Penn State Nittany Lions: Austin Johnson
Yet until recently, Penn State's defensive line meeting room resisted renovation. It was one of few elements of the program that, in 2013, looked much like it did in 2005. Larry Johnson coached the group, as he had every season since 2000 (and, in some form, since 1996). And while the Lions' defense struggled for much of last season, the line still produced a first-team All-Big Ten performer, tackle DaQuan Jones, just as it did the previous five years.
Lions defensive linemen now take direction from a man known as Coach Chaos. You'll be able to hear Sean Spencer's voice from Row 80 of Beaver Stadium -- on game days. Spencer wants his Lions to be wild dogs, explaining, "The wild dog is the most efficient animal in the jungle in terms of hunting in a pack."
The 43-year-old dynamo with the "spastic" personality differs from that of his reserved, buttoned-down Penn State predecessor. But when it comes to standards, Spencer and Johnson are aligned.
"Traditionally, the D-line here has always been one of the elite in the country," Spencer told ESPN.com. "I know no other way but to have them rise to the expectations that I set forth and that they set forth for themselves. There's no excuse.
"I don't care who I've got out there. I expect to be dominant."
Spencer's message resonates with a group that, unlike others on a reduced roster, doesn't face dire depth challenges. The Lions return both starters at end -- Deion Barnes and C.J. Olaniyan -- and veteran reserve Brad Bars, who missed all of last season with a ruptured Achilles' tendon.
Sophomore Austin Johnson moves into the lead tackle position and Anthony Zettel, a converted defensive end, has been a good fit at the 3-technique tackle spot.
"The D-line is probably our strength," Franklin said. "We have the most depth at that position. We've got about four deep at defensive end and probably two-and-a-half deep at D-tackle."
If the depth holds up, it will help Penn State use a larger rotation that Johnson typically used. Defensive coordinator Bob Shoop said the Vanderbilt linemen he and Spencer coached last fall didn't average more than 40 snaps a game.
The coaches want to use five or six defensive ends, as Bars, junior Carl Nassib and redshirt freshman Garrett Sickels also are in the mix. A healthy rotation suits Spencer's wild dogs philosophy.
At Vanderbilt, he commissioned a painting of a Commodores football player blended with a dog, which he displayed in his office at Penn State this spring. He also took a giant dog bone to the field.
"Part of their survival is when they chase their prey down, for three to five miles they take turns biting at him," Spencer said. "One goes to the front, and when he gets tired, the next one comes. It's a really unique strategy in terms of the way they attack things. We rotate a lot of guys, so we just take turns nipping at quarterbacks and making plays in the backfield."
Vanderbilt recorded 28 sacks last season, which tied for fourth in the SEC. Spencer estimates 24 came solely from line pressure. He expects the same production at Penn State.
Defensive tackle has been Penn State's strongest position in recent seasons with players such as Jones, Devon Still, Jordan Hill and Jared Odrick. Although Zettel and Johnson aren't known outside Happy Valley, the coaches think that soon will change.
"Zettel has been been very, very disruptive this spring," Shoop said. "Austin Johnson falls in line of the beast D-tackles Penn State's had in the past. He's over 300 pounds, moves well, he's tough to move at the point of attack, got a big butt and legs."
Olaniyan led Penn State with five sacks last season, his first as a starter. Penn State looks for more from Barnes, the former Big Ten Freshman of the Year whose sacks and tackles for loss totals dropped by more than 50 percent from 2012 to 2013.
"What we're looking at is, how can we get him back to that?" Spencer said.
Spencer is pleased with Barnes' football knowledge and said all the linemen are asking "200- and 300-level questions" in meetings. Life without Johnson undoubtedly caused an adjustment -- "It's always tough to see somebody you call a family member leave," Olaniyan said -- but players quickly connected with Spencer, who lists relationship-building among his strengths.
"I grew up without a dad," said Spencer, whose father played for Michigan State in the 1960s. "Unfortunately, we don't have a relationship right now, and he's still alive. It's one of the things I'm least proud of, but at the same time, it made me who I am today. It made me have the ability to reach out to kids that probably are similar to me. I'm a little younger than Larry so they're not going to look at me as a dad, so to speak. They look at me as a big brother or an uncle.
"I think we've got some similarities in the way we care about our players, but I'm probably a little bit wilder than he is."
A little wilder and a little louder, but just as demanding.
"They both have the same philosophy as far as they want you to do everything perfect," Olaniyan said. "It's easy to embrace the new coaches when they have the same goal. We take pride as the Penn State D-line.
"Each game, we want everybody to see us as one of the best defensive lines out there. We want to be great."
At Penn State, some things never change.
As part of this week’s countdown, which centers on those position battles, we’re taking a closer look today at one such position that lost two experienced players ...
No. 3 position battle: Defensive tackle
Departures: DaQuan Jones (56 tackles; 11.5 tackles for loss), Kyle Baublitz (23 tackles, three sacks)
Returning players: Tarow Barney (early enrollee), Parker Cothren (redshirted), Brian Gaia (5 tackles; 11 games played), Austin Johnson (27 tackles; three tackles for loss), Antoine White (early enrollee)
Breaking it down: Johnson will take up one starting spot, but there’s a big question mark surrounding the other. Derek Dowrey appears to have moved to the offensive line, and there’s still a chance that defensive end Anthony Zettel could slide inside on a permanent basis. But for now it appears as if the main battle will be between Barney and Gaia.
Gaia boasts more experience than Barney, an early enrollee -- but not by much. Barney is a bit bigger at 290 pounds, according to the current online roster, and it should be a good battle. Penn State really needs someone who can stuff the run, since Zettel can always rush the passer inside. So whoever is better in the run-stuffing department should take this spot. Defensive line coach Sean Spencer likes to use a lot of bodies and combinations along the line, too, so even the backup should see quite a bit of playing time this season.
Pre-camp edge: Gaia. He has the edge since he’s spent more time with the team and the strength program. But anything can happen here. Tyler Ferguson had the advantage at quarterback last May, and look what happened there. Barney isn’t as used to this level of competition as Gaia since he’s coming from a community college in Mississippi, so it will take some time to adjust. Make no mistake; Gaia has the advantage right now. But that advantage could be eroded by the time the Blue-White Game swings around April 12. That’s what makes this position battle one of the best ones to watch.
More position battles to watch:
No. 5: Kicker
No. 4: Tight ends
This week, we're taking a look at Penn State's top five position groups with room to improve. No. 1 will be unveiled on Friday, so sit back and relax as this countdown kicks off.
Up today: No. 5 -- defensive tackles.
The players: Austin Johnson (27 tackles, 1 sack, 1 fumble recovery), Brian Gaia (5 tackles), Derek Dowrey (1 tackle), Parker Cothren (redshirt), Antoine White (early enrollee), Tarow Barney (early enrollee).
Last season: The interior was a strength in 2013, with 318-pound DaQuan Jones anchoring it. Jones earned the team's MVP award by routinely taking on double teams and still leading PSU with 11.5 tackles for loss. He also ensured that neither of Wisconsin's tailbacks reached the 100-yard mark Penn State's upset over the then-No. 15 Badgers. Kyle Baublitz rotated in with Johnson on the other side and put up respectable numbers (3 sacks, 1 blocked kick) before deciding to move on with a teaching career. The line was the defense's strong point last season.
What's missing: Experience. Jones is heading to the NFL, Baublitz is heading to State College Area High, and Johnson is the only returning defensive tackle who saw serious time at the position last season. Put simply, there are a lot of question marks. Former coach Bill O'Brien was set on taking a junior college defensive tackle because he was in such desperate need of finding an immediate contributor, so it wouldn't be surprising to see new coach James Franklin plug in a newcomer right away.
Moving forward: Defensive end Anthony Zettel could move inside and, in a lot of ways, that would help quiet those questions surrounding experience. But he's only 258 pounds right now, so of course there's the question of his weight. Defensive line coach Sean Spencer likes to rotate a lot of players on his line, so we could see more of a lot more combinations this season. Johnson is really the only lock, but he has a bright career ahead of him.
The staff needs to decide quickly what it wants to do with Zettel and, from there, find at least one more DT who can separate himself. Gaia played in 11 games last season and likely holds the slight edge right now, but Dowrey's not that far behind. Barney and Cothren are both darkhorses, and a lot of eyes will be on them in the spring.
I love my 2014 class of PSU ....we have that brothers connection and we didn't even enroll to PSU yet— Marcus Allen (@Chico_Ehhh) January 2, 2014
If it wasn't for Coach OB I probably wouldn't be playing football anymore, I wish him the best in the NFL.— Devin Pryor #16 (@D_Pryor16) January 1, 2014
We all we got! No reason to panic or jump ship! Doesn't matter the system nor the coach...players win games period— Bill Belton (@W3BII) January 1, 2014
No matter what happens football games will be played and won by the Nittany Lions love all my brothers we will stick together #WeAre— Hunter Crafford (@Craf_FordTough) January 1, 2014
Never worry about the things you can't control— Malik Golden (@_goldenboy6) January 1, 2014
A man's gotta do what a man has GOT TO DO. It's life baby !— Stephen Obeng-Agy... (@BigBENGTheory7) January 1, 2014
New Year, New Head Coach I suppose— DaeSean Hamilton (@SkeeterMills__) January 1, 2014
Bout to be the best year for me yet and bout to be the best year for Penn State #WeAre— carter Henderson (@hendydo_42) January 1, 2014
I hope I have another chance to play under Coach O'B. I love the guy, I appreciate everything he's done for me. I couldn't be more thankful.— Jesse James (@JJames18_) January 1, 2014
Good luck to Coach O'Brien and his family. Made a tremendous impact on my life and many others during his time at Penn State.— Ty Howle (@THowle60) January 1, 2014
Best of luck to the O'Brien family and to the lucky man that gets to coach this prestige organization... I can't wait to meet you— Troy Stivason (@teejaystives) January 1, 2014
To all of the Penn State family: Penn State is and will always be about more than any one man. WE ARE everything we have always been— Derek Dowrey (@doubleDowrey) January 1, 2014
Coach O'Brien was a great mentor, coach and father figure but every coach has the aspirations to coach in the NFL. glad coach can chase his.— Brian Gaia (@that_gaia) January 1, 2014
Gotta keep on movin forward people that's all we can do #yafeelme— Austin Johnson (@AJohn15) January 1, 2014
One thing OB taught me is that this is a business, and u should do what's best for you.Texans are getting a good coach, I wish him the best— Deion Barnes (@DBarnes_18) January 1, 2014
Coach O'brien is a great coach and great person! Proud to have called him my coach. It was his dream to coach in the NFL, best of luck. #PSU— Mike Hull (@m_hull4943) January 1, 2014
I'll love Coach Obrien forever. He will always be apart of Penn State. One of the greatest men I've ever known. #PennStateForever— Miles Dieffenbach (@Curiousjorge65) January 1, 2014
Fight on. We still are and forever will be.— Garrett Sickels (@Sickels_90) January 1, 2014
Time to move on Penn State! We will find the right man for the job. BOB did plenty for us. Time for a true Blue and White bleeder! #WeAre— OJ McDuffie (@ojmcduffie81) January 1, 2014
Up today: Defensive line.
Expectations entering the 2013 season: Believe it or not, more question marks surrounded the defensive tackles than the defensive ends. Although Gil Brandt named DaQuan Jones the best senior DT in the country, the senior was still an unproven commodity. And the starter alongside him -- Kyle Baublitz or Austin Johnson -- was widely considered a liability.
How they fared: Jones was the best player on the defense, finishing fifth in tackles (56), first in stops in the backfield (11.5) and making it difficult for any tailback to find room up the middle. The combination of Johnson/Baublitz fared better than most thought, too.
But the defensive ends? Well, Barnes might've been the most disappointing player on the team. He followed up his strong freshman season with just four sacks, and he struggled with his run-defense. Bill O'Brien didn't start him for a game or two to send a message. C.J. Olaniyan played especially well in the second half of the season, although his forte wasn't exactly setting the edge, either. Still, he wound up with 11 tackles-for-loss and a team-high five sacks, four quarterback hurries and three forced fumbles. Anthony Zettel also played well in spots.
What we learned: Barnes isn't the first-round NFL lock we thought he was. At least not yet. He utilized his speed a lot in 2012, but he was just outmuscled in 2013. He needs to add weight and get stronger before his production matches his freshman season. Teams are aware of him now, so he's not taking anyone by surprise. He's going to be a huge factor on this team moving forward, and we learned he needs to add some tangibles before he reaches double-digit sacks.
Grading the position: B. No, this group wasn't as strong as 2012. But it was still the best group on the defense in 2013 and often set the tone. When the defensive ends set the edge, fans knew the team would be in OK shape. When they didn't? Disaster loomed. They were able to pressure quarterbacks in the conference season, and -- outside of the Ohio State game -- the run-defense performed well in the Big Ten.
Key losses: Jones and Baublitz. PSU's top three DEs return, but it loses two of its best three DTs. The interior was a strength in 2013, while the ends were more of an issue. In 2014, that situation's a bit flip-flopped.
Position stock watch: Trending downward. Jared Odrick, Devon Still,Jordan Hill, Jones -- PSU has had a lot of luck finding future NFL DTs to step in one season after another. But that might end in 2014. If Barnes can improve his production from his freshman season and Olaniyan can make some strides, then it won't be all bad news. But when you lose the best player on your line -- and on your defense -- that usually doesn't work in your favor. Couple that in with Baublitz's decision to leave, and depth at defensive tackle will definitely be a concern.
Key to next season: Production of the No. 2 DT. It's as simple and as difficult as that. Johnson will return as a starter, but who will start alongside him? The early favorite is probably Zettel, who could move from DE. But incoming juco Tarow Barney (Bainbridge, Ga./Northwest Mississippi C.C.) or freshman Thomas Holley (Brooklyn, N.Y./Lincoln) playing immediately isn't a total stretch either. If PSU finds a solid replacement, this line is likely in store for another "B" grade next season. If it doesn't? It's going to have to deal with an Achilles' Heel all season. Just ask Trevor Williams how that worked out.
Here it is:
QB: Christian Hackenberg, Penn State (captain)
RB: Corey Clement, Wisconsin
WR: DeAngelo Yancey, Purdue
WR: Jordan Westerkamp, Nebraska*
TE: Maxx Williams, Minnesota*
TE: Jake Butt, Michigan
OL: Dan Voltz, Wisconsin*
OL: Ben Lauer, Minnesota*
OL: Jack Conklin, Michigan State*
OL: Jacob Bailey, Indiana*
OL: Kyle Kalis, Michigan*
DL: Joey Bosa, Ohio State (captain)
DL: Austin Johnson, Penn State*
DL: Avery Moss, Nebraska*
DL: Willie Henry, Michigan*
LB: Michael Rose, Nebraska*
LB: Nyeem Wartman, Penn State*
LB: T.J. Simmons, Indiana
DB: Sojourn Shelton, Wisconsin
DB: Desmond King, Iowa
DB: Tyvis Powell, Ohio State*
DB: Matthew Harris, Northwestern
K: Michael Geiger, Michigan State
P: Cameron Johnston, Ohio State
All purpose: Dontre Wilson, Ohio State
* -- redshirt freshman
It was a pretty strong year for freshmen in the league, highlighted by Hackenberg and Bosa. Shelton was terrific as well. ... Tight end is a promising position for the future. Penn State's Adam Breneman just missed, but he looks like a future star. And Michigan State's Josiah Price had a big impact in the Big Ten title game. ... Nebraska's young defense could really turn into something special. We also considered defensive lineman Vincent Valentine and linebackers Jared Afalava, Nathan Gerry and Josh Banderas. ... It was also a good year for rookie QBs, as beyond Hackenberg there was Purdue's Danny Etling, Nebraska's Tommy Armstrong and Minnesota's Mitch Leidner. ... Ohio State's Wilson didn't have a true position, but he did a lot of things and was a good return man, so that's why he gets our all-purpose slot. ... Some others we considered included Penn State receiver Geno Lewis and linebacker Brandon Bell, Purdue offensive lineman Jason King and Indiana defensive lineman Ralphael Green.
1. Don't underestimate Penn State. You think we would've learned that by now. But after seeing the Buckeyes absolutely dominate Penn State, 63-14, it seemed as if PSU would be in for another flogging. Everyone counted them out -- Vegas put the line at 24 points -- but the Nittany Lions seem to do best when everyone else thinks they have no chance. They came out of absolutely nowhere to not just slip past the Badgers, but to totally outplay them. Penn State's defense stopped one of the nation's best rushing attacks, and freshman quarterback Christian Hackenberg picked on the Wisconsin secondary. If there's one thing we should learn from this game, it's that we should never count these Nittany Lions out.
2. The future looks bright. Next season should have its share of question marks, but even look past that. Hackenberg is playing beyond his years, freshman LB Brandon Bell garnered his first start (and grabbed six tackles), and PSU dressed 23 total freshmen. Adam Breneman and Eugene Lewis still have three years left and had terrific performances on Saturday. And then there are other freshmen such as Akeel Lynch, Richy Anderson, Nyeem Wartman, Austin Johnson and Malik Golden who have seen quite a bit of time this season.
3. Sam Ficken's struggles aren't behind him, after all. Ficken had a miserable stretch last season before he seemingly turned it all around -- but those issues are most certainly back. He has made just seven of his last 13 field goals (54 percent) and also missed a PAT last week. He went 1-of-3 against Wisconsin, missing a 31-yarder and 34-yarder, and he'll need to find more answers over the offseason. He's bounced back once already, but he'll need to find a way to do it again. Otherwise, freshman Chris Gulla could push him for time.
4. The offensive line needs to be more disciplined, as far as penalties. Either it wasn't prepared for Wisconsin's defensive linemen moving around or it wasn't focused. Whatever the reason, it was one of the odder sights during Saturday afternoon's game. Penn State was called for at least eight motion penalties, with left tackle Donovan Smith responsible for four of those. Offensive line coach Mac McWhorter was clearly frustrated on the sideline and, although the line played well overall, it certainly needs to concentrate more on the snap count and less on what the opposition is doing. Those mistakes nearly lost PSU the game.
5. Secondary, bad; front seven, good. Joel Stave had difficulty locating quite a few open targets, and that came as a big break for Penn State. The secondary still struggled, but it came up with key interceptions off Stave mistakes to somewhat atone. It's still clearly the weak link of this defense, but the front-seven -- especially the defensive line -- played very well yet again Saturday. They finished with five quarterback hurries and three sacks, and the line really limited the Badgers' rushing attack. Wisconsin was held to its second-lowest rushing total of the season (120 yards), and defensive coordinator John Butler deserves a lot of the credit. That should bode well moving forward.
QB Christian Hackenberg: This was easily his best game of the season and certainly should provide PSU some hope moving forward. He was 21 of 30 for 339 yards with four TDs and no interceptions. He played especially well in the first half -- throwing just one or two bad balls -- and was the driving force behind the Penn State offense. He was able to spread the field, showed composure when Wisconsin called for a heavy blitz, and was the biggest reason for PSU's huge upset win over the Badgers.
DE C.J. Olaniyan and the PSU defensive line: The average Wisconsin offensive lineman weighs 321 pounds, which is about 8 pounds heavier than the average Green Bay Packers' lineman. But PSU still managed to pressure Joel Stave and limit the rushing attack to only 120 yards. The entire line played well, but Olaniyan deserves special consideration after finishing with three quarterback hurries and returning an interception 33 yards. Anthony Zettel added two stops in the backfield, Kyle Baublitz (1 TFL) and Austin Johnson led all PSU linemen with four tackles apiece, and Deion Barnes deflected a critical third-and-3 pass.
WR Allen Robinson: No explanation is needed here. Seriously. He caught eight passes for 122 yards. You know how good he is by now. He's on this list every week, and he's one of the best receivers in Penn State history. He showed that yet again against Wisconsin.
RB Zach Zwinak: The 240-pound back gets this award mainly because of one play, his 61-yard rush on a draw with less than 4 minutes left in regulation. Had he not picked that up, Wisconsin would've had great field position and plenty of time left to score the tying touchdown. That was a critical play, and Zwinak played especially well in the second half. He carried 22 times for 115 yards, with more than half of his yardage coming off that one play. Wisconsin players vowed revenge earlier this week after Zwinak ran all over them last season -- but he once again quieted the Badgers.
WR Eugene Lewis and TE Adam Breneman: These two freshmen -- Lewis a redshirt; Breneman a true -- will be looked upon a lot in the future, so their performances were good to see for PSU fans. Breneman caught three balls for 78 yards and a touchdown. But his big play came early in the game when he took a short pass, broke a tackle and rumbled 45 more yards for the score. Lewis also finished with three catches but came down with 91 yards and two touchdowns. Every catch he made was a big one. The first was a 29-yard catch that came on third-and-7, the second was a 3-yard TD and the third was a 59-yard TD bomb that acted as a nice bookend to his Week 1 TD catch.
Still, there were a few notable changes on the depth chart and in the game notes:
- Five new walk-ons earned scholarships for the 2013 season: OG Bryan Davie, DE Carl Nassib, CB Devin Pryor, DT Tyrone Smith and RB Deron Thompson. Pryor and Smith are listed on the depth chart as third string.
- Adam Gress was nursing an injury last week, and he was not listed as the definite starter at right tackle. He's still battling with TE-turned-OT Garry Gilliam. Bill O'Brien will likely update Gress' progress on Tuesday.
- Von Walker, a run-on whom O'Brien complimented last week, is listed as competing for the No. 2 kickoff return spot with Akeel Lynch. Walker is an athlete whom PSU hopes to utilize as a slotback. This might be the biggest surprise on the depth chart. You can read more about Walker here.
- D.J. Crook is listed as the third-string quarterback. He was competing with Austin Whipple and Jack Seymour for the No. 3 spot. He was listed as the third-stringer on the post-spring depth chart as well.
- Bill Belton is still listed as the No. 2 tailback, ahead of Lynch ... but that likely doesn't mean much. Both will see carries.
- Kyle Baublitz is the starter alongside DaQuan Jones at defensive tackle. Redshirt freshman Austin Johnson is the backup.
- True freshman Brandon Bell is Nyeem Wartman's backup at outside linebacker. Ben Kline is listed as Mike Hull's backup.
- There's an "OR" listed next to Malcolm Willis' name, signifying he's still competing with Ryan Keiser at safety. Willis is obviously expected to be the starter -- barring injury. O'Brien will undoubtedly be asked about that on Tuesday.
- Middle linebacker Glenn Carson is still listed as the snapper at punter, despite picking up a run-on whose specialty is snapping and having Howle snapping on field goals.
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.
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.
Monday marks the start of training camp and a new season, which comes on the heels of one of the most memorable performances in school history. PSU shocked the nation with a gutsy 8-4 record last season ... but that was last season.
The Nittany Lions are trying to take another step forward in 2013, and it won't be easy. The limited roster has its fair share of question marks, so NittanyNation's outlined a few of the bigger ones:
Who will become the QB, and can he succeed?
O'Brien tried to downplay Ferguson's absence, but safety Malcolm Willis spoke candidly at the Big Ten media days: "If it was me, I would have trouble picking things back up and just being away from the team."
Few analysts are betting against the fresh-faced rookie, in Hackenberg, to start. He was the top-rated quarterback in his class, the 15th-best prospect in the nation, and he's eyeing immediate playing time. O'Brien insisted starting a true freshman like Hackenberg would not be unusual, and it looks a lot better for Hackenberg than it did a month ago.
It's an open competition, and O'Brien hoped to name a starter midway through camp. But whoever takes over isn't going to have an easy time. Sure, Matt McGloin picked up a complex offense in a short period of time -- but he was used to facing Big Ten defenses and digesting college-level playbooks. His touchdown-interception ratio (24:5) was one of the best in PSU history, and it would be hard for even an experienced quarterback to match those numbers.
Quarterback is really the only question mark on this offense. But it's a big one. If PSU succeeds here, it doesn't just bode well for 2013 -- it gives fans hope for 2014, 2015 and 2016. This is the biggest storyline on the team, and it's one that will be watched closely all season.
Can this front seven match last year's performance?
Michael Mauti and Gerald Hodges formed the best LB tandem in the conference and one of the best in the nation last season. PSU was the lone school to place two linebackers on the semifinalist list for the Butkus Award. And Jordan Hill was an All-Big Ten player who dominated the season finale in a fashion that few defensive tackles have done before.
Those three key players are gone, and it's really not up for debate whether this front seven will be as good as last year. It won't ... but just how good can it be? Players like MLB Glenn Carson and OG John Urschel have pointed to LB Mike Hull as the guy who's impressed them the most this offseason. He's been a staple of any "Players poised to break out" lists, and he'll be carrying a full-time workload this season as opposed to situational playing time.
Hull is a special player, but the young LB lining up on the other side of the field is where the concerns start. Nyeem Wartman made an early mark last season with a big punt block but was lost for the year just one week later. Defensive tackle is also a huge concern without Hill. Big things are expected out of DaQuan Jones, whom Gil Brandt named as the top senior DT in the country, but Kyle Baublitz and Austin Johnson will be taking on a much bigger role this season. Johnson has potential, but it's not yet known if either player will be a force in 2013.
How will PSU counter the depth issues?
Get used to this question because it'll be asked until the sanctions finally end. O'Brien wants to lessen some of the hitting in practice, and he's often said he boasts a "next man up" philosophy. When someone goes down, there's no hesitation -- that next player has to and will be ready.
That's a nice philosophy to have, but there are just key areas on this team that can ill afford injuries of any type -- such as linebacker, quarterback and defensive tackle. (Without Brad Bars, PSU has just one experienced backup DE in Anthony Zettel. Ditto at LB in Ben Kline.) There are some run-ons to choose from and a class of 16 recruits, but it's no secret that the overall quality of this team will suffer with each and every injury at those key places.
O'Brien was able to keep his players fresh in the trenches with a nice rotation last season, and it wouldn't be a big surprise if some players -- such as DT Jones -- sit out in, say, the fourth quarter of the Eastern Michigan contest. Also, there's a good chance fans won't see too many Wisconsin repeats this year -- where Zach Zwinak carries the ball 36 times.
There's only so much O'Brien and Co. can do here, though. Ultimately, a lot of it comes down to preparing the players and then just crossing fingers and hoping everyone stays healthy. A healthy Penn State could become a BCS buster; an unhealthy Penn State could struggle getting past .500.
Here's a closer look at some of the notable changes:
1. Lots of movement in the secondary.
Stephen Obeng-Agyapong, who started last season, is listed as Amos' backup. The other starter isn't yet decided, as Bill O'Brien put the "OR" next to Malcolm Willis' name, meaning a competition is still under way between him and walk-on-turned-scholarship athlete Ryan Keiser.
At cornerback, which saw Amos and the graduated Stephon Morris as the 2012 starters, there are two new names to watch. Sophomore Jordan Lucas grabbed one starting spot, while wideout-turned-corner Trevor Williams is listed at the other. Da'Quan Davis is Lucas' backup.
2. TE-turned-OT Garry Gilliam is now up to 305 pounds.
That's a huge turnaround in less than a year. He played the role of blocking TE last year and started the season at 262 pounds. So, in about 10 months, he's gained 43 pounds. That says quite a bit about PSU's strength and conditioning program. He's currently listed as Dononvan Smith's backup at left tackle.
3. Kyle Baublitz will start alongside DaQuan Jones at DT.
Redshirt freshman Austin Johnson received a lot of praise over the spring, and he seemed poised to grab the starting spot. But the more-experienced Baublitz is instead part of the first-string lineup.
Baublitz played in six games last year, and the most recent roster puts him at 286 pounds -- 32 pounds lighter than Jones and 11 pounds lighter than Johnson. He had two tackles and one sack last year.
4. The long-snapper is ... MLB Glenn Carson?
At least for now, it is. Sean Corcoran is an incoming run-on who's expected to compete for the starting snapping jobs, so Carson's name there could be short-lived.
5. Bill Belton remains the No. 2 RB, while Brandon Moseby-Felder will still start opposite WR Allen Robinson.
Neither was a big surprise, but there were questions surrounding both players. Akeel Lynch is the no. 3 RB, while Eugene Lewis-Matt Zanellato are the receiving backups. (Lewis should still see a considerable amount of time on the field, obviously.)
Moseby-Felder nursed a leg injury last season, which slowed him down in the early going, and he could be a nice surprise this season. Early enrollee Richy Anderson might have garnered his share of pats on the back, too, but he's listed as a fourth-stringer. A redshirt could be in his future.
6. Charles Idemudia is the non-scholarship LB to watch.
Yes, the starting lineup is still Mike Hull-Carson-Nyeem Wartman ... but that was never really in doubt. With just five scholarship linebackers on the roster -- six once Brandon Bell gets on campus -- a walk-on was poised to see some time.
PSU's players threw around a couple names, such as Adam Cole and Matthew Baney, but Idemudia is the only non-scholarship LB listed on the depth chart.
7. Kick/punt returners listed.
PSU tried a few different players on special teams last season. But as of now Belton and Alex Kenney are listed as the top-two kick returners, with Jesse Della Valle as the top punt returner. Those three had the most kick/punt returns last season, so it's not a huge shock to see those names again. One interesting change, though? Anderson is the No. 2 PR.
2012 conference record: 6-2 (second, Leaders Division)
Returning starters: Offense: 8; defense: 6, kicker/punter: 2
RB Zach Zwinak, WR Allen Robinson, TE Kyle Carter, OG John Urschel, OT Donovan Smith, DE Deion Barnes, LB Glenn Carson, CB Adrian Amos
QB Matt McGloin, FB Michael Zordich, C Matt Stankiewitch, DT Jordan Hill, LB Michael Mauti, LB Gerald Hodges, CB Stephon Morris
2012 statistical leaders (*returners)
Rushing: Zach Zwinak* (1,000 yards)
Receiving: Allen Robinson* (1,013 yards)
Tackles: Gerald Hodges (109)
Sacks: Deion Barnes* (6)
Interceptions: Michael Mauti (3)
1. "Tight End U." If there's one position the Nittany Lions don't have to worry about, it's this one -- and that's probably why some PSU players have taken to dubbing the university "TEU." Kyle Carter's injured wrist should be just fine once the season rolls around, and there's plenty of depth here. Teammates have pointed to the offseason work of 6-foot-7 target Jesse James, who really came on strong in the second half of last season. He was also the receiving star in the annual spring scrimmage with five catches and 77 yards. Couple him with Matt Lehman, Brent Wilkerson and Adam Breneman, and it wouldn't be a surprise to see quite a few formations with multiple tight ends on the field.
2. Versatility at a premium. Bill O'Brien doesn't mind moving players around. Wideouts Malik Golden and Trevor Williams switched over to the secondary, and Williams has especially picked up the position quickly. But those two aren't the only to play at different positions. Adrian Amos can play safety or cornerback, and a lot of Penn State's younger DBs have the ability to slide between those two. Penn State's trying to combat a lack of depth with versatile players here, so players who can play at multiple spots are especially valuable.
3. Young standouts. Several true and redshirt freshmen could contribute heavily this season, and O'Brien has praised multiple first-year players for picking things up quickly. On defense, DT Austin Johnson looks to be a starter after a redshirt season, and LB Nyeem Wartman has a leg up on an injured Ben Kline. On offense, WR Eugene Lewis made a one-handed grab in the spring scrimmage to show he can make the tough catches, and RB Akeel Lynch has also made a strong case for playing time. PSU doesn't historically have many four-year starters, but this year could change that.
1. Quarterback question marks. Neither option, early enrollee Tyler Ferguson nor incoming freshman Christian Hackenberg, has ever thrown a pass in the FBS -- and one of those two players will be the Penn State starter. Inexperience is a big concern, and the QB will have to learn a complicated offense in a short period of time. Hackenberg has a lot of potential and Ferguson showed glimpses, however inconsistent, in the spring game. But the offense's strength last season was the quick no-huddle offense -- and it remains to be seen whether either of these signal callers can pull the fast playing style off.
2. Withstanding lack of depth. O'Brien has gotten this team down to about 67 scholarships in preparation for 2014 when the 65-scholarship limit kicks in, so depth is a real concern this season. If a quarterback or linebacker becomes injured, PSU could be in trouble. The Lions need to remain healthy to have a shot at repeating last year's success. And one injury could really have a ripple effect on this team. Health is one question, one uncertainty, that can't be answered anytime soon.
3. Kicking game. Sam Ficken was just 14-of-21 on field goals last season and didn't make a single kick over 39 yards. He did wind up converting his last 10 attempts, but his inconsistency carried over in the spring game when he missed a 37-yard field goal and an extra point. O'Brien was known for leaving the special-teams unit on the sideline a lot on fourth downs last season and, if Ficken struggles again, that would put even more pressure on the young quarterbacks. Or force O'Brien to use incoming walk-on kicker Chris Gulla.
Saturday will be the first time most of last season's freshmen will play in front of a crowd, the first time fans can size up the quarterback race and the first time the media can see the progress this team has made over the spring.
The Blue-White weekend has taken on a carnival-type atmosphere these past few years, and there's plenty to see. But on the field, NittanyNation takes a closer look on what fans should keep an especially close eye on.
Bill O'Brien said in the past no quarterback separated himself yet. Maybe, just maybe, someone will gain an edge Saturday.
BRING ON THE MAN COVERAGE
Defensive coordinator John Butler acknowledged last season that PSU couldn't play be as aggressive in the secondary because of the depth. But that is improved this season. Jordan Smith and Anthony Smith enrolled early, while wideouts Malik Golden and Trevor Williams switched to defensive back.
PSU began practicing the nickel this spring, and fans can expect finally to see that package this season. There's no telling who might start alongside Adrian Amos come August -- Jordan Lucas is currently practicing with the first team -- and fans should keep an eye on the young corners here.
PROJECTED (RS) FRESHMAN STARTERS
DT Austin Johnson and LB Nyeem Wartman are just redshirt freshmen, but it already looks as if they'll crack the starting lineup this season. Both very well could wind up as the rare four-year PSU starter, and expectations are high for these two.
Johnson already is up to 302 pounds, and O'Brien has praised his ability since he was asked about his top freshmen last season. And the hard-hitting Wartman, whom PSU fans already are familiar with, blocked a punt in his PSU debut before an injury in Week 2 that sidelined him for the season (and allowed him to pick up a medical redshirt). With the departures of Mike Mauti and Gerald Hodges, Wartman will have to play well right off the bat for PSU to remain strong here. One recruit said he was especially impressed watching No. 5, because he was all over the field during one practice. Let's see what they can do in a scrimmage.
(Also, Akeel Lynch and Eugene Lewis might not be starters ... but is there anyone who doesn't plan to keep a close eye on them?)
HOW MUCH BETTER HAVE THE BEST GOTTEN?
Practice observers and teammates have pointed constantly to Allen Robinson when asked who has impressed so far this spring. He broke the single-season school record for receptions last season, and he has gained needed weight while maintaining his speed. Robinson was the best in the Big Ten last year, and now he's even better. That's hard to picture on the field.
Mike Hull, Deion Barnes, Zach Zwinak, Amos, etc. all have earned a lot of praise this spring. Zwinak has improved his strength, Barnes is shoring up his run-stopping, Hull is embracing a starting role ... and Amos? Well, he's probably PSU's most versatile player. Returner, safety, cornerback -- he can do everything. And it'll be interesting to see just how much he does Saturday.
TIGHT END U?
It's pretty incredible just how much this position has evolved in about 15 months. Kyle Carter won't play in the Blue-White Game, but fans still will be able to look at Matt Lehman, Jesse James and Brent Wilkerson.
MLB Glenn Carson mentioned James as the player who has impressed him the most overall. He broke out during Carter's absence late in the year, and he boasts good speed for a 6-foot-7 target. James has "red-zone target" written all over him, and it'll be interesting to see how this young corps does in the scrimmage. It'll be an even bigger bonus if Adam Breneman is able to play.
The players, however, are there and can see who might be the next Deion Barnes or Allen Robinson. So, NittanyNation polled several players inside the Lasch Football Building on Wednesday and also took information from Wednesday teleconferences.
The question: Who's made the biggest impact this spring or who's been the biggest surprise? Here's what Penn State's veterans had to say:
Linebacker Glenn Carson: "I'm really impressed with Jesse James. He's had a great winter. That kid's just an animal. I'm really excited to watch him play this year. I think he's a freak athlete. I think he can do amazing things. And if you haven't been impressed by him yet, I think you're going to be even more impressed by him next year."
Offensive guard John Urschel: "Ty Howle is a great center and a great football player. I'd say he's one of the most underrated football players on our team. You don't hear about him enough. I don't think you guys talk about him enough. I don't think we're going to have any problems with him playing at center."
Safety Malcolm Willis: "It's a number of guys. If I had to pick one, it'd probably be John Urschel. He comes in every day early and gets his workout in early. And pound for pound, he's probably one of the strongest guys on the team. Mike Hull, he's another guy who works his butt off. Adrian Amos. Zach Zwinak -- I work out with him in the weight room every day, and the amount of weight he can put up, it's crazy. Those are a couple of the guys who have really impressed me so far."
Offensive tackle Adam Gress: "I'd have to say a lot of the defensive linemen are coming along. All of the younger guys are really working hard, and the guys I was playing against on the scout team last year, now those guys are players. They're people we compete with. So that group's made a lot of progress. ... Austin Johnson's definitely made a lot of progress."
Linebacker Mike Hull: "Nyeem [Wartman] has looked good so far. He's doing a great job filling in. I think he's going to be a great player for us. We just need to all come together as a unit. He's looking good so far, so we just have to see how he progresses."
Defensive end Deion Barnes: "I think it would be Kyle Baublitz. I think he's doing a great job right now. Whoever's been talking to him has done a great job because he's come out of his shell. I've never seen him like this before."