Penn State Football: 5 Things We Learned About the Nittany Lions This Spring

Tim Tolley@@TimTolley_BRContributor IApril 28, 2014

Penn State Football: 5 Things We Learned About the Nittany Lions This Spring

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    Spring camp in Happy Valley was a bit more dramatic this time around as the Nittany Lions got familiar with their new head coach, James Franklin, and several new players got acclimated to the college life.

    Most of the things fans thought they knew heading into camp proved to be true, while other things are murkier now than ever before.

    We learned new names like Cole Chiappialle and Matthew Baney, and we got our first look at Michael O'Connor.

    An already thin offensive line lost its most veteran player in Miles Dieffenbach, but Derek Dowrey showed he might be capable of filling in.

    Here are the top five things we learned about the Penn State Nittany Lions this spring.

Michael O'Connor Is the Real Deal

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    A 4-star recruit, according to 247Sports, O'Connor enrolled early and picked up the new offense in a hurry. 

    Entrenched in a battle for the backup quarterback spot, Penn State's signal caller of the future made his Beaver Stadium debut in the Blue-White game, completing 11 of his 16 pass attempts and showing good control of the offense. 

    It's quite possible that we won't see O'Connor again until the next Blue-White game, but it's good to know that he's there as a security blanket if he's needed.

Offensive Line Depth Is as Bad or Worse Than Expected

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    Coming into camp, everyone knew that there would be some juggling along the offensive line.

    Then veteran Miles Dieffenbach, a projected starter at guard, went down with an apparent torn ACL while Andrew Nelson, the most probable starter at right tackle, sat out several practices and didn't participate during Blue-White weekend.

    On top of the injury issues, Franklin has suspended interior lineman Anthony Alosi indefinitely for an off-field altercation over the winter.

    Fortunately, Franklin and his staff were proactive and moved both Brian Gaia and Derek Dowrey, former defensive tackles, to the offensive line during winter workouts.

    Dowrey is in the running for one guard spot and redshirt freshman Brendan Mahon is in the mix, as well. Early enrollee Chasz Wright and converted tight end Andrew Hall saw significant snaps at tackle in Nelson's absence. 

    The work this unit can do between now and September could largely determine the success of the team, as a whole, in 2014.

Bill O'Brien's "Run-Ons" Are Ready to Make an Impact in 2014

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    When the Nittany Lions were hit with scholarship reductions, Bill O'Brien knew he needed to get creative in order to survive the next few years of big-time football.

    One of his angles was to utilize the walk-on program, recruiting local high school standouts to pay their own way for a chance to represent the biggest and best program in the state.

    While he isn't around to reap the rewards of his labor, several of the players he dubbed "run-ons" could be ready to contribute. 

    Von Walker has moved to defense and is seeing time at both linebacker and safety. He'll likely see time at both this summer and fall.

    Matthew Baney got the start at linebacker in the Blue-White game and could provide much needed depth this season.

    Cole Chiappialle rushed for 63 yards and two touchdowns and gives Penn State yet another option in an already strong backfield, while State College native Jack Haffner could be the favorite to start at fullback.

The Defensive Line Could Be Really Good

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    The defensive end depth chart is so stacked that no one hesitated to move Anthony Zettel, the first end off the bench, inside to tackle.

    Potential studs like Garrett Sickels and Brad Bars will have to fight off Carl Nassib and Evan Schwan for spots in the rotation, while the depth at defensive tackle looks much better now than it did six months ago. 

    Austin Johnson has grown into a 1-tech tackle and Zettel should prove to be disruptive at the other spot. 

    Early enrollees Antoine White and Tarow Barney are progressing nicely and Parker Cothren has put on enough weight to be in the mix this summer.

    Losing Kyle Baublitz and DaQuan Jones could have been detrimental to the defense, but this unit looks like it might be the strength of the team.

The Wildcat Is Back. Maybe.

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    When Tom Bradley took over as the head coach in 2011, he and Jay Paterno used the installation of a wildcat package to help distract the team from all the off-field drama that was unfolding in and around State College.

    The next week, Bill Belton, Curtis Drake and Stephfon Green utilized the wildcat in a 20-14 win over Ohio State at the Horseshoe. 

    After Bill O'Brien took over, the wildcat disappeared and the only player we saw in the shotgun was the quarterback.

    In the spring game, Penn State showed nearly 10 different looks with a running back in the shotgun and the quarterback spread out wide. 

    Belton and Geno Lewis both played primarily quarterback in high school and could provide dynamic options as wildcat "quarterbacks" if the staff decide to break it out during the season.

    There's also a chance that the package was presented simply to give opponents another chunk of film to prepare for while the staff has no intentions of pulling Christian Hackenberg out from under center during the season.