With Michael Mauti, Gerald Hodges, Jordan Hill and the rest of the memorable 2012 senior class out the door, questions about Penn State’s new ringleaders naturally arose heading into spring practice.
And although head coach Bill O’Brien admitted there are several areas with question marks surrounding them, he said team leadership will not be one of them.
The Nittany Lions got the first of 15 spring practices under their belt Monday, and O’Brien said competent leaders have already stepped forward, such as rising seniors John Urschel and Glenn Carson. The second-year coach said the team is not very deep at some positions — linebacker especially — but hopes to see this improve as the 2013 season draws closer.
O’Brien said the general sentiment among the team is excitement as players enjoy the early chance to build on a 2012 season that saw many ups but also quite a few downs.
“It was a really good start to a new era. We owe a lot to the  seniors, and we won eight of the last 10,” O’Brien said.
“But at the end of the day, we were 8-4. We started the season 0-2. We have a lot to improve on. We have a lot of work to do. We have a lot of positions that need to get better. We need to find some depth.”
The linebacker corps took a huge hit this offseason, graduating two NFL-caliber players in Mauti and Hodges.
Carson will return to his middle linebacker position where he finished last season with 85 tackles and Mike Hull, who totaled 58 tackles as a redshirt sophomore in 2012, will join him with a decent amount of experience under his belt.
O’Brien said he expects rising redshirt freshman Nyeem Wartman, who suffered an injury early last season, to also see significant playing time. But, other than these three, he said few other viable options have surfaced.
“All three of those guys have had excellent offseasons. Glenn Carson and Mike Hull have really worked hard,” O’Brien said.
“Nyeem, I think he worked very hard this offseason and we’re looking forward to seeing what he can do. But, there’s certainly not a lot of depth there, so it’s going to be imperative for myself to monitor that and make sure we’re not giving those guys too many reps.”
O’Brien said despite the team’s lack of depth at a few positions, he said he doesn’t feel the effects of the NCAA sanctions — which decreased the traditional number of incoming freshmen — are playing a factor in this area yet.
He added the limited depth is similar to the beginning of last season, but admitted this will soon become a more serious situation in future seasons as the limitations continue to take their toll on recruiting.
“I think we’re still dealing with a little bit of the same situation we dealt with in 2012,” O’Brien said. “I think when it gets really difficult is 2014, 2015, 2016. I think in 2013, even though we have some depth issues, we don’t have to get down to 65 [total scholarship players] until 2016.”
Regardless, O’Brien said all the incoming freshmen will have a shot at competing for playing time in the fall, including quarterback Christian Hackenberg, who some have speculated may redshirt.
O’Brien said the highly-touted commit will “certainly be in the mix” with rising sophomore Steven Bench and junior college transfer Tyler Ferguson once he joins them on campus in a few months.
“You bring these guys in that are on full scholarship, and unless they’re injured, you’re going to put them into the mix and let them compete and you’re going to play the best players,” O’Brien said. “You’re looking to go out there and put your best football team on the field on Aug. 31.”
Linebacker Ben Kline will not participate in spring practice (shoulder). Tight end Kyle Carter (wrist) and safety Stephen Obeng-Agypang (shoulder) will be limited and not play full-contact in the spring. Freshman tight end Adam Breneman, who tore his Anterior cruciate ligament last summer, will fully participate in spring practice, but the coaching staff will monitor him closely.