Forecasting Penn State: Where the Nittany Lions stand after spring
The surprise transfer of Steven Bench leaves Tyler Ferguson as the No. 1 quarterback heading into preseason practice. Ferguson, a junior-college transfer from California, beat out Bench this spring. What may be more difficult for the redshirt sophomore is holding off Christian Hackenberg for the starting job. Hackenberg is Penn State's most acclaimed quarterback recruit since Tony Sacca in 1988. He will be given a chance to win the starting job this August. Invited walk-ons Austin Whipple and D.J. Crook provide depth.
Zach Zwinak, Bill Belton and redshirt freshman Akeel Lynch all figure to get significant playing time this season. Zwinak broke out with a 1,000-yard season in 2012, but coach Bill O'Brien said he prefers using multiple backs. Zwinak gives Penn State a power runner while Belton is more elusive. Lynch, one of the stars of the Blue-White game, is a combination of the two. Pat Zerbe is the starting fullback but the position could be de-emphasized this season.
Allen Robinson should be one of the top wideouts in the country provided Penn State has a quarterback capable of getting the All-American candidate the ball. Brandon Moseby-Felder also returns after emerging in the second half of last season. Eugene Lewis, a terrific athlete who played quarterback in high school, could be a future star. He is poised to make an impact after redshirting last season so he could learn the nuances of playing wideout.
Expect O'Brien to use two-tight end sets a lot this season given how loaded Penn State is at the position. Kyle Carter had a breakout season in 2012. South Allegheny graduate Jesse James caught five touchdown passes as a true freshman and has the size and speed to exploit mismatches. Matt Lehman, a productive former walk-on, also returns and O'Brien has raved about redshirt freshman Brent Wilkerson. Penn State may redshirt blue-chip recruit Adam Breneman given its depth at tight end.
One of the real strengths of the 2012 team has a chance to be very good again this season. Three starters are back, including guards John Urschel, an All-Big Ten pick in 2012, Fox Chapel graduate Miles Dieffenbach and mammoth left tackle Donovan Smith. West Mifflin's Adam Gress, the projected starter at right tackle, played more than 400 snaps last season, and center Ty Howle had as good a spring as any player on the team. Penn State should have quality depth here too.
Tackle DaQuan Jones is hoping to follow Devon Still and Jordan Hill in becoming the next anchor of the defensive line. Kyle Baublitz looks like the leading candidate to start alongside Jones, but he hasn't played much and there are also questions about depth at tackle. Penn State is set at end. Deion Barnes is one of the premier pass rushers in the Big Ten while C.J. Olaniyan, Anthony Zettel and Brad Bars should also make the position a strength. Zettel will also play some tackle.
The starters are surprisingly strong even with the losses of outside linebackers Michael Mauti and Gerald Hodges. Glenn Carson is solid in the middle and Canon-McMillan graduate Mike Hull is a proven playmaker while redshirt freshman Nyeem Wartman looks like he will be one as well. Depth is a huge concern. Ben Kline hasn't played much, and he is the most experienced of those behind the starters. Incoming recruit Brandon Bell will probably have to play right away.
Adrian Amos, Penn State's most versatile defensive player, has moved to safety. The junior will team on the back end of the defense with Malcolm Willis or Stephen Obeng-Agyapong. O'Brien likes his young cornerbacks enough to move Amos and create two openings at the position. Sophomores Jordan Lucas, DaQuan Davis and converted wide receiver Trevor Williams will battle for the two starting jobs in the fall. All played as true freshman. Malik Golden, another converted wide receiver, provides depth at safety.
Kicker Sam Ficken authored one of the best comeback stories last season, rebounding from a miserable start to make his final 10 field-goal attempts capped by an overtime game-winner against Wisconsin. O'Brien said he expects Ficken and returning punter Alex Butterworth to be better in 2013. Depth issues will challenge O'Brien as he tries to field strong kickoff and punt coverage teams. Shaler graduate Jesse Della Valle is a trusted punt returner. A number of players, including Lynch and freshman Richy Anderson could return kickoffs.