COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2012 PRESEASON TOP 25
Big Ten Leaders PREDICTION
HEAD COACH: Bill O'Brien, 8-4 (1 year) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Bill O'Brien | DEF. COORDINATOR: John Butler
The Nittany Lions need a quarterback after losing Matt McGloin following a highly productive senior season. There are two contenders for the job, a lightly recruited junior college transfer (Tyler Ferguson) and a true freshman who won’t arrive on campus until the summer (Christian Hackenberg). Starting a true freshman is never ideal, but Hackenberg, one of the top recruits in the nation, will be given every opportunity to win the job.
If coach Bill O’Brien is able to find a reliable passer, Penn State should be in good shape. Running back Zach Zwinak was a pleasant surprise last season, leading the team in rushing with 1,000 yards. The Lions also return Bill Belton in the backfield and figure to get a boost from the debut of redshirt freshman Akeel Lynch. With his 4.4-second 40-yard speed, Lynch could give Penn State’s running game the breakaway threat it lacked last year.
The Lions will have five of their top wideouts from last season, including Big Ten Receiver of the Year Allen Robinson. And they are just as deep at tight end, with Kyle Carter, Matt Lehman and Jesse James back. Carter was a revelation last year, catching 36 passes for 453 yards as a redshirt freshman.
Penn State has the makings of a solid offensive front, with guards John Urschel and Miles Dieffenbach and left tackle Donovan Smith all set to return. Urschel was a first-team All-Big Ten honoree as a junior, while Smith, a 6'5", 327-pound sophomore, is a potentially dominant tackle.
Veteran assistant coach Larry Johnson almost always finds a way to put a solid defensive front on the field. This year, he’ll need tackles DaQuan Jones and Austin Johnson to step up and Deion Barnes to continue the rapid ascent that began last season when he made six sacks and finished as Big Ten Freshman of the Year.
In the secondary, Penn State will be more experienced than last season, with junior cornerback Adrian Amos and senior safeties Stephen Obeng-Agyapong and Malcolm Willis all set to return. However, the defensive backs will need to be more opportunistic than last year when they combined to intercept only three passes.
The biggest concerns on defense are at linebacker, where depth is lacking following the graduation of Michael Mauti and Gerald Hodges. Junior outside linebacker Mike Hull is a rising star after finishing last season with 58 tackles, four sacks, two fumble recoveries, a blocked punt and an interception. In the middle, dependable senior Glenn Carson is the team’s top returning tackler with 85 stops last season.
After a rough start, Sam Ficken ended his sophomore season by making his last 10 field goal attempts. But he might have to fight off incoming walk-on Chris Gulla to keep his job. Gulla was rated 19th in the nation by one recruiting service and may get a chance to challenge both Ficken and starting punter Alex Butterworth. The Lions are desperate for some big plays in the return game. It wouldn’t be surprising to see a freshman or two get a tryout on punts and/or kickoffs.
The Nittany Lions have the potential to score a lot of points if they’re able to find a reliable quarterback. They averaged just under 30 points per game last season, and that was while everyone was adapting to a radically new offense. This year, the schemes are familiar and players have adjusted to strength coach Craig Fitzgerald’s modernized weight program, so optimism is running high. That said, Penn State may need all the points the offense can muster. An injury or two at linebacker, where depth is precariously low, could create major problems.