In Part One of the Penn State Spring Preview series, we take a look at the backfield, where the Nittany Lions have positions of strength (running back, fullback) and questions that must be addressed by opening day (quarterback). Let's look position by position and identify where the coaching staff must concentrate its efforts in spring practices, summer workouts, and fall final preparations.
The Cast: Robert Bolden (sophomore), Paul Jones (redshirt freshman), Matt McGloin (redshirt junior), Kevin Newsome (junior)
Looking Back: Rob Bolden became the first true freshman ever to start a season under center in the Joe Paterno era, but lost his spot to McGloin after an injury knocked him out of a game against Minnesota. McGloin held onto the spot through the end of the season and the bowl game, in which he threw five interceptions but was the only Penn State quarterback to take a snap.
Looking Ahead: After a much-publicized attempt to transfer that was denied by Paterno, Bolden is back with the team during spring practice, but has not stated whether he is there for good. Barring an outright naming of Bolden as the 2011 starter by Paterno, which is unlikely, there is a good chance that Bolden will seek a transfer during the offseason. Should that happen, the battle will likely be between McGloin and Sto-Rox's Paul Jones, who redshirted in 2010. Jones is the better passer but has reportedly had some issues with class and learning the playbook. Junior Kevin Newsome joined the team in 2009 as the heir apparent to Daryll Clark, but has not seen a meaningful snap in his career, a trend that, barring a position change, is likely to continue. Newsome is also on transfer alert after not traveling with the team to the Outback Bowl.
Likely Outcome: Bolden transfers after spring practice is over, Jones beats McGloin and Newsome in the fall battle, and Paul Jones is your opening-day starter, making it two consecutive years that a de facto rookie enters the season under center (and faces Alabama in his second collegiate game). Jones, with a solid supporting cast, is able to shake off whatever rust he may have, and leads the team to an upset victory in Happy Valley on September 10 against the Crimson Tide.
The Cast: Brandon Beachum (redshirt junior), Curtis Dukes (redshirt sophomore), Stephfon Green (redshirt senior), Silas Redd (sophomore)
Looking Back: Beachum and Dukes are the bruisers on the lineup, each coming in at 230+ pounds, while Redd and Green are the speedy backs, each with the breakaway speed that Evan Royster lacked. Beachum redshirted in 2010 due to a torn MCL, while Dukes played sparingly. Many will be watching these two to be the thunder to the other backs' lightning. Green has patiently waited behind Royster for three years, and Redd was an extremely hyped back coming out of Connecticut in the Class of 2010. Unfortunately for Green, Redd lived up to his hype and became the No. 2 back on the roster by mid-season.
Looking Ahead: Redd will be the feature back, but Green is more than capable when needed. Redd won't have to shoulder the entire load with the other three around, not to mention the fullbacks. Unlike the uncertainty at quarterback, the stable of running backs that Penn State has entering the 2011 season is very promising, especially if Beachum and Dukes can live up to their billing. However, with four running backs (and three fullbacks), someone is going to get the short end of the stick. In 2011, that person is likely to be Curtis Dukes, unless he can distinguish himself as a better complementary back than Beachum.
Likely Outcome: Redd, who gained just under 500 yards on the ground in 2010, rushes for north of 1200 yards and 8 touchdowns, with Beachum and the fullbacks stealing some of his goal-line touches. Penn State fans breath a sigh of relief that losing the team's all-time rusher doesn't mean a drop off in production, and another sigh of relief when realizing they get three years of Silas Redd. Green performs admirably in replacement duty, while Dukes once again plays sparingly.
The Cast: Joe Suhey (redshirt senior), Michael Zordich (redshirt junior), Zach Zwinak (redshirt freshman)
Looking Back: With a name like Suhey, Joe was destined to be a great Penn State football player, and he has been just that. Suhey has seen action in every single game in which he has played, excluding his redshirt season. He blocks, he runs (a little; only eight carries in 2010), catches well out of the backfield (15 catches for 154 yards and a touchdown), and is the kind of senior you hope for. Like Suhey, Zordich's father played under Paterno. Initially recruited as a linebacker, Zordich took a good chunk of the goal-line carries in 2010 (18 carries overall, three touchdowns). He has a fire inside him that can't be coached, but is imperative when trying to gain that last yard or two. Zwinak redshirted in 2010, but also tore his ACL during drills.
Looking Forward: Not much will change with this group. Suhey will still be the leader, and Zordich will still get the goal-line carries. Luckily, that means that Zwinak can take his time with his recovery, if there is any left to do. This unit, like the running backs, will be one of the best in the conference, and should not be worried about for at least a few years. Zwinak should move up to No. 2 by 2012, when the Z(ordich) Z(winak) Top jokes should begin.
The Outcome: Suhey leads the way for Redd, and catches one or two balls per game. On the off chance that Redd (or one of his stablemates) gets taken down inside the five yard line, Zordich enters the game and pounds the ball home, getting four or five touchdowns on the year. Zwinak sees some time, but shouldn't be needed too much, barring an injury.
The 2010 backfield was mostly serviceable; Evan Royster was able to break the all-time rushing record, going just over 1000 yards on the season. Quarterback play was streaky at best, with McGloin and Bolden each having some ups and many downs. Though the question at quarterback remains, and though Royster is likely NFL-bound, the 2011 season should be a marked improvement over last season. Paul Jones has a year of studying and learning the offense under his belt, and Silas Redd has already proven he is a solid running back. Add in the extremely reliable fullbacks, and Penn State fans should be confident in their backfield entering 2011.