UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - Penn State Football is nearly back in Beaver Stadium, as the roar returns to Happy Valley Saturday at noon when the sixth-ranked Nittany Lions kick off the 2017 campaign hosting Akron.
Penn State will rush through the stadium gates led by fourth-year head coach James Franklin with nearly all of the integral pieces responsible for engineering one of the most thrilling seasons in program history.
On the heels of a record-setting year, the Nittany Lions are Equipped with depth and experience, with added maturity across the board, all contributing to an offseason that Franklin named the most consistent he has been associated with.
"We are excited about the challenge," Franklin said. "We are excited about the opportunity and excited to be back in Beaver Stadium in front of our family and friends and alumni and lettermen. It should be a great environment, and we're looking forward to the season."
Guided by the leadership of its eight team captains, among the team-selected unit is junior quarterback Trace McSorley, who took command of the Nittany Lion offense on the way to a record-3,614 passing yards last year, throwing 29 touchdowns.
Joining McSorley, is preseason All-American, Saquon Barkley, who earned both the Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year award and the Ameche-Dayne Big Ten Running Back of the Year honors in 2016, among numerous others, following a season for the record books. The two are joined by veteran receiver DaeSean Hamilton, who enters 2017 poised to claim the top spot on the Nittany Lion career receptions all-time list.
Linebacker Jason Cabinda, safety Marcus Allen and cornerback Grant Haley have settled into their leadership roles on the defensive side of the ball. Both All-Big Ten selections from last year, Cabinda and Allen are as dynamic on the field as they are off the field. As Penn State's leading tackler (110), Allen will lead the secondary alongside Haley, making for a duo responsible for some of the most game-changing, critical plays in 2016.
A 2016 Vlade Award winner, Penn State's Tyler Davis and safety Nick Scott will serve as the leadership on the special teams. One of the most consistent field goal kickers in program history, Davis earned first team All-Big Ten honors in 2016. A leader on special teams long before he was voted captain, Scott finished second on the squad with eight special teams tackles last year.
Looking at Akron, sixth-year head coach Terry Bowden and the Zips are coming off of a 3-5 season in 2016, winning three of their first four games to start the year.
"Terry Bowden is a guy who obviously I have a tremendous amount of respect for - he and his family and all the things that they have been able to accomplish," Franklin said. "He has a veteran staff. Really, a veteran team coming back and a team that gave a lot of people problems a few years ago."
What to Watch For - Penn State
1. Starting Fast, Finishing Strong
Penn State's offense ranked second in FBS in second half scoring (23.29) last year. Among the thrilling comeback victories, even Franklin noted last year that Penn State was a bit of second half team. This year, Franklin has stressed a four-quarter team mentality, mentioning that last year's youth will no longer be a reason for a slow start, switching up practice schedules and taking camp sessions to Beaver Stadium more than in year's past to get the team acclimated.
Co-defensive coordinator and safeties coach Tim Banks only echoed Franklin's message Thursday.
"You want to hit the ground running the very first game, you want to start fast and finish strong," Banks said. "We don't talk a whole lot about what happened last year, good or bad. What we've done is try to concentrate and make sure that the kids have a good grasp on what we're trying to accomplish on offense, defense and special teams. Hopefully we can go out, executive, play fast and just play with great energy."
2. McSorley in Year Two
Last year Penn State installed a new offense under the direction of offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead. The success of the new scheme of course, can be measured in more than just the numbers, even though the Nittany Lion offense averaged 432.6 yards per game last year - the most since the 2013 season. Now a year settled into his starting role, McSorley is poised to pick up right where he left off.
"I think it's been one of the best things we've been able to do, to understand what we did best last season, what we needed to improve on, how we can continue to get better, the things we're good on and really taking strides to get better. We've been able take what we installed last spring, grow it in fall camp and throughout the season last year, and now refine it "
Much like Franklin, linebacker Brandon Smith also noted that consistency due to a wealth of experienced returners has been driving the level of intensity during the offseason. Smith is a key example of the increasing depth, thrust into his first career start at middle linebacker on the road at Michigan due to injuries to the unit last year - finishing the season with two starts, playing in all 14 games with a career-high 14 tackles and his first career interception against Minnesota.
"We got a lot of hands on the ball during training camp from a defensive perspective," Smith said. "We were taking more chances and guys were really going for the ball."
What to Watch For - Akron
1. Franklin: It's Their Super
At his weekly press conference, Franklin noted that come Saturday, Akron won't be lacking in excitement, ready to bring their best to Beaver Stadium. Although the Nittany Lions have won 14 of their last 15 home openers and their last three straight, there's still a bit left to the unknown for Franklin when it comes to the first game of the season.
"I've been a part of these in the past and I think our coaches and our players also have seen enough upsets," Franklin said. "Our guys are aware of it. We respect whoever we play. At the end of the day it's about us and playing up to our standard, but we need to be prepared for what Akron is going to do, as well."
2. Experienced Offensive
Akron returns four of its five offensive linemen to starting roles in 2017, with three of four returners seniors. Joining the senior group is right tackle Kyle Ritz, the most experienced of the unit with 17 career starts.
With NFL departures to the Penn State defensive line, the Nittany Lions will rely on their depth, with veterans Curtis Cothran and Parker Cothren leading the group.
"When I see Akron's offense - they are definitely a very experienced offense and a very experienced offensive line," Cothran said. "It's definitely going to be a challenge for us to do the things we like to do but we're definitely up for it."
3. Preseason Selections
Akron saw nine Zips earn selection to Athlon Sports' 2017 preseason All-Mid-American Conference squads. Among the honorees is preseason MAC Defensive Player of the Year and preseason first team All-MAC honoree junior linebacker Ulysees Gilbert III. After entering the starting lineup last year, he led the defense with 122 tackles, registering a team-high 11.5 TFL and 4.0 sacks, also earning a spot on the Bronko Nagurski preseason watch list.
The Final Word -
Franklin noted earlier this week that he isn't one to remember the specifics of certain things, especially when it comes to his first game at Beaver Stadium, which happened to come against Akron on Sept. 6, 2014.The Nittany Lions topped the Zips, 21-3, as Franklin recorded his first home victory as Penn State's 16th head football coach in program history.
"I remember the emotion of running out through the stadium, through the gates for the first time, I remember that," Franklin said. "But the specifics about that game and those types of things, you know, probably not so much. I just kind of look at really the last three years has kind of been a whirlwind, and all those experiences and all those opportunities have got us to this point."