Every year about this time, I find myself suffering through an internal conflict. I, like I am sure many Penn State fans, am excited for football season to get here, but dread the idea of a summer passing too quickly. For those of us that have suffered through a winter that felt as if it would never end, those feelings are magnified even more than usual.
I look forward to Penn State football every season, albeit for different reasons from year to year. Going into last year, it was the excitement of a genuine shot at the playoff and a repeat Big Ten championship. In 2016, there was the promise of Joe Moorhead's offense. This year, for the first time in my life as a Nittany Lion fan, it feels as if the program is set to show that the successes of the last two seasons are far from a flash in the pan.
Penn State fans know all too well that success has been near impossible to sustain for decades. The promise of the 1999 season unraveled into an Alamo Bowl trip, and set up the five year run from 2000-2004 that saw the program average just five wins per year. The joy of the 2005 resurgence was short lived with back-to-back 9-4 seasons in 2006-2007, going just 9-7 in Big Ten play. The Lions were unable to build on the 2008-2009 run of 22 wins, falling to just 7-6 in 2010. Perhaps it is better to look at it this way. The last time the Nittany Lions had three straight seasons of double digit wins, Ronald Reagan was not yet two years into his first term as President.
It is easy to focus on the significant losses that saw a half dozen players drafted into the NFL, and eight more sign free agent deals. Names like Barkley, Gesicki, Hamilton, Cabinda, and Allen are no longer on the roster. On paper, and with the program's history of late, healthy skepticism is not hard to have.
The last time the Nittany Lions had three straight seasons of double digit wins, Ronald Reagan was not yet two years into his first term as President.
Why does this year have the potential to be different? It all starts under center, or rather, about five years behind center. Trace McSorley is going to hold every meaningful passing record in program history by the time he wraps up his career at the end of the 2018 season. He already owns a few in just two full seasons. If he's not the best returning signal caller in the college game, he's on a very short list. Don't take my word for it. Publications like Athlon and The Sporting News share the same opinion.
He will be lining up behind an offensive line that returns four starters from last year, and will feature, in all likelihood, five starters in at least their third year on campus. Even putting recruiting rankings aside for a moment, those are the numbers that solid lines are made of. When you factor in the talent of players like Connor McGovern, Ryan Bates, Michal Menet, Steven Gonzalez, and Will Fries, it is not too hard to see where the excitement surround this group comes from. Adding in the depth of players like C.J. Thorpe, and Mike Miranda only adds to the promise.
There is no denying the loss of Saquon Barkley, Mike Gesicki, and DaeSean Hamilton on offense is significant. You are talking about the best running back, the most productive tight end, and the career receptions leader in Penn State history. However, the great programs find ways to replace their departing stars, and with Miles Sanders, Juwan Johnson, and Justin Shorter waiting in the wings, it would be unwise to expect a huge drop off.
On the defense side of the ball, John Reid returns to a secondary that saw four players off of the 2017 team head to the NFL. Armani Oruwariye will join him after seeing plenty of time a year ago, along with promising sophomores Tariq Castro-Fields, and Zech McPhearson. At safety Nick Scott, Garrett Taylor, Lamont Wade, and Ayron Monroe are fighting for the two open spots. Two upperclassmen battling it out with two talented youngsters. Another hallmark of a healthy program.
If there is one thing I've learned after watching four seasons of James Franklin's staff work, it is do not doubt Sean Spencer. Even with three productive tackles off to the NFL, I expect the defensive line to be just fine. Kevin Givens, Antonio Shelton, and Robert Windsor are the names to pencil in, but would we really be that surprised to see Damion Barber, Fred Hansard, or even incoming freshman P.J. Mustipher earn time? And with the talented stable of ends like Shareef Miller, Yetur Gross-Matos, Shane Simmons, Ryan Bucholz, and Shaka Toney, expect plenty of advantageous matchups for someone along the front-four. Trust in Coach Chaos.
If there is one gaping hole on this team, it comes at linebacker. Through a run of bad luck, recruiting misses, and discipline issues, Linebacker U has some big questions to answer. You can go ahead and write in Koa Farmer as one starter, but Brent Pry is going to need to get creative to fill in the rest of his lineup. There are more than a few names that will get a chance, and the biggest question mark will be who steps up.
Punting will not be a question with Blake Gillikin in his third season, but place kicking is another story. Gillikin may be relied on to handle some of those duties as well. The hope is that incoming freshman Jake Pinegar, or one of a number of preferred walk-ons, can shoulder at least some of that load.
Does this 2018 Penn State football team have more production to replace than last year? Absolutely, virtually every program in the country does. However, thanks to an elite level of recruiting, and a number of talented returning players, these Nittany Lions are once again positioned to be a force in the Big Ten and nationally.
Just don't get here too quickly.