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After Christian Hackenberg & James Franklin, Who is Penn State’s No. 3 Star?

by on July 03, 2014 10:15 PM

Six months and zero games into 2014, what are the most popular stories about Penn State football?

The ones that feature James Franklin, Christian Hackenberg and Recruits Who Verbal Commit. Of course.

Or, if the media are really lucky, all three.

Like, “Franklin gets commitment from recruit who met Hackenberg.” Or, “Franklin recruit who wants to catch passes from Hackenberg commits.”

But, after the coach and the QB, when it comes to the upcoming stars of the 2014 Nittany Lions there’s a big drop-off. The Penn State Precipice, if you will.

So, who’s No. 3?

Right now, on the 2014 roster, the answer is No One. The current Penn State squad is lacking the star power that is guaranteed to get web hits, feeds Twitter and sells jerseys in downtown State College.

That’s not to say some of the current Nittany Lions aren’t all-Big Ten caliber (tight end Jesse James was named just that by The Sporting News.) Or critical leaders with oodles of experience (think Adrian Amos, with a team-high 25 starts across three seasons). Or charismatic corners like Jordan Lucas. Or even future college football megastars.

But, right now -- with the season starting in just eight weeks -- after King James and Christian, while the disciples may be loyal and talented, they’re just another Matthew, Mark or Luke. That’s partly a function of age. As Ben Jones noted on this site earlier this week, 87 of the players on Penn State's recently-released 120-man roster are sophomores or younger. And almost half (47%) have never played a down of college football.

So you don’t have be Cosmos’ Neil deGrasse Tyson to know that Hackenberg is a rare star, indeed, making a splash and carrying the marquee from the get-go. And even at that, in 2013 Hackenberg shared billing with the likes of Bill O’Brien, Allen Robinson and John Urschel. Now? Gone, gone and gone.

In their stead were such potential heroes as the funny and massive and massively experienced Miles Dieffenbach and exceptional student-athlete-citizen Ben Kline. But both are now injured. Then there’s Geno Lewis, whose 18 catches represented 8.8% of all grabs by a Penn State receiver in 2013. Matt Zanellato’s four receptions equaled 2.5%. And that’s it – returning Nittany Lion wide receivers caught all of 22 of the 409 passes Penn State quarterbacks threw in 2013. Lewis gets tons of off-season media coverage, but it’s how he does in-season against Cover 3’s on fourth-and-10 that will determine his starworthiness.

That doesn’t mean freshman wide receiver DeAndre Thompkins won’t be Derrick Williams Deux or do it ala Deon Butler – 37 catches, 18.7 yards average, 9 TDs as a freshman -- from the very beginning. But, right now, Penn State is lacking a triumvirate like Paterno, Reid and Pittman or Kerry, Ki-Jana and Engram (and lots more). It’s even hard to beat the two-season removed quartet of OB, McG, A-Rob and Mauti, plus a huge supporting cast of survivors.

But, it’s not fair to compare. The small number of big names is just the sign of the times: Caution, sanctions at work.

With those 87 freshmen and ESPN’s No. 4-ranked Class of 2015 on their way, Franklin is sure to change things. For now, though, Franklin must mold this year’s roster of final Paterno recruits and O’Brien Alamo fighters with his group of new Penn Staters. (This year’s freshmen were barely high school sophomores when the Sandusky scandal hit.)

If the past six months hold form, Hackenberg – after Franklin – is sure to get the lion’s share of media coverage. And Franklin, a savvy media savant beyond his 42 years, knows that full well. For his part, Hackenberg is already an old pro at tefloning praise, velcroing criticism and keeping his head on straight – even though he’s sure to get it knocked off a number of times in 2014.

Franklin gets why Hackenberg is a media darling, even though he hasn’t completed a pass in 214 days. The coach addressed that head-on in the midst of spring drills.

“From a media and from a fan perspective, every time I meet somebody all they want to talk about is Christian Hackenberg,” Franklin said. “And, don't get me wrong, I’m excited about him as well. But, it takes a lot more than a quarterback to be successful on offense.”

Certainly, stars will emerge as the 2014 season progresses. And that will be largely due to their performance on the field, fueled by an outsized personality like Lucas’ or the imagination of the Beaver Stadium student section or the cult marketing that helped introduce Urschel – and his “A Space-Time Multi-grid Method for the Numerical Valuation of Barrier Options" – to America.

STAR SEARCH

Meantime, here are 10 potential stars that could emerge for Penn State in 2014:

1. Jordan Lucas, CB – His flamboyance, propensity to speak his mind, athletic skills and knack for making big plays make him a prime candidate for prime time.

2. Herb Hand, OL coach – Herb is already halfway home, with his Pizza Crawl, “Chopped” appearance, and funny and prodigious Tweets. But to be a bona fide star, he needs to create a stalwart offensive line from the fresh and raw ingredients that Herb has been handed.

3. RBIII (trademark pending) – It’s unlikely Bill Belton, Zach Zwinak or Akeel Lynch will emerge from the pack and be the one go-to back. But if one of them gets a run of games going like Zwinak had to finish the 2012 and 2013 seasons, he’ll challenge for star billing.

4. The Beaver Stadium crowd –If Franklin’s #107kStrong comes to even partial fruition, coupled with the usual and sometimes-unappreciated outstanding student section, it will truly make a difference.

5. Anthony Zettel, DT – He has the potential to wreak havoc every single play, and he performs with an all-out enthusiasm that should make him a crowd favorite. And he’s a post-game hoot, to boot.

6. Mike Hull, LB – If he can stay healthy, Hull has the potential to make a big impact, as he did in 2012 as a special team player.

7. Adrian Amos, S – Fans know his name. Amos will be in a contract year of sorts; the NFL will be watching as he tries to advance from steady to spectacular.

8. Jesse James, TE – Big with boyish good looks, James (25 catches) is the team’s leading returning receiver.

9. Sam Ficken, PK – I kid you not. A game-winner or two and he’s The Man, non-plussed or otherwise. One more year like the previous two, and he’s the No. 4 or 5 all-time scorer in PSU history. I kid you not.

10. Lewis, Thompkins and/or the personable DaeSean Hamilton, WR – If they start catching the ball, they’ll catch on.

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Mike Poorman has covered Penn State football since 1979. He is a senior lecturer in Penn State's College of Communications and teaches a pair of classes in the John Curley Center for Sports Journalism: “Sports Writing” and “Introduction to the Sports Industry.” He created and taught for several years the Center’s course on “Joe Paterno, Communications and The Media.” Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/PSUPoorman. His views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State University.
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