Countdown to Blue-White / 22 Days: Five Under the Radar Players to Step Up in 2013
Headed into the 2012 season – Penn State’s first under Bill O’Brien – a general sense of uncertainty surrounded the program from fans and media alike.
Beyond the changing of the guard from a Joe Paterno-led program to O’Brien and company, there were a handful of question marks on the Nittany Lion depth chart.
Who would fill the voids left by Justin Brown and Silas Redd? Who would step up to bolster a thin secondary? Who would fill the void left by three seniors on the offensive line?
Guys like Allen Robinson at wide receiver and Zach Zwinak at running back bursted onto the scene out of nowhere, boosting the Nittany Lion offense with phenomenally productive seasons that no one could have anticipated. Robinson, with 77 catches for 1,013 yards and 11 touchdowns, was the Big Ten Receiver of the Year, while Zwinak gained over 1,000 yards on the ground after carrying the ball just three times in the first three weeks of the season.
Robinson and Zwinak weren’t the only virtually unknown commodities to produce for Penn State. Guards John Urschel and Miles Dieffenbach, tight ends Kyle Carter and Jesse James, defensive linemen Deion Barnes and DaQuan Jones, and defensive backs Stephen Obeng-Agyapong and Jake Fagnano all stepped up admirably for the Nittany Lions.
While fans look for this year’s version of Zach Zwinak — to seemingly come out of nowhere and assume a major role – here are several under the radar players to look for to make major contributions that help win football games.
The center is essentially the quarterback of any offensive line. He makes many, if not all, of the blitz adjustments prior to the snap, and consistent play from the center position can make or break the continuity of the offensive line. First Team All-Big center Matt Stankiewitch was Penn State’s anchor in the middle for the past two years. Ty Howle, a fifth-year senior, who has handled various long snapping duties over the past three seasons, will fill the void.
Howle served as Stankiewitch’s primary backup at center for the past two seasons and also saw playing time in nine games (including a start against Wisconsin) at left guard after recovering from a pectoral injury. The fact that he played key snaps down the stretch last season shows that O’Brien and offensive line coach Mac McWhorter are confident in Howle’s abilities. The starting job at center is his to lose.
One of Penn State’s biggest concerns in terms of depth headed into the 2013 campaign is the linebacker position. Gerald Hodges and Michael Mauti are headed to the NFL and just Glenn Carson remains from last year’s prolific linebacking corp. Wartman, a redshirt freshman, impressed early last year with a memorable blocked punt in the home opener against Ohio. The following week, Wartman injured his knee and was lost for the rest of the year. Wartman was given a medical redshirt and looks primed to assume one of the two vacant starting roles on the outside at linebacker along with Mike Hull. O’Brien has sung the praises of his young linebacker.
“He impressed me last year as a young linebacker, picking up the system. He’s a high character guy. In the offseason, he had a really good time in the weight room. He’s stronger,” O’Brien said.
Last year, redshirt freshman Deion Barnes jumped on the scene with a very productive 6 sack, 10 tackle-for-loss season. Behind Barnes, fellow redshirt freshman Anthony Zettel went seemingly unnoticed as he racked up four impressive sacks of his own in limited playing time. Most of Zettel’s 2012 snaps came in garbage time, but Zettel should see more consistent playing time in Larry Johnson’s defensive line rotation. With offensive lines keying on Barnes, look for Zettel to add to his sack total and open some eyes in 2013.
As a true freshman last year, Lewis was originally listed with the first team on O’Brien’s preliminary depth chart at wide receiver. The coaching staff instead decided to redshirt the speedy wideout, using the 6-1, 200-pound Lewis as a decoy for the opponent’s fastest player on the practice field. The speed of Lewis should bring an added dimension to the offense as defenses focus on proven players like Robinson, Brandon Moseby-Felder and O’Brien’s cast of tight ends.
Due to the lack of depth in the secondary last season, freshman Jordan Lucas saw playing time as a nickel corner and on special teams. Lucas will compete with run-on Jesse Della Valle for the role as third cornerback behind Adrian Amos and Da’Quan Davis. Lucas, who is listed as a safety, will also provide depth at both safety positions should Malcolm Willis or Stephen Obeng-Agyapong go down with an injury. A player with his versatility cannot be overlooked while the program is riddled with NCAA sanctions.
This is the twelfth in a 33-day series about the Penn State football program leading up to the Blue-White Game on April 20. We’ve put together a team of football writers who will examine a variety of topics and answer key questions about Bill O’Brien’s team. Click here for past installments in the series.