Penn State Football

Penn State football: Taking a look at the state of the program

Penn State coach James Franklin has been in charge of the Nittany Lions for exactly one year on Saturday.
Penn State coach James Franklin has been in charge of the Nittany Lions for exactly one year on Saturday. CDT file photo

It’s been exactly a year since James Franklin was hired as Penn State’s 16th head football coach.

He took over at a tricky juncture. The Nittany Lions were halfway through a four-year sanction period imposed by the NCAA and had just lost the coach who had, for the most part, held the program together. When Bill O’Brien left for the NFL’s Houston Texans, Penn State acted quickly and introduced Franklin 10 days later.

Plenty has transpired since then and a sense of normalcy has returned to the program. Here’s a look at the state of the program as the Nittany Lions prepare to start winter workouts.

On the field

Penn State started hot with a win in Ireland over Central Florida and reeled off four straight wins. They’d manage just two more the rest of the regular season that saw Penn State finish 6-6. Nearly every game was close, too. Eight of Penn State’s games were decided by a touchdown or less with five of those settled by a field goal or less.

The Nittany Lions lost games to Michigan, Maryland and Illinois by five, one and two points, and took Ohio State to two overtimes where Penn State lost by a touchdown. On the other end, Penn State needed late drives to come back for wins against UCF, Rutgers and Boston College in the Pinstriple Bowl.

Overall, it was a season of imbalance. The Nittany Lions fielded a strong defense all season and ranked in the Top 10 nationally in every major defensive category. But an inability to run the football and protect quarterback Christian Hackenberg on offense held the Nittany Lions back once the Big Ten schedule began.

But Penn State showed a bit of progress over the final third of the season in both areas. Senior guard Miles Dieffenbach’s return had plenty to do with it. With Dieffenbach back on the line, Penn State gave up 11/2 fewer sacks per game over the final five contests and upped its rushing yards-per-game average to 142 after rushing for just 77 yards per game in the first eight.

The offense got a breakout season from DaeSean Hamilton, who led the team with 931 all-purpose yards and 899 receiving yards on 82 catches. Anthony Zettel was often the tone-setter for the defense and was usually Penn State’s best all-around player with eight sacks and 17 tackles for loss.

Penn State didn’t escape injuries, however and seniors Zach Zwinak and Ryan Keiser both had their Penn State careers end with injuries.

Off the field

Away from the gridiron, Penn State made progress.

First and foremost, other than the $60 million fine, the NCAA sanctions levied against the program in the wake of the Freeh Report were lifted. Athletics Integrity Monitor George Mitchell had announced a lessening of the sanctions a year prior, giving Penn State some of its scholarships back after the NCAA initially limited Penn State to 15 scholarships per year from the usual 25.

Getting them all back now — essentially, Penn State can now add full recruiting classes and not be limited to a certain roster total — is crucial for a team that played with fewer than 50 scholarship players available at times this season. In reality, getting the scholarships back reduces the future bleeding of depth. In reality, as O’Brien called them “six-year sanctions” because Penn State would’ve been feeling the scholarship reductions for at least two years after the initial penalties expired as the Nittany Lions would’ve had smaller upperclassmen groups on scholarship.

Meanwhile, Penn State continued to turn out student atheletes in the class room. By the time the Nittany Lions arrived in New York to play Boston College in the Pinstripe Bowl, 16 players had earned degrees wtih a handful of players, including Dieffenbach and Jesse Della Valle, earning their second degrees.

Penn State finished second in the Big Ten with an 87 percent graduation success rate, too.

Into the offseason

The next portion of the college football schedule includes winter workouts.

Penn State players returning will hit the weight rooms and take on conditioning sessions with Director of Performance Enhancement Dwight Galt and his staff. And in a little less than three months, spring football will be here. It will come without a few familiar faces.

With the usual turnover aside, Penn State will have to replace at least three players who opted not to return for their final years of eligibility.

Tight end Jesse James, offensive tackle Donovan Smith and defensive end Deion Barnes have declared their intentions to enter the NFL Draft and while they’re not immediately replaceable, Penn State has plenty of players at their positions to earn snaps.

Kyle Carter is the team’s most experienced tight end and sophomore Adam Breneman should be back in the spring after a knee injury forced him to miss 2014. Brent Wilkerson and Mike Gesicki also are young but got crucial experience this season. Both of Penn State’s top wide receivers return and figure to garner plenty of targets in the passing game.

Penn State figures to be stacked again along the defensive line, although replacing Barnes and co-captain C.J. Olaniyan could be trickier than expected. Carl Nassib has played a lot the last two seasons and has been explosive at times, particularly on special teams. Zettel could also move around more as he’ll be back and has plenty of experience playing outside and at tackle.

The coaching staff is high on sophomores Garrett Sickels and Curtis Cothran too, while the emergence of Parker Cothren inside gives defensive coordinator Bob Shoop more options up front. Don’t forget about Austin Johnson, who was a stalwart on the inside for Penn State this season.

Replacing Smith could be much tougher. Not only is offensive line Penn State’s weakest position group in terms of experience, Smith has been a vaunted member of the front five for the better parts of three seasons. The obvious choice to replace Smith is Andrew Nelson. The redshirt freshman got two games worth of snaps protecting Hackenberg’s blindside when Smith was out of the lineup with an injury and Nelson didn’t do that bad of a job. But with Dieffenbach gone too, Penn State will head into a second straight season with limited experience up front. Center Angelo Mangiro, and guards Brian Gaia, Brendan Mahon and Derek Dowrey will be backed up by players who have never seen the field.

Building for the future

Franklin consistently delivered the message during the team’s bowl week that he and his staff had the future in mind.

And Franklin wasted little time hitting the recruiting trail as soon as he was hired. He convinced a handful of Vanderbilt recruits to jump with him to Happy Valley and filled out O’Brien’s final recruiting class nicely. In the meantime, Franklin has upped Penn State’s recruiting approach.

After vowing to “dominate the state” in recruiting, Franklin was soon criscrossing the region in the fall with a helicopter. So far, Franklin has made good on his decree.

Penn State coaches have received verbal commitments from seven of the state’s top 10 prospects and currently has the 10th-best recruiting class in the country and second-best in the Big Ten as ranked by 24/7 Sports.

Franklin’s first full recruiting class is loaded with 15 four-star prospects of the 20 recruits currently committed, ensuring Penn State will have a bit more depth than it once figured it would have in the coming years.