A lot has changed since I wrote my 2012 Penn State preview, which was only a month ago. Since the Freeh Report and NCAA sanctions hit, PSU has lost 14 players via either transfers or decommitments. While the depletion isn't likely over with, here's a look at what they've lost and what they've still got.
Receiver Justin Brown and Tight End Kevin Haplea: Even before the sanctions and transfers, attrition had taken a heavy toll on a passing game that was already well below-average in 2011. Bill O'Brien was inheriting a team that had to replace its No. 1 (Derek Moye), No. 3 (Devon Smith), No. 4 (tight end Andrew Szczerba), No. 5 (fullback Joe Suhey) and No. 7 (running back Stephfon Green) targets. In losing Brown and running back Silas Redd, you can add No. 2 and No. 6 to that list. Brown was probably the best of an all-or-nothing trio of receivers -- he averaged 14.8 yards per catch, but with only a 50 percent catch rate, while both Moye and Smith were under 50 percent -- but more importantly, he was a warm body that had seen the field before. Now, heading into 2012, here are the four PSU pass catchers who saw the most action in the passing game in 2011:
- Fullback Mike Zordich (13 targets, five catches, 31 yards)
- Receiver Brandon Moseby-Felder (12 targets, four catches, 53 yards)
- Receiver Shawney Kersey (11 targets, five catches, 108 yards)
- Receiver Allen Robinson (seven targets, three catches, 29 yards)
(Haplea would have been No. 5 on this list, but he also transferred.)
Those four players combined for 221 yards (5.1 per target) and just a 40 percent catch rate. Take away a single, 41-yard catch by Kersey against Eastern Michigan, and those numbers fall to 180 yards (4.3 per target) and a 38 percent catch rate. The good news, as it were, is that the passing game wasn't very good to begin with, and Brown was as large a part of that mediocrity as anybody. But experience still means something, and Penn State officially has next to none.
Kicker Anthony Fera: Behind Brown, the departure of Fera might be the most damaging. Let's face it: with this offense, Penn State really needed a good punter and place-kicker this year. And while PSU was only 73rd in Net Punting with Fera last year, a) Fera was still better than backup Alex Butterworth, and b) Fera was also Penn State's place-kicker (11-for-11 on field goals under 40 yards and 20-for-20 on PATs) and kickoffs guy (his touchback rate of 22.2 percent was quite strong). Senior Evan Lewis had a lower touchbacks percentage (not that this matters quite as much in 2012 with the new kickoff rules) and was only 1-for-5 on field goal attempts in 2011.
Running Back Silas Redd: Redd's was easily the marquee name on the list of transfers, but I don't actually think Penn State will miss him as much as anticipated. On a per-carry basis, Redd really didn't do much that junior Curtis Dukes and sophomore Bill Belton didn't also do in 2011. I really like the combination of the 237-pound Dukes and the 196-pound Belton, and a lot is expected of freshman Akeel Lynch as well. If there is one position at Penn State that could handle the loss of a strong player, it is running back.
Offensive Lineman Ryan Nowicki: There really isn't any damage you could do to the Penn State offensive line that graduation hadn't already taken care of. The Nittany Lions were already attempting to overcome the loss of four starters who had combined for 97 career starts, and they were already looking at life with four new starters sandwiching senior Matt Stankiewitch. Regardless, Nowicki's departure might hurt more in the future. He is but a redshirt freshman, and now he'll be lining up for a division rival in Illinois.
Quarterback Rob Bolden: Perhaps nobody previously on the Penn State roster could have used a fresh start more than Rob Bolden, who set the bar incredibly high by becoming the first true freshman quarterback in ages to start for Penn State, then did nothing but fail to meet the bar over the next two years. He was consistently passed on the depth chart by Matt McGloin (himself afflicted by quite a low ceiling), and when he got opportunities to shine, he failed to take advantage of them. He completed just 39 percent of his passes in 2011, with two touchdowns, seven interceptions and eight sacks. Not good. It was a bit shocking that LSU would take a chance on him, but it perhaps proves that Bolden's talents are not completely damaged goods just yet.
Linebacker Kairi Fortt: It made sense that Fortt, a four-star linebacker who had teased with great potential while battling longer spells of frustrating play, would go to the Cal defense, which has for two years now teased with great potential (usually at home) while battling longer spells of frustrating play (usually on the road). If Fortt ever reaches what seems like vast potential, it could hurt that he's doing it somewhere other than State College. But he is still battling back from offseason surgery, hasn't run since the spring, and probably wasn't going to make a major impact on what is still a linebacking corps loaded with the likes of seniors Gerald Hodges and Michael Mauti, junior Glenn Carson and sophomore Mike Hull.
Defensive Tackle Jamil Pollard: Penn State's defensive line should still be relatively strong in 2012, with tackle Jordan Hill and end Pete Massaro returning. But the tackle position isn't incredibly deep, and Pollard could have pretty quickly carved out a spot in the rotation. Instead, he joins what looks like a potentially devastating, deep Rutgers defensive line. As with Nowicki, Pollard's departure (or, in this case, his decision not to join Penn State at all) might hurt more in the future. But Pollard's ceiling could be quite a bit higher than Nowicki's.
Defensive Back Tim Buckley: Buckley is a redshirt freshman, so position him firmly in the "might hurt more in the future" camp. On a Penn State secondary that is replacing all four starters, however, he was firmly in the mix for playing time this season and had already worked his way onto the second string.
2013 Depth Chart
Penn State has also lost five commitments thus far: offensive tackle Dorian Johnson, receiver Will Fuller, defensive tackle Greg Webb, linebacker Zach Bradshaw and defensive back Ross Douglas. That leaves them with nine known commitments for 2013, some of them quite good (four are four-star recruits according to Rivals, and two are among Rivals' Top 60 recruits in the country).
If we pretend for a moment that this will be Penn State's complete recruiting class, acknowledging both that any of these nine players could still decommit at any time, and that Penn State is free to sign a few more players (though probably few of elite caliber) when all is said and done, here's what we're looking at for a quick 2013 depth chart, complete with their 2013 years of eligibility. Obviously there are a few more players who could get involved here, but we'll look at just the potentially major ones.
- Quarterback: Paul Jones (four-star junior, likely 2012 backup), Christian Hackenberg (four-star freshman)
- Running Back: Bill Belton (four-star junior, likely 2012 starter), Curtis Dukes (senior, likely 2012 backup), Akeel Lynch (sophomore)
- Wide Receiver: Shawney Kersey (senior, almost the default go-to guy in 2012), Eugene Lewis (four-star sophomore), Allen Robinson (junior), Brandon Moseby-Felder (senior), Alex Kenney (four-star junior, potential 2012 starter), Matt Zanellato (two-star sophomore).
- Tight End: Adam Breneman (four-star freshman, potentially five-star when all is said and done), Garry Gilliam (two-star senior), Jesse James (three-star sophomore), Brent Wilkerson (three-star sophomore), Kyle Carter (two-star sophomore).
- Offensive Line: Stankiewitch and tackle Mike Farrell are basically the only seniors on the line, so whoever they may be, PSU should return three starters up front: two guards (probably some combination of seniors Mark Arcidiano, John Urschel and Eric Shrive, and junior Miles Dieffenbach), and a left tackle (most likely either senior Nate Cadogen or four-star sophomore Donovan Smith). Throw in a couple of 2012 freshmen (Brian Gaia and Anthony Stanko) and a 2013 four-star freshman (Brendan Mahon) for good measure.
The combination of transfers and 2012 seniors will allow for Bill O'Brien to rather quickly get his own personnel into place, though obviously recruiting restrictions will minimize the overall number of new signees. If Paul Jones establishes himself as starter-quality by the end of 2012, or at least a quality backup, he could be looking at the starting job in both 2013 and 2014. But even if the starting quarterback is a true freshman (Hackenberg), he should have a decent running game on which to lean. And at the very least, 2013's receivers will have gotten a head start in 2012 with Brown's and Haplea's departures. And look out for a strong tight ends presence for O'Brien, something with which he is clearly accustomed after his time in New England.
I will be shocked if the 2012 offense is anything more than mediocre, but barring a huge run of injuries or further departures, the 2013 unit shouldn't be awful.
Now, to the defense:
- Defensive End: C.J. Olaniyan (four-star junior, likely 2012 backup), Anthony Zettel (four-star sophomore, likely 2012 backup), Deion Barnes (four-star sophomore, likely 2012 backup), Brad Bars (two-star junior), Garrett Sickels (four-star freshman).
- Defensive Tackle: DaQuan Jones (three-star senior, likely 2012 contributor), Dyle Baublitz (four-star junior), Luke Graham (three-star junior).
- Linebacker: Glenn Carson (senior, likely 2012 starter), Mike Hull (four-star junior, likely 2012 heavy contributor), Ben Kline (three-star sophomore), Nyeem Wartman (three-star sophomore or redshirt freshman)
- Cornerback: Adrian Amos (three-star junior, likely 2012 starter), Mike Wallace (two-star senior, potential 2012 contributor), Jesse Della Valle (unrated junior).
- Safety: Malcolm Willis (senior, likely 2012 starter), Stephen Obeng-Agyapong (senior, likely 2012 starter), Ryan Keiser (unrated junior).
O'Brien did an excellent job of keeping poachers away from the defense, at least when it comes to major 2012 contributors. But the losses of Fortt, Pollard and Buckley could quickly start to backfire next fall. The front seven should once again be quite talented, but the lack of depth, especially when paired with a smaller recruiting class, could start to take a toll. It could be doubly painful if the 2012 secondary doesn't come together very well, as there won't be many new options for quite a while.
Penn State and Bill O'Brien are in an odd situation right now. In 2012, a defense that remains mostly intact should be able to keep the Nittany Lions competitive despite what really might be an awful passing game with help from a decent stable of running backs. In 2013, the offense could come together nicely while lack of depth becomes half-devastating on the defensive side of the ball. And, of course, the specter of further departures at the end of the season still looms.
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