Penn State Football: 10 Important Storylines to Watch Develop Throughout 2012
While no one can overlook all that has transpired at Penn State the past year, in less than one week the attention shifts back to gridiron.
Whether it was the NCAA sanctions or players departing, the Penn State football program and its fans have already started to feel the suffering.
However, with the season opener creeping up on us, there are obviously some major storylines to take note of heading into 2012.
Considering that, let's take a look at 10 topics that will have people talking throughout the first season under Bill O'Brien.
How Will McGloin Grow Under O'Brien's Tutelage?
After a couple of years battling it out with former Penn State quarterback Rob Bolden for the starting job, Matt McGloin is now firmly entrenched as the Nittany Lions starting quarterback.
Starting off as a walk-on from the Scranton area, McGloin has grown substantially as a quarterback and an overall football player.
McGloin has passed for over 1500 yards each of the past two seasons and has learned to manage games more efficiently.
However, the best is yet to come from the senior as Bill O'Brien has been mentoring the confident signal-caller for months now.
While O'Brien was the offensive coordinator for the Patriots during some of their best offensive years, he didn't make Tom Brady a fantastic passer.
Sure, he helped Brady improve, but the biggest positive that comes out of coaching Brady is the ability to rightfully deal with your quarterback.
Look for O'Brien to keep McGloin in check this year and help him grow into a more poised and composed passer.
What Will Happen in the Special Teams?
One of the biggest concerns that no one is talking about is the Nittany Lions' special teams.
Once the news broke that players could leave the program for a different school, one of the first transfers was Anthony Fera's move to be a Texas Longhorn.
While many look at Silas Redd as the biggest departure, Fera was crucial as well, considering he was the team's starting placekicker and punter in 2011.
Not only did he convert 14 of his 17 field goal attempts, but Fera also averaged a solid 42 yards per punt.
According to the Lions' updated depth chart, sophomore Sam Ficken has secured the starting kicker job as expected and Alex Butterworth has beaten out Matt Marcincin.
While the punting situation probably isn't set in stone, O'Brien seemed confident with his placekicker choice, telling reporters a couple weeks ago that Ficken has "done a really nice job of place kicking. His kickoffs look decent, his field goal range looks pretty decent and I've been happy with Sam." (h/t Daily Collegian)
Another question is who will replace Justin Brown and Devon Smith as return men?
With the depth chart saying "TBA" in regards to the Lions' kickoff and punt returners, it looks like O'Brien still has some work to do in order to figure out a reliable player.
Don't be surprised if running back Akeel Lynch or wide receivers Eugene Lewis and Shawney Kersey get the opportunity to return kicks.
What Kind of Success Will Ted Roof's Defense Have?
Considering how much talent and depth it'll have, Penn State's defense could be carrying the team this year once again.
However, it remains to be seen how Ted Roof's defensive style will translate on the field for the Nittany Lions.
After years of play-calling by defensive mastermind Tom Bradley, Roof comes in with an inconsistent track record and reasons for concern.
Roof has had his share of success, including coaching Auburn's ninth-ranked rush defense in the country in 2009 when the Tigers won the BCS National Championship.
However, the following year his young Tigers unit was mediocre at best, ranking 78th in total defense (406 yards per game) and 79th in scoring (29.3 points per game).
Considering his aggressive style, Nittany Lions fans should expect multiple blitz packages with an emphasis of swiftly creating havoc in the backfield.
While that sounds perfect, one thing that should kept in consideration is the Lions' young and sometimes fragile secondary.
If Roof is going to be extremely aggressive with his play-calling, he has to make sure that his secondary is up to the challenge if his pass-rushers don't get to the quarterback.
Will 2013 Recruits Follow Through with "Restoring the Roar"?
Even though the Lions may not have the highest ranked 2013 recruiting class at the moment, Bill O'Brien and Co. have been the best recruiters thus far considering the obstacles that they must overcome.
O'Brien and his staff have been able to convince heralded recruits such as 4-star quarterback Christian Hackenberg (via Rivals.com) and 5-star tight end Adam Breneman (via Scout.com) to remain with Penn State even after the sanctions hit the football program.
After the NCAA levied its punishments, no one would blame these kids if they decided to go somewhere else.
Despite all the offers that Breneman, Hackenberg, and Co. received from other schools, they decided to stick with O'Brien, the university that they've grown to love and the NFL prospects that O'Brien promises.
Despite all the love they've shown toward the university, a year is a long time and one thing to monitor throughout the year is whether or not these recruits will waver in their commitments.
Can Someone Stand out in the Receiving Corps?
While it may surprise some people, the deepest position throughout camp for the Nittany Lions have been the wide receivers.
Despite losing Derek Moye to graduation and Brown and Smith to transfers, the wide receiving corps have looked impressive in their route-running and explosiveness in regards to yards after catch.
Even though the group is loaded with talent, virtually all the players are unproven due to lack of real game experience.
The two starting wide receivers on the Nittany Lions' depth chart, sophomore Allen Robinson and senior Shawney Kersey, had a combined eight catches last year for less than 150 yards.
With that being said, the Lions will need other players to also step up make contributions such as true freshmen Eugene Lewis and Trevor Williams.
So while it may be one of the deepest positions for the Lions, it's also one of the most inexperienced units and it'll be interesting to see who can stand out as the season rolls along.
How Will Paul Jones Work Himself into the Offense?
As mentioned in the first slide, senior quarterback Matt McGloin has a firm hold on the No. 1 job and will be starting against Ohio this upcoming Saturday.
And while he's sharing the backup spot with true freshman Steven Bench, redshirt sophomore Paul Jones is clearly the most athletically gifted quarterback and could receive playing time in 2012.
According to a report by TribLive Sports' Scott Brown, Bill O'Brien said of Jones, "He’s an instinctive player, he’s a playmaker, he’s progressed and so he’ll definitely see time."
Despite all of his talent, the only time Jones has been able to showcase his arm strength and mobility is in practice and the annual Blue-White game.
Due to his poor academics, Jones never worked himself into the quarterback conversation last year, but his improved grades currently have him nipping at McGloin's heels.
It'll be interesting to see what O'Brien decides to do if McGloin begins to struggle as the season goes along.
How Will the New Look Offense Implement the Tight Ends?
Just like the wide receiving corps, the tight end group is young and inexperienced clan, but has a ridiculous amount of potential in Bill O'Brien's offensive scheme.
Considering how the coach used tight ends in New England, fans should be excited to youthful pass-catching ends like Jesse James and Kyle Carter play alongside veteran Garry Gilliam.
Granted these guys probably aren't going to become the next Rob Gronkowski, but it will be interesting to see how O'Brien implements them in an offense that really didn't use the tight end last year.
Another reason to be excited about these tight end is their sheer size, with James standing at 6'7'', Gilliam at 6'6'' and backup Matt Lehman also at 6'6''.
The tight end is supposed to be a quarterback's best friend, and if these guys can use their size to their advantage, it'll be a long season for opposing secondaries.
Who Will Help Bill Belton Replace Silas Redd?
After Silas Redd departed for USC, there were major questions on whom would replace him as the starting running back.
While Bill Belton's vast improvements and lightning-quick feet have solidified himself as the new No. 1 tailback, the bigger question is who will come in and give him breathers or perform if Belton goes down to injury.
As it stands now, shifty senior Derek Day holds a firm grasp on the backup role, but don't be surprised if true freshman Akeel Lynch makes a run for serious playing time this year.
After deciding to stay instead of transferring to Iowa, Lynch should expect opportunities this year after a productive camp in which he showed off his ability to hit the hole and create big-time plays.
How Will Fans Adapt to Changes Under O'Brien's Regime?
One major aspect of the transition from the Joe Paterno era to Bill O'Brien's time as head coach is the changes that have been made to Penn State traditions.
The biggest change that O'Brien has implemented as the head coach of the Nittany Lions has been the switch to names on the back of the jerseys.
However, O'Brien isn't doing it for the wrong reasons, saying, "We want our fans to know and recognize these young men... They have stuck together during tough times, and I commend them for the leadership they have shown." (via GoPSUSports.com).
Despite this, there were concerns that the nation's largest alumni association, former players and the Nittany Lion faithful would take issue with the uniform changes.
However, in a poll done by The Patriot-News (a newspaper based in Central Pennsylvania), over 61 percent over the votes were in favor of the uniform changes.
On top of the uniform changes, O'Brien also made it clear that the players will dress in the stadium as opposed to wearing their uniforms on the blue bus, among other changes.
It will certainly be interesting to see how the extremely loyal Penn State fanbase reacts to these changes throughout 2012 after so much consistency under Paterno.
How Will Bill O'Brien Handle the Pressure?
After everything that the football program has undergone over the spring and summer, it's clear that Bill O'Brien is the right man for the job.
O'Brien felt the heat as soon as he landed on campus, hearing that well-respected members of the Penn State Letterman's Club refused to offer their initial support along with many fans doubting the former Patriots offensive coordinator.
However, the way that O'Brien has handled himself, the team and the media throughout the scandal and sanctions put himself in a firm standing.
While the Brown product has earned the trust and love of Penn State students, alumni and athletes, he still has yet to prove anything on the field.
Sure, O'Brien has his lengthy contract and the support of Nittany Nation, but he still needs to put a winning product on the field.
It's not going to be an easy road for O'Brien and how he handles all this pressure will be at the nucleus of any storylines this season.