2014 Penn State Football: The Dawn of A(nother) New Era

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For the second time in three years, the Penn State football team finds itself under new leadership.

Out is Bill O’Brien, the rugged New Englander, the coach the program so desperately needed when it reached its nadir after the Sandusky scandal and NCAA sanctions. In is James Franklin, a self-described “Pennsylvania boy with a Penn State heart” who brings an unrivaled(see what I did there) enthusiasm to the program.

O’Brien did everything asked of him and more during his brief tenure in State College, and there’s no question he deserves the opportunity to serve as a coach at the highest level. Would it have been nice to have him here longer? Yes, but when the NFL comes calling, you’d better take that chance.

At the same time, it’s pretty clear now who is more suited for the college game and who isn’t. And I don’t mean coaching, because BOB clearly can coach. No, I mean being a CEO of the team, recruiting, glad-handing with boosters and alumni, showing up at a variety of university functions, there’s much more than coaching in a major college football coach’s responsibilities.

Franklin just seems to have an energy that’s more appropriate for the college level than BOB. I mean, can you ever see O’Brien doing this after a random spring practice? If I ever wanted to create an energy drink, I’d name it after Franklin because he simply never stops working, whether it’s by coaching, recruiting, or selling the future of the program to media members and alumni.

Franklin a native of my hometown, (Langhorne, PA) has been ubiquitous since he took the job, throwing out the first pitch at little league games, speaking at his alma mater’s commencement , helping new students move in as well as take time to speak to the Blue Band during one of their practices. Just where does this guy find the time?

He’s proved to be a dominant force on the recruiting trail, nabbing six of the top ten recruits in the 2015 recruiting class and finally putting an end to other top programs simply coming into PA and having their pick of the litter. From now on, programs like Alabama, Ohio State and Michigan will have to work harder to get the PA prospects the want(and likely won’t get).

Currently the program is poised to land a top-ten class for the first time in forever and the staff’s promotion of the program is reaching top recruits all throughout the country, not just in the mid-Atlantic.

The recruiting success has made me follow recruiting websites closer than ever before, as well as stay up to date with the program throughout the off season, when previously be inclined to read as much.

Basically, Franklin’s energy is infectious and he’s brought out the inner die-hard in me, where as in the last several years, I would just show up for football season and start remembering everyone’s name.

So far he’s been worth every penny as a spokesperson and recruiter for a program. The only thing left for him to do is coach and I can’t wait to see how this staff’s energy translates to Saturday afternoons.

Here are some key things I’ll be looking for with the 2014 Penn State Nittany Lions:

Does Christian Hackenberg take the next step? 

The Big Ten’s freshman of the year in 2013, Hackenberg started from day one and while he looked like a true freshman at points throughout the year, but by season’s end, there was no question he was one of the top young talents in college football. The buzz around Hackenberg continues as not only is he the face of the program, but a likely high draft choice in 2016, should he continue to progress.

Losing Allen Robinson will hurt, but it will also make him better as he will need to prove that he can work with a stable of young receivers and make them better.  Plus, the team is loaded at tight end, with Jesse James, Kyle Carter, Brent Wilkerson and true freshman Mike Gesicki. That doesn’t even include Adam Breneman, the top recruit in last year’s class who will likely redshirt this year. (Tough luck for Adam, but this is probably a blessing for him in the long run.)

So while chemistry will likely take time to develop between his wide outs, he’ll always have the security blankets of his tight ends, provided he stay’s upright which leads into my next question.

Will the offensive line be overmatched? 

With Miles Diffenbach out for a large chunk of this season, Donovan Smith is the only returning starter. He’ll be accompanied by the redshirt freshman Andrew Nelson at right ackle, junior Angelo Mangiro at center, redshirt sophomore Brian Gaia at right guard, and either Brandon Mahon or Derek Dowrey at left guard.

I can’t tell you much of anything about this guys, but let’s hope they’ve heard about how badly they’re predicted to perform this year and take it to heart. This unit is probably worth an additional one or two wins, depending on how they play.

Can Sam Ficken Become More Consistent? 

15 of 23 last year, 14 of 21 in 2012. There’s no doubt he was a bit overmatched his first season. but he’s made strides since then. Still, do you feel entirely comfortable with him kicking a 40 yarder with the game on the line? Please prove me wrong Sam.

How good can the defense be? 

I think they’ll be pretty damn good to be honest. I think they could finish in the top-5, maybe top-3, in the B1G this year.  Yes, depth is an issue at linebacker, especially with the loss of Ben Kline,  but the starting unit of senior Mike Hull and sophomores Nyeem Wartman, and Brandon Bell is already well seasoned. The secondary and defensive line and are in good shape. Overall, the bigger questions lie in offense and special teams for this year’s squad.

One thing I really want to see happen, Deion Barnes return to his Big Ten Freshman of the Year status from two years ago. If he can wreak havoc off the edge, I’m very comfortable with this unit.

Will Franklin show the same distain for punting as BOB? 

God, I sure hope so.

Bottom line, I think the program is in good, if not better shape with Franklin. He brings an SEC mentality to a Big Ten school, which is what this program needs if it ever wants to compete with said SEC for national championships. My wins and losses predictions is as follows, but it’s pretty much more of the same 8-4, 7-5 type of year.

August 30  vs. UCF* In Dublin, Ireland    W

September 6 vs. Akron  W

September 13 at Rutgers W

September 20 vs. UMass W

September 27 vs. Northwestern W

October 11 at Michigan L

October 25 vs. Ohio State (Really hope I’m wrong here)

November 1 vs. Maryland W

November 8 at Indiana (No way they lose two straight years to Indiana, right?)

November 15 vs. Temple W

November 22 at Illinois W

November 29 vs. Michigan State L

So because I’m a homer, I just put them down for 9-3, which is probably not gonna happen. But as long as they don’t have a downright miserable year (read 2-10 season) I really don’t care about wins and losses. Especially with no B1G title to play for.

It’s all about developing the younger players for the 2016, 2017 and 2018 seasons, once the sanctions are long gone, and B1G titles are up for grabs. That’s when I’ll probably begin to care more about the program’s weekly results. For now, I’m just excited to see what this new coaching staff has up its blue and white sleeves.



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