Following a whirlwind couple months on the job, Penn State’s new head football coach can finally get back to what he does best: coach.
In the past few weeks Penn State coach James Franklin sounded much like a man eager to finally hit the field at Beaver Stadium with his team after a grueling first few months on the job.
After countless hours on the recruiting trail, on the practice field and long days (and nights) in his office, Franklin will coach his first game as Nittany Lions head coach on Saturday when Penn State holds it’s annual Blue/White Spring game in Beaver Stadium at 1:30 pm.
Since being announced as the 16th head coach in the programs history on January 11th, Franklin has been one of the busiest men in the country. He joked during his introductory press conference that he would be hitting the recruiting trail as soon as possible, and he was right. He spent the next few months securing and adding onto the class that former coach Bill O’Brien and his staff had in place. He was able to secure a top-25 class according to most recruiting services in addition to keeping much of the current roster intact.
Most of those prospects from the 2014 class will be on display during the Blue/White game, as Franklin has been adamant that freshman will be counted on to play due to roster limits on the program stemming from NCAA sanctions.
“We’ve got some young guys that are going to have to play. With the sanctions, it’s just the way it has to be, and that’s okay,” said Franklin to reporters after National Signing Day.
But even with an impressive group of incoming freshman slated to garner much attention, the center of attention in Happy Valley is no doubt sophomore quarterback Christian Hackenberg. Hackenberg started every game as a true freshman under center for Bill O’Brien, throwing for close to 3,000 yards and 20 touchdown passes. He won Big Ten Freshman of the Year honors for his outstanding season. The star of No. 14 will shine again in 2014 as Hackenberg looks to lead an offense full of talented weapons even without the departed All-Big Ten wideout Allen Robinson off to the NFL.
The offense returns a deep stable of tailbacks in Zach Zwinak, Bill Belton and Akeel Lynch, all of whom saw significant time last season. The new coaching staff likes all three backs but have singled out Lynch as a player they’ve been very impressed with throughout spring practice.
With Robinson – and his back-to-back 1,000 yard seasons – off to the NFL, sophomore Geno Lewis is expected to become Hackenberg’s de-facto No. 1 target. The duo hooked up for just 238 yards and three touchdowns last season, but few Nittany Lions saw the ball much with Robinson hauling in 97 passes. Lewis and Hackenberg started to click late in the year, which saw Lewis haul in 93 yards and two touchdowns in the Wisconsin game. Lewis expects more of the same to start 2014.
“Me and Christian are pretty much on the same page,” Lewis told reporters earlier this week in regards to his developing chemistry with the QB.
But thanks to a talented group of tight ends put together by O’Brien, Hackenberg will always have pass catching options all over the offense. The Nittany Lions received a ton of production from the tight end position in 2013 and that’s only expected to grow in 2014 with Adam Breneman acclimated and Kyle Carter back stretching defenses down the seams.
On the offensive line the Nittany Lions will be replacing a few starters and had some depth concerns before spring practices started. Franklin and his staff will have to sort out a unit that has lost Miles Dieffenbach to a spring injury already. Due to depth, the offensive line will wear grey jerseys on Saturday since they will most likely need to play for both teams.
On defense, new defensive coordinator Bob Shoop is tasked with fixing a unit that performed well below Nittany Lion standards in 2013. Senior Mike Hull takes over at middle linebacker and junior Adrian Amos has moved to safety to fill a position of need. Shoop feels as thought the 2014 defense is deeper at nearly every position but safety and should bounce back from a tough 2013 season that saw the Lions surrender 26 points per game.
The special teams will be anchored by senior kicker Sam Ficken, who has consistently been praised by the new coaching staff for his work during spring practice. The once-maligned kicker has even prevented post-practice sprints for the team on several occasions thanks to his big leg.
Gone is the strange scoring system of coach O’Brien that we saw the past two years that rewarded all sorts of plays, as coach Franklin goes with a more traditional scoring system for his spring games. So yes, Nittany Lions fans, the 2014 Blue/White game should be just another spring football game and not a John Urschel induced math equation.
Players to watch:
1. DeAndre Thompkins, WR
Thompkins ended up being essentially the top recruit in the 2014 class and his speed (clocked at under 4.4 in the 40) should make him a weapon wherever he ends up playing. He will wear No. 3.
2. Adrian Amos, S
Amos moves to safety after playing well the past two seasons on the island at corner. Amos is a natural playmaker and should bring immediate dividends a position that is both weak and inexperienced at safety. The depth at cornerback is what allowed Shoop and Co. to shift Amos.
3. Adam Breneman, TE
Breneman saw a significant increase in playing time over the latter course of 2013 and responded by becoming a reliable pass catching option for Christian Hackenberg in the red zone. The sophomore caught touchdown passes in each of the last three games of 2013 and should see his role only increase in 2014 as Hackenberg looks for pass catching options post Allen Robinson.
4. James Franklin, HC
Okay so he’s not a player, but while about 50% of the eyes in Beaver Stadium will be fixated on the star QB, you can bet that the other half will have their eyes on what everyone hopes to be Penn State’s next great coach. Franklin is young, smart, demanding, intense and everything in-between. He has a presence about him, and has captivated most of State College already. And the best part? He’s only getting started (His words, not mine).