If the first two years following the sanctions were about survival, the next two will be about rebuilding.
Penn State will enter 2014 at something of a crossroads. Though the Nittany Lions appear to have fought through the worst part of the sanctions, it will still take time to restock the roster.
Reinforcements will arrive in the form of a larger recruiting class that will likely top 20 players with the inclusion of some early enrollees.
But it will take some time for them to make their biggest impact on a team still hurting for depth. It’s a roster that might have as few as 10 scholarship seniors.
The following is an early look at the players who will be returning to play for Penn State next season.
The continued development of Christian Hackenberg will go a long way in determining Penn State’s success in 2014.
Obviously, Allen Robinson’s decision whether or not to return will have a profound effect on the quarterback — and the passing game in general. But on the bright side for the Lions, Hackenberg was able to spread things around more toward the end of the season as he became more comfortable in the offense.
As it stands, Hackenberg looks to be the most irreplacable player on the roster headed into next year. Now that Tyler Ferguson is set to transfer, Penn State will have incoming freshman Michael O’Connor and a trio of redshirt freshmen as backups.
All three ballcarriers will be back, and the Lions will need all of them to be successful.
Bill Belton and Zach Zwinak have shown they’re both capable of carrying the load — provided they can hold onto the ball. Look for Belton in particular to become a bigger threat as a receiver.
With a year of learning under his belt and a better grasp of the playbook, Akeel Lynch could also become a bigger factor.
The Lions began using a fullback more in November, but they’ll need to replace dependable senior Pat Zerbe there.
Robinson said he would make his decision to stay or go after Christmas break. His presence alone would make the Lions 2014 offense one of the most dangerous in the Big Ten.
Regardless, Eugene Lewis should see more responsibility, instantly becoming the team’s best deep threat if Robinson should move on to the NFL. Lewis greatly benefitted from starting the Lions’ last three games and should be a big factor next fall.
Behind Lewis, only Richy Anderson and Matt Zanellato have seen snaps at wideout. That could give an early opportunity to a handful of promising incoming freshmen.
That alone should suggest that the tight ends will become an enormous part of the passing game. The emergence of Adam Breneman, combined with veterans Jesse James and Kyle Carter, plus the return of Brent Wilkerson from injury, gives the Lions one of their biggest advantages.
Last year’s recruiting class can make a real impact here. Front and center could be Andrew Nelson, who has a shot to start at right tackle from Week 1, assuming Garry Gilliam doesn’t have a change of heart and ends up coming back.
The coaching staff has liked what it has seen from Nelson, and fellow redshirts Brendan Mahon and Tanner Hartman. With just five other scholarship linemen returning — including returning starters Donovan Smith and Miles Dieffenbach — the Lions need a few young guys to step up.
Angelo Mangiro figures to fill in at either center or right guard, depending on whether the Lions have someone else, like a Wendy Laurent, they trust at center.
Replacing both DaQuan Jones and Kyle Baublitz is going to be tricky indeed. One option might be to shuffle Anthony Zettel back inside to tackle from end to pair up with likely starter Austin Johnson.
An improved pass rush in November made a big difference for the defense down the stretch, and the play of C.J. Olaniyan and Deion Barnes will largely dictate the effectiveness of the unit in 2014.
Brad Bars returns from injury and redshirt freshman Garrett Sickels has the pedigree to make an early impact.
Just like last season, depth here is a major concern. The Lions will first have to decide which player to shift inside to replace Glenn Carson and then go from there.
Mike Hull will man one starting spot with some combination of Nyeem Wartman, Brandon Bell and Ben Kline coming off of two offseason surgeries surrounding him.
Beyond those four, only Gary Wooten is on scholarship. The Lions currently have two linebacker commits for the upcoming recruiting class.
Jordan Lucas will play cornerback. Adrian Amos will play … somewhere. It’s up to the coaches to figure out the best combination in the defensive backfield, which will dictate whether Amos is back at corner or safety.
Ryan Keiser will figure in at safety. Whether Trevor Williams can work his way back into a starting role remains to be seen.
Jesse Della Valle saw time at safety this season but Malik Golden may have made a late surge to move up the depth chart.
Kicker Sam Ficken will be back for his senior season, though there will be a new punter.
Walk-on Chris Gulla looks to be the top candidate currently on the roster after redshirting in 2013, though the Lions could opt to use one of their restored scholarships to bring in some competition.