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Friday, February 15, 2013
NittanyNation mailbag: Breakout players

By Josh Moyer

Mike Hull
Linebacker Mike Hull's strength and athleticism make him a great candidate to become a breakout star.


Welcome to NittanyNation's bi-weekly mailbag! We asked you to tweet or email your questions this week, and we've selected three to answer in-depth.

Adam Puzio (@Adam_Puzio) writes: Who do you think will be the biggest breakout players (the Robinson/Carter/Barnes/Amos) of 2013?

Josh Moyer: Well, you gave me four names -- so I'll give you four. Let's get the obvious out of the way first: Linebacker Mike Hull. He had the highest bench press on the team, better than the likes of 324-pound DT DaQuan Jones. He was also so quick that former defensive coordinator Tom Bradley once tried him out at safety. He's not the prototypical size of a linebacker, but he has pretty much everything else going for him. He was a big-play magnet last year, and he could be the next big thing at Linebacker U. In a secondary that's lacking depth, Hull's pass-coverage ability will be extremely important.

As far as the other three, I'm really high on OT Donovan Smith. You saw, early in the season, the impact his absence had on the line. When Adam Gress was in there instead of Smith, it was completely different. Smith has NFL potential, and I think this will be a big breakout year for him. I wouldn't at all be surprised if he made the All-Big Ten first team. The other two players I think are worth watching include wideout Eugene Lewis and defensive tackle Austin Johnson. Lewis, a high school quarterback, is an incredible athlete who just needed a season to learn routes and the playbook. He could slide into the No. 2 WR role this season. He's a playmaker.

As for Johnson, he's a sleeper. He should challenge for the starting spot opposite Jones. At the least, he should be the 2013 version of James Terry. Bill O'Brien sang his praises several times last season, so he's definitely a name to keep in mind.

Scott Reading (@7reading7) writes: Why so many QBs going into the 2013 season? How many of them are on scholarship? Spread the wealth on other positions.

Tyler Ferguson
Juco transfer Tyler Ferguson joins three other QBs battling for the Nittany Lions' job this spring.
Josh Moyer: Sure, there's been a lot of news on the quarterbacks -- but there's really not that many more than 2012. There were five QBs last season (counting Paul Jones) with three on scholarship. This year, by the time the summer rolls around, you'll have six QBs with three on scholarship.

You usually want about five quarterbacks for spring practice, so Penn State really needed to find a few early enrollees since only one -- Steven Bench -- returned. So, PSU offered juco signal-caller Tyler Ferguson and reeled in two other early enrollees (walk-ons) D.J. Crook and Austin Whipple. It added three QBs so quickly out of necessity.

Christian Hackenberg will also be enrolling over the summer, as will run-on Jack Seymour. Seymour turned down offers from several MAC schools to come to PSU, so he's a legit quarterback. He played for a bad team, so he further flew under the radar. PSU didn't need him ... but it couldn't turn him down since he was interested. I think Seymour has the potential to eventually rise to the No. 2.

Michael Pierce writes in an email: With the limit of 65 scholarships beginning to take effect, how do you anticipate Penn State will try to avoid a USC-like collapse other than just building its "run-on" class?

Josh Moyer: First off, I don't think USC's collapse had nearly as much to do with its lack of scholarships than, say, Lane Kiffin. But your point remains: How does PSU overcome 20 fewer scholarships?

Overall, those reductions have altered how Penn State's recruited scholarship players. O'Brien knows he can't miss on a prospect, so he's trying to take extra precautions -- maybe just speaking to a teacher or two to get a better idea of a prospect's personality. The staff also hasn't offered that many players in the 2014 class because it's really aiming for quality prospects right now. Almost everyone PSU's offered is on the ESPN Watch List. They're trying to show a lot of attention to those guys in hopes to persuade them to commit, rather than spread out attention to a larger prospect base.

Another way PSU will try to stave off a future collapse, I think, is by position changes. There are plenty of tight ends on the roster, so moving Garry Gilliam to offensive tackle makes a lot of sense. I think we'll see more changes like that than we usually do over the offseason. If somebody's not going to play because he's buried on the depth chart, it makes sense to move him at a position that needs a few more bodies. In addition to that, O'Brien's going to try to treat this roster almost like an NFL one, with run-ons as those practice squad players. So I think we'll see a lot of that NFL influence as time goes on.