Before the start of his eight previous seasons at Penn State, James Franklin often said he expects his offensive line to break through. But heading into the ninth year, that’s no longer the case.
“I’m not gonna sit here and pound the table and say this is the year,” Franklin said Saturday at Penn State’s media day. “Because that hasn’t necessarily played out that way in the last couple years.”
The expectations for the group haven’t necessarily risen, but that’s in large part because it hasn’t reached a sufficient baseline for the offense to excel. This season it will have a vastly different look compared to last year. Gone are key contributors like Rasheed Walker, Eric Wilson and Mike Miranda and in their place are newcomers with the upside to be major factors.
Olu Fashanu, Landon Tengwall and Hunter Nourzad are in that group, but even with the expected improvement Franklin won’t be placing any added expectations to them.
Franklin’s strategy, which he also mentioned at Big Ten Media Days near the end of July, is partially to allow the position group to prove its own worth with how it plays.
“I’m gonna take a more measured approach there,” he said. “And let them and let us prove that to you along the offensive line.”
The biggest area of improvement for the offensive line will be in the running game, where the entire offense struggled last season. The Nittany Lions did not boast a single 100-yard rusher last year for a multitude of reasons.
One of the core reasons was the lack of explosive plays from the running backs. That’s something Franklin hopes will improve this season and will make both the backs and the offensive line look much better.
“I think the biggest thing is potential for big plays in the running game,” he said. “That’s gonna be really important for us. Your numbers are always gonna be impacted if you don’t have any of those long runs to affect, not only field position, but also averages.”
Finding out about conference expansion
Conference expansion shook up the college football world this summer when the Big Ten announced it would add both USC and UCLA. Franklin, however, was not caught off guard with the development.
“(Penn State athletic director) Pat (Kraft) gave me a call,” Franklin said. “It was either a day or two before it was announced publicly. It was good to kind of have that conversation. I think I read some things and heard some things at Big Ten Media Days, where I don’t think that was the case everywhere in the league. That was great to be able to have that conversation and be prepared for it.”
There will be advantages and disadvantages with the additions, but one could benefit the Nittany Lions as they continue to build into a national brand. The program has begun to recruit nationally more and more — just as elite programs like Ohio State and Notre Dame have done to create sustained success.
In order to create that success, Penn State will need to build a firm national base like those programs. They’ll need to dip into the biggest high school football states in the country and consistently come out with high end talent.
The most glaring addition they’ll need to make to their recruiting footprint is California, which should become easier .
“When you’re able to add two teams from California to your conference, that should allow you to maybe get into some conversations that maybe you haven’t been able to get into before from that region,” Franklin said. “... When you add two universities and two schools like that to your conference, it should create more opportunities.”
Defensive back depth
For all of the questions about the offense, there aren’t nearly as many about the defense. The group should be one of the best in the country in large part because of how good it will be against the pass this season.
That starts at defensive back, where Penn State might have more depth than it ever has at both cornerback and safety. One of the safety spots is locked down with elite talent Ji’Ayir Brown, who should be one of the best in the country at the position.
While there’s a question as to who will start next to him, there isn’t much question about the level of ability that player will have.
“We feel like we’ve got a number of really good options that are competing there,” Franklin said. “... There’s three other guys that we feel really good about. You talk about (Keaton) Ellis who has played a lot of football for us, Jaylen Reed who played for us last year as a true freshman and Zakee Wheatley who last year we redshirted at the corner position then moved to safety in the spring, let alone the guys that are coming in. So that’s been really good competition.”
The boundaries of the defense will be equally well covered with how talented the cornerback room is this season. Joey Porter Jr. and Kalen King are both excellent in coverage, with Porter Jr. already earning first round projections in 2023 NFL mock drafts.
Daequan Hardy is a high-end nickel cornerback who can play in the slot and slide outside when necessary, and there’s another player who has frequently been mentioned as a standout thus far in the offseason. Junior Johnny Dixon, who has been with the program for a year after transferring in from South Carolina, received praise from Franklin and defensive coordinator Manny Diaz.
Dixon having a breakout year could help turn a great position group into an elite one.
“One of the guys that has really come on for us right now, is having a great camp, is Johnny Dixon,” Franklin said. “He’s had a really good camp which is really important for us. Not only in creating depth but also guys that maybe people have pegged in as starters are either being pushed to improve their game to keep their starting job or could be replaced.”
Penn State has a hole to fill at punter but Franklin said Barney Amor is currently leading the way at the position.
Franklin said Tyler Elsdon and Kobe King remain in a legitimate competition to start at middle linebacker.
Keon Wylie is working with the middle linebackers. The freshman previously played mostly defensive end in high school.