Friday, July 20, 2007

Big Ten Football Previews – Part VIII

Editor's Note: This is the eighth in a series of my annual summer Big Ten football previews. Check back weekly (approximately) to see who’s next...

Team: Penn State Nittany Lions

Tidbits … Penn State has won two conference crowns since joining the Big Ten in 1990 (started league play in football in 1993). The Nittany Lions are 85-60-2 against Big Ten teams all time (in and out of league play) and carry a losing record against only two squads – Michigan and Wisconsin. PSU is 8-2 in bowl games since joining the Big Ten (25-12-2 overall).

Past Predictions/Results:
2006 Prediction/actual: 9-3, 6-2 (T-3rd), Capital One / 9-4, 5-3 (T-4th), Outback
2005 Prediction / actual: 6-5, 3-5 (T-7th), Music City / 11-1, 7-1 (T-1st), Orange
2004 Prediction / actual: 6-5, 4-4 (T-5th), Music City / 4-7, 2-6 (9th)
2003 Prediction / actual: 7-5, 4-4 (T-5th) / 3-9, 1-7 (T-9th)
2002 Prediction / actual: 9-3, 6-2 (T-1st) / 9-4, 5-3 (4th)
2001 Prediction / actual: 5-6, 3-5 (T-7th) / 5-6, 4-4 (T-4th)

Returning Starters: 8 offense, 6 defense, 1 kicker

Key Returnees: QB Anthony Morelli, RB Austin Scott, RB Rodney Kinlaw, WR Derrick Williams, WR Deon Butler, WR Jordan Norwood, C A.Q. Shipley, LB Dan Connor, CB Justin King, SS Anthony Scirrotto, PK Kevin Kelly

Key Losses: LT Levi Brown, RB Tony Hunt, DE/LB Tim Shaw, LT Jay Alford, LB Paul Posluszny, P Jeremy Kapinos

Looking Back ... Isn’t it funny what decades of success will do to a fan or sports writer’s perspective? If you read up a bit on recaps of the 2006 season in State College, many would call it unspectacular, a dud, and a disappointment. Hello. Back to reality here folks. Penn State went 9-4, finished in the top half of the Big Ten, beat up on an SEC powerhouse in the Outback Bowl and set the table nicely for 2007.

True, 2006 was not the repeat of 2005 some had unfairly expected. But that’s the key – unfairly expected. Penn State had to replace late bloomer Michael Robinson and some other key players on the roster. Most programs don’t simply plug and play at will when it comes to the quarterback position. No, the Nittany Lions did not beat anyone big – until the win over Tennessee. Yes, there were some struggles (OT to beat Minnesota, a somewhat uninspired comeback win over Michigan State). But the bottom line is wins. Joe Paterno has 363 of them in 41 seasons at Penn State. He’s going to add a chunk more in 2007…

Outlook - Offense ... 2006 was an average campaign – at best – for the Penn State offense. Tony Hunt was the only real consistent performer and in fact was by far and away the highest ranking producer for the Nittany Lions in the Big Ten. The passing game was way too average given the talent that was (and remains) available. The running game was good but all in all, Penn State struggled to score at times and never really kicked it into gear. If the Nits are to take a step forward this year, it will have to be on the offensive side of the ball. Anthony Morelli has a full season of calling the shots under his belt. Austin Scott returns and should ease the pain of Hunt’s departure. The offense as a whole brings back eight starters and plenty of fire power. Now, can the chips fall into place to use that weaponry to its fullest extent?

Penn State is one of the few programs that welcomes back its starting signal caller from 2006. Anthony Morelli was a highly touted recruit that has not yet lived up to expectations, but hey, this is Penn State, where we all know that the seniors rule the roost and shine when they finally get that last shot at stardom. Well, that’s what the fans and coaching staff are hoping anyway.

If you’re a gambler, it is a pretty safe bet that Morelli will produce more, likely far more this year than last. He’s big, has a strong arm and great talent. What he was lacking last year, and early in his career was the confidence to take the reins and run the show. He finally did that in the Outback Bowl victory and is poised to have a Michael Robinson-like breakout senior year. There is no doubt that he is surrounded by solid playmakers. It is now simply a matter of taking charge and showing what all the fuss was about when he signed his LOI. That means the only real question here is who takes the snaps if Morelli gets hurt? Junior Daryll Clark is cut in much the same mold as Morelli. He saw some limited time last season and stayed a notch above some youngsters through spring ball. Out of the three fighting for third string status – Pat Devlin, Paul Cianciolo, and Kevin Suhey – Devlin probably has the edge and according to Coach Paterno, might have the best upside of all the QBs in the program right now.

The biggest loss for the Penn State offense is the departure of Tony Hunt. Hunt shared time with Austin Scott a few seasons ago, and then burst back on the scene after an injury in the Orange Bowl following the 2005 season. His 1,386 yards and 11 touchdowns will not be easy to replace. The good news? Austin Scott has the experience and the talent to replace those numbers. The biggest concern is that Scott tends to let the injuries bother him and then they seem to pile up and snowball out of control. The senior, much like Morelli, has yet to live up to his recruiting hype and needs to be the man this fall or he will end up as a bust. On a positive note, Rodney Kinlaw gives the Nittany Lions a speedy change of pace as the backup. There is no reason why Kinlaw and Scott cannot combine to put up the numbers that Hunt did a season ago. If they sputter a bit, don’t be surprised to see freshmen Brent Carter and Evan Royster get a shot. While young and green, both have solid “make-you-miss” ability and will be household names for PSU fans sooner than later.

Changing pace a bit … a player who may not churn out big time statistics but who will play a meaningful role in the ground game is senior fullback Matt Hahn. Hahn isn’t the powerful blocking fullback that you may be used to seeing done the classic blue and white uniforms for Penn State, but he is another option for the offense. He has decent hands and can run the ball a bit, even if the fullback is seeing less overall playing time in JoePa’s offense these days. His backup is more of a true blocking back. Dan Lawlor could also see a few passes thrown his way as Penn State tries to keep the opposition on its toes. The Nittany Lions should get some very solid production out of the backfield. If they do, look out, the PSU offense will be sound all the way around. If not, things could bog down at times, especially in the big games that face the Nits this fall.

For my money, the unquestioned strength on the offensive side of the ball is the receiving corps. It is loaded with talent, speed and depth. Four of last year’s top five receivers return and with Morelli stepping up and getting better, opposing secondaries beware. Junior Derrick Williams is poised to breakout after showing flashes the past two seasons. He is a threat to catch, run and return the ball with blazing speed and a high football IQ. His only trouble has been inconsistency, but that is often the case when teams are breaking in a new signal caller as Penn State was last fall with Morelli. He will be joined in the starting lineup by Deon Butler. Butler is a threat to stretch the defense with great speed and reliable hands. He has been a consistent performer and his presence means that teams cannot simply double-team Williams.

The depth here is as good as it gets. Jordan Norwood, Chris Bell and Terrell Golden all have solid experience, led by Norwood – who was second on the team in receptions a season ago. Norwood is extremely quick with a knack for getting open. Golden and Bell have good size but Bell should move ahead of the more experienced but seemingly “stuck in the mud” (as far as development goes) Golden. No matter how you slice it up, five receivers – four of whom are arguably good enough to start most anywhere in the conference – is a nice luxury to have.

It only gets better when you toss in the tight end picture. Sophomore Andrew Quarless had a fantastic freshman campaign and is cut in the mold of the dream NFL tight ends of the last five to seven years. He is big and fast with good hands. If he gets the blocking part down pat, he will be among the best in the nation at his position. Mickey Shuler is what you might say a fullback playing tight end (H-back) but he is coming along in his development and is probably a better blocker at this point than Quarless. That means he too will see plenty of time on the field this fall. Overall this group of receivers and tight ends has plenty of star power and has the potential to put up record numbers this fall…

As much as it takes a good quarterback and talented skill players to make an offense go, how good an offense gets really depends on the play of the offensive line. Penn State must replace two starters from a solid if not spectacular ’06 unit. Levi Brown was a top ten draft pick and leaves a sizeable void at left tackle. Also gone is left guard Robert Price. The good news is, the Nittany Lions seem to have a couple of guys chomping at the bit to settle in and make folks forget Brown and Price.

Before we get to the left side replacements, let’s start with what is returning this fall. The anchor of the line is A.Q. Shipley. Shipley is on the preseason Rimington Trophy watch list and should be the leader of the line this fall. He was the only offensive lineman to start every game last season and was an integral part of the successful rushing attack. To his right is returning starter John Shaw. Shaw started on the outside last year but to balance out the depth, has moved to guard. His versatility is key, however, so don’t be surprised to see him play both guard and tackle this fall. Rich Ohmberger started last season at right guard but will fight Lou Eliades for the starting slot at left guard. Even if he slips to second string, he too provides some versatility because he can play on either side of the line.

The number one question, of course, is who will replace Brown at left tackle. Gerald Cadogan played some left guard in the past and appears ready to be the next great left tackle. He is an excellent run blocker with great size and range. On the right side, there is Dennis Landolt, who had a fantastic spring and can play either side. He might in fact have the most upside of all the linemen. The only real issues up front center around the depth. Elijah Robinson was forced to hang up the helmet after suffering a neck injury that uncovered a more serious issue with his spinal canal. That really hurts the depth right out of the gate. The “retirement” of Robinson actually played a role in Coach Paterno going after some JUCO talent, something he doesn’t usually like to do. Ako Poti provides a body up front, but whether or not he has an impact remains to be seen. Mike Lucian is a converted defensive end that can run block quite well. Austin Hinton is a career backup with the potential to see some time at tackle. Other than that, it’s thin, most alarmingly at center. It will be vital to find a good seven or eight man rotation when camp starts in August and to uncover a backup for Shipley – just in case. If Penn State gets good play here, as it traditionally does, it could be a great season for the offense. If not, it’ll be up to the defense to keep things close.

From a play-making standpoint, I am intrigued by the Penn State offense. There is potential for a very strong one-two punch at tailback. The receiving corps has to make most in the conference green with envy. It all depends on whether Morelli makes a Michael Robinson like step to the next level and how consistent and injury-free the front five plays. If all the chips fall correctly, this could be a potent attack. If Scott gets hurt, Morelli plays so-so and the line struggles, the Nittany Lions will do the same. Chance are though that it won’t all go to hell in a hand basket anyway, so look for PSU to have a better offense campaign in ‘07 than a season ago.

Outlook - Defense ... What happens when you lose three-quarters of your starters up front and one of the best linebackers to ever don the Penn State blue and white? You reload. Hey, they don’t call it Linebacker U for nothing you know. Despite losing Tim Shaw, Jay Alford and Ed Johnson up front and all-world middle linebacker Paul Posluszny, the Nittany Lions should be every bit as good as last season’s fourth ranked defense. Why? There was plenty of talent left behind to go with budding talent as of yet untapped. Make sure the chin straps are extra tight, Penn State will get after you this fall…

Part of what makes the PSU linebackers so good year after year is the solid front four that forces plays in front of them. Heading into this season, the coaching staff needs to replace three solid starters from 2006. Tim Shaw converted from linebacker to end last season and leaves a seven-sack void at left end. Jay Alford and Ed Johnson were space eaters inside, very good tackles who could change plays at the point of attack.

The only returning starter from last season is Josh Gaines. The junior will more than likely move over to the left side after starting on the right side last season. While not a pass rusher in the mold of Shaw or Tamba Hali, he is solid and will get a chance to show his stuff. Phil Taylor is slotted to replace Alford. He is a house at 6-4, 337 and will clog things up nicely in the middle. He will not be as much of a threat to get into the backfield like Alford, but has good strength and skills. Abe Koroma might be the best long term prospect of the bunch. He is big, strong and has room to learn and get better as he is only a redshirt freshman. The final starter might wind up being the big play producer this fall. Sophomore Maurice Evans saw some time as a true freshman and made his share of plays. He’s bulked up but is every bit as quick and is poised to break out. He was unblockable at times this spring – which is either an indictment of a shaky offensive line or a sign of his prowess. I’ll bank on the latter.

Much like its counterpart the offensive line, the biggest concern here is the depth. Chris Baker is a question mark due to off the field issues (temporary expulsion from school) but will otherwise be in the mix at left tackle. Jared Odrick is a smaller, quicker tackle who might be the best backfield force up the middle when all is said and done. Aaron Maybin is a promising youngster with the potential to become a quality defensive end. Who fills out the rest of the depth is up in the air heading into camp, but some names to watch are Chris Rogers and Eric Latimore.

The line doesn’t have to be spectacular because of the experience behind it, but that things are a bit uncertain is a little concerning heading into fall practice. If Baker is out of the mix, someone is going to have to step up at tackle. Evans will be a force but is going to need rest. All Larry Johnson is asking for out of this group is to be steady, make plays and let the linebackers and secondary get after it. Do that, and Penn State will be fine. If not, the promising points above might become moot…

Let’s get this out of the way, the linebacking corps is flat out loaded this season – again. You’d think that losing the likes of Paul Posluszny would mean a little retooling is necessary and maybe a step back is in order. If so, you’d think wrong. Let me reintroduce you to Dan Connor. A 6-3, 233 lb senior, Connor arguably had a better season last year than Posluszny. He was right behind him in tackles (113 to 116), had more sacks (5 to 3) and was second on the team in interceptions. Connor will be one of the best, if not the best, linebackers in the nation this year. He will move to the middle to fill Posluszny’s spot and needs 126 tackles to reach 400 for his career.

Penn State has more to offer than just Connor. Junior Sean Lee was third on the team in tackles last season and will finally get a little bit of notice around the conference. He tallied 90 tackles, 8 TFLs and 5.5 sacks a season ago and should be even more productive this go around. Joining Lee as the third starter will be either Navorro Bowman or Tyrell Sales. Bowman is young and inexperienced but might be the fastest linebacker in the lot. Sales has been a spot starter over his career and a special team’s playmaker.

Perhaps as impressive as the starting lineup in the middle of the defense is the depth. Sales or Navorro will come off the bench on the weakside. Jerome Hayes won’t beat Lee for his gig (and won’t likely get the chance anyway due to his temporary expulsion) but is probably the best second stringer in the corps. Junior Dontey Brown might start for most Big Ten teams but playing behind Connor means he’ll have to bide his time. Still, he is more than capable of stepping in and filling Connor’s shoes if he gets hurt or needs a rest. One more name to throw in the mix is Josh Hull. Add it together and you have a unit that goes seven deep with starters talent. Makes you worry less about the front four when there is so much talent at linebacker…

The front four is a bit questionable, the linebacking corps among the best in the nation, so what about the secondary? Three starters return (potentially) with free safety Donnie Johnson the only departure. Johnson will be missed but is likely to be replaced by one of the starting cornerbacks from last season, Tony Davis. Davis is a solid tackler and a ball hawk (he had 13 PBUs last year) and despite being a little small for a safety (6-0) he has great range. The other starting safety is one of the best in the game. Anthony Scirrotto is a defensive coordinator’s dream at strong safety. He has football smarts, size and big play ability, even if he lacks blazing speed. He had six picks and was the fourth leading tackler on the team a season ago. The question is whether or not he avoids major repercussions from the same spring off-the-field incident that landed him a temporary expulsion (along with Baker, Hayes and fellow DB Lydell Sargeant). He faces felony charges in court in August. If he is kicked off the team, Penn State goes from having a great secondary to a decent defensive backfield – at best. He’s that good.

With Davis moving over to safety, that leaves a void at one corner spot. Before the ruckus that occurred in the spring, it looked certain that the newest starter at cornerback would be Lydell Sargeant. It still looks like that will be the case as charges were dropped against him. However, he is one of the four serving a temporary expulsion. If he doesn’t get further discipline, the former wideout should grow into a nice replacement for Davis. If it isn’t Sargeant, A.J. Wallace will get the nod. Wallace is a fantastic kick returner and brings explosive speed and good size to the corner position. The other starting spot is nailed down. Justin King is a lock-down cover corner. Teams routinely throw away from him – a sure sign of respect. King has the tools to play in the NFL and will again get a chance to shine in the secondary this fall.

Depth might be the only semi-question with this group, particularly at safety. Assuming everyone that got into hot water is back, the starting group is very good. Wallace or Sargeant should develop nicely to compliment King, even if the ideal world would see Davis staying at the corner position he left to play free safety. Redshirt freshman Cedric Jeffries is a big backup strong safety with a world of potential. He is in line to step in for Scirrotto if need be or could even allow for Davis to play corner. Others in the mix are Brendan Perretta (CB), Brent Carter (RB who saw time at CB in spring ball), Spencer Ridenhour (FS), Knowledge Timmons (CB) and Willie Harriott (CB). The bottom line is simple, the front four has plenty of support in a potentially best in conference secondary.

If Penn State didn’t have as many holes to fill in the defensive front, I would anoint this the best defense in the league. Even with some patching to do, this could well be another one of those stifling Nittany Lion defensive units. Playmakers abound, from Evans to Connor and Lee to Scirrotto and King. Pick your poison when you face the Nits. Look for the total defense to be among the top three in the Big ten and for the turnovers to pile up quicker than last year with a group of ball-hawking game changers in each position group.

Outlook - Special Teams ... Penn State enters the season with good and bad news on special teams. The good news? There are a boatload of good return men and place-kicker Kevin Kelly is back. While he was 22 for 34 on field goals a season ago, he has a great leg and hopefully, the PSU offense will be finding the end zone more often instead of having to settle for field goal attempts. The bad news is that the league’s leading punter, Jeremy Kapinos has departed. His 40.0 net average led the conference and he was third overall at 41.8 yards per kick. Replacing a punter is an underrated task. Another Jeremy is primed to step into the role. Jeremy Boone had a nice spring and the coaching staff hopes that will carry over to game play this fall.

9/15 – BUFFALO
9/22 – at Michigan
9/29 – at Illinois
10/6 – IOWA
10/20 – at Indiana
10/27 – OHIO STATE
11/3 – PURDUE
11/10 – at Temple
11/17 – at Michigan State

Key Games: 9/8 – Notre Dame, 9/22 – at Michigan, 10/6 – Iowa, 10/13 – Wisconsin, 10/27 – Ohio State

Prediction ... Despite dropping Big Ten doormats Northwestern and Minnesota from the slate, Penn State has a doable schedule. Why? The only true test on the road is at Michigan. MSU usually plays the Nittany Lions tough at home, but all of the other toughies are at Beaver Stadium. It starts when Notre Dame comes to town for some payback. Then in a five week run, there are four home dates with Iowa, Wisconsin, Ohio State and Purdue. It all sets up for a potentially great season for the blue and white. In fact, I think the only thing that will slow this team down is a late season upset in East Lansing.

OOC: 4-0
B10: 5-3 (losses to Michigan, Wisconsin, and Michigan State)
Overall: 9-3, T-4th in the conference, Outback Bowl berth


Adam said...

Decent previw, but we arent going to lose to Michigan St. Sorry bro

BigTenSportsFan said...

I couldn't agree more, Andy! Penn State will have their hands full when they enter one of the most hallowed grounds in all of college athletics -- Spartan Stadium. MSU has historically been a pesky opponent for Joe Pa's crew, and I don't see that changing this year!