Believe it or not, spring football in Pennsylvania is only weeks away, with Penn State's first official practice set for March 18 (Pitt begins March 17). Coming off of a disappointing season which saw six losses, a lingering quarterback controversy, and subpar defensive play, the Penn State faithful are hopeful that 2011 will be the first in a string of quality seasons.
Unfortunately, the schedule will not be as kind to Penn State as it might be to Pitt - Alabama, Nebraska, and Iowa visit Happy Valley, while the Nittany Lions must travel to face Ohio State and Wisconsin to end the regular season. Further, 2011 marks the first-ever year for the Big Ten Championship Game, should the Nittany Lions be fortunate enough to make it.
With all of this in mind, here are the top five questions for Penn State football going into spring practice.
1. Which quarterback will be under center on Sept. 3? Four quarterbacks entered the competition in 2010, and one emerged victorious. For the first time in the Joe Paterno era, a true freshman quarterback started the season, as Robert Bolden led the Nittany Lions onto the field on Sept. 4. That didn't last long, though, as on-field struggles and off-field injury concerns forced Bolden out in favor of redshirt sophomore Matt McGloin.
As of the start of spring football, the same four contenders seem to be in the mix, as Bolden and McGloin will once again face off against Paul Jones and Kevin Newsome for the chance to lead the Lions in Week 1. As you'll see in question two below, however, making a prediction for the start of the season could be a fool's errand, as there is a chance that as many as two of these quarterbacks could be gone in August.
If all four QBs stick around for the season, the early money is on Robert Bolden once again winning the starting spot. Should Bolden decide to leave, my early prediction is Paul Jones, who redshirted the 2010 season, giving him four years of eligibility left. Paterno typically favors seniority, but none of these quarterbacks have much of that, and the oldest quarterback, McGloin, had some on-field troubles of his own, finishing the season with a five-interception game against Florida in the Outback Bowl.
2. Which quarterbacks will be on the roster on Sept. 3? Matt McGloin was already on the roster as a former walk-on when Kevin Newsome signed his letter of intent in February 2009, putting to rest many of the fears of Penn State fans, who were in a slight panic when Pat Devlin decided to transfer, leaving Daryl Clark with no viable backup in his final season. Newsome was a highly touted QB out of Virginia who dropped his commitment to Michigan to come to Penn State. The following year, in February of 2010, two more highly ranked QBs would come to Penn State in Robert Bolden and Paul Jones. This created the ideal situation for the Penn State fan, with three top-notch signal-callers.
Unfortunately, Newsome, at one point seen as the heir apparent to Clark, lost the starting job to Bolden and never saw a meaningful snap in 2010. By the time the bowl game arrived, Newsome didn't make the trip to Florida with the team, and transfer rumors began to fly. After the bowl game, in which McGloin threw five interceptions and Bolden never saw the field, more reports emerged that Bolden was unhappy and seeking a transfer. He asked Paterno for approval, which was denied. Cooler heads eventually emerged, but a new report at FightOnState.com shows that Bolden still isn't certain where he'll be in August.
"There is no definite answer on if I'm gonna stay or if I'm gonna leave," Bolden said during an Uplifting Athletes' event at Damon's Grill in State College Sunday. "We're just gonna wait it out, see what happens in the spring and go from there."
So Newsome and Bolden might go, or they might stay. Many people, fans and analysts alike, feel that a position change is in order for Newsome, while Bolden is too skilled a quarterback to waste on the sideline during an abysmal bowl game. If I had to guess, I'd say that Bolden would be gone after the spring semester, but nothing would surprise me with this team. This is certainly the story that will get the most play in the offseason, though, as everyone tries to predict what will happen with each of these talented quarterbacks.
3. Is this Joe Paterno's final season? People have been reading and writing articles about the "end of the Paterno era" since at least the 1980s, when Paterno said he wouldn't retire and leave college football in the hands of "the Jackie Sherills and Barry Switzers." Year in and year out, Paterno has fielded questions on the state of his health, the quality of his coaching, and whether or not his presence is holding the team back. After all, the team hasn't won a national championship since 1986 and has only won three conference titles since its inclusion in the Big Ten in 1993. However, the Penn State name is still incredibly strong, and except for a slightly down 2011 class, the recent recruiting classes have been quite good. After emerging from the "Dark Years" of the early part of the 2000's, the Nittany Lions have been successful on the field, and have maintained their "success with honor" mantra off the field.
The infractions stain is Connecticut's first in any sport. It leaves four marquee athletics programs -- of the 65 in the nation's six major football-playing conferences, plus Notre Dame -- without a major case in their histories, and two of them carry asterisks. Boston College and Northwestern endured point-shaving scandals that weren't adjudicated by the NCAA.
The Unblemished Two: Penn State and Stanford.
But Paterno will be 85 years old when the 2011 season is finally over, and his contract will end with it. His assistants are taking interviews elsewhere, and the once-low murmur of resignation calls is getting louder and louder every year. Coaches who many fans have been watching as potential Paterno-replacements are leaving for other jobs.
Penn State president Graham Spanier has said in the past that Paterno does not need a contract to coach, and Paterno has made it abundantly clear that he hopes to stick around as long as he can. A long, drawn-out retirement isn't Paterno's style; when he's done, he'll let you know quickly, and then look to spend the rest of his time with his family.
2011 is likely going to be Paterno's last season, but writers have been saying that for years. With younger and younger coaches taking positions in college football, and especially in Penn State's target recruiting grounds (Todd Graham will be 47 just a few weeks before Paterno turns 85), Penn State isn't operating at optimal efficiency with a head coach and offensive coordinator that don't recruit. I'll certainly be sad when he's gone, but moving on is an exciting proposition, especially when you look at who might be a potential replacement for the legendary coach.
4. Penn State's all-time leading rusher, Evan Royster, is now gone. Who will pick up the production, and how will the backfield look overall? As mentioned, other than 2011, the past few recruiting classes have been very good, bringing in talented players who are primed to lead the Nittany Lions to some very successful years. In 2008 and 2009, respectively, Brandon Beachum and Curtis Dukes signed their letters of intent, and beefed up the Penn State backfield, both literally and figuratively.
However, another back, who signed his letter of intent in 2010 and saw significant time as a true freshman last year, is seen by most as the future of the Penn State backfield.
Silas Redd was a five-star recruit out of Connecticut who signed with Penn State early in the 2010 recruiting season and has been a fan favorite ever since. He's fast, he has incredible moves, and he reminds many fans of another fast, bald running back from about 17 years ago.
Playing in 12 of 13 games in 2010, Redd carried the ball 77 times for a shade under 440 yards and two touchdowns, good for second in all categories among the team's running backs. Where Evan Royster was the dependable, three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust running back, Silas Redd is the electric runner that Penn State fans have been hoping for. Further, with Beachum, Dukes, and senior Stephfon Green behind him, Redd doesn't have to carry the entire team. He will be the featured back for sure, but a healthy dose of "Thunder and Lightning" will also be used with the bigger Dukes.
The Penn State backfield should be one of the best in the Big Ten in 2011. Add into the mix the various speed demons on the team that are able to run the reverse, and opposing defenses are on notice that containing the Penn State rushing game will not be an easy task.
5. Many of the 2011 Nittany Lions are redshirt sophomores or younger, making this team a very young squad. Which of the younger players have a chance to make a big impact this year? Recently, Mike at Linebacker-U.com outlined the Penn State depth charts (both offense and defense) heading into spring practice. While these will almost certainly change over the next seven months, they provide a good starting point for identifying young players that will see some quality playing time in 2011.
On offense, the aforementioned Robert Bolden (sophomore), Paul Jones (redshirt freshman), and Silas Redd (sophomore) should be the stars of the show. The wide receiver and offensive line are led by veterans, but some younger guys will get the chance to make names for themselves. Keep an eye on Alex Kenney (redshirt freshman) and Bill Belton (true freshman) as receivers that should see time in the slot, bubble screen or some other trick play formation.
Many fans have been unhappy with the play of the offensive line as of late, and with a talented group of linemen ready to take the next step, players like Ty Howle, Adam Gress, John Urschel and Eric Shrive should be seeing some playing time. All are redshirt sophomores.
On defense, Larry Johnson's vaunted defensive line should be strong once again. DaQuan Jones (sophomore) and Evan Hailes (redshirt freshman) should see some quality time. Behind them, Mike Hull, Khairi Fortt, and Dakota Royer will ensure that Linebacker U stays strong at its namesake position. The 2011 secondary will be dangerously thin, so young guys like Stephen Obeng-Agyapong and Malcolm Willis have no choice but to be contributors.
Finally, all of the specialists are, at most, redshirt sophomores - Alex Fera (redshirt sophomore) and Sam Ficken (true freshman) should battle for kicking duties, with early reports have Ficken taking the placekicking duties while Fera should assume the kickoff duties. Punting for the Lions will be Fera or Alex Butterworth (true sophomore).