We covered 2007 with the biggest disappointments and biggest surprises. We looked ahead to the potential pitfalls we may encounter in 2008. So let's close out this series before 2009 rolls around and let's talk about the five reasons for hope for 2008 in no particular order.
Penn State suffered a myriad of costly injuries in 2007. The defensive line was hit particularly hard. Back in the spring Tom McEowen tore a ligament in his knee. In the preseason defensive end Devon Still also tore a knee ligament. He was projected to see significant playing time as a true freshman. Then Abe Koroma broke his ankle and Phil Taylor suffered a leg injury the week before the opener. And this is just what happened before the season started. Defensive end Jerome Hayes suffered a season ending knee injury against Wisconsin and tackle Jared Odrick suffered a broken ankle against Indiana that ended his season prematurely.
But the defensive line wasn't the only group bit by the injury bug. Justin King played with a nagging shoulder injury all season. Tony Davis lost considerable playing time due to an appendectomy. Mike Lucian missed several games while he recovered from a concussion. Lou Eliades was hampered with a foot injury. Elijah Robinson left the team back in the spring after discovering he had a rare condition that made him susceptible to spinal injuries. Navorro Bowman missed several weeks due to an ankle sprain. It was just a terrible year for injuries that significantly hurt team depth. Hopefully 2008 will be more fortunate.
Large Men Good at Pushing People Around
The offensive line was a complete disaster in 2006. Graduation, injuries, and transfers left the line extremely thin and inexperienced. They struggled to protect Morelli and struggled to open holes for Tony Hunt. They also missed blocks, jumped offsides, and committed holding penalties at the worst times imaginable.
All American Levi Brown graduated, but 2007 saw an infusion of new talent. For the first time in several years Joe dipped into the Junior College ranks to pull two offensive linement in Ako Poti and Nerraw McCormack. Mike Lucian and Dennis Landolt developed into quality linemen. And Stefen Wisneiwski joined the team as the most polished true freshman offensive lineman we've ever seen. And even though the line suffered injuries to Lou Eliades and John Shaw, their improvement in their performance was staggering.
Overall the line went from 4.3 ypc to 4.8 ypc in gaining over 400 more rushing yards than in 2006. Rushing yards per game increased by over 40, and total rushing touchdowns went from 16 to 27. But here is the telling stat for me. In 2007 the number of rushing carries increased by 69, but the total yards lost in rushing attempts decreased by 156 yards.
By the end of the year the offensive line was arguably the most consistent unit on the squad. The good news for 2008 is that everyone returns except for John Shaw, who only played intermittently in 2007 due to injury. We are also beginning to develop other highly recruited young talent like Josh Marks and J.B. Walton, and hopefully Lou Eliades can return to the form we heard about before his foot injury ended his season.
Longer In The Tooth
It's no secret that in years past Joe Paterno's strongest teams have been loaded with senior talent. And in 2008 we will have the highest percentage of senior starters since the 2005 Big Ten Championship team. Every starter returns on offense except for Anthony Morelli, and nobody I know is crying over that. (ed. note - Someone pointed out in the comments we're also losing some guy named Rodney Kinlaw. Who knew?) On defense we also return at least nine starters. Dan Connor will be a huge loss, but given all of the talent we have recruited at linebacker in recent years I'm confident we will find an adequate replacement. Justin King has yet to announce his decision regarding the NFL, but if he returns we will have ten starters back on defense. With a possible 22 starters returning Penn State will likely be the most experienced team in the Big Ten.
Return To The Spread
The spread offense is taking the nation by storm. And with Rich Rodriguez joining Michigan it is further taking over the Big Ten. On a side note, why is it perceived that Rich Rod is going to unleash his spread option offense and run circles around us slow Big Ten schools like we're stuck in the mud? I hate to break it to everyone, but the spread offense is nothing new to the Big Ten. Purdue has been running it forever. Northwestern has been running it forever and a day. Indiana and Illinois are running it now. Michigan State used to run it under John L. Smith. Penn State ran it in 2005.
To say Anthony Morelli was not a very mobile quarterback is an understatement. Penn State fans watched Daryll Clark gaining yards in ten yard chunks against Texas A&M in the Alamo Bowl and had visions of Michael Robinson running over unsuspecting defensive backs all over again. After the game the coaches suggested that 2008 will see a return to the spread offense like we saw in 2005. Clark certainly looked like a viable option at quarterback, but Penn State fans should not forget that Pat Devlin ran a similar offense in high school. So whoever takes over at quarterback we can be pretty sure we will see the spread option plays that were so successful under Michael Robinson a few years ago.
While many of the starting positions are already filled with returning senior talent, there is a new group of players either enrolling this summer or taking off the redshirts for the first time.
Evan Royster figures to be the leading candidate to take over for Rodney Kinlaw, but he will have ample backup and some stiff competition for the job from Stephfon Green, the speedy track star from New York who once gained 330 yards and scored five touchdowns on six carries in one game. Seeing time on the scout time in 2007 it's said he gave the first team defense everything they could handle and then some. Also joining the stable of running backs will be Brandon Beachum and Mike Shaw. Don't be surprised if Beachum sees playing time right away.
Derrick Moye will join the wide receivers with high expectations. The former Pennsylvania track star brings lightning quick speed to go with his tremendous athletic ability and height that the Penn State coaches have been craving in a wide receiver for years.
Jon Ditto sat out much of the year with a shoulder injury, but after surgery last spring he should be good to go for this spring. Ditto brings a freakish combination of size and speed that will create matchup problems for defensive coordinators regardless of whether he lines up at tight end or wide receiver. Andrew Szczerba and new recruit Mark Wedderburn will also join the tight ends giving us the deepest pool of tight ends we've had in years.
On defense we have a group of linebackers that all have All American potential. Nate Stupar, Andrew Dailey, and Chris Colasanti along with new recruits Mike Yancich, Mike Zordich, and Mike Mauti are the future of Linebacker U. And with Dan Connor graduating they all have a good chance of seeing playing time right away.
The defensive line will get some help from Devon Still, Chimaeze Okoli, Eric Latimore and Kevion Latham will add even more depth to our already overloaded defensive line.
If there is one part of this team I'm really worried about depth it's the defensive secondary. But Nick Sukay and Chaz Powell have a good chance to make the two deep on the depth chart and make solid contributions in their redshirt freshman years.