Now or never No. 4: DeOn’tae Pannell

Another easy choice for No. 4.

Senior offensive lineman DeOn’tae Pannell didn’t come to Penn State with a lot of fanfare, but he was so impressive as a true freshman that he saw action in the season’s first game, a blowout win over Coast Carolina in 2008. In all Pannell played in eight games that season and looked to be Penn State’s left tackle of the future, but it hasn’t even come close to playing out that way.

In 2009, Penn State slid Dennis Landolt over to left tackle and had Pannell start at right tackle, hoping to ease the burden on Pannell, but he was overmatched almost from the get go. After being beaten badly in a loss to Iowa and sustaining an ankle injury against Illinois, Pannell’s playing time dipped quite a bit. After starting the first four games, he only started three more the rest of the way.

Penn State slid Pannell inside to guard last season, but he got off on the wrong foot right away when he showed up to preseason camp out of shape. Pannell wound up starting the first two games of the season, but didn’t start again and didn’t see any action five of the season’s final 11 games. Quite a drop for a lineman who played as a true freshman.

If Pannell is going to play this season it will again be at guard. The experiment of him playing on the outside was given up a long time ago. The problem with Pannell is consistency. He can look good for a quarter and then look awful for three. Or the other way around. One thing Joe Paterno demands from his offensive linemen is consistency. He needs to know what he’s getting out of his guys up front. They don’t have to be All-Big Ten, which Pannell has the ability to be, but they have to be consistent. After four year I’m not sure Pannell will ever even get to that point.

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Now or never No. 3: Jack Crawford

Back for my second post of the day, I wasn’t real sure if senior defensive end Jack Crawford qualified for being here.

He had himself a pretty good sophomore year in 2009, ranking ninth in the Big Ten with 14.5 tackles for losses to go along with 5.5 sacks, so it’s not like he hasn’t had some success at Penn State. A foot injury derailed his junior season early in the year, but he was all but invisible before that. Was he nursing the injury before it became too much to bare on the field? Who knows. It’s hard to believe something wasn’t wrong with Crawford early last season because he is simply too gifted to play as poorly as he did.

Injuries have continued to keep Crawford on the sideline this spring, but I’d rather see him healthy for preseason camp in August than gut through a spring practice in March and April. When you look at Crawford it’s hard not to see a good player. At 6-foot-5 and 265 pounds, Crawford is a beast of a man. He’s also so athletic that some (me included) thought he’d wind up playing tight end out of high school. He’s also only played football since his junior year of high school after coming to the United States as a basketball player from England.

But in reality it’s now or never for Crawford to realize his potential. While he does have a redshirt left if the injuries don’t subside, I just don’t see him being in Penn State’s plans past this season. There are some good young ends on the roster, the Nittany Lions recruited four in the 2010 class, and have their eyes on Harrisburg’s Noah Spence, one of the nation’s top prospects regardless of position.

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Now or never No. 2: Andrew Szczerba

My apologies for missing yesterday. I was in Philly watching the Sixers sleep walk through a loss to Orlando. So today I’ll have two installment of my now or never players. First I will go with tight end Andrew Szczerba and then I’ll post another blog later tonight when I’m in the office.

Unlike most of the players I’ll talk about for this mini-project, Szczerba’s lack of productivity at Penn State has nothing to do with what he’s done or not done. A breakout player in the Blue-White game in 2008, Szczerba was blocked by Andrew Quarless and Mickey Shuler so it was understandable why he didn’t play much as a freshman or sophomore.

Back woes that started last spring derailed his junior season and at times many wondered if he’d ever see the field. There was reportedly some progress made with his back late last season and he saw limited action in practice, but not enough to do any contact work or ever be close to playing.

There hasn’t been much talk about him this spring since again he’s been held out of contact. He’s done some work, which is encouraging because he was mostly a spectator last spring, but I’m still not holding my breath on him playing this fall.

If he can somehow make it on the field it would be a huge boost for Penn State’s passing and running games. At 6-foot-6 and 265 pounds, Szczerba can be a punishing blocker and serve as a sixth offensive line. He’ll use his body to block out defenders and is simply too quick for linebackers and too big for safeties to cover. He has very good hands which he uses to snatch the ball before it gets to his body.

Can he get on the field this fall? It would be big for the Nittany Lions, but history isn’t on his or their side.

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Now or never No. 1: Brandon Ware

This is the first installment of my players whose time to prove themselves at Penn State is now or never and No.1 was an easy choice.

Perhaps no player has frustrated die-hard Penn State fans than junior defensive tackle Brandon Ware. Casual Nittany Lions fans might not even know who Ware is, but not the ones who bleed blue and white.

And under-the-radar prospect out of Harrisburg, Ware had all the attributes to be a dominant defensive tackle. At 6-foot-4 and 350 pounds, Ware had all the measureables and the quickness rare for a man his size, but that weight and some academic issues scared off most colleges. Larry Johnson, one of the nation’s best defensive line coaches, convinced Joe Paterno to bring in Ware, but it’s been mostly heartache since.

Ware has struggled across the board between his weight, grades and injuries. A broken foot suffered in preseason practice all but ruined his redshirt freshman year in 2008, and weight problems and academic struggles limited him to all of two tackles in 11 games last season.

There is hope though. Paterno spoke highly of Ware at Penn State’s spring media day two Fridays ago, even going as far to say that Ware can be a good football player once his time at Penn State ends. Ware is down to 318 pounds and hopes to play this fall between 310-315. With Ollie Ogbu gone and little experience behind Devon Still and Jordan Hill, Ware’s presence would be a huge boost for a defensive line looking to bounce back from a disappointing season. The same can be said about Ware’s Penn State career. So far at least.

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Breakout prospect No. 7: Miles Dieffenbach

I’m taking a shot in the dark here.

I really expected redshirt freshman offensive lineman Miles Dieffenbach to battle junior Matt Stankiewitch for the starting center spot in the spring, but it looks like the job is Stankiewitch’s to lose for now. I still think Dieffenbach will be a player on the Nittany Lions’ offensive line this fall though.

Technically sound with good instincts, Dieffenbach is young so there is still a ways to go physically. What I like about him is he’s versatile enough to play center or guard, where Penn State needs to replace two of three starters with Johnnie Troutman the lone returner, and after watching his high school film you can see that Dieffenbach brings an attitude and nastiness that Penn State’s O-line has sorely missed the past few years.

While departed four-year starter Stefen Wisniewski, who is off to the NFL, was a very good player, he lacked that fire to get his line mates fired up. That’s not a dig at Wisniewski. It’s just who he was, or wasn’t to be more precise. The way Dieffenbach plays can be infectious to others on the line and that’s a good thing. With Penn State having to replace two starters on the inside, the competition should really be open. Right now Dieffenbach is on the outside looking in, but dont’ be shocked if that changes between now and the season opener against Indiana State on Sept. 3.

This is the last installment of my breakout players. I’ll be back Sunday with the first of seven players whose time to shine is now or never. That will lead us up to next Saturday’s Blue-White game and then after that I’ll talk about what I feel were the successes and failures of spring practice.

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Breakout prospect No. 6: Silas Redd

This was a pretty easy choice.

I know I already picked a running back in Brandon Beachum, but Redd is the key figure in Penn State’s running game this fall (that of course depends on the Nittany Lions finding a competent offensive line). Redd has the quickness, elusiveness and drive to be an All-American before his time at Penn State is over. That won’t come this year, mostly because Beachum deserves to get his share of carries, but Redd is that talented.

I don’t even have to go back to his high school tape here (although if you watch it Redd is absolutely jaw dropping). When Evan Royster either struggled or needed a break last season, Redd was there to show his skills. It’s hard to remember a player who Redd reminds me of because the player many say compare to him (Curt Warner) was before my time. He has the same athleticism as Mike Archie had, but Redd is faster than Archie.

Where Redd needs to improve to make me look good here is receiving and blocking. Joe Paterno won’t trust Redd until he knows he can count on him to protect the quarterback. All the really good Penn State running backs of the past 20 years could block. Ki-Jana Carter, Curtis Ennis, Aaron Harris, Larry Johnson, Rodney Kinlaw and Royster all got the job done when the ball wasn’t in their hands.

Another thing I like about Redd is the swagger he carries. I follow him on Twitter and he’s a very confident kid who knows he has talent and isn’t shy about letting others know about it. Some might say that’s cocky but remember as a true freshman last year he ran for 461 yards and averaged 5.7 yards per carry. And that came behind an average at best line. I think there are players capable of giving Penn State a good line (you’ll read about one in my final installment of my breakout players and several in my now or never segment) and Redd is the perfect player to take advantage of even the smallest of holes.

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Breakout prospect No. 5: Bill Belton

I debated whether to put Bill Belton on this list since he’s not even on campus yet and wont’ be until June, but Curtis Drake’s injury plus Joe Paterno’s doubts about Drake’s availability for this season cinched it.

Belton, a high school quarterback, might just be the best player in Penn State’s incoming recruiting class. He’s talented enough to play four positions (wide receiver, cornerback, free safety and even quarterback despite being just 5-foot-9), but he’ll line up as a slot receiver for the Nittany Lions. They’ll need him with the injury to Drake, who early in spring practice broke his left leg for the second time in less than a year. At Penn State’s spring practice media day last Friday, Paterno all but declared Drake out for the season which bodes well for Belton, an explosive playmaker capable of scoring every time he touches the ball.

Watching Belton run on his high school tape would have any Nittany Lion fan excited. Not only his he fast, but he’s quick (I know they sound the same, but they’re not). He can put his foot in the ground and make a cut on a dime. And he has great vision, thanks to playing quarterback in a system that asked him to run the ball inside a lot. He finds the seem quickly and goes. No hesitation at all.

With Devon Smith getting some good experience last season, Belton won’t be asked to carry the weight of the world on his shoulders, but he’s definitely talented enough to be a big part of Penn State’s offense. Maybe not right away, but by the time the Big Ten opener at Indiana on Oct. 1 rolls around Belton should be making a name for himself.

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Breakout prospect No. 4: Malcolm Willis

I really debated whether or not to put sophomore safety Malcolm Willis here, but hear me out on why he made the cut.

A relative unknown to Penn State fans going into 2010, Willis registered just one tackle through the first five games of the season. A season-ending injury to Nick Sukay in the sixth game put Willis in the starting lineup and he didn’t disappoint. Willis finished the season with 54 tackles, good for sixth best on the team, and showed a comfort level unseen by most players his age and experience level.

The reason I have Willis here is, that despite his better-than-expected freshman campaign, there’s no guarantee he’ll start this fall. With Sukay still being closely watched during spring practice, Willis will get a lot of reps with the first-team defense, but he may find himself in a reserve role come September. That would be a waste of talent in my eyes.

Sukay deserves to play, no questioning that, but there’s little doubt Penn State’s defense would be better off with Willis on the field and Drew Astorino in a reserve role. One, Willis is just a better player, two, he’s a more sure tackler, and three, he has a better burst. That’s not knocking Astorino, who I think would be a good nickel back due to his instincts and toughness, but he’s had several shoulders injuries and that’s not a good recipe for success for a safety. Putting Willis next to Sukay in the back could complete what should be one of the Big Ten’s best secondaries along with corners D’Anton Lynn, Stephon Morris, Chaz Powell and Derrick Thomas.

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Breakout prospect No. 3: Jordan Hill

With better-than-advertised Ollie Ogbu gone, Penn State desperately needs a player who can get into opponents’ backfield and cause them headaches. Look no further than Jordan Hill.

The junior defensive tackle added about 10 pounds in the offseason and now tips the scale at 316, or about 25 more than Ogbu weighed his senior year. Hill might not be as explosive off the ball as Ogbu, but he is definitely capable of getting the job done.

Hill will play the 1-technique DT position, lining up between the center and guard. He’ll be asked to fight through double teams, be wary of pulling linemen and keep Penn State’s linebackers free and clean. And, by the way, make some big plays in the backfield like Ogbu did the past two years.

Hill will benefit from lining up next to Devon Still, but he’s no slouch. Just looking at Hill’s high school film, when he played mostly as a standup linebacker at Steelton High, there’s no shortage of athleticism and quickness from the Class A Player of the Year his senior season. He finds the ball quickly and punishes whomever has it.

Hill showed enough promise to play as a true freshman in 2009, registering 12 tackles, and showed his versatility last season when asked to line up at end when the Lions were decimated by injuries at the position. He finished the season with 36 tackles and two tackles for losses. Ogbu had 8.5 TFLs and if Hill can match that total Penn State will be in good shape on the interior of its D-line this fall.

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Breakout prospect No. 2: Brandon Beachum

Running back Brandon Beachum seemed to be putting himself in position for a breakout season in 2010 late in the 2009 season.

As a sophomore, Beachum showed toughness and quickness in the hole, and the ability to make defenders miss in open space. He ran for 113 yards on 24 carries, a 4.7 yards per carry average, but he tore the anterior cruciate ligament in right knee covering a kickoff in the second to last game of the regular season. That all but ended any hopes of Beachum being able to even contribute, let alone breakout,in 2010.

A redshirt year burned and more than 16 months later, Beachum is still in line to have a breakout season. With career rushing leader Evan Royster graduated, senior tailback Stephfon Green injury prone and sophomore Silas Redd unproven as an every-down back, Beachum still has a chance to make his presence felt on this team. Even with Green and Redd in the fold, those guys aren’t inside runners. It doesn’t mean they can’t get the job done between the tackles, but Beachum is the guy who should get the call in those situations.

At 6-feet and 230 pounds, Beachum runs low to the ground, keeps his pads down and isn’t afraid to deliver the blow to a defender. But he isn’t strictly an inside runner. In high school, Beachum showed good vision, nimble feet and had some shiftiness about him. The biggest question though: are all those qualities still there after the knee injury?

There might not be a player on the offensive side of the ball that needs this spring practice more than Beachum. He needs to shake off the rust, get some contact in and get the feel for what it’s like to be back on the football field at 100 percent. He’ll be much better for it and so will Penn State’s chances of having a good rushing attack.

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