I know we have nine more months to do this. But I can’t help it.
My breakdown of positions where Penn State football will be better, worse, or the same in 2014.
Hackenberg next year will probably resemble McGloin’s grasp and control of O’Brien’s offense, with even better physical tools. Hopefully Ferguson sticks around, and blue-chip freshman O’Connor should arrive in January and add nice depth.
All three top backs return. While I’d like to see O’Brien use them each a little differently when it comes to schemes, overall you have to like what we have back there. Don’t forget we’re adding at least 2 more freshmen running backs, and this is one of those rare positions where a phenom can crash the party.
Assuming Allen Robinson is gone, this unit will need a new go-to guy to step up. Eugene Lewis gave us a nice teaser in the Wisconsin game, but the whole unit—including a freshman or two from our stellar recruiting bunch—needs to emerge. Hackenberg seems like the kind of leader who will help this group grow.
Barring another spate of injuries, Penn State will boast the best group of tight ends in the country. Period. We might even platoon another one to the OT position (like Gilliam last year) or to DE (for greater depth).
The biggest surprise of Penn State football in the past decade was the 2012 offensive line. I’m not saying it was our best line, but the fact that numerous first-year starters came in and excelled was an anomaly for PSU. Despite that tip of the hat to S&C coach Fitzgerald and OL coach McWhorter, we simply don’t have the depth next year (or the talent) of even the 2013 line. This is my No. 1 area of concern in 2014, bar none.
“But wait…DaQuan Jones graduates this year,” you say. That’s true, and Baublitz is moving on as well. But Jones was nowhere near as disruptive as Devon Still or Jordan Hill, and the DL is the one position where experience and age reap major dividends from year to year. At least 10 players saw significant snaps on the DL this season, and a few young stars should bolster this unit (Sickels, Holley, Barney?).
Losing only one player from the two-deep (two, if you count tweener, Stephen Obeng-agyapong) would normally mean an improvement the following year, but the depth is still scary thin. One can hope that a healthy Mike Hull will finally emerge as the star we’ve hoped for. A few others showed promise amidst growing pains, but perspective is needed–in the glory years of our LB corps, kids like Wartman and Bell wouldn't have even smelled the field as true freshmen.
It wasn’t uncommon to see freshmen or sophomore DBs on the field under Paterno, but his schemes put far less pressure on the youngsters to perform. They had to keep the play in front of them and make a tackle; rarely did a youngster get exposed with the "bend, don't break" strategy. Our current crop of “not-ready-for-primetime performers” took their lumps this season, but almost all return next season. And if you follow recruiting, you know that our best new athletes are coming in as WRs or DBs, so we could see a talent influx help this unit.
I’d love to argue for "better" on this one. Many could contend that it couldn’t be worse. But as long as we’re so severely limited by sanctions, special teams will be populated by run-ons and inexperienced freshmen. Some of my biggest cheers in 2013 came on kickoff touchbacks (for either team). That’s sad.
Conclusion—My math (not quite at John Urschel’s level but few of us can be) says we have 5 betters, 2 sames, and 2 worses of our returning units for 2014. So, we should be better next season.
Other pieces of bubble gum wisdom—we had a very bad turnover margin this season but also very few starts lost to injury. Which stat means more? Hard to say. Some of those turnovers seemed awfully crushing, but would the game have even been close enough to make those costly mistakes if key players (say Robinson or Urschel or Jones or Carson) had missed entire games or stretches of games through the year? I’m going to say that our unluckiness with turnovers equaled our luckiness with injuries.
While I firmly believed that 11-1 was possible in 2012, I have a hard time thinking that this crew could have been better than 9-3 this season. Yes, Nebraska, Indiana, UCF, and Minnesota were all winnable. But Illinois, Michigan, and Wisconsin were certainly losable.
Our ceiling should be a bit higher in 2013 (around 10-2). Only Ohio State seems unwinnable, but Michigan State and Michigan will be steep challenges. The rest of the schedule seems extremely pedestrian.
The three keys to a stellar season next season: Hackenberg’s development, McWhorter and Fitzgerald’s ability to conjure up a stout OL, and health at the LB position. If all three of those happen proficiently, Nittany Lions fans might be poised for New Year’s Six bowl game*.
*Obviously the NCAA hasn't reversed this sanction yet, but I'm 95% sure that PSU will be allowed to compete for the post-season in 2014 (with an announcement happening no later than next August).
Looking for a great stocking stuff for the PSU fans in your life? Check out Ryan Murphy's Ring The Bell: The Twenty-two Greatest Penn State Victories of Our Lives (Fathers Press, 2012) on Amazon or other ebook platforms.