STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — Bill O’Brien says the “top end” of Penn State’s roster hasn’t changed much since last year. Go up and down the starting lineup, and it’s hard to say that the Nittany Lions, who won eight of their last 10 games in 2012, aren’t one of the Big Ten’s more talented squads.
The other end of the roster, by both circumstances beyond the team’s control and the coaches’ own doing, is a lot different.
Because of NCAA sanctions and heavy graduation losses, the Nittany Lions will enter the 2013 season with 65 scholarship players. The rest of the roster is composed of walk-ons (run-ons, as O’Brien calls them), many of those freshmen. Penn State is hoping for some positive contributions from these new players — as well as a talented group of freshmen scholarship players — but keeping the veterans healthy will be paramount if the Nittany Lions are able to maintain their winning ways, and Penn State is working with, or around, its depth in various ways as it prepares for the 2013 season.
That starts in practice.
“One thing that we try to do is get our No. 1 groups quality, good reps. We don’t want to give them 50 million reps in a practice, but we try to get them quality, good reps, and then we try to get the younger players a lot of reps, get those guys in there and let them play football,” O’Brien said. “And then maybe at the end of practice, instead of doing gassers where we run back and forth on the field, we feel like our team is in decent condition, maybe we’ll do more upper-body conditioning, things like that. We try to be creative every single day to make sure our team is as healthy as possible for Syracuse.”
The coaches are also working to develop — and recruit — players who can play multiple positions. Defensive lineman Anthony Zettel will see time at end and tackle. Safeties Adrian Amos and Stephen Obeng-Agyapong could play some linebacker in certain situations. Garry Gilliam, who was a tight end last season but is now an offensive tackle and nearly 30 pounds heavier, could still play tight end in some sets.
Penn State will also do plenty of “Thud” sessions during the preseason, where defenders are permitted to hit the ball carriers but not tackle them the whole way to the ground. The coaches are doing what they can do eliminate the opportunities for their players to get hurt.
But it is football, after all, and the Nittany Lions haven’t had helmets on since the spring.
“These guys, these are Penn State players, man,” O’Brien said, describing one of those initial Thud sessions. “They like to hit, so there was contact.”
SPOTLIGHT ON SEPTEMBER: Penn State opens the season on Aug. 31 in MetLife Stadium against a Syracuse team that lost coach Doug Marrone and quarterback Ryan Nassib, then hosts Eastern Michigan the following week before manageable but intriguing home games against Central Florida — and Bill O’Brien’s former boss, George O’Leary — and Kent State. The UCF and Kent State offenses could be solid tests for what should be a talented but not deep Penn State defense. The Nittany Lions’ young quarterbacks might need a few games to warm up before heading into conference action.
KEYS TO SUCCESS: The Nittany Lions have the Big Ten’s top group of tight ends and arguably its best wide receiver in Allen Robinson, plus 1,000-yard rusher Zach Zwinak, home-run threat Akeel Lynch and a veteran offensive line. Finding a solid rotation of defensive tackles to complement stud DE Deion Barnes will be key, and though replacing LBs (and leaders) Michael Mauti and Gerald Hodges won’t be easy, Penn State is confident Glenn Carson and Mike Hull will keep “Linebacker U” in good stead.
AREAS OF CONCERN: Penn State will need solid play from a new right tackle and for its young quarterback to minimize mistakes. The NCAA sanctions have begun to rob the team of depth, particularly along the defensive line and at linebacker. CBs Trevor Williams and Jordan Lucas are true sophomores who logged little time last season (Williams was a wide receiver until the spring), and Penn State’s special teams — both the kicking and return units — left plenty to be desired last season.
TOP NEWCOMER: Christian Hackenberg: Penn State’s five-star signee will have every opportunity to win the Nittany Lions starting QB job. He passed for 2,144 yards and 24 touchdowns, with nine interceptions, last season at Fork Union (Va.) Military Academy.