Dukes no longer at Penn State
Bill O’Brien met with the media Monday morning at Beaver Stadium to address his reasons for staying at Penn State, but not all of the Nittany Lions will be returning.
O’Brien announced that redshirt junior running back Curtis Dukes would not be part of the 2013 team to play out his final year of eligibility.
“He won’t be here. That’s the only one that I know of,” O’Brien said.
Dukes, a 6-foot-1, 245-pound powerhouse with sprinters speed, never could put it all together while at Penn State, missing time with injuries, for academics and struggling to develop as a blocker. He rushed for 101 yards on 26 carries in 2012.
Rising junior Bill Belton, though, is back. Belton began the year as the Nittany Lions’ starting tailback before being beaten out by Zach Zwinak. There was speculation that he might be in line for a position change, but O’Brien said he’s remain a running back.
“You can tell that he went home over Christmas, and he really worked. That’s a good sign,” O’Brien said. “We’re going to do a better job finding different ways to use these guys, like better ways to use him in the passing game, because Billy can do a lot of different things.”
Seven incoming freshmen football players official became Penn State students with the first day of classes on Monday, including tight end Adam Breneman, junior college transfer quarterback Tyler Ferguson, defensive backs Jordan Smith and Anthony Smith and running back Richy Anderson, who will be on scholarship and count as part of the Lions’ 2012 recruiting class.
The biggest name is Breneman, who was a top-30 national prospect and considered the best tight end available in this recruiting class before a summer injury kept him out all of his senior season. An Under Armour All-American Game selection, Breneman was considered vital to Penn State’s recruiting efforts and its ability to keep the core of a strong early class together.
“We’ve got a great kid there that we think has fantastic potential,” O’Brien said. “We’re very excited about his future at Penn State. And that’s a very strong position with us.”
The list also includes a pair of non-scholarship prep school quarterbacks: Austin Whipple and D.J. Crook. Whipple is the son of NFL quarterback coach Mark Whipple. Crook passed for nearly 8,000 yards in high school.
“Two athletic-looking guys that are ready to go to work,” O’Brien said.
Ferguson, Whipple and Crook join true freshman Steven Bench as the quarterbacks who will be on the roster when spring practice rolls around. Scholastic All-American Christian Hackenberg is expected to sign in February and enroll over the summer.
Bench and Ferguson are the leading candidates to take over for Matt McGloin, who had one of the best seasons ever for a Nittany Lion passer as a senior this past season. Bench saw some action as McGloin’s backup.
“A great kid, a bright kid, a lot of energy,” O’Brien said of Bench. “His dad is a coach down in Georgia. He’ll be the first to tell you he’s got a lot of work to do, but I’m really looking forward to working with him.”
Ferguson is a bigger, more-prototypical pocket passer who comes from central California.
“He was a guy we really felt was smart and productive. We had some great conversations with him,” O’Brien said.
On the horizon
O’Brien said several redshirt players distinguished themselves last year and were in a strong position to push for playing time in 2013.
The first player O’Brien talked about was Akeel Lynch, a 210-pound halfback from Toronto by way of Buffalo.
“I can’t wait to see what Akeel Lynch does,” O’Brien said. “We think he’s got a really good future.”
O’Brien also mentioned tight end Brent Wilkerson, receivers Eugene Lewis and Malik Golden, offensive lineman Wendy Laurent, defensive tackle Austin Johnson and defensive back Jake Kiley as some players on whom to keep an eye.
“There’s a lot of good young talent in this program that we think bodes well for the future,” O’Brien said.
Mum on the suit
Neither O’Brien nor athletic director Dave Joyner had any comment to make when asked about Pennsylvania governor Tom Corbett’s announcement last week that the commonwealth would sue the NCAA to get the sanctions against the football program eliminated for reduced.
“Same as Bill, I’m not going to comment on that,” Joyner said.
O’Brien seemed doubtful freshman All-American tight end Kyle Carter would be back healthy enough from his injured wrist to play in the spring.
“I saw where he was getting a new cast. He’s really working at it,” O’Brien said. “I think [the decision about his availability for the spring] is a ways from being made, but I think he’s making a lot of progress.”
One of the issues being thrown around last week when O’Brien was interviewing for NFL openings was that he might be using it as leverage in part to get pay raises for his coaching staff.
While O’Brien isn’t likely to keep his assistants as long as Joe Paterno, there haven’t been any departures yet from a group regarded by some of the best in the Big Ten.
“It’s very important to keep your staff intact, but you have to be careful there, too. I think it’s important that these guys want to move up the ladder. You’ve got some fantastic coaches on our staff that are going to have chances, if not this year or other years,” O’Brien said. “I don’t want to hold them back.”
O’Brien said he felt the assistants are paid well but could be paid better and had discussed ways like bonuses with Joyner.
O’Brien isn’t allowed to talk about specific unsigned recruits by NCAA rules, but he was happy with the way recruiting was going in general for 2013.
“I’m excited about the direction of recruiting,” O’Brien said. “You think about the situation that we’re in and the type of guys we can recruit who are receptive to us, it’s really an outstanding job by our football staff.”
Defensive end commit Garrett Sickels and future Lion teammate Brendan Mahon both played in the U.S. Army All-American Bowl; Mahon, playing out of position at center, was picked as an East team captain. Meanwhile, Hackenberg played in the Under Armour All-American Game.
Linebacker Brandon Bell, defensive end Curtis Cothran and offensive lineman Andrew Nelson performed well in the Chesapeake Bowl for top players from the Mid-Atlantic states, while defensive tackle Parker Cothren was first-team Class 6-A all-Alabama, Florida defensive back Neiko Robinson led his team to a state championship and Alabama linebacker Jon Walton was honorable mention all-state.
The Lions have two remaining scholarships in this recruiting class if all the commitments stick with Penn State. Walton, though, is planning to take a visit to South Carolina and probably might not have a decision until letter-of-intent day.