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Penn State Football: Depth Chart Analysis, Complete 2014 Preview and Predictions

Apr 12, 2014; State College, PA, USA; Penn State Nittany Lions quarterback Christian Hackenberg (14) signals in the first quarter of the Blue White spring game at Beaver Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Matthew O'Haren-USA TODAY Sports
USA TODAY Sports
Brian LeighFeatured ColumnistAugust 22, 2014

The first offseason of the James Franklin era has been loud.

Penn State's new head coach has never been shy, but he's never been more not shy than he has been the past eight months. He pillaged his old recruiting class before Vanderbilt could even scrub his name off the doors, and he's continued to make his presence known out on the trail by landing 12 4-star commits in the current cycle (tied for the most in the country). 

To Franklin's credit, he called his shot as soon as he was hired. "We are going to dominate the state," he promised at his introductory press conference in January. "We are going to dominate the region." 

So far, so good.

Unfortunately, there is not much Franklin can do to continue his momentum on the field in 2014. Penn State is still banned from playing in a bowl game as a result of the Jerry Sandusky scandal, and NCAA-mandated scholarship restrictions have taken a toll on the roster that can be felt at almost every position.

Still, with Franklin and sophomore quarterback Christian Hackenberg serving as the new faces of the program, the Nittany Lions finally feel like they can get back to where they once were.

Making tangible improvements this year is the start of that.

 

Coaches

2014 Penn State Coaching Staff
TitleNameYears w/ Team
Head CoachJames Franklin1
Offensive CoordinatorJohn Donovan1
Defensive CoordinatorBob Shoop1
Co-Defensive CoordinatorBrent Pry1
Quarterbacks CoachRicky Rahne1
Running Backs CoachCharles Huff1
Wide Receivers CoachJosh Gattis1
Tight Ends CoachJohn Donovan1
Offensive Line CoachHerb Hand1
Defensive Line CoachSean Spencer1
Linebackers CoachBrent Pry1
Cornerbacks CoachTerry Smith1
Safeties CoachBob Shoop1
Special Teams CoordinatorCharles Huff1
GoPSUSports.com

Man, that's a whole lot of ones.

Franklin brought an entirely new regime with him to Happy Valley, replacing even the last holdover from the Joe Paterno era, defensive line coach Larry Johnson (who is now with Ohio State).

Almost all of his staff comes over from Vanderbilt, too. Of the nine coaches flanking Franklin on the sideline, only Charles Huff (Western Michigan) and Terry Smith (Temple) didn't come to State College by way of Nashville, Tennessee.

John Donovan has been with Franklin since the Maryland days, and together the two have worked well to maximize production with less-than-elite talent. A similar compliment can be paid to offensive line coach Herb Hand, who probably has the hardest/most important job on the staff besides Franklin this season. Before joining on at Vanderbilt, Hand helped Rich Rodriguez and Todd Graham build double-digit winners out of West Virginia and Tulsa, respectively.

The defense is led by a pair of upstart coordinators, Bob Shoop and Brent Pry, who joined Franklin at Vanderbilt after coaching at the FCS level (Shoop at William & Mary; Pry at Georgia Southern).

Last year's Commodores defense ranked No. 48 on the F/+ ratings at Football Outsiders, a respectable finish (and then some) for an overmatched unit during a banner year for SEC offenses.

By all indications, they will do just fine at PSU.

 

What to Watch for on Offense

Penn State 2014 Offensive Depth Chart
1st String2nd String3rd String
QBChristian Hackenberg (So.)Michael O'Connor (Fr.)Trace McSorley (Fr.)
RBZach Zwinak (Sr.)Bill Belton (Sr.)Akeel Lynch (So.)
WR (X)Geno Lewis (So.)Matt Zanellato (Jr.)Saeed Blacknall (Fr.)
WR (Z)DaeSean Hamilton (Fr.)Chris Godwin (Fr.)Jake Kiley (Jr.)
WR (F)DeAndre Thompkins (Fr.)Gregg Garrity (So.)DeShawn Baker (Jr.)
TE (F)Kyle Carter (Jr.)Mike Gesicki (Fr.)Brent Wilkerson (So.)
TE (Y)Jesse James (Jr.)Adam Breneman (So.)*Tom Pancoast (So.)
LTDonovan Smith (Jr.)Albert Hall (So.)Chance Sorrell (Fr.)
LGDerek Dowrey (So.)Noah Beh (Fr.)Andrew Terlingo (Fr.)
CAngelo Mangrio (Jr.)Wendy Laurent (So.)Tom Devenney (Fr.)
RGBrian Gaia (So.)Brendan Mahon (Fr.)Steve Meyers (Fr.)
RTAndrew Nelson (Fr.)Chasz Wright (Fr.)Evan Galimberti (Fr.)
Source: GoPSUSports.com / Author Projections

*see: injury news

There is no middle ground with this offense: Position groups are either littered with questions (wide receiver; offensive line) or remarkably stable (tight end; the offensive backfield).

Let's start with the good—or, in Hackenberg's case, the great. 

His first year was an exemplar of why teams should throw their freshman quarterbacks to the fire (unless they're in "win-now" mode). He took his inevitable lumps, but those lumps helped him improve. By the season's final week, he was completing 70 percent of his passes for 339 yards and four touchdowns in a road upset over a team (Wisconsin) that almost made a BCS bowl.

If not for Hackenberg, it very well might have.

Behind the now-sophomore QB returns a trio of experienced and well-assorted running backs: Zach Zwinak, Bill Belton and Akeel Lynch. Zwinak is the "starter" by definition, and he fits the mold of a Franklin-esque bruiser such as Vanderbilt running backs Zac Stacy and Jerron Seymour, but all three should see the field.

The tight end position is equally well-stocked. Even with the loss of Adam Breneman, who sounds like he might be done for the season with a knee injury (more on this below), Jesse James and Kyle Carter are two of the five or six best tight ends in the conference, and freshman Mike Gesicki looks like a quick contributor behind them.

Aug 31, 2013; East Rutherford, NJ, USA; Penn State Nittany Lions wide receiver Geno Lewis (7) reacts after scoring a touchdown during the third quarter against the Syracuse Orange at MetLife Stadium.  Penn State defeated Syracuse 23-17.  Mandatory Credit:
USA TODAY Sports

Receiver, though, is a bit of a crapshoot. It's hard to articulate how much this offense relied on Robinson last season: He was targeted 150 times to the rest of the team's 231, per Bill Connelly of Football Study Hall, and he finished with 46 percent of its 3,110 receiving yards.

That's a lot.

Replacing Robinson will be a joint effort—one that includes a heavy, unsafe reliance on true freshmen. De'Andre Thompkins, Chris Godwin and Saeed Blacknall should all be called upon to contribute along with Geno Lewis and DaeSean Hamilton. The raw talent is there for them to succeed, but they will need a lot of help.

On that front, having an all-world quarterback such as Hackenberg is a boon. On the same front, though, having an offensive line depleted by injuries and scholarship restrictions is…well, not.

To be frank, the offensive line is hanging on by a thread. Both projected starting guards (Derek Dowrey and Brian Gaia) are converted defensive tackles, and both projected starting tackles (Donovan Smith and Andrew Nelson) are dealing with injury issues this fall.

The outlook is bleak beyond the top seven, which includes the five players listed on the first team plus Wendy Laurent and Brendan Mahon. No matter who gets injured, it would likely be Laurent or Mahon replacing them. Per Audrey Snyder of PennLive.com, Mahon has been double-dipping in practice because of injuries, lining up at tackle with the first team and at guard with the second-stringers.

Poor pass protection does not suit Hackenberg's strengths. He is not overly elusive, and although he is adept enough to get by with shorter, timing-based routes, his real bread and butter is the deep ball. He needs time for his receivers to get downfield.

 

What to Watch for on Defense

Penn State 2014 Defensive Depth Chart
1st String2nd String3rd String
DEDeion Barnes (Jr.)Curtis Cothran (Fr.)Brad Bars (Sr.)
DTAnthony Zettel (Jr.)Tyrone Smith (Sr.)Antoine White (Fr.)
DTAustin Johnson (So.)Tarow Barney (Jr.)Parker Cothren (Fr.)
DEC.J. Olaniyan (Sr.)Carl Nassib (Jr.)Garrett Sickels (Fr.)
OLBNyeem Wartman (So.)Jason Cabinda (Fr.)T.J. Rhattigan (Jr.)
MLBMike Hull (Sr.)Gary Wooten (So.)Troy Reeder (Fr.)
OLBBrandon Bell (So.)Matthew Baney (Jr.)Koa Farmer (Fr.)
CBTrevor Williams (Jr.)Da'Quan Davis (Jr.)Christian Campbell (Fr.)
FSRyan Keiser (Sr.)Jesse Della Valle (Jr.)Marcus Allen (Fr.)
SSAdrian Amos (Sr.)Malik Golden (So.)Jordan Dudas (Jr.)
CBJordan Lucas (Jr.)Jordan Smith (So.)Grant Haley (Fr.)
Source: GoPSUSports.com / Author Projections

Last year's defense could match any offense in the conference—and probably any offense in the country—on the ground. It finished No. 8 in Football Outsiders' run defense S&P+ ratings, and four of the seven teams that finished ahead of it (Michigan State, Alabama, Florida State and Stanford) played in a BCS bowl game.

Gone from that defense are space-eating defensive tackle DaQuan Jones and middle linebacker Glenn Carson, and a slight drop-off can be expected because of it. Fortunately, enough talent returns that the result of that drop-off should be negligible.

A big reason for that is the introduction of Shoop—or, to be precise, of Shoop instead of a different defensive coordinator. The biggest challenge most programs face in the first year of a new coaching regime is adjusting to a new scheme or style, but Shoop runs a similar defense to that of former coordinator Tom Bradley.

Ian Boyd of Football Study Hall explains:

Shoop's schemes reflect the evolution of 4-3 defense to the modern era. He largely uses the 4-3 over front that has been primary in State College for the last several decades, and he also loves to apply pressure with the zone blitz, another long-standing staple at Linebacker University. …

Under Franklin, you can expect Penn State to look much like it always has: relying on good fundamentals in a 4-3 defense and looking to crack skulls…

Boyd's whole piece is worth a read (if you're into the X's and O's), but essentially, he describes the new defense as a moderate variation on Bradley's. The principles and the alignment will be similar, but the role certain positions occupy will evolve.

Specifically, Shoop and Pry ask the secondary to player a bigger role in run support than the old regime did. A school famous for its linebackers still has a couple of good ones in Mike Hull and Nyeem Wartman, but the player who could most benefit from the new coaching staff is hard-hitting safety Adrian Amos, who is back to his preferred spot after being forced into action at cornerback last year.

"I think Adrian Amos has as unique of a skill set as I've ever been around," Shoop said this offseason, per Bob Flounders of PennLive.com. "If he makes the commitment to do it, he could be the best defensive back or safety in all of college football next year."

Oct 12, 2013; University Park, PA, USA; Penn State Nittany Lions cornerback Jordan Lucas (9) during the second quarter against the Michigan Wolverines at Beaver Stadium. Penn State defeated Michigan 43-40 in overtime. Mandatory Credit: Matthew O'Haren-USA
USA TODAY Sports

The pass defense wasn't as good as the run defense last season but should ostensibly improve now that the cornerbacks are another year older.

Trevor Williams is a name to watch after he struggled so publicly last season, but Jordan Lucas is a nascent star who could thrive the same way Andre Hal did at Vandy.

Along the line, C.J. Olaniyan returns after posting five sacks and 11 tackles for loss last season, and if Deion Barnes can revert to his 2012 form—the one that made him an FWAA Freshman All-American—the Nittany Lions should have a formidable pass rush to boot.

The lack of linebacker depth (and, really, depth in general) gives cause for concern, but if this group stays healthy, it shouldn't be too far off from a traditional Penn State-caliber defense.

Of course, the same could be said of almost any team before the season; that conditional "if they stay healthy" requires a good deal of luck, and Penn State has a smaller margin for error than most.

The best it can do now is hope.

 

Injury News

Penn State Injuries (as of 8/22/14)
PlayerInjury TypeLength of Injury
TE Adam BrenemanUndisclosedIndefinite
LB Ben KlineTorn AchillesIndefinite
OG Miles DiffenbachTorn ACLIndefinite
Source: Various

Losing Breneman hurts but is not insurmountable thanks to James, Carter and Gesicki. Still, getting him back would be huge.

It doesn't sound like Breneman will be able to return, but it's not out of the question. Franklin has stayed mum on the nature and severity of his injury, only confirming that the sophomore tight end will need surgery, but Flounders cites sources saying it's a knee injury that will "likely necessitate a redshirt season."

Ben Kline tore his Achilles during summer workouts and is likely to miss the season because of it, which is a shame because he was loosely competing to start. Either way, he was being counted on to contribute, and his absence makes linebacking depth an even bigger question.

Miles Dieffenbach tore his ACL during spring practice and is also a good bet to miss the season, although there is a modicum of promise. Dieffenbach told Flounders that he's targeting a late-season return, "hopefully…for the last 3-4 games."

A projected starter before going down, Dieffenbach's return would surely be welcome news—especially with ostensible injuries and wear-and-tear starting to accumulate in the last month of the season.

But so soon after an ACL injury, it's not worth banking on.

 

X-Factor: RT Andrew Nelson

Credit: 247Sports

More than any blunder it could make right now, the one thing Penn State can least afford to do is not protect Hackenberg.

This is scary because, more than any blunder it could make right now, not protecting Hackenberg seems the most likely to happen.

In an ideal world, a redshirt freshman such as Nelson would not be so heavily relied upon. Even if he worked his way into the starting lineup, there would be a veteran safety net behind him. Penn State doesn't have that, though, which means Nelson must play, play well and stay healthy for 12 games this season.

That is a lot to ask of any player, especially one who has never played a college snap. But Nelson might be up for the job. Hand has shown a lot of faith in Nelson this fall, trusting him to play left tackle (on Hackenberg's blind side) while Smith has sat out of practice with an injury, and those reps in the spotlight should help with Nelson's ego.

Will that be enough, though?

Penn State's schedule includes some formidable defensive linemen. Worse yet, it includes some formidable defensive line pairs. Ohio State attacks with Noah Spence on one side and Joey Bosa on the other; Michigan State attacks with Shilique Calhoun on one side and Marcus Rush on the other; Michigan attacks with Frank Clark on one side and Brennen Beyer on the other—the list goes on and on.

Penn State needs two reliable tackles if it wants to keep Hackenberg upright and healthy. On paper, Nelson is that No. 2.

But if anything goes wrong, the wheels could fall off.

And fast.

 

2014 Schedule

Penn State 2014 Schedule
DateOpponentLocation
Saturday, Aug. 30vs. Central FloridaDublin, Ireland
Saturday, Sept. 6vs. AkronUniversity Park, Pa.
Saturday, Sept. 13at RutgersPiscataway, N.J.
Saturday, Sept. 20vs. MasschusettsUniversity Park, Pa.
Saturday, Sept. 27vs. NothwesternUniversity Park, Pa.
Saturday, Oct. 4BYEWEEK
Saturday, Oct. 11at MichiganAnn Arbor, Mich.
Saturday, Oct. 18BYEWEEK
Saturday, Oct. 25vs. Ohio StateUniversity Park, Pa.
Saturday, Nov. 1vs. MarylandUniversity Park, Pa.
Saturday, Nov. 8at IndianaBloomington, Ind.
Saturday, Nov. 15vs. TempleUniversity Park, Pa.
Saturday, Nov. 22at IllinoisChampaign, Ill.
Saturday, Nov. 29vs. Michigan StateUniversity Park, Pa.
Source: GoPSUSports.com

 

Make-or-Break Games

Sep 14, 2013; University Park, PA, USA; Central Florida Knights wide receiver Rannell Hall (6) runs the ball on a punt return during the third quarter against the Penn State Nittany Lions at Beaver Stadium. Central Florida defeated Penn State 34-31. Manda
USA TODAY Sports

Rain or shine; Ireland or America; volcanic eruption or no volcanic eruption—it doesn't matter. Penn State has to beat Central Florida.

It just has to.

Of course, that is easier said than done. UCF won the Fiesta Bowl (and beat Penn State) last season, and even though it loses quarterback Blake Bortles and running back Storm Johnson, it returns meaningful pieces from that team such as running back William Stanback, linebacker Terrance Plummer, cornerback Jacoby Glenn and four receivers that could hang in a power conference. In a vacuum, there would be no shame in losing to the Golden Knights.

But the Nittany Lions can't afford to do it. They have to start the season with a jolt. Given the momentum they've accumulated this offseason, a loss would serve as a sobering road block, where a win would keep the ball rolling at its current pace (and then some).

As for the rest of the games on the schedule, none really stick out as "make or break." Home dates with Ohio State and Michigan State could certainly "make" the season, but because Penn State cannot win the conference or play in a bowl game or anything, they can't really "break" it. The pressure is squarely on the visiting team.

If forced to highlight a second game, though, November 1 against Maryland could have major recruiting implications. Franklin has taken giddy pleasure in recruiting the Old Line State, and even though the Terps have stayed afloat with a couple of big commitments (credit where it's due to Randy Edsall), it still feels like the wrong outcome at Beaver Stadium could bury them out on the trail.

On the flip side, Maryland has a team good enough to beat Penn State, especially one week after Penn State plays the Buckeyes. Scoring a win over Franklin—a former UMD assistant—in his own backyard could make a big impact on local recruits (e.g. Jay Stocker) in addition to exorcising some personal demons.

For many reasons, that's a game worth watching closely.

 

Prediction

By most accounts, this will be considered a successful season.

Interpret that how you will.

Obviously, it is hard to make predictions for a team that cannot make a bowl game or win the conference championship. Ohio State raised the bar pretty high in a similar situation two years ago, finishing 12-0 and feeding off that momentum through the next offseason, and there's no reason Penn State can't enjoy something similar.

Similar. Not identical. This team will not go undefeated. It doesn't have the depth along the offensive line—or, to be honest, at almost any position—to beat all of the teams on its schedule. There will be games where this experiment looks ugly, losses that should have been wins.

However, there might also be wins that should have been losses. On the road against Michigan and at home against Ohio State and Michigan State—watch the Nittany Lions pull one of those out. They scored a signature victory at Wisconsin last season. We know what they are care capable of doing (at least for 60 minutes).

All things told, this feels like an 8-4 season. It could swing to 9-3 or 7-5 based on modest close-game luck or 6-6 or 10-2 based on crazy close-game luck, but it's hard to see them deviating too far from center.

An above-average team on the cusp of outliving its sanctions will remain enticing to local and national recruits, and Franklin will continue to dominate in that regard. Penn State might be a sneaky Big Ten title contender in 2015 and a sneaky national title contender in 2016—but only if Hackenberg stays for his senior season (unlikely).

The momentum Penn State has gathered this offseason will slow down but not change course. Keeping the ball from rolling downhill is the biggest goal of this season, and that will be accomplished. It won't blow anyone off their feet, but it also won't rub them the wrong way.

And that, by most accounts, will constitute a successful year.

 

Overall Record: 8-4

Big Ten Record: 5-3

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