Offensive changes spell optimism for Nittany Lions
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. (AP) James Franklin believes that Penn State finally can pair a dynamic offense with a stingy defense for the first time since he arrived as coach in 2013.
Since then, the defense has been good to great while the offense has sputtered. It forced Franklin to retool his staff over the winter and new offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead has Franklin and his players confident they'll put it all together this year.
''I think the biggest thing that jumps out to me right away is you have a (former) head coach that is running the offense like the head coach,'' Franklin said. ''He's had that type of experience.''
Moorhead's spread-based attack dictated games with a fast pace at Fordham, where he went 38-13 over four years. His offenses consistently ranked among FCS's best during his tenure.
In December, Moorhead began analyzing players, tweaking his schemes to fit their abilities. He liked what he saw, specifically from a physical receiving corps and a quick, powerful group of running backs that includes three of the offense's eight returning starters. Wideouts DaeSean Hamilton and Chris Godwin and running back Saquon Barkley are among the stars.
''We have a lot of skill players and this offense allows us to spread those guys out and get the ball to people,'' offensive tackle Andrew Nelson said.
Former backup Trace McSorley and sophomore Tommy Stevens will likely compete deep into camp for the starting quarterback job. Both have comparable skills as throwers with speed and agility and should provide an added dimension in the run game.
They'll line up behind a line that was beleaguered by inexperience and injuries the last two years. Led by new position coach Matt Limegrover, the group appears to be on track with starters back at all five spots and experienced backups. Limegrover has helped them improve their nutrition to better handle Moorhead's quick pace and Nelson said it's the fittest he and his teammates have been.
Other things to watch for:
THE OTHER LINE
Defensive coordinator Brent Pry ascended from linebackers coach to defensive coordinator following Bob Shoop's departure and has to replace three star linemen who were drafted by NFL teams.
''There's talent. There's just not a lot of experience,'' Pry said. ''There's young guys, highly recruited. There's old heads that just haven't played a lot because they've played behind those guys.''
Pry will lean on a deep secondary and a linebacker corps that returns three starters, including Nyeem Wartman-White. He was expected to star last season but tore his left ACL in the season opener.
JUST FOR KICKS
The team will have to choose a kicker and punter, too. Odds are they'll be freshmen as Penn State used scholarships on Alex Barbir and Blake Gillikin.
Sept. 3 vs. Kent State. Both teams will try to snap winless skids dating to last season. Penn State finished 0-4 last season while Kent State is winless in its last five.
Franklin's teams are 0-6 against Michigan, Michigan State and Ohio State but can improve that mark as soon as Sept. 24 with a trip to Ann Arbor. Penn State hosts the Buckeyes on Oct. 22 and Spartans on Nov. 26. The Nittany Lions renew a historic rivalry with Pittsburgh on Sept. 10 and continue a budding one with Temple on Sept. 17.
8-4. The Nittany Lions finally have a proven playcaller and playmakers on offense. But the Big Ten East is savage and Penn State will need its best efforts to beat Ohio State, Michigan or Michigan State.