Sokoloski: This dazzling run for the Nittany Lions may only be starting

Running back Miles Sanders is one of several Nittany Lions aiming to replace some of the most productive players in program history. - Rick Scuteri | AP file photo

Saquon is gone.

And he took all of Penn State’s high hopes with him.

No more bursting to the top of the Big Ten. No more NCAA playoff predictions. No more national championship dreams.

If you listen to college football experts around the country, the best shot Penn State had at making a play for the big time left campus when star running back Saquon Barkley walked into New York Giants training camp.

“Oh, we hear it,” said Miles Sanders, the main man in line to replace Barkley in Penn State’s backfield. “We hear it all the time, on the talk shows, see it on television.

“But we know what we can do.”

Does anyone else?

It seems like many outside Happy Valley forgets Penn State will return quarterback Trace McSorley, one of the most dangerous double threats the Lions offense has ever had, playing behind an experienced offensive line even the coaching staff now calls a team strength.

“We’re in a good place,” Penn State coach James Franklin assured.

That place is No. 10, according to the AP national preseason rankings.

Two years ago, the Lions just missed the four-team NCAA playoffs after winning the Big Ten title behind Barkley and finished fifth in the final College Football Playoff standings. Last year, with the Lions’ all-time scoring leader Barkley leading the offense on a record-breaking run, Penn State lost two games by a combined total of four points, won the Fiesta Bowl and wound up No. 8 in the AP and coaches polls.

The Lions will open this year in the same spot they finished 2017 in the College Football Poll— still in the top 10 but behind two other Big Ten teams who will start in the top five, along with No. 9 Auburn.

And that probably has more to do with what Penn State lost than what other programs have coming back.

It’s not just Barkley.

Top-notch tight end Mike Gesicki was drafted by the Miami Dolphins. Wide receiver DaeSean Hamilton went to Denver. From the defense, cornerback Christian Campbell wound up in Arizona and safeties Marcus Allen and Troy Apke were chosen in the NFL draft by the Steelers and Redskins, respectively.

That’s not including the free agents who left the Nittany Lions and signed onto NFL rosters, guys like receiver Saeed Blacknall and linebacker Jason Cabinda (with Oakland), cornerback Grant Haley and defensive tackle Tyrell Chavis (who both join Barkley in Giants camp) and kicker Tyler Davis (with Buffalo).

“I think we all know we’ve got a lot of question marks this year,” Franklin relented, noting the Lions sent 14 players to the NFL from last year’s team. “We’ve got a lot of work to do. But we’re really excited.”

Mr. Excitement Barkley may be the most difficult to replace.

The guy many around the country believed to be the best player in college football last season not only set Penn State records, he set the offense afire.

That doesn’t mean the Lions will flame out without him.

“Miles is a great running back,” said offensive linemen Connor McGovern, a Lake-Lehman grad who is shifting from center to guard to start the season. “I don’t think there’s going to be any difference.”

The biggest difference for the Lions is they’re better equipped now to handle huge losses of talent without losing a beat.

Fully recovered from the NCAA sanctions that stripped them of scholarships for a period, Penn State has rebounded mightily under Franklin’s recruiting magic — which has constantly drawn incoming classes ranked among the top of the nation.

“We’re going to have a lot of different guys in the backfield,” Sanders said. “The offense is very involved around the running back. We’re not trying to have any letdown, at running back in particular. I’m willing to do whatever we can to make it to the playoffs.”

Mainly because the Lions have their minds made up to surge, not slip, during their run to becoming one of the most prominent college football teams in the country again.

With or without special talents such as Barkley.

“That’s the beauty of college football,” said Penn State offensive coordinator Ricky Rahne, who is replacing someone himself with Joe Moorhead now leading Mississippi State. “Every year the team changes. You’re losing a quarter of your football team every single year. We do have eight to 10 guys (offensive linemen) who I do feel can go in the game and play Big Ten football. That competition is going to breed success.

“The programs that have that kind of competition are the programs competing for a national championship year in and year out and beyond.”

It isn’t beyond belief that Penn State could be even more productive without heavy hitters like Barkley and Gesicki and Hamilton and all those defensive playmakers than the Lions were with them.

They all put the program right back on the national stage.

They guys following their lead are making it their mission to stay there.

Running back Miles Sanders is one of several Nittany Lions aiming to replace some of the most productive players in program history. back Miles Sanders is one of several Nittany Lions aiming to replace some of the most productive players in program history. Rick Scuteri | AP file photo

Reach Paul Sokoloski at 570-991-6392 or on Twitter @TLPaulSokoloski

Reach Paul Sokoloski at 570-991-6392 or on Twitter @TLPaulSokoloski