The Bill O'Brien era is officially underway in State College, Pa.
The journey to claim the 2012 national title begins in February, March and April, as 124 college football teams open up spring practice over the next three months. Athlon will preview some of the top teams and storylines across the nation, as the countdown to 2012 inches closer.
Penn State Nittany Lions 2012 Spring Preview
2011 Record: 9-4, 6-2 Big Ten
Spring practice: March 26-April 21
Returning Starters: Offense – 3, Defense – 4
Passing: Matt McGloin, 1,571 yards, 8 TD, 5 INT
Rushing: Silas Redd, 1,241 yards, 7 TD
Receiving: Justin Brown, 35 rec., 517 yards, 2 TD
Tackles: Gerald Hodges, 106
Sacks: Sean Stanley and Gerald Hodges, 4.5
Interceptions: Five tied with one
Redshirts to watch: OL Angelo Mangiro, DT Anthony Zettel, OL Donovan Smith, DE Deion Barnes, LB Ben Kline, OL Ryan Nowicki
Sept. 1 Ohio
Sept. 8 at Virginia
Sept. 15 Navy
Sept. 22 Temple
Sept. 29 at Illinois
Oct. 6 Northwestern
Oct. 13 Bye Week
Oct. 20 at Iowa
Oct. 27 Ohio State
Nov. 3 at Purdue
Nov. 10 at Nebraska
Nov. 17 Indiana
Nov. 24 Wisconsin
Offensive Strength: Silas Redd. The second-team all-Big Ten tailback proved as an underclassmen in his first season as the starter that his recruiting hype was warranted. He hit a wall down the stretch but Redd is a great piece for new head coach Bill O'Brien to build his offense around.
Offensive Weakness: Where to begin? The quarterback position has been the issue in Happy Valley for years and it appears, barring massive development from an incumbent, that 2012 won't be any different.
Defensive Strength: State College has been referred to as Linebacker-U for years and this Penn State squad will do nothing to dispel that. A deep and talented group returns seven of the top eight tacklers and could be one of the best in the Big Ten — if it can stay healthy.
Defensive Weakness: The defensive line has to be rebuilt this spring without Big Ten Defensive Lineman of the Year Devon Still and top sack artist Jack Crawford. However, the secondary must replace all four starters and could see a scheme change (what will happen to the Hero position), so the back end of this unit is the likely weak spot.
Spring Storylines Facing the Nittany Lions:
1. The healing process in State College has to continue and getting back onto the field is a step in the right direction. O'Brien has to insulate his team and create an internal rallying cry in order to build unity in the face of what will most assuredly be a very public and lurid trial of Jerry Sandusky. All while dealing with a fanbase that is seeing a new coaching staff on the practice field for the first time in nearly 50 years. Athletic competition can possess overwhelming rejuvenating powers and Nittany Lions fans have to be happy to see their team practicing for the first time since the end of the darkest season in Penn State history. For a coach who has yet to see most of his players practice, anything — and anyone — goes this spring in Happy Valley.
2. The former Patriots offensive coordinator's first order of business is finding a quarterback to run his offense. While installing his offense, he has made it clear that the position is up for grabs and he has two experienced options in Matt McGloin and Robert Bolden. Uber-recruit and upside athlete Paul Jones, who has yet to play a snap due to academic issues, will also figure heavily into the mix. The 6-foot-3, 245-pounder might have the most raw ability but lacks time under center. Both Bolden and McGloin have had opportunities to seize the starting job over the last two seasons and both have failed to make a statement. Which is probably why O'Brien hosted former Maryland passer Danny O'Brien on the first day of spring camp. However, O'Brien chose to sign with division rival Wisconsin shortly after his visit to Happy Valley. There are options on this roster — how good they are remains to be seen.
3. Three All-Big Ten honorable mention offensive linemen have departed the roster and filling these holes will play a huge role in getting better quarterback play. There is no lack of talent but center Matt Stankiewitch is the only returning blocker with extensive starting experience. This could be a totally reworked group and finding the right pieces to protect his quarterback and star tailback will be priority No. 2 for O'Brien this spring. Mike Farrell, Donovan Smith, Adam Gress and John Urschel need to step into bigger, more prominent roles for a unit that, frankly, is a large unknown as this stage of the season.
4. There will be four new starters in the defensive secondary so settling on a defensive back rotation is at the top of the defensive wish list. The cornerback position appears to be in better (or more stable) shape than safety. Senior Stephon Morris will slide into one starting spot while super-sophomore Adrian Amos, who exhibited tremendous upside in 12 games as a true freshman, will snag the other job. Receiver Curtis Drake was moved to cornerback this spring, which figures to help with the depth and competition. But at safety, defensive back coach John Butler knows little after junior Malcolm Lewis. This is clearly the biggest unknown on the defensive side of the ball for Penn Staters.
5. Replacing Still and Crawford up front on the defense will be tough. However, Sean Stanley (30 tackles, 4.5 sacks) and Jordan Hill (59 tackles, 3.5 sacks) form a solid 1-2 inside-outside punch. Talented names like C.J. Olaniyan, Evan Hailes, DaQuan Jones and James Terry need to grow into the highly-touted recruits scouts projected. The Nittany Lions will also get some help in the form of end Pete Massaro, who missed all of last season due to an injury.
By Braden Gall (@BradenGall on Twitter)
Related Content Links:
Big Ten 2012 Schedule Analysis
Top Transfers to Watch in 2012
Early Top 25 for 2012
College Football's Top Spring Storylines for 2012
College Football's Coaches on the Hot Seat
2012 Very Early Big Ten Predictions