Penn State and its conference face some important questions as Big Ten Media Days quickly approach.
Big Ten Media Days will take place Thursday and Friday in Chicago, with all 14 teams, their head coaches and a collection of players on hand. It not only officially kicks off the preseason, it’s a chance to explore some of the burning questions and intriguing storylines within the Big Ten with the season openers just over a month away.
Where is everyone?
The list of players slated to appear for questions at this year’s event is most notable for who is left off it, not who’s on it.
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Ohio State’s five headline players — Joey Bosa, Ezekiel Elliot, Braxton Miller, J.T. Barrett and Cardale Jones — will not be present. This means questions about the returning national champions’ quarterback battle will not be answered by the players undergoing the position competition themselves, if at all. Inevitable social media gems from Jones will not be Tweeted. Media members will not be able to find various massive objects to which they can compare Bosa, and Miller’s switch from a quarterback sinking down the depth chart to one of the most intriguing wideouts in the conference will not be dissected by Miller himself.
Penn State’s Christian Hackenberg won’t be present either — a decision made by head coach James Franklin, who views the trip as a reward for deserving seniors. Center Angelo Mangiro, defensive tackle Anthony Zettel and safety Jordan Lucas will all be present.
There will only be five quarterbacks out of the conference’s 14 (15, if Ohio State’s options are counted separately) at the event, the biggest name being Michigan State senior Connor Cook.
It’s not clear why so few quarterbacks, often considered the face of a team, will be present. Some coaches, like Franklin, have said that senior talent should be the top choice of attendees, while others, like Buckeyes leader Urban Meyer, may have wanted to give other players a shot in the spotlight while avoiding questions he’s no doubt had to answer every day since Jan. 15.
Regardless of the reason, the same questions will undoubtedly be asked — although they may be prefaced by a “Why isn’t (insert player here) present?”
Two-For-One: How will Franklin answer questions about Hackenberg and his offensive line?
The two biggest questions facing Penn State this season have been discussed aplenty in the offseason: “Will this be Christian Hackenberg’s last year at Penn State?” and “How does the offensive line look?”
Hackenberg has been asked about his plans for the future after getting hyped earlier this year as a potential No. 1 pick in the 2016 NFL Draft. He’s maintained a steady “I’m focusing on the season ahead,” answer, and predictably so, because all of this prospect hype comes with one giant caveat that must be explored as the season unfolds: Is he actually any good?
Despite initial projections, the “sophomore slump” stats are blatant: Yes, he threw 2,977 yards last season. He also had a 12-to-15 touchdown-to-interceptions ratio. He was sacked 44 times. He had double-digit negative rushing yards in six games, a sign of a scrambling quarterback, and threw at least one interception in all of those games.
That begs the next pressing and oft-discussed question ... One of the more hotly-debated topics this offseason has been whether or not the junior quarterback can attribute 2014’s subpar play to his offensive line. Like any good quarterback, he himself won’t blame them for becoming a forced vegetarian last year.
Guard Brian Gaia did say of last year’s effort that, frustratingly, “at times, the offensive line played like Penn State, and other times, we didn’t.”
The Nittany Lions’ rushing attack was one of the woeful tells of an inexperienced line. It ranked No. 117 in the FBS out of 125 teams listed, with 1,325 total yards and an average of 2.94 yards per carry (though they did have 13 rushing touchdowns). The focus will not just be to protect Hackenberg — creating a balanced attack is important too.
Gaia also said the unit, which will actually return some experience, unlike last season, not only wants to prove itself, it’s ready to do so. He said they know everybody has been questioning the unit during the offseason.
It will be interesting to hear Mangiro’s thoughts on the unit as well — as its senior leader, and of course — Franklin’s comments regarding where he thinks the offensive line is as a group, as well as his thoughts on Hackenberg’s future.
Will Urban Meyer reveal who Ohio State’s starting quarterback will be?
“No. Next.” — Meyer’s likely answer.
Expect plenty of evergreen answers (“Both guys are really putting in a lot of work this offseason, both guys are really looking great,” etc.) from Meyer. In fact, don’t even expect any hints. The college football world (or, at least those interested in seeing who will start at signal-caller for the Buckeyes this year) is on Meyer’s schedule, and he knows it. It’s probably best to just enjoy the ride.
Who will be the most intriguing coach to watch this season?
The coaching battles in the Big Ten this season will be as intriguing as the games themselves. So far, quirky, khaki-ed and hyper-focused Jim Harbaugh, momentum-gaining and media-savvy Franklin and the returning conqueror-with-an-overflowing-tool-belt Meyer seem to be the coaches to keep an eye on. However, don’t count out the possibility of Nebraska newcomer Mike Riley’s resume and reputation producing some interesting storylines as the year unfolds.