Penn State Football: 2012 Season Preview for the Nittany Lions

Ian HanfordFeatured ColumnistAugust 29, 2012

Penn State Football: 2012 Season Preview for the Nittany Lions

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    Penn State football is entering a new era behind Bill O'Brien and his coaching staff, and it will be met with stiff tests from the very beginning.

    Nothing is easy for the Nittany Lion program at this point. The roster is depleted, and Big Ten competition is only getting better. On top of that, they will have to deal with unmistakable scrutiny every time they take the field.

    The 2012 football season is going to be interesting for everyone involved, and that's especially true for the players in Happy Valley.

    Enough with the introduction. Let's get into some football.

Off-Season Synopsis

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    Calling Penn State's offseason rocky would be an understatement. The Nittany Lion program was gutted by NCAA sanctions, and the worst impact, in terms of personnel, could still be felt.

    The Nittany Lions have a (mostly) new coaching staff, and new faces starting on both sides of the ball. Some of this was expected, but the NCAA's crackdown following the infamous Jerry Sandusky scandal created a deeper chasm for the Penn State program to climb out of.

    By now, the coverage of Penn State's offseason has been talked about in every which way. I could walk into a room filled with 30 non-football fans today, and they would have something to talk about.

    Previewing Penn State's season goes hand in hand with their tumultuous summer months, but the fall is all about football. Beaver Stadium will be under a microscope each and every Saturday, but there's still football to be played.

    We could wrestle with the details of Joe Paterno's involvement, the removal of his statue or the depth of corruption in Happy Valley until our faces turn the same color as Penn State's uniforms, but let's not.

    Instead, let's talk about the players who endured the hardships and remained on Penn State's team.

Offensive Preview

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    Penn State had the 110th scoring offense in the nation last season, and, personnel wise, it has gotten worse at all levels.

    The Nittany Lions will look to unproven players at important positions to lead the charge this season. The most experienced player is quarterback Matt McGloin, but he hasn't come close to proving himself worthy of leading a competitive team.

    If McGloin can't do the job, redshirt sophomore Paul Jones could get the call Penn State fans have been waiting for.

    Behind McGloin will be an assortment of running backs. Bill Belton will be the starter with Curtis Dukes, Derek Day and freshman Akeel Lynch also earning carries.

    Belton's quickness and agility make him a potential breakout candidate in 2012. Dukes is pushing 250 pounds and will be a solid complement to Belton's shifty style. Lynch is unproven, but will earn playing time as the season goes along.

    Day is actually the player that O'Brien expects to be Belton's No. 2.

    McGloin will be throwing to talented, but inexperienced receivers. Justin Brown is now with Oklahoma. That leaves Allen Robinson, Shawney Kersey, Alex Kenney, Christian Kuntz and freshman Eugene Lewis all vying for time on the outside. Guys like Matt Zanellato and freshman Trevor Williams will also compete for snaps.

    Along with Belton, I expect a big season from Robinson. It's his first year as a starter, but his lanky frame allows him to cause mismatches on the outside.

    Rounding out Penn State's offense are the tight ends and offensive lineman. Four new starters will play up front from last season, and the tight end group is largely unproven. O'Brien's offense will demand a lot from this collection of players.

    It's hard to expect a lot from a unit that struggled last season and lost so much this summer.

Defensive Preview

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    If Penn State wants to sniff eight wins this year, it's going to come on the defensive side of the ball. This should be familiar. Last year's squad relied on the same thing.

    The Nittany Lions return a ton of talent at all levels, but their secondary leaves room for concern. The group is devoid of playmakers outside of budding sophomore Adrian Amos at corner.

    Amos played well in D'Anton Lynn's brief absence last season, and he will be looked to for production and leadership.

    Opposite of Amos will be Stephon Morris. Morris' height (5'9'') can be a disadvantage, but his physical mindset makes him a perfect fit for Ted Roof's stingy man-to-man coverage scheme.

    After that, things get much murkier at corner. Jesse Della Valle, Jordan Lucas and Da'Quan Davis have virtually no experience at all, but must play well in nickel and dime packages.

    The safeties will be Malcolm Willis and Stephen Obeng-Agyapong with Ryan Keiser and Jake Fagnano ready to pounce on any leftover snaps. Expect a committee approach here unless one of the starters emerges as a reliable playmaker.

    Now it's time for the fun stuff.

    Penn State's "Linebacker U" moniker will live on this year, despite Khairi Fortt's departure. Michael Mauti returns from injury, and Gerald Hodges is one of the best linebackers in the country. Glenn Carson can hold his own in the middle as well.

    The Nittany Lions' defense almost always relies on its linebackers, and this year's group will be no different. Look for quality depth from Ben Kline and Mike Hull.

    The defensive front is also talented, but not oozing the linebackers' skill.

    Defensive tackle Jordan Hill has the ability to repeat Devon Still's breakout performance from last season. He's explosive and strong, but DaQuan Jones must give him room to work.

    Flanking the two monsters in the middle will be Sean Stanley and redshirt freshman Deion Barnes. You can also expect Pete Massaro to see his share of time as he works his way back into the Nittany Lion fold.

    Penn State had the No. 5 scoring defense in the nation last season, and it won't take a major step back. The defensive backfield is a question mark, but their front seven will wreak enough havoc to hide the majority of those issues.

Special Teams Preview

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    Anthony Fera is possibly the most underrated loss that the Penn State program is facing. He handled punting and kicking duties for the Nittany Lions last season, and he excelled in both areas.

    It won't be easy to replace Fera. Alex Butterworth will be Penn State's punter this season, while sophomore Sam Ficken takes on place-kicking responsibilities.

    Fera knocked down 14-of-17 field goals last year, was perfect on extra points and punted the ball at a 42-yard clip. He's a rare commodity in today's football world, and the Texas Longhorns should be happy to have him.

    Butterworth and Ficken will do their best to replace him, but it will be an uphill battle. Ficken attempted just two field goals last year, and Butterworth had just eight punts.

    They will have to learn quickly, especially with Penn State's probable struggles on offense.

    It's unclear who will handle return duties on punts and kicks, but Penn State has plenty of players who fit the bill. Justin Brown would have been the most likely candidate, but the Nittany Lions will have to pick another speedy skill player to do the duty instead.

Coaching

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    All eyes will be on Bill O'Brien and his new coaching staff in Happy Valley this season, including two holdovers — Larry Johnson and Ron Vanderlinden — from Joe Paterno's coaching stable.

    Let's start with O'Brien. By now, everyone is familiar with his story. He's been involved with offenses at Maryland, Duke and Georgia Tech at the collegiate level. Most recently, he was the New England Patriots' offensive coordinator.

    He will serve as the head coach, and call the shots on offense as well.

    Helping him with that will be former Vanderbilt pass-game coordinator Charlie Fisher. Fisher will be the quarterbacks coach and play a key role in the development of Matt McGloin.

    O'Brien will also have Charles London as the running backs coach and Stan Hixon as his assistant head coach/wide receivers coach. London was on the Tennessee Titans staff last season, and Hixon was the Buffalo Bills receiving coach.

    Rounding out the offensive staff is Mac McWhorter and John Strollo. McWhorter is an offensive line guru and has spent the last six years as the coach of Texas' offensive line. Strollo comes over after one year as Ball State's offensive line coach.

    The defensive side of the ball didn't undergo as much change. Johnson and Vanderlinden will still coach the defensive line and linebackers, and their familiarity with those positions only adds to the team's strength in those areas.

    New faces include former Auburn and Central Florida defensive coordinator Ted Roof. His stingy man-to-man defense will give Penn State's secondary a new feel to it as he serves as defensive coordinator.

    Roof will also be aided by new secondary coach John Butler. Butler was the special teams coach for South Carolina last season.

    I'd be remiss if I left off one name. Craig Fitzgerald serves as Director of Strength and Conditioning. There's been a lot of talk about Penn State's new regimen, and he's the culprit for the players' aches and pains.

Schedule

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    Here's a rundown of Penn State's 2012 slate:

     

    Week Opponent
    1 Ohio Bobcats
    2 at Virginia Cavaliers
    3 Navy Midshipmen
    4 Temple Owls
    5 at Illinois Fighting Illini
    6 Northwestern Wildcats
    7 Off
    8 at Iowa Hawkeyes
    9 Ohio State Buckeyes
    10 at Purdue Boilermakers
    11 at Nebraska Cornhuskers
    12 Indiana Hoosiers
    13 Wisconsin Badgers

    *Week 6 is Homecoming

One Game the Nittany Lions Will Win

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    Penn State's game against Navy is the closest thing to a guarantee that you will find. Temple in Week 4 isn't far behind, but the rivalry factor could change things there.

    The Midshipmen simply don't have enough to beat the Nittany Lions.

    Quarterback Trey Miller is entering his first year as a starter, and he will still be learning the nuances of the triple-option attack. Even if he does have it down, Penn State's talented front seven will dispel any threats on that end.

    Navy isn't going to stretch the field with its passing attack, and its defense will struggle to stop the Nittany Lions. Its strength lies in its ground game, but that plays right into Penn State's hands.

    It's tough to pick any "gimme" games this year for the Nittany Lions, but Navy fits the bill.

One Game That's a Toss Up

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    Mike London was targeted by Penn State at one point of its coaching search last year, and he will try to lead his Cavaliers over the Nittany Lions in Scott Stadium in Week 2.

    This is the toughest game to call for me. Virginia was middle of the road last season in most statistical categories, but it returns a lot of talent on the offensive side of the ball.

    Michael Rocco threw 12 interceptions last year, but he should improve with another year of experience behind center. Perry Jones and Kevin Parks combined for 1,500-plus yards and 13 touchdowns on the ground last year, and Tim Smith is a capable receiving option.

    Virginia isn't a powerhouse by any means, but its defense is stingy. Add that to an offense capable of scoring, and this is going to be a very tight game.

    London did an excellent job of leading his team to eight wins last year. They won't take a step back this time around, and a win over Penn State wouldn't be surprising at all.

One Game the Nittany Lions Could Lose

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    This could be a variety of choices. Ohio State jumps out, but Nebraska, Wisconsin and Iowa are all probable losses as well.

    The Buckeyes welcome in Urban Meyer this year, and Braxton Miller will be in tune with his new offense by the time Week 9 comes around. His dual-threat ability will give the Nittany Lions' fits, despite the fact that he doesn't have a ton of talent surrounding him.

    Ohio State's defense will be the difference. Penn State will be able to handle teams that don't boast a defense of their its caliber, but Ohio State has one of the best units in the nation. They're young, but stacked at all levels.

    The Buckeyes' best years are still in front of them, but 2012 will be the start of another epic run in Columbus.

    Jonathan Hankins, John Simon and the rest of the Buckeyes' defensive line will hole up Bill Belton and the Penn State run game. Add in stellar play from the likes of Ryan Shazier, Etienne Sabino and super-sophomore Curtis Grant, and this one may not be close.

    Penn State will have Beaver Stadium behind it in this one, but this chapter of the rivalry will land in the Buckeyes' favor.

Offensive MVP: Bill Belton, RB

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    Belton played wide receiver last season, but Penn State fans should expect him to make a smooth transition to the backfield this year.

    Bill O'Brien gives some valuable insight here, and Belton will ride the momentum from being named starter right into a huge season in 2012.

    At least huge by this offense's standards. I don't want to say he will be MVP by default (because I love his game), but who else would you pick?

    Belton is small, shifty and incredibly agile in the open field. At 5'10'' and 200 pounds, he's stronger than you might expect at the line of scrimmage. His exceptional balance allows him to break arm tackles from the first wave of defenders, and his speed makes him even more dangerous in the open field.

    He will excel in O'Brien's offense. If you watch the video, you can see his explosive burst. He's going to turn a few heads in Happy Valley this year.

    Look for Belton to rack up between 800-1,000 yards and have 6-8 touchdowns. He won't carry the offense, but fans will love him more and more as each week passes.

Defensive MVP: Adrian Amos, DB

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    Gerald Hodges, Michael Mauti and Jordan Hill are all more obvious candidates than Amos, but Amos fits my definition of "most valuable."

    I already mentioned Penn State's secondary as a potential weak spot, but Amos will shine in his first season as a starter.

    Check out the video. Granted, it's Rob Bolden throwing the pass, but you can see Amos' play recognition. Not only that, but he shows his hands as he holds onto the ball.

    Amos will start at corner, but he is also capable of playing some safety. His ability to line up all over the field makes him a valuable asset to Ted Roof's defense.

    He's only a sophomore, but Amos will be a breakout player in the Big Ten this year. He has the size (6'0'', 205 pounds) and skill necessary to succeed.

    Like I said, Hodges, Mauti or Hill would also be a popular pick here, but Amos has a chance to lead Penn State's lone weakness on the defensive side. Production from the other three is expected, but Amos plays a position that's otherwise devoid of playmakers.

    Expect him to lead the Nittany Lion secondary and be a major difference-maker in Happy Valley this year.

Newcomer of the Year: Eugene Lewis, WR

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    Don't get too excited Penn State fans. Lewis isn't your quarterback of the future, but he is a dynamic athlete who will make a successful transition to wide receiver.

    The video speaks miles about Lewis' athletic prowess. He's a solid 6'2'', and he has the speed to turn the corner. His inexperience at the position will require him to polish his game, but the upside is there for him to succeed as early as this season.

    The Nittany Lions need a playmaker on offense. Lewis' versatility could give Penn State's offense a different dimension, and you should expect to see him more as the year moves along.

    He enters Penn State this year as its only notable freshman, and he will make an impact right away.

    Look for Bill O'Brien to get the ball in his hands. He will find the end zone a few times before the year comes to a close.

Best NFL Draft Prospect: Gerald Hodges, LB

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    Hodges has been named to the Nagurski Award watch list for a reason. Not only is he one of the nation's best linebackers, but he's a definite NFL draft prospect.

    Last year, Hodges had 106 tackles, one interception and 4.5 sacks. He also had two forced fumbles and four pass breakups.

    There's nothing he can't do defensively. He's athletic, fast and vicious at the point of attack. Whether it's pass coverage or stuffing the run, Hodges can get the job done.

    At 6'2'', 237 pounds Hodges has the size needed to succeed at the next level. He carries his weight well, and he's been extremely well coached.

    Look for Hodges to deliver another 100-plus tackle performance as a senior in 2012. I wouldn't say he's a first-round pick in 2013, but another huge season could land him firmly in the second round.

Best 5 Twitter Follows

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    Guy Cipriano: @cdtguy

    Tony Mancuso: @GoPSUTony

    Greg Pickel: @GregPickel

    Ben Jones: @Ben_Jones88

    Cory Giger: @CoryGiger

    All five of these guys are excellent follows for anyone who follows Penn State football. They supply relevant information on a regular basis, and they will keep you up to date on all the happenings in Happy Valley.

    You can also punch any players' name you want into the Twitter machine, if that's who you would prefer to follow.

    Or, you can follow me: @Ian_Hanford

Vegas Odds

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    Odds will change from week to week, but I can give you an idea with Week 1 rapidly approaching.

    As of now, Bovada lists Penn State as six-point favorites over Ohio in the season's opening week. Live odds always have a lot of action to them, and the lines will change as the season progresses.

    In terms of Bovada's line for opening week, I think it's spot on. Penn State is going to get a fight from the 2011 MAC champion, and an upset wouldn't be the least bit surprising.

    Normally, I could throw lines at you regarding Penn State's Big Ten title chances and its odds for making the BCS championship, but the NCAA's sanctions make that impossible.

Bowl Bound

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    The sanctions levied by the NCAA this past summer will keep Penn State from bowl competition for the next four years.

    If they were eligible for postseason action, the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl or Ticketcity Bowl would be likely destinations.

    I wish there was more to say here, but Penn State won't be playing past Week 13 for four long seasons.

Final Prediction

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    W-L: 6-6

    This could be seven, but I'll play it safe with the beleaguered Nittany Lions' offense. 

    I expect wins over Ohio, Temple, Navy, Illinois, Indiana and Purdue, although I won't be surprised if Ohio sneaks up on Penn State in the season's opening week.

    Ohio State, Wisconsin and Nebraska are almost sure losses, and Iowa can be thrown on that pile as well.

    That leaves Virginia and Northwestern as this year's swing games. They could certainly win one of these, but I think they drop them both. Ohio won't be easy in Week 1, making Virginia that much more difficult in Week 2, and Northwestern is never easy.

    It's going to be a long season in Happy Valley, but it could be worse.