In just over a month a new era in Penn State football will officially begin.
When the Nittany Lions take the practice field for fall camp on Aug. 6, the focus will finally shift to the football field (hopefully) as Bill O’Brien prepares to lead a program looking to rebuild its reputation after the circus that engulfed the entire university last November and seems to continue on a daily basis. I’m here to talk about football, though. I really don’t have anything to say about the latest piece of the puzzle, the e-mail saga created by CNN, which didn’t even have the “alleged e-mails,” but still chose to report on something that was read to them because that’s always a good way to choice to make when delivering the news.
Nope, I’m looking ahead to the fall and also at a few recruits who have committed to O’Brien recently.
The team will be without two more players as senior wide receiver Devon Smith, who was charged with possession of marijuana and drug paraphernalia in April, and junior cornerback Derrick Thomas both left the team because of personal reasons in the past few weeks. Losing Smith shouldn’t be too much to overcome as there is talent, albeit it inexperienced, at the wide receiver position, but not having Thomas will hurt. Although he never showed it on the field because he was in the doghouse too much to get on it, Thomas had a world of talent and would have been a big contributor this season. His departure leaves and already depleted secondary paper thin. Senior Stephon Morris and sophomore Adrian Amos will likely start at corner, but the only scholarship corners behind them are junior Mike Wallace and true freshmen DaQuan Davis and Jake Kiley. Expect at least one if not both of those kids to play right away.
Other than Smith and Thomas leaving, it’s been a pretty quiet summer for the Nittany Lions, which isn’t a bad thing. With Matt McGloin named the starting quarterback by O’Brien last month, the offense needs only to establish an offensive line to be a pretty good unit. Keep an eye on redshirt freshman tackle Donovan Smith, who might just be the most talented lineman on the roster, to take over on the left side, while Adam Gress shifts over to the right side after seeing time at left tackle in the spring. The line returns just one starter, but luckily that’s Blue Mountain’s Matt Stankiewitch at center, so there will be a veteran presence making the calls and getting everyone on the same page.
I was definitely in the group that questioned what kind of recruiter O’Brien would be, but he’s proven me and many other of his doubters quite wrong. O’Brien got a top-five quarterback in Christian Hackenberg from Virginia, the nation’s No. 1 tight end in Adam Breneman, who will miss his senior year after tearing his ACL last month, and a legitimate left tackle in Belle Vernon’s Dorian Johnson, long thought to be a Pitt lean. Penn State has also been stocking linebackers, getting pledges from Damascus, Md.’s Zach Bradshaw, Harrisburg’s Zayd Issah and Mays Landing, N.J.’s Brandon Bell during a two-week span. Another could be on the way as Reading’s Alex Anzalone will make his decision this weekend with Penn State, Notre Dame and Florida the top three schools.
Johnson is the biggest get by O’Brien and his coaching staff, which have hit the entire country as they try to build Penn State back into a national championship contender. Always thought to favor staying close to home, Johnson had long been pegged as bound for Pitt. That all changed when he visited Penn State two weekends ago with his mother and grandmother. Shortly after the trip, Johnson first called the other schools to let them know he wouldn’t be choosing them and then the call to Penn State to commit. Rated a five-star prospect by 247sports.com and a four-star prospect by Rivals.com, Johnson has all the tools to be an elite left tackle. He’s listed at 6-foot-6 and 268 pounds, but has great feet and uses his hands well for a high school player. He has a frame that could easily hold another 30 pounds without sacrificing any of his athleticism. With Donovan Smith the likely starter at left tackle this fall, don’t be surprised to see Johnson start his career at right tackle and move over to the left side when Smith leaves. That’s a good problem to have for the Penn State coaching staff.