Penn State Nittany Lions
Head Coach: Bill O’Brien
2011 Record: 9-4 overall, 6-2 Big Ten Leaders
2011 Bowl Result: Lost Ticket City Bowl 30-14 to Houston
I have done 20 or 30 of these team previews, and they are all pretty much the same. I discuss what they did last season, if they had a coaching change, and discuss their offense, defense, special teams, schedule, and a prediction on what I think their record will be.
Well, this is the one I dreaded doing the most. Everyone in the country has heard about what happened at Penn St in the wake of a horrific child sex abuse scandal involving former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky, even non sports fans. I won’t get into the whole story, because that isn’t my job. My job is to try and discuss how the scandal will affect the current team. It is really an impossible task because no one, not even the Penn St coaches and players know how the team will react in the face of unprecedented crippling sanctions handed down by the NCAA. I will discuss the specifics of the sanctions later.
However, first we must mention Joe Paterno. This will be the first fall since 1950 that Paterno will not be on the sidelines either as an assistant or as head coach. Paterno was fired as head coach in November of last year, and died in January of this year. Paterno became head coach in 1966. The Penn St board of trustees fired Paterno because of his alleged involvement in the cover-up of Sandusky’s activities. Some have said Paterno knew about it as early as 1998, but cared more about protecting the reputation of the football team than protecting the victims. Paterno isn’t around to defend himself, obviously, but his family vigorously denies these allegations.
It seems frivolous to discuss the football team when talking about such serious matters as sexual abuse of children and alleged coverups by high ranking university officials of such activities. Well, that’s because it is. However, it must be mentioned that before Paterno was fired, the Nittany Lions were 8-1 with the only loss coming to eventual BCS champion Alabama. However, not surprisingly the team went into a tailspin after he was fired losing 3 of their last 4 games, to top 20 teams, Nebraska, Wisconsin, and Houston in the Ticket City Bowl. Penn St did pull off a 20-14 upset at Ohio St in that stretch.
Former New England Patriots offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien was named Penn St’s head coach in January, just two weeks before Paterno passed away. He actually had a good recruiting class, but then in July the NCAA dropped the hammer on Penn St with devastating, crippling sanctions. Actually, hammer isn’t strong enough. What the NCAA did was akin to dropping a nuclear bomb that could affect the program for a a decade or more.
It was the harshest sanctions since the NCAA gave SMU the so called death penalty in the late 80’s. Some say Penn St would have been better off if the NCAA had given them the death penalty instead. The sanctions include a ban on post-season play for the next four years, a loss of 40 scholarships in a 4 year period, a fine of 60 million dollars with the proceeds going to charities that prevent child sex abuse, and vacation of all wins from 1998-2011. The bowl ban and scholarship limits hurt recruiting, obviously. The fine is equivalent to roughly one year of revenue from the football team. The vacated wins were more of a punishment to Paterno, as it dropped him from the All-time wins leader coach in FBS football to #8, as 112 wins were erased from his record. The Big Ten also banned Penn St from the conference championship game for four years and will donate the university’s share of bowl revenue to charity.
The one penalty whose effects will be seen right away is the NCAA saying any Penn St player can transfer and be eligible to play right away instead of having to sit out a year as they normally would. This grace period is in effect until the start of the 2013 season. Eleven players have taken advantage of this, and expect more to do so in the spring. Leading rusher Silas Redd transferred to USC. Leading receiver Justin Brown is off to Oklahoma. Kicker/punter Anthony Fera transferred to Texas. Quarterback Rob Bolden has gone to LSU. Wide receiver Devon Smith transferred to Marshall. Tight end Kevin Haplea is now at Florida St. Other transfers include linebacker Khairi Fortt (Cal), OL Ryan Nowicki (Illinois), DT Jamil Pollard (Rutgers), CB Derrick Thomas (Marshall) and S Tim Buckley (NC State). Five recruits have also decommitted from Penn St and will attend other schools. Sophomore tight end Dakota Royer wants to finish his degree before transferring to another school.
So whose left? A large chunk of the players stayed loyal to the school and so Penn St will have some talent. O’Brien will also be the offensive coordinator. Frankly, even before the chaos at the end of the season, this team struggled on offense, averaging 19 points a game (110th out of 120 teams.) The passing game averaged 177 yards a game, and the rushing attack averaged 165.4 yards per game.
The expected quarterback competition between Bolden and Matthew McGloin never happened when Bolden left for LSU. Bolden was the starter last fall but was benched for being ineffective midway through the season. He completed 39% of his passes for 685 yards, with 2 touchdowns and 7 interceptions. He was sacked 8 times last year. Bolden played in 20 games for the Nittany Lions. McGloin didn’t exactly light up the world either, completing 54.1% of his passes for 1,571 yards, with 8 touchdowns and 5 interceptions. He was sacked 6 times. If McGloin struggles or is injured, sophomore Paul Jones is waiting in the wings. On paper, he is probably more talented than McGloin, but the coaches feel installing a completely new complicated offense will be easier with the veteran McGloin.
The running game took a serious hit when Redd transferred to USC. He had 244 carries for 1,241 yards with 7 touchdowns. So now the running backs will likely be Curtis Dukes and Bill Belton. Dukes missed the spring as he was focusing on getting his academics in order. He had 41 carries, 237 yards, and a touchdown. Belton looked impressive during the spring but he only had 13 carries last year. Derek Day will also get a lot of carries as well, and could even be the feature back if he has a good training camp. True freshman Akeel Lynch is the running back of the future. Fullback Michael Zordich had 2 touchdowns last year, but the new offense doesn’t really use a fullback. He might be used as an H-back though.
Penn St knew they had to replace leading receiver Derek Moye who had 40 catches, 654 yards, and 3 touchdowns. However, the receiving unit was devastated by the transfers of Brown, Smith, and Haplea. Brown and Smith combined for 60 catches, over 9oo receiving yards, and 4 touchdowns. Of the returning receivers none caught more than 5 passes last year. Sophomore Allen Robinson, juniors Shawney Kersey, Brandon Moseby-Felder and Christian Kuntz are the only 4 receivers who have caught a pass. It isn’t clear who the number one receiver will be, and the Nittany Lions will probably just have to try them out and see.
Junior Garry Gilliam missed the last two years with an ACL injury but now finds himself as the starting tight end. O’Brien wants to use two tight ends like he did last year with the Patriots with Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. He had the depth to do that before Haplea and Royer left the team, but might not now. Freshmen Kevin Carter, Brent Wilkerson, and Jesse James are the only other tight ends on the roster.
The line returns only 2 players with starting experience. Senior center Matt Stankiewitch started all 13 games last year. Senior right tackle Mike Ferrell started all of one game last year. Junior Adam Gress showed a lot of potential and talent in the spring and will take over at left tackle. Freshman Donovan Smith could supplant Farrell at tackle, as he also has a ton of potential. The line was a strength last year, but could struggle with so many new players.
While the offense was mostly inept to put it bluntly, last year, the defense was elite. The Nittany Lions were fifth in scoring defense allowing 16.8 points a game. The defense should still be very good under new coordinator Ted Roof. The defense lost a few players to transfers but wasn’t as decimated as the offense.
The defensive line must replace Big Ten Player of the year Devon Still. Junior DaQuan Jones will move into the tackle spot vacated by Still. The other tackle is Jordan Hill who had 59 tackles, 3.5 sacks and 8 tackles for loss. James Terry will also get some time at tackle. Senior Sean Stanley will start at one end after he had 6.5 tackles for loss, including 4.5 sacks, and even had an interception. Senior Pete Massero has battled injury his entire career, but has the potential to be the team’s best pass rusher. C.J. Olanyian and Deion barnes are also in the defensive end rotation.
Penn St has always been known as linebacker U, and this year’s unit will be stacked. Senior Michael Mauti is in his fifth year. He tore his ACL after just 4 games (the second time in 3 years), but he had 21 tackles, an interception and 3 tackles for loss. Gerald Hodges had 106 tackles, including 10 for loss, 4.5 sacks, an interception, four passes broken up and 2 forced fumbles. Glenn Carson, Mike Hull, Jamie Van Fleet, and Mike Yanich add depth to the unit, but the transfer of Fortt hurts as he played the same position as the oft injured Mauti.
The secondary must replace all four starters, and has lots of question marks compared to the front 7. Cornerback Adrian Amos started against Iowa but he is the only one with starting experience. He could move to safety. If that happens Stephen Obeng-Agyapong will start at corner. Derrick Thomas was supposed to be the other corner but he transferred to Marshall. Jesse Della Valle will likely start at corner in his place. Stephon Morris, Mike Wallace, Malcolm Willis, and Jacob Fagnano will compete for the safety spots.
The loss of Fera is a killer. He was one of the best kickers and punters in the Big Ten. He made 14 of 17 field goals, and averaged 42 yards per punt. Sophomore Sam Ficken will take over as kicker. He has a strong leg, but Fera will be tough to replace. Ficken will compete with Alex Butterworth for the punting job. The Nittany Lions must improve their kickoff coverage as they gave up 22 yards per return last year.
Adrian Amos and Bill Belton will likely handle the kick and punt returns. Amos averaged 20.4 yards per kick return last year. He will get a chance to return punts as well, but the job will probably go to Belton.
The schedule isn’t that difficult, but who knows how Penn St will react knowing they can’t go to a bowl game, and with the loss of so many skill position players. Penn St has non-conference home games against Ohio, Navy, and Temple, sandwiched around a trip to Virginia. All four are winnable, but again we don’t know. The conference schedule includes road games at Illinois, Iowa, Purdue, and Nebraska, and home games against Northwestern, Ohio St, Indiana, and Wisconsin.
I can’t even begin to guess how Penn St will perform this season. Do they grow despondent at their fate and quit? I don’t see that happening with the energy O’Brien brings to the Nittany Lions. Do they rally together and have a successful season? Maybe, but really what is successful? When you are talking about a program left in shambles after a horrific scandal that none of the current coaches or players were involved with, there are no easy answers to that question. Really, wins and losses are immaterial at this point. (After all, officially this team hasn’t won a football game since 1997 according to the NCAA.) In the end, the most important thing is to pay proper tribute to the victims and make sure something like this never happens again at any school.
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