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Thursday, March 14, 2013
Four early predictions for Penn State

By Josh Moyer

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- With just four days until spring practice starts, NittanyNation decided to look into its crystal ball to find out what could await Penn State this season.

Who'll be the opening-day starter at quarterback? And what run-on could end up starting? Here's what we think:

1. Sam Ficken will lose his starting job to incoming run-on Chris Gulla.

Granted, Ficken's accuracy greatly improved in the second half of the season -- but it's clear he is not the kicker of the future. He didn't make a single kick over 39 yards, and 10 of his 21 attempts came in under 30 yards. Regardless of what Bill O'Brien might say publicly, it doesn't appear as if he trusts Ficken in the kicking game. And he simply didn't have anyone else to really turn to last season.

Gulla is a quality kicker who already has better range. He received a scholarship offer from UMass, and even South Carolina wanted him as a preferred walk-on. He'll be on campus July 1, and he should immediately solve some of Penn State's special teams woes. Gulla can also punt, but Alex Butterworth's job is probably safe ... for now.

2. Donovan Smith will make the All-Big Ten first-team.

Donovan Smith
Offensive tackle Donovan Smith was expected to be a breakout star, but he didn't quite live up to his potential this season.
We've been high on Smith for awhile and named him our No. 1 breakout player this season. Even offensive guard John Urschel sang his praises and compared him to current NFL guard Stefen Wisniewski. Smith has a lot going for him and should be the best player on the offensive line this year.

When he was recruited by PSU, the old staff told him they were reminded of first-round draft pick Levi Brown. That comparison now seems pretty accurate. Smith could have reeled in conference honors if he was healthy last season. But with another season under his belt and no lingering hamstring injuries or a cast? The sky's the limit.

3. Steven Bench will be the opening-day starter.

It bears repeating: True freshmen do not have great track records when it comes to starting. Even Matt Stafford threw nearly twice as many interceptions as touchdowns -- and he enrolled early back in 2006. In other words, since Christian Hackenberg won't join the team until summer, he'll simply have too much catching up to do.

Junior college quarterback Tyler Ferguson wasn't the Nittany Lions' Plan A signal-caller, and one opposing juco coach felt he was more of a project with a high ceiling. The coach expressed surprise when told Ferguson would be vying for the starting job. Obviously, that leaves us with Bench -- who did well enough to surpass Paul Jones on the depth chart early last season. He may have limited experience, but he still has more time with this staff and this team than any other quarterback. If O'Brien does name a starter in the spring, which is still unlikely, it'll almost certainly be Bench.

4. Mike Hull will be the star of the defense.

There's a handful of great talent here -- Glenn Carson, Deion Barnes, Adrian Amos -- but Hull should be the star at Linebacker U. He's so fast that former defensive coordinator Tom Bradley once tried him out at safety, and he even turned in a better bench press than 324-pound DT DaQuan Jones.

And not only is he strong and fast, but he has great football instincts and a knack for the big play. He'll likely lead this team in tackles, and he'll add a lot with his coverage ability. Penn State won't be the same without Gerald Hodges or Michael Mauti, but Hull will help ensure this front-seven isn't a push-over. He's a special player who's on virtually everyone's "likely to break out" lists.