Spring practice preview

Pasted below is the column I wrote as a spring practice preview for Monday’s paper.

Also, and I know I’ve said this before, I plan on blogging much more through spring practice, which starts Monday, and even during the lulls of the offseason. I might even sneak out to Penn State media day in August. I start a vacation Monday and will be back at work on March 27, but if anything major happens I’ll make sure to post it here. Until then enjoy my spring practice preview/column:

As Penn State coach Bill O’Brien begins his second year with the Nittany Lions when they open spring practice today, there are plenty of holes to fill on both sides of the ball.

There is also a wealth of talent and skill returning, along with young players who will soon be household names. And after a year that saw the NCAA nearly bury Penn State only to have the Nittany Lions and their fans rally around the program, the focus can be more on the football field.

O’Brien, who briefly flirted with several NFL openings before committing to Penn State, earned a number of Coach of the Year awards after leading the Nittany Lions to an 8-4 record amid sanctions, player transfers and constant turmoil. While those will continue to linger over the program, O’Brien and his staff can turn their attention to putting another good product on the field.

The two biggest holes the Nittany Lions have to fill are at quarterback and leadership roles.

It’s hard to believe after his first three years that Matt McGloin’s absence would be a large void, but to his credit that’s just how good he was in 2012. The former walk-on was named the starter before preseason camp and never looked back, setting nine school records and tying another. McGloin, who threw 24 touchdowns and just five interceptions, left Penn State with career records for touchdown passes (46), 200-yard games (18) and 300-yard games (six).

Sophomore Steven Bench, who saw limited playing time in 2012, has a leg up on junior college transfer Tyler Ferguson in the quarterback race, but O’Brien said he won’t name a starter after spring practice. Incoming five-star recruit Christian Hackenberg is a big reason for that, but he won’t be on campus until late June.

The positive for whoever starts under center is the wealth of skill position players they’ll have to work with.

All-Big Ten first-team receiver Allen Robinson leads that group after a remarkable sophomore season. Robinson was named the Big Ten Receiver of the Year after catching a single-season school record 77 passes for 1,013 yards and 11 touchdowns.

A batch of talented tight ends will also be at the new QB’s disposal. Kyle Carter, who received three freshman All-American honors, returns along with 6-foot-7 Jesse James and walk-on Matt Lehman. True freshman Adam Breneman, the nation’s top tight end, is already on campus and has been cleared for spring ball after missing his senior year with a knee injury.

Brandon Mosbey-Felder, Penn State’s third leading receiver with 31 catches for 437 yards, is back along with sophomore Trevor Williams, but keep an eye on redshirt freshman Eugene Lewis. Called Geno by O’Brien, Lewis mostly played quarterback at Wyoming Valley West, but earned rave reviews for his work on the scout team last fall.

 The backfield will be strong, with Zach Zwinak cemented as the starter. Zwinak didn’t break the starting lineup until the Purde game, but ran for 1,000 yards and six touchdowns. Bill Belton, the starter going into last season, returns, but the player to watch is redshirt freshman Akeel Lynch. Not quite as big as Zwinak, the 214-pound Lynch will bring a combination of speed and power that should have the Nittany Lions faithful excited. The loss of fullback Michael Zordich, who also played some tailback, can’t be overlooked.

There are holes along the offensive line, especially at center with the graduation of All-Big Ten first teamer Matt Stankiewitch of Blue Mountain. Senior Ty Howle will get the first shot there, but sophomore Angelo Mangiro will provide a challenge. Right tackle will be an open competition with Adam Gress, Eric Shrive and former tight end Garry Gilliam in the running. The return of left tackle Donovan Smith, and guards John Urschel and Miles Dieffenbach make line coach Mac McWhorter’s life a bit easier.

Captain, unquestioned team leader and outside linebacker Michael Mauti may be even tougher to replace than McGloin. Despite a slew of injuries during his career, Mauti played at an All-American level on the field and led like one off it last season. A knee injury in the second to last game kept Mauti on the sideline in the season finale, but Penn State showed just how much he meant to the program by wearing his No. 42 on its helmets against Wisconsin.

The loss of standout tackle Jordan Hill and outside linebacker Gerald Hodges sting, too, but there is talent there.

Daquan Jones has the ability to be the Nittany Lions’ next great tackle, but he needs to stay on his feet and be more consistent. To fill Hill’s spot, a competition will feature junior Kyle Baublitz, redshirt freshmen Austin Johnson and Derek Dowrey and senior Nate Cadogen, a former offensive lineman.

Mike Hull will start at one outside linebacker spot with Glenn Carson, who should step into the defense’s leadership role, in the middle for a third straight year. Sophomore Ben Kline and redshirt freshmen Nyeem Wartman and Gary Wooten will be in the mix to replace Hodges.

Deion Barnes, who earned several freshman All-American honors and was named the Big Ten Defensive Freshman of the Year, is back at one end. Sophomore Anthony Zettel will man the strong-side end spot, but could slide inside in pass rushing situations. Juniors C.J. Olaniyan and Brad Bars will see time, too.

The secondary must replace corner Stephon Morris, but returns starters Adrian Amos on the outside and safeties Malcolm Willis and Stephen Obeng-Agyapong. Sophomore Da’Quan Davis should get the first crack at Morris’ spot, but redshirt freshman Jake Kiley, who could also play safety, and true freshmen and early enrollees Anthony Smith and Jordan Smith could challenge Davis.

Sam Ficken made 12 of his last 13 kicks after a 2-for-8 start, but there are still questions outside 40 yards. Punter Alex Butterworth averaged just 37.4 yards on 51 punts. Both need to get better to fend off Chris Gulla, who can do both and will be on campus in June.

The return game wasn’t all that effective, but Lynch might change that on kickoffs. Jesse Della Valle averaged 7.6 yards per punt return, but Alex Kenney and Lewis could get a look there.

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