There's a lot to love about this Penn State offense.
For starters, last year's unit, one of the best in the Big Ten once it got rolling, was extraordinarily young. Of players who hauled in at least six receptions last year, Mike Zordich is the only one who won't be a part of the 2013 team. 1000-yard rusher Zach Zwinak and the brilliant-in-spurts Bill Belton are both back. And oh, the reinforcements--from Akeel Lynch to Adam Breneman to DaeShawn Hamilton all joining already deep and talented units just makes them that much deeper, and that much more talented. There should be no doubting that Penn State's among the Big Ten leaders, when it comes to the skill positions.
But that's only half the battle. Penn State has receivers, but who's going to get the ball to Allen Robinson, Kyle Carter, and Jesse James? It has running backs, but are the holes going to be there? Yes, we had these questions heading into last season, but mere faith in Bill O'Brien to pull a rabbit out of his hat isn't the basis for an argument. Sorry, Nick, but you're wrong.
Maybe if Steven Bench hadn't transferred, I'd feel a little more confident. It's not like Bench was great in his limited playing time last season, but throw two guys in a competition and not only are the odds better than one will prevail, but they'll push each other to improve. Maybe if Jake Waters had picked Penn State, I wouldn't worry so much. Unfortunately, "God" told him to pick Kansas State, so instead of the top JuCo signalcaller, O'Brien had to settle for an afterthought in Tyler Ferguson, and, let's be honest, that's who's getting the keys to this bitchin' Camaro.
Matt McGloin hadn't exactly instilled much confidence before last season, but there's a vast difference between what he'd accomplished in his college career and what Ferguson, and also what Christian Hackenberg, have produced so far. McGloin had played in 19 games, had started the equivalent of a full season, and had shown the ability to tear up at least the weaker defenses he played. The guy wasn't Daryll Clark, but he was a perfectly servicable quarterback that Bill O'Brien took to a new level.
We simply don't know that Ferguson and Hackenberg can step in and do that. There's a huge difference between junior college and the Big Ten, and it's not like Ferguson was a guy who turned so many heads at big time programs--Penn State was his only BCS offer. Yeah, McGloin was a walk-on, but it was three years before he got any playing time. He was a fifth-year senior by the time he broke out. At least Ferguson is on campus, working with the BOB playbook, but you can't expect him to just seamlessly pick up where McGloin left off.
It's a similar story for Hackenberg--true freshmen just generally aren't going to light the world on fire. In a perfect world, he'd be redshirting behind Ferguson and Bench, gaining a year of experience and saving a year of eligibility for when Penn State can play for a bowl game. But even though he was a true blue-chip, 5-star, can't-miss high school prospect, quarterback is the one position where you can't just step in from day one. The list of guys who've done that--especially when enrolling over the summer--is about as short as the number of Penn State fans who have any respect for Mark Emmert. And we've seen the worst case scenario when you throw a guy into the spotlight before he's ready. I trust BOB and Charlie Fisher a whole lot more than JayPa, but that's a risk you always run. And, of course, god help us if either guy gets hurt.
Last but not least, Penn State loses two key pieces on the offensive line, in Matt Stankiewitch and Mike Farrell who are going to be pretty damn hard to replace. Stank was a two-year starter, an all-conference selection, and a potential draft pick. Ty Howle will probably be his replacement, and while I have confidence that he can hold down the fort--seriously, when has Penn State ever had a bad center?--there's something to be said for the level of comfort between a quarterback and his center. McGloin and Stank had that, because it was a relationship that had developed for three years. Howle and Ferguson may well not.
And Farrell was a solid, steady, consistent right tackle who might never have turned heads but rarely screwed up. You can't say the same about Adam Gress, who went from being one of the most talked about guys out of spring practice to a fringe rotation player who struggled mightily in game action. I like that Mac McWhorter kept trying to get guys playing time, but every time Gress came in, it was an adventure. And there's really not too many alternatives--if he struggles, it's probably
Anthony Stanko, Eric Shrive or Garry Gilliam, none of whom have much, if any, experience.
This offense has the capacity to do great things, but last year's realized every last drop of potential. The questions that remain--at quarterback and right tackle--could well doom an immensely talented group to the middle of the Big Ten. And at the very least, it won't have the right hand of Moxie leading them to such heights, which, somehow, is kind of terrifying.