Penn State's Zach Zwinak emerged on the ground last season and should be a featured player in 2013. Photo: USA Today Sports
Spring Practice Opens: March 18
Spring game: April 20
There could have been any number of scripts to Penn State's 2012 season, but nobody could have possibly imagined the one that was written in O'Brien's debut season as a head coach. Now the question is whether or not the sequel will suck.
Year two of the new era of Penn State football should be no less short on intrigue with Bill O'Brien at the helm. A sluggish start to the 2012 season dug a hole for Penn State but the Nittany Lions found a way to battle back through all sorts of adversity along the way, ending their season with a thrilling overtime victory against eventual Big Ten champion Wisconsin.
The spring opens for Penn State with a number of questions and positions seemingly up for competition. That suits O'Brien and his competitive nature just fine, as he hopes it continues to bring out the best in veterans and rising players looking to prove something to the coaches.
Stability Factor (1 =Chaos, 5 = Rock Solid): 2.9
Penn State will enter the spring with a number of questions to answer. Which unproven quarterback will be able to step in and prove to be a nice offensive leader to fill in before Christian Hackenberg takes over? Can the running backs prove they can hold on to the football? Tight ends aside, who helps out Allen Robinson in the open field? After losing a handful of solid defensive leaders, who steps up to become a leader in a year that sees yet another defensive coordinator staff change? Will the young tight ends continue to excel in the new offensive system? Will anyone be able to return a kickoff or punt with consistent positive results?
There is no questioning Penn State's overall mental toughness at this point, but there are some legitimate concerns to address this spring.
Under the Microscope: John Butler, Defensive Coordinator
Penn State will be opening the spring with a new defensive coordinator for the third straight season. After Ted Roof decided to take the same position at Georgia Tech, O'Brien opted to move safeties coach and special teams coordinator John Butler to fill the spot on the staff, over longtime Penn State assistants and Joe Paterno holdovers Ron Vanderlinden (linebackers coach) and Larry Johnson Sr. (defensive line coach). This will be Butler's first chance to prove himself as a defensive coordinator but he has a solid track record as a safeties coach and he figures to keep many of the schematics of the Penn State defense in sync with what the returning players are already accustomed to.
Butler gives Penn State's defense a bit of a younger presence on the sidelines, compared to previous defensive coordinators. How that plays in to anything, if it does at all, remains to be seen but having solid assistants helping out on the defense will surely help the transition for Butler.
Locked and Loaded: Tight End
For years the tight end position had been one of consistent disappointment and underperforming at Penn State. That is no longer the case as the O'Brien offensive philosophy has brought the importance and impact of the position back in to focus at Penn State, and having young players blossom in the offense at one of O'Brien's signature positions helps.
Penn State is so deep at tight end that senior Garry Gilliam is being moved to offensive tackle this spring to get more playing time and open up the offense to more options. Sophomores Kyle Carter and Jesse James and senior Matt Lehman were three of Penn State's top five receivers last season, and all are back to play a role in 2013. Penn State also has redshirt freshman Brent Wilkerson and sophomore Bryce Wilson looking to chip in where available. As if that was not enough, Penn State also adds one of the top tight end recruits in the nation, in-state prospect Adam Breneman, who is already enrolled and on campus to make him eligible for the spring. Breneman suffered a torn ACL forcing him to miss his senior season in high school, but all indications suggest he is making excellent progress. How much he is involved this spring will be watched closely.
Jockeying for Position: Special Teams
Perhaps the biggest room for open competition this spring should be on special teams, across the board. With reduced scholarships hampering what Penn State is normally capable of doing with the roster, special teams could be very important. Last year left a lot to be desired on special teams. Remember, the season started with a starting linebacker (Gerald Hodges) setting up to return kicks. A starting linebacker, returning kicks.
That will (likely) not be the case this season as O'Brien gets a better feel for his available options in year two. The early season struggles of kicker Sam Ficken became symbolic of the perceived state of Penn State football but he did end the season on a high note. But punting and kick/punt returning at Penn State absolutely needs to get better in a hurry.
Name to Know: Bill Belton, Running Back
Last summer it became pretty clear that O'Brien and the staff were hyping up Bill Belton as their top guy running the football. Following the transfer of Silas Redd to USC after the NCAA sanctions were levied, O'Brien had few options. Getting Belton ready to carry the load was almost mandatory, but as the season progressed Belton fell out of the good graces of O'Brien due to a lack of production and reported questionable work ethic. As a result, third stringer Zach Zwinak emerged in the offense and ended the year with 1,000 rushing yards. Call this a gut instinct, but look to see if Belton can battle back and stay healthy and work hard enough to win back a significant role in the Penn State offense, which could be in some early need of a solid running game. He has the speed and ability to shift his momentum. Can he hold on to the football and prove he can be dependable on a routine basis? That will be the key.
Spring will be a success if...: Quarterback Steven Bench proves he is capable of leading the offense in 2013
Last spring Penn State had Matt McGloin, Rob Bolden and Paul Jones on the roster competing for the starting job under center. McGloin is now hoping to enter the NFL, Bolden transferred to LSU and Jones transferred to Robert Morris. So, what now?
Heralded five-star quarterback recruit Christian Hackenberg may certainly be the quarterback of the future for Penn State, and it would not be a total shock to see him starting by the end of the season, but right now it should be up to sophomore Steven Bench to keep the ship afloat on offense.
Bench was very limited last season in relief of Matt McGloin, with the thought process possibly being to try and preserve a redshirt season if possible for Bench. The lack of depth at quarterback led to O'Brien bringing in one of the top junior college quarterbacks with Tyler Ferguson. Bench or Ferguson figure to fill the gap between McGloin and Hackenberg, but with a year in the system watching from the sidelines it should be Bench's job to lose this spring (Hackenberg does not join the team until the summer). With a strong showing this spring and a decent spring game, Bench could provide some confidence in O'Brien to roll with him in 2013. If he does, Penn State may be able to get off to a good start.