There was a football game Sunday night and it was not played in Canada or an arena. Sure, it’s the NFL Preseason, but that means college ball is right around the corner. Rejoice.
Penn State begins preseason camp on Monday. Bill O’Brien and staff have under four weeks to prepare for an Aug. 31 clash with Syracuse at MetLife Stadium, so here are seven questions to keep in mind in the next month. The team returns 16 starters and 37 letterwinners.
1. Who’s the man under center?
Gone are the days of “Rob Bolden OR Matt McGloin” on the depth chart with little certainty surrounding Penn State’s signal caller, and that’s a beautiful thing. That 2010 and 2011 rotation just didn’t work.
O’Brien has made it clear from day one that he believes in playing one quarterback and in 2013 it will be incoming freshman Christian Hackenberg or JUCO transfer Tyler Ferguson. Either way, there’s going to be a learning curve and the transition won’t be seamless. O’Brien said he plans to name a starter about halfway through camp.
The beauty of O’Brien’s conviction, though, is that he’ll play the quarterback who gives Penn State the best chance to win on Aug. 31 at MetLife Stadium no matter what, and every fan should be able to appreciate that regardless of which player wins the job.
2. Will Zach Zwinak start at running back Week 1?
The best part, in my opinion, of O’Brien’s offense is balance. Sure, Matt McGloin put up record-setting numbers last year, but this is far from a pass-heavy offense.
Instead, Penn State will be able to establish the run early and often, starting with Zach Zwinak and his downhill style. He ended last season as the team’s No. 1 back, rushing for 100 yards in each of his final four games.
The redshirt junior did suffer a significant wrist injury during the annual Blue-White game, but O’Brien said in July he expects Zwinak to participate in the second half of preseason camp. As long as he’s healthy, there’s no reason Zwinak won’t get every opportunity to keep his job.
3. How much of a factor will Bill Belton be?
Color me confused on this one. Belton began 2012 as the team’s No. 1 running back, but then because of an ankle injury, fell down the depth chart and never climbed back up.
He ran for a career-high 103 yards and three scores in Week 8 against Iowa last season, but carried the ball just 11 times the rest of the season and got a touch in only two of the team’s final five games.
If Belton wanted to transfer, he would have done it already, because he’ll now have to sit out a year if he leaves. So it appears he’s here to stay. But redshirt freshman Akeel Lynch --- who ran for 83 yards and a score on 13 carries in the Blue-White game --- will likely see the ball plenty this fall. It will be interesting to see how much Belton, a wide receiver in his freshman year, is used over the next two seasons.
He's listed at the No. 2 back on the post-spring depth chart ahead of Lynch.
4. How did the transfer window affect Penn State?
Speaking of transferring, the free period for players to leave without penalty imposed by the NCAA has now come and gone. But nobody is hung up on the names Silas Redd, Justin Brown, Anthony Fera and Khairi Fortt, or any others.
There’s no doubt that Penn State lost talent because of the NCAA’s sanctions. But it was impossible to expect O’Brien and his staff to retain everybody with so much uncertainty surrounding the program.
All O’Brien had to do was avoid a mass exodus --- which was possible after an 0-2 start --- and he did that. His players trust him and bought in. That kept enough talent around to get the Nittany Lions eight wins in 2012.
5. How good is Penn State, and what should we expect in 2013?
This is a good football team. There is talent all over the place, especially at the offensive skill positions.
But fielding a team with 20 fewer scholarship players than everyone else is difficult. During the next few seasons, we’ll see the effects of it.
If healthy, there’s no reason to think Penn State can’t win eight games and finish second in the Leaders Division behind Ohio State, assuming Ferguson or Hackenberg is at least competent under center --- which O’Brien made McGloin quickly.
Perhaps the most encouraging thing Penn State can take away from 2012 is that the team was significantly better walking off the field after a win over Wisconsin than they were before a loss to Ohio.
Remember in that opening day loss when the Bobcats shutout Penn State in the second half? Seventeen points in the final two quarters and overtime against Wisconsin was a far cry from that. This team improved over the course of 12 games, and if it spills over into 2013, Penn State will compete.
6. How much linebacker depth is not enough linebacker depth?
"Linebacker U" has become "Linebacker Who" with the departures of Michael Mauti and Gerald Hodges.
Glenn Carson, Mike Hull and Nyeem Wartman will be a solid first three, but after that, Penn State has just three scholarship players --- Ben Kline, Gary Wooten and true freshman Brandon Bell. An injury to any one of these six would handicap the defense greatly.
Both Kline and Wooten have made significant strides, Hull, Carson and O’Brien all indicated in the spring, so look for one to establish himself this month, although both should see a healthy amount of playing time. Don’t be surprised if safety Adrian Amos sees some time there, as well. Speaking of defensive backs…
7. Where is Penn State the deepest?
Tight end. First-team All-Big Ten selection Kyle Carter leads the way, with Jesse James, Matt Lehman, Brett Wilkerson and freshman Adam Breneman behind, although all four will see targets (unless Breneman redshirts). Don’t be surprised to see three or four-tight end sets this year. But, you probably already knew that, so let’s move on to No. 2.
By season’s end, it may be the secondary. This unit had the most question marks before last season, but now, there are both numbers and talent returning.
The Nits are three deep at safety --- Amos, Malcolm Willis and Stephen Obeng-Agyapong have nearly 100 games played between them. At cornerback, Jordan Lucas turned some heads in the spring, while Trevor Williams, DaQuan Davis and Anthony Smith, all underclassmen, will see time at cornerback.
Steven Petrella can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 814-865-1828. Follow him on Twitter at @steve_petrella.