April 11, 2011

Blue-White Game Preview '11: Offensive Backfield

This post is part 1 of 5 this week previewing all the offensive and defensive units heading into the Blue-White scrimmage this Saturday in Beaver Stadium.

Part 1: The Offensive Backfield

Penn State has more talent at the skill positions this spring than I can remember. That doesn't necessarily mean that talent is experienced, developed or realized at this point. A dominating theme last season was that of underachievement by a football team that had arguably more raw talent than at least two of the teams that defeated it (Illinois & Michigan State) and probably another (Iowa).

In the first parts of our preview series heading into the Blue-White Game, we'll start with the offensive backfield--quarterbacks and running backs. Then tomorrow it's on to the receivers and tight ends.

While the quarterback position remains a hot mess this spring, the running backs are surprisingly strong with the loss of Penn State's all-time leading rusher. Even the fullbacks are something to get excited about for 2011 and possibly on the field this weekend.

More on each in the following sections below the break.

2010 Penn State vs Temple-17
Most eyes will be on Rob Bolden
this Saturday, wondering if it will be
his last performance in Beaver Stadium.

Not much has changed since we first looked at this position two months ago. But there are some twists to the situation since spring practice has actually opened up.

Rob Bolden will be here through the end of spring, and probably though summer. But that's not exactly comforting seeing as how Joe Paterno during his press conference last week had been all but named Bolden one of the two candidates for starting quarterback this season. So, if Bolden isn't named the starter for week one, does that mean he's going to just up and leave? Generally sane folks are fans of Bolden and his ability, but that's a pretty crappy position in which to place your team.

Meanwhile, Matt McGloin is still chugging along as the default co-starter this spring. Those sane folks who support Bolden, or even redshirt frosh Paul Jones, are increasingly worried that Penn State could go yet another season with three very highly touted quarterbacks on the roster, but allow a former walk-on who didn't play well in his only seven games to take the reigns and possibly drive what should have been a championship-level season right off the cliff. If you remember correctly, McGloin bombed in the last year's Blue-White Game. While we've learned to forget what we "learn" from the annual spring scrimmage, it's tough to look at that game tape and not see exactly what unfolded on the field a few months later. It wasn't pretty, just like McGloin's Blue-White performance.

Then there's Paul Jones and Kevin Newsome. Sort of stuck in the middle of all this quarterback controversy, they remain wild cards for not only the rest of this spring, but this summer and fall. Even Joe Paterno speculated that it wouldn't be a shock if Newsome departed the team. Jones stole the show last spring (again, see video above), but didn't win the job in August, instead redshirting his freshman season with the team. There is a very real chance that we could see a repeat of that this Saturday. And should it happen that way, with the other quarterbacks struggling, be wary of the message boards, as they will surely implode in on their own irrational level of mass hysteria.

If none of this made the quarterback race any clearer, then we're in the same boat.

Running backs

Quiet back here, huh? Yeah, we haven't heard nearly a peep out of this position all spring. And that's probably a very good thing. With all the injuries and uncertainty at other major positions, I'm pretty sure the running backs are all perfectly fine with doing their work out of the spotlight. This is easily the deepest, most talented position on offense, but I'm afraid the offensive line will once again bring down the backs before they can really get rolling.

2010 Penn State vs Northwestern-67
Silas Redd impressed as a complement to Evan
Royster. But has he taken control of the
starting job this spring?
It all starts this weekend with Silas Redd and Stephfon Green. Will they each get enough carries to leave the fans excited for the fall? Or will it be a typical Blue-White scrimmage and give most of the rushing attempts to the backups? Well, you know what, it wouldn't leave me upset to see the backups get touches. That's because the backups might be good enough to start for most D-1A football teams. There is not much sense in going over what we want to see from Redd and Green. It would be nice to see Redd ease off on the dancing around. Green needs to see the holes better and hit them with the speed we've seen on and off. For both, I want to see good plays that suit each style of running. But that's probably the most unlikely with this coaching staff.

Behind the top two guys, there are the main backups in Brandon Beachum and Curtis Dukes. Beachum saw some decent time in 2009 before tearing his ACL against Northwestern. Dukes has become a bit of a legend, but only in the "We've heard so much about him, but does he really exist?" style of legends. Not a great reputation. But still, tipping the scales at 240 pounds, Dukes is the kind of back that could really benefit Penn State this season. After 2010, when short-yardage downs were absolutely killer for Penn State's offense, a power back that can move the pile--ala Tony Hunt--would be a nice reprieve. Beachum has more speed and burst than what we've seen from Dukes in his limited carries. The rising redshirt junior could be an excellent complement to the speed and agility of Redd and Green. It'll be nice to see both Beachum and Dukes get plenty of touches this weekend.

2010 Penn State vs Northwestern-43
Will we see more of Mike Zordich
near the goal line this Saturday?
But running backs aren't all to get excited for this spring and fall. The fullback position is stronger than anything we've seen in more than a decade. Joe Suhey and Mike Zordich both displayed great value in last season's gameplan, with Suhey fantastic on screens and receptions out of the flat, and Zordich really blossoming in a lead-blocking role and carries near the goal line. Redshirt freshman Zach Zwinak won't figure in much this season, but could see some time on Saturday. He came to Penn State as one of the top three fullback prospects in the nation last season.

If Penn State can assemble a halfway decent offensive line by the second week of the season, this unit could dominate opponents. Then again, that would require good playcalling and formations designed to best utilize the overflowing talent at the running back position. So, yeah... let's just worry about this weekend and what these guys can do for now.


So it's not as bad as it sounds. The quarterback position will hopefully work itself out before August. I'm not sure it wouldn't, as Bolden will either stay and earn the job, or leave and the race will reduce to fewer candidates for fall camp. In the tail of the "I" the group of running backs this year is really something to get excited about. With the combination of speed and power, and some pretty good fullbacks to help open up the lanes, this position is easily the strength of the offense for at least the next two seasons.

Up tomorrow morning, Part 2: Wide Receivers & Tight Ends

Part 1: Offensive Backfield
Part 2: Receivers & Tight Ends
Part 3: Offensive & Defensive Lines
Part 4: Linebackers
Part 5: Secondary & Special Teams

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  1. FWIW...Zack Zwinak injured his ACL last season and has not been in action this spring.

  2. Ack! You're right. Stupid mistake on my part. Zwinak was in a red-cross jersey this month. He should be back in action this fall.

  3. Also to note, Green's shoulder injury may keep him out of Saturday's game. But we'll see how that develops.

    I'll do an injury-specific update on Friday.

  4. It is amazing how many fans have a low opinion of the Penn State coaches (almost across the board).