Big Ten Spring Football Round-Up: Penn State Nittany Lions

It's May, Spring games have come and gone, and people (many, many people in fact) have reacted to said games.  What are they saying?  What does it mean?  What questions were answered, and which ones remain?  Let's find out with a jaunt around the Big Ten's pre-eminent sites and check the pulse of the fans.  We'll start off with a game that I actually was able to take in on ESPN2: Penn State's Blue and White contest, so without further ado...

An estimated 55,000 showed up on what turned out to be a mostly decent day for Spring football in State College, PA. Bill Kline of The Morning Call wrote that the attendance would've been higher had there not been a national broadcast associated with the game...

The crowd of 55,000 was no doubt hurt by the telecast on TV. Otherwise, the nice weather would have resulted in a 70,000-plus crowd.

Right, OK then, I'm sure the team and program would happily trade that national exposure for a bigger attendance figure in the Spring game.  Also, Penn State would've scored several more TD's were it not for the biased officials.  Good to see that the Nittany Lion rationalization machine is already in mid-season form!

Black Shoe Diaries has your authoritative wrap-ups here and here.

Best summary quote: Jay Paterno with Adam Rittenberg over on ESPN:

"It's a spring game ... there's not a whole lot of weight in that," Jay Paterno said. "We kept it pretty vanilla."

Video wrapup:  

QB's:  After taking in the contest on TV I was... well curious about what the faithful would have to say regarding the performance of their quarterbacks.  My take was that Penn State's QB situation can be summed up thusly:

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Nick Sheridan and Steven Threet via blog.mlive.com

Kevin Newsome attempted a whole 11 passes last year, Matthew McGloin chucked two passes and neither of them found a receiver's hands.  The other guy, Paul Jones, is an early enrollee.  Mmhmm.

BSD offered this:

Obviously, the quarterback competition was the headliner, and as predicted, nothing was resolved.  Matt McGloin, supposedly the steady and accurate alternative to the more athletic and wild-throwing Kevin Newsome, did not make a favorable impression.  McGloin finished 10-for-23 with no touchdowns and two interceptions.  The interceptions were ugly -- a pair of passes into coverage that had absolutely no business being even contemplated, nevermind thrown.

For his part, Newsome was slightly better.  His stat line (5 for 12, 50 yards) doesn't reflect it and his quirky throwing motion (it's "quirky" until it causes a backbreaking interception during a real game, at which point it obviously becomes JayPa's fault) is rough on the eyes, but he seems to have a good enough command of the short passing game to stake his claim as the nominal starter until further notice.

"Good enough command of the short passing game" could also have been worded thusly: Newsome is only capable of throwing a ball accurately at a distance of five yards or less at this point.  His performance was underwhelming at best, and the fact that a 5 for 12 performance puts him in the nominal starter role obviously speaks volumes.  To play to Jay Pa's earlier quote, Penn State didn't do much in the way of getting Newsome out to the edges or showing much else of his highly-recruited talent from two years ago.  All in all Newsome looked rough and uncomfortable out there, misfiring on anything but the short screens, sometimes badly on the deep balls, but he also looked as though he was only going to get to run a certain amount of plays that would utilize his athleticism.  He was able to buy some time scrambling around the backfiled, but outside of that it seemed that PSU wasn't going to show much else of Mr. Newsome's legs.  The other factor weighing in here is that I would hazard a guess that most of what the Penn State D showed these QBs was pure vanilla straight up D.  Considering that alongside of the offense's struggles throughout the day doesn't exactly lend Penn State fans a lot of comfort at this point in time.  The wrinkle of course is that Paul Jones, a freshman, came in and tallied two TDs through the air which immediately puts him in the running for our coveted Carlos Brown Overly Inspiring Spring Performance award.  Need something else to temper that enthusiasm a tad?

Jones had an even more limited playbook than Newsome and McGloin, but threw against defenses consisting of true freshmen and career backups. [...]

Last spring, McGloin threw two touchdowns and went 9-13 for 111 yards and no interceptions.  Newsome also went 9-13 for 71 yards and a touchdown.  So let's not freak out over Paul Jones' performance, visually pleasant as it may have been.

There you go.  Mike with a nice summary there that lends a little perspective to Jones' 5 for 8 performance.  Want that enthusiasm back?  Well fear not, because here's Bill Kline again telling you that Paul Jones' deserves a "real chance".

I believe Jones has much more potential to develop into a legitimate passing threat, possibly even a great passer. So, if at first you are relying on the defense and run game, that in turn would give Jones time to develop. He could be a three- or four-year starter and a real force by, say, 2011.

The one thing lost amongst all of the analysis out there over these spring game QB performances is that regardless of who comes out ahead, they'll be toting a sum total of ZERO experience heading into an actual game situation, and take it from us, that's no fun.

So OK, what about the rest of the squad?

More after the jump...

 Offensive Line:

So from the QB position we move to perhaps the most important position group of any football team: the O-line.  With Penn State having to replace both tackles from last year's squad (Dennis Landolt and Ako Poti), this would be another area that will have a large impact on their chances for success this fall.  Usual Spring-Game-Disclaimer goes here involving the explanation that sacks are actually the ol' "touch rule" and the defense has the advantage of having played against this group all spring etc, etc.  For the game the O-line gave up 5 "sacks" and at times just didn't appear to be in sync.  BSD puts it bluntly:

The left offensive tackle situation is a huge problem.

Now granted, this is a group that is going up against one of Penn State's strength's in the defensive line, but there were definitely pass protection issues throughout the game.  Consequently, Eric Latimore ended up looking decidedly beast-like against his offensive line counterparts.  This brings up the always troublesome question debate of whether he's having a breakout spring vs holy-lord-we're-in-trouble-on-the-line debate that simply doesn't have a correct answer.  PSU fans would be fully justified in being thrilled with Latimore's performance and worried about how much ground the O-line appears to have to make up at this juncture.  Before becoming too worked up, they can at least look to the interior line and find a Lombardi Award Watch List member in Stefen Wisiniewski, Linebacker U has some of the particulars. 

RB's:

So how about some positive news?  Put simply, the running back position is quite deep.  Returning veteran Evan Royster sat out from the festivities, and likely #2 Stephfon Green saw pretty limited action, which gave Silas Redd and Curtis Dukes some reps.  Hyperbole abounds from the Blue and White camp regarding these latter two guys:

Curtis Dukes and Silas Redd are going to be superstars. Dukes is a truck and when he gets up to speed it takes at least two guys to bring him down. Redd showed some nifty moves to evade tackles, and then he showed really good burst once he got in the open. I think both of these guys are going to see playing time this season. -- BSD

Redd tallied 16 yards on four carries, Dukes 31 yards on nine carries.  If you've spent any time around here at all you know that all of us are fans of Royster, the guy's a great running back who has the kind of patient cutting running style that can just gash defenses.  I didn't see anything from Redd or Dukes that makes me think the one-two of Royster and Green will be altered heading into the fall, but I do think they will each earn carries this season.  Compared to BSD I was less enthused about Dukes performance, he kind of had your standard "big back" type of running style and did nothing to conjure up images of a young Jerome Bettis.  He'll be a battering ram, but I think Redd demonstrated more upside.

WRs/TEs:

Herbie called this a loaded group prior to the game, unfortunately they had a limited number of passes that they were able to do a lot with, coupled with the occasional drop sprinkled in.  Ok, enough drops to actually have an article entitled: Receivers struggle to come down with football.  The performance prompted the always frank Joe Paterno to say the following:

"I think we have very talented receivers and they’ve done a lot of good things," Paterno said during a pregame press conference, "but they haven’t caught the ball consistently." 

So there's that.  Of the guys who saw action in the final practice, Kersey and his 2 TDs, one a nifty diving catch, stood out.  The rather limited sample size of catches didn't prevent Mike at BSD from feeling positive about the group:

Whoever the quarterback is, he's going to have tons of talented wide receivers to throw to. We didn't see much of Derek MoyeCurtis Drake or Graham Zug yesterday, but guys like Shawney Kersey, Brandon Mosbey-Felder, and A.J. Price looked pretty good.

This is a deep group, but one has to wonder if they'll be limited by the guy who's delivering the ball this fall, the inexperience at QB coupled with depth at RB seems to indicate that the receivers will have relatively fewer opportunities to take advantage of, at least as things stand right now.  One also has to wonder if the drops are something that will sort themselves out as fall approaches or will they continue into the season.

Defense:

Disclaimer, this will be decidedly shorter than the offensive portion, again spring practice, limited playbook, etc.

Many, in fact almost all, of the recaps on the Penn State side of the fence contain the phrase "defense way ahead of the offense".  It's pretty hard to argue with that sentiment at this time.  Again, it's hard to draw too many conclusions from a game that featured a struggling offense and a defense that didn't dip too deeply into the play book.  We've already touched on Latimore's impressive performance on the D line, and that was followed by Devon Still also looking solid (Still recorded a sack against the Maize n' Blue in last year's contest in Ann Arbor).

At linebacker, incredibly each starter from last year's squad is now gone, Sean Lee, Navarro Bowman, Josh Hull, and Josh Hull's mustache are all now in the NFL.  Usually this would be a small issue for a defense, but that doesn't appear to be the case at PSU.  Vinny Pezzimenti of the Centre Daily Times fills us in:

"I’m a little concerned about depth, but not at the linebacker spot," Paterno said before Saturday’s Blue-White game. "We have four or five linebackers that we can play with and compete with."

Nate Stupar didn't let his coach down, finishing the game with seven tackles and an interception, he looked really solid out there.  The rest of the depth chart is currently filled out by seniors Chris Colasanti and Bani Gbadyu.  All in all the guys who rotated into the linebacking corps during the game all looked serviceable despite a relative lack of experience.  The top three on the depth chart have 10 starts between them.  Will the group be the strength that it has in past seasons?  Perhaps not to the same extent but the drop-off doesn't look to be nearly as much as you'd expect after losing all three starters.

The secondary looked solid against shaky QB competition, tallying two interceptions, and at least by my count should've had one or two more by the end of the day.  I'll also be honest and say I was paying much more attention to the football and the QBs throwing it to notice much more about Penn State's secondary members.  I don't recall any huge gaffes and they haven't come in for any sort of enormous praise or tisk-tisking on any of the game recaps, so we'll leave it at that for now.

So Where Do They Stand After Spring?:

Let's start with the positives, the Nittany Lions feature a deep running back stable lead by Royster and Green, their experience will be invaluable in a huddle that will feature a brand new starting QB.  The defense is replacing a number of key key contributors, but they looked decent in the final practice, particularly the front seven.  It's hard to draw too many conclusions given the offensive woes, but as usual the PSU linebackers looked like they will do a fine job stepping into their new starting roles and Latimore has already been mentioned earlier for his constant presence in the backfield.

Certainly there are a number of very concerning issues facing this Penn State team as it heads into the summer and fall.  First and foremost is a quarterback situation.  It will obviously get all of the attention heading into the fall.  It's not quite Threet/Sheridan of '08, but it's a lot closer than Penn State fans would like or will admit at this juncture.  The tone surrounding much of the spring game analysis is eerily similar to what many Michigan fans were writing prior to the '08 season: "defense will carry the load, running game will let the QBs develop, etc, etc, etc".  I'm in no way insinuating that the overall situations are comparable, Penn State returns more than one offensive starter this year, they have the same coaching staff they've had since the dawn of time, they have a full compliment of scholarship athletes, etc, etc, etc.  There's a consistency there that they can fall back on.  That said, the QB play on this particular day was atrocious, and if that's any kind of an indication of where the QBs are as a group right now that's really, really difficult to overcome over the course of the season.  Someone, anyone, will need to step up and be able to handle the offense.

The other issue that may not get nearly as much press is the offensive line.  It didn't look great in pass protection and there doesn't appear to be a solid starting rotation at least at this point in time.  There is indeed plenty of time, but the play of the tackles in particular will be something to keep a close eye on as the season gets underway.

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