The Centre Daily Times brings you the debut of the Friday mailbag, where Penn State football beat reporter Travis Johnson will answer your questions every week. Submit your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org, or you can tweet them @bytravisjohnson or @psu_football.
Let’s get started. Hut! Hut!
We have 19 commits (for the recruiting class of 2015) and quite a few more looking to commit. How many openings are left? — Dan G. via Twitter
Dan, you had to start this off with the toughest question to answer, didn’t you? Ha ha. It’s a tricky proposition to figure out what the roster will look like, who will be on scholarship once the players without any eligibility left depart. By my count — and this is assuming defensive end Brad Bars gets a sixth-year of eligibility and former player Anthony Alosi, who was removed from the team for disciplinary reasons, does not return — Penn State should have 61 scholarship players on its roster come signing day in February. However, former players Anthony Stanko and Jordan Kerner remain enrolled at Penn State and count toward the scholarship numbers so the number is really 63. The NCAA will allow Penn State to field 80 scholarship players next season and the Nittany Lions currently have 19 commits, as you noted. This leaves room for no more and in fact, Penn State projects to be over the 80-scholarship threshold with an assumed 82 scholarship players (63+19). Of course, not all 62 players projected to return may be on scholarships and coach James Franklin has been coy about which players are on scholarship, so this is a fluid count and tough to predict. Also, don’t forget that former U.S. Senator George Mitchell who was appointed by the NCAA to monitor Penn State’s progress in suggested integrity reforms in the wake of the sanctions levied against the program, could suggest a further lifting of the sanctions. A year ago, the NCAA restored scholarships to the Penn State program at Mitchell’s recommendation and that could happen again as early as the second week of the season.
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Losing (quarterback Christian) Hackenberg on offense is the one season-crushing injury on offense. Who would you say is the equivalent loss on defense? Hull? Johnson? Amos? — Stephanie S. from State College
Mike Hull would be the hardest player to replace for the Penn State defense. Sure, Adrian Amos is the unit’s most versatile piece — he can play cornerback and safety with ease and will likely be asked to play in the box to help in run support — but there are other players who could be plugged in on the back end. Malik Golden, Koa Farmer and Jesse Della Valle come to mind. While they don’t have the combination of athletic ability and experience Amos has, they are serviceable players with upside. There is no replacement for Hull. He’s the heart and soul of the defense and it’s tough to find players who lead by example like him. His football IQ is off the charts, too.
Who could jump start Penn State’s lethargic kickoff return team? (Akeel) Lynch isn’t seeing much RB time ... any WRs or other speedsters an option? — Steve S. from State College
Honestly, the blocking has to be better at all levels. So many times last season you’d see gunners on the kickoff team running freely through the levels of protection. A lot of times, the up-man (returner who didn’t catch the ball) threw a weak block or missed one entirely. Of course, having quick return men with vision to read blocks will be crucial. From the very little I’ve seen, I think true freshman wide receiver DeAndre Thompkins is the guy. He looked good fielding punts and kickoffs in the two practice sessions that have been open to the media and he’s got speed to burn — he turned in the fastest 40-yard days in the spring. Little guys (Thompkins is listed at 5-foot-11, 173 pounds) with wiggle can be dangerous in space and that’s primarily what you want in a return man. Don’t sleep on Lynch, either. Special teams coordinator Charles Huff wants his third running back to factor in the return game and with Zach Zwinak and Bill Belton ahead of him on the depth chart, the long-striding Lynch could emerge here.
Do you think the defense will have a better idea of the schemes this year, as opposed to the confusion we saw on the field last year? — John B. from Altoona
If I screamed my answer: “Yes!” at you, your first thought before processing the substance of my reply would likely be: “Why is this guy screaming at me?”
If I said in a normal tone: “Yes.” You’d probably say: “Okay, good!” See where I’m going with this?
On game days, former defensive coordinator John Butler was a screamer and a fiery personality who, at times, had to be held back from getting Penn State’s sideline warned by officials for his jacked-up antics. Ted Roof employed a calm approach. So did longtime defensive boss Tom Bradley. So does Bob Shoop. Keep in mind, players and coaches have said the defense is very similar and that the big differences are in the way Shoop and his staff are teaching concepts and technique. I think the on-field communication will certainly be better and the defense will be much improved because of this.
Worst-case scenario: Hackenberg goes down. What does Franklin do? Keep the offensive scheme intact and go with (Michael) O’Connor, or scrap the playbook and run the option with (Trace) McSorely pitching to Zwinak/Belton and Lynch? — Brent G. from Philadelphia
We’re obviously very early on in the Franklin Era at Penn State, so we’re not sure exactly what his offense will look like on a week-to-week basis. But I believe he will coach and scheme to mask some of Penn State’s weaknesses. For example, the offensive line will rely on a lot of inexperienced players and all the plays we’ve seen through preseason practice have featured Hackenberg, O’Connor and McSorley in the shotgun. The wide receivers are young and green so expect to see a lot of Kyle Carter and Jesse James as the offense goes tight end heavy early. I do not believe Franklin and offensive coordinator John Donovan will throw out large portions of the playbook due to an injury to one player even if it is one of Hackenberg’s importance. With inexperience along the offensive line, especially at the right tackle spot, this team is not built to run the option full-time. Nor can any team succeed in the Big Ten by just pitching the ball snap after snap. Also, keep in mind schemes and game plans change every week based on the opponent.
That’s all for now. Keep the questions coming! — Travis