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Last updated: August 24. 2014 12:31PM - 962 Views
By - dlevarse@timesleader.com



James Franklin's first season leading Penn State coincides with the new era of college football that begins this fall.
James Franklin's first season leading Penn State coincides with the new era of college football that begins this fall.
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Imagine a college football fan, just now waking up from a coma from the last three years. A Penn State fan, no less.


The Nittany Lions are on their third full-time head coach in that span after having just one since 1966.


The 2014 season opener is not at Beaver Stadium. For that matter, it’s not even on this continent.


College football has done away with the BCS, implementing a long-awaited playoff system.


…There are how many teams in the Big Ten?


And that’s without even mentioning the name Jerry Sandusky. Or Louis Freeh. Or Mark Emmert.


Yeah, that’s enough.


“It’s crazy,” was the assessment of that third head coach, James Franklin, this summer. “At Penn State, it’s unheard of.”


Chances are, it’s not going to stop there.


If there ever was an omen for further weirdness, it’s the potential of a simmering volcano in Iceland disrupting air travel for the season opener.


OK, so the odds of that one are still pretty remote. The Lions are preparing to leave for Ireland on Tuesday to prepare for Saturday’s game against Central Florida in Dublin. But it’s something the athletic department has had to monitor.


At this point, dealing with an erupting volcano would just be par for the course for Penn State.


On the positive side of the ledger, the Lions are hoping for some good news when the latest report from former Sen. George Mitchell comes out in the near future. Mitchell’s recommendations could lead to further reductions to NCAA sanctions.


That could mean that this whole bizarre year could end with a bowl trip after all for the Lions. Or the restoration of the final few stripped scholarships. Or even both.


In the meantime, another new coaching staff is trying to keep the focus on football.


As it was when Bill O’Brien’s crew took over two years ago, there are bound to be some growing pains. Traveling across an ocean to play the schedule’s toughest non-conference opponent probably won’t help with that.


That 2012 squad hit its stride midway through the season. Here’s a look at how the 2014 Lions might be able to follow that blueprint.


QUARTERBACK


Christian Hackenberg (So./So.)


Michael O’Connor (Fr./Fr.)


Trace McSorley (Fr./Fr.)


Outlook: For at least this first season, the new staff will be heavily judged on the continued development of Hackenberg, who was beginning to flourish under O’Brien. It remains to be seen how Franklin and offensive coordinator John Donovan will run the offense.


Hackenberg has shown he can handle a pro-style attack that mixes in some no-huddle. That’s not exactly how things ran for this staff at Vanderbilt, who used more mobile quarterbacks on the occasional designed run to keep defenses off balance.


Any repeats of last year’s upsets of Michigan and Wisconsin are going to have to come from the big right arm of Hackenberg and it’s up to coaches to make the most out of it.


Another interesting question is who will serve as the top backup. O’Connor has been on campus since January, but Franklin has said McSorley has made it a battle. It’s likely that one of the two freshmen will redshirt.


RUNNING BACK


Bill Belton (Sr./Sr.)


Zach Zwinak (5th/Sr.)


Akeel Lynch (Jr./So.)


Cole Chiappialle (So./So.)


Outlook: Plenty of options here, but it may come down to which back can go the longest without putting the ball on the ground. Fumbles were a huge problem for both Belton and Zwinak in 2013, with Zwinak’s issues going back to 2012.


Running backs coach Charles Huff is having all of his charges change how they hold the ball, making sure they have it pointed up. It’s the same method that helped former Giants star Tiki Barber solve his own chronic fumbling issue.


Expect Lynch to gradually see more time later in the season as he tries to make his case to be the starter in 2015. The coaches love the undersized Chiappialle, a walk-on, for his energy and drive, and his emergence could mean that all three freshmen — Johnathan Thomas, Nick Scott and Mark Allen — end up redshirting.


WIDE RECEIVER (X)


Eugene Lewis (Jr./So.)


Matt Zanellato (Sr./Jr.)


Saeed Blacknall (Fr./Fr.)


WIDE RECEIVER (Z)


DaeSean Hamilton (So./Fr.)


Chris Godwin (Fr./Fr.)


DeAndre Thompkins (Fr./Fr.)


Jake Kiley (Jr./So.)


Outlook: New receivers coach Josh Gattis said it was important not to get caught up on designations like split end, flanker and slot for his group. If the offense is anything like Bill O’Brien’s, everyone will line up just about everywhere during a game, especially if the team goes no-huddle.


Lewis showed his promise with deep touchdowns against Syracuse and Wisconsin and has the potential to be the leader of the group. Hamilton has drawn praise from Gattis who said the redshirt freshman could be the biggest sleeper in the Big Ten.


Franklin said at the end of camp that highly regarded freshmen Godwin and Blacknall will see the field. He curiously did not mention Thompkins, who looked to be a strong candidate to play because of his speed. It could mean they may try to redshirt him or it could mean that Franklin simply didn’t lump him in with the rest of the freshmen because he enrolled in January.


TIGHT END (Y)


Jesse James (Jr./Jr.)


Mike Gesicki (Fr./Fr.)


TIGHT END (F)


Kyle Carter (Sr./Jr.)


Brent Wilkerson (Jr./So.)


Injured: Adam Breneman (So./So.)


Outlook: Penn State’s biggest setback of the summer came when the school announced Breneman would be out “indefinitely” with an injury. That could open the door for a redshirt for the talented sophomore, in part because Penn State has the talent here to do without him for a year.


James and Carter could end up leading the team in receptions because of the young wideout corps and the 6-foot-7 James could conceivably be playing for a shot at the NFL. Both will play critical roles in the offense.


Wilkerson and Gesicki will help replace Breneman’s production. Wilkerson returns from a back injury and Gesicki has drawn raves for his athleticism.


LEFT TACKLE


Donovan Smith (Sr./Jr.)


Andrew Nelson (So./Fr.)


Albert Hall (Jr./So.)


Chance Sorrell (Fr./Fr.)


LEFT GUARD


Derek Dowrey (Jr./So.)


Brendan Mahon (So./Fr.)


Angelo Mangiro (Sr./Jr.)


CENTER


Angelo Mangiro (Sr./Jr.)


Wendy Laurent (Jr./So.)


RIGHT GUARD


Brian Gaia (Jr./So.)


Brendan Mahon (So./Fr.)


Angelo Mangiro (Sr./Jr.)


RIGHT TACKLE


Andrew Nelson (So./Fr.)


Brendan Mahon (So./Fr.)


Chasz Wright (Fr./Fr.)


Injured: Miles Dieffenbach (5th/Sr.)


Outlook: The bad news began with Dieffenbach’s ACL injury in the spring. The senior captain is optimistic he can eventually return, but that might not happen until November if everything goes well. Until then, it’s a small group trying to hold down the fort.


Franklin has not sugarcoated the situation and noted that the team won’t have a traditional depth chart here, with multiple moving parts in the event of another injury. Players like Brendan Mahon could line up in several spots if anything were to happen to Smith, Nelson or the converted defensive tackles Dowrey and Gaia.


Nelson was banged up in the spring. Smith and Laurent were limited this summer. Developing cohesion is a serious concern.


DEFENSIVE END


Deion Barnes (Sr./Jr.)


Brad Bars (5th/Sr.)


Evan Schwan (Jr./So.)


Curtis Cothran (So./Fr.)


DEFENSIVE TACKLE


Anthony Zettel (Sr./Jr.)


Tyrone Smith (Sr./Sr.)


Antoine White (Fr./Fr.)


DEFENSIVE TACKLE


Austin Johnson (Jr./So.)


Tarow Barney (Jr./Jr.)


Parker Cothren (So./Fr.)


DEFENSIVE END


C.J. Olaniyan (5th/Sr.)


Garrett Sickels (So./Fr.)


Carl Nassib (Sr./Jr.)


Outlook: Considering the Lions needed to move two guys over to the opposite side of the ball in the spring, the unit is still in pretty good shape, all things considered. Olaniyan, Barnes and Bars will all see plenty of snaps on the outside flanking Zettel and Johnson.


Depth at end is looking stronger than in the middle — newcomers Barney and White are still a bit of an unknown despite arriving in January. On the edge, Sickels was a big-time recruit and Nassib has impressed the staff.


Under the microscope a bit will be new line coach Sean Spencer, who takes over for Larry Johnson.


OUTSIDE LINEBACKER


Nyeem Wartman (Jr./So.)


Jason Cabinda (Fr./Fr.)


MIDDLE LINEBACKER


Mike Hull (5th/Sr.)


Gary Wooten (Jr./So.)


Troy Reeder (Fr./Fr.)


OUTSIDE LINEBACKER


Brandon Bell (So./So.)


Von Walker (So./So.)


Koa Farmer (Fr./Fr.)


Injured: Ben Kline (Sr./Jr.)


Outlook: Hull figures to be on the field for just about every snap he’s able to play. Beyond that is anyone’s guess. Sure, the base defense will see him flanked by Wartman and Bell, but expect defensive coordinator Bob Shoop to get creative to scheme around the depth issues at linebacker.


Against a handful of teams, it won’t be unusual to see the Lions use three safeties on the field along with two linebackers, particularly against spread offenses like Ohio State, Northwestern and Indiana.


It’s possible both Cabinda and Reeder play right away. Franklin singled out Cabinda in particular as a freshman who stood out to him this month. Farmer may redshirt after switching over from safety in the middle of camp.


CORNERBACK


Trevor Williams (Jr./Jr.)


Da’Quan Davis (Jr./Jr.)


Christian Campbell (Fr./Fr.)


FREE SAFETY


Ryan Keiser (5th/Sr.)


Jesse Della Valle (5th/Sr.)


Anthony Smith (So./So.)


STRONG SAFETY


Adrian Amos (Sr./Sr.)


Malik Golden (Jr./So.)


Marcus Allen (Fr./Fr.)


CORNERBACK


Jordan Lucas (Jr./Jr.)


Grant Haley (Fr./Fr.)


Jordan Smith (So./So.)


Outlook: With a large freshman class, Penn State has done a good job of rebuilding a position that was arguably the thinnest on the roster a year ago. The emergence of Jordan Lucas a year ago a playmaker went a long way to improving the secondary.


The spot opposite Lucas has been one of the tighter battles in camp with Williams and Davis both likely to see time during the season. That should allow Amos to play safety full-time, possibly playing closer to the line of scrimmage in the Lions’ “star” package.


Of the freshmen, Haley seems to be the most likely to play right away, but there could be several who bolster special teams.


KICKER


Sam Ficken (Sr./Sr.)


Chris Gulla (So./Fr.)


Joey Julius (Fr./Fr.)


PUNTER


Chris Gulla (So./Fr.)


Danny Pasquariello (Fr./Fr.)


Robby Liebel (Fr./Fr.)


Outlook: Ficken may be entrenched as the kicker, but the biggest mystery may be who ends up being the punter. Gulla has a year of experience in the program, but Pasquariello has training from Prokick Australia, which has produced some top college punters recently.


 
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