It's hard to believe, but spring practice kicks off this weekend and wraps up with the annual Blue-White Game on April 21. Over the coming weeks I will be discussing spring practice and the numerous position battles taking place. We have some big shoes to fill with Poz, Jay Alford, Ed Johnson, Levi Brown, Donnie Johnson and Tony Hunt all graduating. Today, I want to focus on the returning players that started last year and are sure locks to return as starters this year.
Quarterback - Anthony Morelli
Senior Anthony Morelli returns for his second year as the starting quarterback. After a rocky start in 2006 that saw three losses and five interceptions in his first seven games, Morelli settled in and turned in a 5-1 record with 5 TD and only 3 INT, two of which were balls bouncing off his receivers' hands, to end the year. He particularly made noticeable progress in the weeks of practice leading up to the Outback Bowl where he showed more poise and confidence than he had all season.
In spring practice, Morelli has to focus on the small details that mean the difference between being a good quarterback and a great quarterback. Footwork, making good decisions, putting touch on the ball, and looking off defenders are the most important for him to focus on. He also needs to demonstrate leadership and the ability to make plays. It was evident in 2006 when his first option wasn't there he didn't know what to do. He needs to show he can improvise and will his offense down the field like Michael Robinson did in 2005. The time will come in 2007 when Penn State may need a late drive for a winning score. His teammates need to be able to look into his eyes and have confidence in him. That was lacking in 2006.
Wide Receivers - Derrick Williams, Deon Butler, and Jordan Norwood
The freshmen phenoms from 2005 all had sophomore slumps in 2006. Even still this should be our starting three wide receivers come fall. This group all has to focus on doing a better job of getting open and making catches this spring by building chemistry with Morelli. This will be their second spring working together, so the new quarterback excuse doesn't fly anymore. Talented freshman Chris Bell may push for playing time.
Tight End - Andrew Quarless
Andrew Quarless took the Big Ten by storm in the second half of the season with 16 catches for 220 yards and 2 TD in his last five games. The guys behind him are mostly blocking type tight ends, although Kevin Darling does have five catches and a touchdown to his name. I can't imagine any scenario in which someone beats out Quarless for the spot at the top of the depth chart. This spring he needs to work on further understanding the offense and blocking.
Center - A.Q. Shipley
By far the most solid returning starter on the offensive line. Very little depth at the position means he's a lock to return as a starter. I'm looking for Shipley to take his game to another level in 2007. He should have a mastery of the offensive line blocking schemes by now which will prove most valuable for the new starters this year. Plus he has that nasty streak I love to see in an offensive lineman.
Right Guard - Rich Ohrnberger
After a rocky start in his first year as a starter, Ohrnberger settled in and played pretty well by the end of the year virtually guaranteeing he will once again be the starting right guard in 2007. The good thing is most of his problems in 2006 were mental in nature which means they are coachable and correctable. He was often the offender of penalties and missed blocking assignments in the redzone last year. Some of his problems may have stemmed from being moved from left guard to right guard midway through the season. Hopefully he has a better grasp of the offense now so he can concentrate harder on snap counts, execution and assignments.
Outside Linebacker - Sean Lee
After a breakout season in 2006 Sean Lee figures to be a lock to keep his starting job. He recorded 89 tackles and 5.5 sacks despite being frequently yanked in favor of the nickel defense. I fully expect Sean Lee to compete for at least 2nd team All-Big Ten honors in 2007. There isn't much for Lee to improve on. Just focus on getting faster, anticipate, and stay healthy.
Linebacker - Dan Connor
Now that Poz is gone, Connor can have his year in the spotlight. He could have gone pro this year and entered the NFL draft, but he chose to come back for his senior season. Barring any shenanigans with prank phone calls, the 2006 Bednarik finalist should have no problems getting a starting position. If he stays healthy he will most likely finish his Penn State career as the all time leading tackler for the Nittany Lions. The only question is whether he will play outside linebacker as he did in 2005 and 2006 or shift back to middle linebacker where he played his freshmen year. If he does shift back, I suspect the move will go much easier for him than it did for Poz. Connor has experience playing there and has mentioned he prefers playing in the middle to the outside. Connor's objective for the spring is bulk up and stay healthy.
Cornerback - Justin King
I will say it right now. Justin King will be a first team All Big Ten and possibly All American this year. After Notre Dame abused him in zone defense in week two last season, the coaches let him line up man-to-man after that and he shut down every player he lined up against after that including possible first round draft picks Ted Ginn and Robert Meachem. King needs to focus on playing better zone defense and tackling. Notre Dame and Minnesota made him look silly in zone defense, and running backs frequently put him on his back in the open field.
Hero Back - Anthony Scirrotto
Going into last spring the coaches were up in the air about who was going to play the Hero position. It was a three way competition between senior Nolan McCready and sophomores Spencer Ridenhour and Scirrotto. Honestly, at the time I thought Scirrotto would end up being number three on the depth chart. All three saw playing time on opening day against Akron, but only Scirrotto got an interception. After that the coaches decided to "live with the mistakes" a sophomore would make. The sophomore Scirrotto went on to earn All Big Ten honors by leading the Big Ten in interceptions in his first year as a starter. I would say he's a safe bet to start against FIU in September. Anthony needs to spend the spring focusing on tackling. He missed a few tackles last year that led to big plays, most notably against Illinois.
Two-thirds of the planet is covered by water. The other third is covered by Scirrotto.
And those are the locks. That's only eleven guys I listed meaning there are eleven starting positions up for grabs this spring. The good news is for most of those positions we have players with real game playing experience. In the coming days I'll break down the different position battles for you. We'll talk about who the contenders are and I'll give my gut feeling about who is going to win playing time in the fall.