There are so many hyperbolic comparisons I could make to symbolize Penn State’s first season under Bill O’Brien. But I’ll spare myself that embarrassment so many sportswriters bring upon themselves, and just say this: the worst is over, but the future will be anything but smooth sailing.
O’Brien had the worst job in college football this past season. No, not that Penn State is a bad place to coach or the team was horrendous. Rather, he had to somehow motivate a team that had essentially nothing to play for, under the constant black veil of the scandal. Starting 0-2–in the most painful of fashions–caused things to go from bad to downright ridiculous.
Penn State weathered the initial storm. The Nittany Lions put their heads down, faced the powerful winds blowing against it from the disappointing start against Ohio to glorious finish against Wisconsin. Now, the real slog forward begins. Four years from now, Penn State will emerge from the darkness, hopefully not too beaten, hopefully even more better for it.
Now, however, is the end of the fall. Penn State stopped the bleeding, and is now moving upward. Signing day, with some of the best recruits Penn State has seen in years, is coming up in mere days. Spring football starts in a few weeks. It will be one step at a time for this program, starting with the first official practices of the new team.
Here are some things I’d like to see from now until the end of spring practice, the 2013 Blue-White Game.
1. Quarterbacks rising… With Christian Hackenberg not due on campus until the summer, it will be a golden opportunity for not only guys like Steven Bench, but the coaching staff to build a rock-solid base at this position heading into summer camp. Bench is the clear leader right now, no matter what the staff or others will say. The kid has the only real-game experience, and the benefit of playing in O’Brien’s system for a full year now. Intelligence is the most important factor for any Penn State quarterback, experience is next. I’m not expecting Bench or the others to suddenly emerge as all-BigTen quarterbacks in just a few weeks. But Penn State must be able to count on them to perform if necessary this fall.
2. Cornering the market… Surprisingly enough, barely anyone–immediately following the season, at least–left the team using Mark Emmert’s despicable free-transfer extension sanction. Penn State does return three starters in the secondary, as both safeties Malcolm Willis and Stephen Obeng-Agyapong and corner Adrian Amos solidify the main chunk of the unit. But with Stephon Morris graduated out of the lineup, it will be up to some pretty green players to fight for the empty starters spot. Da’Quan Davis played well as a backup, and will likely be first in line. Jordan Lucas was okay, but didn’t play enough to show much. The scariest part of the secondary’s situation is its depth. Aside from those guys, there aren’t many players who can legitimately say they’re ready to be starters. And recruiting this year didn’t pull in much in the way of star-power in the defensive backfield. Richie Anderson, Jordan Smith, and Anthony Smith have all enrolled early, ensuring them added reps this spring. They will need every one of those reps, as they could end up being one injury away from the starting job.
3. Keeping Linebacker U alive… Michael Mauti and Gerald Hodges are gone, likely to the NFL in a few months. Glenn Carson and Mike Hull return, along with some very promising young guns. A big question mark is Nyeem Wartman. He played significantly during the first few games, but was sidelined with an injury, eventually getting redshirted the rest of the season. In a way, it’s fortunate for him and the team he was injured so early, or that redshirt would have been burned. Assuming Hull, Wartman and Carson lock up the three starting spots, that leaves Ben Kline as the primary backup. With Ron Vanderlinden’s influence on this unit continuing another season, it’s very safe to assume Kline will see a great deal of playing time as part of Penn State’s method of rotating players in and out of the front seven with regularity. Just like the secondary, however, depth is the biggest issue here. Zayd Issah and Brandon Bell are moderately-strong recruits who should factor in later, but they won’t be enrolled until the summer.