Only 8 days until the Penn State football season kicks off against the Akron Zips. It seems like a fitting time to provide my analysis of this year's Penn State team. Today I will start with the offense.
The key word here is "experience", or more specificially lack thereof. After backing up Zack Mills and Michael Robinson the past two years, Anthony Morelli gets the keys to the offense this year. Backing him up will be Paul Cianciolo and Matt Suhey, who have yet to see a snap in Div. I-A.
Last year Morelli got on the field three times in blowout games. Joe had pulled in the reins to prevent running up the score, but Morelli still managed to go 13-20 for 155 yds 1 TD and 0 INT. He didn't light anyone up, but he didn't let them get back in the game either. The times I saw him, including the spring game, I thought he showed good technique. His passes were crisp, on target and on time. He showed good confidence in the pocket and excellent arm strength.
Anthony Morelli gets the keys to the offense this year
Much of the country is expecting a drop off going from MRob to Morelli. While MRob was the type of guy that could strap an offense on his back and carry them down the field, Morelli, being a pocket passer, prefers to use the players around him. I look for him to spread the ball around and let his speedy wide receivers turn his 5 yard passes into 50 yard plays. The offense will look much different. The fact is that last year defenses did not respect Michael Robinson as a passer. The book him was take away the deep ball and try to force him into 3rd and long to take away his scrambling ability. Teams that were able to do that had success. This year teams will have to cover the entire field.
If Morelli gets hurt, the season may be in trouble. Cianciolo looked horrible in the spring game and Suhey has no experience. Daryll Clark seems to be making some strides, but he missed all of the spring practice due to off the field issues. Fans may whisper in Paterno's ear to play true freshman Pat Devlin, but this is supposed to be a rebuilding year. I don't look for Pat to see the field until 2007.
Preseason Grade: B
Tony Hunt returns as the team's leading rusher from last year. Backing him up will be Austin Scott and Rodney Kinlaw.
While there is no bonafide star in this group, they are all capable backs. Tony is a steady runner that will churn out four and five yard runs all day. He is a tough back that will lower his head and get the extra yard every time. His pass blocking and catching abilities push him to the #1 spot on the depth chart. But he has yet to show the explosive speed to break the long run.
Austin Scott enters his senior year having yet to live up to the hype. He stepped in admirably in the Orange Bowl and turned out a fine 100 yard performance, but most on those yards came on one long run and he was mostly ineffective in the second half. He tends to run like he did in high school where he tried to run around guys. He has yet to make the adjustment to the speed of the college game which requires moving forward at all times and fighting for the extra yard. His ability to pick up the blitz is suspect. This was evident in the Orange Bowl when Florida State blitzed on almost every play and Michael Robinson took a beating. But Scott does show signs of brilliance at times when the O-Line can block for him. He is probably the most explosive back on the roster.
Also returning is stud senior fullback BranDon Snow. But Snow is going to have to work his way out of Joe's Doghouse first. He doesn't run the ball much, but he may be the best blocker on the team. If the tight ends struggle he may see lots of playing time as Penn State returns to more Power-I sets. But Galen Hall is going to try to use the wide receivers to spread the ball, so don't look for him much outside of the red zone.
Tony Hunt leads the charge
Scott (ankle) and Kinlaw (knee) are both banged up going into the season. But Paterno says they should both be ready to play. BranDon Snow is going to sit out a few games for undisclosed disciplinary reasons. Bottom line there is no Larry Johnson or Ki-Jana Carter in the group, but these guys will hold their own against any team in the Big Ten.
Preseason Grade: B
The star of the group is Derrick Williams who returns from a season ending broken arm last year. Before getting injured Williams had 22 catches for 289 yds and 1 TD. The one TD came in the last minute of the Northwestern game to seal Penn State's win and set up their national title run. Michigan had the looks of his official coming out party before it was cut short. He racked up a season high 6 catches before getting hurt.
Giving Defensive Coordinators fits since 2005
Deon Butler led the Lions in receiving last year with 37 catches for 691 yds and 9 TD. He may have the best hands on the team and proved himself to be a formidable deep threat. In the spring game, Jordan Norwood was Anthony Morelli's favorite target pulling in 8 catches for 154 yards.
With tons of talent and now a year of experience under their belt, this group will spread the field and cause matchup problems for defenses to ponder. Look for 3 receiver sets to be a common formation in the 2007 offense.
In my opinion, the biggest reason for Penn State's return to the Top 10 last year was the wide receivers. When you look back on the great Penn State teams of the 80's and 90's, they were all blessed with good receivers: O.J. McDuffie, Bobby Engram, Joe Jurevicius, Bryant and Tony Johnson. When you look at the down years, lack of skill at WR is a common trend. If this is any indication, 2006 should be a good year.
Preseason Grade: A
The biggest question mark this year on offense is the offensive line. They return All-American stud and probable future first round draft pick Levi Brown at left tackle. But other than that they will be adding four new starters.
A.Q. Shipley switches back to offense and figures to anchor down the center position. Whispers out of spring practice suggest he has returned this year with a new attitude and work ethic. But the other three positions are not nailed down and we may see some different rotations until the coaches settle on a final depth chart before the start of Big Ten play.
The success or failure of the 2006 squad may hinge on this group. Unquestionably this is the biggest concern on the team. In the spring game the two squads combined only rushed for 44 yards. But then going into the 2005 season we were saying the offensive line was a question mark. That group did not have any stars outside of Brown and they did an adequate job. I expect this group will do the same after they get some experience.
Preseason Grade: C+ (Any line with Levi Brown is above average, but this group is just barely)
Gone are the days of Kyle Brady, Troy Drayton, Tony Stewart, and John Gilmore. It has been several years since Penn State has had a tight end that can pull down that clutch 8 yard pass over the middle. Isaac Smolko managed to come out of nowhere to make the game saving catch on 4th and 15 against Northwestern, but that proved to be a fluke as the year went on. With Smolko's departure Jordan Lyons, Patrick Hall, and Kevin Darling step in. This group will not force any defensive coordinators to adjust their game plan. One more reason why the offense will be sporting a lot of three wide receiver sets. Perhaps highly touted recruit Andrew Quarless will see some action midway through the season. I'm anxious to see what this kid has to offer.
Preseason Grade: D
The skill positions return everyone except for Michael Robinson. The Dynamic Duo (Hunt and Scott) and the Three Amigos (Williams, Butler, and Norwood) are going to be a blast to watch light up the scoreboard.
The key is the offensive line. At times this group is going to look brilliant when the O-Line can protect Morelli and block for Hunt and Scott. But if the O-Line struggles, and they will at times, the offense is going to sputter and look bad. Our success will depend on how fast this group can get up to speed. Look for Galen Hall and Jay Paterno to go for a lot of quick deep strikes early in the season. Long methodical drives require offensive lines that dominate the run and protect the quarterback play after play. This O-line is not capable of that yet.
Preseason Grade: B