The big 2014 Penn State football preview: The worst is over

Penn State's sanctions are easing up, and with the hiring of a local, charismatic, and successful new head coach, it's hard not to see the future brightening for the Nittany Lions. But what does that mean for 2014?

SB Nation 2014 College Football Countdown

Confused? Check out the advanced-stats glossary here.

1. Turning the page

The goal of the sanctions is to pound the NCAA's fist down and declare that what's wrong is wrong. On a case this terrible the organization simply can't be soft, can't worry about procedure, can't rely on the same old failed methods of enforcement, Emmert is arguing, according to sources.

This was an unheard of scandal, with what the Freeh report concluded was a breathless cover-up at the highest levels. Now comes a similar trailblazing response from the NCAA. [...]

The kids always pay for the sins of the father. The ripples of Penn State's concealment of Sandusky were felt far and wide. Now the punishment will as well. Although, it's worth noting, losing a few more football games isn't the end of the world. [...]

Once Mark Emmert concluded Penn State was wrong, he was going to do his part to set it right by charting a direct and long-forgotten course of action.

-- Dan Wetzel, July 2012

For either two years or 50, Penn State football has been a trading post for rhetoric. Joe Paterno's decades-long proclamations of football as avenue for a greater good invited praise and the building of statues; it also invited its share of "yeah, right" cynicism from a relatively quiet minority.

When the Jerry Sandusky conviction (and Penn State's complicity in either covering things up or not doing enough to expose him) brought Paterno's tenure to a close in the fall of 2011, rhetoric turned into a weapon from both directions. Paterno was a hypocritical scumbag, a victim, a patsy, and a gentle soul who died of a broken heart.

When the NCAA's nuclear sanctions came down in summer 2012, rhetoric coalesced in an odd way. Almost everybody agreed that the NCAA probably overstepped its bounds by laying waste to the PSU football program, instituting a long postseason ban, massive scholarship reductions, fines, and a vindictive number of vacated Paterno wins. But there was still division between scorched-earth "They should have done even more" and yearning "Well, they had to do something" attitudes ... along with the "Yeah, this sets an insane precedent" approach taken by both Paterno loyalists and, well, Bomani Jones.

Blind justice still feels like justice in the short term, but it often leads to regret. No matter how you feel about Penn State's punishments today -- whether you feel the egregiousness of the offenses still justifies unprecedented sanctions, or whether you feel this did nothing but punish the wrong people from the start -- the NCAA has backed down a bit. Scholarship reductions have changed from a maximum of 15 signees per class and a maximum of 75 players on the roster in 2014-15 to 25 and 80 in 2015-16 and the normal 25 and 85 in 2016-17. What felt to some like justifiable overreach began to simply feel like overreach. This is usually the case when public opinion meets punitive punishment.

Depth and injuries could still be an issue for Penn State in the next couple of seasons, but there's no question that, two seasons into post-Paterno life, the worst is behind the Nittany Lions. The scholarships are coming back, and if you squint, you can see another postseason bid on the horizon.

The new-day vibe goes beyond the sanctions, however. After two years of basically serving as program caretaker following Paterno's demise, head coach Bill O'Brien left for the Houston Texans. His replacement is a Pennsylvania soul who spent the last three years bringing that vibe to Vanderbilt. James Franklin, product of Langhorne, Pa., and East Stroudsburg University -- the most Pennsylvania-sounding Pennsylvania university -- is the new man in charge. He is a micro-manager and, to date, a winner. His identity engulfs all others, and his hiring would have made this feel like a fresh new era at Penn State even if one hadn't been needed.

It felt like Franklin was in charge in Nashville for longer than three years, didn't it? Franklin took over for Robbie Caldwell beginning in 2011, and after attending three bowls in 55 years, the Commodores attended three in three. They mastered the art of the little things, going 6-2 in one-possession games over the last two years, keeping the pace tamped down, and taking advantage of seemingly every opponent mistake. They leaned on you until you fell, and they figured out how to recruit well at one of the more difficult recruiting venues in major college football.

Franklin, who, it bears mentioning, is not without his own controversies, brought most of his staff with him from Nashville. They have closed ranks in terms of local recruiting, already landing 16 commitments for the 2015 recruiting class (11 of which are four-star recruits according to both Rivals.com and the 247 Sports composite rankings). They have begun to instill their methods on the current roster.

No hire is a slam dunk, but as the sun begins to shine again in Happy Valley, it's hard not to see this working out pretty well. It just sort of feels right, and perhaps for the right reasons this time. For college football's overall health, we can only hope that's the case, and we can only hope that glowing, growing rhetoric doesn't backfire again.

2013 Schedule & Results

Record: 7-5 | Adj. Record: 8-4 | Final F/+ Rk: 61
Date Opponent Opp. F/+ Rk Score W-L Adj. Score Adj. W-L 5-gm Adj. Avg.
31-Aug vs. Syracuse 75 23-17 W 21.9 - 10.3 W
7-Sep Eastern Michigan 124 45-7 W 27.3 - 12.9 W
14-Sep Central Florida 21 31-34 L 43.3 - 32.7 W
21-Sep Kent State 106 34-0 W 26.7 - 6.4 W
5-Oct at Indiana 56 24-44 L 14.3 - 24.3 L 9.4
12-Oct Michigan 37 43-40 W 22.8 - 20.0 W 7.6
26-Oct at Ohio State 9 14-63 L 26.6 - 40.9 L 1.9
2-Nov Illinois 71 24-17 W 24.5 - 27.6 L -0.9
9-Nov at Minnesota 55 10-24 L 28.8 - 26.9 W -4.5
16-Nov Purdue 114 45-21 W 34.4 - 37.1 L -3.1
23-Nov Nebraska 39 20-23 L 26.3 - 19.3 W -2.2
30-Nov at Wisconsin 19 31-24 W 48.9 - 22.1 W 6.0
Category Offense Rk Defense Rk Spec. Tms. Rk
F/+ -3.1% 72 +6.2% 34 -3.1% 112
Points Per Game 28.7 69 26.2 60
Adj. Points Per Game 28.8 59 23.4 23

2. A late rally

That O'Brien was able to go 15-9 in Penn State's two dark years, despite solid 2012 attrition and a 2013 season fraught with shaky play in the secondary and youth at quarterback, is an incredible accomplishment. The Nittany Lions were not nearly as good in 2013 as they had been during a surprising 2012 campaign, but they rallied late.

  • Adj. Points Per Game (first 8 games): PSU 25.9, Opponent 21.9 (plus-4.0)
  • Adj. Points Per Game (last 4 games): PSU 34.6, Opponent 26.4 (plus-8.2)

After playing at a below-average level in seven of the first eight games, Penn State was between above average and excellent in three of the last four. And the season ended with by far the best performance of the season, a road upset of an excellent Wisconsin team.

Offense

FIVE FACTORS -- OFFENSE
Raw Category Rk Opp. Adj. Category Rk
EXPLOSIVENESS IsoPPP 1.05 105 IsoPPP+ 91.3 106
EFFICIENCY Succ. Rt. 44.0% 58 Succ. Rt. + 94.4 81
FIELD POSITION Def. Avg. FP 31.4 97 Def. FP+ 97.4 84
FINISHING DRIVES Pts. Per Trip in 40 4.0 84 Redzone S&P+ 96.1 79
TURNOVERS EXPECTED 22.1 ACTUAL 22 -0.1
Category Yards/
Game Rk
S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
PPP+ Rk
OVERALL 43 87 82 74
RUSHING 58 99 79 78
PASSING 37 72 77 52
Standard Downs 90 86 99
Passing Downs 79 71 102
Q1 Rk 96 1st Down Rk 90
Q2 Rk 60 2nd Down Rk 71
Q3 Rk 100 3rd Down Rk 72
Q4 Rk 51

Quarterback

Note: players in bold below are 2014 returnees. Players in italics are questionable with injury/suspension.

Player Ht, Wt 2014
Year
Rivals Comp Att Yards TD INT Comp
Rate
Sacks Sack Rate Yards/
Att.
Christian Hackenberg 6'4, 220 So. 5 stars (6.1) 231 392 2955 20 10 58.9% 21 5.1% 6.8
Tyler Ferguson 10 15 155 1 0 66.7% 1 6.3% 9.1
D.J. Crook 6'1, 200 RSFr. NR
Michael O'Connor 6'4, 226 Fr. 4 stars (5.8)

3. You have our attention, Hackenberg

Landing quarterback Christian Hackenberg despite NCAA sanctions was an absolute coup for O'Brien and his staff. The bluest of blue-chip recruits, Hackenberge probably could have benefited from a little bit of time served as an understudy, but he was forced into action from Day 1. (That was perhaps part of the draw of signing with PSU in the first place.) For a while, it seemed like things would work out just fine. He produced a passer rating of at least 152 in each of his first three starts (two wins) and completed 21 of 28 passes for 262 yards and no interceptions against a pretty active UCF defense.

Hackenberg completed 21 of 30 for 339 yards and no interceptions against a defense that ranked ninth in the country.

Over the next eight games, however, his production faded. He only hit the 150-point mark in QB rating once in that span and completed fewer than 55 percent of his passes five times. He was 13-for-35 against Kent State, 12-for-23 with two interceptions against Ohio State, and 16-for-33 against Nebraska. He had basically a one-man receiving corps and a running game with no explosiveness, so he was asked to create a lot on his own, and there were predictable growing pains.

Then came the finale. Hackenberg completed 21 of 30 passes for 339 yards, four touchdowns, and no interceptions against a Wisconsin defense that ranked ninth in the country in Def. F/+. That's how you get attention.

The hype is building further for Hackenberg, but so are the challenges. With the departures of Allen Robinson and Brandon Felder, he must find new recipients for half of his passes -- the leading returning receiver caught 18 passes last year -- and a line that held up pretty well against blitzing must replace four of its top six players. Plus, while there's experience and potential efficiency in the run game, there is still very little proven big-play ability. Hackenberg's own development will help, but his supporting cast still leaves something to be desired.

Running Back

Player Pos. Ht, Wt 2014
Year
Rivals Rushes Yards TD Yards/
Carry
Hlt Yds/
Carry
Opp.
Rate
Zach Zwinak RB 6'1, 240 Sr. 4 stars (5.8) 210 989 12 4.7 3.8 37.1%
Bill Belton RB 5'10, 205 Sr. 4 stars (5.8) 157 803 5 5.1 3.4 47.1%
Akeel Lynch RB 6'0, 211 So. 3 stars (5.7) 60 358 1 6.0 4.6 45.0%
Christian Hackenberg QB 6'4, 220 So. 5 stars (6.1) 28 58 4 2.1 3.4 17.9%
Von Walker LB 7 18 0 2.6 3.6 14.3%
Allen Robinson WR 6 36 0 6.0 3.7 66.7%
Deron Thompson RB 5'10, 205 Jr. NR
Nick Scott RB 6'0, 190 Fr. 3 stars (5.7)
Johnathan Thomas RB 5'11, 220 Fr. 3 stars (5.7)

Receiving Corps

Player Pos. Ht, Wt 2014
Year
Rivals Targets Catches Yards Catch Rate Target
Rate
%SD Yds/
Target
NEY Real Yds/
Target
RYPR
Allen Robinson WR 150 97 1432 64.7% 38.8% 52.7% 9.5 260 9.5 179.1
Brandon Felder WR 46 28 312 60.9% 11.9% 58.1% 6.8 -37 6.5 39.0
Jesse James TE 6'7, 257 Jr. 3 stars (5.6) 39 25 333 64.1% 10.1% 44.4% 8.5 30 8.8 41.7
Geno Lewis WR 6'1, 201 So. 4 stars (5.9) 36 18 234 50.0% 9.3% 41.9% 6.5 -16 6.7 29.3
Kyle Carter TE 6'3, 243 Jr. 2 stars (5.4) 29 18 222 62.1% 7.5% 54.2% 7.7 0 7.6 27.8
Richy Anderson WR 5'11, 175 So. 3 stars (5.5) 25 13 111 52.0% 6.5% 36.0% 4.4 -65 4.4 13.9
Bill Belton RB 5'10, 205 Sr. 4 stars (5.8) 23 15 158 65.2% 5.9% 35.0% 6.9 -22 7.4 19.8
Adam Breneman TE 6'4, 235 So. 4 stars (6.0) 19 15 186 78.9% 4.9% 77.8% 9.8 21 8.2 23.3
Matt Zanellato WR 6'3, 203 Jr. 2 stars (5.3) 9 4 53 44.4% 2.3% 62.5% 5.9 -6 6.6 6.6
Alex Kenney WR 5 3 25 60.0% 1.3% 100.0% 5.0 -13 4.4 3.1
Jonathan Warner WR 6'1, 199 So. 2 stars (5.4)
Gregg Garrity WR 5'9, 147 So. NR
DaeSean Hamilton WR 6'1, 198 RSFr. 3 stars (5.7)
DeAndre Thompkins WR 5'11, 171 Fr. 4 stars (5.8)
Chris Godwin WR 6'2, 205 Fr. 4 stars (5.8)
Saeed Blacknall WR 6'2, 210 Fr. 4 stars (5.8)
Mike Gesicki TE 6'6, 245 Fr. 4 stars (5.8)
Troy Apke WR 6'2, 195 Fr. 3 stars (5.7)

4. When your lone play-maker leaves...

Hey, we finally joined Facebook!

Penn State ranked 106th in IsoPPP+, an opponent-adjusted measure of the magnitude of your big plays. The Nittany Lions had only 48 gains of 20+ yards in 2013 (95th in the country) and only 11 20+ rushes (99th). Any big-play potential came from the passing game, and most of that was derived from Robinson, who averaged 14.8 yards per catch.

PSU's two most proven big-play guys are now a tight end (Jesse James) and a receiver (Geno Lewis) whose decent 13.0 yards-per-catch average was negated by a dreadful 50 percent catch rate. The tight end position has all sorts of potential -- James, Kyle Carter, and Adam Breneman combined for 58 catches at 8.5 yards per target with a 67 percent catch rate -- but wideouts are a clear, obvious concern.

They were also a focus of the 2014 recruiting class, in fact. PSU inked three four-star receivers (plus a three-star sprint champion in Troy Apke) and a four-star tight end. If they prove themselves in August, there will probably be be plenty of playing time available in September and beyond.

Offensive Line

Category Adj.
Line Yds
Std.
Downs
LY/carry
Pass.
Downs
LY/carry
Opp.
Rate
Power
Success
Rate
Stuff
Rate
Adj.
Sack Rate
Std.
Downs
Sack Rt.
Pass.
Downs
Sack Rt.
Team 99.8 3.12 3.12 40.4% 63.8% 15.4% 109.6 7.1% 3.3%
Rank 76 38 79 56 92 14 57 109 11
Player Pos. Ht, Wt 2014
Year
Rivals Career Starts Honors/Notes
John Urschel RG 24 Campbell Trophy, 1st All-Big Ten
Miles Dieffenbach LG 6'3, 295 Sr. 4 stars (5.8) 23
Donovan Smith LT 6'5, 322 Jr. 4 stars (5.8) 20
Garry Gilliam RT 15
Ty Howle C 13
Adam Gress RT 12
Angelo Mangiro LG 6'3, 304 Jr. 3 stars (5.7) 0
Anthony Alosi RG 6'4, 283 Jr. 3 stars (5.6) 0
Derek Dowrey LG 6'3, 303 So. 2 stars (5.4) 0
Wendy Laurent C 6'2, 284 So. 2 stars (5.4) 0
Albert Hall LT 6'4, 245 So. NR 0
Brendan Mahon RG 6'4, 305 RSFr. 4 stars (6.0)
Andrew Nelson RT 6'5, 297 RSFr. 3 stars (5.6)
Andrew Terlingo LG 6'4, 294 RSFr. NR
Noah Beh OL 6'6, 260 Fr. 3 stars (5.7)

5. Herb Hand's got some work to do

Evaluating line play with statistics is, and will always be, a difficult thing. We do our best with Adj. Line Yards and Adj. Sack Rate, but obviously runners' ability to take advantage of blocking and quarterbacks' ability to properly read the pocket, get rid of the ball in a timely fashion, and/or escape the pocket at the right time will forever bleed into these general measures.

In 2013, Vanderbilt's line, led by new PSU O line coach Herb Hand, didn't grade out well. The Commodores ranked 101st in Adj. Line Yards and 94th in Adj. Sack Rate. But if you watched Vandy games, you got the impression that a lot of that was probably due to inefficient running backs and, over the final few games of the season, a young, hesitant quarterback. Vandy was successful in short-yardage situations, and as a whole, they didn't end up with a lot of negative run plays. They kept the ball moving forward.

Penn State's line, meanwhile, was excellent at avoiding negative run plays and passing downs sacks. Its runners didn't necessarily have the jets to create big plays out of the blocks they received, and short-yardage situations were a struggle, but last year's stats might not matter much, not only because the line has a new leader in Hand, but also because it will probably have four new starters.

With two-year starter Miles Dieffenbach out with injury, Penn State might start the season with only one player with starting experience up front (Donovan Smith). We'll see how both Hackenberg and offensive coordinator John Donovan handle potentially shaky play up front.

Defense

FIVE FACTORS -- DEFENSE
Raw Category Rk Opp. Adj. Category Rk
EXPLOSIVENESS IsoPPP 1.17 76 IsoPPP+ 102.0 52
EFFICIENCY Succ. Rt. 38.6% 28 Succ. Rt. + 114.1 20
FIELD POSITION Off. Avg. FP 30.8 52 Off. FP+ 103.5 23
FINISHING DRIVES Pts. Per Trip in 40 4.0 48 Redzone S&P+ 100.9 55
TURNOVERS EXPECTED 23.7 ACTUAL 20.0 -3.7
Category Yards/
Game Rk
S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
PPP+ Rk
OVERALL 49 22 20 36
RUSHING 37 8 6 14
PASSING 74 48 54 87
Standard Downs 21 14 46
Passing Downs 39 34 51
Q1 Rk 30 1st Down Rk 19
Q2 Rk 60 2nd Down Rk 28
Q3 Rk 19 3rd Down Rk 41
Q4 Rk 11

6. Opponents knew to pass

Defensive coordinator Bob Shoop inherits a defense that, despite some shuffling at linebacker, played spectacular run defense for most of the year. The Nittany Lions ranked eighth in Rushing S&P+ and allowed more than 195 rushing yards just twice all season. (Granted, one of those was Ohio State's 408-yard, six-touchdown performance.) They held Wisconsin to 120 yards, which was almost as stunning as what Hackenberg did to the Badgers' defense.

For about 10 of 12 games, Penn State forced opponents to go one-dimensional, and while that worked out reasonably well, it would have been better if the pass defense hadn't had a bit of a problem with big plays. The secondary was often aggressive, but not always successful. Experience should plug some holes here and there, as should Shoop's and Franklin's relative bend-don't-break philosophy -- Vandy ranked 82nd in Success Rate+, but 12th in IsoPPP+ in 2013 -- but pass defense remains the question mark heading into 2014.

Defensive Line

Category Adj.
Line Yds
Std.
Downs
LY/carry
Pass.
Downs
LY/carry
Opp.
Rate
Power
Success
Rate
Stuff
Rate
Adj.
Sack Rate
Std.
Downs
Sack Rt.
Pass.
Downs
Sack Rt.
Team 117.9 2.61 2.43 34.7% 61.5% 22.3% 104.3 6.0% 5.9%
Rank 13 23 6 24 31 24 54 27 86
Name Pos Ht, Wt 2014
Year
Rivals GP Tackles % of Team TFL Sacks Int PBU FF FR
DaQuan Jones DT 12 44.5 6.8% 11.5 3.0 0 0 0 0
C.J. Olaniyan DE 6'3, 244 Sr. 4 stars (5.8) 12 39.0 5.9% 11.0 5.0 1 2 3 0
Austin Johnson DT 6'4, 302 So. 3 stars (5.5) 12 20.5 3.1% 3.0 1.0 0 0 0 0
Deion Barnes DE 6'4, 245 Jr. 4 stars (5.8) 12 20.0 3.0% 4.0 2.0 0 2 1 0
Kyle Baublitz DT 12 18.5 2.8% 3.0 3.0 0 1 0 0
Anthony Zettel DT 6'4, 258 Jr. 4 stars (5.9) 12 13.5 2.1% 6.0 4.0 1 2 0 0
Carl Nassib DE 6'6, 244 Jr. NR 10 11.5 1.8% 2.0 1.0 0 1 1 0
Tyrone Smith DT 6'4, 264 Sr. NR 8 4.0 0.6% 1.5 0.0 0 0 0 0
Evan Schwan DE 6'6, 245 So. 2 stars (5.4) 5 2.5 0.4% 0.5 0.0 0 0 0 0
Brian Gaia DT 6'3, 280 So. 3 stars (5.7) 12 2.5 0.4% 0.5 0.0 0 0 0 0
Brad Bars DE 6'3, 251 Sr. 2 stars (5.4)
Garrett Sickels DE 6'4, 254 RSFr. 4 stars (5.9)
Curtis Cothran DE 6'5, 240 RSFr. 3 stars (5.7)
Parker Cothren DT 6'5, 276 RSFr. 3 stars (5.5)
Tarow Barney DT 6'1, 290 Jr. 3 stars (5.7)

Linebackers

Name Pos Ht, Wt 2014
Year
Rivals GP Tackles % of Team TFL Sacks Int PBU FF FR
Glenn Carson MLB 12 66.5 10.1% 4.0 1.0 0 3 0 0
Mike Hull MLB 6'0, 227 Sr. 4 stars (5.9) 10 61.0 9.3% 4.5 0.5 0 2 1 0
Stephen Obeng-Agyapong OLB 12 27.0 4.1% 2.0 1.0 1 0 1 0
Nyeem Wartman OLB 6'1, 241 So. 3 stars (5.7) 11 24.5 3.7% 2.5 1.0 0 4 1 0
Brandon Bell OLB 6'1, 226 So. 3 stars (5.6) 10 19.0 2.9% 0.0 0.0 0 0 1 0
Ben Kline MLB 6'2, 229 Jr. 3 stars (5.7) 6 13.5 2.1% 1.5 1.0 0 0 0 0
Gary Wooten OLB 6'2, 238 So. 3 stars (5.6) 10 4.5 0.7% 0.0 0.0 0 0 0 0
Charles Idemudia OLB 5'11, 237 So. NR 5 1.5 0.2% 0.0 0.0 0 0 0 0
Adam Cole OLB 5'11, 219 So. NR
Troy Reeder LB 6'2, 235 Fr. 3 stars (5.7)

7. A deep front seven

DaQuan Jones (a fourth-round NFL Draft choice) and Glenn Carson were outstanding defensive anchors for Penn State, and we shouldn't write off their absences by any means.

Still, the experience in the front seven is exciting. Five of seven primary defensive linemen and four of six linebackers return, and there's a nice mix of experience and exciting youth.

Senior Mike Hull moves to middle linebacker from the outside, and experienced ends C.J. Olaniyan and Deion Barnes lead the way up front. But there will be room for talented freshmen and sophomores in the rotation. From the sophomore class, you've got big tackle Austin Johnson and outsider linebackers Nyeem Wartman and Brandon Bell, all of whom saw quite a bit of playing time last season. Plus, redshirt freshmen Curtis Cothran and Parker Cothren each finished the spring on the second string, with blue-chipper Garrett Sickels still looking to make an impact. It's not hard to see both the present and future tenses working out pretty well for the PSU front seven.

C.J. Olaniyan. Rich Barnes, USA Today

Secondary

Name Pos Ht, Wt 2014
Year
Rivals GP Tackles % of Team TFL Sacks Int PBU FF FR
Jordan Lucas CB 6'0, 193 Jr. 3 stars (5.5) 12 55.0 8.4% 4.5 1 3 13 2 0
Malcolm Willis S 12 50.5 7.7% 1 0 1 1 1 0
Adrian Amos S 6'0, 215 Sr. 3 stars (5.5) 12 41.0 6.2% 4 2.5 1 5 0 0
Ryan Keiser S 6'1, 205 Sr. NR 11 32.0 4.9% 2 1 3 8 0 0
Trevor Williams CB 6'1, 187 Jr. 3 stars (5.5) 12 20.5 3.1% 0 0 2 8 0 0
Jesse Della Valle S 6'1, 190 Sr. NR 12 17.0 2.6% 0 0 0 1 0 0
Malik Golden S 6'1, 195 So. 3 stars (5.5) 12 5.5 0.8% 0 0 0 1 0 0
Da'Quan Davis CB 5'10, 164 Jr. 2 stars (5.4) 7 4.5 0.7% 0 0 0 0 0 0
Jordan Smith CB 5'11, 183 So. 2 stars (5.4) 12 4.0 0.6% 0 0 0 0 0 0
Jesse Merise CB 5'8, 180 Jr. NR 7 3.5 0.5% 0 0 0 0 0 0
Dad Poquie DB 5'10, 180 So. NR 7 2.5 0.4% 0 0 0 0 0 0
Devin Pryor CB 5'10, 174 Jr. NR
Anthony Smith S 6'0, 186 So. 2 stars (5.2)
Colin Harrop S 6'0, 167 So. NR
Kasey Gaines CB 5'10, 165 RSFr. 2 stars (5.4)
Koa Farmer DB 6'1, 205 Fr. 4 stars (5.8)

8. Experience means fewer breakdowns?

In terms of individual stats, it's not hard to like the potential of PSU's secondary as well. Cornerbacks Jordan Lucas and Trevor Williams combined for 4.5 tackles for loss and 26 interceptions or break-ups as sophomores, and safeties Adrian Amos and Ryan Keiser combined for six and 17, respectively. Those numbers are somewhere between above average and very good.

But the plays they didn't make were damaging.

It's probably not a coincidence that opponents averaged 2.3 more yards per completion in Penn State losses (12.8) than wins (10.5) last year. Big plays weren't costly in every game, but when the PSU pass defense grew leaky, the offense usually failed to compensate. With more offensive question marks in 2014, the defense needs to get a bit more stable in the big-play department.

Special Teams

Punter Ht, Wt 2014
Year
Punts Avg TB FC I20 FC/I20
Ratio
Alex Butterworth 51 39.2 4 27 17 86.3%
Kicker Ht, Wt 2014
Year
Kickoffs Avg TB OOB TB%
Sam Ficken 6'2, 184 Sr. 67 60.9 18 0 26.9%
Place-Kicker Ht, Wt 2014
Year
PAT FG
(0-39)
Pct FG
(40+)
Pct
Sam Ficken 6'2, 184 Sr. 41-42 10-14 71.4% 5-9 55.6%
Returner Pos. Ht, Wt 2014
Year
Returns Avg. TD
Geno Lewis KR 6'1, 201 So. 22 22.3 0
Von Walker KR 5'11, 199 So. 6 16.5 0
Jesse Della Valle PR 6'1, 190 Sr. 18 8.7 0
Von Walker PR 5'11, 199 So. 4 4.8 0
Category Rk
Special Teams F/+ 112
Field Goal Efficiency 86
Punt Return Efficiency 58
Kick Return Efficiency 114
Punt Efficiency 99
Kickoff Efficiency 117
Opponents' Field Goal Efficiency 49

9. Shoring up special teams

Special teams units are always volatile, always prone to major shifts from year to year. In 2013, the shift was negative for Penn State; the Nittany Lions fell from 50th to 96th in Special Teams F/+, struggling in basically every category other than punt returns (and really, only returning punts at a mediocre level). Kicker Sam Ficken has a big leg (5-for-9 on field goals longer than 40 yards), but he missed too many sub-40 kicks, and he only managed touchbacks on a quarter of his kickoffs. Meanwhile, kick returns were just about non-existent.

But on the bright side, punter Alex Butterworth won't be too difficult to replace, I guess. If Ficken grows a bit more consistent and a young return man breaks through, this unit could improve pretty quickly. But those are obviously not guaranteed.

2014 Schedule & Projection Factors

2014 Schedule
Date Opponent Proj. Rk
30-Aug vs. Central Florida 27
6-Sep Akron 111
13-Sep at Rutgers 78
20-Sep Massachusetts 126
27-Sep Northwestern 50
11-Oct at Michigan 32
25-Oct Ohio State 4
1-Nov Maryland 51
8-Nov at Indiana 47
15-Nov Temple 95
22-Nov at Illinois 63
29-Nov Michigan State 13
Five-Year F/+ Rk 11.6% (26)
Two-Year Recruiting Rk 33
TO Margin/Adj. TO Margin* -2 / 1.6
TO Luck/Game -1.5
Approx. Ret. Starters (Off. / Def.) 13 (6, 7)

10. A top-30 team might go 10-2

It's hard to know what to think about Penn State in 2014. We know the future is looking brighter and brighter, but that's the future. This fall, the offense could lack for play-makers, and the offensive line could struggle with inexperience (while protecting a quarterback who is still only a true sophomore himself). And while the overall defense should be solid (or better than solid), we don't yet know how much better the pass defense is going to be.

We do know that James Franklin was able to engineer immediate, sustainable improvement at Vanderbilt. After ranking 82nd and 101st in the F/+ rankings in 2009-10, the Commodores ranked 39th, 50th, and 50th in 2011-13. We also know that even with scholarship reductions, Franklin's inheriting a more talented, athletic roster in Happy Valley.

We also know that there are wins on the table. If Franklin is able to bump this team into the top 30, then the schedule could set up for 10 wins or more. The only two projected top-25 teams on the schedule (Ohio State and Michigan State) come to Penn State, and there are only two other opponents projected better than 47th. Go 2-2 in those four games and win the games you're supposed to win, and you've got 10-2.

Still, a top-30 finish might be too much to ask. For one thing, Franklin never pulled that off at Vanderbilt, even while going 18-8 in 2012-13. For another, despite late improvement, Penn State did still rank just 61st last year.

Penn State might instead top out around 8-4 or 9-3 this fall, but again ... considering where this program appeared to be headed 22 months ago, that's quite impressive. And considering the youth of the team overall, the awesome recruiting, and the fading sanctions, it's impossible not to like where this program might be in a few years even if it's still having to settle for only being good in the short run.

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