Going into spring practice for the 2009 season the Nittany Lions have high expectations as they prepare to defend their Big Ten Title, but they have more significant holes to fill than they did entering 2008.
Here are five areas the where Lions have significant holes to fill:
The last two seasons saw a very effective and stable offensive line for the Lions. This season they need to replace three multiyear starters to a unit that was solid in pass protection and run blocking. That type of success doesn’t happen over night and is built on chemistry.
Over the years Penn State’s offensive lines have taken time to become a cohesive unit, and this year shouldn’t be any different. While they have the talent, the concern should really be that they’ll be breaking in four new players, as the move of Stefen Wisniewski to center should pay off big, but it may take time for him to become comfortable in the spot.
The move of Wisniewski means two new guards and one offensive tackle. The favorites are Johnnie Troutman and Lou Eliades for the two guard spots, and true sophomore DeOn’Tae Pannell taking the spot vacated by Gerald Cadogen, protecting Daryll Clark’s blind side, arguably the most important spot on the line. This unit has talent but lacks field time together. If they can stay healthy through the non-conference schedule, by the Big Ten slate they should shape up into a solid unit.
2. Defensive Line:
Over the past decade this has been the most consistent and stable unit for Penn State on either side of the ball, and with three experienced defensive tackles in Ollie Ogbu, Abe Korma, and Jared Odrick coming back, the middle of the line should be the strength of this defense.
The concern is replacing all three of the departed defensive ends. The early word is Jack Crawford will be the next great DE for the Lions, but the question will be if he and the other DE’s can pick up where Josh Gaines, Maurice Evans and Aaron Maybin left off and be able to generate a pass rush and allow the linebackers to roam free and make plays downfield. Penn State has never been a truly effective blitzing team and if the DE’s can’t generate the rush on their own then they’ll have to rely on blitzing.
3. Wide Receivers:
Same theme, different position… This is the area that will need to step up and be productive out of the gate. Penn State will see a good deal of eight man fronts with the new offensive line and if the passing game can’t get on track early with Derek Moye, Chaz Powell, Graham Zug and Brett Brackett then you may see true freshmen like Curtis Drake, Shawney Kersey and Justin Brown get meaningful playing time.
The good news with the new WR's is they are significantly bigger than the Derrick Williams, Deon Butler, and Jordan Norwood. The question is will they be as effective?
The entire secondary is gone from the 2008 squad. The good news is cornerback A.J. Wallace and free safety Drew Astorino have seen significant playing time. Wallace has been an on-again/off-again starter for two years but was limited last season due to a recurring hamstring injury.
The other two spots up for grabs will be the corner spot opposite A.J. Wallace and the strong safety spot. Look for a battle between fifth year senior Knowledge Timmons and true sophomore D’Anton Lynn for the corner spot.
Andre Dailey, a converted linebacker, should be the front runner for the open strong safety spot, but watch out for true freshman Gerald Hodges. He’s a big time talent and enrolled early to prepare for the 2009 season. While this unit hasn’t had much time together, they should be a more physical unit than last year’s group.
5. Backfield Depth:
Quarterback Daryll Clark and tailback Evan Royster are returning in 2009. The concern is what happens if either one goes down, specifically Clark.
With the transfer of Pat Devlin, Penn State only has one other scholarship quarterback in true freshman Kevin Newsome. With a new offensive line and Clark’s penchant for wanting to run through defenders instead of around them (which has yielded two concussions in his career) the need for Newsome to be field ready early in his career is almost certain.
This means the Lions need to use the early slate of games to get Newsome early meaningful playing time with the first unit in case Clark goes down with injury during the season. The value of an experienced backup QB cannot be overstated, and Penn State is extremely vulnerable in this department coming into the 2009 campaign.
As for Royster, this season should see a greater work load for the tailback from Fairfax, VA. as the Lions break in new wide receivers. While Royster has been a solid tailback in his career so far, he also had a penchant for getting hurt.
With Stephfon Green and Brent Carter both returning from injury, the Lions are left with Brandon Beachum as the only other tailback at 100% going into spring practice. On paper, this is a stacked position for the Lions, but that is assuming Green and Carter are healthy come fall.