So much has been written about Saquon Barkley, Trace McSorley, Joe Moorhead and the outlook for Penn State heading into the 2017 season.
And even though the Nittany Lions are expected to win their season opener handily on Saturday, it can’t hurt to know the opposition.
That’s why this week and for the rest of the season we’ll be speaking with a beat writer from Penn State’s opposition heading into the game.
We caught up with George M. Thomas of the Akron Beacon Journal for his thoughts on the Zips and what challenges they can pose Penn State’s prolific offense.
Q: In general, what are the expectations for Akron this year? Are they high or low?
A: For those in the program, expectations are high. But every coach is going to tell you that to start the season. I think those around the program who aren’t directly involved with coaching or playing, there’s a wait-and-see attitude in general. For all practical purposes, Akron had that bowl season in 2015, but they took a step back last year. They took that step back primarily due to injury, but by the same token, there has to be a next-man-up mentality on the team, and the guys behind the starters didn’t step up. I’m interested in seeing what’s going to happen. I can’t put my thumb on them. Seriously.
Q: Zips quarterback Tommy Woodson looks like he’ll be ready to go after offseason surgery. When he’s at his best, what makes him tough to defend?
A: He throws the deep ball very well. Tommy’s got a gun. Isn’t that a song? (laughs) Thomas has got a gun. Generally speaking, he makes good decisions. Very intelligent. He’s confident without being cocky. He’s the guy you want running the team right now.
Q: So of the players surrounding Tommy on offense, who’s that one guy who could give Penn State reason to worry?
A: No. 1, the offensive line returns four of five starters, so that’s a good sign right there. The big question is at wide receiver. They lost Jerome Lane and JoJo Natson to the NFL; they’re with New York (Giants) and Indianapolis, respectively. But here it is: You’re going to need to look for running back Warren Ball, who’s got a sixth year of eligibility. He’s a graduate transfer from Ohio State — couldn’t crack the lineup there. And he went down to injury last year, but when he went down, he was averaging 7.2 yards per pop. This isn’t fluky stuff. He’s a powerful runner. He made SI’s Freak list. The kid is cut, very speedy and very strong.
Q: On the flip-side, who’s a guy on the defensive side of the ball that could disrupt Trace McSorley, Saquon Barkley and the Penn State offense?
A: Ulysses Gilbert is a guy they’re going to have to pay attention to. He’s a linebacker who’s very fast, strong. Not too big, but he’s deceptive. They like a defensive end named Brian Reinke. He’s come out of nowhere. He’s a junior and local kid, going to a high school in suburban Akron. He went from 215 pounds to 250. In the practices I’ve been allowed in to see, I’ve seen him disrupt the offense. Now let’s be realistic. Because this isn’t the Penn State team that played Akron in 2014. This is a Big Ten champion. You could’ve made the argument that they should’ve been in the College Football Playoff.
Q: And that was going to be my final question for you. I mean, everyone is anticipating that this is going to be a blowout. As someone who’s as familiar with Akron as one can be, is that what you ultimately expect?
A: I expect them to be able to hang on for a little bit. You and I both know what happens in these types of situations. You’ll get a team that can put together a couple of drives, has one or two nice defensive stops, they get hyped up, and eventually the team that’s obviously superior wakes up. I’m not trying to put Akron down. But I’ve been covering college football for 10 years and watching for 47 (laughs). It’s always played out this way.