It’s the finale of Bill O’Brien’s second spring at Penn State. But in many ways this has been the first true offseason of the new-look Nittany Lions.
No hectic transition. No shuttling between New England and Happy Valley. And outside of the departure of defensive coordinator Ted Roof, it has been a relatively stable few months for the Lions.
“Judging by how they’ve practiced this spring it’s gone pretty well,” O’Brien said. “These guys have not rested on their so-called laurels. The players who played well last year are practicing really hard and the guys that didn’t play that much last year, a lot of those guys are much improved.”
It all culminates today at the annual Blue-White Game. The scrimmage will kick off at noon and be broadcast live on the Big Ten Network, with former linebacker Michael Mauti serving as a guest analyst.
Once again, the contest will pit the offense vs. the defense with a scoring system based on big plays. The defense won 77-65 last year.
Whether on TV or in person, here are three things to watch for.
1. The linebackers
Make note of starters Glenn Carson, Mike Hull and Nyeem Wartman while you can. With the Lions perilously thin at the position at the moment, O’Brien may limit their snaps today.
“That’s something I think about 24/7,” said O’Brien, who has only a handful of healthy scholarship linebackers at his disposal this spring. “I think out three linebackers that are in starting spots right now, I believe that they’re very, very good players. They’re tough guys, they’re smart guys and they’re instinctive players.”
With Ben Kline sidelined for the spring, that just leaves Gary Wooten, a late addition to the 2012 recruiting class, as the team’s other scholarship linebacker.
“Gary Wooten has definitely improved over the spring,” O’Brien said. “Ben Kline has been out with a shoulder deal, but he’s been in non-contact type drills and he’ll be back in training camp. We got a freshman coming in, Brandon Bell, that we think can help us, but there’s not a lot of guys there.
“We certainly have to do a good job the rest of the spring and obviously over the summer and into training camp of making sure that Carson, Hull and Wartman are as healthy as they possibly can be going into the opener.”
Wartman, a Valley View grad, will be playing in front of a crowd for the first time since suffering a knee injury in Week 2 at Virginia and taking a redshirt.
2. The redshirt freshmen
Wyoming Valley Conference fans will be most interested to get their first look at wideout Eugene Lewis running routes in a Penn State uniform.
The local standout is just one of a handful of players who redshirted their first season and will be making their public debuts today.
Lewis’ name has been mentioned by several teammates this spring as a player to watch. Right up there with him would be tailback Akeel Lynch and defensive tackle Austin Johnson.
All three players were on Penn State’s travel roster in 2012 despite being redshirted.
Though Zach Zwinak will enter preseason camp as the starter in the backfield, the coaches have been very impressed by Lynch, who will see the field in O’Brien’s offense, which makes use of a rotation of runners.
“Akeel Lynch has improved every single day of spring practice,” O’Brien said. “We’ll play all three of those guys (Zwinak, Lynch and Bill Belton) this year.”
On the other side of the ball, the Lions have a big hole to fill with the loss of defensive tackle Jordan Hill. DaQuan Jones returns for a second season as a starter in the middle, and junior Kyle Baublitz would be the most experienced player to move into a starting role.
But regardless of who starts, Johnson figures to play a prominent role for the Lions this fall.
“We think has a chance to be a really, really good player, and hopefully sooner rather than later,” O’Brien said. “He’s had a really good offseason and comes from a great family. He’s just a really good kid and we are really glad that he’s on our football team. We think that he can have a bright future.”
3. The quarterbacks
Yes, once again.
Though the guys under center will be the most scrutinized today, they are also the hardest to judge in this context.
All eyes will be on sophomores Steven Bench and Tyler Ferguson, who are hoping to grab any sort of edge in the battle for the starting job. Historically, however, the spring game has not shed much light on these situations. Going by statistics, Paul Jones was Penn State’s top quarterback in each of the past two Blue-White Games, but Matt McGloin ended up being a slam-dunk choice to start last year.
O’Brien has not tipped his hand even slightly as to which quarterback has looked better in practice. But he did say there was still a chance for both to make an impression before the summer.
“These guys have had an equal amount of reps. I think they’ve both had their good moments and their bad moments,” O’Brien said. “I definitely think there’s enough time. Any time you have practices left there’s always enough time for one guy to separate himself.
“We’ll see what happens.”