Twelve months ago, the major storylines heading into Penn State's spring game were about anything other than football.
A program rocked to its very core in wake of the Jerry Sandusky child molestation scandal, the 2012 Blue-White game had a massive cloud of black hanging over. The spirits stayed relatively high in the stands, as they always do at University Park, but there was also a sense of impending doom in the stands. Bad times were coming; Nittany Lions nation just didn't know when.
Three months later, the hammer dropped: four years without a bowl, a loss of scholarships, an unprecedented $60 million fine and all wins vacated between 1998-2011. The penalties were severe, and the implications were thought to be program-crushing.
A calendar year later, head coach Bill O'Brien has kept the program afloat by going a surprising 8-4 last season. And heading into this year's spring game, O'Brien can take solace in one fact: The focus is back to football.
Though the cloud of Sandusky's actions and Penn State management's malfeasance remains, the overall focus has been on the field this spring. Replacing quarterback Matt McGloin and other notable starters have taken center stage, the other distractions finally taking a backseat.
As Penn State takes the field at Beaver Stadium on Saturday, that focus—like all spring games—will be on positional battles. With that in mind, here is a breakdown of a few position battles worth watching on Saturday.
Replacing Matt McGloin doesn't come with as much pressure as replacing, say, Michael Robinson did, but the former certainly left big shoes to fill with his performance in 2012.
Oft-criticized during his sophomore and junior seasons for poor decision-making and wild inaccuracies, McGloin morphed into one of the Big Ten's best quarterbacks last season. McGloin finished his senior season with 3,271 yards and 24 touchdowns against only five interceptions, finishing fourth in the conference with a 137.7 quarterback rating.
It was—other than the whole saving a program from the abyss thing—Bill O'Brien's most impressive feat of coaching last season. McGloin was little more than cannon fodder for Penn State critics; but O'Brien shows up, and suddenly people are wondering how the Nittany Lions will replace him in 2013.
Faced with the enviable task of being O'Brien's next project will be one of the trio of Steven Bench, Tyler Ferguson and Christian Hackenberg.
The top quarterback recruit and seventh-best Class of 2013 player in the nation, per 247 Sports, Hackenberg is the most individually gifted of the trio but is currently considered the bronze medalist. He won't arrive officially in State College until this summer, which leaves Bench and Ferguson to do battle this spring.
During his press conference in preparation for Saturday's Blue-White tilt, O'Brien said neither Bench nor Ferguson had a noticeable edge.
“Really, I can’t say that one guy has really stood out above the other guy,” O’Brien said (via Audrey Snyder of PennLive.com). “They’ve both had their moments. I’ve been very impressed with how hard each of these guys has worked. They’re both young. They’re both 18 or 19 years old.”
A junior college transfer, Ferguson may have a slight edge due to his experience under center. Standing 6'5", Ferguson has plenty of size and is an underrated athlete in the pocket. He also showed plenty of accuracy and arm strength on intermediate routes last season, which are calling cards of O'Brien's offense.
Bench has an edge to some simply for being on campus last season as McGloin's backup. But he threw only eight passes. At 6'1", Bench looks a little bit like McGloin in pads at first—then you see him scramble a bit and all comparisons are thrown out the window.
With neither player having a huge lead in the race, the performance of Bench and Ferguson will tell the story of the Blue-White game.
A surprising 1,000-yard season in 2012 from Zach Zwinak had many thinking his job was safe heading into the season, but that's not the case. Zwinak, Bill Belton and redshirt freshman Akeel Lynch are all splitting carries in practice this spring, with none seeming to have much of an edge over the other.
In Wednesday's pregame teleconference, Zwinak said the trio were splitting carries evenly during practice, per Tim Gilbert of Philly.com.
Lynch sat out last season, but the tea leaves read in Zwinak's favor based on previous results. A powerful runner who is way more Mike Alstott than Chris Johnson, Zwinak was a workhorse last season. He rushed for exactly 1,000 yards on 203 carries and scored six touchdowns, leading all Penn State backs in each category.
Though more of a home-run threat than Zwinak in theory, the results did not come for Belton in 2012. His long carry on the season was only 23 yards, and the speedster finished third on the team with 258 total yards. If it comes down to a 65-35 split between this duo, it's more likely than not that Zwinak will win out.
Lynch, however, is the wild card. A highly touted recruit out of New York, Lynch is an intriguing do-it-all-type runner who could morph into an every-down back as his career progresses. He has quick feet and a downhill running style that makes him tough between the tackles, but he also has an underrated burst once he gets into the open field.
The position will likely come down to the incumbents—ride with the ones who brought you, after all. But if Lynch is able to impress on Saturday, he might force O'Brien into allowing him to take a heavy workload sooner than expected.
Much of the reason McGloin was able to ascend last season was due to the excellent play of the Nittany Lions offensive line. McGloin went down only 20 times in 2012, which is impressive considering his mediocre (at best) mobility. Though Bench and Ferguson are slight upgrades in the mobility department, finding permanent starters at right tackle and center will be critical to keeping whoever wins the job upright.
Like the quarterback spot, the battle is murky at both spots.
All-Big Ten center Matt Stankiewitch leaves a gaping hole in the center of the line. Stankiewitch was a leader in protection last season for the Nittany Lions, calling out blitzing linebackers and adjusting blocking schemes at the line. Ty Howle is probably the favorite at this juncture, as he looks vastly improved heading into his senior season. Angelo Mangiro and Wendy Laurent will also get consideration.
Adam Gress is the favorite at right tackle at the moment, replacing the graduated Mike Farrell.
Though he may be behind Gress, Garry Gilliam is definitely a player to keep an eye on Saturday. The converted tight end will carry over a nimble quickness and increasing strength to the tackle spot. Oklahoma's Lane Johnson should be an inspiration for Gilliam, as the former Sooners star went from tight end to likely top-10 pick in the matter of a couple years.
Offensive line is often difficult to judge during these spring contests, but developing chemistry early will be critical to Penn State's success in 2013. With questions at quarterback and running back heading into the season, the big guys in the middle must find a way to alleviate pressure—figuratively and literally.
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