Penn State Football: The State of the Program After 2013 Season
Penn State can certainly be proud of a 7-5 campaign in 2013.
With a roster depleted of scholarship athletes in addition to having to break in a true freshman quarterback—albeit a very talented one—the Nittany Lions regressed only slightly in the win column while continuing to push forward through unprecedented sanctions.
In his first two years as a head coach at any level, Bill O'Brien has compiled a respectable record of 15-9.
A rather young team, Penn State will only have to replace eight starters next season—four on offense and four on defense. This should serve them well as O'Brien and his staff continue to rebuild the roster.
Here's a look at the state of the program following the completion of the 2013 season, with a glimpse towards the future.
Despite a lot of youth on the offensive side of the ball, Allen Robinson's decision on whether to stay in Happy Valley or enter the 2013 NFL draft is huge. Robinson accounted for roughly 66 percent of Penn State's receiving yards from wide receivers this season. He had 1,198 more receiving yards than Geno Lewis, the most productive of Penn State's wideouts who return in 2014.
Robinson's potential departure would be a huge blow, but Christian Hackenberg will still have some weapons at his disposal. Running backs Zach Zwinak and Bill Belton will return, while Kyle Carter and Jesse James will headline an impressive group of tight ends.
The offensive line will have to replace three starters in 2014, but Penn State is fortunate to have cornerstone left tackle Donovan Smith and offensive guard Miles Dieffenbach both coming back.
On the defensive side, Penn State will have to replace the likes of defensive tackle DaQuan Jones and linebacker Glenn Carson. Those will be tough holes to fill, but the Nittany Lions are fortunate to have back some other key pieces.
They'll return Adrian Amos and Jordan Lucas in the secondary, as well as Mike Hull and Brandon Bell in the linebacking corps. Lucas and Bell were two of the younger players who stepped up throughout the course of the year, and their futures are bright.
On the defensive line, defensive end Deion Barnes will likely return despite having the potential to head to the draft. He'll be joined by defensive ends C.J. Olaniyan and Anthony Zettel, who could end up moving inside to combat the loss of Jones.
According to Scout.com, Penn State currently has the 28th-ranked recruiting class of 2014. With 16 verbal commitments, the Nittany Lions will look to add a few more pieces before national signing day.
At the center of Bill O'Brien's radar right now has to be Thomas Holley, a 4-star defensive tackle according to Scout.com. The Nittany Lions are still in the running for the New Yorker, who will choose between Penn State and Florida, according to Zach Braziller of the New York Post.
Two other prospects with the potential to land in Happy Valley are defensive tackle Derrick Nnadi and offensive tackle Alex Bookser. Rated as 4-star players by Scout.com, both went on their official visits to Penn State last week.
If Nnadi picks Penn State, he could easily slide into a defensive tackle rotation looking to replace DaQuan Jones and Kyle Baublitz. Bookser's path to playing time might not be as clear, but keep in mind that the Nittany Lions need to replace three starters on the offensive line in 2014.
If Holley and Nnadi both spurn the Nittany Lions, they won't be left completely empty-handed on the defensive line; JUCO defensive tackle Tarow Barney recently pledged his intention to head to State College.
Stars of the Future
The obvious star of the future is freshman quarterback Christian Hackenberg. Aside from him, Penn State has other promising young pieces as well.
Running back Akeel Lynch is one of the more intriguing players on the roster. In 2013, the redshirt freshman was relegated to third-string duties behind Zach Zwinak and Bill Belton. He only played enough to notch 60 carries for 358 yards and one touchdown, despite averaging six yards a rush.
Lynch showed flashes of his potential during the limited snaps he played. He'll be the featured back at Penn State come 2015, after Zwinak and Belton have graduated.
Another guy to pay attention to in the coming years is defensive tackle Austin Johnson. A redshirt freshman along with Lynch, Johnson was heavily involved in the defensive tackle rotation this year. With DaQuan Jones and Kyle Baublitz both leaving, Johnson is now defensive line coach Larry Johnson's most experienced interior lineman.
At 6'4" and 302 pounds, Johnson definitely has the frame to compete in the trenches in the Big Ten. With Larry Johnson's track record, all signs point to the New Jersey native as being the next big Nittany Lion defensive tackle. With the impending selection of Jones at some point in the 2014 NFL draft, Penn State will then have had four defensive tackles selected since 2010.
With a few more years to learn, Austin Johnson could blossom into something special.
Penn State recently announced that quarterbacks coach Charlie Fisher and linebackers coach Ron Vanderlinden had left the program. The search is now on for Bill O'Brien to find their replacements.
The seemingly more important position to fill is the void left behind by Vanderlinden—the linebackers coach since 2001. He was instrumental in helping continue the Linebacker U tradition at Penn State. O'Brien will need to hire an individual with the philosophy that defensive coordinator John Butler is looking to emulate but who also has the credentials to be the heir to a tradition like Linebacker U.
The decision on how to replace Fisher doesn't seem as cut and dry.
O'Brien's background is as a quarterbacks coach, so it's surely feasible that he would consider taking over those duties and bringing in someone to instead call the plays on offense. This would take away some of his responsibilities, allowing him to focus more attention on grooming Hackenberg.
Whether he'd consider that is unknown. Given his previous coaching experiences though, it could be a possibility.
Other than that, the coaching staff appears to stay intact for 2014. Like last offseason, expect another wave of rumors surrounding the possibility of O'Brien heading to the NFL.
Feel like you're qualified to coach Penn State's quarterbacks or linebackers? If so, you can apply here.
Even if Allen Robinson decides to go to the NFL, the prospects for the 2014 season look promising.
Christian Hackenberg will then have an entire offseason under his belt, with a much larger grasp of Bill O'Brien's playbook. He'll have many potential playmakers to get the ball to, and the offense should be exciting to watch yet again.
From a recruiting standpoint, Penn State will have additional scholarships to work with after the original sanctions were modified. Couple that with O'Brien's success on the field so far, and recruiting players gets a bit easier.
Of course, there's always the outside chance that the NCAA could lift the Nittany Lions' postseason ban. If that's the case, Penn State should end up going to a bowl game for the first time since 2011.
Still, with a full offseason for Hackenberg to grow and the young talent that's returning on both sides of the ball, a seven- or eight-win campaign in 2014 might not be too farfetched.