In an opening monologue of nearly six minutes previewing his 2018 team, James Franklin used the phrase “question mark(s)” six times.
The Penn State coach and his players can now start providing some answers.
Training camp for the Nittany Lions begins Friday as they prepare to open the season against Appalachian State on Sept. 1 at Beaver Stadium. It will be a measure of how far the program has come in the past few years by testing its ability to reload from losing historically productive players at running back, receiver and tight end as well as every starter in the middle of the defense.
“Probably have more question marks going into this season than we’ve had the last two years,” Franklin said last week at Big Ten media days in Chicago. “I think we’re at an exciting time in our program. Obviously lost a lot of production. I think we had six players drafted, and I think we had 15 players sign with some NFL organization. So really proud of that.
“But it also put us in a situation where we got a lot of things that we’ve got to get answered this offseason from a camp perspective, as well as early in the season with some challenging games as well.”
Here’s a position-by-position look at the offense, with a breakdown of the defense and special teams coming Friday.
If there’s an exception to all of the uncertainty, it’s under center. Or rather, 6 yards behind center as new coordinator Ricky Rahne will likely keep the offense in the shotgun 100 percent of the time as his predecessor, Joe Moorhead, did.
Factoring in experience, talent and depth, Penn State’s quarterback room is in its best shape since the 2008 Big Ten title team, when the Lions had league MVP Daryll Clark backed up by Pat Devlin and Paul Cianciolo — with a freshman named Matt McGloin redshirting.
Trace McSorley enters his third season as the starter in a system he has mastered, if his Fiesta Bowl performance is any indication.
“Obviously when you’ve got a quarterback like Trace McSorley coming back,” Franklin said, “from a production, from an experience standpoint, and just the way he’s carried himself over the last four years as a leader in our program, is fantastic.”
The news that Tommy Stevens would not transfer gives the Lions a season-saving backup option should McSorley go down, as well as someone who will factor in as a receiver this year.
In all, the Lions are set to have five scholarship quarterbacks in camp with true freshman Will Levis joining Sean Clifford and Jake Zembiec.
There’s no replacing a generational talent like Saquon Barkley, per se, but it sure doesn’t hurt to have the nation’s top-rated running back from the 2016 recruiting class ready to step in.
That would be junior Miles Sanders, who almost certainly won’t be facing the same focus from defenses as Barkley did. At least not at first.
Still, the Lions will likely use more of a rotation at the position than they did last year. And camp will help set who emerges as the top backups.
“Miles Sanders has a lot of excitement and buzz about him right now and what he’s going to be able to do, as well as some other guys like Mark Allen and Johnathan Thomas and Ricky Slade that are going to factor in,” Franklin said. “Be an interesting battle come fall camp.”
Allen and Thomas are both fifth-year seniors while Slade is, like Sanders, a five-star recruit.
Underrated for most of his career, DaeSean Hamilton will be sorely missed. And it will be up to fellow returning starters Juwan Johnson and DeAndre Thompkins to evolve from solid performers into All-Big Ten talents.
“(They’ve) played a lot of football for us, and we’re going to need those guys to step up,” Franklin said.
While the 6-foot-4 Johnson is entrenched at one spot on the outside, Thompkins is capable of playing inside or outside and spent a good chunk of the spring in the slot, where Hamilton excelled last fall.
Regardless, there will be opportunities for others in an offense that has three wideouts on the field the vast majority of the time.
Speedy junior Brandon Polk is another option and a player with a similar skillset, K.J. Hamler, was one of the standouts of spring ball. And plenty of eyes will be on true freshman Justin Shorter, who was rated by at least one recruiting service as the country’s No. 1 wide receiver in the 2018 signing class.
The biggest unknown on offense is finding a successor to the record-smashing Mike Gesicki, in part because injuries have slowed the top contenders.
Juniors Jonathan Holland and Nick Bowers both missed time on the field in the spring. Holland was the top backup for much of last year, at least in part because Bowers lost more than a year of work because of a serious injury. Neither has a ton of game experience, though Bowers did catch a touchdown with the second-team offense against Nebraska last year.
“Losing a guy like Mike Gesicki at tight end, we’ll have to find a way to replace some of his production,” Franklin said. “And obviously that’s going to be challenging for us.”
Sophomore Danny Dalton has also battled injuries. A pair of highly regarded true freshmen in Zack Kuntz and Pat Freiermuth could have a better chance to make an impact thanks to the new redshirt rule that would allow them to play in up to four games without losing eligibility.
Franklin saved one of his strongest comments for the guys up front.
“Offensively, for the first time we have an offensive line that we think has a chance to be a strength in our program,” Franklin said.
The unit gave a preview of what may be to come, pushing around Washington’s excellent defensive front in the Fiesta Bowl to set a school postseason record for total yards.
Hampered for years by a lack of depth, the Lions not only have five players returning with starting experience but enough behind them to fill out a strong two-deep.
The question now is finding which combination of players creates the best five-man unit.
Lake-Lehman’s Connor McGovern and Ryan Bates are the standouts, though it’s not a lock where they’ll be lining up. While center and left tackle are the most likely spots, respectively, that could change.
Steven Gonzalez has plenty of experience at left guard and there should be a healthy competition between Will Fries and Chasz Wright at the other tackle spot.
Only Brendan Mahon is gone from last year’s starting unit and Michal Menet has made strides toward filling the position. Whether he’s most effective at right guard or center could determine where McGovern plays.
Reach Derek Levarse at 570-991-6396 or on Twitter @TLdlevarse