Penn State Football and head coach James Franklin wrapped up the 2022 season with their first 11-win season and first New Year’s Six bowl victory since the 2019 campaign. Their rank of seventh in the final AP Poll also represents their highest finish since 2016. So how can the Nittany Lions build on that confidence and what areas will they need to improve for this coming season? I’m really glad you asked because it just so happens that James from State College recently sat down and did a one-on-one interview with ABC27’s Allie Berube, sharing some in-depth and freewheeling thoughts on the program, the upcoming season, and more. During the conversation, Franklin highlighted three key areas he believes Penn State can improve on in 2023. “I think we got a chance to be better on the offensive line,” Franklin pointed out. “I think we got a chance to be better at tight end. (and) I think we’ve got a chance to be better at the running back position from an experience standpoint.” Now that we know what Franklin believes can be improved upon, let’s break each of them down to see how likely it is to happen and the on-field impact.
No. 1: Penn State needs to be better on the offensive line
Well, I don’t know about you, but I’m pretty sure this would apply to all 133 teams currently in the DI Football Bowl Subdivision. Does anyone remember watching Christian Hackenberg running for his life in the 2014 and 2015 seasons? Or the absolutely anemic running game behind the 2020 and 2021 offensive lines? Yep. Those years have been burned into my skull with an Acetylene torch. But, this year’s Nittany Lion squad has the potential and possibility for some much heralded optimism in regards to the offensive line. Olu Fashanu garnered a ton of NFL hype following the conclusion of his first full season at left tackle, and for good reason. The mountain of a man was great for much of the year in paving the way for Penn State’s improved run game. But it was his passing blocking skills that set him apart from the rest of the field in college. According to PFF, Fashanu’s 84.7 pass-blocking grade ranked him sixth among all Power Five tackles. Furthermore, Olu only gave up one hit and no sacks during the 281 pass-blocking snaps he was on the field for last year. The 2023 starting offensive line should look something like the following: LT – Olu FashanuLG – Landon TengwallOC – Hunter NourzadRG – Sal WormleyRT – Caedan Wallace That looks fairly familiar, right? Outside of Juice Scruggs starting at center it’s virtually the same starting five. And yes, I do realize the Nittany Lions will miss having the services of Scruggs as he was selected in the second round of the 2023 NFL draft. But Nourzad got his feet wet last year and with the experience surrounding him, I don’t think there will be much of a drop off in terms of performance. Landon Tengwall proved to be a solid left guard and Sal Wormley shined for much of last year in both blocking for the run and pass games. Additionally, Caedan Wallace is now a multi-year starter at right tackle. And the offensive line represents one of the most difficult positions on the football field when trying to play as a single unit. Experience and familiarity with your teammates is paramount. So in this case, I believe James Franklin will be correct in his statement that the offensive line can be better next year. The Lions have a plethora of experience up front, and they’ve played hundreds of snaps together. Everyone knows football games are essentially won and lost in the trenches, so if this unit can improve then it will automatically lift the offense several pegs and that will immediately elevate the overall performance on the field.
No. 2 Penn State Football has a chance to be better at tight end
This one is a little open-ended, but I think I know what James Franklin is alluding to. The 2022 trio of Theo Johnson, Brenton Strange, and Tyler Warren combined for 62 catches, 813 yards, and 12 touchdowns. Which was a massive improvement from the 2021 group which only had 44 catches, 499 yards, and five touchdowns. It’s somewhat strange that it was the exact same guys for both years. Did Johnson, Strange, and Warren suddenly get better between 2021 and 2022? Not likely. Rather this has everything to do with how Mike Yurcich drew up the plays and this has everything to do with him finally exploiting the other team’s defense with Penn State’s field-stretching group of tight ends. It’s no secret that Yurcich historically did not use the tight ends much in his offenses at Oklahoma State, Ohio State, and Texas. So, can this group improve and increase their production numbers in 2023? Sure. Yurcich could simply have every single pass attempt go to a tight end. Then he could draw up three tight end sets, tight end option plays, and tight end pass plays to other tight ends. Obviously I’m being purposely obtuse, but you get my point. Just increasing the production for the tight end group doesn’t necessarily mean improvement. And I also don’t believe this is what James Franklin was talking about when he said they could possibly improve. Rather, I think he was talking about how the tight ends could improve in their role in the ground game. Everyone knows Franklin likes to run the ball. If it were up to him Penn State would run the ball on first down, run on second down, run on third down, and then most likely throw a bubble screen on fourth down. Thankfully, it’s not up to him. However, he does realize the importance of the tight ends when it comes to being efficient in running the ball. Due to Penn State having some game changing players at tight end, it makes sense that one or even two of them will be on the field at all times. And if they are going to be on the field, then they can’t be a liability when Allar turns around to hand the ball off to Nick Singleton or Kaytron Allen. And I do believe Johnson, Warren, Jerry Cross, and company can improve their awareness and blocking. All it takes is hundreds of hours in the gym, on the practice field, and in the film room. Which is easy for me to say. But, if this group does work hard and they do improve their role in the running game, then it will go a long way to helping out the rest of the offense. Because let’s face it, with the Nittany Lions working in a new quarterback and with them having arguably their weakest group of wide receivers in some time, the tight ends contribution to both the run game and the pass game could be the difference between Penn State having a mediocre season or seeing the Nittany Lions contending for a Big Ten title and possibly a run into the College Football Playoff.
No. 3 Penn State Football May be Better at Running Back
Well, yeah, no kidding there James. The largest improvement in most collegiate athletes happens between their first and second seasons. So, of course the Nittany Lions could be better next season pounding the rock between Singleton and Kaytron Allen. All the phenom freshman duo did last year was run the ball 323 times for 1928 yards and 22 touchdowns. And they sprinkled in 31 catches for 273 yards and two more touchdowns. That’s 5.97 yards per carry and a total offense of 2201 yards and 24 touchdowns. So basically a “light” contribution to the team. But seriously, of course Kaytron and Nick will work hard in the off-season and of course they are going to improve their technique, field awareness, and blitz pickups. Which means they will certainly show signs of improvement next year. However, it takes a total team effort for the numbers to improve in the running game. The offensive line will need to continue to gel, the tight ends will need to continue to improve their blocking and space out the field in the air attack, and Drew Allar will need to be a good enough signal caller to prevent the opposing defense from putting nine guys in the box at all times. All of these things will need to happen for Penn State’s running numbers to improve. Will they all happen? Sure, I think that’s feasible. And, if that does happen the impact on the field will be sustained drives, a more efficient offense, ball control, and the ability to take the air out of the ball late in the games when Penn State has the lead. Which also potentially means an overall improvement in the offense and possibly an improvement in the Nittany Lions’ record. But the real question is this: Will these three areas get Penn State to the promised land? In both of Penn State’s losses last season, the opposing team scored an average of 42.5 points (Michigan 41 and Ohio State 44). And the Nittany Lions gave up a total of 563 yards to the Wolverines, which includes 418 on the ground, and 452 to the Buckeyes. As I said earlier, the game of football is largely won and lost in the trenches. And while Penn State has shown a marked improvement in their offense and specifically the offensive line, it’s the defense that is still lacking when they face the best in the nation. And, how are the Nittany Lions going to win Big Ten titles and compete for national titles when they aren’t able to hang with the best in their division? Frankly, I don’t have the answer to that question. Hopefully the guy who is making $7.5 million per year can figure it out.