Tom Dienhart, Senior Writer, February 23, 2018


Penn State is one of the hottest programs in the nation, but it?s still looking for that elusive playoff bid. Will the Nittany Lions score a big breakout in 2018? Perhaps. James Franklin?s crew has gone an aggregate 22-5 overall the last two years and 15-3 in the Big Ten.

The Nittany Lions won the 2016 Big Ten title and made a push for another in 2017, capping an 11-2 season with an impressive win vs. Washington in the Fiesta Bowl. How dominating have the Nittany Lions been? Since opening 2016 with a 2-2 mark, they have gone 20-3.

The program has excelled on both sides of the ball. Penn State had one of the most dynamic offenses in the nation last season, finishing No. 2 in the Big Ten in scoring (41.1 points per game) and No. 2 in total offense (460.3 yards per game). The defense also did its part, ranking No. 2 in scoring (16.5 ppg) and No. 5 overall (329.5 ypg). And no school had a better turnover margin than Penn State?s plus-12.

The staff endured a lot of change in the offseason. Penn State lost a good one in offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead, who became head coach at Mississippi State. Running backs coach Charles Huff followed Moorhead to MSU. Receivers coach Josh Gattis bolted for Alabama. He is a big loss, like Moorhead. Franklin promoted Ricky Rahne to run the offense. The Cornell grad has been passing game coordinator and tight ends coach in State College. He will remain QB coach.

Other changes saw Franklin hire David Corley from Army as receivers coach and Ja?Juan Seider from Florida as running backs coach.

Here are three positions to watch this spring.

Running back: No way to replace all-time great Saquon Barkley, who left early after a sensational three-year run in State College, Pa. But most feel Penn State has a nice replacement in junior Miles Sanders, who was considered by some to be the top prep running back in 2016. Now, after waiting patiently, it?s his turn. And, Sanders should excel behind a good line. Depth is good, too, with senior Mark Allen also in the mix. Keep an eye on incoming freshman Ricky Slade, a five-star talent who arrives this summer, and redshirt freshman Journey Brown. Bottom line: Yes, Barkley will be missed, but Penn State has plenty of talent ready to fill the void.

Linebacker: Yes, Jason Cabinda and Manny Bowen are gone, but the Nittany Lions have some nice options at a place famously known as ?Linebacker U.? Senior Koa Farmer is a former safety who has speed to burn. And he can hit. Junior Cam Brown also figures in the mix. And everyone around the program is excited about incoming freshman Micah Parsons, the program?s most-decorated and highest-rated signee since 2005. He already is enrolled. Don?t be shocked if he starts this fall. Parson?s will wear No. 11, which belonged to LaVar Arrington. Staffers also like redshirt freshman Ellis Brooks, along with junior Jarvis Miller and senior Jake Cooper.

Secondary: Look who?s back! CB John Reid! He was lost for the 2017 season after suffering a knee injury in spring ball. Reid, a junior, is ready to roll and could be one of the Big Ten?s best cover men. He is cleared for action this spring. Senior Amani Oruwariye is one of the most underrated corners in the league. Sophomore Tariq Castro-Fields looks to build on a strong debut. While the corner spot looks good, questions loom at safety. Marcus Allen and Troy Apke leave big voids. Senior Nick Scott and junior Ayron Monroe look poised to take over. Former corner and mega recruit Lamont Wade could impact at safety. Keep an eye on junior Garrett Taylor.

2017 record: 11-2 overall; 7-2 Big Ten/2nd East (beat Washington in Fiesta Bowl)
Spring ball starts: March 19
Spring game: April 21

Key players back: OT/G Ryan Bates; LB Cameron Brown; DE Ryan Buchholz; LB Koa Farmer; OT Will Fries; K/P Blake Gillikin; DT Kevin Givens; G Steven Gonzalez; WR Juwan Johnson; C Connor McGovern; QB Trace McSorley; G Michal Menet; DE Shareef Miller; CB Amani Oruwariye; CB John Reid; WR DeAndre Thompkins; OT Chasz Wright

Key players gone: S Marcus Allen; SS Troy Apke; RB Saquon Barkley; WR Saeed Blacknall; LB Jason Cabinda; CB Christian Campbell; DT Parker Cothren; DT Curtis Cothran; TE Mike Gesicki; CB Grant Haley; WR DaeSean Hamilton; G Brendan Mahon; LB Brandon Smith