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B1G 2014 // Penn State Cocktail Party Preview

Now armed with more skill and experience, the Lions hope to build on last year's 7-5 finish.

Matthew O'Haren-USA TODAY Sports

Two of the top academic programs at Penn State are supply chain management and meteorology, so if you work for a commodities trading firm or any company that relies on logistics, you can stand to learn a little more about the Nittany Lion football program.

Even if that doesn't apply to you, there are... other reasons for reading this article. I mean, Penn State has a fun, new coach and an NFL prospect at quarterback. There have certainly been less exciting Lion squads in recent years, so jump right in, why don't you? These final two years of sanctions are going to fly by.

About Last Season

The Good News

Alternating wins and losses made it easy to decide which Saturdays were good for spending at the bar and which were best spent at home with a jigsaw puzzle or something. Christian Hackenberg started every game as a true freshman quarterback, and he looked really good for a true freshman quarterback, especially in the season-ending win at Wisconsin. The Penn State rush defense was stifling when it wasn't matched up against Braxton Miller, Carlos Hyde, or Storm Johnson.

The Bad News

I don't know what I'm going to do without Allen Robinson in my life. Are Jaguars games on television? Hackenberg didn't look so good when he wasn't throwing to his All-Big Ten receiver, and we don't know how good he'll look without offensive mastermind Bill O'Brien at the helm. In the ground game, the Lions return three experienced halfbacks, but the offensive line is a question mark with three starters heading out the door and guard Miles Dieffenbach down with an ACL injury.


Any conversation about the Penn State offense is going to start with sophomore quarterback Hackenberg, so we might as well tackle him first (not literally). The strong-armed youth from Virginia finished his freshman campaign with an insanely efficient performance against a strong Wisconsin defense. With no bowl game against a tough SEC team to slow the hype train down, excitement is running high for Hackenberg's sophomore season. He's even drawing comparisons to some pretty sexy NFL arms.

Penn State hasn't had a pocket passer this talented since Kerry Collins was in town, but it's still important to remember that Hackenberg wasn't consistently awesome in 2013. He completed just 13 of 35 passes against Kent State, went 14-for-25 with just 163 yards at Minnesota, and right before Wisconsin he was 16-for-33 versus Nebraska. A strong arm and big games against Michigan and the Badgers are what draw so much attention to Hackenberg, but this is still a kid who hasn't put everything together yet, and in 2014 he'll be working with an inexperienced offensive line.

Still, I expect Hackenberg to be terrific. Even without much of last year's line and even without quarterback whisperer O'Brien, Hackenberg has the talent to be great. Last year he was doing things that a true freshman shouldn't be able to do (and PSU fans know this because Rob Bolden wasn't doing these things when he was a freshman). Hackenberg progressed through his reads, moved well in the pocket, and was able to deliver the ball accurately from any distance. With more experience under his belt, he should grow into a fine quarterback.

As for the rest of the offense, the two biggest concerns are the line and whether or not a new favorite target will emerge for Hackenberg following the early departure of Robinson. The wide receiver truly was a brilliant one for Penn State, hauling in a ridiculous 97 balls last year for 1,432 yards and six touchdowns. The next best Lion in receptions was Brandon Felder with 28, but he graduated, leaving tight end Jesse James as the top returning pass-catcher.

Even with tight end aficionado O'Brien gone to the NFL, the position could continue to be a focus for the Lions in the near future based on how the roster is constructed. James, sophomore Adam Breneman, and junior Kyle Carter are a formidable trio that can more than make up for a shallow wide receiver pool if given the opportunity.

If a wide receiver does come close to what Robinson did last year, it will be Geno Lewis, who made his mark in 2013 with two touchdown catches of greater than 50 yards. One of those came in the Wisconsin game, in which Lewis had a career day with 91 yards and a pair of scores. The kid has speed to burn, but he's yet to prove himself as a consistent playmaker, catching zero passes each in five different games last year. If Lewis fails to step up, the door could open for a talented crop of freshmen wide receivers recruited by head coach James Franklin. The new boss didn't waste any time filling the receiving cupboard with talented players like DeAndre Thompkins and Chris Godwin.

As if this section hasn't droned on enough, Penn State is more than capable at the halfback spot, with Zach Zwinak, Bill Belton, and Akeel Lynch all returning after solid 2013 performances. Zwinak is the bell cow, Belton the third-down-guy-slash-pass-catcher, and Lynch is likely a year away from stardom.

The fate of Penn State's run game could depend on the line, though. With Dieffenbach likely lost for the season, left tackle Donovan Smith could be the only returning starter than new line coach Herb Hand has to work with. The sophomore and junior reserves are a mix of three- and two-star recruits, so don't be surprised if redshirt freshman guard Brendan Mahon (four stars) gets a chance to start.

TL;DR version: Hackenberg has a chance to shine as a sophomore, but he needs to find a new favorite wide receiver to throw to now that Robinson is a pro. The running backs should be solid, but can an inexperienced line create enough holes?


Even though it was exploited brutally by two of the country's best teams in 2013, the strength of the Penn State defense is its run defense. The best player in the front seven, DaQuan Jones, was drafted by the Titans this spring, but there is still plenty to like about the talent that is returning.

Up front, Austin Johnson looks to build off of a solid 2013 season and become the next great Penn State defensive tackle. On his side will be Anthony Zettel, who is being moved inside by Franklin after recording four sacks as a sophomore defensive end. The transition allows for Franklin to fit more experienced pass rushers on the field, as both Deion Barnes and C.J. Olaniyan will be returning to their pass rushing duties this season. Although Barnes entered 2013 as the more ballyhooed player thanks to a wonderful freshman campaign, he sacked the quarterback just twice in 2014, and Olaniyan took over as Penn State's sack master with five takedowns to go with 11 tackles for loss.

Beyond the defensive line, of course, are the linebackers, and that's been an area of strength over the years for Linebacker U. What's not so obvious, though, is that the young talent in this area pales in comparison to what Penn State has going on at wide receiver. That's not something we're used to, but there are enough experienced linebackers returning for PSU to form another stiff run defense.

Mike Hull moves to the middle after a slightly disappointing junior season that saw him fail to set himself apart from the man he is replacing, Glenn Carson. There's nothing wrong with Carson, and he'll be missed as a run-stopper, but I always saw Hull as a more athletic playmaker. That notion did not show up on the field in 2013. Alongside Hull will be Nyeem Wartman and Brandon Bell, both of whom were part-time players last year who still need to prove that they are worthy of starting. Wartman's four passes defensed in limited action are encouraging at a position that demands speed and ball skills now more than ever.

The Nittany Lion secondary was a weak spot last season, but with cornerbacks Jordan Lucas and Trevor Williams coming back boosted by a year's worth of experience, the unit could shine in 2014. Perhaps the most important defensive back for Penn State is Adrian Amos, the safety who is entering his third year as a starter. With prior experience at cornerback from his days as an underclassmen, Amos is comfortable all over the field against either the pass or the run. Don't be surprised to see him move down into the slot on passing downs or even play some linebacker like Stephen Obeng-Agyapong did in 2013.

With a lack of high-impact players holding the Penn State defense back from being really exciting, Amos could be the closest thing the team has to a defensive star. That could change as some of the younger players adapt to their expanded roles, but as of now, the Lions are hurting for a player who can strike fear into the hearts of opponents.

Special Teams

Penn State didn't provide much in the return games last year, but with Franklin stacking the roster with athletes, I'd be surprised if a freshman didn't step up and give the Lions a spark in this area. As for the kicking game, Sam Ficken returns to provide his own sort of excitement. That means showing the ability to connect on long kicks while also displaying the maddening inability to consistently hit shorter ones. In 2013, Ficken was a not-too-shabby 5-for-9 from beyond 40 yards, but he went just 6-for-10 from between 30 and 39 yards away. If Ficken can straighten some of those out this season, he could turn into the reliable scorer that Penn State fans have been begging for.

The kicker might be a bit of an enigma, but the punting situation is a total mystery. Right now the only punter on scholarship is redshirt freshman Chris Gulla, so in all likelihood, he'll get the first crack at the job. The good news for Gulla is that replacing Alex Butterworth won't be too tall of a task. The departing senior averaged just 39 yards per boot last year. Hopefully Gulla can surpass that, or the coaching staff could be looking for walk-on candidates.

On the Schedule

A September "road" game in Piscataway, NJ was supposed to be a non-conference game for the 2014 Nittany Lions, but thanks to realignment, the current non-conference slate looks pretty tame. It starts out with a clash vs. UCF in Ireland, but after that, home games against Akron, UMass, and later on, Temple make up the three least threatening games on the schedule.

As for changes due to the new divisions, Penn State will be missing Wisconsin for the first time since 2010, but it welcomes back Michigan State and the wonderful Land Grant Trophy to State College on November 29. The rest of the Big Ten home schedule includes Ohio State, Maryland, and Northwestern. Off the bat, that looks like two wins and two losses, but it's way too early to be even getting into way-too-early speculation.

The road schedule appears friendlier, at least right now. After Rutgers, the Lions visit Michigan, Indiana, and Illinois. At the very least, Penn State fans will hope the team gets revenge for last year's loss in Bloomington. With both matches against the 2013 Big Ten Championship Game participants coming at home, there's a lot of potential for wins on this year's slate, but first Franklin must show that the 2014 Lions are better than last season's mediocre team.

If you're talking to a Penn State fan...

Do Mention: The Lions kicking butt in Madison, Grilled Stickies, gingerbread at The Tavern.

Don't Mention: The Lions getting their butts kicked in B-Town, Hackenberg probably leaving after his junior year, that day Ficken missed four kicks in Charlottesville.


Monday: Cocktail Party Preview

Tuesday: Smartest Guy in the Room

Wednesday: Potluck Part One

Thursday: Potluck Part Two/Smoking Room

Friday: Keeping the Enemy Close