Penn State quarterback Christian Hackenberg was highly touted out of high school and became only the second true freshman to start an opener since 2011. Hackenberg had a fine season in 2013, completing 59% of his pass attempts for 2,955 yards (20-10).
However, Hackenberg’s fortunes dramatically changed last season behind an inexperienced offensive line that yielded a school-high 44 sacks. Hackenberg was also hampered by an ineffective ground game that averaged just 102 yards per game on 2.9 yards per carry. With fifteen returning starters and 83 scholarship players in 2015 (only 64 in 2014 due to sanctions), the Nittany Lions are primed to surprise in the Big Ten Conference.
Losing Donovan Smith to the NFL Draft certainly hurts Penn State’s offensive line, but the Nittany Lions still return four starters and will have one of the most improved lines in college football. Penn State’s offense struggled last season for a variety of reasons, including sanctions that reduced the number of scholarship players and the arrival of a new coaching staff that implemented new schemes on both sides of the ball.
Hackenberg will also benefit from a more experienced wide receiving corp., including an excellent group of tight ends who will dramatically improve upon last year’s production. Despite losing Jesse James to the NFL Draft, the Nittany Lions return everyone else and I expect significant improvement from offensive coordinator John Donovan’s receiving unit in 2015. In fact, I project Penn State to have the best group of wide receivers in the Big Ten this season!
The Nittany Lions also field one of the conference’s best stop units behind an outstanding secondary that returns six of last year’s top 8 performers. Penn State’s defensive line is anchored by the dynamic duo of tackle Anthony Zettel (led the team with 8 sacks; 9 tackles for a loss) and nose tackle Austin Johnson. Last year’s success against the run (100 yards per game; 2.9 yards per carry) will continue in 2015 as the Nittany Lions field one of the best defensive lines in the nation.
Another reason for why I am so bullish on Penn State this season is second-year head coach James Franklin, who dramatically turned around a Vanderbilt program by leading the Commodores to three straight bowl games. Upon arriving in State College, Franklin immediately felt the affects of the sanctions imposed on Penn State by the NCAA.
Despite only having 41 scholarship players available in last year’s Pinstripe Bowl, Franklin’s Nittany Lions managed to defeat Boston College in overtime (31-30) to finish with a winning season. Now in year two of Franklin’s schemes and with a host of returning starters, I would not be surprised to see Penn State eclipse nine wins in 2015.