One of Penn State’s biggest issues last year was a wealth of young athletic talent on offense, but a lack of proper utilization of that talent. It led to one of the least-productive units in the nation, a team tethered to the ability of its defense and the unglamorous departure of coordinator John Donovan.
But in new offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead’s uptempo spread scheme, opportunities for these playmakers will certainly increase. Penn State hopes yardage and touchdowns follow suit.
Players are working hard this July as fall ball looms, so here’s who to keep an eye on:
Saquon Barkley is first on this list, and for good reason. The incoming sophomore burst onto the scene last season with a literal leap and powered his way to 1,076 yards on 182 carries and scored seven touchdowns, plus averaged 6.1 yards per carry and 126.8 yards per game against his six Big Ten opponents (he missed 2 1/2 games to injury, including Penn State’s win over Indiana).
After making quite a statement in the weight room this winter, he weighs in at 5-foot-11 and about 220 pounds. Barkley just moved into his first apartment as well and is learning to cook, and joked last month that he’s on the “Carl Nassib Diet” of chicken and rice (named after the former walk-on-turned-national-sack-leader-turned-NFL-draft-pick).
Chris Godwin will continue his quiet push toward becoming the best 50/50 receiver in the country this season, meaning if he’s thrown a contested ball, his goal is to come down with it every time.
Last season he did so often and in stunning fashion, even pulling one Ohio State receiver who clung to his back along for another 20 yards after his catch. Godwin, a 6-foot-1, 208-pound (and growing) incoming junior, was by far and away Penn State’s top receiver last season, racking up 1,101 yards on 69 receptions with five touchdowns.
Trace McSorley is all but Sharpied in to become Penn State’s next starting quarterback. The dual-threat redshirt sophomore, who spent his first two years as a Nittany Lion backing up pro-style Christian Hackenberg, dazzled in the Blue White game after going 23 of 27 with 281 yards and four touchdowns. In fact, he had just one incompletion during the first half — an interception by Amani Oruwariye.
Head coach James Franklin and his staff will wait until the fall to name the team’s starter, but teammates and former coaches alike agree: Even though he’s green, McSorley is a gamer.
Brandon Polk is a speedy (albeit small) wideout that Donovan often used in the jet sweep last season. However, Polk is a very versatile receiver and spent his high school career setting records with McSorley at Briar Woods in Virginia.
Polk runs a 4.4-second 40-yard dash and a nice set of hands, so look for him to be utilized more creatively in Moorhead’s scheme.
Miles Sanders is officially on campus and ready to put in some serious work to become Penn State’s next highlight running back. The Pittsburgh native shone during the Big 33 game last month, with two rushing touchdowns and a receiving touchdown.
Sanders is naturally a little undersized and said he knows he needs to put on about 15 pounds, but he wants to “do exactly what Saquon did” in terms of working hard to learn the system quickly and exploding onto the scene. He’s a different-style runner than Barkley, preferring outside curls and cuts (and he certainly has the feet for such a role), and is a fluid runner who could surpass the stable of backs already on the roster if he is able to adapt to the collegiate learning curve.
Former wideout DaeSean Hamilton has opened up a level of depth to this year’s playbook with his transition into the slot. Hamilton, a leader on the team, had to pack on a few pounds to really sink his teeth into the role (he’ll have to block quite a bit), but said he’s looking forward to it.
A slot receiver is a great option in case a quarterback can’t get through his progressions due to an incoming blitz — something used against Penn State often and with success last season. Hamilton not only offers extra blocking, but a “quick-dump” of short yardage for the quarterback who can power for extra yards with his size and quick feet.
The Obviously Important
Andrew Nelson has transitioned from right tackle (and sometimes guard) over to a crucial spot at left tackle. For a line that gave up 38 sacks last season, his presence and development will be a key factor on the line — despite the natural alleviation a spread offense and a mobile quarterback gives the position.
Nelson battled some injury last season but, according to coaches, he has made by far the most progress of any of the linemen and is the “closest” to what the staff is looking for after two years spent developing a very young unit.
The tight ends will be an interesting unit to watch this preseason after the well-documented struggles of Mike Gesicki last year.
Sophomore Nick Bowers has the athleticism to step into a bigger role (as playfully shown by his dunking ability this summer), but dark horse Tom Pancoast impressed often in the spring with one-handed snags and excellent blocking. Gesicki will have to show he’s improved mightily in the trenches as a blocker and capitalize on his routes to prove he can still be the leader of a very competitive young pack.