Saquon Barkley may have moved on to the professional ranks, but Trace McSorley still has one year of eligibility left, and that means that Penn State has the chance to reach the College Football Playoff for the first time ever in 2018. Will the star quarterback be propped up or let down by a defense that has a lot of questions to answer?
About Last Season
Penn State looked like a national title contender up until Halloween last year. Barkley saved the day with an epic performance against Iowa, and the defense looked stout while holding its first seven opponents under 20 points. The hype for the Nittany Lions only continued to build when Barkley returned the opening kickoff for a touchdown in Columbus to spark Penn State to a 21-3 lead over the rival Buckeyes. However, in the second half the Lions were exposed badly in pass defense while the running game couldn’t get going against an elite Ohio State front. The Buckeyes came from behind to win 39-38, and similar problems plagued the Lions in the following week’s loss at Michigan State.
Penn State got back on track with three straight wins to end the regular season and a Fiesta Bowl victory over Washington, but with Barkley departing alongside defensive leaders Jason Cabinda and Marcus Allen, getting back to the top of the Big Ten is not going to be easy.
2018: The Offense
I have more questions about the defense than the offense. Barkley was an incredible weapon who drew a lot of defensive attention even when he didn’t have the ball, but his presence as an NFL prospect also took a lot of attention from McSorley, who somewhat quietly emerged as one of the top players in college football. This season, McSorley won’t need Barkley in order to make plays on offense, but he’ll still have plenty of talent surrounding him. Miles Sanders takes over the lead back role, and he’s got to be chomping at the bit after being highly recruited out of high school before sitting behind Barkley. He looked great last year in limited action and has a good chance to replace all of Barkley’s production on the ground.
The bigger issue will be replicating what Barkley did in the passing game. He was third on the team in receptions and receiving yards last year, and the Lions will also be losing receiving yards leader DaeSean Hamilton and receptions leader Mike Gesicki. That leaves Juwan Johnson and DeAndre Thompkins as the only two experienced pass-catchers coming back, but redshirt freshman Mac Hippenhammer’s spring performance gave fans hope that he can emerge as a threat out of the slot in 2018.
However, it’s Johnson who looks to become a star this season. Not only did he have that game-winning catch against Iowa in 2017, but he also caught at least five passes for more than 60 yards in each of his last four games. That included a performance against Washington in which he made a couple of key third-down receptions down the stretch to keep Penn State ahead. His role should grow even larger in 2018, and it would be surprising if he doesn’t become McSorley’s favorite target.
In a nutshell, there’s a lot of talent leaving Penn State this spring, but a deep group of backs and receivers should provide McSorley with more than enough tools to light up the scoreboard. Plus, experienced returnees Ryan Bates and Connor McGovern will anchor an offensive line that should be Penn State’s best under James Franklin.
2018: The Defense
Pass defense might be a problem again for Penn State, as linebacker Koa Farmer is the only member of the starting back seven to return in 2018. That’s bad news for a linebacker corps and secondary that struggled against top competition last year, but there’s reason to believe that the pass defense could strengthen instead of weaken.
Don’t just take that for blind optimism, because there are many players in the new secondary that already have game experience. John Reid was a starter for Penn State at cornerback two seasons ago before suffering a serious knee injury and missing all of 2017. He figures to regain his old role alongside Amani Oruwariye at the other corner spot. Even though he didn’t start last season, Oruwariye still led the Lions with four interceptions and made second team All-Big Ten. Depth at corner will be provided by Tariq Castro-Fields, who was a top prospect heading into 2017 and showed some promise with three passes broken up in the Michigan State game.
Safety is a little shakier with Ayron Monroe and former tailback Nick Scott filling in for current professional players Marcus Allen and Troy Apke. Both Monroe and Scott have on-field experience handy, but they don’t have the history of making plays that the starting cornerbacks do. The hope is that true sophomore Lamont Wade steps up and takes one of the starting safety jobs after a quiet freshman campaign. Like Castro-Fields, he has the talent to be a future star in the secondary.
All told, the comings and goings in the secondary could turn out to be a wash. The real boost in pass defense will hopefully come from a more experienced pass-rush unit that also adds super freshman Micah Parsons. The defensive ends didn’t play well enough against top competition last year, but there’s so much returning experience that the odds of someone breaking out are strong. Shareef Miller and Shaka Toney are the best bets to start — assuming that Kevin Givens plays inside — with Shane Simmons, Ryan Buchholz, and Yetur Gross-Matos providing plenty of depth.
There’s a good change that Givens plays at defensive tackle again because both Curtis Cothran and Parker Cothren have graduated. There’s not much returning depth at the position, but Givens is likely to start alongside redshirt junior Robert Windsor.
The lack of experience at defensive tackle only enhances concerns about this team’s ability to stop the run. Cabinda, Allen, and linebacker Brandon Smith were the top three tacklers last year, and now all three are gone. Farmer will have to hold down the fort at linebacker alongside Cam Brown, who played in 12 games last year and made 31 stops. Jake Cooper, Jan Johnson, and Jarvis Miller will duke it out for the final starting spot. It’s also worth noting that Parsons is currently listed at linebacker, but I expect him to be used in only pass-rush scenarios to start out.
2018: The Special Teams
The punting situation is already settled with Blake Gillikin returning for his junior season. He’s been solid since he was a wee freshman and should continue to be for the remainder of his college career. Hopefully he’ll be lightly used based on what we expect from the offense. The kicking situation is in flux with Tyler Davis graduating and his apparent successor Alex Barbir leaving the program. That leaves Carson Landis as the lone kicker on the roster, and he’s a redshirt freshman. Let’s hope the Ohio State game doesn’t come down to a field goal this year.
2018: The Schedule
|September 1||Appalachian State|
|September 8||at Pitt|
|September 15||Kent State|
|September 21||at Illinois|
|September 29||Ohio State|
|October 13||Michigan State|
|October 20||at Indiana|
|November 3||at Michigan|
|November 17||at Rutgers|
Penn State once again plays back-to-back games against Ohio State and Michigan State, but this time both games are at home and there’s a bye week in between. That gives the Lions a decent shot at avenging at least one of their 2017 defeats. Plus, there’s only four conference road games on the slate for 2018, giving Penn State a better chance of deciding the fate of the Big Ten at Beaver Stadium. Overall, the schedule looks very manageable, but we won’t know how soft or tough it really is until the games begin.
When Talking to a Penn State Fan
Do Mention: McSorley’s Heisman Trophy hype, getting revenge at Beaver Stadium, Parsons destroying opposing quarterbacks.
Don’t Mention: How the Lions might have made the Playoff if they had just beaten Ohio State or Michigan State last year.