No Saquon Barkley, no problem: Why Penn State should be the Big Ten front-runner in 2018

When Penn State takes the field in Beaver Stadium on Saturday for its spring game, don't keep your mind on Saquon Barkley, DaeSean Hamilton, Mike Gesicki Jason Cabinda and the rest of the former Nittany Lions who helped claim the 2016 Big Ten title and contend for the College Football Playoff in 2017.

Focus on the players actually on the field -- the 2018 version of the Nittany Lions. The team that should be considered the front-runner in the Big Ten heading into coach James Franklin's fifth season with the program.

Does that sound crazy considering Barkley is a sure-fire first-round pick in the upcoming NFL Draft, Hamilton led the team in receiving, Gesicki was one of the best tight ends in the country, and Cabinda led a defense that finished seventh in the nation in total defense (16.5 points per game)?

It shouldn't. 

Electric senior quarterback Trace McSorley is back and ready to lead a group that is talented, hungry and ready to break through that glass ceiling that is the CFP. McSorley threw for 3,570 yards and 28 touchdowns a year ago, rushing for 491 yards and 11 additional scores; he enters the 2018 campaign as one of the favorites to win the Heisman Trophy, according to bookmakers both onshore and off. 

"His return is dramatic," Franklin told CBS Sports. "There's so much confidence with him within our coaches, players, our organization, within this community and on this campus. I don't think there's any doubt about it, he's a huge impact for us. Offensively, we have a lot of guys returning even though we've lost some big-time playmakers. We feel good about the guys who are coming back. 

But it's fair to ask what McSorley will be as the focal point of the offense, rather than Barkley gobbling up most of the attention.

That's where Miles Sanders comes in. 

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Penn State running back Miles Sanders celebrates after a big play in 2017. USATSI

Sanders only had 191 yards and two touchdowns a year ago, but the former five-star running back out of Pittsburgh in the Class of 2016 has the confidence of the staff.

"Miles, as well as our other running backs, are really talented," Franklin said. "They've been playing behind Saquon for multiple years, so they've learned a lot. Miles could have gone other places and played as a true freshman, but I don't believe that he would have learned as much of developed as much as has in this situation. He had to have patience and grind through a lot of things."

What will help Sanders -- and all of the Nittany Lions running backs -- more than anything, is a stable offensive line. That's something that Franklin has been in the process of rebuilding since the moment he took the job prior to the 2014 season. Now, they have three starters returning and depth that the program hasn't seen in quite a while. 

"When Saquon got here during and immediately after the sanctions, the area was hurt the most was along the offensive line," Franklin said. "When I got the job, we had six scholarship offensive linemen in the program. He never really played behind what I would consider a strength. We had good players and a good line at times, but it wasn't considered a strength. Miles and our running backs now have the chance to play behind a position group that has a chance to be one of the strengths of our team."

What you can expect on Saturday, and throughout the 2018 season, is a heavy dose of Tommy Stevens as a quarterback, wide receiver, running back and all-around weapon for Franklin and new full-time offensive coordinator Ricky Rahne. Stevens, a rising junior who chose to stick with the program rather than transfer, is the heir apparent to McSorley in 2019. But for this year, you'll see the 6-foot-5, 237-pounder lined up all over the field.

"We've done some studying of some other teams that use a two-quarterback system," Franklin said. "He runs 4.5, can make you miss, has a very strong arm. We can use him at wide receiver, running back, as an H-back/tight end, double pass him, wildcat quarterback with him. You can use him in a four-minute offense as a quarterback to help with numbers and even on special teams. We have to be careful with all of that, because we do have a responsibility to develop him at quarterback."

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Tommy Stevens is a versatile component of the Penn State offense. USATSI

If there's a concern, it's up the middle of the 2018 defense. The Nittany Lions lost four of the six defensive tackles on the depth chart from the Fiesta Bowl, including starters Curtis Cothran and Parker Cothren. In addition, Cabinda exhausted his eligibility after starring at middle linebacker and the entire starting secondary is gone including star safety Marcus Allen

That's where all of the attention should be paid on Saturday.

"It's like building a baseball team; you gotta be strong up the middle," Franklin said. "Defensive tackle depth is something that we have to get resolved. We feel good about it, but we still have a lot of work to do between now and camp."

The silver lining for Franklin and the Nittany Lions defense is that there has been depth on defense throughout the coach's time with the program. They're expecting that depth to help soften the blow to massive defensive personnel departures.

"It's easier to replace guys on the defensive side of the ball than it is on offense, because you play more guys ... at least we do," Franklin said. "All of the defensive backs who are likely going to starting for us this year have played a lot of football for us over the last two years. Same thing on the defensive line."

Penn State might have lost stars during the offseason, but Franklin has developed a culture of competition through four straight top-20 recruiting classes that should help him sustain the success the program has enjoyed over the last two seasons.

"The turnaround has been completed," Franklin said. "Now, we're not only sustaining it but continuing to build."

The next step in the process is a College Football Playoff appearance. 

College Football Writer

Barrett Sallee has been a member of the sports media in various aspects since 2001. He is currently a college football writer for CBS Sports, analyst for CBS Sports HQ and host for the SiriusXM college... Full Bio

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