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July 10, 2008
THE SCHEME: Since Galen Hall took over as coordinator in 2004, the offense has gotten more complex and varied after having grown stale and predictable. There is talk of the Nittany Lions using a spread scheme similar to the one Hall used so well in 2005 with Michael Robinson at the controls. Expect power running to remain a staple of the attack, but Hall needs to make maximum use of one of the Big Ten's most talented receiving corps, too.
STAR POWER: Deon Butler arrived on campus as a walk-on defensive back. Now a senior, Butler is one of the Big Ten's top receivers. He's neither big nor fast, but Butler is a reliable target whose attention to detail makes him stand out. Last year, he caught 47 passes for a team-high 633 yards with four TDs. Making Butler more dangerous is that he's surrounded by talented wide receivers Derrick Williams and Jordan Norwood, which means defenses often overlook him.
IMPACT NEWCOMER: Sophomore Evan Royster is a capable tailback, but he won't keep defensive coordinators awake at night. Redshirt freshman Stephfon Green will. Green is a go-the-distance back, possessing the type of speed not seen in these parts since Ki-Jana Carter. If Green learns the nuances of pass protection and develops patience behind his blockers, he could be a revelation as a playmaker.
IT'S HIS TIME: Guard Stefen Wisniewski is a true sophomore and the only new starter on the line. But staffers feel he may be Penn State's best blocker. Wisniewski is a powerful run blocker who plays with a nasty streak. And check out these bloodlines: Wisniewski's father, Leo, was a star defensive lineman for the Nittany Lions from 1979-81 who played four years in the NFL. Uncle Steve was a two-time All-American at Penn State (1985-88) and an eight-time All-Pro with the Raiders.
STRONGEST AREA: For much of this decade, the line was a soft spot. No more. This may be the best front wall in the Big Ten, thanks to the return of four starters. Pick a position, any position, and you'll find an all-league candidate. It all starts with squatty-but-powerful center A.Q. Shipley, an All-Big Ten honoree in 2007. Senior guard Rich Ohrnberger is a mauler, while the tackle tandem of Gerald Cadogan and Dennis Landolt is without peer in the conference.
WEAKEST AREA: The offense looks set except for one teensy problem: Who will be the quarterback? Daryll Clark and Pat Devlin are the contenders to replace the much-maligned Anthony Morelli. Each is mobile, capable of scrambling and executing the option play that figures to be a key weapon in the spread look. Devlin gets the edge as a passer, but Clark's experience and athleticism may give him the edge.
OVERVIEW: The last time Penn State used a spread was 2005. That's also the last time the Nittany Lions were an elite team. They went 11-1, won the Big Ten and beat Florida State in the Orange Bowl. The components are there for this offense to be as good as that '05 edition, which averaged 421.5 yards and 34.4 points. There's potential at tailback, a strong line and a standout receiving corps. That means it all will come down to how well the quarterback plays.
THE SCHEME: This is a dyed-in-the wool 4-3 alignment that has thrived on controlling the line of scrimmage and letting linebackers make plays. The Nittany Lions aren't blitz-happy, but they keep foes on their toes with a variety of packages within the scheme. The secondary also features a nice mix of coverages, with a knack for disguising looks.
STAR POWER: Junior end Maurice Evans emerged as a pass-rusher deluxe last season, earning first-team All-Big Ten accolades. He had 12.5 sacks, 21.5 tackles for loss and 54 tackles. He also had 55-yard fumble return for a touchdown. Evans, from Brooklyn, N.Y., is on his way to cementing a place alongside recent great Nittany Lions defenders such as Courtney Brown and LaVar Arrington.
IMPACT NEWCOMER: Tackle Devon Still hurt a knee last season and redshirted as a true freshman, but he impressed in spring drills. He has a great combination of speed and size, and the potential to be one of Penn State's best inside forces since Jimmy Kennedy.
IT'S HIS TIME: Free safety Anthony Scirrotto has much to prove coming off an uneven junior season that was followed by a suspension from the team for an off-campus incident. Now a senior and team captain, Scirrotto hopes to go out with a bang and recapture his All-Big Ten form of 2006. His leadership will be vital on a veteran defense that must stay focused. He is one of three returning starters in the secondary, though Tony Davis has moved from strong safety to cornerback.
STRONGEST AREA: You won't find a better line in the Big Ten – and maybe in the nation. Twelve players who saw action last season up front are back. The end duo of Evans and Josh Gaines is formidable, and Aaron Maybin is a terror off the bench. There are myriad interchangeable parts at tackle, headed by standout junior Jared Odrick, who was terrorizing foes until an injury ruined his season. Keep an eye on touted redshirt freshmen Still and Kevion Latham. The tackle ranks will be even stronger if Chris Baker and Phil Taylor return from suspensions – which is expected.
BIGGEST PROBLEM: There are some worries at linebacker with Dan Connor gone and standout Sean Lee out for the season after hurting his right knee in the spring. Lee ranked second in the Big Ten in stops last year and was the next great one at Linebacker U. That's a cue to Chris Colasanti to emerge at middle linebacker. He was one of just a handful of true freshman to play for Penn State in 2007. Tyrell Sales and Bani Gbadyu provide a good foundation for a linebacking corps that teems with potential. Navorro Bowman will see ample time if he is reinstated after his suspension.
OVERVIEW: This defense will be nasty. Yes, there are questions at linebacker with Lee – who some scouts feel was better than Connor – out for the season. But this is Linebacker U. They'll get something figured out with coordinator Tom Bradley pulling the levers and pressing the buttons. A boffo line will set the tone, with a solid secondary closing the deal on the back end.
Penn State is looking good here. The return game has Williams (punt) and cornerback A.J. Wallace (kickoff), who each can go the distance. Junior Jeremy Boone was a revelation in 2007, leading the Big Ten in punting after joining the team as a walk-on. Kicker Kevin Kelly is back for a fourth season. He's Mr. Reliable from inside 40 yards, but beyond that, all bets are off.
JoePa keeps on ticking, entering his 59th season at the school as either an assistant or head coach. The living legend has had a staredown with the school brass, which would like some resolution as to how much longer he will coach. Paterno, 81, won't budge or agree to a succession plan. The bottom line is this: Paterno's contract ends at the end of 2008, and he'll be coaching on a year-to-year basis as he continues his pursuit of Florida State's Bobby Bowden in the quest to be college football's all-time win king (Bowden leads 373-372). Paterno is little more than a figure head these days, buffeted by an astute collection of assistants led by Bradley and Hall. Offensive line coach Dick Anderson has been a loyal solider for more than 30 years to Paterno. Defensive line coach Larry Johnson is a killer recruiter, while linebackers coach Ron Vanderlinden is one of the best in the business.
Can you say "layup"? That's what the first four games are. Anything short of a 4-0 start will be a disappointment. The Big Ten menu is difficult. The Nittany Lions open Big Ten action at home against Illinois. A loss to the rising Illini, and it's not crazy to think Penn State could go into a protracted tailspin as they enter a tough five-game stretch that includes this monster three-game stint: at Wisconsin, vs. Michigan, at Ohio State. The Wolverines have been an especially troublesome foe, having won the past nine in the series. And a season-ending visit from Michigan State never is a treat.
There is ample reason to rev up your RV and follow the winding road to State College. This team will be good – really good if the quarterback play stabilizes. There is an understated resolve to this veteran team after two disappointing seasons and a spate of off-field issues. And don't discount the cantankerous Paterno. He'd love nothing more than to stick it to his bosses to show he still has it. At the least, Penn State should play in a "good" bowl. And the Nittany Lions could win the Big Ten.
Tom Dienhart is a national senior writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.