Penn State's offense set to re-launch in 2018
UNIVERSITY PARK – In the pregame atmosphere before last season’s Fiesta Bowl, Ricky Rahne stood against one of the goalposts, flipping a football through the air.
Players went through drills near him, though for the moment, he was alone to his thoughts. As he looked out at the University of Phoenix Stadium, he had a lot to think about. He was recently named Penn State football’s new offensive coordinator, and he was about to lead one of the nation’s most explosive offenses against a stingy Washington defense that helped lead the Huskies to back-to-back 10-win seasons.
Speaking afterwards, I asked Rahne if he was thinking at all about wanting to do well to serve as a springboard into the offseason as the new coordinator and setting up well for 2018.
Here’s what he said:
“I thought about trying to win the game and scoring one more point than they did. I knew we’d have some time (in the offseason) and get to look at everything, but all I was thinking about was scoring one more point than them.”
Rahne added that’s what the coaches and players were thinking about, saying that the senior class meant too much to the program to look past the game. The approach worked, as Penn State racked up 35 points in the victory.
He also made a good point about having time to prepare for the 2018 season, which is now closer with spring practice coming to an end and the Blue-White Game on April 21.
With the departure of Joe Moorhead to Mississippi State, one of the biggest questions surrounding Penn State this season is the continued development of the offense and how the Nittany Lions will fare without Moorhead, Saquon Barkley, DaeSean Hamilton, and Mike Gesicki, among other losses.
Leading this effort is Rahne, a Cornell graduate who’s also coached with James Franklin at Kansas State and Vanderbilt. When it was announced that Rahne would replace Moorhead, Franklin said that Rahne had basically been auditioning for the job ever since the two first met.
Rahne knows the offense, and beyond that, he’s got intangibles that you just don’t find in everybody.
"I think the biggest thing with Ricky is somebody said it the other day: He’s too smart and he works too hard not to be successful,” Franklin said during spring practice in March. “When you have that combination, you've got a chance.”
Franklin continued, “I think also, me and him, culturally, we've been together for so long, and I think that helps. I think he's got a very clear understanding of what he wants to do and how he wants to do it. Obviously, the last two years, I think were really good for him and for all of us and really for our team, from a confidence standpoint. I think it helps when you're in a situation like this and you have transition.
“It helped Trace McSorley that we made the decision that we made, they're not all having to learn something new. And let's be honest, it also helps Ricky Rahne that he's got Trace McSorley, a veteran quarterback and probably the strongest offensive line that we've had since we've been here. I think that is kind of ideal, in terms of, if you have to go through transition, that's probably the best way for it to be."
Based on this assessment and the Fiesta Bowl performance, fans should be optimistic. Plus, consider the talent that returns.
Junior running back Miles Sanders now has his chance to become the go-to guy in the backfield, and he scored his third rushing touchdown of the season against Washington. Sanders arrived at Penn State as a heralded recruit after being named 2015 Mr. PA Football for Class AAA/AAAA, and he likely would have started at many other programs as a true freshman. Also, junior wide receiver Juwan Johnson had many standout performances last season, including six catches for 66 yards against Washington, and the game-winning touchdown as time expired against Iowa.
In total, 21 lettermen and eight starters return to the offense from a team that finished in the Top 10 and with 11 wins last season, including the Fiesta Bowl victory. At the center of this experience is McSorley, who should be a strong Heisman Trophy contender and who already ranks as one of Penn State’s most prolific quarterbacks. After this season, it’s a near-lock that he’ll be on the Mount Rushmore of Penn State signal-callers, and it could easily be argued he’s already in that category.
Along with McSorley, punter Blake Gillikin was a second team All-Big Ten selection last year, and offensive lineman Ryan Bates was a third team choice, helping to solidify the improved line that Franklin mentioned.
So, there’s plenty for Rahne to build upon. Additionally, the offensive line probably won’t see such a dedicated effort from defenses to stop the run, with the departure of Barkley to the NFL.
Franklin assessed this topic during his spring practice press conference in March, saying it’ll be a group effort to replace Barkley’s production. That makes sense, given Barkley is a once-in-a-generation talent, if even that often.
“We need to replace Saquon Barkley with the running backs that we have,” Franklin said. “And when I talk about ‘replace Saquon,’ I talk about his production, but replace it with the group of running backs that we have; but also with the growth of the offensive line and the development of our tight ends, and still be a team that's difficult to stop because of the firepower that we have at wide receiver and the mobility we have at the quarterback position.”
This last point is made when you look at the program’s all-time list for rushing yards by quarterbacks. Both McSorley (second, 864) and Tommy Stevens (eighth, 388) occupy spots in the Top 10, and after some uncertainty, the Nittany Lions will have both players back after Stevens announced in late March that he won’t be transferring.
He looked around and even talked to some other schools, though he’s staying at Penn State.
A promising omen for a program that’s looking to sustain on-field excellence and vie for another Big Ten championship.
“Ultimately, I know what I have here,” Stevens said on March 28, after practice. “I love Penn State, I love the relationships that I have here, and I love playing football with my best friends. After looking around, I found out that this is still the best place for me, and this is what I want to do moving forward.”