Penn State football is on the right path to returning to a successful program.
Head coach Bill O’Brien, who took over the team during the school’s darkest hours, turned the 2012 season into a strong year with a strong finish.
Now in 2013, O’Brien continues to face challenges, none much bigger than the current quarterback situation.
The second-year head coach will need to develop a game plan early in the season to prevent Penn State from experiencing the growing pains of a young, new quarterback.
Although the Lions have three solid signal-callers set to compete for the starting spot, none of them have started a game on the Division I level.
But getting any of these three through the growing process will be tough.
Hackenberg is the top-rated pocket passer by ESPN’s Recruiting Nation, but he will not be joining the team until this summer.
Ferguson, who has enrolled for the spring semester at Penn State, saw success at College of the Sequoias, but he has only played at the junior college level.
Bench is the only scholarship quarterback on the roster in State College with a year under O’Brien’s system and offense, but saw very limited action.
The fact is that in 2012, the Lions' situation at quarterback was much more favorable.
Former quarterback Matt McGloin was an experienced, savvy fifth-year senior that had seen playing time in the years prior to O’Brien’s hiring.
Without an experienced signal-caller, O’Brien will have to take the following steps to detour around the mistakes of a young quarterback.
McGloin was named the starter early and benefitted from it.
In the summer of 2012, O’Brien came out very early to name McGloin as the starter.
This move accomplished numerous things.
Not only was there no debate about who the starter was going to be, McGloin was also able to earn the confidence and trust of the team.
O’Brien must again name the starter early in 2013.
Confidence will be an important part of developing Penn State’s next quarterback, and naming the starter early will allow whomever O’Brien chooses to gain confidence.
Naming the starting quarterback early will also allow the offense to build strong chemistry.
If there are multiple quarterbacks getting snaps with the first-team offense, the flow of the offense will be disturbed by the different individual style of each signal-caller.
A look back at the 2010 and 2011 seasons, where both McGloin and Rob Bolden were part of a two-quarterback system, shows the dangers of not naming a starter early.
Amos (left) will be a big part of Penn State's defense in 2013.
In 2012, Penn State had the fourth-best defense in the B1G.
The Lions will have to continue relying on their defense in 2013.
Although Penn State lost linebackers Michael Mauti and Gerald Hodges along with defensive coordinator Ted Roof, the Lions are returning many talented young players on D. It will be up to cornerback Adrian Amos and linebacker Glenn Carson to keep Penn State’s defense near the top of the B1G again.
O’Brien has tools in the passing game, including B1G’s leading receiver Allen Robinson, but he can’t count on any of his young quarterbacks like he did with McGloin.
A strong defense can help neutralize any mistakes made by the offense and an inexperienced signal-caller.
Kyle Carter was a big part of the play-action passing game in 2012.
In addition to utilizing his talented tight ends quite effectively, O’Brien was also able to establish a strong play-action passing game in 2012.
O’Brien will need to continue building on this offensive strategy with his new young signal-callers.
Play-action passes are often able to create more separation for receivers, making throws and decision-making much easier in the pocket.
If the Lions see success in the play-action passing game, it can help build experience, and more importantly, build confidence in their quarterback.
But for a strong play-action passing attack to take form, another big part of the offense will need to find success.
That is, a strong ground attack.
By Penn State’s third week in the 2012 season, its running game was in shambles.
Starter Bill Belton was injured along with backup Derek Day, leaving O’Brien with fullbacks Michael Zordich and Zach Zwinak and third-string running back Curtis Dukes.
But during the fourth week of the season, Zwinak emerged as Penn State’s best option to carry the ball.
The sophomore fullback rushed for 94 yards in a 24-13 win over Temple.
Zwinak hit full stride at the end of the season, rushing for over 130 yards in each of Penn State’s final four games.
O’Brien will need to rely on Zwinak and Penn State’s ground attack to win games in 2013.
A consistent running game is important for any offense, but especially for an offense with a new young quarterback who has never started a Division I football game.
This may sound like the most obvious move O’Brien can make in terms of preparing for the 2013 season, but it is by far the most important.
Without a consistent ground attack, the success of Penn State's offense will rest on the shoulders of a quarterback with no starting experience.
That is the last situation O’Brien will want to be in.