With the 2013 college football season less than a week away, Sean Meyers and new Tap-ins contributor Anthony Franco preview Penn State. Can the Nittany Lions repeat their success from last season, or will their lack of depth prove costly?
SM: Last season, Penn State’s football team endured unprecedented sanctions from the NCAA and a firestorm of off-the-field distractions. Despite the loss of over a dozen players, the Nittany Lions exceeded all expectations and finished the season 8-4. First-year Head Coach Bill O’Brien received much of the credit for the success, and rightfully so. What enabled O’Brien to be so successful at the helm for the Nittany Lions and what do you expect in his second season?
AF: O’Brien was successful for two reasons. The first was the way he conducted business. From the players, to the media, to the firestorm of the sanctions, he never wavered in his approach. He addressed everything, but said that was the past and we will move on. The other reason he was successful was the way he utilized the skill players that he had. He made a star out of Allen Robinson, turned Matt McGloin into a very good college QB, and his use of multiple tight ends gave us numerous threats that had to be honored.
In his second season, I expect his system to be fully implemented now. I think there will almost always be multiple tight ends on the field, they will continue to push the field with Robinson, and if the running backs can stay healthy, Penn State will have a very scary offense. This will all be dictated by the quarterback play, especially coming off the amazing season McGloin had in 2012.
SM: I believe the way O’Brien instilled confidence in his quarterback was critical to the success of the offense last year. McGloin lacked many physical attributes, but O’Brien’s tutelage enabled the signalcaller to have a complete grasp of the new passing-oriented system. Much like Jim Harbaugh, O’Brien appears to be a coach who can maximize the skills of his quarterbacks, including newcomers Christian Hackenberg and Tyler Ferguson.
Another heralded facet of O’Brien’s offense is the utilization of tight ends, as Anthony mentioned. A year ago, Kyle Carter and Jesse James, redshirt freshman and true freshman players, respectively, comprised perhaps the most impressive tight end tandem in all of college football.
In 2013, the tight end corps should be the team’s greatest strength. Carter and James will likely be key pieces of the offense, and Matt Lehman has proven capable as a pass-catcher, as well. Furthermore, incoming freshman Adam Breneman, considered by many to be the top tight end recruit in the nation, is expected to contribute this season. Although Breneman missed his entire high school senior season with a knee injury, he seems to be fully recovered, and he possesses the size and hands to be a dangerous weapon in the passing game. Also, redshirt freshman Brent Wilkerson could see playing time once he recovers from a back injury. With this collection of talent, I have little doubt that the Nittany Lions will boast an elite set of tight ends for years to come.
AF: There is no doubt that Penn State’s tight ends will be one of the top groups in the country. Breneman further solidifies an already strong group, and once he learns the system, could easily be a John Mackey Award contender down the road. As good as the tight ends will be this year, they won’t do much without good quarterback play. What will enable the quarterback to play well will be the offensive line, which I feel is the strongest part of this year’s team.
The return of three starters from last year’s offensive line, plus the conversion of Gary Gilliam to o-line, will make this a cohesive unit that should have a real good grasp on the offense in year two of Bill O’Brien. All of the starters or potential starters are upper classmen, or in John Urschel’s case a graduate student, and that should be a nice calming presence for whichever youngster lines up under center to take snaps. The key to the 2013 team, with a young, inexperienced quarterback, will undoubtedly be the offensive line.
SM: I like many of the pieces on the offensive line, as well, especially Donovan Smith. As a redshirt freshman last season, Smith displayed flashes of a future NFL lineman. In addition to Smith, Urschel and Miles Dieffenbach are talented starters, and Ty Howle should be a capable center.
Ironically, we both highlighted offensive pieces as the strength of the Nittany Lions. For decades, Penn State has been renowned for its defense, especially the linebackers. Penn State has been dubbed “Linebacker U” for a reason, and the evidence of that moniker lies in the success of players like Lavar Arrington, Paul Posluzny, Dan Connor, Sean Lee and Navorro Bowman.
Despite the history, however, the linebacker corps may be the weakest part of the team this season. Mike Hull has all the makings of a breakout star, and he could be one of the elite linebackers in the nation this season. Glenn Carson is a solid contributor at the position, as well, although he won’t bring much in terms of big-play abilities. Nyeem Wartman, who was injured in the second game of the season as a true freshman last year, will likely assume the other starting spot. While the coaching staff has raved about Wartman’s talent, he certainly lacks experience.
Furthermore, the linebacker position has less depth than anytime in recent memory. Ben Kline will serve as the top backup, although he too is coming off of an injury. Zayd Issah, one of the top recruits for the 2013 class, will not attend Penn State due to a counterfeiting arrest. The starting trio must maintain their health throughout the entire season or the Nittany Lions may have a huge void in their defense.
AF: I never thought I would see the day that Penn State’s linebackers were a cause for concern, but that exactly what they are this year. The starters should be solid, but there aren’t any Sean Lees, Navarro Bowmans or Paul Poslusznys on the team. The backup linebackers are probably the weakest the team has seen in decades. They are so thin at linebacker that defensive coordinator John Butler plans to use Adrian Amos and Stephen Obeng-Agyapong at linebacker some this year. Obeng-Agyapong is a hard hitter and Amos is one of the best DBs in the country, but they are certainly not linebackers.
The one thing that should help the linebacker corp is the rest of the defense. The secondary should be improved from last year, and moving Amos to safety should allow him the opportunity to make more big plays. Also, the defensive line could very dynamic and should provide a good bit of pressure up front. Deion Barnes could have Aaron Maybin rush ability, and with DaQuan Jones’ huge body clogging up the middle, the D-Line should make the linebacker’s jobs a little easier.
SM: Although the Nittany Lions return an impressive array of talent from a year ago, the players lost to graduation will be sorely missed. Offensively, Matt McGloin and Michael Zordich provided leadership, while Michael Mauti, Gerald Hodges and Jordan Hill represented the heart and soul of the defensive unit. Their unwavering commitment to Penn State through daunting times translated over to the field, where the Nittany Lions played with great passion all season. Mauti and Zordich, in particular, held the team together when the sanctions could have led to the floodgates opening for players to transfer. Filling that void may be the toughest task for the members of this year’s team.
AF: The way Mauti and Zordich held the team together after the sanctions was truly remarkable, and won’t soon be forgotten. They were two of many leaders on last year’s team that will be sorely missed.
I look for Mike Hull and Glenn Carson to provide some leadership for the defense, as well as Adrian Amos. All three have had a decent amount of playing time in the past, and Amos certainly has all the makings of a star. With all the underclassmen who are sure to see playing time, hopefully those upperclassmen can provide the leadership the defense will surely be missing.
Offensively I look for John Urschel and Eric Shrive to be the glue that can hold the offense together. They will surely need to aide the young quarterback, and with all their experience should be able to calm some nerves and protect the quarterback. Nothing says leadership like doing your job well, and providing an example to follow, and I think these five will certainly accomplish that.
SM: Looking ahead to the schedule this season, Penn State has a number of very difficult contests mixed in with several games in which the Nittany Lions will be heavily favored. The Lions should be able to secure wins against Eastern Michigan, UCF, Kent State, Indiana, Illinois, Minnesota and Purdue. Conversely, Michigan and Ohio State will likely be expected to defeat Penn State. As a result, the neutral site season opener against Syracuse, and contests at home against Nebraska and at Wisconsin to close out the season loom large.
If the Lions win two of those three games, they will finish at 9-3. I contend that the lack of depth will cost Penn State one game along the way, however, and the Lions will finish at 8-4.
AF: I agree to an extent with your win-loss assessment. The three home non-conference games against Eastern Michigan, UCF, and Kent State should certainly be three wins. Indiana has never beaten PSU, and I don’t see that starting in 2013. Illinois, Minnesota, and Purdue should also be pretty certain wins, as none of them got much better, and weren’t very strong teams last year.
The season opener against Syracuse is tough to gauge, as Syracuse was up and down in 2012, but did finish on a four-game winning streak. Technically this is a neutral site game, even though it is played in Syracuse’s home state. However, Penn State has a very strong presence in the New York City area, and I wouldn’t be surprised if this looked somewhat like a PSU home game. I look for Penn State to win the opener.
The four remaining Big 10 games are fairly brutal. All four teams are ranked, and traveling to Ohio State and Wisconsin will probably be losses. Penn State seemingly always plays Nebraska tight, and finds a way to lose to Michigan, so splitting those two games would result in a 9-3 record. I do agree that because of the scholarship restrictions the depth is very thin, and will probably result in a loss of a game they should have otherwise won. I look for Penn State to finish 8-4, possibly 9-3 if the backups prove capable.
** Editors Note ** With less than a week before the season opener, O’Brien has yet to name his starting quarterback. He indicated that he plans to use both Tyler Ferguson and Christian Hackenberg this year. Stay tuned to The Dish for updates on all Penn State news, including analysis of the quarterback decision.