STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- As the Penn State football team shuffled into the Beaver Stadium tunnel, Joe Moorhead lingered behind, one of the last coaches or players to exit the field on a sun-drenched Saturday in Happy Valley, enjoying the afterglow of a strong first impression.
The new Penn State offensive coordinator signed a few autographs while standing in the south end zone before finally jogging into the tunnel with the other key figure of the day, quarterback competition frontrunner Trace McSorley. With acclaimed sophomore running back Saquon Barkley taking the day off -- "We just felt like we know what we have with Saquon," head coach James Franklin said -- McSorley was the center of attention during Penn State's annual Blue-White spring scrimmage.
But for all the attention on the new quarterback replacing three-year starter Christian Hackenberg -- McSorley, a sophomore, or redshirt freshman Tommy Stevens -- the key to everything that happened in the previous month of practice and in Saturday's scrimmage, and the key to the future of the Franklin era, is Moorhead's new offense as Penn State moves fully into the post-NCAA-sanctions era and pressure increases on Franklin to produce in a competitive Big Ten East Division.
Moorhead, at least, has quickly gotten comfortable, injecting tempo into the Penn State offense as the Nittany Lions try to shake off two years of stagnation and frustration on that side of the ball.
"Having done it a few places, one of the most intriguing things about taking the job was looking at the roster and seeing the pieces were in place for us to be able to implement the system and do it successfully," Moorhead said. "So it's always kind of fun when you go in and you have a plan and you plant the seeds and see it take root and kind of come to fruition."
Moorhead took a somewhat irregular path to Penn State. The offensive coordinator for Connecticut in the Huskies' Fiesta Bowl season in 2010, he went on to serve as head coach for Fordham the last four seasons, guiding offenses that put up absurd numbers at the FCS level. Moorhead replaces John Donovan, who Franklin dismissed immediately following the 2015 regular season.
The first two years of the Franklin era were in some respects difficult to evaluate. While the NCAA sanctions were lifted at the start of the 2014 season, the Nittany Lions were not at full strength in either of the last two seasons since Franklin left Vanderbilt to replace Bill O'Brien. That was especially true on the offensive line, which featured dreadful depth and struggled to protect Hackenberg, the former five-star recruit who got hit over and over and had trouble finding a groove in the new system after O'Brien left.
With Moorhead coming in to preside over an open quarterback battle, Franklin has hit reset on the Penn State offense in an attempt to change the trajectory of the on-field product.
"You bring Joe Moorhead in, he's got a system that I believe in and I think makes sense for our team right now," Franklin said. "It's a combination of what Joe is doing and also what we're returning. It's a beautiful marriage at the right time. I'm very pleased with what we've been able to get done."
That Penn State never finished with a losing record under O'Brien or Franklin is an impressive accomplishment that is taken for granted, given how crippling the NCAA sanctions appeared to be in the summer of 2012. Still, the offense of the last two seasons has been disjointed, the problems starting on the line but festering elsewhere with no real identity or rhythm and a struggle to compensate or correct weaknesses that were present for two years. It was especially tough to swallow Hackenberg's potential seemingly being squandered.
For a while, the happiness of the football team merely still existing and winning games again was enough to placate the fan base. Now, though, with a full roster -- if still young in a few places -- there is greater unease surrounding the program, waiting to see if Franklin's relentless positivity and gains on the recruiting trail will be matched by the Lions' actual performance on Saturdays in the fall.
Regardless of the up-and-down results, Hackenberg will forever be one of the most important recruits in Penn State history, the all-world quarterback who stuck with Penn State despite the potentially crippling sanctions. The offense would undergo a significant transition with or without Moorhead, as McSorley, who leads the bigger but athletic Stevens in the QB race, looks nothing like Hackenberg. He's a 6-foot, 199-pound former three-star recruit who moves the pocket and is more apt at making plays on the run. Neither the arm strength nor raw passing talent is comparable to Hackenberg, but there are reasons to be positive about a more mobile quarterback taking the reigns of a revamped system.
It is far too early to draw any conclusions about how Penn State's offense will change with Moorhead in charge, but Saturday did what a spring game is supposed to do: provide at least a temporary morale boost for the fan base, with about 65,000 fans showing up for the scrimmage after back-to-back 7-6 seasons to start the Franklin era. All of the problems Penn State has had won't suddenly be fixed, but with a full allotment of scholarships, the Lions finally have more options to foster competition at key positions.
"We went from having nine scholarship players to now having 17 scholarship players on the O-line," Franklin said. "We went from being young at wideout to veteran at wideout. I think we have one of the better backfields right now with the combination of guys that we have plus guys that are coming in. Tight ends like Mike Gesicki are really playing with some confidence right now and some of the other guys as well. Also, having two mobile quarterbacks."
McSorley threw two TDs in relief of an injured Hackenberg in the TaxSlayer Bowl loss to Georgia, and in mostly running with the first-team offense against the second-team defense in Saturday's scrimmage, he completed 23 of 27 passes for 281 yards and four touchdowns with one interception. All spring scrimmage statistics should be taken with a grain of salt, and that's especially true when the starters are matched up against backups, a situation that manufactures a one-sided game in which the starters on both offense and defense can look good and generate positivity.
Still, McSorley proved to be accurate and poised, in command of the new-look offense that moved at a fast pace whenever possible.
"It's unconventional," left tackle Andrew Nelson said. "It's just different. The tempo, spreading guys out, all that, it's unconventional, but it really works."
McSorley has plenty of reasons to be excited. While there may be depth issues elsewhere and trepidation about the offensive line that won't go away until proven otherwise, Penn State's new quarterback will be surrounded by the most proven backs and receivers in the Big Ten.
"How we're able to get guys out in space," McSorley said when asked what he liked best about Moorhead's system. "Let our athletes be athletes."
Barkley shined as a true freshman, an impact player with explosiveness, vision and lateral quickness. He ran for 1,076 yards despite missing time with ankle issues and playing behind one of the most maligned lines in the nation. Backups Andre Robinson and Mark Allen both had their moments in the spring game, and they'll soon be joined this summer by true freshman Miles Sanders, the No. 1 running back recruit in the class of 2016. The receiving corps is also seasoned, led by 2015 All-Big Ten pick Chris Godwin and 2014 All-Big Ten pick DaeSean Hamilton.
While Ohio State and Michigan State replace a ton of talent entering 2016, those two and Michigan form a clear top tier in the Big Ten East, with Rutgers, Indiana and Maryland at the bottom. Penn State has a middle tier to itself, a big-name program with historical success that is looking to catch up and break back into that top level. The Big Ten may have taken plenty of criticism in recent seasons, but with Urban Meyer, Jim Harbaugh and Mark Dantonio, the top of the East presents one of the most difficult challenges in the current college football landscape.
For Penn State, a top-three finish isn't out of the question, but actually contending for the conference title is highly unlikely at this point. Even if there is a ceiling this fall, Penn State faces one of its most important seasons in a long time anyway.
The sanctions excuses are gone, and while any team with a new defensive line and new quarterback faces a learning curve, tangible progress is essential to restore confidence in the direction Franklin's tenure is heading in -- confidence from the fans and administration, but also confidence from top-tier recruits. Franklin is known as one of the sport's most energetic recruiters, but if results on the field don't begin trending upward, it will be more difficult to sell the program on the recruiting trail.
Boosting confidence started with bringing Moorhead in and making the transition to a new look in the spring. That process will extend into the rest of the offseason and preseason, which marks a crucial time for Franklin and a new-look staff that also has a new offensive line coach and lost defensive coordinator Bob Shoop to Tennessee.
"Ninety-five percent of the offense is in," Franklin said of the installation during the spring. "There's things we are going to go back and study the tape and make cut-ups and say, 'What is going to be our bread and butter? What is going to be our identity? Who are we going to be moving forward? What areas do we need to improve on?' That's going to be very important for us."
For as long as most college fans can remember, Penn State was among the most stable programs in college football. Now, the direction the 2016 season takes, as Penn State attempts to establish a workable identity, will set the tone for the Franklin era and whether the Nittany Lions can finally find a modicum of stability, or whether the disenchantment will lead to even more upheaval in the next few years.
The 2016 season is not in any way a championship-or-bust type of campaign, but the results, how those results are achieved and the perception of the team's trajectory will set the tone in the continued search for a sustainable post-sanctions Penn State football model for success.