In the wake of a huge scandal, with sweeping NCAA sanctions hanging overhead, Penn State went out and had a good deal of success in year one under Bill O'Brien, winning eight games. This has been coupled with an impressive recruiting effort in spite of the scandal and sanctions. For now, anyway, Bill O'Brien has staved off the collapse everyone was expecting. What are your thoughts on how O'Brien handled year one?
I was one of the people who did not care for the O'Brien hiring. I had barely a clue who he was, despite being a college football fan who does follow pros, and I was underwhelmed when his name first surfaced weeks before the announcement.
Then his first press conference happened. He handled it with aplomb, and kept Larry Johnson Sr (defensive line) and Ron Vanderlinden (linebackers) on staff--inarguably our two best position coaches from the previous regime. After that, he went out on the road to actually speak and listen to alumni and fans in a series of stops throughout PA and other cities on the west coast-something none of us was used to, least of all BOB [shorthand for Bill O'Brien]. That garnered much more respect from me-but he still had to prove himself on the field.
On the field, O'Brien's Lions did much better than many thought he would-especially after the first two games (personally, preseason, I though 8 wins were attainable-but I would have counted Ohio and UVA amongst them). We did much better last year in conference than I was expecting. BOB, coupled with the wonderful senior class we had last year, was able to keep the majority of the team together, focused and playing for themselves, their school, and all of us. It was quite remarkable to see, and he was absolutely a unifying force for Nittany Nation, both on the field and off. While I'm not expecting it, I hope he stays after the sanctions are gone so that we can actually see what he does unhampered by sanctions, able to recruit full classes and field a full 85-scholarship team. It should be a pretty awesome thing for PSU fans to see-if he's still in Happy Valley.
The offense was good last year thanks to a better than average passing game led by Matt McGloin. However, the run game was next to last in the conference in both yards/game and yards/carry. With youth and inexperience littering the roster at QB, what do you expect from the offense this year? Can the run game take a significant step forward?
Your stats, frankly, surprised me a little bit, because it felt better than that; so I did look into it myself. From what I could see, we were next to last in yards per carry (unsurprising for our offense that seemed to have few big plays but rather gained yards in small chunks), but for yards per game, the stats I'm seeing have us 9th in the conference*, not next to last (we were actually 20 yards/game ahead of the last place Hawkeyes, and also ahead of Illinois and Indiana)-obviously still not where we want to be, but not as bad as it could have been.
We also improved dramatically (the Ohio State game excepted) as the season went on. Three of the four worst games for rushing for us were our first three games of the season; in fact, in conference play, we had an average ypg of about 153-again, not where we want to be, but definitely better, and moving in the right direction. Early in the season, it felt as though the offense was hampered by not knowing who our #1 (or even #2, or #3) tailbacks would be. By the end of the season, Zach Zwinak had solidified himself as the go-to guy, and he should be the starter from day one, putting up better numbers from the getgo (when he did get in last year, he actually averaged 4.9 ypc-by far the best on the team, and it wasn't even close). For a guy who started off as the #1 FB recruit in the nation, that's not too bad.
Our offensive line also dramatically improved during the season, and ended the season not the same liability that many PSU fans expect out of the O-line. The coaching of the offensive line was perhaps the biggest change last off-season, with the switch to one O-line coach (versus the one OT/TE and one C/G coach under Paterno)-this in addition, of course, to the extensive new blocking schemes and multiple looks BOB installed in the offseason.
*(Ed note: Cari is correct here. I was on CFBStats.com and must have misread the rankings or sorted by the wrong column. Mea culpa.)
Penn State's defense was once again a stout unit, ranking in the top-30 nationally in all four major defensive categories. Is the defense largely the same in scheme and design as it was in the Paterno years, are there any depth issues created by the sanctions/transfers, and who is going to replace Gerald Hodges and Michael Mauti at linebacker?
There was a lot of talk last off-season about how we were going to see a brand new, "multiply aggressive" defense under then-coordinator Ted Roof, rather than the "Bend But Don't Break" defense that Paterno used through multiple coordinators in his tenure. While the change on-field didn't feel quite so drastic, there were some big differences-namely, our defensive backs didn't give their traditional 10-yard cushion and were more aggressively covering the WRs both at the line of scrimmage and down field, and there was more disguised blitz packages. Overall, though, what we saw was not atypical PSU defenses-the line swallowed up what they could, the linebackers moved well on the line and in coverage, leaving not as much for the backfield to do. At PSU, on defense, we typically pride ourselves on a decent pass rush and stopping the run, and for the most part that's what we did again last year.
The depth issues we had last year were primarily for the defensive backfield, and had nothing to do with transfers (there were no defensive contributors who transferred, let alone any starters)-rather, they had to do with the woefully under recruitment of D-backs by the previous coaching staff, a fact that O'Brien was quick to point out to the press last year. Depth was so bad in that group last year that not only did multiple true freshmen see the field, we very rarely ran a true nickel package-our version of the nickel (deemed "roadrunner" by the staff) actually involved then-sophomore LB Mike Hull replacing LB Glenn Carson and dropping back into coverage. That's a problem that has since been alleviated, and the backfield should actually be a position of strength this year.
The problem this year is one you slightly touched on-who's going to replace Mauti & Hodges? Not really in terms of the players themselves-we've had some great LBs play at Beaver Stadium, and we've typically been able to reload at that position instead of rebuild. The problem this year is depth-beyond starters Hull, Carson and RS FR Nyeem Wartman (who actually saw some playing time last year despite the depth in front of him, blocking a punt in the Ohio game before getting injured and being granted a medical redshirt), there's a big fat question mark. If one of those guys go down, we may be playing in nickel much more than we'd like for the rest of the season.
What is Penn State's best position group? What one is the biggest question mark?
I think I answered this in a way above, but I'm still going to switch it up.
I think our best position group is WRs and TEs. We are completely stocked with pass catchers in every position, and even our RBs have a nose for helping their QB out by catching screens. If whomever our QB turns out to be ends up being even half decent, this group (led by B1G WR of the year Allen Robinson and Freshman All-American TE Kyle Carter) will be able to bail the signal caller out of a lot of jams.
For worst, I'm going to have to say special teams. They were an issue last year, and until proven otherwise, will likely be an issue again; Ficken got better as the season went on, but seemed to regress in our spring game (change of longsnapper not withstanding), and our punting was decidedly meh last year.
Did the spring game/practice answer any questions about the team?
Did the spring game/practice answer any questions about the team? Well, it answered for the coaching staff that the only returning QB with game experience (Steven Bench) was not going to be #1 or #2 on the depth chart in summer practice, and the true sophomore transferred to USF. So, there's that.
Aside from that, not much. Defense won our spring game, but what else is new?
While Penn State weathered the beginning of the storm, the worst of the NCAA sanctions are still to come. Given what we know right now about Bill O'Brien, how well do you think Penn State is going to be able to hold up over the next few years? When will Penn State be back to being Penn State?
I think this year fans can reasonably expect to win 7-9 games. The next few years, though (particularly 2016 & 2017, with those brutal schedules just released) may be not so good, and it's not out of the realm of possibility that the first couple of years after the bowl ban has been lifted won't have teams eligible for bowls. I like being a pessimist by nature, because then if we do go to a bowl game, I can be pleasantly surprised.
We will be back to being "traditional" Penn State-but it probably won't be until 2019 or 2020. And much of that will depend on the coach they hire once O'Brien leaves for the NFL (provided, of course, he does leave).