hackenberg. He has a full season under his belt and should be expected to improve on a stellar freshman season that saw him throw for nearly 3,000 yards.

Already being talked about as a future first-round draft pick, more will be on the young signal-caller's shoulders this year, but he should be up to it.

Defensively, the heart will be up front, particularly with the ends. Veterans C.J. Olaniyan and Deion Barnes will be backed up by high school All-American Garrett Sickels and a group of players capable of starting in 2015.

 

Weaknesses 

The single biggest weakness facing Penn State is its depth. Along the offensive line, underclassmen will be forced into action earlier than they should. At wide receiver and linebacker, you can count the tested veterans on one hand, and the secondary is a work in progress.

It will be interesting to see if redshirt freshman Andrew Nelson can live up to the hype when he's thrown into action as the Week 1 starter at right tackle. Penn State fans surely hope so because the depth chart behind him isn't full of promise. 

Geno Lewis is the only receiver on the team with more than six career catches, and in his one season he had the luxury of playing opposite of Allen Robinson. 

Mike Hull will lead an inexperienced linebacker unit, but he has a history of injuries, as does running mate Ben Kline. Youngsters Brandon Bell, Nyeem Wartman and Troy Reeder will battle for snaps, but there's not much in the cupboard behind them.

 

Secret Weapons 

Though experience at wide receiver is scarce, talent is far from it. 

De'Andre Thompkins enrolled in January and quickly established himself as the fastest player on the team. He'll see the field early and often in 2014, whether it's on special teams or as a playmaker on the offense.

Saeed Blacknall and Chris Godwin are true wide receivers with crisp route-running ability and great hands. Blacknall is a big target at 6'3", while Godwin may wind up as the best of a good bunch.

Troy Apke made a name for himself in Western Pennsylvania during track season, showing off speed that not many knew he had. If not for the class he's entering school with, it would be hard to keep him off the field. He could turn some heads in a slot role this summer and see snaps of his own.

The wild card of this group in 2014 will be Mike Gesicki. He'll eventually grow into a tight end, but with that position loaded with talent, the coaches will start Gesicki out as a receiver to get him on the field as soon as possible. A freakish athlete with high school trophies as a basketball and volleyball player, the 6'6" Gesicki will be a mismatch for defensive backs and linebackers at the next level. 

Once things get sorted out, Christian Hackenberg is going to have some weapons at his disposal this year.

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