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New-look Nittany Lions to start over this spring

Written by Frank Bodani/York Daily Record | Mar 14, 2016 8:56 AM
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Penn State head coach James Franklin stands on the sidelines during an NCAA college football game against Michigan in State College, Pa., Saturday, Nov. 21, 2015. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

(Undated) -- James Franklin and supporters are touting the upcoming season as Year 1 at Penn State -- the notion that talent and depth have finally recovered enough from NCAA sanctions to signal a real revival.

In other words, only now is the program on solid enough footing to truly judge the work of Franklin and his staff, especially against the likes of Ohio State, Michigan and Michigan State.

While that won't guarantee significantly different results from the past two frustrating seasons, this is for certain: The Nittany Lions will feature a new veneer when spring practice opens Friday.

As in new coordinators, a new offense, a new quarterback and mostly new faces dominating both lines. The additions figure to better the program, and vibes from spring practice should provide clues as to how quickly that will lead to increased victories.

Here are five of the most telling areas for development and improvement over the next month, leading up to the Blue-White Game on April 16:

System Installation: The Lions new offense should feature a quick-fire, spread approach under coordinator Joe Moorhead. One of the keys will be taking advantage of multiple tailback talents, particularly redshirt Andre Robinson from Harrisburg. He may need to shine soon to help stay in front of hyped rookie Miles Sanders, who arrives in early summer.

There will be a lot of moving parts for new coaches Moorhead and offensive line coach Matt Limegrover, particularly with inexperienced quarterbacks and linemen and an uncertain tight end spot that needs struggling Mike Gesicki to find himself.

Rebuilding the Trenches: The Lions will be bigger on the offensive line, and probably more talented. But potentially playing four freshmen makes things vulnerable there, yet again. Even the expected leader, junior Andrew Nelson, has been plagued by injuries.

The early focus will be on 300-pound-plus redshirts Ryan Bates and Steven Gonzalez, who appear physically ready to play in the fall. Plus, true freshman Connor McGovern at least looks the part, too. He's 6-foot-5 and 305 pounds.

On defense, the focus is all about replacing three NFL-bound linemen. That process includes moving beefed-up Kam Carter and Kevin Givens from defensive end to tackle for their debuts this fall. Another part is fast-tracking the development of rush-ends Torrence Brown and Curtis Cothran. Leadership also will be key. The staff will be counting on its only juniors, Garrett Sickels and Parker Cothren, to set the tone.

Three-Headed Quarterback: Certainly, sophomore Trace McSorley owns the edge because of experience, including his TaxSlayer Bowl relief appearance. So it may be of more interest to learn who is winning the No. 2 spot heading into the spring game. Tommy Stevens and Jake Zembiec do possess impressive combinations of size, arm strength and mobility.

To even things out, all three quarterbacks will be learning Moorhead's system at the same time.

Frequent Flyers: The Lions have been in desperate need of a speed upgrade for some time now, which is about more than returning kicks and punts. They need a couple of game-breaking, home-run threats on offense. The hope was that rookies Brandon Polk, Nick Scott and DeAndre Thompkins would provide enough doses of that last season, though there was but a few flashes. Same for long, speedy receiver Saeed Blacknall, who made only a handful of catches. Thompkins even lost his punt returning role late to former walk-on Gregg Garrity Jr.

Meanwhile, star tailback Saquon Barkley should look even quicker this spring and fall. Much of his success last season came while running on a gimpy ankle.

Last Line of Defense: That young secondary with so much potential disappointed last fall, particularly lacking in highlight hits and big turnovers. This group's fortunes may now turn on the recoveries of cornerback Christian Campbell and safety Marcus Allen, who were slowed by injuries throughout 2015.

The young defensive line and still-thin linebacking group will require significant support from the back-end, especially in September. This also provides a big opportunity for little-used defensive back Amani Oruwariye and redshirts Garrett Taylor and Johnny Petrishen to push those junior starters over the next month.

Blue-White Game

What: Penn State's annual scrimmage that concludes spring practice

When: 2 p.m. Saturday, April 16

Where: Beaver Stadium

Parking/admission: Free

TV: No live broadcast

 

This article is part of a content-sharing partnership between WITF and The York Daily Record

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