Familiarity cause for hope for Penn State this season
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. (AP) Nyeem Wartman-White and Bob Shoop are so familiar with one another that they're finishing each other's sentences.
This synergy between young linebacker and new coach wasn't possible for Penn State early last season, Shoop's first as Nittany Lions defensive coordinator. But the Yale graduate's patience, scholarly coaching and aggressive schemes paid off. His defense allowed just 18.6 points per game and routinely kept a sputtering offense in games.
Shoop is betting that familiarity built then and through the offseason pays off.
''Walkthroughs that took a significant amount of time to get a point across, now we can go on to the next thing,'' Shoop said. ''I think the players really kind of understand and comprehend that a lot more than they did a year ago.''
That's good news for a still-developing offense that needs all the defensive support it can get.
Penn State's running game was nonexistent last season, quarterback Christian Hackenberg was sacked 44 times and the team lost six of its last eight games.
Penn State is already off to a better start: Coaches know each player's strengths and weaknesses and players are on their second year with the same playbook.
With a Pinstripe Bowl win to close 2014, they believe momentum is on their side, too.
''Although you've had experience at other places, it's not like you can take that exact model and transplant it from one place to another,'' Penn State coach James Franklin said. ''There's some growth that has to take place, and that's what we spent all offseason doing.''
Here are some things to watch as Penn State opens its season:
PROTECT THE BLINDSIDE
There are still plenty of questions about Penn State's offensive line - primarily, who will play left tackle?
Junior college transfer Paris Palmer was given most of the reps in spring practice to win the job. But he hasn't secured it yet.
He's competing with redshirt freshman Chance Sorrell. Junior Andrew Nelson could move from the right. Centers Angelo Mangiro and Wendy Laurent have both emerged as movable pieces to provide more options up front.
Franklin won't count out any true freshmen as instant contributors. Last season he used nine and seven started.
Safety Marcus Allen, corners Grant Haley and Christian Campbell, linebacker Jason Cabinda, receivers Chris Godwin and Saeed Blacknall and tight end Mike Gesicki all figure to be part of Penn State's plans this season.
True freshman running back Saquon Barkley has drawn attention in training camp at a position where Penn State must develop depth behind junior Akeel Lynch. Barkley could be the first in a new wave of youngsters to avoid the redshirt.
Penn State had just 44 scholarship players available (factoring 16 expected redshirts) for its season finale against Michigan State last season. That number will jump to 59 this season assuming all 23 true freshmen on scholarship redshirt.
''This is not what we're used to,'' Lynch said. ''We're used to 40-60 guys playing so it's definitely exciting. Now we have six running backs on scholarship. Before we had three.''
A GOOD START
Following a season opener in Philadelphia, Penn State will play five straight home games and have a good chance to be 6-0 before an Oct. 17 trip to Columbus.
Those five opponents Penn State will get at Beaver Stadium - Buffalo, Rutgers, San Diego State, Army and Indiana - combined to finish 28-33 last season.
With the NFL possibly beckoning the junior - he's been called a Top 5 pick by more than a handful of NFL scouts and draft analysts - questions of turning pro will remain until the end of the season. He'll politely decline to answer them, however.
The NFL talk will intensify if Hackenberg bests his numbers from last season; he threw just four touchdowns in Big Ten play.