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The Five Biggest Surprises of 2007

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The other day we looked at the five biggest disappointments of 2007. So today we'll take a look at the five biggest pleasant surprises of 2007.

#5 - Rodney Kinlaw

Prior to the 2007 season Rodney Kinlaw's injury riddled career had been limited to kickoff returns and mop up duty in 30-point blowouts. His career high in carries was 10 in the unforgettable 63-10 Illinois blowout of 2005. His highest single game yardage total was 86 yards on six carries against Youngstown State in 2006. He only had two career touchdowns and he never cracked 200 yards in a season. I'll be the first to admit that when it appeared Austin Scott was not going to be the player we had hoped this year I was very concerned that Kinlaw wasn't ready to handle the load.

He certainly proved me wrong. After two fumbles in the Buffalo game Austin Scott was sat on the bench and Kinlaw got his first chance to be the featured running back. He responded with 123 yards and a touchdown on 23 carries. Then when Scott was officially removed from the team just before the Iowa game Kinlaw was forced into the lead role. He proved he could be a workhorse with 168 yards and 2 touchdowns on 28 carries. In all he broke the century mark in five games this year and finished the season with over 1100 yards. Somewhat unbelievably, only 11 Penn Staters can claim they rushed for over 1000 yards in a season. Rodney Kinlaw is one of them.

#4 - Jeremy Boone

Some people would say Jeremy Kapinos was our greatest weapon in 2006. The offense struggled all season long failing to move the chains. But time and again Kapinos bailed them out with a booming punt to capture back the field position. When he graduated our options to replace him were a true freshman and a walk-on. The walk-on won, but Jeremy Boone was one of the few players this year that vastly exceeded expectations.

Boone had a sensational sophomore year and earned first team All-Big Ten honors. In 54 punts he averaged 42 yards per punt with only three touchbacks. 14 punts resulted in a fair catch and 23 of them landed inside the 20 yard line.

His best punt of the year came against Indiana. Penn State was fending off a late Hoosier rally. The defense had no answer for Kellen Lewis and James Hardy. The Hoosiers had scored on two straight possessions in the fourth quarter to pull within five points with three minutes to go. Penn State took the ball at the 20 yard line and did nothing with it only moving to the 27. It appeared the Hoosiers were going to get the ball in excellent field position with a chance to ride their momentum to an emotional win on their own field. But Jeremy Boone calmly stepped in and boomed a 68 yard punt to pin the Hoosiers back at their own five yard line. It proved to be too much distance for the Hoosiers to overcome and the Nittany Lions slipped out of Champaign Bloomington with a victory.

#3 - Maurice Evans

I think everyone expected Maurice Evans to be a great player someday. I just don't think we all expected it to happen so soon for the true sophomore. Evans finished fifth in the country with 12.5 sacks and sixth in the nation with 21.5 TFL. He was named first team All Big Ten and an All American on various media outlets.

Midway through the season we could tell he was on the verge of becoming a dominant player. Against Indiana he proved he was that player. The Penn State offense was struggling in the second half as the Nittany Lions clinged to a six point lead near the end of the third quarter. Evans burst into the backfield and threw Indiana quarterback Kellen Lewis to the ground. Lewis fumbled the ball which bounced right into the hands of the defensive end. Evans returned the ball 55 yards to the Hoosier 32 yard line. After a Penn State field goal the Hoosiers got the ball back on their 20 yard line. On the very first play Evans chased down Lewis for a 13 yard loss and punched the ball loose again with Phil Taylor falling on it at the seven yard line. It was his play along with the 68 yard punt from Jeremy Boone that won the game.

#2 - Evan Royster

With two redshirt seniors at the top of the depth chart at the beginning of the season nobody expected much out of the redshirt freshman Royster outside of occasional mop up duty here and there. He showed what he could do rolling up 70 yards and a touchdown on 8 carries in scrub time against Florida International. But then he saw little playing time after that for the next several weeks.

The problems of Austin Scott forced him to the top of the depth chart behind Rodney Kinlaw, who Paterno didn't feel was durable enough to carry an entire offense. So Royster started seeing regular meaningful playing time against Iowa. His bruising inside running style and burst of speed on the outside left Nittany Lion fans feeling very good about the tailback position for the next few years.

His best game came against Purdue when Royster rushed for 126 yards and a touchdown on 21 carries. He averaged 6.1 yards per carry on the season as he rushed for 448 yards, a rushing total Austin Scott could never achieve in his Penn State career. With Kinlaw set to graduate he appears to be the heir apparent to the starting job in 2008.

#1 - The Offensive Line

A major cause of the struggles in 2006 were the offensive line. With four new starters they couldn't open any running lanes for Tony Hunt and they couldn't protect their inexperienced quarterback. They missed blocks. They jumped offsides. They looked generally lost.

They were weak last year and everyone but first round draft pick Levi Brown returned for the 2007 season. Some injuries were suffered and some some shuffling was done, but this line came together and played much better than last year. The racked up 300 more yards on the season averaging 37 extra yards rushing per game. But the telling stat to me is yards lost. In 2006 Penn State lost 373 yards on rushing plays. In 2007 they only lost 215. This is a very good sign going into 2008 when everyone returns except Shaw who didn't really play much this year anyway due to injury.

Joe Paterno could run through that hole!