Spring practice means it’s time to fire The Ol’ Blog back up as Penn State takes a collective breather from one of the most bizarre seasons in college football history.
There’s the usual quarterback debate. And it will be nearly impossible to replace the type of senior leadership the team had last season. Bill O’Brien isn’t fretting about that just yet, though.
“I wouldn’t say it’s a concern,” O’Brien said of his team leadership on Monday as spring ball opened. “I think it’s more that every year’s different. And so there’s definitely a group of guys from last year’s team that played a lot of football for us — John Urschel, Glenn Carson, Adrian Amos, that certainly have leadership ability, and were part of that leadership team last year.
“So now it’s time for some of those younger guys to have a good spring practice and work hard and help us in that role, too. So we’ll see how that develops. But this year is a different year, and I think we’ve got some good guys coming back that played a lot for us last year that will be good for us.”
It most certainly is a different year. Here’s a very preliminary look at the roster based on what O’Brien said on Monday before the first 20 minutes or so of practice were open to reporters.
• We didn’t get to see too much of the guys throwing on Monday — mostly it was just drills with Charlie Fisher. Early on in the session, however, Bill O’Brien stopped much of the proceedings while the offense went at the defense for a best-of-five competition. No seven-on-seven work, just receivers and tight ends against defensive backs.
Defense won, as you might expect, 3-1. The lone completion was from Ferguson to Jesse James, who looks every bit the 6-foot-7 he’s listed at, even without pads.
It was my first look at Ferguson. Obviously you can’t take too much from this sort of context, but he threw a nice spiral. He’ll benefit from the early enrollment not just from getting extra work running the offense but from the time in the weight room with Craig Fitzgerald.
O’Brien praised Steven Bench and Ferguson for their attentiveness and desire to improve. He’ll be a bit more blunt in the film room if that doesn’t translate to progress this spring.
• O’Brien never officially anointed Zwinak the starter during his impressive run in the second half of the season, though it worked out that way. On Monday, O’Brien indeed gave Zwinak that label to start the spring but cautioned that it’s not exactly the same thing as being named the starting quarterback.
“As long as I’m the head coach football here, that running back position will always be a competitive position,” O’Brien said. “That’s day-to-day — who practices the best is the starter the next day, really. That’s how it evolves, because that’s a tough position. That’s a competitive deal. There’s a lot of good players there.”
This was the philosophy last season. Zwinak, who barely played in September, still finished the year with exactly 1,000 yards on the ground. Belton, meanwhile, scored three touchdowns against Iowa in October but barely so much as touched the ball in November. O’Brien has said it’s up to him to best utilize Belton, so it will be interesting to see if that involves more work in the passing game.
Depth is not overwhelming with Curtis Dukes leaving and Richy Anderson opening his career at receiver. But Akeel Lynch made it tough for the coaches to redshirt him a year ago and he is purportedly the fastest of the three backs.
• Regardless of who ends up starting under center, he’ll have plenty to work with. O’Brien didn’t spend much time talking about his receiver group this week because there aren’t really any question marks outside of Carter and Breneman limited while recovering from injuries. Carter (wrist) will skip contact drills. Breneman (knee) is good to go for everything but the coaches will ease off his overall workload as he returns from ACL surgery.
Penn State has established talent at wideout like Robinson and Felder and high-value underclassmen like Williams and Lewis, who redshirted last season, drawing rave reviews from players like Michael Mauti for his work with the scout team.
• Some shuffling around is to be expected still. Plenty of guys — Shrive, Mangiro, Alosi to name just a few — could play at multiple positions along the line.
One thing that O’Brien was made abundantly clear by O’Brien was that Dieffenbach is most certainly still at guard. He had appeared as a center on Penn State’s first spring roster update, but that has since been corrected. That almost certainly leaves the Lions set with returning starters at left tackle (Smith), left guard (Dieffenbach) and right guard (Urschel).
Howle opens as the favorite to replace Matt Stankiewitch at center with Mangiro battling a hamstring injury. Gress split time a bit with Mike Farrell at right tackle last season. Gress had emerged as the favorite to start last year out of the spring, but a rejuvenated Farrell ended up winning the job in the preseason instead.
• There should be some interesting competition to start alongside Barnes and Jones. Zettel and Baublitz got the most reps last season, but that doesn’t guarantee anything for 2013. Whoever wins Sean Stanley’s job at end is going to have a great opportunity as defenses will be paying more attention to Barnes, the reigning Big Ten freshman of the year.
O’Brien has spoken very, very highly of Austin Johnson in the middle. Even if he doesn’t beat out the more experienced Baublitz to start outright, it sounds like he’s in position to be a prominent part of Larry Johnson’s rotation. Cadogan, who spent last season as a second-string tackle on offense, will work at both offense and defense in the spring as the staff experiments.
• Carson will be looked to fill the sizable void left by the departed Mauti and Gerald Hodges. As a three-year starter now at middle linebacker, he needs to settle into a role as a leader as well as an anchor for the defense.
The versatile Hull should help matters. Though undersized, Hull is one of the strongest pound-for-pound players on the team as well as being quick enough to play all three downs.
It’s a very big spring for Wartman. The Valley View linebacker, coming off of an unplanned redshirt season, will get to work with the first team defense. His main competition for a starting job, Kline, will sit out the spring while recovering from shoulder surgery.
As you can see from that bried scholarship list above, the Lions are suddenly very shallow at linebacker. Had it not been for the sanctions, Penn State might still have Khairi Fortt in the fold for 2013, and that list would look better. As it is, Ron Vanderlinden will have to give a longer look to incoming freshmen Brandon Bell and Zayd Issah and see if they can help out this year.
“We think we have a lot of really good players but based on numbers, there are some depth issues,” O’Brien said. “So a guy like Brandon Bell or Zayd Issah, we’ll be looking for those guys to come in here in the summertime and see what they can do; can they help us on defense; most importantly can they help us on special teams. That will be big.”
Jesse Della Valle
• One of the team’s biggest (on-field) question marks a year ago, the secondary was serviceable. Not great. Not awful. Probably better than what was expected. Certainly the lack of many (any?) big-time arms in the Big Ten made life a bit easier for the unit, but the Lions played who they played, and they held up.
Three of four starters are back with Davis as perhaps the frontrunner to replace Stephon Morris at corner. There will be an opportunity for the safeties to get some extra looks this spring as Obeng will be non-contact as he rehabs his shoulder. Keiser earned himself a scholarship for this coming season, giving the team a bit of experienced depth along with another former walk-on in Della Valle at corner.
Beyond them, the Lions have a large mish-mash of first- and second-year players who have their chances to see the field. Davis and Lucas were able to do just that last season, though Lucas’ time was mostly on special teams. Golden will get a look at both receiver and defensive back, according to O’Brien.