This is the latest in a series of articles previewing Big Ten football in 2012. A rough schedule of previous and upcoming preview articles is provided at the end of this article.
Words almost cannot describe the journey of the Penn State football program in the past 12 months. Now that fall camp has started around the country, it appears that we finally have a snapshot of what is left in the carnage of the Jerry Sandusky scandal and the NCAA sanctions.
For those not following along since the NCAA sanctions were levied, the Nittany Lions have lost nine players who decided to transfer without penalty following the four years of post-season ineligibility imposed by the NCAA. Of these nine, only about half were projected to start, but those half are some of the most important pieces of the Nittany Lions.
What was a team already looking to be struggling with only nine starters returning, now they are a team that will band together to try and make the best of a bad situation.
None of these kids were to blame for the runaway football program, but they will need to power through the difficulties and put the program on a good foot heading into some lean scholarship years.
While it is true that many more players may defect following the season, Penn State appears to know what they are working with now. More so than usual, expect the young guys who have stuck around to benefit and play right away for new coach Bill O'Brien. The results might not be pretty now, but Penn State will fight like crazy to avoid the losing seasons that were so unusual during the lengthy tenure of former-coach Joe Paterno.
Will Penn State be able to avoid the basement with all the scandal and loss of top talent? Will the fans still pack Beaver Stadium on Saturdays to back this program? How will Bill O'Brien perform in these circumstances as a first-time head coach in the college game?
Let's take a look.
Before the NCAA sanctions, the offense was slated to only have five starters remaining. The game plan was to finally figure out who would be quarterback and then let Silas Redd carry the Nittany Lions like he did in 2011.
But that will not be the case with Redd off to USC, QB Rob Bolden leaving for LSU and top-returning WR Justin Brown gone to Oklahoma.
The quarterback position will still be up for grabs despite Bolden's departure, as sophomore Paul Jones was only knocked out of the quarterback competition last year due to academics. Now, Jones is splitting the reps with senior Matt McGloin, who has been wildly inconsistent in his two seasons in Happy Valley. McGloin will need to improve on his 8-to-5 touchdown-to-interception ratio if the Nittany Lions are to have much success on offense.
Last year, the team almost evenly split rushing and passing yards thanks to a strong line and the difficulties at quarterback. That may not be the case this season with only one starter returning along the line in center Matt Stankiewitch. The Nittany Lions have a number of good elite-level recruits stepping into the offensive line, but they will need to prove themselves right away in the new schemes of Bill O'Brien.
Regardless of whether Jones or McGloin is leading the offense, the targets to throw to will be unclear at the start. The tight end position is one that O'Brien is known to use a lot, but the expected starter Kevin Haplea is one of the transfers (to Florida State). Thus, the passing offense may be more receiver-centric than in future seasons, which bodes well for newcomers Eugene Lewis and Tyler Lucas.
When running the ball, junior Curtis Dukes will probably garner most of the carries after being the third option a season ago. Dukes has a lot of potential, but he will need to show that he can shrug off and avoid tackles, especially in view of the inexperienced line.
The offense has been on a downward spiral since 2008, but it is hard to imagine that trend will turn around this season. Penn State will need to do more with less points and yardage than every other Big Ten team.
The good news for the defense is that the only defections before fall camp were young backup players not expected to start.
The bad news is that only four starters were projected to return in 2012 anyway.
Of course, the last time only four starters returned on this unit, the team put up the best numbers in a decade in 2009 (12.2 points per game, 274 yards per game allowed).
Two of the returning starters are on the defensive line in seniors Sean Stanley and Jordan Hill. Hill provided 59 tackles, including 3.5 sacks and 4.5 tackles for loss a season ago. Stanley had far fewer tackles but did generate 4.5 sacks, so these guys know how to get through an offensive line and affect opposing quarterbacks.
Assuming these numbers continue to improve and the upperclassmen moving into the other starting spots also play well, the defensive line should be only slightly worse than the dominance from a season ago. The linebackers could make up for this small step back by being a little bit better than a year ago.
The linebackers are led by Gerald Hodges, who was all-conference last year and should be the best linebacker (or close to it) in the conference this season. Hodges added 4.5 sacks as well, and I would anticipate some blitzes from a Nittany Lion defense that needs to make big plays to keep the team in the game.
The new starter in the linebackers is Michael Mauti, who has seen some significant playing time and could contribute big numbers right away.
The biggest question mark for this defense is the defensive backfield, which will be made up of completely new faces this season. The only senior is CB Stephon Morris, who had 69 tackles two years ago before losing a lot of playing time last year. Opposing passing units should achieve the best numbers (up to 250 yards per game average) in a long time against the Nittany Lions unless these players progress quickly.
The defense will need to take some risks to make some big plays, and opposing offenses have to be ready to capitalize. If they are not, then Penn State might just give the offense good enough field position to make some points.
Obviously, with a weakened offense, the special teams will be crucial. Last season, punter Anthony Fera wanted to take over the placekicking duties as well as the punting duties, but Joe Paterno was not a fan of such an approach.
However, the other kickers combined for only two out of the first seven field-goal attempts, and just like that, Fera earned the job. Now, Fera has left for Texas and has been injured anyway, so the kickers from a season ago who struggled will now need to take over. If last year is any indication, Sam Ficken will be the choice for kicker.
Junior Alex Butterworth lost his job to Fera two years ago, but he did average 38 yards per punt and should not be too much of a drop off from Fera's production. The Nittany Lions will be merely mediocre in special teams, and they need to be much better than that if a winning season is to be achieved.
In the return game, only Adrian Amos brings back any experience, and that's mostly on kick returns. O'Brien will need to find some tough and fast young players to take on the return duties this season, and hopefully the numbers will not drop off much from a season ago.
Bottom line: it could be a rough season on special teams thanks to the personnel losses.
The Nittany Lions schedule for 2012 looks like this, with predictions on wins and losses in parentheses:
9/8—@ Virginia (loss)
9/29—@ Illinois (loss)
10/20—@ Iowa (loss)
10/27—Ohio State (loss)
11/3—@ Purdue (loss)
11/10—@ Nebraska (loss)
Projected record: 3-9, 1-7 Big Ten
After taking on a two-year series with Alabama, the Nittany Lions have returned to the scheduling philosophy of playing fairly weak competition in non-conference play.
That tendency will come in handy with this team trying to figure out how to play with what they have left in 2012. Each of the teams on the non-conference schedule are capable of beating the Nittany Lions though.
For example, Ohio is a favorite to win the MAC and has consistently been one of the top teams in that conference since Frank Solich came to Athens. Virginia is revitalized under Mike London and will be tough on their home field. Navy plays right into the strength of Penn State's defense, but they're still a tough team to prepare for. Temple is a rival and would love to take this opportunity to finally knock down the Nittany Lions.
Then, in conference play, all of the road games are pretty brutal. The home schedule includes Wisconsin and Ohio State, almost certain losses with the offensive departures. That leaves two opportunities to win a home game, and I think the team will get it done against Indiana. That will help Penn State avoid the basement, but not a losing season.
These will be tough times for Penn State—and right away.
Build for the future will be the motto.
Thanks for reading! If you have any comments or questions about this or other articles in the 2012 Big Ten football preview series, please contact David on Twitter.
Big Ten Season Preview 2012 Summary
Team Previews: Minnesota preview, Indiana preview, Northwestern preview, Illinois preview; Iowa preview; Penn State preview; Michigan State preview; Purdue preview; Nebraska preview; Ohio State preview; Michigan preview; Wisconsin preview
B1G Scouting Reports: Sun Belt/WAC report
That's it for the preview...thanks for reading and now the season is here!