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Penn State Football: Unmasking 10 New Identities for 2013

by on December 02, 2012 10:00 PM

Penn State won its final football game of the 2012 season nine days ago. That’s ancient history, says a well-known Brown University grad with a degree in political science.

“We had a team meeting yesterday,” Penn State coach Bill O’Brien said the other day, “and the 2013 team has to create its own identity. It has to start pretty much right now. You can't duplicate what the 2012 team did."

O’Brien wasn’t kidding. In fact, work started on Penn State’s practice field late last week – from the ground up.

That’s when workers from a turf company in Lancaster installed rolls of new grass on the Nittany Lion practice fields between Holuba Hall and Lasch Building. Meanwhile, O’Brien and his Penn State assistant coaches were not letting any grass grow under their 2012-record 8-4 feet, as they hit the ground running on the recruiting trail last week.

The Nittany Lions have 13 verbal commitments from high school seniors. They are permitted to dole out a maximum of 15 scholarships on Wednesday, Feb. 6, 2013, a number reduced from 25 due to the NCAA sanctions. That Penn State cannot play in a bowl gives its coaches more time to hit the road – but they’ll still need to follow the guidelines for all BCS schools, as set in NCAA Bylaw 13.17.4:

(b) November 25, 2012, through February 2, 2013: Contact Period: Six in-person off-campus contacts per prospective student-athlete shall be permitted during this time period with not more than one permitted in any one calendar week (Sunday through Saturday) or partial calendar week.

That’s for the future – for the most part (see No. 8). In 2012, a deep and passionate group of seniors formed the heart of Penn State football. And O’Brien was the face and voice. Heading into 2013, look for these possibilities impacting Penn State’s next new identity:

1. SHRINKING SCHOLARSHIPS – For the next several years, Penn State will be seen through the national prism as a program fighting heavy sanctions with diminishing numbers, with an increasing emphasis on the decreasing scholarship players. It’s the easy angle and unavoidable.

2. NO LONGER UNIFORM -- Names on the uniforms, Michael Mauti’s No. 42 on helmets. O’Brien is game for changes, and a big possibility is changing Penn State’s road whites. And, I’m still not giving up on all-whites for a Beaver Stadium Whiteout. (Most likely: Oct. 12 vs. Michigan and Nov. 23 vs. Nebraska.)

3. A CAP ON CAPTAINS – At every Penn State practice in 2012, a front row of seniors stretched from sideline to sideline, leading the team in stretching exercises. Before the start of every game, O’Brien named a different set of seniors as game captains. It would be surprising to see both practices continued in 2013.

Next year’s senior class is not heavy on leaders, and most will play on defense. Look for leadership from linebackers Mike Hull and Glenn Carson, secondary mates Malcolm Willis, Stephen Obeng-Agyapong and Adrian Amos (a junior) and defensive linemen Deion Barnes (a sophomore) and DaQuan Jones. On offense in 2013, veterans will include tight end Garry Gilliam and five solid senior offensive linemen – John Urschel, Ty Howle, Nate Cadogan, Adam Gress and Eric Shrive – and junior O-lineman Miles Dieffenbach.

4. YOUTH WILL BE CARDED -- The 2012 Nittany Lions were a decidedly senior-laden group, built for a title run under normal circumstances. Nine seniors had their undergraduate degrees before the season even started – a less-demanding graduate course load afforded them more time to watch video, ingest new schemes, hang out in Lasch and mentor and rally the underclassmen.

Of the 31 seniors honored before the season finale against Wisconsin, 10 were starters, four were key reserves and – this is crucial -- five played a prominent role on special teams. That group combined for 209 starts. Among the Nittany Lions remaining, they share only 185 starts. And the rising senior class has only 15 players. Those numbers are far from robust.

That starting stuff may be a bit overblown, especially in this new era of Penn State football. Zach Zwinak, Barnes and tight ends Kyle Carter and Jesse James have all of 20 starts. Combined.

5. IN THE BEGINNING – The Nittany Lions open up with Syracuse (7-5), Eastern Michigan (2-10), Virginia (which lost eight of 10 after beating PSU), Kent State and Indiana (4-8, lost eight of its last 10). Only Kent State – 11-2, the loser in the MAC title game and No. 25 in the BCS standings – can make a case for beating Penn State right now, no matter who the Lions’ QB is. Syracuse, coached by O'Brien's good friend Doug Marrone, is a toss-up.

So while 3-2 may be more believable, a 4-1 start is certainly possible. If so, let the hoopla begin – until back-to-back games against Michigan and Ohio State (with an non-conspiratorial off-week sandwiched in-between).

6. MR. INSIDE AND MR. OUTSIDE –Zwinak pounded the ground game to the tune of 1,000 yards in nine games. Despite myriad injuries in the PSU backfield, O’Brien never played highly touted freshman Akeel Lynch, saving him for a coveted redshirt, while sewing together a patchwork depth chart that featured a BB, a DD and a CD. Quality help behind or side-by-side with Zwinak will not likely be an Achilles Akeel.

7. O’BRIEN’S MOTHER – The Penn State coach was, for the most part, a devoted student of the credo, “Necessity is the mother of invention” – i.e., his mid-season penchant for going for it on fourth down.

As the roster begins to fill with walk-ons and the like, it would not be surprising to see O’Brien occasionally deploy unconventional practices – forays with two-way players, enhanced trickery, more special teams gambles, experiments like the one that had Gerald Hodges fielding kicks, chances given to the forgotten (i.e., snapper Mike Fuhrman got his first shot 54 games into his career) and a partridge in a pear tree.

8. COMING AND GOING – And, most likely, moving up. Coming: Some of the freshmen signed in February are likely to play in September. Going: You’d have to think at least a few players on the current roster will be leaving Happy Valley. Moving up: Departures planned (2012 seniors) and unplanned could give a lot of players a chance to move up the depth chart. Quickly.

9. THIS IS OBVIOUS – A new starting quarterback could/will change everything.

10. LESS M*A*S*H – O’Brien did a terrific job of teaching and implementing new schemes to both players and staff, re-recruiting the players he inherited and literally being the face of all of Penn State. He was busy. So a lot of decision-making, however sound, was done M*A*S*H-style – by triage.

Sure, recruiting and keeping his players will be a challenge, but O’Brien now has the opportunity to revisit early decisions both made and deferred. Heck, he wasn’t even on campus full-time last winter prior to National Letter of Intent Day. Moving forward, O’Brien could likely alter the way he interacts with the press and will most certainly take a look at his Billy Ball-to-the-wall way he approached public appearances: He said yes to everything.

That built a swell of goodwill and a stack-full of chits, but O’Brien will certainly cut back on time away from the X’s and O’s, concentrating more on the unique job at hand on the field. In that way, he’s a lot like Hawkeye Pierce of M*A*S*H fame:

They’re both New Englanders possessing a wry sense of humor who live life on the frontlines, making quick decisions often under gunfire. Maybe it's just a coincidence that the co-author of M*A*S*H the novel was W.C. Heinz, a renowned sportswriter in his day.

Recent Columns:

At Quarterback, No. 12 is the Loneliest Number, Nov. 30, 2012

For Zwinak, 1,000 Yards Beats Watching a Loss on TV Any Day, Nov. 27, 2012

The 2012 Season: A Cold Beginning, a Zwinning Finish, Nov. 21, 2012



Mike Poorman has covered Penn State football since 1979, and for StateCollege.com since the 2009 season. His column appears on Mondays and Fridays. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/PSUPoorman. His views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State University.
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