Last year at this time, Penn State was reeling after the NCAA literally pulled the rug out from under the foundation of the program in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky scandal. The Nittany Lions were sanctioned with a four year bowl ban, scholarship reductions down to division 1-AA levels, and a escape clause that allowed any player to transfer immediately to another school and retain their eligibility. Star running back Silas Redd transferred to Southern Cal, wide receiver Justin Brown headed to Oklahoma, and even kicker Anthony Fera transferred to Texas. With only six starters returning, it was easy to pick Penn State to struggle. And struggle they did early on, losing their first two games against Ohio and Virginia. But then Penn State rallied, winning six of the next seven. For leading Penn State to an 8-4 record considering all that happened, head coach Bill O'Brien earned national coach of the year honors.
No other player illustrates the Bill O'Brien effect than quarterback Matt McGloin. In 2011, McGloin played mostly because he wasn't as bad as Rob Bolden. In 2012, McGloin played because he transformed himself into a real quarterback. How real? He's now third on the Oakland Raiders depth chart after signing a free-agent contract this summer. So now O'Brien has to create another quarterback, and this time, he's got a little more talent to work with. Sophomore Tyler Ferguson (6'3" 199 pounds) transferred to Penn State for spring practice, while true freshman Christian Hackenberg (6'3" 215 pounds) was a five star prospect as a pro-style quarterback. Ferguson is a little more mobile, but Hackenberg has that it-factor. I suspect that Ferguson could start early, but by the time the Huskers arrive, Hackenberg would seem to be the more likely starter.
After Silas Redd transfered last August, Penn State tried Bill Belton, a converted wide receiver at 5'10" 199 pounds, at running back initially, then gave way to Zach Zwinak who went on to rush for an even 1,000 yards and six touchdowns. Zwinak missed all of 2011 recovering from an ACL injury, but now he's healthy and should put up huge numbers in his junior season. At 6'1" and 234 pounds, he's a load to bring down, as Nebraska learned the hard way. Redshirt freshman Akeel Lynch (6'0" 214 pounds) should also push for playing time as that not-too-big, not-too-small back. Belton's back for his junior year as well after rushing for 263 yards and three touchdowns last season.
In order to have O'Brien's NFL offense be effective, receivers have to emerge, and just like in New England, receivers seem to emerge from almost thin air. Allen Robinson caught three passes as a freshman, but exploded last season to catch 77 for 1,013 yards and eleven touchdowns. At 6'3" and 204 pounds, he turned a depleted receiver corps (the top seven receivers from 2011 were gone just three weeks after the start of preseason practice) into a strength. Senior Brandon Moseby-Fielder caught 31 passes for 437 yards as a nice complement. But like in New England, it's the tight ends who make the offense click. Sophomore Kyle Carter (6'3" 240 pounds) was a freshman all-American last season, catching 36 passes for 433 yards and two touchdowns. A wrist injury from late last season hampered him during the offseason; reports from Happy Valley indicate all is fine. Fellow sophomore Jesse James is a nightmare to cover at 6'7" and 258 pounds; he caught 15 passes for 276 yards and five touchdowns as a freshman. And if that's not enough, incoming freshman Adam Breneman has wide receiver height and speed to go with his 230 pound frame. The three provide the perfect set of checkdown options for a young, inexperienced quarterback.
Three starters return on the offensive line, starting with Phil Steele's first team all-Big Ten right guard John Urschel. Big, strong, AND smart, the 6'3" 300 pound senior carries a 4.0 GPA and is an academic All-American. Sophomore left tackle Donovan Smith (6'5" 327 pounds) started nine games as a freshman and had a impressive spring. Junior left guard Miles Dieffenbach (6'3" 298 pounds) started 11 games last season to round out the experience. But senior Ty Howie (6'0" 295 pounds) has played sparingly up to now, but now gets to replace Rimington Award finalist Matt Stankiewitch at center.
Six starters return for a defense that got a lot better as the season went on...especially up front. They'll miss all Big Ten defensive tackle Jordan Hill, but they do get back Big Ten freshman of the year Deon Barnes. The 6'4" 244 pound sophomore totaled 26 tackles last season, including a key first quarter sack of Taylor Martinez when the Huskers were inside the Penn State 10 yard line. Senior defensive tackle DaQuan Jones (6'3" 333 pounds) will need to produce bigger numbers than his 22 tackles last season. Keep an eye on true freshman defensive end Garrett Sickels (6'4" 238 pounds), who's being counted on as a pass rushing specialist.
Linebacker U. will undoubtedly miss Gerald Hodges and Michael Mauti, who both were drafted by the Minnesota Vikings. Senior Glenn Carson (6'3" 235 pounds) does return after a 85 tackle season in 2012. He's worked on the outside before, but now will lead in the middle. After Mauti tore his ACL in the fourth game, junior Mike Hull (6'0" 226 pounds) stepped in and added 54 tackles, 29 of which came in the final four games. Redshirt freshman Nyeem Wartman (6'1" 236 pounds) is expected to round out the lineup.
Three starters return in the secondary, led by junior Adrian Amos (6'0" 209 pounds). He's the leader of the secondary, though he's not exactly a shutdown corner at this point. It looks like he's going to shift over to safety this season...maybe even play some nickel back as well. Sophomores Jordan Lucas (6'0" 185 pounds) and Trevor Williams (6'1" 180 pounds) look like they'll be the cornerbacks this season. Senior Malcolm Willis (5'11" 215 pounds) should stay at free safety. He's decent on run support (45 tackles last season), but needs to improve his pass defense.
Depth across the board likely will start becoming a problem as Penn State works their way down to the 65 scholarship limit for next season; this year, they are at 67. The good news is that while the numbers are down, Bill O'Brien has been able to sign quality so far. The opportunity to play for a program like Penn State seems to matter more than the bowl ban. (Either that, or players secretly prefer being able to spend Christmas break with their families at home rather than preparing for a bowl game.) A year ago at this time, it looked like Penn State was headed towards an extended period of mediocrity. But O'Brien has done an outstanding job of steering Penn State through the troubled waters so far, so underestimate the Nittany Lions at your own peril.