Heisman hopeful Saquon Barkley, Penn State out to prove last year was no fluke

Heisman hopeful Saquon Barkley, Penn State out to prove last year was no fluke

STATE COLLEGE, Pa.  -- Two years ago, James Franklin urged Penn State fans to be patient. He and his players believed a plan was in motion.

That patience wore thin through back-to-back 7-6 seasons, but paid off last season. After shaking off a slow start, the Nittany Lions won nine straight games, including a come-from-behind victory in the Big Ten championship game that put them within reach of a playoff berth.

"Last year's last year, and this year's this year," Franklin said. "We want to take all those experiences and maturity that we gained from last year and then continue growing and evolving."

That's been a theme since Franklin took over a program then reeling from NCAA sanctions and reduced scholarship numbers.

Back then, Franklin committed to playing handfuls of freshmen. Now, players who were vaunted recruits at the time have formed a core of grizzled veterans who are primed to take the next step.

But the Nittany Lions have more than just experience going for them.

Nine starters, including dynamic running back Saquon Barkley, return to an offense that was among the country's most explosive down the stretch. Six defensive starters are back to take cues from rising defensive coordinator Brent Pry and juniors and sophomores return who all have logged meaningful time or swapped starts during Franklin's tenure. Newly arriving freshmen are looking to earn a job right away, giving this camp a much more competitive feel than last season.

That's what Franklin wants.

"If you go into practice and you're screwing up, making mistakes, guys are going to pass you," linebacker Jason Cabinda said. "It's no longer a point where you have the first team and then with the second team there's a drop off and then the third team after that is a bigger drop off. We have guys on the second and third teams that the coaches feel really good about playing."

Barkley's World
Everyone from coaches to teammates to Heisman Trophy prognosticators feel good about Barkley.

His 2,572 rushing yards and 30 total touchdowns over the past two years have usually come via spectacular runs and he could turn similar numbers into the school's second Heisman win. Running back John Cappelletti won it in 1973.

"It's something that I can truly say, we're not really thinking about with each play," offensive tackle Andrew Nelson said. "The thing we do think about is the fact that if we can do our job every play, it's not if or when he's going to make a big play, it's he will make a big play."

Trace's Space
Quarterback Trace McSorley quickly emerged as a dangerous player last season, not only for an ability to extend plays or smart decision-making, but for his downfield throwing ability few teams were prepared for.

Expect more from McSorley in Year 2 of Joe Moorhead's no-huddle offense.

The usually reserved Moorhead grew offended at suggestions he heard in the offseason that McSorley's efforts were flukey. In fact, his system is much more nuanced than it might've looked when McSorley was picking on safeties over the top.

"A kid couldn't lead the league in multiple passing categories and set school single season records and be on the verge of multiple other school records if he was just throwing the ball indiscriminately down the field," Moorhead said.

Turning the Corner
The secondary lost its best cover cornerback when John Reid suffered a serious knee injury in the spring. Reid, who played more snaps than any Nittany Lion last season, was expected to lead a secondary that was returning mostly intact.

While Franklin hasn't ruled Reid out for the season, he doesn't seem close to returning. Reid took an internship for the summer and was still in Oregon fulfilling it when camp began.

Pry has options, however. Christian Campbell has started when others have been hurt and adds length opposite Grant Haley, one of the team's most experienced and cerebral players.

Line Games
This team is built to withstand injuries in bunches. It proved it last season when all three starting linebackers were out early and both starting offensive tackles were hurt late.

As a result, more offensive linemen like Connor McGovern got playing time and Penn State enters 2017 with a legit two-deep that could potentially be mixed and matched with potential for success.

Defensively, the Nittany Lions would benefit from a bonafide pass-rusher to emerge. Torrence Brown and Shareef Miller are the frontrunners, but have had to earn reps behind older players up until this year.

Penn State ranked No. 6 in AP Preseason poll

Penn State ranked No. 6 in AP Preseason poll

Full AP Preseason Top 25

Expectations are high in and around Happy Valley this year.

Expectations are just as high outside of Happy Valley, too, for James Franklin and Penn State.

The Nittany Lions check in at No. 6 in the AP Top 25 preseason poll, which was released Monday afternoon.

Alabama is No. 1 for the second consecutive preseason. The Crimson Tide is followed by Ohio State at No. 2, Florida State at No. 3, Southern Cal at No. 4 and defending champion Clemson at No. 5.

Coming off last season's Big Ten title run and trip to the Rose Bowl, the hype train for Penn State centers around Heisman Trophy hopefuls QB Trace McSorely and RB Saquan Barkley.

McSorely, now a senior, had a superb junior campaign last season, throwing for 3614 yards, 29 touchdowns and just eight picks.

Barkley, now a junior, deserves all the Heisman chatter as he was spectacular last season with 1496 rushing yards and 18 TDs in the ground. He also recorded 402 receiving yards and four TDs through the air.

The No. 6 ranking is the Nits' highest ranking in the preseason poll since 1999, when a team earmarked by LaVarr Arrington and Courtney Brown was ranked No. 3.

Penn State is one of four Big Ten teams in the preseason Top 25. Ohio State is No. 2, Wisconsin is No. 9 and Michigan is No. 11.

The Wolverines visit Beaver Stadium on Oct. 21. The Lions then head out to Columbus a week later for a titanic matchup with the Buckeyes at the Horseshoe.

Penn State's season kicks off on Sept. 2 with a visit from Akron.

Penn State gives James Franklin expensive 6-year extension

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USA Today Images

Penn State gives James Franklin expensive 6-year extension

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Penn State coach James Franklin has signed a contract extension that guarantees him $34.7 million through 2022.

According to terms released by Penn State on Friday, the deal is worth an average of $5.78 million annually and contains up to $1 million in incentive bonuses each year. The extension modifies the initial six-year contract Franklin signed when he was hired in 2014. That contract was to pay him $4.6 million this year.

After back-to-back 7-6 seasons in Franklin's first two years in Happy Valley, the Nittany Lions won the Big Ten last year. Penn State finished 11-3 and No. 6 in the country after starting 2-2, capping the program's best season in the post-Joe Paterno era with a 52-49 loss to Southern California in the Rose Bowl.

A blowout loss to Michigan last September had Penn State fans doubting Franklin's ability to turn around a program that was still recovering from NCAA sanctions brought on by the Jerry Sandusky scandal. Athletic director Sandy Barbour was even compelled to give Franklin a public vote of confidence.

Less than a year later, Franklin has a contract that by annual average compensation puts him behind only Urban Meyer of Ohio State and Jim Harbaugh of Michigan among Big Ten coaches.

According the USA Today coaches' salary data base, Harbaugh, Meyer and Nick Saban were the only coaches who made more than $6 million before bonuses in 2016. Four other coaches made at least $5 million.

Franklin's deal would push him over the $5 million mark in 2019 and reach $6.25 million in 2022, plus a $1 million retention bonus.

The deal has been in the works for months. It was given approval by the Board of Trustees on Friday.

"I am pleased with the progress our program has made in the community, in the classroom and on the field," Franklin said in a statement. "I look forward to diligently working with President (Eric) Barron and Director of Athletics Sandy Barbour on implementing a plan that puts our University and our student-athletes in the best position to compete on the field and in life."

Franklin replaced Paterno's successor, Bill O'Brien, in 2014. The Pennsylvania native was 24-15 in three seasons at Vanderbilt before taking the Penn State job.

Last season, the Nittany Lions responded from a ragged and injury-filled start with a nine-game winning streak that included a come-from-behind victory in the Big Ten championship game against Wisconsin. Franklin was Big Ten coach of the year.

"James and his staff have done an exceptional job with our football student-athletes and in all aspects of the football program," Barbour said. "His values are Penn State's values and they resonate throughout every member of the organization and team he has built."