STATE COLLEGE, Pa. (AP) — James Franklin has plenty of reasons to be optimistic entering his 10th season at Penn State.
He knows the seventh-ranked Nittany Lions have depth across the board, experience to match and a certain swagger that follows an 11-win season capped by a Rose Bowl win. Nearly everyone is back who contributed last year, and Franklin has seen even more soon-to-be contributors rise this offseason.
“Are we excited about it? Yes. Do we still have a lot of work to do and a lot of questions to answer? Yes,” Franklin said. “Do I think we are arguably in the best conference in college football and specifically the best division? I think we are part of that argument. I think it’s hard to say that we’re not.”
Quarterback is one of the few positions where the Nittany Lions don’t return a starter and sophomore Drew Allar believes it could be one of the more fruitful gigs in the country.
Physically, Allar looks every bit the part and the logical successor to five-year starter Sean Clifford. The 6-foot-5, 243-pounder relieved Clifford in 10 games last season, completing 35 of 60 passes for 344 yards with four touchdowns.
The 19-year-old spent the early summer working with the team’s other quarterbacks — notably fellow sophomore Beau Pribula — and the team’s skill position players to get an early start.
“When the coaches were gone or on the road recruiting or when they had their downtime, we were in the building, going through installs, making sure everybody was on the same page, just talking through stuff,” Allar said. “I definitely feel a lot better than I did last year at this time.”
Franklin hasn’t yet named a starter for the Sept. 2 opener against West Virginia.
Though Allar has taken most of the first-team reps as camp has progressed, Franklin isn’t writing off the 6-1, 206-pound Pribula who ran for 1,304 yards and 33 touchdowns in his final three high school seasons.
BIG AND PHYSICAL
Whoever lines up at quarterback will do so behind an experienced line.
Penn State returns five starting offensive linemen from a year ago including mammoth left tackle Olu Fashanu who opted to return rather than go pro after missing most of the back half of the season with a leg injury.
Opposing quarterbacks, meanwhile will have to deal with what figures to be a strong pass rush.
Penn State was tied for sixth nationally with 42 sacks last season. Defensive ends Chop Robinson and Adisa Isaac combined for 9 1/2 while playmaking linebacker Abdul Carter led the team with 6 1/2.
Tailbacks Nick Singleton and Kaytron Allen became the first freshman pair to run for 850 yards apiece in the Big Ten. They both scored in bunches, too.
Singleton showed off his speed and cutting ability on 12 scoring runs while Allen patiently pounded his way for 10. Both will see added usage this season according to offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich.
“They will be factors in both run and pass,” Yurcich said.
LOTS OF OPTIONS
Dante Cephas transferred from Kent State and gives Penn State another option at wide receiver alongside returning contributors Tre Wallace and KeAndre Lambert-Smith who finished third and fourth respectively in catches last year.
Cephas caught 48 passes for 744 yards and three touchdowns in his final season with the Golden Flashes.
“I think we have good number of guys that legitimately are competing for that third, fourth spot,” Franklin said. “I think there’s probably eight guys that are legitimately in that competition and it kind of goes day-to-day.
BLOCK, RUN AND CATCH
Allar smiled through a mild sunburn when asked about the team’s tight ends. He believes Penn State has the best TE group in the country.
The Nittany Lions had success with 6-6 Tyler Warren running multiple tight end sets in the past while fellow 6-6 athlete Theo Johnson is among the most athletic players on the team.
The two have combined for 11 scores in the past two seasons.
“They’re very well-versed at running routes and catching the ball,” Allar said. “I think we’re going to have a number of guys make huge impacts in the receiving game.”