We continue our look into what took place at all 12 spring football camps across the Big Ten landscape and up next are the Nittany Lions of Penn State.
No doubt this is a team that will be rebuilding after going 8-4 in their first year of their well-documented probation and postseason ban. Lots of questions existed at positions like quarterback, running back, and linebacker – only positions that PSU has historically been known for and all.
So, what happened in Bill O'Brien's second spring in Happy Valley?
To find out we spoke with Kevin McGuire of The Nittany Lions Den. He was in attendance this past weekend at their spring game and was hooked into the program all spring long. Here is what he had to say following the close of spring ball and the beginning of a new era under Bill O'Brien.
TBT (TheB1GTime): 2012 was a year full of changes and controversy, yet on the field this team exceeded a lot of media predictions. Moving forward to 2013 how have things settled down around this program, or have they?
NLD (Nittany Lions Den): I think “settling down” is a good way to look at it. The emotional roller coaster surrounding this program since November 2011 has been a wild one, but just when it appeared things were destined to run off the tracks Bill O’Brien calmed things down as best he could. Winning football games was, in a sense of irony perhaps, the best medicine that could be prescribed for the program.
Although they ay not have reached eight wins the way anybody would imagine, doing so by showing a relentless and can’t lose attitude, taking risks on the field and playing with immense pride helped make 2012 one of the more memorable ones in school history. It may sound silly to say, but 2012 may actually have been the easy year.
It appears that O’Brien has the program in good hands for the time being, and as they inch closer to the expiration of NCAA sanctions things may actually start to get easier for him, but this coming season should be a good test of character. The team needs to find new leaders on defense and establish a starting quarterback with none of the three likely options bringing much experience to the field. Penn State faces some depth concerns at key spots in 2013, but if they can show the same kind of grit they had last season, they should be able to put together another winning season.
TBT: O.k., now that we softened you up it's time to bring out the big gun…. What's up at QB? It's what's on everyone's mind after all.
NLD: And for good reason, but don’t expect any decisions to be made until late in to the summer, if not the day before Penn State opens the season in MetLife Stadium against Syracuse.
This spring the team gave sophomore Steven Bench and junior college transfer Tyler Ferguson roughly equal time with the first team offense and they each had very similar stats in the spring game, so neither really has taken a lead in the competition. To further complicate matters, blue chip quarterback Christian Hackenberg will arrive on campus this summer, and O’Brien has already suggested he will be given every opportunity to compete for the starting job along with Bench and Ferguson.
My gut instinct tells me when Penn State opens the season the offense will be led by Bench. Bench already has a year of the offense in him after soaking in as much as possible on the sideline last season with Matt McGloin playing nearly the entire season. Bench has taken a few snaps with the offense, when McGloin was briefly injured and cared to last year at Virginia, but I think in the end that could help his cause when it comes time to announce a decision. I also feel that there is a chance Bench may not be the starter at the end of the season, but we’ll have to wait and see how the season plays out first.
TBT: Penn State is losing a ton of experience in the defensive front seven, after spring who are players that stood out and who are names people may want to know come the end of August?
NLD: The loss of Jordan Hill, Michael Mauti and Gerald Hodges is pretty significant due to their skills and leadership. Fortunately Penn State seems to have some players ready to take over some key roles up front.
Glenn Carson will once again be a fixture in the middle of the defense. He has seen significant time, mostly starting, at middle linebacker each of the past couple of seasons and he should keep things steady. He may not have the elite skills of some others, but he is a solid tackler, as many Penn State linebackers before him. He will be flanked by hard-working Mike Hull and redshirt freshman Nyeem Wartman. Wartman should be very fun to watch, so remember his name.
Penn State’s defensive line should be interesting to watch develop under defensive line coach Larry Johnson. The star, of course, will be last year’s Big Ten Freshman of the Year, Deion Barnes. Barnes was a team leader in tackles for a loss last year and that should open up some eyes around the conference when game planning. If he starts to draw more attention that could open up some opportunities for guys like Brad Bars and DaQuan Jones. Those are the names I am watching on the defensive line for now.
TBT: Back to the offensive side of the ball, no matter the QB, they'll have a great target in Allen Robinson – but who else has emerged at the WR spot? You can't have just one good pass catcher after all!!
NLD: Great question, and one that may not have been addressed as much this spring as some other positions. Some of the names to watch as potential alternatives to Robinson include Brandon Moseby-Felder (second leading receiver in 2012, not including tight ends) and Eugene Lewis. Lewis is a redshirt freshman this season and was one of the better additions to Penn State’s Class of 2012. Also keep Alex Kenney in mind. Kenney got in to the mix sparingly last season but has some potential to contribute as well.
Keep in mind though that Bill O’Brien’s offense depends heavily on the tight ends, and they will once again have a huge role in the offense in 2013. The position is stacked with talent, so much so that Garry Gilliam actually moved to offensive line to get more playing time and to make room for other options at the two tight end positions. The position was young last season as well, so expect guys like Jesse James, Kyle Carter, and Matt Lehman to once again be significant parts of the offense. Penn State also has one of the top tight end recruits in the Class of 2013 already on campus with Adam Breneman, but I would not be shocked if he gets a redshirt year considering the depth at the position.
TBT: Another offensive question as the running back position was one that, while productive, didn't really live up to the lofty standards last year. One name that was on the radar for us was redshirt freshman Akeel Lynch. How did he look and how concerned should the folks be about this position again in 2013?
NLD: The running back position saw some twists and turns last season for sure. We went in to the year hyping up small but shifty Bill Belton but he got banged up early and never really bounced back. But we also saw the rise of Zach Zwinak, who went from third string to a 1,000-yard rusher as the weeks flew by. I fully expect Zwinak to be a starter this season and we wait to see if a bigger and stronger Belton can bounce back to provide the offense with some versatility in the fall.
But you are absolutely right to point out Akeel Lynch. He was one of the more interesting names in Penn State’s Class of 2012 and now that his redshirt year is behind him we are going to get a chance to see him play some meaningful snaps this season. Lynch had a very solid spring game, rushing for 83 yards and a touchdown, and he showed some good skill in doing so by pushing forward for some tough yards and making some cuts on the go. He got a chance to play a few more reps with the first team in the spring game with Belton (toe) out of action and Zwinak being taken out early on with a minor injury. O’Brien seems to really like Lynch but notes he could use a little work with running with his shoulders. The good news is Lynch has some time to work on some minor things.
He should absolutely be a big part of the offense when the fall comes around, and I would expect the running game will get a little more production early on as Penn State irons out any wrinkles in the passing game with an inexperienced quarterback leading the offense. Between Zwinak pounding the football, Lynch taking the lead out of the backfield and Belton mixing things up as a tailback capable of lining up with the receivers, the running back position should be one of the strengths of the team in 2013 if they stay healthy.
TBT: Finally, it seems that there's a bit more security around the program and Bill O'Brien's status, but is that security only temporary, or do you see him sticking around in Happy Valley long-term?
NLD: This appears to be the million-dollar question, quite literally!
It would appear that O’Brien did at least entertain the idea of leaving for the NFL this off-season after a successful head-coaching debut and having the NFL pedigree many say he has. Ultimately he ended up staying at Penn State, and that was a very positive story for the fans, players and more. O’Brien now has eight full seasons to go on his Penn State contract, which was automatically extended as a result of the NCAA sanctions. No coach in the country, in college or the NFL outside of Nick Saban, has the kind of job security O’Brien has.
But, the question is whether or not O’Brien will be at Penn State for the long term. As much as some fans do not want to consider it, I think you have to consider it as a realistic, and likely, possibility that O’Brien will be in the NFL before the terms of his contract expire. I say this based on some of the things he has said over the past year, including the suggestion that every coach wants to perform at the highest level and noting that the NFL is the top of the game in his profession. I get the sense O’Brien is a man who embraces challenges, and I believe he will one day be an NFL coach.
To me it is not a matter of if O’Brien will leave Penn State for the NFL, but a question of when.