Football season is upon us. Time to take a look at this year’s Penn State squad.
This time last year, of course, we had no idea what to expect given the severe NCAA sanctions and loss of some key players. Now, one year later, challenges remain (and no, it’s not the Bowl ban or the vacated wins). NCAA allows each school to have 85 scholarship players – PSU is restricted to 65. These limitations can present issues when it comes to depth, especially when injuries occur. Consequently, O’Brien has opened the door to increasing the walk-on program at PSU (or ‘run-on’ according to O’B). There are currently 40 walk-ons, 65 scholarship players.
Here I provide a brief overview of each position on the team (rated as either Weak, Average, Good, or Excellent).
Offensive line – Good
One to Watch: Gary Gilliam
Key Loss: Matt Stankiewitch
Notable Freshmen: Andrew Nelson, Brendan Mahon
Last year we saw an average offensive line get pushed around at times by the likes of big beefy Big Ten players. I don’t expect that will happen this year, at least not as much, as several key players return stronger and better than ever. Only major loss being at center with Matt Stankiewitch (New England Patriots), although Ty Howle (6’0″ 292, Sr) already filling in well. John Urschel (6’3″ 307, math genius), Adam Gress (6’6″ 317, Sr), and Eric Shrive (6’6″ 317, Sr) all bring experience along with Miles Dieffenbach (6’3″ 297, Jr) and Donovan Smith (6’5″ 327, So). Smith has the highest ceiling of this crew, but the most intriguing player? Former TE senior Garry Gilliam (added 40 lbs this off-season). O’Brien has made it clear that Gilliam will get playing time. Now at 6’6” 305 lbs, he certainly has the size…but for someone who has never played the position? Should be interesting.
Tight Ends – Excellent
One to Watch: Jesse James
Key Loss: None
Notable Freshmen: Adam Breneman
Currently the best position on the team. Kyle Carter (6’3″ 244, So) , Jesse James (6’7″ 249, So), and Matt Lehman (6’6″260, Sr) are all back. Add new freshman phenom Adam Breneman (6’4″ 235) as well as Brent Wilkerson (6’3″ 245, RS Fr) – you’ve got perhaps the best TE core in the conference. Enough said.
Quarterback – Average
One to Watch: Tyler Ferguson
Key Loss: Matt McGloin
Notable Freshmen: Christian Hackenberg
Here we go again. No true starter announced. Last year, former walk-on Matt McGloin (Oakland Raiders) took the reigns and far exceeded anyone’s expectations. This time, we have two players who have never taken a snap as a PSU player though. We have Tyler Ferguson (6’3″ 213, So), JUCO transfer from California, and Christian Hackenberg (6’3″ 218, Fr), one of the most highly rated freshman QBs in the country. And yes, he is every bit of a 5-star blue chip player…which is refreshing considering past ‘high-rated’ QBs at PSU haven’t fared so well – Kevin Newsome (transferred to Temple, no longer on team); Paul Jones (transferred to Robert Morris); Rob Bolden (transferred to LSU, currently 3rd string QB).
Ferguson appears to have the best shot of taking the starting role. He’s had a bit more time to study the playbook and learn the system since enrolling in January. But unlike Hackenberg, Ferguson has had a very quiet recruiting process. Everyone has heard about Hackenberg, the elite QB that stuck with PSU when he had any college to choose from, but what about Ferguson?
A hard-working kid with something to prove: that he belongs. During his senior season, a broken collar bone diminished his chances of receiving any major scholarship offers to play football. He considered playing Division III basketball, but instead decided to attend the College of the Sequioas to pursue his goal of becoming a major college QB. During the 2012 season, Ferguson (#3 rated JUCO QB) passed for an impressive 2,614 yards with a 55% completion rate. However, his only major offers were from Houston, Akron, and Florida Atlantic. PSU instead had their sights on Jake Waters (#1 rated JUCO QB) and it wasn’t until Waters committed to Kansas State did coach O’Brien offer Ferguson. He was the ‘fall back’ choice. And when offered by PSU, he committed without even stepping foot on campus. No hesitation.
Since then, Ferguson has quietly made a name for himself. First, competing with returning sophomore Steven Bench (who has since transferred) and now true freshman Hackenberg. He has yet to falter and continues to play with the ‘chip on his shoulder’…which is actually quite fitting with the current PSU mentality.
Running Backs. Good
One to Watch: Akeel Lynch
Key Loss: Mike Zordich
Notable Freshmen: Walk-ons
A solid group with a range of style and talent. Leading the pack will be returning starter Zach Zwinak as well as Bill Belton (5’10” 205, Jr). Zwinak is clearly the ‘power’ back that runs straight through you, whereas Belton is the quick lateral RB. Add to the mix Akeel Lynch (6’0″ 214, RS Fr) as well as walk-on Deron Thompson (5’10” 198, So). Last year we saw Zwinak take the starting role from Belton. This year, I wouldn’t be surprised if Lynch moves up the depth chart – very talented player. There are also some talented freshman walk-ons, including Von Walker, but doubt they’ll see much if any time this season given the depth at this position.
Fullback position isn’t used much in the offense, but Mike Zordich and his leadership alone will be missed. Pat Zerbe (6’1″ 231, Sr) appears to be ready to fill the spot when needed, likely sees more time on special teams though.
Wide Receivers. Good
One to Watch: Eugene Lewis
Key Loss: None
Notable Freshmen: Richy Anderson, DaeSean Hamilton (IR)
No major loses here from the previous season. Allen Robinson (6’3″ 211, Jr) the highlight and perhaps top receiver in the Big Ten. However, expect tighter coverage though from opposing defenses given his success in the previous season. Other players will need to step up. Brandon Moseby-Felder (6’2″ 199, Sr), Matt Zanellato (6’3″ 202, So), and Alex Kenney (6’0″ 194, Jr)…clear winner of college transformation award… all return with game time experience. One to watch though will be Eugene ‘Geno’ Lewis (6’1″ 201, RS Fr). Last year, Geno played QB on the practice squad (i.e. “dirty show”) to help prepare the 1st team defense for mobile QBs (e.g. Braxton Miller, Taylor Martinez). He is currently listed behind Robinson on the depth chart, but I fully expect him to get some major playing time this Fall given his raw talent and catching ability.
Defensive Tackle – Average
One to Watch: DaQuan Jones
Key Loss: Jordan Hill
Notable Freshmen: Parker Cothren
Key loss in star DT Jordan Hill (Seattle Seahawks). Again, lots of talent and potential in another young group. Lone senior DaQuan Jones (6’3″ 318, Sr) will start, with high expectations (http://www.nfl.com/photos/0ap1000000221610). Big shoes to fill with Jordan Hill’s departure, be he is certainly capable of doing so. The remaining DT position is still up for grabs. Kyle Baublitz (6’5″ 286, Jr) will be competing mainly with Austin Johnson (6’4″ 297, RS Fr), but also Derek Dowrey (6’3″ 208, RS Fr), Brian Gaia (6’3″ 279, RS Fr) and Tyrone Smith (6’4″ 265, Jr). Clearly a young inexperienced group, with the exception of Jones. Normally, this lack of experience would be alarming, but I expect with Coach Johnson’s system that he’ll have his guys ready to go.
Defensive End – Good
One to Watch: Anthony Zettel
Key Loss: Sean Stanley/Pete Massaro
Notable Freshmen: Garret Sickels, Curtis Cothran
Lost Pete Massaro and Sean Stanley to graduation, but still an impressive group of young players, including starter Deion Barnes (6’4″ 249, So). C.J. Claniyan (6’3″ 251, So) and Anthony Zettel (6’5″ 257, So) are competing for the other starting spot. Barnes is clearly the best of the bunch, but Zettel is a player to watch. This kid brings the intensity, which we caught a glimpse of during the Navy game last year. Brad Bars (6’3″ 248, Jr) will be out this season (Achilles tendon injury), opening the door for Evan Schwan (6’6″ 242, RS Fr). Ideally, true freshmen Garret Sickles and Curtis Cothran will RS this season.
Linebacker – Average
One to Watch: Mike Hull
Key Loss: Mike Mauti/Gerald Hodges
Notable Freshmen: Brandon Bell
Just average? Linebacker U? Well, unfortunately the lack of depth is a concern. The loss of Mauti and Hodges (both Minnesota Vikings) are clearly huge holes to fill. Fortunately, returning stars Mike Hull and Glenn Carson are experienced players with NFL potential and RS freshman Nyeem Wartman seems to be not too far behind. Ben Kline is the next in line, but he’s still recovering from shoulder surgery. After that, freshman Gary Wooten and Brandon Bell are the only scholarship players. PSU accepted a large number of LB walk-ons in hopes of filling this void. Nonetheless, if any of the starters go down with an injury, it could get interesting. There has already been talk of playing a 4-2-5 style defense given the depth at the secondary position. I suppose time will tell.
Secondary – Good
One to Watch: Adrian Amos
Key Loss: Stephon Morris
Notable Freshmen: Anthony Smith, Jordan Smith, Neiko Robinson
The most improved position on the team. Depth (and youth) not as big of an issue, as was the case last year. Adrian Amos (So) is the clear star of the group, able to play virtually anywhere on the field (including LB if need be it), but most likely at safety. Other players expected to see time at safety include Stephen Obeng-Agyapong (Jr), Malcolm Willis (Sr), Ryan Keiser (Jr), Jesse Della Valle (So), and converted WR Malik Golden (RS Fr). Jordan Lucas (So), Da’Quan Davis (So), and Trevor Williams (So) all return at the cornerback position with a year of experience under their belt. Depth (and youth) was a concern last year — no longer the case. Expect to see a much improved secondary this season.
Special Teams – Average
One to Watch: Sam Ficken
Key Loss: None
Notable Freshmen: Chris Gulla (walk-on)
No major changes in the kicking game. Ficken (Jr) still kickin’ and walk-on senior Butterworth (Sr) still punting. Freshman walk-on Chris Gulla could make it interesting though. He’s already been matching Ficken kick for kick in practice, but don’t expect any changes. Still good to have someone ‘pushing’ Ficken (and next in line) at least. Ficken obviously struggled early-on last season, but appeared to get things together towards the end of the season. Hopefully he can build upon this and improve for the upcoming season. He has the leg, more a matter of mentality.
I expect the return game to improve from last year (which isn’t saying much). Several players currently on the list to potentially return kicks this Fall, including Bill Belton, Alex Kenney, Akeel Lynch, Richy Anderson, Trevor Williams, Geno Lewis. Heck, last year Gerald Hodges returned a couple punts…so it’s hard to say what the staff will decide here.
Starters are solid. 1st team offense and 1st team defense will be able to compete with the best in the conference. The QB position is certainly one to watch. The first few games, regardless of the QB, could be tighter than folks expect. It’ll take a couple games for the new QB to get settled.
Many offensive weapons will be available. Defense will be solid, but depth issues arise pretty quick (note many starters also play special teams). Avoid injuries at all costs. O’B knows it ….has already adjusted. And yes, expect to see him go for it on 4th down more so than the average coach.
Overall, should be a fun team to watch. Good mix of young players. Also, keep an eye out for those walk-ons…..never know who will be the next star to arise.