We're coming at you a day late because of the holiday, but never fear, your Q&A is here.
Today it is the ring leaders over at Black Shoe Diaries joining us. Jeff and Mike were kind enough to answer my questions about Penn State football earlier this week. If you don't already check out Black Shoe Diaries regularly, you should make that a priority. There isn't a better Penn State focused site on the internet.
I think Penn State surprised a lot of people last year by winning as much as it did. The Nittany Lion offense was somewhere between inefficient and downright inept for long stretches, but despite this Penn State was able to keep its dream of a conference title game birth alive until the end of the season by closing out close games and playing lock-down defense. Can Penn State continue to rely on this grind it out style while Bill O'Brien works out the offensive kinks, or do you expect a regression in wins because that kind of success in close, low-scoring games isn't easy to keep up with an inefficient offense?
Mike - It's a dangerous mix, indeed, particularly for a team in transition like Penn State. But O'Brien isn't stupid, and will rely on what the team does well for now: running the ball and playing strong defense. The defense might not be quite as strong as recent seasons, but has plenty of all-conference level players in the front seven. The offense might surprise a few folks this fall. That doesn't mean we'll see 30 points per game, but then again, anything is better than what the offense did in 2011.
The big question facing the PSU offense this season is less who ends up starting at quarterback and more will O'Brien be able to markedly improve the performance of the position in year one? The quarterback was often Penn State's biggest weakness the last two years, and without any new blood it will be up to O'Brien to fix the pieces he already has. Tom Brady isn't walking through that door, but can one of the PSU signal callers make a significant step forward in the passing game?
Jeff - Luckily for Penn State fans, the quarterback doesn't need to show marked improvement, just that he can manage a game. The QB under Bill O'Brien isn't going to be passing for 400 yards (unless his backs and receivers break some serious holes), and he won't be required to hit the long ball that often. The high percentage pass (screen, bubble screen, drag route, slant, etc.) are the passes that the Penn State QB will have to make.
Matt McGloin has shown he can make these passes, but sometimes has a tendency to force the ball into spots he shouldn't be throwing. If McGloin can reel in the "moxie" and worry more about maintaining the drive and utilizing the simple plays that will fuel the offense, the passing game should be just fine.
What will the Penn State offense look like? O'Brien is coming from the New England Patriots, so one has to imagine that his time there will manifest itself in the look and feel of the Penn State offense, but give us a better idea just what is important to O'Brien, and what kinds of plays and concepts he focuses on.
Mike - Remember the Patriots didn't have a strong running game last season. The success on the ground mostly came as a direct result of the success from Tom Brady's arm. In a sense, we might see a much more balanced offense in O'Brien's first season at Penn State than last season in Foxboro. I wouldn't go so far as to consider it a "West Coast" style offense, but O'Brien is working to install a short passing game that moves the chains, not unlike a traditional run game does. Passes between 15 and 20 yards should be a staple of the offense, along with increased emphasis on passes to the tight ends. McGloin has showed the most touch on his short-range passes, which is why I'm guessing he was named the starter. Redd should also see much more action in the passing game.
I don't know if Silas Redd ever got the credit he deserved for his role in the Penn State offense from the mainstream sports media. It was clear that neither quarterback option would be much of a factor offensively, and for the first five games of the Big Ten season Redd gained at least 129 yards on the ground. While his numbers slid over the final four games, Redd is back and should have a major role in the offense. What do you expect from Redd, and are there any other rushing options that will see significant playing time?
Jeff - First, Silas Redd is downright nasty. Unfortunately (though fortunate for fans of good college football), there are a number of other solid running backs in the league, so Redd's potential and success were slightly overlooked. But that's just fine for Nittany Lion fans, as Redd is quietly (nationally speaking) putting together a fantastic career, and even bigger things are expected under Bill O'Brien (see the importance of the running back in the passing game above). He should continue to improve on his ground game, especially with an expected-to-be-improved offensive line, and will hopefully establish himself as a threat out of the backfield on passing downs.
As for other backs to watch, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention Bill Belton. The electric sophomore is going to be that wildcard type of offensive player; by the end of the year, I'd bet he lines up in six different offensive positions, including QB. He is shifty, quick, and very elusive. There are some other players that will see some playing time, but Redd and Belton will be the one-two punch to look out for.
Penn State's 2010 defense was a disappointing unit that was far from the defensive standard that a PSU defense is normally held to. Last year, with a worse offense helping out, the Penn State defense made major strides. What caused this improvement? Does Penn State still have the pieces to keep the defense performing at this level?
Mike - The biggest enigma on the team right now is the defense, only because it faces a new system under Ted Roof, must replace a consensus All-American in Devon Still, and work with a secondary thinner than a wet tissue. There is a great mix of talent and experience, starting with (no surprise) the linebackers. Michael Mauti and Gerald Hodges should be on everyone's All-America short list, while the defensive line has strong depth and talent. The retention of coaches Larry Johnson Sr. (DL) and Ron Vanderlinden (LB) was a huge boost for the defense.
With a new coaching staff in place are there any major changes in store for the Penn State defense, or will things look similar in design and execution?
Mike - Roof likes to run a more aggressive defense. Under Tom Bradley, Penn State was more of a "smothering" defense, rather than the "attacking" style Roof is trying to install. Still, with Johnson and Vanderlinden still on staff, the changes might not be so evident this year. Tackling will still be a strength, along with being in the right position at all times. Who knows, maybe Roof's aggressive style will add just enough of that killer instinct to the defense.
One of Bill O'Brien's early successes at Penn State has been turning around recruiting momentum. The Nittany Lions are currently just off the pace set by Michigan and Ohio State in the 2013 recruiting cycle. What changed from last year's class when Penn State suffered decommits and ended up with a thoroughly mediocre Big Ten class? How is O'Brien able to overcome the negative atmosphere that surrounds the program?
Jeff - The end of the 2012 class was obviously marred by a number of different phenomena (no coaching direction, obvious scandal, etc.), so the decommits were less a surprise than the guys that stayed with the class. And for that, those members of the Class of '12 will hold a special place in many fans' hearts. Recruits last year had no idea what program or style they were committing to, so it was not surprising to lose out on players like Noah Spence, an in-state five star DE who ended up at OSU.
This year, Bill O'Brien and staff have been hitting the trail in ways that Penn State fans have never seen before. They are energetic, covering the nation with visits and offers, and are doing a helluva job selling the Penn State program. What separates this year from last is that known commodity of a coaching staff, and the fact that, in a rare showing of rational thought surrounding the scandal, the current commits are able to separate what happened in November from why they committed to Penn State. The scandal was awful, for sure, but Coach O'Brien was able to convey, and the recruits were able to see, that the current football program has/had little to nothing to do with that. These kids just want to come to Penn State and play some football.
Joe Paterno was the longest tenured and arguably most successful college football coach in major conference history, but was forced out of the program under a dark cloud. Penn State is now looking at at least three former high level employees serving felony prison sentences, and the atmosphere around the program is nothing if not tense. The level of difficulty for taking over a high-profile college football program has never been higher, and Bill O'Brien doesn't have a stellar track record in the college game. What would be a successful first three years for O'Brien, and do you think he will still be the coach in five years?
Jeff - The common adage is that "You never follow a legend." Whomever came to Penn State after Joe Paterno was going to have to prove himself in short order, regardless of the situation. What we have here is something that no one ever imagined, and ironically, it gives Bill O'Brien a little bit of a larger buffer until he will really be judged on the field.
The 2012 schedule is actually quite tough, though it's made slightly easier by not having Michigan or Michigan State (unless a CCG meeting is in order), so I could make an argument for anything from 5 to 11 wins. I think Coach O'Brien has the pieces (or enough of them) to get to 9 wins, and that will almost certainly be seen as quite successful by the fan base, all things considered. As for how long he'll be in Happy Valley, I'd say he'll still be here in five years. He really seems to enjoy himself so far, and the fan base, despite early hesitations, seems to have come around to O'Brien.