Penn State Football: Position-by-Position Spring Practice Preview

Barry Leonard@@barryleonardjrAnalyst IIIMarch 10, 2013

Penn State Football: Position-by-Position Spring Practice Preview

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    Excitement is in the air around Happy Valley as spring practice starts up. The Penn State Nittany Lions enter the new season with high hopes, looking to build off a successful 2012 that where the team went 8-4 amid controversy and NCAA sanctions.

    With many starters returning for 2013, fans already high hopes that success will come once again.

    When the Nittany Lions began practice a year ago, there were several questions surrounding the program regarding the unsettled Jerry Sandusky situation. Fast forward to this year, and those questions are no longer around.

    Sanctions have been levied and the team is now moving forward to field the most successful team possible.

    Sure, players technically have a few more months in which they could transfer schools, but it's unlikely that will happen at this point.

    So, as spring practice begins, the focus is purely on football. The biggest question facing this team is how it's going to replace important seniors who graduated such as Matt McGloin, Michael Mauti and Jordan Hill.

    Fortunately for Penn State, there are only eight starters from 2012 that need to be replaced.

    Here's a preview how each position shapes up heading into the new practice year.


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    The quarterback position will no doubt be the most-watched development during spring practice. The Nittany Lions need to find a replacement for the graduated Matt McGloin who led the Big Ten in passing yards and touchdowns.

    Only one current quarterback was on the Penn State roster last season. Backup Steven Bench saw limited time, completing just two of eight passes for 12 yards.

    Christian Hackenberg, a 5-star recruit according to is thought to be the future of the program at the quarterback position. Though he has undeniable talent, he will likely be given a redshirt in 2013 in order to take a year to develop and learn Bill O'Brien's complicated system.

    That leaves junior college transfer Tyler Ferguson, who is rated a 3-star recruit by He played last season as a freshman at College of the Sequoias in California, throwing for 2,614 yards with 22 touchdowns and 12 interceptions.

    Bench will likely have the edge heading into practice, having spent a year learning the system. However, don't be surprised to see Ferguson pass him on the depth chart to start the year.

    The battle for the starting job will gain much attention. Stay tuned for the official word on the status of Hackenberg.


Running Back

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    While the quarterback situation is unsettled at this time, the running back position is clear.

    Zach Zwinak, who emerged last year as the feature back, will be the starter this season for the Nittany Lions. He started the final four games of 2012 and finished with 1,000 yards and six touchdowns.

    Zwinak is a hard-running back who proved that he is more than capable of handling the starting role. There will be more pressure on him to perform in 2013 due to the inexperience that Penn State will have at quarterback.

    Bill Belton, who began 2012 as the starting running back, struggled with injuries and inconsistent play. He finished the year with just 258 yards and three touchdowns. Despite his poor season a year ago, Belton is a dangerous weapon as both a runner and catching passes out of the backfield.

    The power-running style of Zwinak and the speed of Belton will make a valuable combination out of the Penn State backfield.

    Behind the two starters from last year will be redshirt freshman Akeel Lynch. He was a 3-star recruit in 2012 and could be a darkhorse out of the backfield in 2013. True freshman Richy Anderson could get a roster spot to provide depth.

    The fullback is not used much in O'Brien's offense, but Pat Zerbe should fill that spot when needed.

Wide Receiver

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    Entering the 2013 season, Penn State is loaded with experience at wide receiver. Five returning players all saw the field last year.

    Leading the squad is Allen Robinson, who's breakout season in 2012 made him the best receiver in the Big Ten. He finished the year with 1,018 yards and 11 touchdowns and became a major downfield weapon in the Nittany Lion's passing attack.

    Also returning is senior Brandon Moseby-Felder, who started nine games last season. He was the third-leading receiver on the team, compiling 437 yards and a touchdown. His best game of the year came on November 3 at Purdue where he racked up 129 yards and a score.

    Trevor Williams played in every game last year as a freshman and started the game against Ohio State. He is a speedy receiver that add yet another weapon down the field for the Nittany Lions.

    Alex Kenney and Matt Zanellato both played last season figure to see the field again in 2013.

    Redshirt freshman Eugene Lewis was the Nittany Lions top recruit in 2012 and could quickly find himself in a starting role this season. Malik Golden, another redshirt freshman will add even more depth at the receiver position.

    2013 recruit DaeSean Hamilton is a talented receiver but could be given a redshirt due to the depth in front of him.  

Tight End

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    Once used for mainly blocking at Penn State, the tight end position went through a transformation in 2012 under the direction of new head coach Bill O'Brien. In fact, three of the top five receiving leaders on the team were tight ends.

    To say that Penn State is loaded at tight end is an understatement. All four players from last year will be returning for the new season.

    On top of that, throw in 4-star recruit Adam Breneman, who is a top prospect. Though with all of that experience in front of him, it's possible that Breneman will be given a redshirt this year.

    Kyle Carter led all Big Ten tight ends in receiving and was named to the All-Big Ten Media Team for his effort last season. He was second on the team with 453 receiving yards. He's a reliable target who should continue to be a key to the Nittany Lions' offense.

    Jesse James impressed as a true freshman, catching 15 passes for 276 yards. His five touchdowns were second on the team.

    Matt Lehman and sixth-year senior Gary Gilliam were both on the field often last year and will provide even more value and experience at the tight end position.

Offensive Line

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    Yet another deep position for the Nittany Lions is the offensive line, with three starters returning from last year.

    All-Big Ten guard John Urschel returns for his senior season to anchor the unit up front. He started every game last year and will bring valuable experience. Miles Dieffenbach, who started 11 games in 2012 will be at the left guard position and will help to provide a solid middle for the rushing attack.

    The left tackle spot, the most important for the protection of a quarterback's blind side, will be held down by Donovan Smith. He started in nine games last year as a redshirt freshman. Adam Gress will bring his senior experience to the other tackle spot, replacing the graduated Mike Farrell.

    Angelo Mangiro shifts from guard to become the full-time center in 2013. He saw time in every game last year. 

    Aside from the starters, Penn State has the luxury of having experienced backups such as Ty Howle, Anthony Alosi, Nate Cadogan and Eric Shrive.

    Four-star recruit Bendan Mahon could also find a spot in the rotation at either tackle or guard.

Defensive Line

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    Penn State has to replace two starters on the defensive line, including All-Big Ten tackle Jordan Hill. Fortunately, there are some pretty talented and experienced guys returning.

    Defensive end Deion Barnes was named the Big Ten Freshman of the Year in 2012. He led the team with six sacks and has the skill set to be a dominant force and one of the top ends in the nation.  

    Da'Quan Jones enters his senior season as a returning starter at defensive tackle, He made 22 tackles last year.

    The remaining two spots are still a bit undecided and it will be interesting to see how it all plays out. C.J. Olaniyan and Anthony Zettel are both defensive ends who have experience and are capable starters.

    Olaniyan was a 4-star recruit in 2010 and one of the top 150 prospects according to ESPN. He appeared in 10 games last season and made 15 tackles. Olaniyan is the most likely candidate to fill the vacant spot on the edge.

    Zettel is an impressive young talent who appeared in every game last year. Though he never started, he was tied for third on the team with four sacks. Zettel does have past experience at defensive tackle and is likely to move there and start in 2013.

    Defensive end Brad Bars and tackle Kyle Baublitz both saw action last year and should see significant time in 2013 as backups.

    True freshman Garrett Sickles, a 4-star recruit, could see time in the rotation to add depth at defensive end.



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    Replacing linebackers Gerald Hodges and Michael Mauti won't be easy. However, Bill O'Brien has several solid options including two guys who saw major minutes last season.

    Outside linebacker Mike Hull served as Mauti's backup and started the final game of the year in his absence. Hull finished sixth on the team in tackles and tied for third with four sacks. He had two fumble recoveries, including a fantastic 74-yard touchdown return against Navy.

    Middle linebacker Glenn Carson started every game in 2012, and as a senior, will be expected to provide leadership up the middle. He was third on the team with 85 tackles last year.

    While two of the linebacker spots are all but set in stone, the third is a still unsettled and will bear watching as spring practice unfolds.

    Ben Kline brings the most experience, entering his third season with the Nittany Lions. He appeared in every game last year. Nyeem Wartman showed promise as a true freshman, playing in the first two games of 2012 before suffering a season-ending injury.

    Due to his athleticism, expect Wartman to win the job heading into the season.

    Behind the three starters, the Nittany Lions are limited on depth and experience.

    Redshirt freshman Gary Wooten should backup Carson at middle linebacker while true freshmen Brandon Bell and Zayd Issah will compete for a reserve spot at outside linebacker.


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    While the rest of the defense deals with big holes to fill, the secondary enters 2013 pretty much intact. Three of the four starters will be returning.

    Junior Adrian Amos, who has played in every game since he's been in Happy Valley, will be a key component to the Nittany Lions' defense at cornerback. He started every game last season and finished with 44 tackles and two interceptions.

    Sophomore Da'Quan Davis is in line to take over at the other cornerback spot for the departed Stephon Morris. Davis played in 11 games as a true freshman last season.

    The back of the secondary should be a strength for Penn State, as both starting safeties return for 2013. Malcolm Willis and Stephen Obeng-Agyapong combined for 86 tackles a year ago.

    Jordan Lucas, Jess Della Valle and Ryan Keiser, who all played last season, will serve as experienced backups.

    True freshmen Kasey Gaines, Jordan Smith and Neiko Robinson could all compete for a reserve spot to add depth to the defensive backfield.

    The secondary may be relied on heavily early in the season as the defensive line and linebackers adjust to new starters.

Kick / Punt Returner

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    Penn State returns a lot of experience on special teams. The problem with that is the fact that the Nittany Lions struggled last season in that department and ranked near the bottom of the Big Ten in every category.

    The Nittany Lions ranked last in the conference in kick return average and ninth in punt return average.

    Bill Belton and Jesse Della Valle were the top two returners on the team and should handle those duties again this year. Alex Kenney, Adrian Amos and Trevor Williams all returned kicks at some point and figure to do the same in 2013.

    Newcomers like Eugene Lewis, Akeel Lynch and Malik Golden should also be in the kick return mix.

    As far as returning punts, Della Valle proved to be the most consistent, returning 15 on the year for a total of 114 yards.

    He should once again should be the main returner, but could be spelled at times by Belton, Kenney, Amos or Lewis.

    Whoever is back there for the Nittany Lions, there's hope that improvement will be made from last season.


Kicker / Punter

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    Like the return game, the kicking game didn't fair very well in 2012, especially to start the year.

    Kicker Sam Ficken had a horrible beginning to his career, making just two of his first eight attempts. That stretch included a one-point loss at Virginia in which Ficken missed four field goals and had an extra point blocked.

    Despite the trouble, Penn State fans have to be encouraged by the way Ficken ended the year, connecting on 12 of his final 13 kicks. That stretch includes a game-winner in overtime in the season finale against Wisconsin.

    Ficken's end to 2012 should ensure that the starting job is still his in 2013.

    Punter Alex Butterworth had a rough year, finishing 11th in the Big Ten with an average of just 34.5 yards per punt. While Butterworth enters spring practice as the team's punter, one has to think the coaching staff has been looking elsewhere.

    "Run-on" Chris Gulla is a hybrid kicker/punter who made the all-state team in New Jersey last season as a high school senior. He averaged 42 yards per punt and could be someone who gets a crack at the starting job if either Butterworth struggles in practice.