March 17, 2011

Penn State reloads at key positions

Coming off consecutive 11-2 seasons, Penn State wasn't expected to be a Big Ten title contender in 2010. Youth and inexperience were the by-words and, sure enough, the Nittany Lions delivered pedestrian results.

Now, with those growing pains behind, Penn State may be poised to deliver bigger results this season.

A middling offense needs to improve for a team that slumped down the stretch, losing three of its last four. The offense ranked ninth in the Big Ten last season (372.2 ypg); the Nittany Lions also finished ninth in scoring (24.5 ppg). A soft rushing game that averaged 142.5 ypg (ninth in the Big Ten; 74th in the nation) is a concern.

The defense was solid but it made few big plays; only Indiana (13) forced fewer turnovers than Penn State (17) in the Big Ten.

There is plenty for the Nittany Lions to work on this spring as the program embarks on its 46th season under 84-year-old Joe Paterno, who has no plans to leave his post.

Here's a look at the Nittany Lions as they ready to enter spring drills.

PENN STATE AT-A-GLANCE
Matt McGloin was solid at QB after taking over late in the season.
THE BASICS
COACH: Joe Paterno
LAST SEASON: 7-6 overall, 4-4 in Big Ten. Lost 37-24 to Florida in Outback Bowl.
SPRING DATES: March 18-April 16.
RETURNING STARTERS
(minimum seven starts last season)
OFFENSE (6): T Quinn Barham, QB Rob Bolden, WR Justin Brown, WR Derek Moye, T Chima Okoli, G Johnnie Troutman. DEFENSE (7): SS Drew Astorino, E Jack Crawford, CB D'Anton Lynn, E Pete Massaro, LB Michael Mauti, CB Stephon Morris, T Devin Still. SPECIAL TEAMS (1): P Anthony Fera.
POSITIONS OF STRENGTH: Evan Royster, who ran for 1,014 yards in 2010 and became the school's leading career rusher, is gone, but there are no worries. The staff loves Silas Redd and Stephfon Green, who are speed demons. QB Matt McGloin was a revelation late in the season when he took over for an injured Rob Bolden. Both are back, though Bolden threatened to transfer in the offseason and says his long-term future in State College remains murky. The quarterback - whoever it is - will want to throw often to WR Derek Moye, who led the team with 53 catches for 885 yards and eight scores. With four starters back, the offensive line will be better, though star G Stefen Wisniewski will be missed. Led by CB D'Anton Lynn, the secondary is the strongest part of a veteran defense. The safety duo of Drew Astorino and Nick Sukay, who is coming off a torn pectoral muscle that caused him to miss the last seven games, will be formidable.

HELP IS NEEDED: Where are the playmakers on defense? Penn State ranked 101st in the nation in sacks and 75th in tackles for loss. Some pass rushers are needed. Es Jack Crawford and Pete Massaro have to bring the heat. The linebacking corps will need reinforcements with Chris Colasanti, the team's top tackler, and Bani Gbadyu gone. And DT Ollie Ogbu must be replaced. The offense also needs to get on track after foundering for much of 2010. A kicker is needed with Collin Wagner gone after nailing 20-of-25 field-goal attempts.

3 GUYS TO WATCH

WR/ATH Curtis Drake: He took a redshirt last season while recovering from a broken leg. The speedy Drake isn't sure if he will be able to fully participate in spring drills. But it's more vital for him to be ready in the fall, when he can bring a big-play element to the offense.

LB Gerald Hodges: He was limited last season by a left leg injury suffered in a loss to Alabama; Hodges played in just eight games and made 31 tackles. Hodges needs to become a playmaker for a defense that needs to produce more negative plays.

RB Silas Redd: Some insiders feel he is better than Evan Royster. Redd ran 77 times for 437 yards (5.7 ypc) last season as a true freshman. Now, the speedy and elusive Redd is prepared for a bigger role.

THE PRESSURE IS ON

DT Devon Still: The fifth-year senior has the size (6-5, 311) to be a force inside. He also has talent. But is he motivated? This is his last shot in a star-crossed career that was marred by injury early (knee and ankle). Still showed flashes last season, when he notched 39 tackles.

THE BUZZ

Penn State may not have the stuff to compete for the Big Ten title or win the Leaders Division crown. But never count out a Paterno-coached team. If the Nittany Lions can settle the quarterback position, juice up a soft rushing game and find some playmakers among the defensive front seven, Penn State could be a dark-horse Big Ten contender this season.

Tom Dienhart is a national senior writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at dienhart@yahoo-inc.com, and you can click here to follow him on Twitter.



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