Penn State Nittany Lions football 2017 season preview, schedule, players to watch

By The Sports Xchange  |  Aug. 16, 2017 at 8:23 PM
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STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- To prepare for this fall, James Franklin asked his players to forget an unforgettable season.

Penn State's coach is hoping one way they can do so is by one-upping it.

The Big Ten champions will have a shot. The Nittany Lions return nearly all of their parts from last year's 11-2 squad. Back are nine starters -- two of them Heisman Trophy candidates -- on an offense that was among the most dynamic in the country. Six started return from an athletic defense, and Penn State has an all-conference kicker.

"The success of last season everybody wants to talk about. We've talked about it enough," Franklin said. "It's not like I'm asking them to bury their head in the sand and act like that didn't happen. They earned that. So you'll recognize that, but on the other hand, those points aren't going to carry over, and those wins aren't going to carry over."

But the talent has.

After rushing for 2,572 yards with 30 total touchdowns in his first two seasons, running back Saquon Barkley looks bigger, stronger and faster than the version that helped Penn State win nine straight games and take over for long stretches in the Big Ten title game and the Rose Bowl against USC.

Barkley added 10 pounds and is up to 230. He also ran his fastest 40-yard dash in the spring and set a personal best with a 405-pound power clean. He bench-pressed 225 pounds 30 times -- which would've been among the best marks among running backs at the NFL Combine -- at a team charity event earlier this summer.

Instead of thinking about the Heisman Trophy, Barkley has concentrated on adding a dimension to his game. He wants to play a bigger role in offensive coordinator's Joe Moorhead's cerebral offense.

"I feel that, and Coach Franklin will agree, that I'm capable of being lined up in the slot, being able to run routes," Barkley said. "I do feel like I'm capable to do a lot with the ball in my hand in space, and I just want to continue to grow in that area."

Moorhead is likely to oblige. Operating without a huddle, Moorhead's offense means to stretch defenses horizontally and vertically and create mismatches with multiple personnel groupings. Barkley fits into them nicely.

So do returning receivers DaeSean Hamilton, Saeed Blacknall, tight end Mike Gesicki and a handful of young receivers whom Franklin says are raising eyebrows in camp.

Aside from Barkley, Penn State's other Heisman hopeful is the one that'll be directing them all.

Junior quarterback Trace McSorley evolved as one of the country's best deep-ball throwers last season and enters with a thorough understanding of Moorhead's offense.

"I think there's guys that, at the first sight of pressure, they want to tuck the ball and run," Moorhead said. "But with the playmakers that we have and what we do schematically, I think he understands that, if he can buy time in the pocket and keep his eyes downfield, that someone's going to open up.

MOST IMPORTANT PLAYER: QB Trace McSorley -- Although Saquon Barkley's highlight reel may be the most entertaining on in the country right now, this offense can survive without an elite running back. McSorley's responsibilities -- managing the no-huddle, communicating with and reading signs from the sideline, adjusting the alignments pre-snap, reading the play and then executing -- run far deeper. McSorley has proved adept at doing it all. His toughness has endeared him to his teammates and he's looked upon as perhaps the team's most focused leader.

BREAKOUT STAR: C Connor McGovern -- The big sophomore looks to have this spot secure. McGovern played in 13 games last season with nine starts and helped a banged-up offensive line keep quarterback Trace McSorley upright and running back Saquon Barkley moving forward, even as the line developed chemistry. At 6-foot-5 and 307 pounds, McGovern has looked strong in the camp practice sessions open to reporters.

NEWCOMER TO WATCH: CB Lamont Wade -- When John Reid suffered a knee injury in the spring, not only did the Nittany Lions likely lose their best cornerback for the season, they lost the player who played the most snaps overall in 2016. But here comes Wade, who is among the fastest players on the team. He caught Franklin's eye back in spring practice, and the coach has made a habit of playing talented true freshmen in the secondary. Reid, Grant Haley, Marcus Allen, Troy Apke and Christian Campbell all played big roles during their true freshman seasons. Minus Reid's injury, all of them are back to help Wade assimilate.

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