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August 2, 2009
THE SCHEME: Penn State usually runs a traditional two-back scheme, but the Nittany Lions are playing more of a spread scheme dubbed the "Spread HD" to suit the talents of QB Daryll Clark.
STAR POWER: Clark emerged on the scene last year as one of the nation's most dynamic dual-threat quarterbacks, conjuring memories of ex-Penn State great Michael Robinson. But, unlike Robinson, Clark is a polished passer. Clark was extremely efficient, but he failed in crunch time during a crushing loss at Iowa and he got hurt in a key win over Ohio State and didn't quarterback the team on the winning drive. Still, look for Clark to be the top quarterback in the Big Ten as he continues to improve.
IMPACT NEWCOMER: QB Kevin Newsome enrolled early and took part in spring drills. He impressed with his array of running skills and burgeoning arm. Now, the true freshman finds himself No. 2 on the depth chart because of the transfer of Pat Devlin to Delaware.
WATCH FOR HIM TO EMERGE: The line needs to work in three new starters. And none will be more key than T DeOn'tae Pannell, who will play on the left side with Gerald Cadogan gone. Pannell was one of just four true freshmen to play last season, when he showed athletic ability and power in his 6-foot-5, 313-pound frame. He could be special.
STRONGEST AREA: The backfield is loaded, beginning with Clark under center. Look for the Lions to lean on RBs Evan Royster, Brandon Beachum and Stephfon Green, who is rehabbing a broken leg suffered in the Rose Bowl, until the passing game rounds into form. Royster is a potential top-10 NFL draft pick who has it all.
BIGGEST PROBLEM: Penn State lost three standout receivers with the departures of Derrick Williams, Jordan Norwood and Deon Butler. That trio combined for 132 catches for 1,932 yards and 17 TDs last year. Penn State will turn to Graham Zug (11 catches), Brett Brackett (13), Derek Moye (three) and Chaz Powell (two) to step up. Powell and Moye are the speedsters of the bunch. The Lions may use more two-tight end sets to take advantage of the talents of Mickey Shuler and Andrew Quarless.
THE SCHEME: The Nittany Lions employ at 4-3 scheme that flexes in and out of many different fronts and isn't afraid to bring pressure from various angles.
STAR POWER: LB Navorro Bowman is a quick-striking athlete who covers lots of ground but must avoid off-field issues. His speed allows him to make plays from sideline to sideline. And with Sean Lee back from an injury that kept him out last year, Bowman should have more room to roam with offenses having another big-time talent to block for yet another standout Penn State linebacking corps.
IMPACT NEWCOMER: S Gerald Hodges enrolled early and impressed during spring drills. He is a heavy hitter with athletic skills who at the least will be a headhunter on special teams. If he continues to develop quickly, Hodges could become part of the rotation in a rebuilt secondary.
WATCH FOR HIM TO EMERGE: With all of its top ends gone, Penn State needs some pass rushers to emerge. That could be the cue for E Jack Crawford. He was born in England and came to the U.S. in 2005 with the intent of playing basketball. But he joined the football team in 2006 and was an instant hit. Crawford has a quick, explosive first step and power in his 6-5, 262-pound body.
STRONGEST AREA: T Jared Odrick is the lynchpin on what will be one of the Big Ten's top lines. He's a big, physical presence who can stuff the run and make plays in the backfield. Ollie Ogbu and Abe Koroma will join Odrick on the interior. Yes, Penn State will miss Es Aaron Maybin, Maurice Evans and Josh Gaines, but staffers are excited about Crawford, Jerome Hayes, Kevion Latham and Eric Latimore.
BIGGEST PROBLEM: All eyes are on a secondary that must replace all four starters. It's vital that CB A.J. Wallace provides leadership. He's the most experienced veteran and is a quick athlete with playmaking ability. CBs Knowledge Timmons and D'Anton Lynn, who turned heads as a true freshman, will compete to play opposite Wallace. S Drew Astorino has shown a nose for the ball.
The Lions are in good shape punting with the return of Jeremy Boone, who led the Big Ten with a 43-yard average. However, K Kevin Kelly is gone, and he was money. Former walk-on Collin Wagner is slated to take over. Cross your fingers. There are plenty of options in the return game, but it will be difficult to duplicate the production of Williams. Green and Powell will run back kickoffs, but a punt return man is needed.
What more can be said about Joe Paterno, who is the Football Bowl Subdivision's all-time win king? Earlier this decade, it looked like the game had passed him by. Now, JoePa has led PSU to two Big Ten titles in the past four years. And another could be on the way. Tom Bradley is one of the top defensive coordinators in America and deserves to get the job when JoePa retires. Know this: During the Lions' slumber earlier this decade, the defense never waned. Credit Bradley. Galen Hall has done a great job coordinating the offense and amping up the ground game. But credit quarterbacks coach Jay Paterno and his "Spread HD" offense for helping make Clark a terrific passer. JayPa is a bright, young mind.
Can you say "12-0"? Penn State plays all four non-conference games at home against teams that - frankly - lack a pulse. And six of the first seven games are in comfy, cozy State College, Pa. Want more cushy goodness? Fellow Big Ten contenders Iowa and Ohio State visit. The lone potential potholes are trips to Illinois and Michigan State, but they aren't juggernauts. One mild concern: there is no off week, but that isn't always a bad thing if a team is on a roll ... and the Lions should be all season.
Finally, mercifully, the rumblings about Paterno retiring or being forced out are over. That's what an 11-2 record and a Big Ten championship will do for a coach. Paterno proved last season that he's indomitable. College football's Methuselah enters his 44th season as the sport's win king, threatening to distance himself from Bobby Bowden and further cement his legacy without being badgered about questions concerning his future. Paterno, 82, turned in one of his best performances in recent history last fall, leading the Lions to their second Big Ten title in four seasons and earning a three-year contract extension. And he did all of that by coaching most of the season from the press box while he recovered from a hip injury. Yes, the 2009 Nittany Lions have issues, but they could be buffeted by one of the nation's weakest schedules. What's it mean? Penn State may win the Big Ten again.
Tom Dienhart is a national senior writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.