It would not be a stretch to call Penn State's 2012 football season a pleasant surprise. The team finished with an 8-4 record and shook off two early losses to go 8-2 the rest of the way. All this was accomplished under a first-time head coach in Bill O'Brien, and, oh yeah, the unprecedented sanctions that resulted from the single biggest scandal in the history of intercollegiate athletics.
The Nittany Lions enter 2013 with hope for the future, but real problems to deal with. The NCAA sanctions will start to weigh on the team's depth this year, and they also need to replace key players at important positions. The most important aspect of Penn State's offseason will be the battle to replace Matt McGloin. Sophomore Steven Bench and JUCO transfer Tyler Ferguson are the only two scholarship quarterbacks currently on the Penn State roster, and will fight it out in spring practice. The wildcard in all this is five-star recruit Christian Hackenberg, who will join the team in August. The most likely outcome would be a redshirt year for him, but if he can blow the doors off the competition in fall camp, he may get the starting job as a true freshman.
On defense, the departure of linebackers Michael Mauti, Gerald Hodges, and defensive tackle Jordan Hill created three big holes that need to be filled. Penn State will be relying on underclassmen to pick up the slack, which could lead to some growing pains in 2013.
The team is in the second year of a four-year bowl ban, so postseason play is not a consideration at this time. However, if it can find adequate replacements for McGloin and in the front seven, replicating its 8-4 record is not outside the realm of possibility. The Nittany Lions open the season against Syracuse in the Meadowlands, but their toughest out-of-conference game is probably at home against Central Florida on Sep. 14. In Big Ten play, they face Michigan and Nebraska in Happy Valley, but have to travel to play Ohio State and Wisconsin. If they can enter conference play at 3-1, 8-4 is within their reach, and anything above 6-6 would probably be considered a success.
Spring practice start date: Penn State begins spring practice on Monday, March 18.
Spring game date, location, TV info: The Blue-White Game will take place on Saturday, April 20, at Beaver Stadium in State College, Pa. The game will be played at noon ET., but shown at 8 p.m. on Big Ten Network.
Approximate returning starters: The Nittany Lions will return 13 starters from their 2012 squad, including Big Ten Wide Receiver of the Year Allen Robinson. Eight of those starters return on offense, including almost all skill position players. They return five starters on defense, three in the secondary.
Biggest addition: Without a doubt, the biggest addition to the Penn State football program is Christian Hackenberg. Hackenberg was the top-rated quarterback recruit in the nation in 2013 according to some recruiting services, and his commitment to Penn State in the face of the NCAA's sanctions is a massive boost to the program. When you consider how drastically Matt McGloin improved during only one year of O'Brien's coaching, the sky could be the limit for the five-star recruit from Virginia.
Biggest loss: As odd as this is to type, Penn State will really miss McGloin. He was the butt of a lot of jokes during his time in State College, but he had an outstanding senior season in 2012, completing better than 60 percent of his passes and throwing for 24 touchdowns against only five interceptions. However, other than McGloin, most of the pieces on offense are coming back. Most of the Nittany Lions' attrition comes on the defensive side of the ball, starting with the outstanding pair of linebackers, Michael Mauti and Gerald Hodges. They also lose defensive tackle Jordan Hill and defensive end Sean Stanley on the line, and the secondary gets even thinner with the departure of cornerback Stephon Morris. Penn State will also have a third defensive coordinator in three years in John Butler, who was promoted from secondary coach following Ted Roof's departure to Georgia Tech.
New players? The Nittany Lions had five early enrollees start class in January. First and foremost is tight end Adam Breneman, a highly-rated Pennsylvania product that was an early commit to Penn State. He tore his ACL last June at a 7-on-7 camp, and may be a candidate for a redshirt year in 2013. Also among early enrollees are the nation's second-ranked JUCO quarterback, Tyler Ferguson, defensive backs Jordan Smith and Anthony Smith, and running back Richy Anderson. The rest of Penn State's class will join in August camp, including four-star defensive end Garrett Sickels, who despite playing at a position of depth, could see a good amount of playing time. Here's some film on Sickels:
New coaches? The big change is John Butler moving from secondary coach to defensive coordinator to take over for Ted Roof. It was originally believed that former Virginia Tech defensive back Anthony Midget was hired to replace Butler as secondary coach, but Midget will be working with the safeties while Butler remains as the position coach for the cornerbacks. Midget spent the past season as defensive coordinator for FCS Georgia State.
New schemes? Even though the Nittany Lions will have a new defensive coordinator, not much is expected to change, scheme-wise. Butler didn't say much about his defensive scheme beyond buzzwords like "aggressive," but nothing major will be changing like base alignment.