5 Storylines for Penn State Football in 2019
Welcome to the inaugural edition of “Nittany State of Mind," my regular column that I’ll share on Tuesdays as president/publisher here at HappyValley.com. There will be a lot of Penn State sports #content, rest assured, but things will also wander off into other, (always at least tangentially-related) subject areas of interest to me, including University and local history, State College culture and community, and higher education (and probably beer). I don’t expect readers to find every topic compelling, so I will strive to be consistently thought-provoking and entertaining enough that you’re happy to have come along for the ride anyway.
So this is my introductory piece, and what better way to capture the zeitgeist, I thought, than with some clickbait? Yep, I opted for one of those dumb “list” articles (or “listicle,” in the parlance of our times) that are as disposable as they are addicting. I will admit to loving the format, no matter how clickbait-y it may be, and I hope to provide a different spin on a proven formula. Don’t worry though, I promise future columns will feature the sort of meandering journeys down an esoteric rabbit hole for which I can only hope and dream this space will become infamous.
I will spare you the obvious focal points such as the quarterback situation, the collection of talented runners jostling to succeed Miles Sanders, a receiving corps long on promise and short on experience, and the latest “hope springs eternal” edition of Penn State’s offensive line, a perpetual rebuilding project that puts Atherton Street to shame. I also refuse to discuss any Franklin-to-USC scenarios without first receiving a payoff from Trace Armstrong. These are all pressing issues that have been covered competently and extensively elsewhere, so here are some other angles on the upcoming season to ponder as practice gets into full swing.
1. What is the condition of the program?
The feel-good talking points should be familiar by now. Penn State has posted double-digit wins, ending with a New Years Six bowl game, in two of the last three seasons, and is one of only six teams to win nine-plus games per season during that time. The only other programs to enjoy as much success as PSU in the final playoff rankings are all schools with at least one playoff appearance (Clemson, Ohio State, Alabama, Oklahoma, and Fiesta Bowl opponent Washington). On the vital talent accumulation front, State is enjoying by far its best results of the modern “recruiting rankings” era. So on one hand, it can easily be argued that Penn State is in great shape, poised to break into the very top tier of college football. On the other, it can also be pointed out that the Lions have repeatedly squandered leads and opportunities that could have had them there already, and that, in Saquon Barkley and Trace McSorley, two of the program’s most luminous talents ever just flashed across its football firmament, and without the individual heroics of those two, the feel-good luster of the last few years might have been reduced to a dull sheen. So which is the aberration: The 22-win wild ride of 2016-17, or the uninspired 9-4 slog of 2018? Franklin’s skeptics (see below) bet on the latter, arguing that the magic of Trace and Saquon bailed out an otherwise-average staff with a penchant for in-game gaffes and wasted leads. It’s hard to accept that all of the palpable energy and growth around the program is a mirage, but certainly, an immediate upgrade from last year’s campaign, marked by a blowout loss, agonizing blown leads, and terrifyingly close shaves against App State, Indiana, and (God help us) Rutgers, is a must. Another year removed from the Big Ten title run of 2016 and a chance for the blue chip players recruited by Franklin and his staff to take ownership of the team should offer our best indicator yet as to whether Penn State is primed to challenge for the playoffs or farther from Clemson, Alabama, and OSU than any of us might wish.
2. How good can this defense become?
It was 20 years ago now that the Nittany Lions entered the 1999 season with realistic designs on a national championship led by what promised to rank among the very best defensive units in school history. Two decades hence, names like LaVar Arrington and Courtney Brown still resonate with fans, and for good reason. The all-time greats at linebacker and defensive end would be selected first and second in the following Spring’s NFL Draft (Brown to Cleveland, Arrington to Washington), and although the team fell short of expectations, their 1998-99 defenses stand alongside the 2004-05 and 2014 units as among State’s best of the Big Ten era. This season, another boisterous linebacker who wears #11 and possesses all the talent to match his ample bravado, sophomore Micah Parsons, is gracing preseason magazine covers and headlining a defense with the potential to join that esteemed company. At all three levels, the Lions enjoy a combination of talent and depth that could translate into nightmares for opposing offenses. The secondary features a great mix of experience and skill from safety Garrett Taylor and corners John Reid and Tariq Castro-Fields, while Lamont Wade, Jonathan Sutherland, or JUCO transfer Jaquan Brisker could capably replace departed Rams seventh-rounder Nick Scott. The amount of talent at defensive line coach Sean Spencer’s disposal, particularly off the edge, is downright scary. If Parsons recalls LaVar, it is DE Yetur Gross-Matos, from among a group of ends that easily goes three-deep on each side, who is perhaps best positioned to remind fans of Brown. But any one of Shaka Toney, Shane Simmons, or potential breakout star Jason Oweh could do the same. The Wild Dogs are once again set to terrorize opposing quarterbacks. It also appears that the Linebacker U. tradition has returned to Happy Valley in full force. While attention gravitates to the multi-talented Parsons, in veterans Cam Brown and Jan Johnson, sophomores Jesse Luketa and Ellis Brooks, and highly-regarded true frosh Brandon Smith and Lance Dixon, Brent Pry has a roster of athletes who appear worthy of the position’s legacy. For old school fans like myself who are happiest when Penn State builds its team identity on D, this could become a season to remember.
3. Assistant Coaches: Old, New, and Former
Nobody was all that surprised when former offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead pulled up stakes for SEC country to become the head man at Mississippi State. Like Bill O’Brien, another beloved coach who bolted the Valley after two seasons, Moorhead had been pretty up front about his desire to pursue the big chair. Nevertheless, his departure, and that of other coaches before and since, were signs of the changing times at Penn State, where fans became accustomed to counting assistants’ tenure in decades, not years. Moorhead also left a vacuum that James Franklin boldly chose to fill from within by elevating Ricky Rahne, to decidedly mixed results. Fans will be looking for more creativity, consistency, and production as Rahne grows into the role this season, setting up (presumed starter) Sean Clifford and the host of weapons at his disposal for success. Scrutiny will be especially intense because one of Franklin’s other in-house options to replace Moorhead, then-receivers coach Josh Gattis, left Penn State after being passed over and, following a one-year stint with Nick Saban in Tuscaloosa, will assume playcalling duties for the first time as Michigan’s offensive coordinator. Gattis, widely considered one of the country’s better position coaches, will be handsomely compensated to transform Jim Harbaugh’s caveman offense into a Moorhead-style spread attack. The comparisons will be hard to avoid when the Wolverines come to town on October 19, when the outcome has at least the short-term potential to redeem or indict Franklin’s decision. What’s more, Gattis leaving set up a void at the wide receivers coach position that Penn State struggled to fill in 2018. One-time Purdue assistant Gerad Parker arrived from Duke, where he worked for highly-respected offensive whiz David Cutcliffe, charged with coaxing better production from a position group that marred Trace McSorley’s senior season with a maddening number of dropped passes. Another new face on Franklin’s staff brings us to our next storyline…
4. Special Teams: Friend or Foe?
The Nittany Lions more or less book-ended their 2018 season with costly special teams gaffes that encapsulated the team’s ongoing struggles in this phase of the game: In their heart-stopping upset bid at Beaver Stadium, the Appalachian State Mountaineers returned Penn State’s very first kickoff of the year for a score, and a spectacularly failed fake punt on PSU’s opening possession of the Citrus Bowl set up a Kentucky touchdown in a game that ended 27-24. Between those first and final games, a litany of botched returns, blocked kicks, failed trickery, missed chip shots, and a breath-taking number of kickoffs sailing out of bounds consistently put a team with an often-pedestrian offense at a distinct disadvantage. If literally “everything” did not go wrong for Penn State on special teams last year, it often felt that way. Change began at the top, where 2018’s first-year coordinator Phil Galiano was (conveniently?) offered an opportunity in the NFL and replaced by Joe Lorig, the highly-regarded former Memphis special teams coach who left Texas Tech at the altar for the chance to work with James Franklin instead. All offseason, Lorig has been touting his unique approach of having the special teamers practice separately as “position groups” in order to improve focus on key details and stressing the staff’s willingness to use key starters on the kick and punt teams. Virginia Tech transfer Jordan Stout was brought in to compete with Jake Pinegar and Rafael Checa, who were last year’s field goal and kickoff specialists respectively. Reports on Stout from both Blacksburg and State College suggest he has the talent to contribute in one or both roles if the returning players do not improve quickly and substantially. Last year, special teams was an Achilles heel for a team with limited margin for error. If Lorig can turn that weakness into a strength, it could prove the difference between winning and losing at least once.
5. James Franklin Stock Watch
For me, this season has always been set up to bring perceptions of James Franklin into keener focus: Partially because of the many fascinating questions about this year’s squad explored or referenced above, in addition to the hyper-obsessive 24/7/365 nature of the never-ending media conversation, and yes, also because he is, in many respects, the first “normal” successor to Joe Paterno (Penn Staters can never thank Bill O’Brien enough for what he did in truly unbelievable circumstances, but it is precisely because of the conditions under which he operated that his tenure remains anomalous). In case you haven’t noticed, James Franklin ranks as one of the more polarizing figures when it comes to opinions of his coaching ability among college football followers and, to a lesser extent, even Penn State’s fans. For every accomplishment that seems fairly cut-and-dry – elevating Vanderbilt (VANDERBILT!) to respectability, winning the Big Ten two years removed from Penn State’s NCAA sanctions being lifted – there always seems to be a caveat (“UGA and Florida were down!” “Barkley! McSorley! Moorhead!”). And indeed, for all the unprecedented wins on the recruiting trail, there are corresponding gaffes in crucial game situations contributing to losses on the field. It’s not that these aren’t legitimate observations, but they also often feel like solutions in search of a problem. With two of the program’s all-time greats both now playing on Sundays, improved stability in his cadre of assistants, and the wealth of recruiting talent he has become famous for accumulating ready to show out, a regular season of 9+ wins and a bowl victory should go a long way toward cementing Coach Franklin’s standing as, if you’ll forgive the term, “elite.” Another underwhelming year will further cloud the waters and stymie the program’s momentum on all fronts, and with it will come renewed speculation as to the authenticity of Franklin’s bona fides.
BONUS: Former Lions in the NFL
Two years of standout performances by program alumni at the NFL Combine and the massive publicity surrounding second overall pick Saquon Barkley’s Rookie of the Year season in New York have definitely boosted Penn State’s #brand visibility. Continued success in getting Lions to the next level – especially with productive results once they’re there – could benefit the program tremendously in recruiting. Numerous first-year pros will merit attention in 2019, from Trace McSorley seeking to continue his defiance of the odds as a back-up QB in Baltimore to Miles Sanders challenging for lead back status in Philadelphia (where he is joined by fellow draftee Shareef Miller, undrafted free agent DeAndre Thompkins, and veteran Stefen Wisniewski as PSU alums trading Blue and White for Midnight Green).
The amount of uncertainty surrounding this year’s team – just how good are they and how quickly can it all come together? – makes this August’s speculation some of the most fun that I can remember in some time.
Chris Buchignani is the president/publisher at HappyValley.com, co-host of The Obligatory PSU Pregame Show & Podcast, president emeritus of The Nittany Valley Society, vice president of the State College Area School District Education Foundation, and serves on the board of the Penn State Media Association AIG.