PSU QB, whoever he is, will have lots of help on offense
UNIVERSITY PARK — He will have help, lots of it, on the offensive side of the ball.
He can turn around and hand it off to Zach Zwinak, a powerhouse, bulldozing running back who actually had a better season in 2012 than Silas Redd did at USC.
He can dump off 7-yard passes to one of his many big tight end targets — Kyle Carter, Jesse James, Matt Lehman or Adam Breneman.
He can count on one of the best receivers in the country, Allen Robinson, to run a great route and get open in space.
He can check off Robinson and the tight ends to any one of several other quality receivers, including Brandon Felder and Eugene Lewis, or he can toss a screen pass to Zwinak, Bill Belton or Akeel Lynch out of the backfield.
He also should have time in the pocket to make up his mind because he has a strong offensive line, anchored by the brilliant John Urschel at right guard and gigantic Donovan Smith at left tackle.
He is Penn State’s new starting quarterback. And we don’t know who he is yet.
Bill O’Brien probably already knows who he is, but the coach hadn’t yet made it public as of press time at the end of the weekend.
He could be Christian Hackenberg, the heralded freshman.
Or he could be Tyler Ferguson, the junior college transfer.
The one thing O’Brien has made clear throughout training camp is that no matter who he is for the opener against Syracuse, the quarterback competition will continue throughout the season.
So instead of saying “he” is the guy, everyone should get used to seeing it as O’Brien does — that “they” are both the guys. At least until one separates himself, which could take a good bit of the season.
“Let’s not put a huge amount of stock into who the starter is,” O’Brien said. “That guy will start the game, but the other guy is going to play football for us this year.”
The quarterback competition has drawn far and away the most interest leading up to the season, largely overshadowing what could be the bigger issue for the Nittany Lions — their defense.
This isn’t a typical PSU defense. Far from it.
The program staples have long been star linebackers and defensive linemen, but this year — outside of the quarterbacks — the linebackers and D-line are the two biggest question marks on the team. Even the secondary and offensive line, two areas that typically have always been concerns, appear to be in much better shape than the front seven on defense.
“Our three linebackers that are in starting spots right now, I believe that they are very, very good players,” O’Brien said of starters Mike Hull, Glenn Carson and Nyeem Wartman. “They’re tough guys, they’re smart guys, and they’re instinctive players.”
The issue, though, is that there’s virtually no experience behind those three, so the Lions will desperately need the starters to stay healthy.
The defensive line has a star in end Deion Barnes, but the other three spots are largely unproven, and there’s not as much depth as in years past. Even tackle DaQuan Jones, considered the best interior lineman on defense, hasn’t really established himself as a top-tier player yet.
“Honestly, we can be as good as we want to be,” Jones said.
The Lions will need that unit to be very good, particularly during Big Ten play when opposing teams will be trying to play smash-mouth football rather than air it out against PSU’s quality secondary.
Penn State has a new defensive coordinator in John Butler, who coached the defensive backs last year. Ted Roof left for Georgia Tech, and O’Brien took no time at all giving the job to Butler.
“He’s done an excellent job,” O’Brien said of Butler. “He’s one of the best coaches I’ve ever been around. He’s a quick-minded guy. He’s tough. The kids really respect him. He’s a great communicator. It’s a competitive practice because he and I are very competitive people.”
Penn State’s defense typically has been so strong that it helps the offensive players going up against them every day in practice. This year, and perhaps for the next few years as O’Brien continues to bring in quality offensive recruits, it could be the other way around. Just don’t say that to Butler.
“[Defense] has always been the brand here — smart, tough, physical, playmaking defense,” he said. “That’s always going to be the mission, no matter who is the head coach and who is the defensive coordinator.”
Despite the question marks, looking at the Lions’ roster, it’s easy to see they have enough talent in enough places to have a good season. But there’s that 800-pound gorilla in the room.
There’s just not much of it in several key areas, and with only 66 scholarship players, the Lions cannot afford to lose any key players to injury.
The 65-scholarship limit sanction doesn’t kick into effect until next year and runs for four seasons through 2017, but Penn State is already essentially there. O’Brien and his staff will try to do everything they can to keep players healthy, but that’s virtually impossible over the course of a long season.
“It’s a contact sport. It’s a collision sport. And it’s played by guys that are tough guys and physically tough and like to hit each other,” O’Brien said.
If the Lions can keep their 22 starters and key backups healthy and at 100 percent, they should be able to compete with and/or beat every team on the schedule. That includes Ohio State.
But for every player who goes down or gets banged up and has to play at less than 100 percent, Penn State’s margin for error becomes slimmer and slimmer.
That’s the main reason why the consensus record prediction among media members in Pennsylvania is 8-4. That’s also the pick here.
Follow Giger on Twitter @CoryGiger for news and notes throughout the season and for live in-game analysis every Saturday.