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There's a lot of upside (but also anxiety) around James Franklin's Penn State

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This is Bill C.'s 128-team preview of all of major college football. It's currently rolling through the Big Ten.

Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

Check out the advanced-stats glossary here. Below, a unique review of last year's team, a unit-by-unit breakdown of this year's roster, the full 2016 schedule with win projections for each game, and more.

1. A matter of optics

Penn State has finished in the top 10 three times in the last 11 years and won at least nine games in six of 11. Though NCAA sanctions crippled the scholarship count for a few years, that down period is over.

Just 14-12 over the last two seasons, Franklin is under serious pressure to return the Nittany Lions to their winning ways almost instantly. PSU has been one of college football's most consistent winners over the past 50 years and now shares a division with the 2014 national champion (Ohio State), the 2013 and 2015 Big Ten champion (Michigan State) and a Michigan team expecting a surge from Jim Harbaugh. Penn State cannot afford to fall behind, and Franklin lost a lot of goodwill when the development of blue-chip quarterback Christian Hackenberg died on the vine.

That's one way of framing the expectations on James Franklin as he heads into his third year in Happy Valley.

Here's another:

Franklin inherited a team that had quickly fallen from 13th to 29th to 52nd in S&P+ (and from nine wins to eight to seven). The NCAA's sanctions were scaled back eventually but still crippled depth, and the incredibly awkward circumstances surrounding Joe Paterno's ouster created a strange din around the program overall. While attempting a return to normalcy, Franklin has made minor improvements. PSU ranked 46th in S&P+ in 2014, then rose to 30th last year.

The optics obviously haven't been great. Improvement on paper is only worth so much when you're 0-6 against Ohio State, Michigan, and Michigan State and you lost to Temple last year.

Because it takes a while to reestablish depth, and because he took over a roster that was on its third coach in four years, I would say that Franklin has done a decent job simply because of the on-paper improvement. But no matter where the bar should be in Happy Valley, it's high at all times. Franklin's grace period, such as it was, ended a while back, and he's facing significant pressure moving forward.

That makes 2016's schedule a particularly anxious one. By the end of September, Penn State will have faced two in-state rivals (Pitt and Temple) and traveled to Michigan. There are a lot of wins to be found in the last two months of the year -- PSU is projected as at least a slight favorite in seven of the final eight games -- but his seat could be awfully hot by then if he were to start 2-2 or so.

2. Back to your underdog roots

It seems Franklin's reputation as an ace coach has taken a hit over the last couple of seasons. We can debate how fair that is -- man oh man, has his job been tricky -- but over the last year I've seen a "He can recruit, but he can't coach 'em up" narrative taking hold. Honestly, this puzzles me a bit.

First of all, Penn State's No. 30 S&P+ ranking last year coincides almost perfectly with recent recruiting rankings. The 2015 team was comprised of players from the 2011-15 recruiting classes. Average 247Sports Composite ranking of those five classes: 29.8. Take the mostly defunct class of 2011 out of the mix, and the 2012-15 average is still 29.5.

Second, Franklin still went 17-8 in his last two years at Vanderbilt, a program that had gone 4-20 in the two years before he arrived and has gone 7-17 in the two years since. Vandy's average S&P+ rank in his three seasons there was 48.0. In the six years before, it was 75.5; in the two years since, it's 94.0. And he signed only one class that ranked better than 48th per 247. (Needless to say, the classes before his arrival were not in the top 50.)

He played the underdog role perfectly; his Commodores slowed the tempo down, played sound defense, kept games close, and navigated through close games better than their opponent. Those teams were hungry and motivated.

There's no question that Franklin knows he's under pressure. He has both voluntarily and involuntarily had to replace some assistant coaches this offseason; if you're looking for a sign that the ship is leaking, that's a pretty good one.

But in naming his replacement hires, Franklin didn't go with big-splash guys to maybe win some goodwill. Instead, he looked for underdogs of sorts. He named Fordham head coach Joe Moorhead his new offensive coordinator, replaced OL coach Herb Hand with ousted Minnesota offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover, and, in replacing defensive coordinator Bob Shoop, he promoted linebackers coach Brent Pry, then brought in Illinois co-coordinator Tim Banks to coach DBs.

These hires might not work out, but they fit the Franklin profile. Franklin and his teams seem to do best when they feel they're being underestimated, and they might indeed be underestimated in 2016.

2015 Schedule & Results

Record: 7-6 | Adj. Record: 9-4 | Final F/+ Rk: 47 | Final S&P+ Rk: 30
Date Opponent Opp. F/+ Rk Score W-L Percentile
Performance
Win
Expectancy
vs. S&P+ Performance
vs. Vegas
5-Sep at Temple 45 10-27 L 43% 10% -20.3 -24.0
12-Sep Buffalo 98 27-14 W 86% 96% -14.7 -8.0
19-Sep Rutgers 101 28-3 W 97% 100% +9.2 +15.0
26-Sep San Diego State 43 37-21 W 96% 99% -1.9 +1.0
3-Oct Army 108 20-14 W 62% 72% -22.9 +6.0
10-Oct Indiana 61 29-7 W 84% 92% +10.2 +15.5
17-Oct at Ohio State 3 10-38 L 31% 0% -23.4 -11.0
24-Oct vs. Maryland 76 31-30 W 53% 55% -13.8 -5.5
31-Oct Illinois 65 39-0 W 98% 100% +37.5 +33.5
7-Nov at Northwestern 52 21-23 L 64% 57% -3.6 +0.5
21-Nov Michigan 8 16-28 L 41% 2% -5.1 -8.5
28-Nov at Michigan State 9 16-55 L 22% 1% -32.6 -39.0
2-Jan vs. Georgia 30 17-24 L 61% 30% -8.2 0.0

Category Offense Rk Defense Rk
S&P+ 29.9 59 19.5 15
Points Per Game 23.2 101 21.8 26

3. Happy Valley, sweet Happy Valley

It's sometimes hard to identify trends from a 13-game samples, but it seems there are two ways to look at Penn State's performance in 2015.

A. Penn State was great at home and awful on the road.
  • Penn State at home:
    Record: 6-1 | Average percentile performance: 81% (~top 25) | Yards per play: PSU 5.8, Opp 4.0 (+1.8)
  • Penn State away from State College:
    Record: 1-5 | Average percentile performance: 46% (~top 70) | Yards per play: Opp 5.7, PSU 5.1 (-0.6)

A plodding pace prevented them from putting up many points even when everything was clicking, but things clicked pretty well at home, at least until the finale against Michigan. The offense was at least defense, and the defense was impenetrable.

But while coaches like to say that defense travels, Penn State's only did so much. The Nittany Lions allowed 5.7 yards per play away from home (roughly the national average), and the offense lagged far below that.

Volatility and huge home-road splits are signs of a pretty young team. The offense leaned a lot on a freshman running back, sophomore receivers and sophomores and juniors on the line, while the defense had quite a few sophomores in the back seven. Maybe that qualifies as young?

Of course, there's another way to look at the data above...

B. Penn State stunk against good teams
  • Penn State vs. Top 40 teams
    Record: 0-4 | Average percentile performance: 39% (~top 80) | Yards per play: Opp 5.8, PSU 5.3 (-0.5)
  • Penn State vs. everybody else:
    Record: 7-2 | Average percentile performance: 76% (~top 30) | Yards per play: PSU 5.5, Opp 4.3 (+1.2)

Penn State did manage to fall to solid-but-unspectacular Temple and Northwestern teams, too, but for the most part the Nittany Lions were just fine against teams ranked below them and nowhere close to teams ranked above them. Again, that's a pretty good way to spend goodwill with fans and administrators.

Offense

FIVE FACTORS -- OFFENSE
Raw Category Rk Opp. Adj. Category Rk
EXPLOSIVENESS IsoPPP 1.40 13 IsoPPP+ 103.6 54
EFFICIENCY Succ. Rt. 36.4% 111 Succ. Rt. + 101.8 65
FIELD POSITION Def. Avg. FP 31.5 103 Def. FP+ 29.3 57
FINISHING DRIVES Pts. Per Scoring Opportunity 4.1 98 Redzone S&P+ 104.1 56
TURNOVERS EXPECTED 21.9 ACTUAL 18 -3.9
Category Yards/
Game Rk
S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
PPP+ Rk
OVERALL 105 67 65 54
RUSHING 106 53 57 38
PASSING 74 73 65 69
Standard Downs 38 40 33
Passing Downs 96 83 91
Q1 Rk 58 1st Down Rk 63
Q2 Rk 68 2nd Down Rk 19
Q3 Rk 64 3rd Down Rk 97
Q4 Rk 65

4. A Joe Moorhead offense

Moorhead has spent the last four years putting Fordham at the top of the FCS rankings with a balanced, up-tempo spread attack, ranking in the top seven in yards per play in 2014 and 2015 and No. 3 last year in yards per pass. Now he's bringing his attack to a program that's rarely deviated from plodding, pro-style methods.

In many ways, it's similar to what Alabama has been running under Lane Kiffin: West Coast passing concepts married to a simple, inside zone-based run game and no-huddle approach. [...]

The offense is less about a diverse portfolio of plays and more about the flexibility to adjust a small collection of concepts at the line, all well-practiced and understood by the players.

-- Penn State's joining the up-tempo spread revolution, and here's how it'll work

Franklin had a couple of solid years as offensive coordinator at Kansas State and Maryland. (His 2007 KSU offense improved from 80th to 30th in Off. S&P+, his 2010 Maryland offense from 93rd to 61st despite a freshman quarterback.) But he's never been much of a tempo guy. At Vanderbilt, it didn't make sense; unless you're spectacular at high-tempo execution, the sound underdog play is to limit snaps and possessions to keep things close.

On paper (I'm saying that a lot in his preview), PSU's offense recovered nicely in 2015. From 62nd in 2013, the Nittany Lions had fallen to 109th in Off. S&P+ with a smoking crater for an offensive line and an extremely young receiving corps. Last year, they were back to 59th, about where they had been under Bill O'Brien in 2013.

Still, Franklin felt the need to make a change, and to some degree it appears he is forgoing his aversion to tempo.

Now, we shouldn't overstate this. Moorhead's Fordham offense was selective in how it used pace, averaging only 63 plays per game. A lot of offenses use a no-huddle approach to keep certain personnel groupings on the field and limit the defense's options. They don't necessarily try to snap the ball 100 times. That appears to be where Fordham was.

The Fordham offense really was pretty fun, though. The Rams were nearly 50-50 between run and pass -- 419 attempted rushes (not including sacks) and 396 attempted passes -- and mixed bruising, between-the-tackles rushing with vertical passing. There might be West Coast concepts (which often means stretching the field horizontally), but Fordham QB Kevin Anderson averaged 13.9 yards per completion while completing an impressive 67 percent of his passes. The trade-off: Anderson also took 43 sacks. Sometimes it takes a while for receivers to get open downfield.

It wouldn't surprise me if Moorhead perhaps leaned a bit more on the run this year, simply to accommodate a loaded backfield while breaking in a new QB. But if this offense ends up with the pieces it needs, it could be fun to watch.

Quarterback

Note: players in bold below are 2016 returnees. Players in italics are questionable with injury/suspension.

Player Ht, Wt 2016
Year
Rivals 247 Comp. Comp Att Yards TD INT Comp
Rate
Sacks Sack Rate Yards/
Att.
Christian Hackenberg 192 359 2525 16 6 53.5% 38 9.6% 5.8
Trace McSorley 6'0, 201 So. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8625 20 40 185 2 0 50.0% 1 2.4% 4.4
Tommy Stevens 6'4, 215 RSFr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8600
Jake Zembiec 6'3, 205 Fr. 4 stars (5.8) 0.8752

Running Back

Player Pos. Ht, Wt 2016
Year
Rivals 247 Comp. Rushes Yards TD Yards/
Carry
Hlt Yds/
Opp.
Opp.
Rate
Fumbles Fum.
Lost
Saquon Barkley RB 5'11, 223 So. 4 stars (5.9) 0.9420 182 1076 7 5.9 7.3 40.7% 2 1
Akeel Lynch RB 55 282 2 5.1 8.7 29.1% 0 0
Nick Scott RB 30 133 1 4.4 4.0 33.3% 1 1
Christian Hackenberg QB 28 145 2 5.2 4.1 39.3% 3 2
Mark Allen RB 5'6, 181 So. 2 stars (5.4) 0.8357 28 101 1 3.6 6.2 25.0% 1 1
Brandon Polk WR 5'9, 172 So. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8947 18 159 1 8.8 8.0 66.7% 0 0
Trace McSorley QB 6'0, 201 So. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8625 12 48 0 4.0 2.4 41.7% 0 0
Johnathan Thomas RB 11 42 0 3.8 1.8 45.5% 0 0
DeAndre Thompkins WR 5'11, 185 So. 4 stars (5.8) 0.9098 5 12 1 2.4 0.9 40.0% 4 4
Brandon Johnson RB 4 23 0 5.8 6.5 25.0% 0 0
Andre Robinson RB 5'9, 212 RSFr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.9037
Miles Sanders RB 5'11, 195 Fr. 4 stars (6.0) 0.9858







Receiving Corps

Player Pos. Ht, Wt 2016
Year
Rivals 247 Comp. Targets Catches Yards Catch Rate Target
Rate
Yds/
Target
%SD Success
Rate
IsoPPP
Chris Godwin WR-X 6'1, 205 Jr. 4 stars (5.8) 0.9266 118 70 1103 59.3% 29.9% 9.3 58.5% 53.4% 1.58
DaeSean Hamilton SLOT 6'1, 211 Jr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8737 89 45 585 50.6% 22.6% 6.6 61.8% 39.3% 1.60
Geno Lewis WR-Z 37 17 196 45.9% 9.4% 5.3 43.2% 35.1% 1.41
Saquon Barkley RB 5'11, 223 So. 4 stars (5.9) 0.9420 31 20 161 64.5% 7.9% 5.2 54.8% 29.0% 1.75
Mike Gesicki TE 6'6, 252 Jr. 4 stars (5.8) 0.9130 30 13 125 43.3% 7.6% 4.2 60.0% 26.7% 1.62
Kyle Carter TE 24 14 135 58.3% 6.1% 5.6 58.3% 33.3% 1.31
Saeed Blacknall WR-X 6'3, 212 Jr. 4 stars (5.8) 0.9369 18 8 248 44.4% 4.6% 13.8 38.9% 33.3% 3.93
Brandon Polk SLOT 5'9, 172 So. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8947 8 6 57 75.0% 2.0% 7.1 50.0% 12.5% 6.13
Mark Allen RB 5'6, 181 So. 2 stars (5.4) 0.8357 8 4 44 50.0% 2.0% 5.5 62.5% 37.5% 1.33
Brent Wilkerson TE
7 6 39 85.7% 1.8% 5.6 71.4% 57.1% 0.82
Nick Scott RB
6 4 43 66.7% 1.5% 7.2 50.0% 33.3% 1.64
DeAndre Thompkins SLOT 5'11, 185 So. 4 stars (5.8) 0.9098 6 3 33 50.0% 1.5% 5.5 33.3% 16.7% 3.06
Akeel Lynch RB
6 4 8 66.7% 1.5% 1.3 16.7% 0.0% 0.00
Juwan Johnson WR-X 6'4, 218 RSFr. 4 stars (5.9) 0.9396
Irvin Charles WR 6'4, 219 RSFr. 4 stars (5.8) 0.8971
Danny Dalton TE 6'4, 247 Fr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8691
Dae'Lun Darien WR 6'4, 195 Fr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8290








5. Stars in the skill unit

Trace McSorley had a couple of impressive flashes while filling in for Hackenberg in the bowl loss, but he still produced a passer rating of only 105.4 for the season. He got the ball out of his hands much more quickly than Hackenberg, but he also only averaged 9.3 yards per completion. Many have assumed he would be the starter in 2016, but he has been getting a push from redshirt freshman Tommy Stevens, and apparently the battle won't be officially resolved until fall camp.

Whoever wins the job will have weapons around him. Saquon Barkley faded late a bit late in the year, averaging 7.5 yards per carry against Ohio State but only 4.5 the rest of the way, but he was a freshman. That's what freshmen do. He still finished with 1,076 yards, combining decent efficiency with outstanding explosiveness. Tiny backup Mark Allen was similarly explosive (and far less efficient). And this fall, they will be joined by blue-chipper Miles Sanders. Granted this will still be a really young RB unit, but the upside is immense.

Meanwhile, there's finally some semblance of experience in the receiving corps. Chris Godwin and DaeSean Hamilton are finally juniors after taking on huge roles early in their respective careers; they have already combined for 222 catches and 2,918 receiving yards in their young careers. Junior Saeed Blacknail was incredibly all-or-nothing last year, but the alls were impressive (30.5 yards per catch). And there are young four-stars -- DeAndre Thompkins, Juwan Johnson, Irvin Charles -- awaiting an opportunity.

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 104.5 2.75 2.64 38.2% 53.1% 25.1% 72.3 8.6% 9.1%
Rank 45 88 109 78 122 120 111 117 92
Player Pos. Ht, Wt 2016
Year
Rivals 247 Comp. 2015 Starts Career Starts Honors/Notes
Brian Gaia RG 6'3, 295 Sr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8815 13 25
Angelo Mangiro LG 12 25
Andrew Nelson RT 6'6, 301 Jr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8726 8 21
Brendan Mahon RT 6'4, 315 Jr. 4 stars (6.0) 0.9011 10 19
Paris Palmer LT 6'7, 304 Sr. 4 stars (5.9) 0.9049 11 11
Wendy Laurent C 6'2, 294 Sr. 2 stars (5.4) 0.8148 6 9
Derek Dowrey LG 6'3, 334 Sr. 2 stars (5.4) 0.8414 5 6
Chance Sorrell LT 6'5, 293 So. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8410 0 0
Albert Hall LG
0 0
Kevin Reihner RG
0 0
Noah Beh RT 6'6, 300 So. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8675 0 0
Brendan Brosnan OL 6'6, 295 So. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8457 0 0
Chasz Wright OL 6'7, 348 So. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8233 0 0
Ryan Bates OL 6'4, 305 RSFr. 4 stars (5.8) 0.9281

Sterling Jenkins OL 6'8, 328 RSFr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.9138

Steven Gonzalez OL 6'4, 324 RSFr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8878

Michal Menet OL 6'4, 296 Fr. 4 stars (5.9) 0.9808

Connor McGovern OL 6'5, 310 Fr. 4 stars (5.8) 0.9037

Will Fries OL 6'6, 295 Fr. 4 stars (5.8) 0.8761

6. A new head of the hosses

The maligned Penn State offensive line improved definitively in 2015; the Nittany Lions ranked 45th in Adj. Line Yards after ranking 111th in 2014. Still, the glitches were devastating. Hackenberg absolutely deserved some of the blame for the high sack rates, but not all of the blame. Meanwhile, though PSU opened up holes for Barkley and company, the line also gave up stuffs (zero-yard gains or losses) on one-quarter of all carries.

With OL coach Herb Hand leaving for Auburn, Franklin brought in Matt Limegrover to keep moving the line forward. Limegrover wasn't particularly well appreciated at Minnesota -- Don't believe me? Check out the comments section of my Minnesota preview) -- but I thought his line was impressive last year, considering the number of injuries. The Gophers started nine different players at least four times but still ranked 24th in Adj. Line Yards and 21st in Adj. Sack Rate. I think PSU would be happy with those numbers.

Limegrover's first PSU line will feature six players with starting experience and infinitely more experience than the Nittany Lions have had over the last couple of seasons.

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Defense

FIVE FACTORS -- DEFENSE
Raw Category Rk Opp. Adj. Category Rk
EXPLOSIVENESS IsoPPP 1.17 21 IsoPPP+ 118.6 15
EFFICIENCY Succ. Rt. 38.1% 33 Succ. Rt. + 109.9 34
FIELD POSITION Off. Avg. FP 31.4 38 Off. FP+ 33.5 10
FINISHING DRIVES Pts. Per Scoring Opportunity 4.4 64 Redzone S&P+ 100.1 72
TURNOVERS EXPECTED 27.1 ACTUAL 22.0 -5.1
Category Yards/
Game Rk
S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
PPP+ Rk
OVERALL 14 20 34 15
RUSHING 43 37 40 37
PASSING 8 10 32 6
Standard Downs 45 64 36
Passing Downs 6 10 5
Q1 Rk 16 1st Down Rk 17
Q2 Rk 63 2nd Down Rk 26
Q3 Rk 29 3rd Down Rk 23
Q4 Rk 23

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 104.3 2.73 3.25 38.0% 68.6% 19.3% 197.1 6.0% 13.9%
Rank 46 41 69 65 85 77 1 35 1
Name Pos Ht, Wt 2016
Year
Rivals 247 Comp. GP Tackles % of Team TFL Sacks Int PBU FF FR
Austin Johnson DT 13 54.0 7.7% 15.0 6.5 0 2 1 1
Carl Nassib DE 13 38.5 5.5% 19.5 15.5 1 1 6 0
Anthony Zettel DT 13 33.5 4.8% 11.0 4.0 0 6 1 0
Garrett Sickels DE 6'4, 249 Jr. 4 stars (5.9) 0.9195 12 24.5 3.5% 5.5 3.0 0 1 1 1
Evan Schwan DE 6'6, 253 Sr. 2 stars (5.4) 0.8281 12 14.5 2.1% 0.5 0.0 0 1 0 0
Curtis Cothran DE 6'5, 280 Jr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8465 13 10.5 1.5% 4.0 2.5 0 0 0 0
Parker Cothren DT 6'4, 290 Jr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8141 13 8.5 1.2% 0.5 0.5 0 1 0 0
Torrence Brown DE 6'3, 257 So. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8179 13 8.0 1.1% 5.5 1.5 0 0 0 0
Antoine White DT 6'2, 286 So. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8553 10 8.0 1.1% 1.5 1.0 0 0 0 0
Tarow Barney DT 13 6.0 0.9% 1.0 0.5 0 0 0 0
Ryan Buchholz DE 6'6, 270 RSFr. 4 stars (5.8) 0.9056
Kevin Givens DT 6'1, 275 RSFr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8498
Robert Windsor DT 6'4, 291 RSFr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8454
Tyrell Chavis DT 6'4, 320 Jr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8863
Brenon Thrift DT 6'3, 290 So. 2 stars (5.4) 0.7900
Shane Simmons DE 6'3, 240 Fr. 4 stars (5.9) 0.9781
Ellison Jordan DT 6'0, 285 Fr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.9225
Daniel Joseph DE 6'3, 255 Fr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.9056
Shaka Toney DE 6'3, 195 Fr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8498

7. Rebuilding an incredible pass rush

Bob Shoop's last Penn State defense (he left for Tennessee this offseason) was not quite up to the standard set in 2014. The Nittany Lions sank from fourth to 15th in Def. S&P+, struggling more than expected against the run. Still, this was an awesome defense, and the major reason for the awesomeness was the pass rush. PSU was No. 1 in the country in Adj. Sack Rate, led by a trio of linemen and linebacker Brandon Bell.

All three linemen -- Carl Nassib, Austin Johnson, and Anthony Zettel -- are gone. Just about everybody else is back, and honestly, I'm expecting a pretty big improvement in run defense, especially if linebacker Nyeem Wartman-White is healthy after missing 2015 with injury. Bell and Jason Cabinda are back at LB, and a sophomore like Manny Bowen or Jake Cooper might be ready to step up regardless of Wartman-White's status. There's probably more upside at linebacker than anywhere else on the roster outside of running back. And LB production is probably why linebackers coach Brent Pry got the defensive coordinator job in Shoop's absence.

The front is a concern, though. Returning DTs combined for just 16.5 tackles last year, and while there could be reinforcements in the form of JUCO transfers and redshirt freshmen, this is a concern until noted otherwise. And nothing can drag a linebacking corps down like an iffy set of tackles.

Linebackers

Name Pos Ht, Wt 2016
Year
Rivals 247 Comp. GP Tackles % of Team TFL Sacks Int PBU FF FR
Jason Cabinda MIKE 6'1, 232 Jr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8256 13 69.5 9.9% 5.5 2.5 1 5 1 0
Troy Reeder WILL 12 54.5 7.8% 5.5 0.0 1 1 0 0
Nyeem Wartman-White
(2014)
WILL 6'1, 248 Sr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8643 12 53.5 8.2% 3.5 0.0 1 0 0 0
Brandon Bell SAM 6'1, 233 Sr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8544 11 50.5 7.2% 12.5 5.5 1 0 3 0
Manny Bowen SAM 6'1, 220 So. 4 stars (5.8) 0.9029 13 15.0 2.1% 0.5 0.0 0 0 1 0
Jake Cooper WILL 6'1, 230 So. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8686 12 11.5 1.6% 2.5 1.0 0 1 0 0
Von Walker SAM 5'11, 213 Sr. NR NR 13 8.0 1.1% 0.0 0.0 0 0 0 0
Jordan Dudas LB 12 6.5 0.9% 0.0 0.0 0 0 0 0
Gary Wooten Jr. MIKE 7 5.0 0.7% 1.0 0.0 0 0 0 0
Johnathan Thomas LB 5'11, 219 So. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8697
Cameron Brown LB 6'5, 215 Fr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8929








Secondary

Name Pos Ht, Wt 2016
Year
Rivals 247 Comp. GP Tackles % of Team TFL Sacks Int PBU FF FR
Marcus Allen FS 6'2, 205 Jr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8877 12 62.0 8.8% 5 1 0 2 2 1
Jordan Lucas SS 9 45.0 6.4% 2.5 1 0 3 1 0
Grant Haley CB 5'9, 185 Jr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8578 11 34.0 4.8% 1.5 0 2 7 1 0
Malik Golden SS 6'0, 205 Sr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8323 13 28.5 4.1% 0 0 1 1 0 0
Trevor Williams CB 13 27.5 3.9% 3 0 1 3 0 0
John Reid CB 5'10, 191 So. 4 stars (5.9) 0.9416 13 23.5 3.3% 1 0 2 3 1 1
Troy Apke FS 6'1, 200 Jr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8848 13 20.0 2.8% 0 0 0 1 1 0
Christian Campbell CB 6'1, 194 Jr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8355 8 11.0 1.6% 1 0 0 2 0 0
Amani Oruwariye CB 6'1, 206 So. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8557 13 3.0 0.4% 0 0 0 1 0 0
Jordan Smith CB 5'10, 185 Sr. 2 stars (5.4) 0.8291 7 2.5 0.4% 0.5 0 0 0 0 0
Koa Farmer SS 6'1, 225 So. 4 stars (5.8) 0.8807
Nick Scott CB 5'11, 200 So. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8634
Garrett Taylor CB 6'0, 193 RSFr. 4 stars (5.9) 0.9418
Ayron Monroe S 5'11, 204 RSFr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8635
John Petrishen S 6'0, 209 RSFr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8464
Zech McPhearson CB 5'11, 180 Fr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8925








8. Few worries in the back

The run game may have been an issue, but the pass defense was excellent. Penn State combined decent efficiency (a 57 percent completion rate) with fantastic big-play prevention (26 passes of 20-plus yards allowed, first in the country), and while not everybody is back (safety Jordan Lucas and corner Trevor Williams have departed), six integral DBs return, including big-play safety Marcus Allen and a pair of nice corners in Grant Haley and John Reid. Blue-chip redshirt freshman Garrett Taylor could play a role, too.

The pass rush will almost certainly regress, which will make the secondary's job harder. But the experience level and athleticism might be enough to counteract some of that. The concerns for this defense remain in run defense.

Special Teams

Punter Ht, Wt 2016
Year
Punts Avg TB FC I20 FC/I20
Ratio
Daniel Pasquariello 6'1, 197 Jr. 58 39.9 3 10 11 36.2%
Chris Gulla 6'1, 196 Jr. 23 37.7 2 6 6 52.2%
Kicker Ht, Wt 2016
Year
Kickoffs Avg TB OOB TB%
Joey Julius 5'10, 271 So. 53 62.0 22 5 41.5%
Tyler Davis 5'11, 180 Jr. 10 59.5 3 1 30.0%
Place-Kicker Ht, Wt 2016
Year
PAT FG
(0-39)
Pct FG
(40+)
Pct
Joey Julius 5'10, 271 So. 20-24 8-8 100.0% 2-4 50.0%
Tyler Davis 5'11, 180 Jr. 11-11 7-7 100.0% 1-1 100.0%
Returner Pos. Ht, Wt 2016
Year
Returns Avg. TD
Koa Farmer KR 6'1, 225 So. 18 22.5 0
Nick Scott KR 5'11, 200 So. 13 23.8 0
DeAndre Thompkins PR 5'11, 185 So. 23 7.7 0
Mark Allen PR 5'6, 181 So. 5 6.6 0
Category Rk
Special Teams S&P+ 61
Field Goal Efficiency 37
Punt Return Success Rate 47
Kick Return Success Rate 110
Punt Success Rate 75
Kickoff Success Rate 77

9. Decent despite youth

Penn State had a sophomore punter, freshman kicker and freshman kick and punt returners in 2015, so a No. 61 ranking in Special Teams S&P+ might be a sign of excellent things to come. Kick returns were the only true weaknesses, and while Joey Julius did miss some PATs, his field goal record suggests the PATs were a little bit fluky. And if they remain an issue, junior Tyler Davis is still around as a steadier, if slightly less strong-legged, option.

2016 Schedule & Projection Factors

2016 Schedule
Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
3-Sep Kent State 104 23.2 91%
10-Sep at Pittsburgh 29 -2.5 44%
17-Sep Temple 61 11.5 75%
24-Sep at Michigan 6 -11.5 25%
1-Oct Minnesota 42 7.7 67%
8-Oct Maryland 62 11.8 75%
22-Oct Ohio State 14 -1.6 46%
29-Oct at Purdue 88 10.9 74%
5-Nov Iowa 38 6.6 65%
12-Nov at Indiana 56 3.9 59%
19-Nov at Rutgers 87 10.9 73%
26-Nov Michigan State 22 1.2 53%
Projected wins: 7.5
Five-Year F/+ Rk 15.3% (37)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 17 / 26
2015 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* 4 / 5.2
2015 TO Luck/Game -0.5
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 58% (53%, 63%)
2015 Second-order wins (difference) 7.2 (-0.2)

10. A manageable, terrifying schedule

The good news is that, per S&P+, Penn State is favored in nine of 12 games in 2016.

The bad news: In a couple of cases, the Nittany Lions are only the slightest of favorites. Games against Indiana and Michigan State are relative tossups, and considering recent results, it's hard to consider PSU a "favorite" against MSU at all.

The worst news: Those early land mines are terrifying from a morale perspective. To start winning PSU fans over again, Franklin really needs his team to beat Pitt (a tossup) and Temple (a likely win this time around). A 3-0 start is important from the perspective of bowl quality, but more than that, you could see how things might spiral if an anxious PSU team loses to either Pitt or Temple and then gets drubbed at Michigan.

This is a fragile time for Franklin and his Nittany Lions. The potential here is obvious. Penn State has potentially outstanding skill guys and an offense that could utilize all of them, and the back seven of the defense should be one of the Big Ten's best. But until we see what the quarterback position has to offer, and until we see the replacements on the defensive line holding up, it's hard to be incredibly optimistic. That fast start would go a long way toward easing anxiety.