There are a lot of things to pay attention to heading into spring practice in State College...the staff here at BSD gives some of the things we're looking at headed into the five weeks before the Blue-White game.
Tailback tailback tailback. Zack Zwinak cannot take as many hits next year as he did this year, even though he only started part of this past season. He runs tough, but his bruising style puts a lot of wear and tear on him. I want to see Bill Belton look more decisive as a runner and protect the ball better. Doing so will allow him to stop thinking so much and use his explosiveness to our advantage. We've also been hearing about Akeel Lynch's "natural ability" since he stepped on campus, so let's see how comfortable he is with the team and the playbook. Having a few quality backs will be necessary to reduce the pressure on our brand new quarterback.
The QB situation. I mean, come on. Penn State is either gonna start a sophomore who barely played last year, a JuCo transfer or a true freshman--which normally wouldn't be a big deal, but they'll be filling the shoes of Matt McGloin and the massive season he had last year (NOTE: Never in my life did I think I'd mean that in a positive way). They'll have plenty of talent around them with ZZ, Belton, Robinson, Carter, et al, which will make the transition a bit easier. But, still, someone is going to need to get those guys the ball.
Offensive tackles. More specifically, does Adam Gress get off the ball on time consistently; and, who becomes the third tackle, behind presumed starters Donovan Smith and Gress? Nate Cadogan appears headed to the DL, and Garry Gilliam is just learning to moonwalk after spending the first 4 years on campus generally moving in a forward motion once the ball is snapped. And, uh, there doesn't appear to be a whole lot behind him but freshmen.
QB is the obvious question, but I'm also interested in seeing who will challenge some of the incumbents--namely, Allen Robinson and Zwinack. I want to see who, if anyone, can challenge their starter status and make the most of touches. I'm not expecting to see either of them very much in the spring game, because neither really have a lot to prove (aside from ZZ's need to work on his butterfingers), but I'd like to see others improve and become 1b-type players.
I don't think there is any answer other than what is going to happen at quarterback. Hack won't be at spring practice, but I really don't think he's a thought for 2013 anyway. He'll take his redshirt and learn from BOB and the other guys. I want to see if Stephen Bench's experience with the playbook will be enough to put him ahead of Tyler Ferguson, who could have played almost anywhere coming out of high school if he hadn't gotten injured.
Everyone already took everything good, so I'll ask the less flashy question--with the graduation of Mike Zordich, is Penn State just going to go without a fullback this year, or will somebody step up? With all the tight-ends, it's possible someone like Matt Lehman or Jesse James could switch to more of an H-back role, and the alternative, running exclusively one-back or spread offenses, seems like it could backfire with a young, inexperienced quarterback under center. There are some walk-on options, like PJ Byers, Pat Zerbe, or JR Refice, but it'd be hard to believe any can hold a candle to Zordich's skill as a lead blocker, short-yardage back, or even occasional pass-tacher.
Running back. The team relied on Zwinak way too much last year for anyone's good. He managed to stay healthy throughout the season, but you have to wonder how much he could have down had someone else spelled him on occasion. Belton certainly has the potential and remained loyal to the program despite going from starter in week one to completely disappearing from the gameplan after the Iowa game. I'm also on the bandwagon that believes Lynch was vastly overlooked since he spent most of his career north of the border. They both can bring a different skill set and help the offense become unlike anything we've seen since the days of Kerry Collins and Ki-Jana Carter.
On the defensive side, it's all about the linebackers. How do Mike Hull and Glenn Carson look as a regular tandem?Who steps up on the other side - Nyeem Wartman, Ben Kline, a walk-on? Where can we expect to slot a freshman in the fall? My guess is that we're going to see a lot of experimentation with the linebackers in order to mask some depth issues next year, so maybe we'll begin to see some of that play out this spring.
Freshmen on defense. I think most of the freshmen that PSU signed will play, mostly out of necessity. Can Garrett Sickels be Deion Barnes's bookend? A third down, pass rush specialist? A benchwarmer? Will the freshmen in the secondary (The Smiths, Gaines, Robinson) contribute to a pretty thin group? Will Bell or Issah contribute to the LB corps, or will both get redshirted? Same question for Cothren and Cothran on the d-line.
Barnes and Anthony Zettel flashed at times last year, and to a lesser extent, so did CJ Olaniyan. Can one or more of those three take another step forward? If this defense can get pressure off the edge without blitzing.....well, let's just say that would be a really nice thing to have.
Secondary. This unit is slightly less scary than it was last year, but depth will still be an issue. What new/young/unproven players will step up and fill in for Stephon Morris? Will anyone even come close to challenging Adrian Amos? What impact, if any, will Coach John Butler's promotion, and the hiring of Anthony Midget, have on this unit that by all accounts overperformed in the fall?
To a lesser degree, I'm also curious to see how the only coaching change this offseason may impact the team's performance on this side of the ball.
Who's going to be the leader on defense? Michael Mauti is gone and there now has to be a new heart and soul to the team. My guess is that will be Carson or Hull, but I want to see someone grabbing his teammates and showing them what to do when they messed something up or giving them a pat on the back when they make a huge play before we bestow the title on anyone.
I'm more curious about scheme than personnel, because the questions there are obvious--who will step up at linebacker, can DaQuan Davis replace Morris, how does the DL retool? Look, we know the front 7 will reload--if there's one thing we've learned in the past decade, it's that LJSR and Vandy know what they're doing. But John Butler led an uneven secondary unit and now he's the coordinator, replacing Ted Roof, who at times looked brilliant and at others incompetent. By the time Roof knew his personnel, he tended to adjust well enough, but he still had the tendency to lean too heavily on the blitz. On the other hand, Tom Bradley stayed too often in that soft cover-3 and was rarely aggressive, much less "multiply" so. What's Butler's MO going to be?
Linebackers. The linebacking corps is littered with questions marks for the first time in recent memory. Carson has proved himself in the middle, while Hull is on his way to becoming a household name in the Big Ten, but how much do we know after that? Is Wartman ready to become a full-time starter? What happens if one or both of the veterans is forced to miss playing time? Will opposing offenses be able to open up the playbook with Mauti and Gerald Hodges playing on Sundays? This is a solid unit--but this is Linebacker U., where it's hard to remember what a defense looks like without three stud linebackers. A close second is Jesse Della Valle: he put on a show that no one was expecting in last year's Blue-White Game. Is he ready to play a larger role in 2013?
What are you interested in seeing come out of spring practice? Sound off in the comments.
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