With Penn State nearing the changing of the guard at the head coach position at some point in the future the time to look at the state of the program is now. To get an idea of where the program is heading over the next few years, fans will be looking at the most important names in the program, wondering how Penn State will one day find a successor for Joe Paterno, who enters the final year of his contract.
Could it be a member of the current coaching staff? Perhaps. There are certainly a couple of names worth keeping an eye on already on the Penn State sideline, but if Penn State's recent basketball coaching search is any indication, there may not be a problem looking outside of the family for a new head coach.
And what about the players on the field? With some young up-and-coming players on the roster and a mix of some veteran leaders on both sides of the ball, Penn State has some key players ready to make an impact.
Here is a look at 14 figures involved with the program and what kind of impact they have moving forward.
When you are talking about Penn State's football program the conversation should always start with Joe Paterno. The long time head coach enters the final year of his current contract in 2011, and it remains to be seen if he will make the decision to step away from the game following the season.
Paterno is approaching his mid-80s and will not be around forever, but at this point it does not appear there is any sign that the legendary coach is ready to retire. Paterno recently made headlines for having an interview with a recruit on Skype and various reports have indicated that he looks to be in good shape in preparing for the upcoming season.
Whenever the time does come for Paterno to move on his impact will continue to be felt around the program. The school will likely look for a coach who holds value for "The Penn State Way" that Paterno has executed over the past few decades. There is already a statue outside Beaver Stadium but some fans are already suggested the stadium, or field, be named in his honor as well.
Paterno is Penn State football and always will be.
In the event Penn State wants to hire an in-house successor for Joe Paterno, there are a few worthy candidates for the job. Defensive coordinator Tom Bradley is one of them.
Bradley's defensive style has been more of a bend-don't-break philosophy, but his long-time relationship with Paterno has been valued as an asset over the years and his connections in Pittsburgh have been valuable. This is why he once was thought to be a leading candidate for the head coaching job available at Pittsburgh not once but twice. Clearly, Pittsburgh decided to go in another direction, leaving Bradley at Penn State.
The general feeling is that Bradley has what it takes to be a head coach some day, whether it happens to be at Penn State or not.
Another potential candidate to succeed Paterno is defensive line coach Larry Johnson Sr., who has seen his sons go through the program.
Johnson has made a reputation on his recruiting prowess in Maryland and Virginia, using his high profile in the state as a former high school football coach in Maryland to continue some strong relationships with high school coaches in the state and attract some of the better players in the state. The ability to recruit well will follow Johnson wherever he goes and Penn State may be fortunate to still have him on board.
Johnson was once being considered for a promotion at Big Ten, and now Legends Division rival, Illinois. Ron Zook was looking to add Johnson as a defensive coordinator, which many believe he would be qualified for almost anywhere in the country. Losing Johnson would have damaged the recruiting power Penn State has established in the region just south of the state border.
One more candidate to succeed Paterno may be linebackers coach Ron Vanderlinden, although he may be more of a long shot with Bradley and Johnson in the picture. Vanderlinden interviewed for a couple head coaching vacancies in the offseason and was rumored to be a leader for an opening at a MAC school, but having him on the coaching staff at this point is a great resource for Paterno.
The program has built a solid reputation of developing linebackers, earning the nickname Linebacker U as a result, and Vanderlinden has done well in developing linebackers at multiple stops, including current Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald was a standout linebacker at Northwestern and credits Vanderlinden for much of his success.
Vanderlinden may be overshadowed by guys like Bradley and Johnson when discussing defensive or assistant coaches, but his role on the staff is a key to the success of the defense.
Wide receiver coach Mike McQueary has a critical role on the staff as the recruiting coordinator. McQueary has seen a number of talented recruits come in to the program as the coordinator, and his work with the wide receivers has paid off with guys like Derrick Williams, Jordan Norwood and Deon Butler in the past and Derek Moye and Devon Smith heading in to the 2011 season.
The former Penn State quarterback also has potential to be moving up within the coaching ranks in due time, depending on how the coaching search turns out for Penn State when Joe Paterno moves on. McQueary won't be a head coaching candidate, but his days as an offensive coordinator could be in development right now.
The recruiting for the Class of 2012 is off to a decent start, and a strong recruiting class will add to McQueary's overall pedigree.
The director of athletics at any university is an instrumental figure in the shaping of the football program. Director of Athletics Tim Curley is that man at Penn State.
Curley has been on the job for two decades now, and he has taken his share of criticism for his approach to the basketball program and football program. Curley has been applauded though for his recent hiring of Pat Chambers as Penn State's men's basketball coach, but healing the skepticism regarding Penn State's football scheduling is still a work in progress. One wonders just what Curley's approach to finding a suitable successor for Paterno will be.
Will he stay in house? Find a Penn State family member? Or will he think outside the box and look to make a big splash with a big name from another program?
It could be Curley's most important decision to make during his career at Penn State.
Penn State President Graham Spanier has a say in what happens with Penn State's football program, although he is most likely to defer to Tim Curley. But when Spanier speaks, people will listen.
Spanier is the chair of the BCS Presidential Oversight Committee so he is tuned in to what is going on in the sport of college football and should know what is best not only for his own football program but for the entire sport. This would seem to be good news for Penn State fans, as Spanier would be mindful of the decision making going in to the coaching search for Paterno's successor.
That should mean no coaching candidates with a shady past or checkered history. Ultimately, that is good news for the state of the program.
Spanier is also the one who gets a final say in the Paterno contract status, which puts him in an uncomfortable position. Nobody wants to be labeled as the one who pushed Paterno out of the game.
Now it's time to talk about some of the players on the field. We'll start with Silas Redd, the stud running back that has Penn State fans excited about the future of the offense and the running game.
Evan Royster eclipsed Curt Warner's school record for rushing yards last season but even Royster thinks his new record has a short lifespan as long as Redd is lining up in the backfield. That was seen as high praise by Redd.
Redd, who is an astute student of the history of the game, studies film of past running backs of the past including NFL and Penn State stars. He takes bits and pieces of their games and incorporates them in to his own style. Not a bad way to go.
Redd has all the tools needed to form a great running back and even as a sophomore Penn State fans are expecting him to do great things for the Nittany Lions during his collegiate career. He had a breakout game last season against Michigan, and now that he appears to be getting more playing time, the sky seems to be the limit for him.
Will he stay or will he go?
Every day that passes by should be seen as good news for Penn State fans who want to see Rob Bolden be the starting quarterback in 2011. Bolden had a desire to transfer, but it was denied by Paterno after the Outback Bowl. Since then, Bolden's status for 2011 has been a mystery, with the Detroit area native keeping mum on the issue and saying he has not reached a decision. That indecision continued in to June with everybody wondering what is going to happen.
Losing Bolden to another program would be a blow for the entire team. Bolden's skills and potential behind center are enough reason to be optimistic about the offense in 2011. If Bolden leaves, the offense will be put firmly in the hands of Matt McGloin.
In he event that Bolden transfers, Penn State has a top-prospect already on the roster who will be groomed to play a significant role soon. Paul Jones, who was recruited in the same class as Bolden, took a red shirt in 2010 and many feel that in the long run Jones will be the star quarterback.
Jones does not appear to be in the running for the starting quarterback job in 2011 with Bolden on campus and some wonder if he might consider a transfer himself without much of a chance to play. If Jones opts out of the program, it would come across as another blow for Penn State because Jones is a Pennsylvania recruit. The appearance would be that Penn State recruited a high-rated Pennsylvania product but could not keep him in the program. How would that come across to other Pennsylvania recruits?
If he stays, Jones has the potential to be a key member of the offense with a good arm and athleticism.
One of the most unheralded aspects of football is the special teams. When a school has a dynamic player returning kicks and punts though, good things tend to happen.
Penn State has a flashy guy for the job in Devon Smith.
Smith's speed can blaze by defenders and if he can find a hole to wiggle through there is a very good chance that Penn State will pick up some good chunks of yards on every kick or punt return. Having a solid special teams player is important. Just ask Florida State with Deion Sanders, Michigan with Charles Woodson or any NFL team that had Brian Mitchell on their roster.
In order for Smith to be truly effective though he will need blockers in front of him. But Smith can also make an impact on offense as a wide receiver. Used to blaze by slower defenders, Smith can get down field in a hurry to grab a deep pass down the sideline and more.
The entire Penn State defense needs to improve this season. Taking a look at each unit, the secondary has some possible leaders to look to to improve heir group, and D'Anton Lynn is one of them.
Lynn looks to have the top spot locked down, but the competition to join him at cornerback will be tough. Lynn appears to be the best of the bunch and will be looked to as a leader on defense. Lynn can defend the pass and rush the quarterback, but he won't be able to do everything by himself, so if he can guide the rest of the players in the secondary, the entire unit could see improvement this season.
The offense appears to be lacking in veteran leadership this season with young players like Redd and Bolden looking to be starters in the backfield. Derek Moye may be the captain of the offense though.
Moye has been working his way up through the program and has become the team's leading receiver. It will be Moye's job to ensure Bolden stays calm, and it will be Moye's job to ensure the younger receivers know their role on the field.
Moye has learned from some of the best in Derrick Williams, Jordan Norwood and Deon Butler and has a good mentor in Mike McQueary as his position coach. Moye was Penn State's leading receiver a season ago and he should be the primary target in 2011, although Justin Brown is hoping to make a dent in the passing game this season as well. Surely Moye would be fine with seeing Brown emerge and continue to grow, as it would take some of the pressure off of him in the offense.
Penn State's defense goes as far as the linebackers tend to take them. A year after being decimated by injuries, like a number of positions, the linebackers will look to rebound in 2011 and live up to the Linebacker U mentality.
Penn State has a couple of players to watch closely as Khairi Fortt continues to move up the ranks and freshman Mike Hull hoping to get in the flow quickly. But the most important player at the position in 2011 is none other than Michael Mauti, the emotional leader at the key position on defense.
He is the vocal leader on the field, on the sideline and in the locker room by all accounts, and if he stays healthy, Penn State should have one of the better linebackers in the country, which is usually the case in State College.
Mauti will be flanked by Gerald Hodges on one side and either Nick Sukay or Fortt on the other side. Regardless of who is lining up beside him, Mauti will be the leader of the linebackers and the entire defense.