Spring Football Primer: 10 Storylines to Follow
As the second season of the Bill O’Brien era progresses on with the beginning of spring football today, several storylines surround the Nittany Lions as they hit the fields this afternoon for the first of 15 practices.
While there is more stability and less of the unknown compared to a year ago, several concerns still exist for Penn State. Gone is the only experienced quarterback on the roster, Matt McGloin, along with dependable defensive players Jordan Hill and Gerald Hodges and emotional leaders in Michael Zordich and Michael Mauti.
There are several questions to answer, and we — along with StateCollege.com — hope to do that in our 33-part series counting down to the April 20th Blue-White Game. In the mean time, here are ten broad things to keep an eye on as spring ball gets underway:
- Quarterback Battle — Some things never change. For the fourth season in a row, the Nittany Lions head into the spring not knowing who their starting quarterback will be in the fall. Sophomore Steven Bench and junior college transfer Tyler Ferguson will receive most of the reps this spring as Christian Hackenberg sits in a high-school classroom until June. Unlike last year when O’Brien tabbed McGloin as his starter in early June, he said yesterday that he will wait until August training camp to make a decision, but Bench and Ferguson’s spring performance could go a long way in determining whether or not Hackenberg redshirts and who starts the season opener with Syracuse at Met Life Stadium in East Rutherford, NJ.
- Butler Running the Show — Ted Roof did a favor for O’Brien last season by serving as defensive coordinator and then went home to Georgia Tech, leaving the defense in the hands of John Butler, promoted from his secondary coach position. It should be in good hands. Butler is a bright and energetic coach who intends to stick to his passionate style. The defense’s philosophy will likely be similar to Roof’s multiply-aggressive design, but this will be an important time for Butler to implement any schematic changes he intends to make.
- Sorting out the Secondary — The position group that was so thin at points last season returns three starters in cornerback Adrian Amos and safeties Malcolm Willis and Stephen Obeng-Agyapong, but will be looking for depth and someone to play opposite Amos. One sticking point for new defensive backs coach Anthony Midget ought to be emphasizing turnovers. The 2012 secondary only had three interceptions and none through the first seven games.
- Health and Injuries — Tight end Kyle Carter is recovering from a dislocated wrist that kept him out of the final two games in 2012 while Adam Breneman is nine months removed from ACL surgery. Obeng-Agyapong battled through a shoulder injury last season and had it corrected in the off-season. Breneman was declared “full go” for practice by O’Brien, but Carter still had a cast on his wrist as of a month ago and will not participate in any contact drills. Adam Rittenberg of ESPN reported Friday that sophomore linebacker Ben Kline is out for spring practice after undergoing off-season shoulder surgery. Overall, Penn State is pretty healthy, but getting through the next month without additional injuries will be key. A few days before the 2012 spring game, reserve linebacker Jamie Van Fleet suffered a torn ACL.
- Redshirt Freshmen Ready to Go — It might have been easy to forget about these guys, but some players from the 2012 recruiting class who sat out last season are ready to go and will be looked upon to contribute. Four names that immediately come to mind are running back Akeel Lynch, wide receiver Eugene Lewis, linebacker Nyeem Wartman, and defensive back Malik Golden. Wartman, returning from a knee injury, and Golden, making the switch back to defense from receiver, should have plenty of opportunities to make an impact while Lynch and Lewis get worked into the offense.
- Belton’s Second Chance — Bill Belton’s role as a feature back in O’Brien’s offense never materialized following an early-season ankle injury. By November, he was hardly playing, receiving only one carry in the final four contests. In January, O’Brien talked about finding ways to better utilize him. There should be some role for Belton in the offense given his speed and athleticism, but it won’t be easy given Zach Zwinak’s successes and Lynch vying for carries.
- Zwinak’s Workload — Speaking of Zwinak, he went from a seldom-used, hardly-known 234-pound running back to a bruising workhorse, running the ball 36 times in the season finale against Wisconsin. He denied being tired during the season and seemingly got stronger as it went on, averaging 26 carries in the final four contests. Extrapolate that over a 12-game season and it comes out to 321 carries, which would have ranked fifth in all of college football last year. That’s a lot of carries even for a big back. If those numbers are in store for him in 2013, now is the time to get some rest.
- Looking for Leaders — With a charismatic senior class moving on highlighted by the aforementioned Mauti and Zordich, the Nittany Lions will be looking for new locker room leaders to take their place. One candidate is middle linebacker Glenn Carson who often flies under the radar despite recording 66 tackles in 2011 and 85 last year.
- Helping out Robinson — If star receiver Allen Robinson improves on his school record-setting numbers, it may depend on those around him more than Robinson himself. With an inexperienced quarterback, opponents will design coverages to take Robinson away. That becomes more difficult to do with a viable target on the other side of the field. After being buried on the depth chart and getting off to a slow start, Brandon Moseby-Felder came on strong and even out-produced Robinson during a three-game stretch in the middle of the season. He has a chance to build on that this spring while Lewis, Trevor Williams, and Alex Kenney should also factor in.
- Filling out the Offensive Line — A bulked-up Donovan Smith, John Urschel, and Miles Dieffenbach are all back. Center Matt Stankiewitch and right tackle Mike Farrell are gone. Whether it is with Dieffenbach or someone else, smoothly replacing Stankiewitch is key. A few candidates to fill the gaps there are Ty Howle, Angelo Mangiro, Adam Gress, and converted tight end Garry Gilliam.
Prior to practice, O’Brien will kickoff the spring with a 1:30 p.m. press conference where we’ll hopefully learn more about his plans.