Penn State players will report in for training camp today and open with their first practice on Monday. And with that, the NCAA’s penalty-free transfer window for the Nittany Lions will close.
The team doesn’t view this as a milestone. Perhaps that’s a sign of progress in and of itself.
Those who were going to leave have already done so. For nearly all of the players who chose to stick it out through the 2012 season, returning for 2013 was a formality. So the end of the first part of the NCAA sanctions has become a bit of a footnote as Penn State State begins the new season.
For coach Bill O’Brien, his staff and his players, it’s time to get back to football.
“Hopefully we hit the ground running,” O’Brien said at Big Ten media days in July. “And we’re not running around like a bunch of chickens with our heads cut off. We know where to go and what the drill is.
Of course, there are still plenty of things to work out before the Lions face Syracuse in the Aug. 31 opener. The Lions open camp with 65 healthy scholarship players. A 66th, defensive end Brad Bars, will miss the season with a ruptured Achilles tendon.
Two more players — linemen Luke Graham and Anthony Stanko — have left the team in the past year but remained enrolled at Penn State and still count against the team’s scholarship total, which sits at 68. The NCAA limit is 85. Penn State will be limited to 65 for four seasons beginning in 2014, due to NCAA sanctions.
Beyond that, here are some of most pressing issues facing the Lions during camp.
The main event at quarterback
Tyler Ferguson and Christian Hackenberg will only have the next two weeks to make their case to O’Brien. The coach has said repeatedly he wants to decide on a starter midway through camp in order to give the victor some extra time to work exclusively with the first-team offense.
Though Ferguson has the benefit of getting direct tutleage from O’Brien during the team’s 15 spring practices, he also has not been on campus for the past month, returning home to California while his mother is undergoing treatment for skin cancer.
That has allowed Hackenberg to get all of the reps during informal sessions with the receivers since the end of June.
“I don’t want to get too personal,” O’Brien said of Ferguson’s situation this week in a radio interview. “His mom’s sick. His mom’s going through a tough time. He’s got family back home. He asked me to go home for the last couple weeks here and be back (in August), and I said sure.”
Ferguson was expected to return to State College yesterday in time to attend today’s meetings.
One concern is that Ferguson’s absence could affect chemistry with his receivers, though O’Brien disagreed with that.
“I mean, they haven’t played in a game yet,” O’Brien said. “You know what I mean? Where you really earn the respect of your team, where you ultimately earn it is after you’ve won the job in spring practice or in training camp, and then you go out in a game and you win a game as the starting quarterback. You make plays to help your team win a game. Ultimately, that’s where you win the respect of your team.”
With that in mind, O’Brien considers both to be on the same level as camp opens.
“I’m going to basically split the reps,” O’Brien said. “And I think that’s what’s best for the team. And I’m going to see, hopefully pretty quickly, who stands out. Maybe neither one of them does, and I have to make a choice.
“But I would say from a knowledge standpoint, you would think that having already run the plays for 15 practices, that Ferguson would be slightly ahead. But only slightly.”
Whether it ends up being Ferguson or Hackenberg under center against Syracuse, the bar has been set very high from last season.
“Look, Matt McGloin had played a lot of football before we came here,” O’Brien said of his former starting quarterback. “And Matt McGloin went out there and had a fantastic season. Matt McGloin’s got a chance to make the Oakland Raiders. You talk about a guy who really is a potential pro quarterback.
“So to expect a young quarterback to go in there and play like Matt McGloin, that’s not fair to that young quarterback.”
After a few weeks of growing pains for the entire offense playing in a completely new scheme, McGloin went on to break multiple school passing records and was the Big Ten’s best pocket passer in 2012.
O’Brien and his staff recognize, however, that the same things that worked well for McGloin in the offense might not be the best for a rookie.
“What we’ve done this offseason is we’ve tried to tweak our scheme to match what is obviously going to be a young quarterback,” O’Brien said. “What can we do to maybe, not simplify, but maybe do some things that plays into the young quarterback’s hands a bit better. And hopefully that works.
“But our expectations don’t change as far as scoring points.”
Adapting the rest of the offense
O’Brien will have to quickly judge what his new quarterback will be able to handle, especially in September.
That could mean more work early on for Zach Zwinak and the running game. Zwinak, though, will be a bit limited at the start of camp as he finishes his recovery from a significant wrist injury suffered in the Blue-White Game.
Zwinak is expected to be 100 percent before the start of the season.
The receiving corps will add local standout Eugene Lewis to complement starters Allen Robinson and Brandon Moseby-Felder.
Lewis, tailback Akeel Lynch and tight end Brent Wilkerson were all highly regarded prospects who redshirted in 2012 and figure to help the offense right away in 2013.
“I think (redshirting) helped them a lot, and I think it helped our program,” O’Brien said. “Now you have those guys — who we think are going to be dynamic players — you have them for four more years. I think it was a good decision by us, and I think it helped them develop their games.”
Don’t be surprised to see the Lions regularly use five tight ends in a game, either. Kyle Carter, Jesse James and Matt Lehman were all very effective in 2012 and now Wilkerson and blue chip true freshman Adam Breneman join the cast.
Despite coming off of an ACL injury last summer, Breneman is full-go for camp and O’Brien said he sees him as a freshman who can step in and contribute immediately.
Up front, the offensive line took a big step forward under new position coach Mac McWhorter and new strength coach Craig Fitzgerald.
So while the Lions will replace starters like Matt Stankiewitch and Mike Farrell, they have fifth-year seniors like Ty Howle and Adam Gress to step into their roles. Fellow veterans Garry Gilliam and Eric Shrive will push for time as well.
Overhauling the secondary
When the Lions start their first practice Monday, it’s possible that only one starter from last season will be lining up in the same spot.
Penn State is planning to move forward with sophomores Trevor Williams and Jordan Lucas at cornerback, moving Adrian Amos back to safety to play with Malcolm Willis.
Amos saw time at safety when camp opened last summer as well. But ultimately he played most of the year at corner because of the team’s lack of depth at the position.
O’Brien and new defensive coordinator John Butler believe the defense is best served with Amos at safety full-time.
“No question,” O’Brien said. “There’s better depth in the secondary. We lost (2012 starting corner) Stephon Morris, but there’s better depth now than there was last year.”
The emergence of Williams and Lucas has helped that along.
Though Williams played receiver last year and Lucas was almost exclusively on special teams until last November, O’Brien said they were two of the most improved players at any position during spring practice.
“They’ve made a lot of progress,” O’Brien said. “I think they’re two really good young players. They’ve got good size. They’re athletic. Good ball skills. They’ve both played offense in the past. They’re tough, competitive and they got better everyday.”
Some flexibility exists in the secondary as well. The Lions will still play senior Stephen Obeng-Agyapong as he Willis and Amos all figure to be on the field at the same time at certain points, perhaps in the team’s nickel package.
O’Brien also revealed last month that Amos and Obeng-Agyapong could get some work with the linebackers in certain situations.
Creating a new identity
As inspirational as Penn State’s senior leaders were last season, the Lions realize that it’s time to move on.
A year later, players and coaches remain in awe of a group led by Michael Mauti and Michael Zordich that helped hold the team together when the sanctions hit.
But those same players and coaches acknowledge it would be a trap to try and replicate what the 2012 group did on and off the field.
The new seniors — players like Willis, John Urschel, Glenn Carson, Ty Howle and DaQuan Jones — will have to find their own voices.
“Those guys will. They’re their own guys,” O’Brien said. “Mauti had his own style. And Glenn has his own style and John and Malcolm, they have their own styles. That’s what’s neat about football. Every year the locker room changes a little bit.
“One thing I do believe in — and I don’t know how many games we’re going to win — but I do believe in our locker room. I think we have a good locker room with a bunch of good kids in there with some good leaders.”
The 2013 seniors have already sensed the torch has been passed, particular as younger players began to look up to them during offseason workouts and during spring ball.
“Absolutely I’m noticing it,” Urschel said. “It just comes with getting a little older. A little more experienced. Getting more comfortable in your role as a player, as a contributing member of the footbal team and as a leader.
“It’s a role I’ve embraced and I’ll do all I can to help the team, whatever that may be.”