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Jul. 14, 2015 - DJ Boyer

2015 Fierce 40 Previews: #37 Penn State

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#37 Penn State Nittany Lions

2014 Recap:
What a streaky season for Penn State, as they got out of the gate with four straight wins and then suffered four straight losses. Penn State then won a pair of games to become bowl eligible at 6-4 before dropping their last two regular season games to finish at 6-6. That was followed by their OT Bowl win against Boston College to finish 7-6. Penn State had some of their sanctions lifted, so more schlorships and postseason play is now possible.

James Franklin got off to a strong start in his Penn State tenure with a job that had to be very rough to step into. Bill O’Brien did a remarkable job keeping Penn State competitive after the fallout from the Jerry Sandusky scandal and having to replace an icon like Joe Paterno. After a few seasons the NFL came calling and in stepped Franklin. The fan base has done a good job in remaining patient with the program, as they look to get back on track and return to the top of the Big Ten.


Offense Analysis

Quarterbacks/Running Backs:

When you see the stats that read 55.8% completion percentage with 12 touchdowns, 15 interceptions and a quarterback efficiency rating of 109.4, you immediately think that this team is in need of an upgrade at the quarterback position. Christian Hackenberg is far from an ordinary quarterback, and in fact he could be the first one to come off the board if he declares early this season as a junior. Hackenberg has all the tools and can make all the throws needed for the next level. Last year Hackenberg was a victim of poor decisions and impatience with the new coaching regime. It didn’t help that Hackenberg was dropped 44 times behind an inexperienced line, but Hackenberg was guilty of holding onto the ball way too long on a number of those plays. At 6’5″ 235 pounds Hackenberg has prototypical size, and he shows enough mobility to keep the chains moving. I have said since his days as a freshman that watching him reminds me of Matt Stafford early in his Georgia career, and we all know how Stafford has turned out thus far as a pro. This will be a make-or-break year for Hackenberg and the offense, as they have now had a full year to digest the James Franklin system.

Akeel Lynch was the top rusher for Penn State a season ago, although he technically wasn’t the starter, splitting time with Bill Belton. Belton has moved on, and the converted running back Lynch will have his chance to shine as a junior.

Best Draft Prospect: Christian Hackenberg QB 1st Round 2016 (early declaration).


Wide Receivers/Tight Ends:

Penn State has no shortage of targets to catch the football, although the early departure of tight end Jesse James was a bit unexpected. He was a player that Penn State really wanted to lean upon as a senior. DaeSean Hamilton led the Big Ten with 82 receptions. What Penn State lacked was big play ability, and this is evident with the small 11.0 YPC for Hamilton. As a team Penn State only averaged 10.8 YPC, and the departed Jesse James led the team with three touchdown catches. Geno Lewis is back at wide receiver, and fellow receiver Chris Godwin may be the big play threat the Nittany Lions try to move around the field. Even with James gone, Kyle Carter is a capable tight end who will carry on the tradition of capable, tough tight ends from Penn State that know how to block as well as catch.

Best Draft Prospect: DaeSean Hamilton WR 4th Round 2018.


Offensive Line:

Four starters return for Penn State offensive line, but it may be the place where we don’t see a returning starter that will garner the most attention. Donovan Smith was an early declaration for the 2015 Draft. It was a bit surprising to see him go in the second round after a fantastic freshman season and some disappointing play over the next two years. Paris Palmer will come in and immediately get the nod to be the new left tackle. Palmer is a JUCO transfer, and he was the #1 rated OL in the country. He comes to Penn State with a pedigree. Palmer has terrific size at 6’7″, but is a little undersized at 285 pounds. Angelo Mangiro is a senior center who looks to have the best chance at playing at the next level. Brendan Mahon will be looked at to provide some leadership, especially as Penn State looks for a player that can fill the role that offensive guard Miles Dieffenbach seemed to hold. Dieffenbach, like Donovan Smith is now at the NFL level. The running game should be successful regardless, but Penn State needs to have a little more time for Hackenberg to throw in the pocket if they want to see more big plays and the ability to stretch the field consistently.

Best Draft Prospect: Angelo Mangiro C UFA 2016.


Defense Analysis

Defensive Line:

Anthony Zettell was one of the most disruptive defensive linemen in the country, as he tallied eight sacks and a whopping 17 tackles for loss. Zettell is marked currently as a fringe prospect between rounds two and three for the upcoming draft. The question is if Zettell is going to be playing more defensive end this season versus just lining up as a defensive tackle. Zettell plays at around 280 pounds, so there are some that feel he may be a better fit as a 3-4 defensive end. Former Penn State standout and Big Ten Lineman of the Year Jared Odrick comes to mind. Odrick was a defensive tackle that has primarily played as an end at the NFL level and is currently with the Jacksonville Jaguars. Zettel is a similar player, and no matter where he lines up he commands attention and will open up gaps around him due to the attention he draws.

Linemate Austin Johnson is the traditional defensive tackle that plays around 320 pounds and is more of a stay-at-home run defender. Johnson should command attention for the later rounds for 2017, as he is a junior that can improve his stock but not likely enough to consider leaving early for the Draft. The defensive end position will be a little harder to gauge for Penn State, as they will be replacing a pair of starters now in the NFL in C.J. Olaniyan and Deion Barnes. The latter of whom left a year early and surprised many when he announced. Penn State always stresses versatility up front, and their linemen are all able to line up at multiple positions and disguise where pressure is coming from quite well. As long as the new starters are able to take some heat off of the defenders in the middle of the line, this will be a fantastic unit.

Best Draft Prospect: Anthony Zettell DE/DT 2nd/3rd Round 2016.



It has been pointed out just how many capable individuals are available for Penn State, but it seems like Penn State will be replacing just as many. Mike Hull is no exception. Hull was the Big Ten linebacker of the year a season ago when he led the Nittany Lions in tackles by a whopping 65 stops (140 total). Brandon Bell posted 47 stops a season ago with seven coming for a loss, and he now looks to take the reigns from Hull and will be the leader of the linebacking corps. Bell currently carries a 6th round grade for 2017, and he will start with fellow returning starter Nyeem Wartman who was actually second on the team in stops a season ago to the aforementioned Mike Hull. Penn State is still known as “Linebacker U,” even though we don’t see the same numbers of prospects coming from the school we have grown accustomed to. Penn State will have enough leadership and talent to ensure that linebacker will be one of the strong suits of the team.

Best Draft Prospect: Brandon Bell LB 6th Round 2017.



The biggest question mark to begin the season may not be at defensive end but rather at the cornerback position, where Penn State looks like they will begin the season with a pair of new starters. Trevor Williams saw a lot of action a season ago and did post a pair of interceptions, but he was not one of the starters. The best player in the secondary, Jordan Lucas, will move back to safety after splitting time between corner and safety last season. This means Grant Haley will likely man the other starting spot although the door remains open for Lucas to make the switch back at some point. Haley is a bit undersized at 5’9”, but he has tremendous leaping ability and can hang with taller targets. Lucas will team with returning starter Marcus Allen who had a fantastic freshman season after being one of the highest ranked recruits in the state of Maryland out of high school. Allen may not be the same Marcus Allen that won the 1981 Heisman with USC and had a Hall of Fame career, but he does have ties to another Hall of Fame running back. Allen is the godson of Curtis Martin, so he has some interesting football connections and looks like a future prospect if he avoids a sophomore slump.

Best Draft Prospect: Jordan Lucas S 3rd Round 2016.


Special Teams

Sam Fickin had his career start in such turmoil while at Penn State, and by the end of his collegiate career he was one of the most dependable kickers at the NCAA level. Fickin also ended his career with a walk-off extra point against Boston College in the Pinstripe Bowl. Joey Julius is the frontrunner for the kicking position, but we don’t know what we will get out of the freshman at this time. Daniel Pasquariello had an up-and-down freshman campaign as the punter when he took over for Fickin last season. The punt and kick return game was non-existent last season, but the coverage teams were among the better units in the conference. Special teams is normally a solid area for Penn State, but there is some uncertainty there entering the season.

Best Draft Prospect: N/A.


2015 Schedule

Penn State opens on the road against Temple before getting an unheard of five games in a row at home. The streak will end with a visit to the defending National Champions Ohio State, a team they lost to controversially last season. Northwestern and Michigan State are road visits near the end of the season and both teams have been a thorn in Penn State’s side during recent years. This is a favorable schedule with no dates involving Wisconsin or Nebraska.


Draft Prospects & Outlook

All eyes are on Hackenberg after his nightmarish sophomore campaign. Anthony Zettel and Jordan Lucas are solid defensive prospects that will be looked at on Day Two of the draft. Don’t be surprised if Geno Lewis decides to leave school a year early and follow suit if Hackenberg leaves. Lewis may decide his stock could take a hit with a new quarterback, and he may try to maximize his draft positioning.

DJ Boyer

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