Burning Questions for Penn State's Spring Game
Here are five important questions coach Franklin will need to find the answer to this Saturday:
1. Will the Seniors Buy into Their Third Coach During Their Penn State Career?
Franklin is inheriting a very tough task his first season in Happy Valley. It seems like a lifetime ago, but most of his senior class this year was recruited by the late, great Joe Paterno.
They endured the infamous Jerry Sandusky scandal, the firing of Paterno as a result, the appointing of Bill O'Brien as his successor, and now the departure of O'Brien to the Houston Texans that subsequently resulted in the hiring of James Franklin from Vanderbilt.
This class signed up to play for Paterno, but have ended up getting a whole lot more than they bargained for (and then some). Understandably, some of these guys may have grown a little weary with the Penn State program and all that has gone on since their arrival at the beginning of the decade.
Getting his senior leaders to buy into what he is teaching and having a smooth transition into his coaching tenure has to be priority number one for Franklin this spring. It will be interesting to see how the seniors fare in the spring game this Saturday.
2. Will Christian Hackenberg Take the Next Step?
Hackenberg set Penn State freshman records left and right last season with Bill O'Brien. Although he experienced a few growing pains, he played very well, leading the Nittany Lions to a surprising 7-5 record.
Despite the fact that he was a heralded 5-star recruit coming out of high school, learning a brand new system is a tough task for any young quarterback.
Coach Franklin needs Hackenburg to take a huge step forward in his development. They can't afford any setbacks in executing a new offensive system if they want to have any shot at competing in the Big Ten this season.
If anybody can handle all that will be on his plate this year, it's Hackenberg, but he needs to prove the coaching staff that he's got the new system down pat, and that he will be an even better quarterback than he was last year.
3. Can Penn State find any depth along the offensive line?
The offensive line is probably the most glaring hole in Penn State's roster this spring. With three offensive lineman out for the entire spring, there are only 10 blockers that will dress for the Blue and White game on Saturday.
Senior left tackle Donovan Smith earned Big Ten Honorable Mention honors last season, and he will no doubt be the anchor of the O-line. After that, it is one big question mark, and there is plenty of playing time that can be won with a strong performance at the spring game.
As of now, the first-team reps have come with two former defensive tackles playing at the guard spots (Derek Dowrey and Brian Gaia) and a walk-on at right tackle (Albert Hall). Not exactly the best feeling in the world if you're Hackenberg.
This unit will need to gel and improve very quickly, otherwise it could be a very long first season for Franklin.
4. Will Zach Zwiniak be the Starting Running Back This Season?
Zwiniak has been the leading rusher for the Nittany Lions each of the past two seasons, rushing for 989 yards and 12 TDs for Bill O'Brien in 2013. But to the surprise of many, he's been seeing reps at fullback this spring. So the short answer to this question right now is: maybe.
Although Bill Belton played exceptionally well as the No. 2 back last season, it's hard for me to think that coach Franklin will move Zwiniak to fullback permanently after rushing for almost 2,000 yards over the last two seasons.
I suppose it's possible that either Belton or Zwiniak could light the world on fire this Saturday and provide some more clarity to the running back position, but I look for Belton, Zwiniak, and also Akeel Lynch to participate in a running-back-by-committee this fall.
5. Can the defense adjust to the 3-4?
The focus on the defensive side of the ball for the Nittany Lions will be their transition from a base 4-3 defensive scheme to a 3-4 scheme.
Whenever a switch like this occurs, the biggest adjustment has to be made at the defensive end/outside linebacker spot. Deion Barnes and C.J. Olaniyan have spent their whole career playing defensive end, but it appears that they will be the starting outside linebackers for Penn State this season.
This is never an easy adjustment to make. Barnes and Olaniyan will not only need to learn their new positions on the fly, they will need to excel there as well for Penn State to have a fighting chance in the Big Ten this year.
How well they are able to perform in the spring game this Saturday will be a good indicator for how well the transition to the 3-4 is progressing.