Last year, the big question mark headed into the season was who would start at quarterback. That was answered pretty quickly (and for the next couple of years)--despite that, and despite Allen Robinson's still-stellar year, the offense was still erratic throughout the year, putting up numbers but unable to punch the ball in the endzone in certain key situations. A year-end coming out party in Madison ended 2013 on a high note, and James Franklin and company will look to build upon that in spring practice, while solidifying the positions that are still up in arms.
Franklin has said that all starting positions are up for grabs, but let's start with the one that no one realistically thinks is.
Returning Starter: Christian Hackenberg (So)
Solid Backups from 2013: No Returning Experience
Key Departures: Tyler Ferguson
Position Coach: Ricky Rahne
Let's start out with the good news. For at least the next two seasons, Penn State should have one of the top quarterbacks in the nation under center. Take a moment and let that sink in after years of uncertainty, near constant debate, transfers and just about any scenario of highly-recruited quarterbacks not working out for one reason or another.
Christian Hackenberg carried the "very good for a true freshman" tag for most of 2013 before plateuing towards the end of the season. Then he put all fears aside by putting together an absolute masterpiece against one of the top defenses in the nation in a stunning upset victory against Wisconsin to close out the season.
In 2013 Hackenberg played extremely well considering he only had a few weeks of practice to prepare for the season. Now he'll return with all a year of experience and a full offseason under his belt. This fact cannot be overstated enough as it should have a monumental impact on his development. The extra work with his teammates and coaches means a sophomore slump is highly unlikely. Hackenberg's final legacy is far from a sure thing, but the sky is truly the limit with the rising sophomore QB.
If there's one indesibensable Nittany Lion, it's clearly Hackenberg. If he goes down, Penn State will have no one ready to step in who has done as much as take a snap in a college football game. Incoming freshman Michael O'Conner was a highly-touted recruit who is already on campus, but it's anyone's guess if he has the ability to be a productive quarterback should the need arise. Penn State returns three sophomore quart backs in Jack Seymour, Austin Whipple and D. J. Crook. Of those three, Seymour is one to keep an eye on. He spurned a few mid-major offers to attend Penn State as a preferred walk-on (sound familiar?) and could develop into a solid option if given chance. Austin Whipple is the son of an NFL QB coach, and could add value in a variety of ways if he learned much from his old man.
Here's something fun to keep an eye out for in the Blue-White Game- Penn State returns three experienced, talented running backs and it's anyone's guess who will receive the bulk of the carries in 2014. If you asked a Nittany Lion fan who should be the starting RB during the 2013 season, the answer would differ from week to week (Remember those couple weeks where Akeel Lynch should have been receiving 40 carries a game if you went by the consensus on Twitter?). A running back by committee approach seems to be the most likely plan, but don't be surprised if one of these three really impress the new staff and takes a featured role. I'm just not counting on it considering the diverse talent Zwinak, Belton and Lynch bring to the table.
Protecting the football was the main issue Zwinak and Belton struggled with last season, while Lynch's achielles heel was pass protection. "Fumbleitis" became so bad in 2013 that pretty much everyone in Beaver Stadium would hold their breath whenever Belton or Zwinak carried the ball. Both improved in this area by season's end, so hopefully they have both turned a corner and will consistently hold on to the ball moving forward. As far as Lynch, it's a bit unreasonable to expect a player to be a complete back during their redshirt freshman year. He'll improve his pass blocking, and is easily one of the most intriguing prospects on the offense.
Sophomore Von Walker became a special teams ace during his true freshman season and received a handful of carries in garbage time. He'll be working to increase his carries in 2014. Junior Deron Thompson had one of the top performances in the 2013 Blue-White Game, but unfortunately was nowhere to be found during the regular season. Another big performance this spring could open up a door to at least get a shot to prove what he can do this fall.
Returning Starters: None
Solid Backups from '13: Geno Lewis (RS So), Matt Zanellato (RS Jr), Richy Anderson (So),
Key Departures: Allen Robinson, Brandon Felder, Alex Kenney
Position Coach: Josh Gattis
While the running back battle will be wide open featuring known commodities, the battle to see time at wide receiver is truly anyone's guess. Geno Lewis will be counted on to pick up where the soon-to-be very wealthy Allen Robinson left off. While Lewis showed flashes of brilliance throughout 2013, he may not be able to consistently bail out the offense like Robinson. Hopefully this will not be needed with a more experienced Hackenberg on the field in 2014. Matt Zanellato has shown potential as a complete receiver capable of making the tough catches to move the chains while also having the size and speed to be a downfield threat. His opportunities thus far have been few, but he should find himself on the field far more often as an upperclassman. Richy Anderson returns after a satisfying freshman year and will be valuable possession receiver. Jake Kiley returns to receiver after moving back and forth from offense to defense since joining the team in 2012. DaeSean Hamilton is one to watch as he gets his first opportunity to play in his redshirt freshman season. Early enrollee De'Andre Thompkins wowed recruitniks with his incredible playmaking ability coming from Swansboro, NC. Many believe that he will contribute heavily as a true freshman.
If you're having a difficult time getting excited about the 2014 season, just take a moment to think about Hackenberg throwing to a number of tight ends, each one capable of creating severe matchup problems. Let's start with true sophomore Adam Breneman. He evolved from a sparingly used backup to a complete force during his freshman season. By season's end, he was arguably the best tight end in a very talented group. It's clear that he built an excellent rapport with his classmate at QB, and their production together should continue to blossom for the next two or three years. Junior Jesse James didn't quite meet expectations as a sophomore, but the blame can't quit be placed on "The Outlaw." The tight ends were seldom used while Hackenberg familiarized himself with the offense, and the opportunities just weren't there. He's a huge, athletic target who will be even better as an upperclassman. Then there's the enigma that is Kyle Carter. The junior was perhaps the best freshman in the entire Big Ten in 2012, but practically disappeared because of nagging injuries and the reasons stated above. He is truly one to keep an eye on- Carter could go on to win the Mackey award and a first-round pick or he could fade into oblivion and be surpassed by the young and talented tight ends sprinkled throughout the roster. Don't forget about Brent Wilkerson either. O'Brien could not stop sining his praises last year in camp before an injury knocked him out for the season. He was set to see time in a hybrid TE/H-back/FB role last year, so we'll have to wait and see how the new staff decides to use him.
Returning Starters: Donovan Smith (LT, Jr), Miles Dieffenbach (LG, Sr)
Solid Backups from '13: Angelo Mangiro (C/G, RS Jr), Wendy Laurent (C, RS So), Anthony Alosi (G/T, RS Jr)
Key Departures: John Urschel (RG), Ty Howle (C), Adam Gress (RT), Garry Gilliam (T)
Position Coach: Herb Hand
While Penn State returns a wealth of talent and experience throughout the skill positions, the quality of the offensive line will be a complete mystery until the team takes the field this fall. The left side of the offense will be solid as Donovan Smith and Miles Dieffenbach have potential to be All-Big Ten by seasons end. After that things get more confusing. Wendy Laurent and Angelo Mangiro will battle it out for the starting center position. Don't be surprised if whoever comes up short ultimately puts in time at right guard. Brandon Mahone is a former four-star prospect who will also play into the equation at guard. Redshirt freshman Andrew Nelson separated himself from the pack on the "dirty squad" in 2013 and could be in line to start at right tackle in 2014. Since committing to Penn State, Nelson packed on nearly 50 pounds to prepare for the college game, and his time may be now. Anthony will also play into the equation as he returns with experience at both guard and tackle. Even if he doesn't crack the starting lineup, his versatility should ensure plenty of playing time in 2014. Early enrollee Chasz Wright also has a chance to get in the conversation for playing time. While short on experience, Wright has the size (6-6, 285) that will allow him to compete immediately rather than using a year to add bulk.