The first four weeks

So, it’s been more than a month, and four games for the Nittany Lions, since my last post.

Really, I didn’t want to regurgitate all that was out there already by the national and regional media (Joe Paterno “coaching” from the press box, the musical chairs at quarterback, questionable play calling, ect.), but now that Penn State is 3-1 (with wins over juggernauts Indiana State, Temple and Eastern Michigan and an embarrassing reminder of what PSU football has become in a lethargic loss to Alabama) I thought I’d share some of my thoughts on the team so far.

The defense is stout, although less so with linebacker Michael Mauti done for the year with another ACL injury. Devon Still is playing like a monster, benefited by having a stud in Jordan Hill playing next to him. Even thought he gets double teamed more often than not, Still has been a disruptive force from the first snap of the season. It’s really too bad the beginning of his career was derailed by injuries or we’d be talking about an all-time great. The loss of Mauti hurts because that means the Penn State coaches will put Nate Stupar in his place instead of Khairi Fortt. Stupar shows flashes of good play, but you want more than flashes from a fifth-year senior. While Fortt is just a sophomore and inexperienced, his ceiling is through the roof and getting him on the field now to develop for the future would be lovely, but I don’t see it happening any time soon. The secondary has been OK, which is a disappointment for a group of four senior starters. The safeties are nothing more than average, while D’Anton Lynn is playing the wrong position at corner instead of safety. Chaz Powell has been the best of the group. It’s a shame the coaches pulled him back and forth between offense and defense throughout his career.

The offense, well, it’s been pretty ugly outside of Silas Redd, who has been nothing short of spectacular despite running behind a subpar offensive line. I could care less if Rob Bolden or Matt McGloin plays quarterback, but to be four games into a season and still not have a starter is both a joke and insult to the team and its fans. That McGloin won the Big Ten Offensive Player of the Week means nothing because Eastern Michigan is awful defensively. Derrick Moye was terrible the first two games of the season, but has been better the past two weeks. Finally, after nearly three years on campus, the Penn State coaches figured out that Devon Smith’s best route would be a drag all the way across the field about five yards off the line of scrimmage. I don’t know if one of the guys starting on the offensive line could start for any top 25 team. The best linemen on this team might be true freshman tackle Donovan Smith and sophomore Nate Cadogan, who is playing tight end because 19-year-old Kevin Haplea decided to celebrate his play in the Alabama game with a drink in public.

The special teams have been a disgrace. To have a walk-on wide receiver (Evan Lewis) kicking field goals over a kid who Penn State gave a scholarship to (Sam Ficken, a true freshman) is mind boggling. Anthony Fera is the kicker from here on out after a good performance last week, but he’s also punting and kicking off so you worry if he can handle all that. I wouldn’t mind seeing Ficken kickoff to give Fera a break. The coverage units have been OK and outside of Powell’s season-opening kickoff return the return units have been non-existent.

Recruiting has been pretty slow lately and doesn’t figure to pick up anytime soon since most players Penn State is still involved with won’t be making a decision anytime soon. I did see offensive lineman J.J. Denman play two weeks ago against Pocono Mountain West and the kid is the real deal. He played center that night, but he’ll be an offensive tackle for the Nittany Lions. I’m thinking right tackle, but that’s just a guess. Right now there are 17 players verbally committed with room for five more (again, that’s a guess because right now you don’t know what kids who have a year of eligibility and don’t figure to play might just move on with their lives). The biggest fish out there is Harrisburg defensive end Noah Spence, who is just an absolute stud. Defensive line coach Larry Johnson is on the case so that’s the good news, but Penn State hasn’t pulled in a five-star recruit since 2006 with A.J. Wallace, who had a forgettable career at Penn State. Spence won’t announce until early in 2012 so Nittany Lion fans will be on the edge of their seats until then.

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No news is good news?

I know that’s a dreaded cliche, but I wonder if that’s the case with Penn State this preseason.

I’m a member of several Penn State sites and there really hasn’t been a whole lot of information out there about the Nittany Lions since camp start a couple weeks back. Bits and pieces, but nothing earth shattering (other than Joe Paterno’s run-in with Devon Smith of course).

Everyone wants to know if Rob Bolden or Matt McGloin will start at quarterback, but it appears neither has taken the bull by the horns. One looks better than the other one day and vice versa. I still can’t see how Bolden isn’t the guy. Why? If he isn’t does he transfer? If so, that would leave McGloin as the lone scholarship quarterback with Paul Jones ineligible this fall and Kevin Newsome no longer with the program.

It’s quite amusing to read posters vouch for both Bolden and McGloin. I honestly don’t have a preference. If the defense were more of a sure thing I’d say Bolden because I think he’s less likely to make game-changing mistakes like McGloin did against Ohio State and Florida last season. The problem is there still seems to be no sure answer as to who is going to put pressure on the quarterback for the Lions. I can’t count on Jack Crawford or Eric Lattimore after their performances last season (and yes, I know they were injured, but they weren’t lighting it up before getting hurt). Devon Still might be the team’s best pass rusher and teams are going to double team him all season long. Who steps up when that happens?Jordan Hill has been a standout all offseason, but until he does it on the playing field I’m reserving my excitement. With all his off-the field issues since arriving at Penn State, I’m not counting on Sean Stanley either. Anything he contributes is a bonus in my eyes.

That doesn’t mean I prefer McGloin under center either. I like the confidence the kid has and he plays with a Scranton-sized chip on his shoulder, but he simply doesn’t sniff the talent that Bolden has. When you look at Bolden you see a world of potential. He’s much more mobile than he showed last year. Joe Paterno wasn’t about to trust him to let him use his feet, which again I ask, why was he made the starter then? I thought it was a disservice to Bolden to have him to come on campus in May and then start the season a few months later. And then he lost his job because of an injury and never got a chance to get it back when McGloin was throwing the ball all over the field.

There are some wondering, why does Paterno even have to name a starter? In reality he doesn’t, but I think he’d like to. If he leans toward McGloin I can’t see Jay Paterno not forcing his old man to watch the second half against the Buckeyes and the entire game against Florida. That is not Paterno football. In the end I think it’s Bolden’s job. I think it’s really been that way all along, but after threatening to transfer following last season in a bit of a mini temper tantrum Paterno wasn’t about to just hand Bolden the keys.

But what do I know? Paterno has always been a proponent of wanting his quarterbacks to show leadership and command in the huddle. There’s no question that McGloin does that better. But, ask yourself, how many other true freshmen quarterbacks, all 18 years old, show command in a huddle and leadership of a team that has players who’ve been around for three, four or five years? Exactly.

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Lions add two, more to come?

Penn State got two verbal commitments Wednesday, reeling in Wyoming Valley West wide receiver Eugene Lewis and Glen Ellyn, Ill., defensive tackle Tommy Schutt.

Lewis’ verbal isn’t a huge surprise as many recruiting experts tagged him as a Penn State lean for some time, but Schutt’s pledge came as a pleasant surprise. As of last week many thought Schutt was bound for Notre Dame and he even admitted he would probably commit to the Fighting Irish on his next visit, but Notre Dame told him there was no room at the inn after picking up another defensive tackle commitment. Michigan looked like Schutt’s next destination only for the same thing that happened with Notre Dame happen again. That left Penn State, where Schutt visited with his family earlier this week. The 6-foot-3, 301-pound Schutt made the call Wednesday night, informing the Nittany Lions coaching staff of his decision.

I got to see Lewis play last year when Wyoming Valley West played at Pleasant Valley and was extremely impressed. Lewis played quarterback for much of the game, but his athleticism was on display when he returned a kickoff for a touchdown early in the game. Lewis cut clear across the field two times and outran the coverage unit to the end zone, only to have the return nullified by a penalty. Watching Lewis’ tape, two things really stand out. He has great hands. He catches everything thrown his way (as you’d expect in a highlight reel) whether or not the ball is thrown well. And the second thing is his leaping ability. Not only can he get up over defenders, but he always seems to time his jumps perfectly. He also has surprising speed to go with a 6-2, 181-pound frame, one that can probably handle another 10-15 pounds without Lewis losing any speed.

Schutt is really a big-time get for the Nittany Lions. He’ll play a 3-technique tackle with the Nits, giving them a penetrating force similar Jared Odrick. Schutt has a quick first step and seems to be in the backfield before the man blocking him even gets out of his stance. He shows the ability to diagnose plays and find the ball quickly, two important attributes any good DT must have. Ranked by Rivlas.com as the nation’s 29th-best player and fifth-best defensive tackle, Schutt should challenge for playing time early in his career.

The recruiting haul may not be over either.

West Roxbury, Mass., defensive back Armani Reeves plans to announce Friday and many expect him to pick Penn State. Michigan and Notre Dame are also finalists for Reeves, a 5-11, 185-pound prospect with great speed and athleticism. Chesire, Conn., defensive back Malik Golden plans to visit Penn State in the near future, possibly next week, and could commit at that time. Golden, a 6-1, 195-pounder, projects as a boundary corner or safety at the next level.

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Thoughts on Jake Kiley

Penn State’s recruiting class grew by one Tuesday when New Hampton, N.H. athlete Jake Kiley verbally committed to the Nittany Lions, but the Penn State faithful isn’t exactly thrilled about it.

See, Kiley is only a two-star recruit according to Rivals.com and had only one other offer, from Division I-AA New Hampshire and fans on several message boards I’m a member of appear to be on the verge of ripping their hair out. Lack of top-flight competition and evidently less than stellar performances at camps (I’m basing that only on lack off offers) didn’t get New England schools like UConn or Boston College to offer, and neither did Big East cellar dweller Syracuse. So why did Penn State? Well, here’s what I saw on some film of Kiley, who will play somewhere in the defensive backfield at Penn State, that might shed some light into why (obviously these are just my opinion on Kiley; JoePa has yet to let me into his recruiting lair).

The beginning of Kiley’s highlight film shows him playing quarterback and he shows good agility and the ability to make quick moves in tight spaces. He doesn’t have blazing speed, but corners in PSU’s defense don’t really need it. Justin King had speed to burn (so did A.J. Wallace) and they were nothing special. The Nittany Lions play zone almost always and seem to value intelligence and instincts above other traits. Kiley won’t be asked to play on an island against a receiver. Something I noticed in his QB highlights were the repeated play-action fakes he made holding the ball out easily with one hand. That means he has big hands, all that much easier for him to knock down a pass with. He showed a lot toughness playing QB, repeatedly breaking tackles and forcing three, and sometimes four, defenders to bring him down in a read offense. Now, his defensive highlights were pretty solid, too. He was quick to break on the ball and wasn’t shy about delivering the big hit, driving through the receiver to knock the ball loose. He adds value as a blitzer who got to the quarterback and brought him down. He showed not only good hands on interceptions, but also good concentration to stay with tipped balls. He showed the ability to read receiver’s eyes to allow him to turn and find the ball just before it arrived while playing man-to-man coverage.

Listen, Kiley’s commitment isn’t going to make this class, but when you’re giving out 22-23 scholarships kids like him will always be part of a class. Kiley is a project. He’s a good athlete who plays against below average competition so he’ll have plenty of adjustments to make once he gets to Penn State. I think he has some upside and will most likely wind up playing safety because of his ability to hit and find the ball in the air.

Am I in love with this offer? I wouldn’t say that, but I’m not going to rant and rave about it until I’m blue in the face. It’s simple really, Penn State needs defensive backs and no player currently considering the Nittany Lions seems especially close to making a decision. So if there is a player who is ready to jump at a Penn State offer (partially because his only other offer is from a I-AA school) who has some upside I don’t see anything wrong with it, but that’s just me.

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A few recruiting updates

I was on a mini-vacation last week when a few recruiting items popped up so here’s a quick update.

First, Penn State gained two verbals last week in Philadelphia quarterback Skyler Mornhinweg, son of Eagles offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg, and Pittsburgh athlete JP Holtz. Morningweg is a pro-style QB with good athleticism and a strong arm. Holtz is listed by recruiting services as a tight end, but Penn State is recruiting him as a defensive player, either a linebacker or defensive end.

Second, Westville, N.J. lineman Jamil Pollard had his verbal scholarship offer pulled because of academics. Pollard had committed to the Nittany Lions in April, but he’s now back on the market. Penn State is still in the running, but its class could be just about filled by the time Pollard gets his grades in check.

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Several updates

Penn State picked up its 11th verbal commitment for the 2012 recruiting class when Valley View linebacker Nyeem Wartman pledged Sunday.

Wartman is the second linebacker to commit to the Nittany Lions, joining Camren Williams, who verballed March 25. The commitment of Wartman, a 6-foot-3, 225-pounder, probably wraps up Penn State’s linebacker class especially given his versatility. Right now Wartman is most likely an outside linebacker, and a strong-side one at that, but he has the size that would work well in the middle and the speed to be able to play sideline to sideline.

A bit of bad news is that defensive back Shyquawn Pullium will not be playing at Penn State this fall. Pullium, who was recruited initially out of Erie in 2010, spent last season at Kiski Prep, where Curtis Ennis and Daryll Clark both spent post-graduate years. Pullium did not meet the qualifying standard to enroll at Penn State and is now at Blinn College where Cam Newton spent a year after leaving Florida and before arriving at Auburn. The loss of Pullium, who brought a good size-speed combo to the position, hurts Penn State’s depth at defensive back in the future more than anything else. After this season, when the eligibility of D’Anton Lynn and Chaz Powell run out, the Nittany Lions will have just four corners on scholarship. As of right now none of PSU’s 11 commitments for the 2012 class are corners so the Lions will need to bring in at least three to replenish depth or look to move several wide receivers over to defense.

Other than that, it’s pretty quiet in State College right now. The Nittany Lions had their Lift for Life, a charity event that benefits kidney cancer research, last Friday and a lot of attention was paid to quarterbacks Rob Bolden and Matt McGloin. Both said the right things and feel confident in their chances to be under center when Penn State plays mighty Indiana State on Sept. 3. I’ll talk more about this as preseason practice gets closer, but I just can’t see Bolden not winning the job. Given a chance to go through a spring practice and summer workouts (Bolden did that last year, but then he was just getting to know everyone) and be comfortable in Penn State’s offense should help Bolden win the job running away. If he can’t do that it might be a long season in Happy Valley.

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Time to catch up

With no entries since the end of spring practice I thought I’d catch up on some things regarding the Nittany Lions.

Penn State’s recruiting class is up to 11 members, with two-way linemen Derrick Dowrey and Austin Johnson both committing after receiving offers following PSU’s NIKE camp this past weekend. Neither one is highly regarded by recruiting services, but Dowrey moves well for an interior defensive lineman and could play the 1-technique or guard. Johnson is an outstanding basketball player who would play 3-technique on defense or maybe develop into an offensive tackle. I like linemen with versatility and athleticism, probably the most overlooked aspect when looking at big guys.

Two other players received offers after camping at PSU this weekend — Athol Springs, N.Y. running back Akeel Lynch and Cheshire, Conn., defensive back Malik Golden. Both players have offers from other Division I schools, but their interests were definitely piqued when Penn State threw its hat into the ring. Golden is being recruited by some school as a wide receiver, but the Nittany Lions are looking at him on defense. His size (6-foot-1, 185 pounds) and speed (4.52 seconds in the 40) are a good fit as a boundary corner at PSU. Lynch missed time last season with an unknown injury, but at 6-foot and 205 pounds with good speed he’s an intriguing option should Austintown, Ohio’s William Mahnone, PSU’s top target at running back, end up elsewhere.

The obvious good news regarding the team is that Rob Bolden is on campus and will compete for the starting job with Matt McGloin. The bad news is it appears Paul Jones won’t play this fall to concentrate on academics. Jones scuffled with his school work after enrolling early in 2010 and that was why he was never in consideration for the starting job last fall. It seems that is still the case. That means Kevin Newsome, who looked all but ready to transfer after the spring semester, might stick around. With his talent and athleticism, it wouldn’t be the end of the world if Penn State tried to get Newsome on the field 5-10 times a game like it did early in Michael Robinson’s career.

That’s all for right now. Don’t want to do too much at one time. I promise to be more diligent about blogging as the summer moves along.

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Successes and failures

Another spring practice has come to an end and plenty was learned from the 15 practices Penn State conducted the past month or so.

There’s still no starting quarterback, the offensive line is unsettled, some young linebackers took advantage of opportunities and Anthony Fera could be a busy man come September. Hopefully if you’ve read the past two weeks of blogs, first with me highlighting breakout players for the upcoming season and then picking out players whose time to prove themselves is now or never, you got a glimpse into how I see things shaping up in State College this fall.

Fifteen practices is hard to make much of a determination on what to expect once the Nittany Lions reconvine in August for preseason camp. It did me an idea of what I thought were some successes and failures coming out of the spring though.

Successes

1. With a starting linebacker spot up for grabs and an opening for practice time because of Nate Stupar’s hamstring injury, Gerald Hodges and Khairi Fortt took advantage of the chance to show the coaches what they can do with the first team. Hodges is one of the best athletes on the team regardless of position and can be a difference maker if healthy, something he never was after breaking his leg against Alabama last fall. The same goes for Fortt, who suffered several stingers last fall. I’ve never been a believer in “you don’t lose your job because of injury,” so Stupar better come to camp ready to fight for his job. With Michael Mauti entrenched in the middle, the idea of Fortt and Hodges, and their speed and quickness joining him on the outside is very intriguing.

2. Something I thought was overlooked throughout the offseason is how Penn State would replace placekicker Collin Wagner, who was 20-for-25 on field goal attempts and hit all 34 extra points. With several walk-ons vying for the job, punter Anthony Fera, who came to Penn State as a kicker but struggled with consistency, stepped to the front of the pack. Along with fine tuning his punting, Fera began hitting field goals on a more consistent basis and also got good depth on his kickoffs. He’ll have competition in camp from incoming freshman Sam Ficken, but the job is Fera’s to lose right now.

3. With Stephfon Green’s injury history and 5-foot-10, 201-pound Silas Redd the only proven commodity, it was paramount that one of the Nittany Lions’ bigger backs had a good spring. Brandon Beachum and Curtis Dukes both responded. Beachum, at 6-foot and 230 pounds, and Dukes, at 6-1 and 246 pounds, give Penn State a presence between the tackles to complement Redd’s quickness on the outside. Redd, who is more than capable of running between the tackles himself, had a good spring, but Green battled some shoulder issues so seeing Beachum, who is back after missing last season because of a knee injury sustained at the end of the 2009 season, and Dukes step forward was very positive.

Failures

1. There’s no question about my disappointment that spring practice ended without a starting quarterback. Giving the starter and the receiving corps, which has the talent to be one of the Big Ten’s best, the opportunity to develop some chemistry through the summer would have been a big deal. Knowing when a receiver is going to make a break, where a quarterback is going to throw the ball with a corner in press coverage or finding a spot in a zone defense is something that could have been developed with repetition. And without knowing his status for the fall, who knows if Rob Bolden will want to stick around after the spring semester ends. He said all the right things after the Blue-White game on Saturday, but actions speak louder than words. And I’m not saying a starter should have been named for the sake of naming a starter. But now so much focus going into the preseason will revolve around the quarterback instead of focusing on what the team needs to do as a whole to improve on a disappointing 7-6 season.

2. Like the quarterback and receiver connection, it would have been nice to see a starting offensive line developed so they could build some chemistry in the summer. It’s no secret that Penn State plays better with an offensive line that operates like a well-oiled machine going into preseason camp. While right guard, where DeOn’tae Pannell and John Urschel are fighting for the job, is the lone spot undecided, the goal on the first day of practice in August will now be finding a starting lineup instead of getting comfortable with one another and getting better as a group.

3. The fact that the entire projected starting secondary missed the Blue-White game and missed much of the spring with injuries is concerning. Safeties Drew Astorino and Nick Sukay and corners D’Anton Lynn and Stephon Morris have played a lot of football so missing the game is no big deal, but every practice missed is an opportunity lost to improve for a unit that underachieved big time last year. It gave guys like safety Malcolm Willis and corner Chaz Powell a chance to see time with the first team and that’s a good thing, but for a group that made little impact last season not being able to practice didn’t help a defense that needed a lot of work to get better.

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Now or never No. 7: Devon Still

I debated whether or not to put senior defensive tackle Devon Still here, but with so much potential and not a lot proven on the field I went for it.

Still was plagued by injuries early in his career, first a torn ACL as a true freshman in 2007 and then a broke ankle the following year. He made it back by the end of the 2008 season, playing 10 snaps against Michigan State when Penn State wrapped up the Big Ten title.

The following season, playing behind standout Jared Odrick, Still made 19 tackles including 5.5 for losses. That really raised everyone’s expectations coming into last season, but it was only a so so one for Still. He had 39 tackles last year, with 10 for losses and a team-high four sacks, but was underwhelming for most of the season. He did save his best game for last, registering seven tackles in the loss to Florida in the Outback Bowl, and that again raised expectations coming into his final year as a Nittany Lion.

The talent is there. And the size. At 6-foot-5 and 300 pounds, Still is an absolute monster of a man. With the quickness and athleticism to disrupt opponents’ backfields, Still can be an All-Big Ten performer this season, but he has to do every game. Not just sometimes. That’s been his issue, but in his defense he hasn’t played a ton at Penn State because of the injuries. He’s out of time though. It’s now or never.

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Now or never No. 5 and No. 6

Again, I got caught up doing some things on my day off Thursday and blanked on writing the No. 5 installment of now or never. My apologies. Figured I’d just kill two birds with one stone here.

For No. 5 I’m going with senior cornerback Chaz Powell. It would be hard to find a more physically gifted player at Penn State than Powell. Early in his career it was on offense, and last year, with a large stable of wide receivers, Powell was moved back to defense, where he was initially recruited as a safety. The sky is really the limit for Powell. He could either start on the outside this season, or slide inside to the nickel spot depending on what the coaching staff decides to do with Stephon Morris.

While Powell hasn’t had a bad career at Penn State, he certainly hasn’t played up to his ability. He had a key fumble against Alabama last year fighting for meaningless yards, and has also been sidelined by hamstring injuries several times. The talent is there, no question. Can Powell finally put it all together though? That’s the real question.

For No. 6, how about senior guard Johnnie Troutman?

I’m a member of BlueWhiteIllustrated.com and those guys do a heck of a job covering the Nittany Lions. Something I’ve read a lot from them, and agree with, is that Penn State’s coaches think Troutman has ability to play on Sundays. It’s hard to argue with that, but no NFL team is going to want someone who has reported out of shape and now has a DUI hanging over his head. Troutman is both powerful and athletic, but consistency hasn’t always been his calling card, another thing that will scare away NFL teams.

Troutman’s worst enemy has been himself though. He showed up to preseason camp last summer overweight and Joe Paterno held him out of practice. He tipped the scales at 323 this spring, way too high, but since it’s the spring he’s been allowed to try and work it off in practice. And from what I’ve read, Troutman has had his best spring practice and has really taken a leadership role. Let’s hope so because the Nittany Lions really need to Troutman to play up to his potential.

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