Franklin confident about running backs
Welcome to the first edition of our Penn State football mailbag, in what we hope will become a weekly staple. As long as you keep asking questions, we’ll keep answering.
If you have a question for a future mailbag, tweet @ByJoshMoyer or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Among the questions today are why James Franklin hasn’t (yet) named Sean Clifford as the starting quarterback, the biggest differences on offense this season and “unproven” players who could make a difference.
Let’s jump right into it:
What are the biggest changes we can expect to see on offense this year compared to last year’s?
— Rich C.
Josh Moyer: Good question, Rich, so let’s address both the main change we’ll see in the running attack and the biggest change in the passing game.
With the running game, the answer’s much more evident. We’re going to see more of a running-back-by-committee approach, as opposed to what we’ve grown used to the last few years between Saquon Barkley and Miles Sanders carrying the ball 200-plus times. RB coach Ja’Juan Seider went so far as to say, “For me, last year was hard to play Miles that much.”
Historically, Seider has been able to rotate in three or four running backs without issue. When he coached West Virginia’s backs in 2016, for example, the lead-back earned 163 carries, the No. 2 had 113, the No. 3 had 73 and the No. 4 had 49. Now, that doesn’t mean the same will hold true for the 2019 Nittany Lions, but my point is this: In this offense, if you’re good enough at running back, you will play.
In the past, when Seider had at least three quality backs, no runner had more than 176 carries in a season. So, if Ricky Slade maintains his role as a starter, I’d expect 140-180 carries this year. So going from bell-cow to RBBC is the big change in philosophy here.
As far as the passing game, I think we’ll see a dash of the Air Raid this season — and by that I mean a noticeable uptick in short passes — and a heavier emphasis on K.J. Hamler, whose added experience will help him move around the field more.
Obviously when the personnel is different, the offense has to change with it. Clifford isn’t as mobile as Trace McSorley and that’s just fine, but even James Franklin acknowledged the offense has to adjust. Instead of choosing to run on an RPO play, for example, maybe Clifford tosses it to the safety-valve tight end or the running back swinging out of the backfield.
So expect Penn State to spread the field horizontally more often in 2019, and expect more touches for Hamler.
It’s common knowledge that Sean Clifford will be the starting QB, but (James) Franklin won’t announce it. Why wait a few weeks to name QB1? Isn’t that why Tommy Stevens left?
— Sean R.
Moyer: It’s kind of odd, isn’t it? Some players are talking as if Clifford is already the starter, reporters aren’t focused on the “competition,” and online sportsbooks aren’t even recognizing it. (BetOnline put odds on other QB battles but refused to do so for Penn State because, according to a spokesperson, “Despite Franklin saying it’s an open competition, they [oddsmakers] feel the odds are too long to set.”)
So why not just name Clifford the starter already? Well, first off, unlike Stevens, there’s no concern about Clifford transferring — which takes pressure off the immediacy of the starter announcement. Stevens expected to be the starter, Franklin couldn’t commit to him, and he left. Clifford’s expectations in the spring were entirely different, so Franklin really doesn’t lose all that much by holding a competition.
Maybe Clifford is pushed a little more, maybe Will Levis is a bit more motivated ... or maybe not. Clifford has the right mindset and doesn’t seem put-off by the competition, so what’s the harm? The QB battle also helps Franklin save face by not just handing the job to another quarterback, when he wouldn’t just hand it to a “loyal” QB like Stevens. Plus, there’s something to be said about earning a job instead of being given it by default.
In other words, because of the dynamic here, Franklin really doesn’t lose a whole lot by waiting. At best, it motivates both quarterbacks; at worst, there’s really not much of an impact. Still, I would be surprised if the starter wasn’t named by Aug. 21. Franklin can only keep this going for so long ...
This year’s crop of Nittany Lions seems to have a lot of potential, but many of the players are still largely unproven. Who would you say are 2-3 of those “unproven” players whose performances could make the difference between a 7-5 and a 10-2 season?
— Joe B.
Moyer: Let’s get the obvious out of the way so we can add some new wrinkles to this answer. We recently polled Penn State players about this season’s breakout star, and their overwhelming response was redshirt freshman DE Jayson Oweh. He should make every major breakout list in the nation. The other obvious pick is Clifford since, well, he’s the quarterback. Enough said.
So, outside of the obvious two, who are some of those other “unproven” players who should heavily impact this season? Here are my three picks: OT Rasheed Walker, WR Justin Shorter and S Lamont Wade/Jaquan Brisker.
I didn’t pick any of the running backs because, quite frankly, there’s enough depth here so that if one fails, it’s not a big deal. Most programs would salivate over having any one of PSU’s top three or four backs. But there’s more “risk” at the positions I chose.
Left tackle Walker has a lot on his plate this season in protecting the blind-side of a first-year starter. If he’s injured or doesn’t live up to expectations, there’s not a great backup plan here. Anthony Whigan and Des Holmes, who should make up the two-deep, have combined to play in five career games. (Whigan is a JUCO lineman who enrolled in January; Holmes played sparingly on offense last season.)
Granted, Walker is inexperienced himself — but he’s earned rave reviews this offseason. And he’ll be going up against some of the best defensive ends in the nation.
WR Shorter is pretty self-explanatory. He caught three balls last season and had to deal with an injury, but he creates plenty of mismatches as a 6-foot-4 target. He’s Penn State’s tallest wideout, and he was the offensive headliner of the 2018 recruiting class. If he opens up some things for Hamler and becomes a red-zone target along with TE Pat Freiermuth, that’d be a big boon to the passing game.
And, lastly, the starting safety spot between Brisker and Wade should be home to a key “unproven.” Brisker is a JUCO transfer with a lot of potential, while Wade has played in 25 career games but has yet to register a start. Penn State’s defense is good enough to carry this offense, but that’ll only hold true if safety continues its positive trajectory.