I'm not going to lie: I really didn't want to write this preview. In a vacuum, the Penn State football team, with a new coaching staff, a loaded two-deep in some units and black holes in others, would be pretty interesting to discuss. But with all that has happened at the university in the past eight months, and with all that is going to happen, it almost feels as if there are not enough disclaimers in the world -- "Obviously football is not the most important thing right now;" "Obviously Joe Paterno's legacy is stained;" "Obviously the real victims are not the current players, but the Sandusky victims;" et cetera -- to get you to where you can simply talk about Penn State football. But we're going to try.
Following the Jerry Sandusky abuse scandal has been disgusting, depressing, and infuriating. Most of all, it has been incredibly disturbing, because it happened for such a long period of time, because there was obvious a cover up of some sort and to some degree, because it confirmed that we don't actually know any of the coaches and higher-ups we hold as morally indefatigable (when they're winning) because of three-hour sample sizes, and because it reaffirmed all of the "football is a little too powerful" concerns we hear a lot but prefer to ignore. It has made many of us shake our heads at the Penn State fanbase, but if we're honest with ourselves, we know that this pretty easily could have happened at any of our schools. We hope it wouldn't have gone on for as long, or to the same degree, but we don't know that for sure, so we assume the best.
However, the justice system is, a decade or so too late, running its course. It has taken down Sandusky, and it isn't done. While we wait to find out who else justice claims in this matter, football will still be played in central Pennsylvania this fall, by a team that didn't ask for any of this, and watched by fans that, like so many of us might do or have done, put a little too much faith into the legend of a successful coach.
So here's what this preview isn't about: the upcoming Freeh Report, the death penalty, Joe Paterno's legacy, unearthed emails, or any sort of ongoing obsession with discussing the evil of the situation. There are already places you can go for that. This piece is simply going to be about the football team that will be wearing Penn State uniforms this fall. Add in whatever extra context you like. It's hard to miss.
For years, Penn State served as the University of New England, and their success led to larger crowds, recruiting success, more success, etc. They both make and spend a lot of money on their football program, they are firmly in the middle of a large swath of at least semi-fertile recruiting grounds, and they have the most stable of stable leadership in place. They fell to just 7-6 last season, which is to be expected when your quarterbacks are a true freshman and a walk-on, but they once again have interesting, disciplined athletes ready to take the field this fall, and hey ... it sounds like they've got a young, up-and-comer calling the plays this year. Look out, world. […]
Penn State has a proven recent track record, and they have recruited strong depth in areas of recent need (quarterback, defensive end, linebacker). That alone suggests a bounceback from last year's iffy season is likely. PSU was young in all the wrong ways last year, and it caused some rather predictable setbacks.
The 2011 Football Outsiders Almanac projections for the Nittany Lions are a bit conservative -- 30th overall, 8-4 projected record, 5-3 in the Big Ten -- but the way the schedule shapes up, PSU should find itself in the race for the Big Ten
EastLeaders crown for quite a while. Why? Because their two most likely conference losses are the final two games on the schedule: they visit Ohio State on Nov. 19 and Wisconsin on Nov. 26. If those are two of their three projected conference losses, they they are very likely looking at a situation where they take an 8-2 (or so) record into mid-November and get a good amount of "Look who bounced back!" press. Joe Paterno's 46th season on the sidelines should result in him reaching, or getting awfully close to, 410 career wins.
It feels like a century ago, but once upon a time the 2011 season was supposed to be one of redemption for Joe Paterno's Penn State program. After an off year in 2010, the Nittany Lions returned a ton of pieces for making a run at a division title. As expected, they racked up the win total in September and October, but when the calendar turned to November, a) the schedule got much more difficult, and b) the story became about something other than football. With all of the drama and scandal surrounding the program, and with some bigger opponents coming to call, Penn State fell apart down the stretch.
First Nine Games: Penn State 26.6 Adj. Points per game, Opponents 19.9 (plus-6.7)
Last Four Games: Opponents 26.0 Adj. Points per game, Penn State 24.4 (minus-1.6)
Over the last four games, a below average offense got worse, and what was a spectacular defense lost its edge. And, consequently, an 8-1 record turned into a 9-4 season. In a Sandusky-less world, perhaps PSU takes out Nebraska at home and ends up in a better bowl game; in that universe, the story of 2012 becomes about another rebuilding project -- Penn State is going to be without five of its top six receivers, most of its starting offensive line, all of its starting secondary, and an absolute stud at defensive tackle (Devon Still). Now, that's still part of the story … but only part of the story. But you already knew that.
So we've gotten pretty far into this piece without really discussing new head coach Bill O'Brien. Here's what we know: he's a young guy, just 42, and his entire resume was formed on the offensive side of the ball. In theory, this is a good thing, as the offense needs quite a bit of help. O'Brien was Georgia Tech's offensive coordinator in 2001-02 and Duke's in 2005-06 before winding up on Bill Belichick's staff at New England. He worked his way up from generic "offensive assistant," to receivers coach, to quarterbacks coach, to offensive coordinator, and his 2011 Patriots offense was both unique and effective. Without a wealth of explosive options -- the top seven targets: a spectacular possession guy (Wes Welker), two tight ends (Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez), two running backs (Danny Woodhead and BenJarvus Green-Ellis) and two over-the-hill wideouts (Deion Branch and Chad Ochocinco) -- O'Brien crafted an interesting, efficiency-based passing attack that was, to use a college example, like last year's Stanford offense, only based out of a shotgun. It worked because the Pats indeed had a great possession guy and two strong tight ends … and because they had Tom Brady.
This may come as a surprise to some of you, but I get the feeling Matt McGloin is not Tom Brady.
The offense O'Brien inherits is heavy on solid running backs, heavy on lackluster quarterbacks, and almost completely bereft of experience at receiver and on the offensive line. We'll go "good news, bad news" here.
Good News: The combination of Silas Redd, Curtis Dukes and Bill Belton should give Penn State one of the better running back rotations in the Big Ten. Redd was a solid workhorse last year, averaging 19 carries per game and averaging 5.1 yards per carry. His Adj. POE of minus-0.3 was almost perfectly average -- a lot of the credit for his yardage was given to a strong line that ranked 23rd in Adj. Line Yards -- but he should be solid, and Belton, a four-star sophomore, came on strong in the spring while Dukes was out with academic issues.
Bad News: Penn State still doesn't have a quarterback. You know the candidates well by now: you've got former walk-on Matt McGloin and former blue-chipper Rob Bolden. Bolden started as a true freshman in 2010 but struggled, lost his job to McGloin, threatened to transfer about 12 times, stayed in 2011, and put together one of the worst passing lines in the country last fall: a 39 percent completion rate, a 2-to-7 touchdown-to-interception ratio, and a paltry 4.4 yards per pass attempt. For two years, we've read things like "Bolden OBVIOUSLY has talent, but he has to harness it," but at this point, it is probably fair to doubt the level of obvious talent. McGloin, meanwhile, didn't exactly seize control of the job this spring -- like the other quarterbacks, his spring game stats were not particularly impressive; but he was still better than both Bolden (three picks and two sacks in just 16 pass attempts) and rising sophomore Paul Jones (40 percent completion rate, two sacks in 17 pass attempts). Jones might still have a chance at overtaking McGloin in August, but one has to figure Bolden's chances at the No. 1 spot are all but gone.
Good News: The tight end position is well-stocked. Granted, Andrew Szczerba, last year's leading receiver (among tight ends) is gone, but between juniors Kevin Haplea and Garry Gilliam (who is returning from an ACL injury), redshirt freshman Kevin Carter and incoming freshmen Brent Wilkerson and Jesse James (who enrolled early and had a lovely spring), the Nittany Lions have talent and variety. O'Brien lists two tight ends on the depth chart -- a traditional "Y" and a TE/WR hybrid "F"), and PSU should have the depth to pull off the two-tight end look.
Bad News: Of the seven players who caught more than five passes last year, two return. Granted, neither Derek Moye nor Devon Smith were particularly impressive last year (they combined for a 47 percent catch rate), but they were still apparently better than their backups, and they are gone. That leaves Justin Brown (35 catches, 50 percent catch rate), running back Redd (nine catches), and a grab bag of inexperience. Brown averaged 14.8 yards per catch (solid) and 7.4 yards per target (less so) and is the clear No. 1; the closest thing to a clear No. 2 might be sophomore Allen Robinson, who had a nice spring.
Bad News: At the end of last season, six linemen had accumulated starting experience (112 career starts). Four of them are gone. You've got 2011's starting center, senior Matt Stankiewitch (14 starts), senior tackle Mike Farrell (one start), and question marks. There is some experience here -- there's a chance that every starter is either a junior or senior -- and four-star redshirt freshman Donovan Smith surged this spring, but when your line is your biggest strength (as it was in 2011) and it loses 80 percent of its starters, that is a concern, to put it lightly.
I'll say this: O'Brien's hire of Ted Roof (his boss at Duke in the mid-2000s) as defensive coordinator was not as baffling to me as Kirk Ferentz's hire of Greg Davis as offensive coordinator. But it was curious nonetheless. O'Brien pleased Penn State fans by retaining Larry Johnson, Sr., as defensive line coach, but let's just say that the F/+ era (2005-11) has been mixed for Roof. His final defense as Duke head coach ranked 105th in Def. F/+ in 2007 (though, in fairness, the talent level at Duke was not exactly comparable to what he finds at Penn State), but his only defense at Minnesota (2008) improved from 109th to 67th. And at Auburn, where he spent the last three seasons, his defense was all over the place: it regressed from 29th to 45th in his first year (2009), improved to 23rd in Auburn's 2010 national title season, then regressed to 64th in 2011 after serious turnover. Roof clearly isn't a bad defensive coach, but he probably isn't fantastic either.
Roof inherits a defense that, for wide swaths of 2011, was indeed fantastic. Despite a late fade, the Nittany Lions ranked seventh in Def. F/+, third in Passing S&P+, 14th in Rushing S&P+, fourth on standard downs and 12th on passing downs. Depth is a serious concern at the front and back of the defense, but with a fantastic set of linebackers and, at worst, an interesting line, this should remain at least a Top 30 defense or so.
We'll start with the biggest strength: Linebacker U is stocked. Penn State recruiting has been interesting through the years -- there aren't a lot of former star recruits in the secondary or receiving corps, but just about every scholarship linebacker on the roster was once a four-star signee. Senior Gerald Hodges was outstanding last year, racking up 10.0 tackles for loss, sacking the quarterback 4.5 times, defending five passes (one picked, four broken up), and forcing two fumbles. He will be joined by senior Michael Mauti (who was on his way to a strong year before tearing his ACL), juniors Glenn Carson and Khairi Fortt, sophomore Mike Hull, and walk-on senior Jamie Van Fleet. Fortt has been a serious tease through the years and must overcome spring injury issues, but 6.0 of his 21.5 tackles were behind the line of scrimmage; he and Mauti, if healthy, are serious playmakers.
Of course, the linebackers had it pretty easy last year: they had tackle Devon Still wrecking shop for them up front. Still (17.0 tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks) and ends Jack Crawford and Eric Latimore (combined: 12.5 tackles for loss, 9.5 sacks, eight passes broken up) are gone, leaving behind a unit that might be pretty thin unless some four-star freshmen are ready for action. Tackle Jordan Hill (8.0 tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks) was stellar himself (though he may have benefited from lining up next to Still), and senior end Pete Massaro (8.0 tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks in 2010) returns after missing 2011 with injury. (Injuries did not do the front seven any favors last year.) Senior end Sean Stanley has been solid in a backup role, and quite a few four-star youngsters could break into the rotation: sophomores C.J. Olaniyan (end) and Kyle Baublitz (tackle), redshirt freshmen Anthony Zettel and Deion Barnes (both ends) and freshman tackle Jamil Pollard. The line should be solid, even if it regresses a bit.
That leads us to perhaps the biggest question mark on the entire team: the secondary. All four starters are gone, and attrition has limited Penn State to two scholarship cornerbacks (Stephon Morris and Mike Wallace) until freshmen report in August. Morris broke up five passes in backup work last year, which is promising. Meanwhile, sophomore Adrian Amos moved from corner to safety (despite the dearth of corner options) because of the state of the safeties. Juniors Malcolm Willis and Stephen Obeng-Agyapong return, but Amos probably has the highest upside here. And while there are plenty of former four-star recruits in the front seven, there is not a single one here. Amos, Morris, and company could make this a competent unit, but competent is not the same as very good.
Honestly, with everything that is going on in Happy Valley right now, I cannot imagine what would constitute a success in 2012. Basically every game on the schedule is winnable and losable, but we're just going to skip this section.
We don't know if the NCAA is going to hand down some punishment in the Sandusky matter (my personal belief is that this isn't necessarily the NCAA's matter, but that's another column completely). We don't know what level of enthusiasm the Penn State fanbase will be able to invest in this team this fall. We don't know how people will think of Joe Paterno in 20 years. Hell, we don't even know how it will feel to watch Penn State on television this fall. And as it pertains to the football team itself, we don't know if there is any hope at quarterback, we don't know what depth is like on the lines, and we don't know if there is enough talent at receiver and defensive back to field a team capable of challenging for a division title.
We don't know much of anything, in other words. On paper, this should still be a pretty good team. But reality has skewed everything we thought we knew about Penn State football. As long as the justice system is still running its course, football is secondary. But football will be played regardless.
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