James Franklin’s been saying it all offseason: Akron, Akron, Akron, Akron and Akron.
Well, the Zips are here. Before the Nittany Lions jump to Pitt prep, they’ve got Akron to take care of at noon Saturday.
Here are five things to keep an eye on:
1. Johnson’s chance
For the first time in 40 games, Chris Godwin will not be on the field for the Nittany Lions.
The biggest question of Penn State’s offseason was who will step up in the absence of Godwin? The Tampa Bay Buccaneer led the Nittany Lions in 2016 with 59 catches, 982 yards and 11 touchdowns.
Well, Penn State wide receiver Juwan Johnson — easily the most talked about Nittany Lion throughout spring and fall camp — has his first opportunity to prove why he could be Godwin’s replacement.
Whether it was coaches or players — Trace McSorley, Jason Cabinda, you name it — everyone’s been praising Johnson since the Rose Bowl wrapped up.
The 6-foot-4, 226-pounder with a penchant for one-handed catches in practice has the size and natural ability any wideout coach would want.
Now, Johnson gets to put it on display as a starter for the first time.
2. Lamont Wade, Tariq Castro-Fields reps
Outside of Johnson, the offseason hype has been centered around freshmen cornerbacks Lamont Wade and Tariq Castro-Fields.
Wade, a Clairton product and early enrollee, has received more attention than Castro-Fields, who arrived on-campus over the summer. But both have caught James Franklin’s eye, landing them on the depth chart.
Wade is expected to start at nickel for the Nittany Lions, while Castro-Fields is the No. 2 boundary cornerback behind Christian Campbell.
After so much hype throughout the offseason, seeing Wade and Castro-Fields go up against an offense that threw the ball 33 times per game in 2016 will be interesting.
3. Akron’s not-so secret weapon
If there’s anyone that can bottle up Saquon Barkley on Akron’s roster, it’s Ulysees Gilbert.
Gilbert, a junior linebacker, racked up 122 tackles in 2016, seventh-most in the country. The first-team All-MAC selection added 11.5 tackles for loss, four sacks, eight quarterback hurries, three pass breakups and two forced fumbles.
In short, the guy makes plays.
Now realistically, Gilbert can’t carry Akron’s defense the whole game. Penn State is going to put up plenty of points and should coast to a relatively easy win.
But if the Nittany Lions’ offense has a slow start, it’s going to be because of No. 5.
4. Wild Dogs
With new starters at defensive end and a few fresh faces expected to enter the rotation, this may be a perfect game to get the “Wild Dogs” rolling.
Akron returns four of five starters along the offensive line — but it wasn’t a fortified front in 2016. The Zips allowed 78 tackles for loss last season, ranking 83rd in protecting their backfield.
Torrence Brown and Shareef Miller — the replacements for Garrett Sickels and Evan Schwan — could be in for big performances. If and when Shaka Toney, Shane Simmons and true freshman Yetur Gross-Matos get their turn, expect the same.
5. Milestone watch
▪ James Franklin is looking to get his 50th career win.
▪ DaeSean Hamilton is 15 yards shy of 2,000 career receiving yards; he could reach that on Penn State’s first drive.
▪ Trace McSorley — 201 passing yards away from 4,000 for his career — should have that in the bag before Tommy Stevens takes over for mop-up duty.
▪ And Saquon Barkley is 428 rushing yards shy of 3,000 for his illustrious career. With it being Akron and all, he won’t come close to that. But it wouldn’t be crazy to see him cut that number in half.