The Nittany Lions finds themselves in a good position for 2018. Head coach James Franklin has recruited like a monster the past couple of years and the talent level is elite. The program is coming off back-to-back 11-win seasons and return one of the best quarterbacks in the Big 10 in Trace McSorley. Franklin believes the offensive line will be the best unit he’s had during his time in Happy Valley. That’s the good news, but when you take a closer look at this team you’ll see that Penn State has some major holes to fill on both sides of the ball, especially on defense. McSorely no longer has the luxury of handing the ball off to Saquon Barkley to take the pressure off of him, nor does he have that 6-foot-6 sure-handed tight end Mike Gesicki to throw to. This season opposing defenses are going to use a safety to spy McSorley and prevent him from getting those first down runs that he’s used to doing once the pocket breaks down. He’ll have to use his arm more to win games. Judging from his 7,369 career yards through the air and a school-record 59 pass touchdowns, he should be up for the challenge. The defense has to replace eight total starters from last season. Also absent from the team in 2018 is reliable place kicker Tyler Davis.
Team strengths: Quarterback, offensive line and punting. McSorley, one of the team captains for 2018, has molded into a legit dual-threat, throwing for over 3,500 yards and 28 pass touchdowns and adding nearly 500 on the ground and 11 rushing scores last season. He’s also 22-5 as a starter. Starting offensive linemen Will Fies, Steven Gonzalez, Connor McGovern, Ryan Bates and Chasz Wright have combined for 83 career starts and will give McSorley time to locate open receivers down the field and open holes for the new running backs to run through. Punter Blake Gillikin, who’s also a team captain, earned second-team All-Big 10 last season after averaging 43.2 yards per punt.
Team weaknesses: Depleted defense, inexperienced running backs and place kickers. Like Ohio State this fall, Penn State needs to rebuild on defense, although there’s some great talent on the roster. Only two starters return and the defense must replace seven of the top-eight tacklers from last season. You can’t simply reload on production, experience and leadership. Barkley is gone to the NFL and McSorley is the teams’ leading returning rusher. The running back position is starting basically from scratch. The top-two backs on the depth chart are junior Mile Sanders and senior Mark Allen. Sanders had only 191 rush yards and two touchdowns last season and Allen had 30 rush yards and a score in the spring game.
Players to watch: Wide receiver Juwan Johnson, defensive end Shareef Miller, linebacker Koa Farmer, cornerback Amani Oruwariye and free safety Nick Scott. Johnson is the teams’ leading returning receiver who caught 54 balls for 701 yards and a score last season. He’ll be the go-to receiver along with senior DeAndre Thompkins as they both try to replace the production of Gesicki last years’ leaders in receptions and and DaeSean Hamilton, last years’ leader in reception yards. Miller is a beast along the defensive line and a key piece to build the new defense around. He had 11 tackles behind the line of scrimmage and five sacks last season. Farmer is the teams’ leading returning tackler with 48, including 5.5 for loss and a sack. He also had a 60 yard kick return against Ohio State. Oruwariye lead the team with four interceptions last season and Scott had 33 tackles and is the defensive captain this season.
The schedule: Favorable home slate. Ohio State, Michigan State, Iowa and Wisconsin all have to come to Happy Valley. The Nittany Lions should be 4-0 heading into their revenge game at home against the Buckeyes and then they have two weeks to prepare for the Spartans. The only likely loss on the schedule will be at Michigan to start November.
My take: The offense is missing key pieces from last season that helped it average over 40 points per game. McSorley will have to put the offense on his back this fall, but three of his top-four pass catchers are gone. The running backs have to come through and perform at a high level, but Penn State will face some of the nations’ best defenses as it grinds through a meaty Big 10 schedule and this offense may take a huge step back. The defense lost too much to reload and will be put to the ultimate test when the Nittany Lions face teams with offensive firepower. Having key games at home will help Penn State in 2018 but I see at least two losses for the regular season.