There was still a bowl game to play — the 2017 season wasn’t over yet. But James Franklin already had 2018 and beyond on his mind.
Moments after closing out a second-straight 10-2 regular season with a demolition of Maryland, the Penn State coach was focused on the next step.
“I’m proud of the progress we’re making. I really am,” Franklin said. “But I’m probably more excited that I really believe this is just the beginning for us. I really feel like we can just continue to get better. And that’s every aspect of the program. That’s the coaches, that’s the players, that’s the trainers, that’s the doctors — that’s everything.
“And that’s what we need to do to continue to build this program. Because at this level? It’s very, very difficult and it’s very, very challenging.”
As tough as it was for the Nittany Lions to climb out from underneath NCAA sanctions to record consecutive top-10 finishes in 2016 and 2017, it could be even tougher just to climb a few more spots into the top four and reach the College Football Playoff.
“We’ve just got to keep scraping and clawing and scratching for every little inch that we can find,” Franklin said. “Because to be honest with you, for where we want to go, it’s still going to need to be a slow, steady crawl to get there. I make the argument that it’s going to be harder — these next steps — than what we’ve already done.
“It should be an interesting ride.”
Getting there in 2018 won’t be easy. Here’s a position-by-position look at where Penn State stands for next fall.
The rosiest of outlooks for Penn State next season all center on the return of Trace McSorley in his third season in Penn State’s system.
McSorley turned in an outstanding performance against a top-10 Washington defense in the Fiesta Bowl, racking up more than 400 yards of total offense while going 12-for-12 passing on third downs — arguably the biggest factor in a 35-28 victory.
“I can’t imagine there’s a better quarterback in the country in terms of decision-making and leadership and toughness,” Franklin said afterward. “He’s very accurate.”
Behind him? It’s rare for major programs to enter fall camp with five scholarship quarterbacks because of the nature of the position. Eyes will be on Tommy Stevens to see if he elects to stay at Penn State in his “Lion” role for one more year before taking the reins or if he goes the graduate transfer route, pending completion of his degree at the end of this semester.
If Stevens does end up leaving, the favorite for the backup job would be redshirt freshman Sean Clifford, who was ahead of Jake Zembiec at the end of camp last summer. Both missed extensive time with injuries during the season.
Franklin spent one year as an assistant coach with the Green Bay Packers. So that’s what inspired him to compare Miles Sanders to, of all people, Aaron Rodgers.
“We had Brett Favre, and we drafted Aaron Rodgers and Aaron was able to come there and sit behind Brett for a couple years and learn and take it all in,” Franklin said.
That would make Saquon Barkley the Favre in this analogy.
“Miles has been fortunate to sit behind a great player and a great person and a great leader and learn from him and allow himself to evolve into the job,” Franklin said.
Sanders will be a junior and boasts an impressive pedigree as a former five-star recruit who was rated as the country’s top running back prospect in the 2016 signing class. While it’s unrealistic to expect him to match Barkley’s production, he will likely have help from another five-star recruit in incoming freshman Ricky Slade.
Slade’s ability could see him play right away, especially as a receiving target on third downs.
Penn State players also said redshirt freshman Journey Brown stood out on the scout team during the fall. Mark Allen and Johnathan Thomas both have a fifth year of eligibility, should they return.
DaeSean Hamilton’s final performance was a masterpiece, and the Lions will certainly miss their all-time leading pass-catcher. But his departure does perhaps open up a spot for a new talent in Justin Shorter, a 6-foot-4 incoming freshman rated by some services as the nation’s top receiver in the 2018 cycle.
Not that he’ll be needed to step in right away with Juwan Johnson and DeAndre Thompkins both returning with plenty of experience. Expect Johnson in particular to get more looks in the red zone, a la his game-winning touchdown at Iowa.
Penn State also has multiple options to man the slot, including a pair of speedsters in Brandon Polk, a former high school teammate of McSorley’s, and redshirt freshman K.J. Hamler. Including the new freshman class, the Lions will have seven wideouts who had four- or five-star ratings out of high school.
The Lions’ scheme tends to spread the ball around, so opportunities will be there.
“These guys are unselfish,” Franklin said. “So we don’t have one receiver with 100 receptions that’s leading the conference, but it makes it really difficult to defend us because there’s so many guys that can hurt you. … And Trace just does a great job of going through his progressions and taking what the defense gives.”
Penn State loses a huge talent in Mike Gesicki, who leaves the program with several major records at the position. And while the Lions are adding a pair of four-star recruits in Zack Kuntz and Pat Freiermuth, as Gesicki’s own career showed, it would be tough to rely on them for big roles as freshmen.
The early favorite to start will be junior Jonathan Holland, though he will enter the year with just three career catches for 16 yards.
Injuries have also been a major concern at the position. Both Nick Bowers and Danny Dalton didn’t see the field at all in their first two years on campus. Bowers, who will be a junior, finally got on the field and caught a touchdown late in a rout of Nebraska. Dalton, who will be a sophomore, has yet to take a snap in a game.
Three straight strong recruiting classes up front should give the Lions something they haven’t had in the trenches since before the NCAA sanctions — depth.
Four starters return in Ryan Bates, Will Fries, Steven Gonzalez and Connor McGovern — and a fifth with extensive starting experience in Chasz Wright also has a year of eligibility left.
Candidates to replace Brendan Mahon could include some of the team’s top-rated recruits in recent years like Michal Menet and C.J. Thorpe. Mike Miranda has also impressed coaches while redshirting.
As encouraging as the unit’s Fiesta Bowl performance was, the bigger reason for optimism in 2018 is that it’s much less likely that an injury — like the one to Bates at Ohio State — could derail an important game.
“Matt Limegrover, he’s a great coach,” Franklin said of his offensive line coach. “He’s an unbelievable father. He’s a better person. He just kept working with those guys. The thing I love about Matt is he stays positive. There’s outside noise. There’s critics. And Matt just keeps loving those kids and keeps coaching them and keep working hard with them. We’re still fairly young up front, and they just got better as the season goes on.”
Two starters are gone in Parker Cothren and Curtis Cothran. A third from the beginning of 2017, Torrence Brown, is in limbo as he recovers from a major knee injury.
But the Lions have a wealth of talent, particularly at end, that should add up to another dangerous pass-rushing unit. Shareef Miller has the best numbers so far headed into his junior season — likely his last before looking at the pros — but the highest ceiling may belong to Yetur Gross-Matos, who made an impression as a true freshman.
Another young player, Shane Simmons, showed noticeable improvement down the stretch, and Shaka Toney proved to be a valuable asset on third downs despite being held out of the bowl game.
Ryan Buchholz is able to play both outside or inside, and the coaches could have a decision to make with depth a bit thinner at tackle. Robert Windsor and Kevin Givens have the most experience to start in the middle, but the Lions will need more bodies, especially as Ellison Jordan could miss spring ball after suffering a knee injury in December.
Gone are Jason Cabinda, Brandon Smith and Manny Bowen, the Lions’ top three players at the two-box linebacker positions. That presents arguably Penn State’s biggest issue looking ahead to next season, as there aren’t any guarantees as to who will be starting come September.
Senior Koa Farmer is the most likely candidate to be back in the lineup, but overall defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Brent Pry will have some experimenting to do when spring practice opens. That’s why top recruit Micah Parsons, who is already enrolled for this semester, is starting his career at middle linebacker instead of the defensive end spot he wreaked havoc at with Harrisburg High School.
“Micah’s a guy that’s going to be 245 points, running the 4.5,” Franklin said. “There is no doubt in my mind he could play defensive end. We have a challenge that we need to solve some linebacker depth issues that we have. We think with him graduating early, he’s got a chance to kind of learn it and have a chance to truly compete for the job come the fall. So it’s a combination of both. It’s a talent, but it’s also a need.”
Pry said last month that Parsons could be an option, as well as redshirt freshman Ellis Brooks and walk-on Jan Johnson. Rangy junior Cam Brown figures to see plenty of snaps somewhere, whether it’s in the middle or the weak-side spot he played most of 2017. Another senior, Jake Cooper, has battled injuries throughout his career.
Along with Parsons, fellow freshman linebackers Jesse Luketa and Nick Tarburton have also enrolled early.
For a team that must replace all four starters in the secondary, the Lions aren’t in bad shape. Especially not at cornerback, where there are plenty of options.
John Reid will be back after missing all of 2017 with a knee injury, and he has the talent and work ethic to be one of the Big Ten’s best despite the unexpected hiatus. Reid traveled with the team and remained a fixture in film study.
“He’s a steady force for our defense,” Franklin said. “He’s a tremendous leader. John has always been a student of the game the way he approaches it, how he is with the younger players. We alternate him as a signaler as well. He is a guy that we feel like brings a lot of value” even while injured.
Though he wasn’t a starter last season, senior Amani Oruwariye actually led the team in interceptions and played plenty of snaps when the Lions went to the nickel.
Add in a pair of talented true sophomores in Lamont Wade and Tariq Castro-Fields, and Penn State should remain in good shape here despite losing a pair of underrated players in Grant Haley and Christian Campbell.
Safety is the bigger concern, though the Lions have two leading candidates to replace Marcus Allen and Troy Apke in Nick Scott and Ayron Monroe. But Monroe’s situation could be complicated by rehab. The rising junior posted on social media that he recently underwent surgery, which could affect how much work he’s able to do in the offseason.
Also in the mix will be Garrett Taylor and Jonathan Sutherland, who drew strong reviews from teammates while redshirting.
One huge strength and one major question mark.
Blake Gillikin established himself as one of the country’s top punters in 2017, and he will try and make his case for some national awards as a junior in 2018. He also served as the backup kicker for the Fiesta Bowl after Alex Barbir left the team — could he be an option to replace Tyler Davis as well?
Odds are that would be a fallback plan, as Franklin has said he prefers to have his specialists focus on one job. But the kicking job remains wide open now with true freshman Jake Pinegar arriving in the summer as the scholarship option.
A well-regarded walk-on, Rafael Checa, is also set to join the group to compete with returnees Carson Landis and Nick DeAngelis.
In the return game, DeAndre Thompkins has plenty of experience on punts. Some new faces could see time on kickoffs, especially if Miles Sanders sticks to just playing running back.
Reach Derek Levarse at 570-991-6396 or on Twitter @TLdlevarse