Underclassmen must step up as Penn State continues to rebuild

Penn State quarterback Christian Hackenberg (14) makes an adjustment at the line of scrimmage against Eastern Michigan on Sept. 7, 2013, at Beaver Stadium in University Park.
Penn State quarterback Christian Hackenberg (14) makes an adjustment at the line of scrimmage against Eastern Michigan on Sept. 7, 2013, at Beaver Stadium in University Park.
Photo by Barry Reeger | Tribune-Review
Chris Adamski
| Friday, Aug. 22, 2014, 9:18 p.m.

The scholarship numbers are on their way up. The bowl ban is at least halfway done, with legitimate hopes it could be in the past completely. An incoming freshman class of 25 scholarship players — similar to just about every other FBS school — is ready to make its debut.

Penn State has weathered the harshest part of the historic NCAA sanctions levied in 2012 in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky scandal — or so the thinking goes.

The Nittany Lions somehow emerged with two winning seasons under Bill O'Brien, and with the nation's hottest young coaching commodity in James Franklin taking the reins, Penn State is ready to begin its ascension back to national-power status, right?

Maybe not.

“I do think the longer you're in the sanctions, obviously, the more difficult it becomes,” Franklin said. “I don't think there's any doubt about that.”

The attrition from the loss of roughly a dozen players whom the NCAA allowed to transfer over a 13-month span in 2012-13, combined with a smaller-than-usual 2013 incoming freshman recruiting class — another edict of the sanctions — have taken their toll in terms of an erosion of experienced talent on the Penn State roster.

The Lions are bottom-heavy when it comes to class. According to roster data gathered by the University of Colorado sports information department, Penn State has the second-lowest percentage of upperclassmen (defined as players with junior or senior eligibility) of any FBS team.

PSU's juniors and seniors make up 27.6 percent of the roster — only Pitt's 21.4 percent is less. The Lions' number of seniors and percent of upperclassmen are down slightly from last season.

“You look at our lack of seniors. ... We have the second-youngest team in the country,” Franklin said. “There's some challenges that come with that.”

Those challenges come in the form of an alarming lack of experienced depth along the offensive line, linebacker and, to an extent, wide receiver and in the secondary.

The sanctions rollback announced last September gave Penn State additional scholarships — both incoming and on the roster at large — to use in 2014. And while the additional freshmen will help — many will contribute immediately — it's impossible to replicate the experience and increased physical maturity of men in their 20s as compared to teenagers.

“You're going to lean on your seniors,” offensive coordinator John Donovan said. “It's their team. They are going to have to show the young guys how to play.”

But what if there's not enough of them? The offense, for example, has only two healthy seniors, and they're both at running back.

PSU players and coaches repeatedly shy away from talking about the sanctions' lingering effects. Whether it's used as an excuse, though, they're still taking their toll.

Chris Adamski is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at cadamski@tribweb.com or via Twitter @C_AdamskiTrib.

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