I have absolutely no idea how this year's Penn State team is going to be. None.
Some people believe Penn State is a 10+ win team and a darkhorse national championship contender. Others have PSU completely out of the top 25, predicting another 8-4 season on the fringe of relevance. Both scenarios seem entirely possible. Depending on my mood that particular day, I can rather easily talk myself into believing either one.
Utterly confused and partially terrified, I began sifting through the team, position by position, in an attempt to determine whether the personnel on this year's Nittany Lions put the team in a better or worse position than a year ago. Will the quarterback position be an example of addition by subtraction? Can the Spread HD magically turn a Lincoln Log offense into an offensive bullet train? Will the NCAA ever find out that our receivers have actually been in school for eight years?
Is there really no place for this offense to go but upward? Let's try to find out.
Rain on your parade? Call it a slight drizzle for now.
2007: Anthony Morelli, Daryll Clark -- Morelli has taken enough of a beating in this space, so let's not rehash his career too much other to say that (a) he completed 58% of his passes for 19 TD's and 10 INT's last season and (b) didn't play well in the fourth quarter of important games. Clark only attempted nine passes in 2007, and completed six of them for a grand total of 31 yards.
2008: Daryll Clark, Pat Devlin -- Again, 6-for-9, 31 yards. Clark also ran for 78 yards over the course of the season, 50 of those were in the Alamo Bowl on six carries. Devlin threw one pass, an incompletion against Florida International.
Analysis: The general sentiment from Penn State fans about the quarterback situation seems to be, "it can't be any worse than last year." But is that true? We're heading into the season with two quarterbacks who for all intents and purposes have no game experience throwing the football -- take that up with the coaching staff, who rarely lets a backup quarterback throw a pass more than ten yards. Clark actually threw the ball more in 2006 (14-27, 116 yards). While Clark is sure to add more production in terms of rushing yardage, do we have any concrete proof that the overall quarterback production will exceed that of 2007 Morelli?
PASS OFFENSE G Att Cmp Int Pct. Yds Avg TD Yds/G
1. Northwestern........ 8 360 222 16 61.7 2485 6.9 15 310.6
2. Purdue.............. 8 380 230 7 60.5 2236 5.9 12 279.5
3. Minnesota........... 8 313 179 11 57.2 1973 6.3 13 246.6
4. Michigan State...... 8 246 154 4 62.6 1848 7.5 11 231.0
5. Indiana............. 8 281 170 7 60.5 1842 6.6 13 230.2
6. Wisconsin........... 8 225 124 9 55.1 1797 8.0 9 224.6
7. Michigan............ 8 263 138 7 52.5 1741 6.6 16 217.6
8. Penn State.......... 8 261 146 7 55.9 1633 6.3 7 204.1
9. Iowa................ 8 249 131 3 52.6 1491 6.0 9 186.4
10.Ohio State.......... 8 191 120 10 62.8 1432 7.5 15 179.0
11.Illinois............ 8 186 103 8 55.4 1172 6.3 12 146.5
Okay, okay, fine. Clark has a good chance to be better than that. If he's not, you have to wonder when the coaching staff would switch over to Pat Devlin -- or would they be as stubborn about QB replacement as they were last season?
Whatever the case, let's hope this year's quarterbacks respond better to the challenges of providing leadership and great performances at crucial times. I'm optimistic about the QB's, but not close to convinced. Talk to me after the Oregon State game.
2007: Austin Scott, Rodney Kinlaw, Evan Royster, Matt Hahn, Brent Carter -- After Austin Scott was removed from the team, Kinlaw became one of the truly great stories of 2007. He ran for 1,329 yards (5.5 ypc, 10 TD's) and caught 21 passes for 128 yards. Pretty damned good for a guy who looked destined to be a career backup at PSU. Royster eventually emerged as a tough inside runner with a nose for extra yards and the goal line (6.3 ypc, 5 TD's). Hahn was a dependable ball carrier (5.5 ypc) and outlet receiver before his ACL injury against Indiana. Brent Carter's notoriety stems from him brilliantly answering the bell during the final drive against Michigan State, only to be ignored by the playcallers for the final, fatal four incompletions of the drive.
Ultimately, Penn State finished fourth in the Big Ten (conference games only) in rushing offense at 182 yards/game (4.7 ypc). Pretty good, considering their opening day starter flaked out of the program and the Kinlaw / Royster combination fought some nagging injuries.
2008: Evan Royster, Stephfon Green, Brent Carter, Dan Lawlor, Brandon Beachum
Analysis: After you factor in expected improvement from Royster and Carter, the exchange is essentially Green and Beachum for Scott and Kinlaw. I'll take it. Green is obviously the big question here, and he'll certainly make a few defenses look silly at random points this season. Can he be consistently great, or just randomly spectacular? Beachum is interesting in that everyone's silently hoping he can bring back memories of Aaron Harris -- that undersized fullback / oversized running back who refuses to be tackled.
(Really, we're all just waiting for the next Aaron Harris. But Beachum is a topic for 2010, in all probability.)
People outside the Penn State bubble just don't know how good Evan Royster is yet. But they will. Still, I hesitate to call this an major upgrade from last year's group, which was better than people gave it credit for. The 2007 running backs combined for roughly 2,400 yards last season. We have a sure thing with Royster. Green is still a mystery. Intriguing and exciting, yes. But a mystery. He's not the first guy to receive glowing practice reports and do something wonderful in a Blue/White game.
In any event, the running backs should compare favorably to last year's group. Royster in a featured role will be fun to watch. Any rushing contributions from the quarterback position will obviously influence the yardage output from the running backs.
2007: Derrick Williams, Deon Butler, Jordan Norwood, Terrell Golden, Stabby McShankerson.
2008: Derrick Williams, Deon Butler, Jordan Norwood, Brett Brackett, Derek Moye, Graham Zug.
Analysis: The Last Waltz for the mighty freshmen of 2005. Brackett will likely take over Golden's role and will allegedly be a red-zone target. We'll see. The coaches seem to like Moye in the void left by McShankerson, but at this point we're discussing the contributions by the #5 receiver. I think this makes Zug the 2008 version of Brendan Perretta. I'll double check that for you.
This group should be the same it's always been. Good, not spectacular. The difference will be made by the quality of play from the quarterbacks. It'll be interesting to see how much Moye can contribute this season, and what the coaching staff can do in order to get Derrick Williams the football in an open field situation. It's a matter of design and creativity, and I don't see how slapping lipstick on a pig with a newly minted "Spread HD" nametag is going to magically solve things.
2007: Andrew Quarless, Mickey Shuler. Combined for 21 catches, 296 yards, and 3 touchdowns.
2008: Andrew Quarless(?), Mickey Shuler, Andrew Szczerba
Quarless' name, of course, to be pronounced as follows:
Analysis: "I'm Andrew Quarless?" Seriously, nobody is talking about Quarless or his prospective contribution to this year's team. Szczerba made a great impression at the Blue/White game. Shuler is solid, not mind blowing. Really, Quarless is the wild card here. If he doesn't see the field, it's a step backward for this position. Perhaps not a huge downgrade, depending on Szczerba's progress. It's not like this unit will need a ton of production to match last year's paltry output.
2007: Gerald Cadogan, Mike Lucian, A.Q. Shipley, Rich Ohrnberger, Dennis Landolt.
2008: Cadogan, Stefen Wisniewski, Shipley, Ohrnberger, Landolt.
Analysis: The obvious strength of the Penn State offense. Wisniewski has supplanted the surprisingly versatile Lucian at left guard. Wiz is just too good to keep off the field at this point, which is a downer for Lucian, who played quite admirably throughout 2007 and will be counted on if any of the interior players go down. These guys are very, very good, though that only accounts for a slight upgrade from last season.
Injuries to either tackle could be utterly devastating. It's unclear what the coaching staff would do in order to compensate for the loss of Cadogan or Landolt. Lou Eliades is a candidate to start in case of emergency, but he's lacking in meaningful game experience.
The performance of the Penn State offense will come down to a few things, some more obvious than others:
1. Quarterback performance. Truth be told, every other offensive position is in pretty good shape. If Daryll Clark can minimize his mistakes (let's not forget Morelli's fumbling issues last year, either), it seems that the offense should be efficient if not proficient. And really, it was the timing of Morelli's mistakes that will be his legacy. The costly fumble deep in our own territory against Michigan. The fourth quarter at Illinois. Annual fourth quarter pick-sixes against Ohio State. And so it goes.
2. Health on the offensive line. We were extremely lucky last year in this area -- perhaps the most overlooked aspect of the 2007 season.
3. Mildly competent playcalling and properly implementing the "new" offense. Can Jay and Galen really pull this off, or is "Spread HD" really just propaganda for "we think the offense can be pretty good, so let's run the stuff from the 2005 playbook, slap a dumb name on it, and tell everyone we reinvented the wheel"?
The quarterbacks have next to no experience. Like it or not, there is only one proven running back (Royster) and one backup lineman with extensive game experience (Lucian). Sure, the wide receivers are good, but they're at a position which generally depends on everything else on the field going as planned before they get a chance to make an impact with the football.
I can't help thinking that a lot of Penn State fans are falling into the "Morelli's gone, everything is going to be "HD-BRAHSOME" trap. What will happen when Oregon State rolls eight guys up to the line of scrimmage and forces Daryll Clark to throw? It's still the same offensive coaching staff you've been complaining about for years, only now they're trying to implement a different offensive package in a year when the new play-clock rules won't allow for any dicking around by coaches on the sidelines.
The offense could end up being good -- very, very good if things break correctly -- but just like when you're shopping for a real HD, buyer beware.