Five Impact Questions for the 2018 Football Season

Every team faces questions upon the beginning of fall camp and the regular season. With back-to-back 11-win seasons, the questions facing Penn State are good ones. How can the Nittany Lions continue their re-emergence onto the national college football landscape, and what factors will help determine this season’s performance?

We take a look at five questions that’ll definitely have an impact, including looking ahead to the Big Ten championship to see if we envision Penn State planning a return trip to Indianapolis.

1. How will Penn State’s offense remain formidable with key losses? 
Gone to the NFL are Saquon Barkley, Mike Gesicki and DaeSean Hamilton, as the Nittany Lions will have to replace more than half of its receptions and receiving yardage production from last season. This says nothing of Barkley’s rushing, and his blocking, which sometimes went unnoticed with all of the electric plays he made. For one example, cue up the game-winning touchdown against Iowa, and you’ll notice Barkley standing up a rusher in the backfield, allowing Trace McSorley to find Juwan Johnson in the back of the end zone. 

Still, plenty of talent returns, the result of great recruiting classes in recent years. Heralded recruit Miles Sanders finally gets his shot at being the go-to running back, after the junior waited patiently as Barkley tore up defenses. Johnson should be an absolute beast in the Nittany Lions’ passing game, especially down the field. With his size — 6-foot-4, 229 pounds — it’s impossible to see any defender covering him one-on-one. He’s too fast for linebackers and too strong for defensive backs. Add in what should be an improved offensive line and additional playmakers in DeAndre Thompkins and Brandon Polk, and Penn State shouldn’t see much of a drop-off from the 41 points per game the Nittany Lions averaged last year. 

2. Will Trace McSorley remain a strong Heisman Trophy candidate throughout the season?
In a word: yes. The senior captain and undisputed leader of Penn State is already being touted as a Heisman Trophy contender, and as long as he produces and Penn State wins — both of which have happened ever since he became the starting quarterback — McSorley should garner close to the same level of attention that Barkley did last season. 

Speaking in late May, he said his approach is a combination of using that award as motivation, while also not allowing it to overtake his approach. 

“It’s a great honor, and it’s something that at the end of the year, I’d love to be in that conversation and love to be in New York, but if you think about it too much, it will become a distraction,” McSorley said. “You look at awards like the Heisman, they usually end up being given to the best player in that position on the best team… Hopefully, we can get the team to be in that top position toward the end of the year, and that kind of stuff can fall into place.”

3. Who will emerge as the defensive leader? 
There are plenty of options, including senior safety and team captain Nick Scott, senior linebacker Koa Farmer and junior defensive end Shareef Miller. Senior cornerback Amani Oruwariye also has big-play ability.

Scott’s a two-time captain, and during spring practice, defense end Ryan Buchholz said Scott was the most vocal leader, adding, “He gets us going.” 

With so many candidates, chances are it’ll be a group effort, though keep an eye on Scott. He has the respect of his teammates — they voted him as a team captain — and the experience to help guide the Nittany Lion defense. 

“It’s an honor, it’s a blessing and it’s a testament to my hard work that I put in over time,” Scott said of being voted as team captain. “Seeing that guys have seen that and respect it, it gets me excited about the season. Being a captain before, it makes the season and the preparation a lot more personal, and there’s a little more gravity to this team, just feeling like the success or failure (of the team) is essentially my responsibility.”

4. Which player will take the biggest step forward this season? 
Again, there are plenty of choices. Certainly Sanders and Johnson on offense, and Miller on defense. And even though both Scott and Oruwariye have both established themselves as starters and leaders, there’s a sense there are ways for them to elevate their games even more. 
Several players mentioned that KJ Hamler made great strides during spring practice, as well. 

In terms of on-field production, we’ll opt for Sanders, who after waiting behind Saquon Barkley for the last two seasons, is ready to seize his opportunity. Following the Blue-White game, the junior running back said spring practice was “very positive” for the entire team; and for himself, he was focused on improving his blocking technique and catching passes out of the backfield. 

Added McSorley: “He’s been able to have all that talent that he came in with, and he’s able to build on it, get stronger, physically in the weight room, be able to get faster; he’s been able to learn the offense and what it’s like at this level. Now, he’s going to be able to put it all together, and just go out, and be able to play fast… I’m excited to see what he’s going to be able to bring to the table for us this year and the season he’s going to have. 

5. Will Penn State win the Big Ten Conference?
Despite Michigan’s prominence in preseason rankings and Michigan State’s potential to be a contender, this figures to (again) be a two-team race between Penn State and Ohio State. The two teams clash in September at Beaver Stadium, and the winner will control its own fate the rest of the way. If Penn State can finish September undefeated, there’s a great chance that the Nittany Lions will make the Big Ten title game for the second time in three years. Penn State’s probable opponent would be Wisconsin, which will visit Beaver Stadium this season. And everyone remembers what happened when the two teams played for the conference championship in 2016. 

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