May 11, 2011

Penn State's Biggest Trouble Spots for 2011, Part 1

2010 Penn State vs Youngstown State-17 A few big story lines stick out from Penn State's depth chart heading into this summer. The quarterback battle is on everyone's mind, but that's only part of what could possibly make or break the entire 2011 season. The running backs, tight ends and defensive ends are among and handful of trouble spots, though none of them are worrisome for the same reasons or to the same degree. For instance, the running backs aren't necessarily a problem, but the situation is still more unsettled than most other positions.

You know one thing that isn't all that unsettled this summer? The offensive line. Yup, that perennial message board fodder in the trenches is still getting a lot of ink, but almost because it's supposed to be a problem for Penn State practically every year. But it's not rainbows and jellybeans, either. More on that in a minute.

There are four big sections in the off-season: post-bowl (Jan-Feb), pre-spring (Feb-Mar), pre-summer (May-June), and pre-season (Aug). Usually during these inter periods it's a good time to gauge the depth chart situation. That's what I will begin today, though it was something I had originally planned for a week or two ago.

This week and next week, I'll look at a couple positions that are the most troublesome going into the summer and fall camp season. Today starts with the trenches, mainly the defensive ends, tight ends and a very specific look at the right guard position on the offensive line.


Defensive Ends

My biggest worry going into the season is depth. There is a fairly decent two-deep heading into the summer, but that's not how Penn State runs its defensive line. Larry Johnson, Sr. has grown his reputation to its current height by using every ounce of talent he has along the defensive line, rotating frequently between not a two-deep, but three-deep cadre of tackles and ends. Granted the third guys aren't in nearly as much as the second guys, and obviously not as much as the starters.

LJS and PSU hang their hat on having fresh bodies in the trenches. If that becomes an issue again this year, the result may not be much less painful than what we all had to bear watching against Alabama, Illinois, Ohio State and other teams running right at the defensive front with great success late in games.

2010 Penn State vs Youngstown State-62 Jack Crawford and Eric Latimore are likely the starters into this summer. Pete Massaro would have been the likely weakside end (Latimore), but tore his ACL yet again and will miss this season. Yeah, it sucks. But all is not lost just yet. As long as Sean Stanley gets his head out of his ass, and one or two of last year's freshmen can develop into a reliable second-stringer, the defensive ends might be alright this fall.

There are only so many times we can go over the depth chart before I start repeating myself, but Massaro's injury kind of opens up the backup spots at defensive end. CJ Olaniyan, DaQuan Jones, and probably Kyle Baublitz now have a great chance to move into that fourth end spot, adding just enough depth to keep this unit from being eaten alive. However, LJS has never been scared to throw true freshmen into the fire. Someone like Shawn Oakman, Deion Barnes or Jordan Kerner might see action as early as the season opener.

Finally, you never know what the staff might experiment with during the summer. Should the ends not cut it as a unit, don't be the least bit surprised if we hear of either Nate Stupar or Khairi Fortt moving into a stand-up defensive end role, similar to what Jerome Hayes did in 2009, Tim Shaw in 2006, and Cameron (Derek) Wake in 2004. I'm not convinced that Jones will stay at defensive end through the fall, but I'm also not ready to mark down either Stupar or Fortt in his place.

2010 Penn State vs Northwestern-8 Tight Ends

Surprisingly, Joe Paterno revealed at the spring presser that Garry Gilliam will miss the entire 2011 season. He tore his ACL against Iowa, leaving his return somewhat up in the air. But losing him is a big blow to the offense. It wouldn't be quite so bad if we knew anything about Andrew Sczcerba's back situation. He missed last year with his nagging spine injury, and it doesn't look good going forward. Sczcerba was the projected starter going into 2010. He would likely start this fall if he is healthy.

That leaves true sophomore Kevin Haplea and incoming true freshman Kyle Carter. Yeah, we all heard how linebacker Mike Yancich was moved to tight end this spring to add depth. But if that's where this unit is currently sitting, I'm officially scared. I like Haplea. He can do the job this fall. But if he goes down, it will be 2010 all over again for the tight ends.

Right Guard/Offensive Line

Four of the five positions along the offensive line are set for the fall. But one remains partially up for debate: right guard. This spot was occupied for two of the last three seasons by Stefen Wisniewski, the off year when Wiz moved to center in 2009. This spring, many were surprised to see John Urschel rise above the former incumbent guard DeOn'tae Pannell, who has started games at almost every position but center the last two seasons.

2010 Blue-White Game-73It just seems that Pannell, despite his high ratings coming out of high school, hasn't been able to play consistently well enough at any one position to earn and hold a starting spot. That could be partly due to the staff moving him around so much, highlighted by 2009, when he started the season at right tackle, was then benched, and later started at left guard against LSU in the bowl and played well. Then in 2010 he was in and out of the lineup as, yet again, the staff tinkered with the offensive line most of the first half of the season.

Urschel has apparently done enough to break through the logjam on the second team line, right past Pannell. The big issue fans might have with this is that Urschel is such an unknown within the realm of starting personnel. That could have been solved had the Blue White Game not been a washout. But even then, I'm not sure the crowds would have seen enough (or known what to look for) in a glorified scrimmage with no real pass rush.

Wrapping Up...

Some other positions I was debating for this post were the 1-technique defensive tackle and the centers.

I'd say the biggest worry right now would be that the right guard position never solidifies, creating a weak spot along an offensive line that cannot afford another year of run blocking like it had in 2010. Running up the middle was painful to watch last season, and with the younger talent returning this fall, the line's ability to block and keep the ground game churning is critical. That's not only an offensive problem, either. If Penn State can't hold onto the ball late in games or during critical drives, the defense will suffer the fatigue problems it faced throughout 2010.

This isn't all as bad as it seems. But these are all things that could be flash points for problems to emerge this season for Penn State. Whether any of it actually happens, we'll have to wait another three and a half months to find out.

Stay tuned next Monday for Part 2. I'll likely take you through some of the more "skill" positions that you can stress over this summer.

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  1. "I'm not convinced that Jones will stay at defensive end through the fall, but I'm also not ready to mark down either Stupar or Fortt in his place."

    Agree and agree. Jones will slide back inside once Latimore and Crawford return, and I too wouldn't be surprised to see some different looks out of our athletic LBs. Not a base 3-4, but we have too many solid LBs (and too few solid DEs) to not switch it up from time to time.

  2. I agree, Jeff. While I like the 3-4 just from a personnel point of view, it could never work in the "Ground and Pound" Big Ten. You'll have some big boys taking on linebackers too consistently in run plays. In playing too few pass oriented offenses, the 3-4 doesn't really give us a lot of defensive leverage.