Five Things To Watch For: Penn State vs Akron

By: Thomas Frank Carr

Beat Writer

With all due respect to Akron, this game is about Penn State. As usual opener for Penn State football, this game will be used by the coaches, fans and media to get to know the DNA of the team for the 2017 season.

5) Not-So-New Faces

Questions have swirled around the defensive line heading into the 2017 season, particularly at the defensive end position. The Nittany Lion lost both starting defensive ends to the NFL and there has been question as to how the new starters will perform.

However, coach Sean Spencer returns four (or five) defensive tackles, and while he wasn’t a starter, Torrence Brown has been playing for the Nittany Lions for two years now. With the way ‘Coach Chaos’ rotates his defensive linemen, Brown has seen plenty of action the past two season. Expect the run defense to pick up where it left off last year.

4) The List

Saquon Barkley and Trace McSorley are both on ‘The List’.

They’re preseason Heisman candidates heading into 2017, so the national microscope will be on them starting in week 1. Barkley in particular is regarded as the next great thing in college football after his impressive 2016 campaign.

There is no room for error here; Barkley must have a big game vs Akron to keep the nation’s attention for the 2017 season. The junior running back never disappeared last year, but he was effectively muted in several games (Indiana). For him to have a realistic shot at college football’s highest award, he must be exceptional from wire to wire in 2017.

However, don’t expect James Franklin and his staff to try and showcase Barkely any more than usual this year.

“No. We have a marketing department to take care of that,” Franklin responded when asked that very question earlier this week.

McSorely must outplay Barkley in order to keep his name in the discussion. Good luck figuring out how that would go down with voters.


3)  O-Line Makeup:

Yes, this is getting monotonous but we’re still not out of the woods yet with the offensive line…yet. How the offensive line progresses this year will be a major storyline for 2017. It helps inform so much about this team offensively that it would be inaccurate to put it anywhere on this list except for at No.1. From Barkley’s Heisman campaign, to the number of points the offense will score, will largely hinge on how well the front five progress in 2017.

Last year the Nittany Lions had issues with depth and health along the offensive line. James Franklin dismissed the notion that the Nittany Lions rotated along the offensive line early in the season last year,

“I wouldn’t even necessarily say that we rotated last year. There were issues that you guys aren’t always privy to. We’d love to play with the same five all year long. I don’t know if that’s realistic in this league, you’ve got to have depth.”

Despite the positive reviews of young offensive linemen Michael Menet, Will Fries and true freshman Mike Miranda, Franklin and his staff have elected to go with a more veteran until this year, with Brendan Mahon at right guard and Andrew Nelson at right tackle. This is much more in keeping with his philosophy of young players playing on the line of scrimmage. Still the question remains of whether or not we will see any young linemen in the game. When we do, how will they look and how much can you take from a game vs Akron?

One this is true about the right guard position in 2016, when Connor McGovern took over full time, the team was better for it. He provided elite talent and stability at that position. Will we see something similar to that this year with Mahon starting the year? It’s unlikely. Mahon is a quality option at his position and has the trust of the coaching staff after his play last year. It will bear watching to see if any young offensive linemen push for playing time early in the season.

2) Young Guns

One of the most exciting parts of the first game is getting to see things that you haven’t seen before. With the Nittany Lions, that means the 2017 recruiting class. Head Coach James Franklin sees three players that will make an impact right away.

“We have three that we plan on burning their red shirts right from the beginning of the season. That could change as the season goes on, and those three, like I said, are Yetor at defensive end and Lamont Wade and Castro-Fields at corner.”

Of those three, you can expect to see the young corners Lamont Wade and Traiq Castro-Fields the most on Saturday.

“I’ve been working against Lamont since the spring. He’s a really quick kid, he’s pretty fast, he’s physical. They expect him to fill the void for John Reid, Obviously you can’t fill the void but he’s taken that role on and been mature,” said senior wide receiver DaSean Hamilton. Hamilton has also been impressed by Fields,

“Tariq is really impressive, he’s a long really fast kid. He’s been covering some of our faster receivers and holding his own. It was really impressive to see how good he did and how fast he picked things up.”

It’s not just Hamilton, Fields has impressed the coaching staff enough to be one of the primary backups heading into the season at corner. Saturday we’ll likely get our first chance to see him in game action.

1) Who are the 2017 Nittany Lions?

The Nittany Lions return most of their starters on both sides of the ball from 2017. So it would track that this team would be very similar to the one that took the field in 2017. Not so fast according to Franklin,

“I still think that we can’t just assume that last year’s team identity is going to be this year’s identity. That’s not going to happen. Do we have to wait four to five games to find that out? I hope not. I would hope we could figure that out in two games, three games, somewhere in that range.”

What Franklin says makes sense. Take for example the team’s inability to start fast in games. Does that have to be the case this year?

“I would think with us being an older team and our defense and our defensive coordinator in position for two years and our offensive coordinator in position for two years and Huff going into year four, that helps,” Franklin said when asked about that on Wednesday.

Franklin even sees his team taking another step this year,

“I would also make the argument that we have enough weapons that as the season goes on, your identity could grow and evolve as the season goes on.