Penn State Football: Nittany Lions With Plenty Of Questions In Need Of Answers This Spring
Editor's Note: This is the second in a series previewing Penn State football, part of StateCollege.com's countdown of insight and analysis about head coach James Franklin and his team heading into the Blue-White Game on April 12.
That's all that stands between Penn State football and the Blue-White game -- the best look at the team until the 2014 season begins in Dublin, Ireland.
Those 15 practices may not feel like much (14 if you don't count the Blue/White game) but they are in many ways the most important practices to have happened over the past year. There is a new coaching staff, a new way of approaching the game, a new way of running practice. Every little thing has to be relearned.
The quicker the team and the coaches get on the same page, the quicker they can get down to actual football.
So these 15 practices are key for the future of Penn State football. Certainly the season won't be decided in March and April, but the success or failure of James Franklin's first season at Penn State will begin this coming Monday. The faster they can get down to business, the faster they can start winning football games.
This isn't the Nittany Lions' first rodeo though. The roster has a handful of Joe Paterno era players still on it, meaning there are some who have now worked under five different men who've held the title of either head coach or interim head coach. A new coach and a new system is just another day for the most veteran Nittany Lions.
Even so, the transition period is always the most important. Bill O'Brien often remarked that it wasn't until his second season that he had a good grasp on what his players were capable of in terms of individual abilities.
Franklin will face that challenge as well, learning how each of his players can be used in a way that benefits his team the most. As he has been heard saying over the past few weeks, each member of the team has a role, and its up to Franklin and his staff to figure out what those roles are.
Aside from the big picture items mentioned above the Nittany Lions will have plenty of little things to work on up until April 12 as well. Here are just a few to keep in mind heading into the spring.
1. Offensive line
Offensive line coach Herb Hand has turned into something of a cult hero already with his tweets and interviews, but he has a real job-related issue to deal with right off the bat. As long as Christian Hackenberg is at Penn State the No.1 priority is going to be keeping him healthy and keeping him on his feet. That job is going largely fall on the shoulders of an offensive line that is a mixture of veterans and youth.
For Penn State to play well, Donovan Smith will have to be consistent at left tackle and Miles Dieffenbach will have to do the same at left guard. Who steps up to fill the rest of the holes remains to be seen. Angelo Mangiro is waiting in the wings as well as Wendy Laurent, Andrew Nelson and a handful of incoming freshman. The open competition might be better for Penn State in the long run though since there are worse things than having too many good offensive linemen.
There is little reason to think Hackenberg will regress under Franklin or quarterback coach Ricky Rahne, but the soon-to-be sophomore's continued development will depend greatly on his ability to learn under both coaches. After working with a quarterback expert like O'Brien, anything is going to feel like a downgrade, but that doesn't mean Franklin and Rahne aren't equipped with the knowledge to continue Hackenberg's growth. Even so it's a major story moving forward as both player and coaches get to know one another.
While each new assistant coach has been engaged with the process since Day 1, defensive coordinator Bob Shoop has brought a unique sense of focus to the staff. Late hours spent watching film and coming up with schemes makes Shoop an assistant to watch this season, starting in the spring.
Shoop doesn't inherit the deepest Penn State defense in the history of the program, but proven veterans like Adrian Amos, Mike Hull, and Deion Barnes will be a big part of Shoop's talent pool. Jordan Lucas should continue to see his stock skyrocket and the likes of Jesse Della Valle and Da'Quan David will be important parts of the current team. All early indications are that Shoop and his core group of players have started off on the right foot and that relationship should continue to flourish as both coach and unit hit the field together.
Allen Robinson and Brandon Felder are out of the picture and they leave gaping holes to fill. Hackenberg can be the best passer in the world but it won't matter if he doesn't have targets that make it worth the pass. While there isn't any reason to think serviceable replacements won't step up, it is an area of concern moving forward for Penn State. Geno Lewis will probably continue his rise and the likes of Matt Zanellato and Richy Anderson will see more and more passes thrown their way. This issue won't have to be solved in only 15 practices though as players can work together during the offseason. But building chemistry with Hackenberg is a priority second only to keeping him healthy.
Similarly, it will be interesting to see how the tight end role is used in Franklin's offense with Kyle Carter, Jesse James and Adam Breneman still in the fold. This could become especially important if Hackenberg and his receivers aren't clicking in the early going.
The list continues. On special teams. kicker Sam Ficken looks to continue his up-and-down career. Will a new approach to in-season conditioning help or hurt the team? Every little detail can and will be scrutinized, reviewed and critiqued all year long.
Penn State may not play a game for many more months, but as they say, the season never really ends.
Welcome to spring football.