We closed out 2007 by looking back at the biggest surprises and biggest disappointments of the year. Now it's time to look ahead to 2008, and we'll do that today by looking at BSD's five biggest reasons for concern next season.
Wait. What? We're Linebacker U. We keep coming up with All American linebackers like they're being cloned in the basement of the Hammond Building. Just hear me out.
We have Sean Lee coming back and that's great, but don't be surprised if they move him to middle linebacker like they did with Poz and Connor. It was a natural move for Connor since he had played there in the past, but Poz struggled for the first few games. Lee has never played in the middle, so it may take some time for him as well.
Looking back we never really settled on a replacement for Paul Posluszny this year. Tyrell Sales started the year at the top of the depth chart. He never had a huge impact and ended up getting injured. Navorro Bowman filled in and was starting to look like a play maker, but he got injured too. Then he got involved in the fight at the Hub and landed in Joe's doghouse and hasn't played since. Josh Hull filled in for a few weeks. The walk-on did well, but he's not a long term solution.
So this year we have Sean Lee and who else? Will Bowman be back? Is Sales the answer? Considering true freshman Chris Colasanti saw considerable playing time this year I would figure he has an excellent shot at starting outside linebacker. Bani Gbadyu also saw considerable playing time in the Alamo Bowl. We also have Nate Stupar taking off the redshirt. There are options, but they're all unproven.
The Anthony Morelli era is over. Huzzah! Huzzah! The bad news is the potential replacements combined for ten pass attempts this year. After the way Morelli looked completely unprepared going into the 2006 season I'm surprised this coaching staff would make the same mistake going into the 2008 season. Are you telling me we couldn't find an opportunity for Clark to get a single pass against Buffalo? Or Notre Dame? Or Iowa? Clark did manage to get half-a-dozen meaningful snaps in the Alamo Bowl, but he didn't throw a single pass. Why? And who knows what Pat Devlin is capable of?
So now there is talk about going to this "Spread HD Offense" whatever the hell that is. Are the ten returning starters going to have to learn a new offensive system to accommodate the one new starter? And they only have three weeks of spring practice to do so? This sounds like something Charlie Weis would do. How smart is that?
The highly touted recruiting class of 2006 will be entering their junior year in 2008. We're returning a ton of talent and should have the athletes to compete with anyone in the nation. But don't you get the impression the coaches will manage to screw up at least two games on their own?
They certainly did it this year when Joe scrapped the gameplan the night before the Michigan game and put in a new list of plays they hadn't practiced all week. The ultraconservative gameplan played right into the hands of the Wolverine defense. Appalachian State and Oregon gave us the blueprint to light them up and we ignored it. We played it safe. And we lost.
Against Ohio State we trailed by 10 points just before the half. Facing fourth and two on the Buckeye 38 yard line we chose to punt. We could have got a score and gained some momentum. But we played it safe. We didn't take chances. We punted thinking we could get a stop and get the ball back. We didn't get the ball back, and the Buckeyes rolled over us in the second half in the most embarrassing home loss in recent memory.
All season long the secondary sat back in deep cover three defense. We gave up short pass routes in six and seven yard chunks ad nausea. It cost us losses to Michigan, Ohio State, and Michigan State and nearly cost us the games against Indiana and Purdue. Yet we never adjusted. We never gave our athletic corners a chance to play man-to-man.
Joe has to make up his mind. He can't recruit the players to run the spread and still think three yards and a cloud of dust. They have to open up the playbook and throw some passes over the middle. And on defense they have to get in the face of the opponent. Don't sit back and just react to what they do. Force the issue. Play up tight on the corners and blitz. Don't let the quarterback look for a second or third option. Make him take that first option or nothing. That is how defenses work today. They force the opponent into making mistakes. They don't let them drive the length of the field and then get tough inside the 20.
The secondary was supposed to be a strength of this team in 2007. We returned three starters from 2006 and appeared to be upgrading talent by replacing Donnie Johnson with either Lydell Sargeant or A.J. Wallace. But at times the secondary looked lost and unable to stop opposing quarterbacks from playing pitch and catch with their wide receivers.
A close look at the numbers suggests the dropoff wasn't actually that bad. In 2006 they gave up an average of 197 yards per game. In 2007 that only increased to 214 yards. But defensive pass efficiency dropped from 106 to 118 which was good enough to drop us from #15 in the nation to #40. There are a few reasons to explain this.
First we had Spencer Ridenhour transfer out of the program in the preseason. This really hurt our depth at safety. Ridenhour was a solid player and probably going to be number two on the depth chart behind Tony Davis. So when Davis went down with an injury for much of the season we were forced to play Mark Rubin, a converted wide receiver who was never known for having blazing speed or any tackling ability. But even when Davis did play he didn't appear to be as effective as he was at cornerback the year before. In 2006 he broke up 13 passes. In 2007 he only broke up two. I question whether moving him to safety was as good a move as we were all led to believe.
It's now known that Justin King was playing with a shoulder injury almost the entire season. He was able to play through, but it was obvious at times he was shying away from contact and couldn't wrap up anyone to tackle them. Instead he would try to just knock people over or throw himself at their legs. And he couldn't get much help from the backups because Willie Harriott and Knowledge Timmons were in Joe's doghouse for much of the season.
So going into next year it appears the same cast of characters will be back. That is if Justin King doesn't decide to go pro. If he does it looks like our top three cornerbacks will be Wallace, Sargeant, and Timmons. If Timmons and Harriott don't return and King goes pro we will be extremely thin at corner which may force Joe to move Stephfon Green back to defense.
Jeremy Boone was a pleasant surprise in 2007. But that's about the only thing that went well on special teams. Kevin Kelly continued to struggle from long distance. He hit all 18 attempts inside of 40 yards. But beyond 40 yards he only went 2-for-8. You wonder if the coaches have lost faith in him as over the last five weeks of the regular season he didn't get an attempt over 35 yards and there was only one attempt over 27 yards. His one attempt from 47 yards in the Alamo Bowl sailed wide. If we're going to compete for anything in 2008 we will need a kicker we can depend on to get points in the clutch. So far Kelly is not that guy.
The kickoff coverage team was abysmal this year. They ranked 116 out of 119 Div. I-A teams. Opponents averaged 26.4 yards per return and two kicks were run back for touchdowns by Illinois and Purdue. Opponents had an average starting position of the 29 yard line, but that is because Kelly booted 21 touchbacks. His other 57 kickoffs averaged 63 yards landing at the seven yard line. Add on the 26.4 yards per return and opponents got the ball out to the 33 on average.
Our own kick return game was nothing to write home about. At the beginning of the year it was A.J. Wallace and Rodney Kinlaw back returning kicks. But as it because apparent that Kinlaw was going to have to shoulder the bulk of the duties at running back they pulled him off the kick return team and replaced him with Derrick Williams, who instantly became the primary kick returner. This was not a good move. Wallace averaged 26.4 yards per return on the season while Williams averaged just 18.2 yards. In all our kick return game averaged 21 yards per return and only got us out to the 30 yard line on average when it wasn't a touchback.
Special teams are a significant part of the game that Penn State coaches have neglected for years. Every kickoff presents you with an opportunity to gain yards in chunks of 20, 30, or even 40 yards. It's a huge advantage if you can start at the 40 as opposed to the 20 yard line, but our head coach delegates the kick return game to the safeties coach and we load up the kickoff coverage team with second string fullbacks and third string cornerbacks. How many games have we lost in recent years where a big return put a nail in the coffin? Michigan in 2005? The fake punt in Notre Dame 2006? Illinois and Michigan State in 2007? Until this practice changes I will always be worried about our special teams.