Penn State football will take the field in 2016 with a new offense, a new quarterback and a defense forced to rally after the loss of four starters to the NFL.
There are also some new faces — or known faces in new roles — on staff.
Joe Moorhead enters his first season as the Nittany Lions’ offensive coordinator after a previous stint as the head coach at Fordham and former linebackers coach Brent Pry will retain his latter role while also stepping into the defensive coordinator spot. Offensive line coach Matt Limegrover was hired in the offseason after serving as both a line coach and an offensive coordinator at Minnesota, and safeties coach Tim Banks joined the Nittany Lions in late winter from Illinois.
With so many changes comes uncertainty for the season ahead. Headline games against Big Ten East opponents (Franklin has gone 0-6 against Michigan, Michigan State and Ohio State in two years), the formerly one-loss Iowa Hawkeyes from the West and both Pitt and Temple loom as crucial matchups. Penn State also has five Big Ten home games for the first time ever.
But there is also opportunity for young athletes to step into the spotlight this fall.
Name to Know: Redshirt sophomore Trace McSorley has held the edge over redshirt freshman Tommy Stevens all throughout the spring and fall, and just this week was named as the team’s starter. The 6-foot, 200-pound Virginia product performed admirably under considerable adversity in a comeback attempt against Georgia in Penn State’s TaxSlayer Bowl loss, coming in cold and going 14 for 27 with 142 yards and two touchdowns. McSorley shone in the Blue-White game, going 23 for 27 for 281 yards and two touchdowns.
Notes: Moorhead is also coaching this unit, which will be run-pass option (RPO)-heavy and, true to any no-huddle, will rely on hand and written signals displayed by backups on the sideline.
Name to Know: Redshirt junior Andrew Nelson is the premier returning lineman within a unit that has become known as one of the worst in the nation. This winter and spring, Nelson transformed his body into that of a Big Ten lineman, prompting Franklin to remark that he is “the prototype” of athlete the still-developing line wishes to have. Nelson will likely stay at right tackle despite playing on the left all spring.
Notes: One thing is certain about this year’s unit: Junior college transfer Paris Palmer will not be playing first-string left tackle. The starter at the spot is thus far a mystery, as true freshmen Michal Menet and Connor McGovern have taken reps in practice as has redshirt junior Brendan Mahon. Mahon looks to have the starting slot on the left for Penn State’s season opener.
Name to Know: Saquon Barkley (surprise, surprise).
The sophomore running back burst onto the college football scene with a literal leap, and rushed his way to the No. 1 spot on the depth chart and 1,076 yards despite missing 2 1/2 games to injury. He also rushed for almost 120 yards per game against Big Ten opponents, including 194 yards against a top-ranked Ohio State defensive line.
Notes: While Penn State will continue to run inside zone and gap plays, look for Moorhead to remove a tight end in lieu of a second running back in certain schemes. This opens up pass options to backs like newcomer Miles Sanders, power back Andre Robinson and veteran Mark Allen.
Name to Know: At only 20 years old, Chris Godwin is poised to be one of the best receivers in the conference in 2016. He quickly became Hackenberg’s go-to wideout in 2015 and racked up 1,106 yards to lead the team. Softspoken and possessing a high football IQ, Godwin also became known for his stylistic knack for dragging along defensive backs after a catch.
Notes: Junior DaeSean Hamilton has officially moved inside to the slot, a position that adds depth to a playbook and is perfect for his strength and sureness of hands. Saeed Blacknall, though a bit banged-up in fall camp, is poised to be the third player out wide in Penn State’s starting offense.
Name to Know: Will this finally be Mike Gesicki’s year? The junior became less known for his prodigious athleticism and more for his dropped passes as the season continued, but teammates and coaches alike have repeatedly sworn he’ll be out of his funk and on track this year.
Notes: Every tight end will have to continue to improve their blocking, but according to coaches, both freshman Nick Bowers and redshirt junior Tom Pancoast have had excellent camps on the receiving side.
Name to Know: Redshirt junior Garrett Sickels is the only returning full-time starter on the defensive line after the departure of Austin Johnson, Anthony Zettel and Carl Nassib to the NFL. The line also lost prolific backup Tarow Barney, who now plays for the New York Jets. Sickels will anchor one of the end spots and will be forced into a leadership role by sheer experience alone.
Notes: With redshirt senior Evan Schwan likely to start opposite Sickels, the real gray area is the interior. While Kevin Givens has been lauded in camp, Franklin recently said he has a ways to go in his development. Additionally, Parker Cothren and Curtis Cothran could be solid options, but the former spent the spring rehabbing an injury and the latter is still untested.
Name to Know: Nyeem Wartman-White, a redshirt senior middle/weakside linebacker, begins his redemption tour with Penn State’s season opener. He was poised to lead the defense as the starter at middle linebacker before tearing his ACL in the first half of Penn State’s opener against Temple, and has since spent the last year rehabbing his knee.
Notes: Wartman-White will battle junior Jason Cabinda for the starting spot, but both are versatile players who will almost certainly start at one of the three spots in the second tier. Wartman-White, Cabinda, Brandon Bell, Manny Bowen and Jake Cooper are the only scholarship players in the unit with in-game experience (Von Walker’s was earned for special teams, but he does add a little needed depth to the unit).
Names to Know: After strong 2015 seasons, both safety Marcus Allen and corner John Reid will likely lock in big-time roles in Penn State’s secondary.
Notes: Grant Haley will also be a huge factor in the Nittany Lions’ passing defense, which last season ranked No. 8 nationally, and the unit itself is one of the deepest on the team. In fact, Franklin and position coach Terry Smith are actually looking for the “fourth corner” in the rotation at this point in the fall.
Names to Know: After several shanked punts and out-of-bounds kickoffs, many Penn State fans likely hope that freshman specialists Alex Barbir and Blake Gillikin have an immediate impact. Gillikin was recently given the “green light” by coaches to play as a freshman and will likely get action in the season-opener against Kent State.
Notes: Despite the competition the freshmen undoubtedly provide, returning specialists Tyler Davis, Joey Julius and Chris Gulla have, by Franklin’s account, stepped up their game in hopes of not losing their starting spots.