Penn State Nittany Lions: PSU position preview

PSU position preview: Quarterback

August, 29, 2013
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As part of an ongoing series, NittanyNation will preview a different position leading up to the season opener against Syracuse on Saturday. Today is the last installment: Quarterback.

Projected starter: Christian Hackenberg (2012 HS stats: 156-of-291 for 2,144 yards; 24 touchdowns, nine interceptions)

Key losses: Matt McGloin (2012 stats: 270-of-446 for 3,266 yards; 24 touchdowns, five interceptions)

Next in line: No, Bill O'Brien still hasn't publicly announced a starter -- but that appears to be Hackenberg, with juco signal-caller Tyler Ferguson as the backup. Ferguson will still see time at points this year, so last year's McGloin-Steven Bench split shouldn't be repeated.

D.J. Crook is listed as the third-string quarterback, while Austin Whipple is likely No. 4. Freshman walk-on Jack Seymour, who turned down MAC scholarship offers, is No. 5.

What to expect: Let's start off with what NOT to expect -- and that's a repeat of last season's 24:5 TD-to-INT ratio. Hackenberg is one of those players, his high school coach said, who comes along once or twice in a career. But that doesn't necessarily equate to immediate success.

Even NFL quarterback Matt Stafford, whom ESPN rated the No. 1 QB back in his class, threw nearly twice as many picks as touchdowns in his first season. So there's no easy way to place expectations on Hackenberg here. For every Stafford, there's a Chad Henne -- somebody who breaks out as a true freshman and ties some school passing records.

Hackenberg boasts all the tools for success -- throwing power, accuracy, mobility, size -- but he needs to improve upon reading defenses. All freshmen do. This year may be a wild card, but the future is bright for Hackenberg. Penn State's just hoping that future comes sooner rather than later.

Recruiting trail: ESPN 300 quarterback Michael O'Connor (Bradenton, Fla./IMG Academy) will enroll early, and he'll bring some much-needed depth to the position. He's a quality player who, if needed, could contribute right away.

O'Brien likes to go after the best players available, and that was O'Connor. He wasn't a "need" pick. O'Brien offered him a scholarship before Bench even transferred, a few weeks after he wowed assistant coach Charlie Fisher by calling out Penn State plays he saw on film. O'Connor is a quick study and, if everything goes as planned, could become a two-year starter following Hackenberg.

Best-case scenario: Hackenberg fares well in his first few starts during the nonconference season. There are some bumps but, overall, he keeps Penn State in games and earns the respect of fans and his teammates with his play. The Lions' offense breaks out with more big plays than ever thanks to Hackenberg's arm, and he earns a spot on the freshman All-American team. He peaks near the end of the season, guides PSU to an improved record and has fans clamoring about a title run in 2016.

Worst-case scenario: The true freshman's adjustment to the college game is a slow one, as he makes poor decisions that consistently lead to turnovers. O'Brien is forced to use Ferguson a bit more than anticipated, and a controversy looms. Hackenberg shows flashes of potential, giving fans hope, but he also shows he's just not yet ready to be a full-time starter. Penn State wins fewer than eight games as a result.

Top position question: Just how good can Hackenberg be? Well, he's bound for the NFL. That's … not something you usually say about an 18-year-old kid who's never taken a college snap. But every one of ESPN's top-rated quarterback recruits made it to the NFL upon graduation, and only one of the three younger quarterbacks still playing doesn't appear to have an NFL future. (Sorry, Phillip Sims.)

Russell Wilson played in the same high school league as Hackenberg, and most coaches there said Wilson is the better QB. Still, it's close. Expectations are big enough here that Hackenberg would be a disappointment if he didn't make it to the NFL.

How good can he be? He could be the best since Kerry Collins. But that's all a game of "what ifs" right now. Obviously, his potential is high -- but we should get a glimpse Saturday of just what he's capable of.
As part of an ongoing series, NittanyNation will preview a different position leading up to the season opener against Syracuse on Saturday. Up today: Offensive linemen.

Projected starters: Adam Gress (6-foot-6, 320 pounds), John Urschel (6-3, 301), Ty Howle (6-0, 293), Miles Dieffenbach (6-3, 295) and Donovan Smith (6-5, 322)

Key losses: RT Mike Farrell and C Matt Stankiewitch

Next in line: The Nittany Lions will use a rotation again this season, with Angelo Mangiro as the next man up when it comes to the interior. At tackle, Eric Shrive and Garry Gilliam will compete for time. (Shrive is also versatile enough to play inside.)

Those three should see the most time besides the starters. Others who could contribute include Anthony Alosi, Wendy Laurent and true freshman Andrew Nelson.

What to expect: With another season under OL coach Mac McWhorter and strength coach Craig Fitzgerald, this line should take another step forward. Sure, the loss of Stankiewitch and Farrell hurt -- but Howle isn't that much of a downgrade and Smith is healthy for a change.

If the right tackle (Gress or Gilliam) can get off to a good start, this line will be better than last season. Smith could be the next great lineman at Penn State, and the interior is very strong. As a result, Zach Zwinak should see plenty of holes inside and the running game should improve.

This group isn't entirely bigger weight-wise -- Gress, Howle and Dieffenbach lost weight from last season -- but don't let that fool you. This group is stronger, literally, from last season and should push around opposing defensive linemen a bit more.

Recruiting trail: In-state product Noah Beh (Scranton, Pa./Scranton Prep) is the lone offensive lineman of the 2014 class right now, and he won't make an instant impact at Penn State. He's no more than 260 pounds, so he'll need some time to fill out.

On the plus side, he can also play on the defensive line. And he has a lot of upside. Next season, however, could be the "Year of the Offensive Lineman" for Penn State.

PSU could take about three prospects there, and it's already extended offers to more than a half-dozen players -- including the likes of ESPN Junior 300 prospects Sterling Jenkins (Pittsburgh, Pa./Baldwin), Tristen Hoge (Pocatello, Idaho/Highland), Ryan Bates (Warminster, Pa./Archbishop Wood) and Richie Petitbon (Washington, D.C./Gonzaga).

Best-case scenario: At least three linemen earn All-Big Ten honors, as Smith breaks out and earns a reputation as Levi Brown's heir apparent. The line takes great strides, further increasing the legend of the crazy-in-a-good-way strength coach. (He wears shorts in 20-degree temperatures, does the worm before some games and once licked the gym floor to fire up his players.) Fans can breathe easy in future years knowing the linemen are in the hands of Fitzgerald and McWhorter.

Worst-case scenario: The right tackle is a big letdown and creates havoc along the line, while Smith shows himself to be injury prone. The interior is still good, but the tackles struggle without Smith and don't give the quarterback much time to throw.

Top position question: How does Donovan Smith compare to Levi Brown? Well, the last staff sure thought they were similar -- because that was one of the Nittany Lions' big recruiting pitches.

Former PSU coach Bill Kenney playfully pulled aside Smith's seat during a recruiting trip in 2010, telling him it was Brown's seat. The two were both initially recruited to play the defensive line, and Kenney showed Smith some clips of the 2007 first-round NFL draft pick.

Brown, 29, is currently listed at 6-6 and 324 pounds. Smith is 6-5, 322. And Urschel previously hinted that Smith held more potential than second-round pick Stefen Wisniewski. So Smith certainly has the potential to follow in Brown's footsteps.

PSU position preview: Tight ends

August, 26, 2013
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Kyle CarterPatrick Smith/Getty ImagesPenn State tight end Kyle Carter aims to improve on his 36-catch season.

As part of an ongoing series, NittanyNation will preview a different position leading up to the season opener against Syracuse on Saturday. Up today: Tight ends.

Projected starters: Kyle Carter (2012 stats: 36 catches, 453 yards, two touchdowns) and Jesse James (15 catches, 276 yards, five touchdowns)

Key losses: None

Next in line: Walk-on-turned-scholarship TE Matt Lehman started three games and played in all of them last season, and he'll be the next man up for now if there's any kind of injury. That being said, he'll still see plenty of time in Bill O'Brien's rotation at the position -- and he could be pushed for playing time by the true freshman behind him.

Adam Breneman missed his senior season of high school with a torn ACL in his right knee, but he's made great strides and has impressed the staff with his recovery. He's from the same high school as former PSU great Kyle Brady, and big things are expected out of the nation's top tight end of the 2013 class. By the end of the season, he could be TE No. 3. Brent Wilkerson is nursing a back injury, and O'Brien hasn't mentioned when he could return -- although he did acknowledge the injury was serious.

Wilkerson could see time down the line if he's healthy. If he's not, the only other TE listed on the roster is run-on Tom Pancoast, who was initially recruited as a safety.

What to expect: If this isn't the best group -- group -- of tight ends in the country, it's pretty darn close. This is the most unique part about Penn State's offense, as defenses will have to anticipate four tight end sets at some point.

The tight ends here have taken to calling themselves "TEU," and that's not too far from the truth. Maybe that's a bit premature, but PSU targets tight ends in a big way. Bigger than nearly every other school. PSU could go five consecutive seasons with someone on the Mackey Award watch list, and Breneman is aiming to win the award before he graduates. (It's already typed in his smartphone.)

There's really nothing bad to say about this group. Teammates have raved about the 6-foot-7 James, who should provide a nice red-zone target for the new quarterback. Carter might have the best hands on the team. Penn State's fourth-best tight end could start on most Big Ten teams.

Recruiting trail: Clearly, the Nittany Lions don't need any more tight ends -- but O'Brien's a fan of the "best player available" philosophy. Three-star prospect Mike Gesicki (Manahawkin, N.J./Southern Regional) is the only tight end who could wind up at Penn State in the 2014 class, and PSU is on his short list. Ohio State and Wisconsin are Penn State's biggest competition. Gesicki visited PSU earlier this month.

Best-case scenario: Carter not only picks up where he left off last year but becomes to tight ends what Allen Robinson was to wideouts last season. Carter is named the Big Ten tight end of the year, earns All-America honors and is in the conversation for the Mackey Award. James becomes a touchdown machine, while Breneman sees solid time later in the season and sets a foundation.

Worst-case scenario: Carter starts off slow after missing time over the offseason because of a wrist injury. He's just fine later on, but PSU finds itself relying more on the run to offset a struggling starting QB -- so the tight ends are unable to flash their ability that much. This group is improved, but it's not easy to tell because they're not seeing as many targets.

Top position question: Can Carter, or any tight end here, win the Mackey at some point his career? Absolutely. We averaged the stats of the last 10 Mackey winners, and future Penn State tight ends should come very close to the numbers.

Here's the average: 58 catches, 708 yards, six touchdowns. (And two of the winners had fewer than 50 catches and 600 yards.) If you average Carter's numbers out last year as if he had played every game, he would've finished with 48 catches for 604 yards and three TDs. So he's not that far off.

Breneman's goal of winning the Mackey in the future is very reachable. If Carter can improve his numbers from last year -- and the young QBs do appear to be targeting the tight ends more as security blankets -- then PSU should at least have a semifinalist in the mix.

PSU position preview: Wide receivers

August, 23, 2013
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Allen RobinsonRich Barnes/US PresswireJunior Allen Robinson returns after setting PSU's single-season record for receptions in 2012.
As part of an ongoing series, NittanyNation will preview a different position leading up to the season opener against Syracuse on Aug. 31. Up today: Wide receivers.

Projected starters: Allen Robinson (2012 stats: 1,013 yards, 77 catches, 11 touchdowns) and Brandon Moseby-Felder (437 yards, 31 catches, one touchdown)

Key losses: None

Next in line: Redshirt freshman Eugene Lewis was close to playing last year but, as a former high school quarterback, he needed an extra year to learn the receiver position. He's a fast, exciting playmaker who should add another wrinkle to this offense.

Matt Zanellato also will see an increased workload this season and said he's been practicing at all the receiver positions. He's versatile, so Zanellato should help catch some defenses off-guard. In the slot, Alex Kenney is the top guy -- with true freshman Richy Anderson backing him up.

What to expect: This group is clearly better than last year, and with Lewis' addition to the lineup, the quarterback here shouldn't have to just turn to A-Rob and the tight ends for targets. Moseby-Felder and Lewis have good speed, and this position is definitely in good shape. It's deeper, more experienced and more talented than in 2012.

Robinson was the best wideout in the Big Ten last season -- and he only has gotten better. That should be a scary thought for opposing defenses. Outside of Robinson last year, the Nittany Lions really didn't have a No. 2 wideout the first few games of the season -- Moseby-Felder had a lingering injury -- but that's not a problem this year.

A lot of the receivers have the ability to play at different spots, and that should keep defenses guessing. The statistics might not match last year's, but this is one of the most-improved units on the team.

Recruiting trail: The Nittany Lions didn't need to grab three receiver commits in the 2014 class, but it's hard to say no to some of the top guys on your recruiting board. PSU received verbals from ESPN 300 wideouts in De'Andre Thompkins (Swansboro, N.C./Swansboro) and Chris Godwin (Middletown, Del./Middletown), in addition to three-star WR Troy Apke (Pittsburgh, Pa./Mount Lebanon).

The Lions have arguably the best group of receiver commits in the country, and it's very safe to say PSU is done at this position for this class. Looking ahead to 2015, it seems as if PSU would take either one wideout or none. It already has offered Van Jefferson (Brentwood, Tenn./Ravenwood).

Best-case scenario: Robinson earns All-America honors, grabs a bunch of jump balls and breaks his own single-season record. Debates begin as to whether he is PSU's best receiver ever. Meanwhile, Lewis has a breakout season, while Moseby-Felder builds off last year and Zanellato plays well when called upon.

Worst-case scenario: Robinson is better than last year, but it doesn't show. With a struggling quarterback, teams shadow Robinson and he is unable to make the same impact he did in 2012. Lewis gets confused on some routes, and Moseby-Felder doesn't improve enough to take some of the pressure off of Robinson. This group is good, better than last year, but it's difficult to see.

Top position question: Will Robinson declare early for the NFL draft? Obviously, this question is a bit premature -- but it's one every Penn State fan wants to ask. He has the ability to play in the NFL, and it really wouldn't be that surprising for him to at least inquire about his draft grade.

We recently asked Robinson's father, also named Allen, about declaring early for the NFL. Here's what he had to say:

"What I would really like him to do is play his senior season," Robinson's father said. "Allen is young. I think he can get much better. I think he can put on some more weight, and I think he can get faster before he goes to the next level. But that's just my own thoughts.

"We'll see how things turn out."

PSU position preview: Running backs

August, 22, 2013
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As part of an ongoing series, NittanyNation will preview a different position leading up to the season opener against Syracuse on Aug. 31. Up today: Running backs.

Projected starter: Zach Zwinak (2012 stats: 1,000 rushing yards, six touchdowns, 4.9 yard average; 20 catches, 177 yards, one TD)

Key losses: Michael Zordich (301 yards, 3.8 yard average, four touchdowns; 15 catches, 162 yards)

Next in line: Bill Belton and Akeel Lynch will split carries, although there's really no clear No. 2 right now. Belton was listed as the backup on the post-spring practice depth chart, but there's no telling who'll finish with more carries by the end of the season.

Pat Zerbe is the starting fullback right now, but he's not expected to see all that much time as a ball-carrier. Redshirt sophomore Deron Thompson, who isn't on scholarship, impressed in the Blue-White Game and will likely step up if there are any injuries.

What to expect: This group isn't as deep as last season, but it should still definitely be improved. Big things are expected out of Lynch, the redshirt freshman, and he could be the big-play threat PSU needs out the backfield.

There's definitely a nice balance here. Zwinak is the straightforward, wear-the-defense-down runner. Lynch is the young speedster who can run in the 4.4s. And Belton is more balanced and should be a threat in the passing game since he played wideout as a freshman.

It took the Nittany Lions a few games last season to find an identity at tailback. Zwinak is the workhorse, while the other two can offer him a breather and the offense a bit of a different look. All three will be utilized this year, and all three will return again in 2014. This group is only going to get better, and this season should set a strong tone.

Recruiting trail: If depth is a problem now, it certainly won't be that way in 2014. PSU already garnered two RB commits here in three-star tailback Nick Scott (Fairfax, Va./Fairfax) and three-star prospect Mark Allen (Hyattsville, Md./DeMatha).

Allen is coming off a torn ACL and likely won't make an early impact at Penn State. Perhaps, as a result, the Nittany Lions might not be done at tailback this recruiting season. Another tailback -- Qadree Ollison out of Buffalo (N.Y.) Canisius -- is a prospect with a unique blend of size and speed. The 6-foot-1, 228-pound back who runs a reported 4.5 is from the same high school league as Lynch, and some coaches there think Ollison might even be better.

PSU entered the race late for Ollison, but the Lions remain near the top of his list. Ollison should decide in early September, and Wisconsin is likely the biggest competition right now.

Best-case scenario: Zwinak carries this offense while the rookie quarterback gets adjusted and averages around six yards a carry. He earns at least an honorable mention on the All-Big Ten team, while Lynch breaks some big, key runs and Belton contributes in a lot of different areas.

Worst-case scenario: Zwinak starts off the season a bit slow after a spring wrist injury that forced him to wear a red shirt the first few weeks of the preseason. He does fine after the first few games, but that throws off the offense. The other two backs fare OK but don't break out like some fans hoped.

Top position question: How many carries can Lynch and Belton expect to see? It's the answer everyone wants to know, but there's no easy way to know. Head coach Bill O'Brien could go a lot of different ways, but we can look back to last season and try to project it that way.

In the last seven games, once Zwinak became the clear No. 1, the tailback took about 62 percent of the running backs' carries. If the offense remains balanced and everything remains equal, that means there would be about 13-15 carries a game for those two to split.

There's lot of variables at this point. But, right now, that's our best guess. And if someone's on a roll -- like Zwinak against Wisconsin -- all bets are off.

PSU position preview: Safeties

August, 19, 2013
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As part of an ongoing series, NittanyNation will preview a different position leading up to the season opener against Syracuse on Aug. 31. Up today: Safeties.

Projected starters: Adrian Amos (2012 stats, as CB: 44 tackles, 2.5 tackles-for-loss, two interceptions) and Malcolm Willis (45 tackles, one fumble recovery, two pass breakups)

Key losses: None

[+] EnlargeAdrian Amos
Keith Srakocic/AP PhotoAdrian Amos moves back to safety this season, where he could be a star for the Nittany Lions.
Next in line: Stephen Obeng-Agyapong started at safety last season, but he's the top backup now that Amos slid over from cornerback. SOA is one of the fastest players on the team and should still see a lot of time this season.

Walk-on-turned-scholarship-player Ryan Keiser is also listed as one of the primary backups, and he played in every game last season -- mostly on special teams. Keiser is a solid situational player who gives this position added depth. Jesse Della Valle is likely safety No. 5, so he won't see much time at the position, but he'll contribute on special teams.

And, of course, we can't forget about the younger players. There are some talented guys here who could make an impact well down the line ... just not this season. Think redshirt freshman Malik Golden or true freshman Neiko Robinson.

What to expect: This might be the most improved group from last season. The safeties were the weakness of the defense, but Amos instantly solidifies this group. And it would surprise no one if he earned first-team All-Big Ten honors at his natural position in 2013.

With depth and experience -- two characteristics this position didn't have last season -- offenses should no longer be able to target this group downfield. Those long, third-down conversions should be a thing of the past, as long as the corners can hold up their end of the deal.

This was an average group on a good defense last season. Now the safeties are good, and Amos could be one of the best. This is his chance to break out, and it's Willis' secondary to lead. Big things should be expected at this position.

Recruiting trail: Three-star 2014 safety Marcus Allen (Upper Marlboro, Md./Wise) already committed in May, and he's a big body who could see early playing time once he arrives on campus. The 6-foot-2 safety used to play linebacker in high school, and he has earned a reputation as a hard-hitting player. He can definitely offer some good run support.

PSU also still is pursuing a few defensive backs, notably ESPN 300 safety Montae Nicholson (Monroeville, Pa./Gateway). Nicholson is taking his recruitment slowly, but PSU is on his short list. He would be a huge boon to the Nittany Lions' 2014 recruiting class.

Best-case scenario: Amos earns a spot on the All-Big Ten first team, and there's even some chatter about All-America honors. He cements the fact he boasts an NFL future, as Willis exceeds expectations and helps the young corners along with his calls and adjustments.

Worst-case scenario: Amos is forced to move back to cornerback, and the combination of Willis and Obeng-Agyapong struggles a bit. There's some progress from last season, but not much, and this group turns in an average performance over the course of the season.

Top position question: What does Amos' move to safety mean for Penn State? It means a couple things. For one, now that there's actually some depth here, Amos can play the position he's best at -- and, as we previously mentioned, it also means defensive coordinator John Butler has enough faith in the two new cornerbacks.

Amos was a good cornerback and earned an honorable mention on the All-Big Ten team last year. But he's an even better safety. He could be the secondary equivalent of Allen Robinson, and his versatility gives this defense an incredible boost. Forget Mike Hull or Deion Barnes; Amos is the most valuable player on this defense for that very reason.

Expect Butler to utilize Amos in a lot of different ways -- and expect Amos to shine. By the end of his career, he could be mentioned with the likes of Kim Herring and Darren Perry. The cornerback-turned-safety is poised for a breakout season, and by extension, that means nothing but good things for the Penn State defense.

PSU position preview: Cornerbacks

August, 16, 2013
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As part of an ongoing series, NittanyNation will preview a different position leading up to the season opener against Syracuse on Aug. 31. Up today: Cornerbacks.

Projected starters: Trevor Williams (2012 stats, as WR: 10 receptions, 97 yards; four kick returns, 79 yards) and Jordan Lucas (one tackle).

Key losses: Stephon Morris (60 tackles, five tackles-for-loss, five pass deflections)

[+] EnlargeDa'Quan Davis
Vinny Carchietta/Icon SMIDa'Quan Davis is still a bit undersized, but he has experience and is currently the No. 3 corner.
Next in line: Sophomore Da'Quan Davis played in 11 games last year but saw limited time as a cornerback. Still, he stepped up when Morris suffered an injury -- and he likely will be called upon more in 2013. He's the No. 3 corner right now.

Davis gained only three pounds in a year's time and remains undersized at 5-foot-10, 164 pounds. Still, cornerback-turned-safety Adrian Amos could always step back into the position if he's needed. Other players vying for time include true freshmen Anthony Smith and Jordan Smith, who both enrolled early.

What to expect: Neither starter saw any significant time at cornerback last season -- Williams was a wideout, after all -- but the Nittany Lions seem more confident at the position this season. For one, they moved Amos to his natural position of safety, despite returning both starters there ... which they wouldn't have done if defensive coordinator John Butler viewed corner as a weakness.

Williams made tremendous strides over the offseason at cornerback, and the staff has complimented Lucas since he stepped on campus. Replacing Morris' speed will be no easy task, but the new starters at least have size on their side as they're both at least 6-feet tall. (Lucas is 6-0; Williams is 6-1).

Williams' experience at wideout should help him grab interceptions, something this secondary sorely lacked last season. (The secondary, as a whole, finished with only three picks on the season. Linebacker Michael Mauti had three himself.) Lucas, on the other hand, is more polished, and scouts have said he shows a good burst to recover. The two new starters are obviously wildcards, since they really haven't seen B1G competition as cornerbacks, but there's enough potential here to allay fans' concern.

Recruiting trail: Butler was adamant that he wasn't very pleased with the depth he inherited last season, so he spent the 2013 class -- and, now, the 2014 class -- to restock.

The Nittany Lions already grabbed two CB commits in four-star athlete Troy Vincent Jr. (Baltimore/Gilman) and three-star prospect Daquan Worley (Coatesville, Pa./Coatesville). But they're not done just yet.

The Lions continue to go after ESPN 300 athlete Dravon Henry (Aliquippa, Pa./Aliquippa), who's one of their top remaining priorities in this class. PSU has a good shot here, but WVU likely still holds the slight edge right now.

Looking ahead, PSU is hoping to grab ESPN Junior 300 CB Minkah Fitzpatrick (Jersey City, N.J./St. Peter's) in the 2015 class. And fellow 2015 prospect Kareem Ali Jr. (Erial, N.J./Timber Creek Regional) is very high on PSU and could be the first commit of the class.

Best-case scenario: Williams is able add a few interceptions to the secondary this season, and Lucas shows that he'll be a solid three-year starter for PSU. Amos is able to stay at safety because the corners hold their own, and they boast an above-average season that paves the way for a brighter future.

Worst-case scenario: Bill O'Brien said last year that, sometimes, you don't know what you have until you see your team in action -- and the group struggles against Syracuse. Williams shows potential but is caught out of position for long gains and is targeted by the offense. Amos is forced to move back to cornerback at some point, and the secondary shows no progress from last season.

Top position question: Can this group be better than last year? Let's not dance around this question. The answer's yes.

There's enough depth here that Butler can get creative if something happens, and most importantly -- because of the added experience at safety -- PSU should play even more aggressive man coverage this season. Lucas and Williams will be put more in position to succeed, and they should be able to top last year's measly two interceptions by the corners.

The secondary was the big question of the year entering 2012, and it slightly outperformed low expectations after a bumpy start. If the secondary as a whole can stop those long third-down conversions in the opener, it'll go a long way in showing this group can have a successful season.

PSU position preview: Linebackers

August, 14, 2013
8/14/13
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As part of an ongoing series, NittanyNation will preview a different position leading up to the season opener against Syracuse on Aug. 31. Up today: Linebackers.

Projected starters: Mike Hull (2012 stats: 58 tackles, four sacks, one interception, two fumble recoveries, one blocked kick), Glenn Carson (85 tackles, three tackles-for-loss) and Nyeem Wartman (one tackle, one blocked kick)

[+] EnlargeRex Burkhead
Justin K. Aller/Getty ImagesNittany Lions linebacker Glenn Carson had 85 tackles last season.
Key losses: Michael Mauti (95 tackles, three interceptions, three forced fumbles) and Gerald Hodges (109 tackles, 8.5 tackles-for-loss, two interceptions, nine pass deflections)

Next in line: Ben Kline could've challenged Wartman for the starting job if it weren't for a nagging shoulder injury, but he's missed a lot of time after offseason surgery. (Bill O'Brien said Kline will "hopefully" be ready for the season opener.) He's still clearly the top backup here, but he'll have to shake off rust quickly to be effective.

Outside of Kline, the staff will be forced to turn to a raw Gary Wooten who redshirted last season. And then there's always true freshman Brandon Bell and the run-ons. Safety Stephen Obeng-Agyapong will also be utilized at times this season, likely replacing Wartman on passing downs, and could possibly play more weakside if injuries become a pressing concern.

What to expect: If there's one position that concerns O'Brien, when it comes to depth, it's linebacker.

ESPN's coach of the year has echoed that sentiment throughout the offseason and training camp. There are two solid starters here, in Carson and Hull, but every other linebacker is a question mark. Wartman flashed a lot of potential in two contests last season before a season-ending injury, and he looks to become a four-year starter. But can he be effective with such limited experience?

Even if does play well, the Nittany Lions are one injury away from a disaster at linebacker. Wartman can be good this season, but there's a lot less faith in those backups. Kline missed the spring and the summer, and he might not be ready to go in time for Week 1. If PSU has to rely on Wooten or someone else here, that player immediately becomes the Achilles' heel of this defense.

Recruiting trail: The Nittany Lions seemed to be in a lot better shape earlier in the summer. Sure, they still have four-star MLB Troy Reeder (Wilmington, Del./Salesianum), who is just on the outside of the ESPN 300, but they also basically lost two other linebackers.

Since July, the Lions have parted ways with Class of 2013 LB Zayd Issah (Harrisburg, Pa./Central Dauphin) after another run-in with the law and three-star LB Jared Wangler (Warren, Mich./De La Salle), who decommitted in favor of Michigan. That makes LB a much bigger priority now.

Syracuse commit Jason Cabinda (Flemington, N.J./Hunterdon Central) could be the next in line for an offer. He impressed the staff during a June camp, and PSU badly needs to take another linebacker now.

Best-case scenario: Wartman shows he'll be the next big thing at Linebacker U and earns an honorable mention on the All-Big Ten team. There's only a slight drop-off in production from last season, but the linebacking corps remains one of the team's strengths as Carson and Hull form to become the best duo in the conference.

Worst-case scenario: Carson or Hull go down early and miss the season, while Kline's shoulder continues to bother him throughout the year. Wooten or Bell are then plugged in before they're ready, and the group of linebackers struggles as a whole and brings down the entire defense.

Top position question: What kind of linebacker will Wartman be? He's a run-stuffer, first and foremost, which is why the Lions will likely plug in a safety at his position on passing downs. It'll basically be the 2013 version of the "Roadrunner" package.

But that doesn't mean quickness is a problem for Wartman. He boasts great straight-line speed, and the Florida Gators recruited him heavily for that very reason. He also garnered a reputation in high school as a hard-hitter, and that was clearly well-earned.

During the Blue-White Game, he diagnosed a screen pass and blew up the intended receiver in the hit of the game. (He was a bit disappointed in himself about that hit because, although the receiver crumpled to the turf, he didn't wrap up the target because he "was licking my chops too much.")

It would come as no surprise if Wartman forced a few fumbles. He'll likely end up as a four-year starter for Penn State. This might not be the year where PSU fans start buying No. 5 jerseys en masse -- but it should happen by 2014 or 2015.
As part of an ongoing series, NittanyNation will preview a different position leading up to the season opener against Syracuse on Aug. 31. Up today: Defensive tackles.

Projected starters: DaQuan Jones (2012 stats: 22 tackles, two tackles-for-loss, one fumble recovery) and Kyle Baublitz (three tackles, one sack).

Key losses: Jordan Hill (64 tackles, 8.5 tackles-for-loss, 4.5 sacks, one interception, one forced fumble, one fumble recovery) and James Terry (13 tackles, one sack).

Next in line: Redshirt freshman Austin Johnson might not be next in line -- he could very well overtake Baublitz as a starter. Bill O'Brien said on his weekly radio show last season that he expected big things out of the younger defensive tackle, and he's already 21 pounds heavier than Baublitz.

[+] EnlargeDaQuan Jones
Vinny Carchietta/Icon SMIHow Penn State's defense performs in 2013 will be dependent on how DaQuan Jones plays at defensive tackle.
Regardless, the top three players at this position should see plenty of time. The big question is just who comes in at No. 4. That would be a logjam, and none of the options are all that exciting just yet.

Derek Dowrey, Brian Gaia and Tyrone Smith will all compete to see who sees situational time a la Baublitz in 2012. True freshman Parker Cothren likely needs a redshirt season to add bulk before he sees any time on the field.

What to expect: Huge expectations are being squarely placed on the shoulders of Jones, and he'll need to match Hill's performance to live up to all the hype. Gil Brandt recently named Jones the top senior DT in the country -- which was a little surprising considering he made just 12 tackles in the last nine games once Hill faced fewer double-teams and stepped up his game. By comparison, Jones made 10 tackles in the first three games.

For this defensive line to find success, Jones will have to become quickly accustomed to those double teams -- because it'd be an even bigger surprise if teams sent just one interior lineman after him. This position is one of the bigger concerns on the team because, even if the 318-pound Jones does succeed, his other starting teammate will likely be overmatched this season.

Baublitz appears to be a band-aid until Johnson is ready to take off. And Johnson undoubtedly boasts a high ceiling -- but it doesn't seem as if this is the season it will all come together. If the staff had that much faith in him, he would've initially been named starter over Baublitz. Expect PSU's 23rd-ranked run defense to drop, at least a little, in the rankings.

Recruiting trail: The Nittany Lions have already picked up one 2014 prospect in Antoine White (Millville, N.J./Millville), a three-star commit whom ESPN scouts label a "tweener" but who also "gives good effort in pursuit and is a solid wrap-up tackler."

He's about 270 pounds right now, so he needs to bulk up. But PSU's staff really liked the explosiveness of his first step and like his attitude. His high school coach said he and a teammate constantly put in extra work, and White was the lone junior captain on his team last season.

PSU also appears intent on grabbing at least one more DT, likely either ESPN 300 prospect Thomas Holley (Brooklyn, N.Y./Lincoln) or a junior college DT such as Joe Keels (Highland, Kan./Highland C.C.).

Best-case scenario: Jones picks up right where Hill left off and becomes an unstoppable run-stuffer who lives up to Brandt's top billing. PSU's No. 23 run defense holds steady, while Johnson breaks out and shows fans that he'll be a four-year starter.

Worst-case scenario: Jones initially struggles with double teams and gets hurt later in the season, leaving an inexperienced Johnson and a limited Baublitz as the starters. Those two struggle, and Big Ten running backs set up their respective offenses by running straight up the middle.

Top position question: If Jones falters, what happens to this defense? Penn State can't withstand mediocre performances at defensive tackle and linebacker. If Jones doesn't live up to expectations, it'll have an ripple effect on the entire defense.

If Jones doesn't play well, that means more work for middle linebacker Glenn Carson -- who's been the beneficiary of some great DTs in NFL draft picks Hill and Devon Still. Jones is crucial to this defense's success in a lot of ways, and it was able to overcome a young secondary last season by limiting opponents to 3.54 yards a carry on the ground. If Jones struggles, those rushing numbers increase.

And if those rushing numbers increase? PSU allowed more than four yards a carry in just two of the last 10 seasons. In 2003, it allowed 4.29 yards a carry and finished with a 3-9 record. In 2010, PSU allowed 4.46 yards a carry and went 7-6. In other words, if Jones falters and the run defense struggles, then it might become tricky to get to eight wins.
As part of an ongoing series, NittanyNation will preview a different position leading up to the season opener against Syracuse on Aug. 31. Up today: Defensive ends.

[+] EnlargeDeion Barnes
Bradley Leeb/USA TODAY SportsPenn State's Deion Barnes is primed for a big season.
Projected starters: Deion Barnes (2012 stats: 26 tackles, 10 tackles for loss, six sacks, three forced fumbles) and C.J. Olaniyan (2012 stats: 15 tackles, one sack, one start).

Key losses: Sean Stanley (2012 stats: 35 tackles, 9.5 tackles for loss, four sacks) and Pete Massaro (2012 stats: eight tackles, one tackle for loss, five starts).

Next in line: Anthony Zettel will see increased time this season as the top backup in the rotation. He's slightly bigger than Olaniyan (6-4, 258 compared to 6-3, 244) and he finished third on the team in sacks last fall with four.

DE Brad Bars is lost for the season, so that means defensive coordinator John Butler will have to turn to some more inexperienced players to back up those three. Evan Schwan is at the top of the list after redshirting last season, and true freshman Garrett Sickels could also compete for immediate playing time. Sickels was the top defensive recruit of the 2013 class and is already more physically imposing than Schwan.

What to expect: These defensive ends should have no problems with the pass rush. DL coach Larry Johnson has routinely put together lines that finish in the Top 25 in sacks, and both ends are quick, athletic players. Barnes was named Big Ten freshman of the year, and Olaniyan will bat down his fair share of passes this season.

PSU finished 15th in the nation in sacks (34) in 2012, and that number should be pretty similar this season. Barnes should even increase his numbers a bit. That being said, the pass rush is clearly the ends' forte here. Barnes worked on developing his run-stopping skills this offseason because he admitted that was one part of his game that needs to get better.

Last season, the ends struggled at times with keeping runs to the outside bottled up. Still, PSU's run defense wasn't a consistent issue last year -- and it shouldn't be a big one for the ends this year. Run defense just doesn't appear to be as big of a strength as the pass rush.

Recruiting trail: Penn State brought in two defensive ends -- Sickels and Curtis Cothran -- in the 2013 class, so it's not expected to take any in this 2014 class. The 2015 class, however, is another story.

Darius Fullwood (Olney, Md./Good Counsel) impressed the staff during a June camp and already has a PSU offer next to his name. O'Brien spoke to the defensive end on June 8 and already told him the staff could foresee him playing early at PSU. He's No. 225 on the ESPN Junior 300, and he'll be one player the staff keeps a close eye on.

Best-case scenario: Barnes posts Aaron Maybin-like numbers and gains national recognition after a strong rookie debut, while Olaniyan proves he's slightly better than the Massaro-Stanley combination from a year ago.

Worst-case scenario: Injuries plague the line, and Schwan or Sickels are forced to see more action than they usually would. The rush defense becomes the biggest issue of the front seven, and that throws the entire defense off kilter.

Top position question: How good can Barnes be? Well, after just one season, it's pretty clear Barnes has a future in the NFL. He's one of the top overall players on this team, and it's scary to think he has three seasons left.

His parents said, prior to last season, he aimed for 13 sacks. "And when he didn't get that, he was disappointed," his mother said. And reaching double-digit sacks this season is a possibility.

But let's get right to the heart of the question. Barnes has the ability to go down as one of PSU's best pass-rushers of the 2000s. And, if he does reach 10 sacks this season, the record-breaking chatter will undoubtedly start. Courtney Brown holds the school record with 33 sacks; Barnes will need to average nine sacks over the next three seasons -- if he doesn't declare early for the NFL draft -- to tie that record. It's possible.

After all, by Barnes' count, he should've had 10 sacks last year anyway. Regardless of the numbers he winds up with, he's arguably the top pass-rusher in the conference already. And he'll only get better.

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