In Part One of our four-part Penn State preview, we took a look at the quarterbacks, running backs, and fullbacks who will vie for playing time in 2011. Today, we see which receivers, tight ends, and offensive linemen should start in September, and who needs to step up if to have any chance at seeing the field.
The Cast: Justin Brown (junior), Curtis Drake (redshirt sophomore), Shawney Kersey (redshirt sophomore), Christian Kuntz (redshirt sophomore), Brandon Moseby-Felder (redshirt sophomore), Derek Moye (redshirt senior), Devon Smith (junior)
Looking Back: Only seven players caught more than 10 passes in 2010, two of whom were out of the backfield (Evan Royster and Joe Suhey), and three of whom are no longer with the team. Given Penn State's streaky quarterback play, the wide receivers shouldn't shoulder too much of the blame for low production numbers, though Justin Brown in particular had a rough Outback Bowl, dropping numerous passes and finishing with just two catches. Dependable Brett Brackett and fan favorite Graham Zug are gone, and their departures open the door for some of the younger receivers on the roster.
Looking Ahead: Unfortunately, 2011 starts with an injury to the receiving corps, as Curtis Drake re-injured his leg and will miss all of spring practice. Provided he is able to return, he should be the favorite to win the starting slot receiver position between Moye and Brown, who should have the two wideout positions locked up, barring injury. Should Drake miss some or all of the season, speedy Devon Smith can fill in admirably in the slot, provided the staff can find ways to utilize him properly. Behind Moye and Brown, three redshirt sophomores look to see increased playing time. With four catches between them in 2010, Kersey, Kuntz, and Moseby-Felder will have to fight to see their share of passes.
Likely Outcome: Moye and Brown lock up the wideout positions, and Kersey lives up to his potential, filling in for the starters whenever needed. Drake returns from his injury and splits time in the slot with Smith. If needed, true freshman Bill Belton sees time in the slot.
The Cast: Garry Gilliam (redshirt sophomore), Kevin Haplea (sophomore), Andrew Szczerba (redshirt senior), Michael Yancich (redshirt junior)
Looking Back: The play at tight end in 2010 was a fickle beast, with injuries decimating the depth chart. Only Haplea, who was forced into service when Gilliam tore an ACL at midseason, caught more than one pass. (For the purposes of this article, Brett Brackett was a wide receiver, though some of the time he lined up as a tight end.) Szczerba continues to battle back injuries and even offensive lineman Nate Cadogan saw time at tight end, catching one pass for a touchdown against Northwestern.
Looking Ahead: Due to the lingering injuries, Yancich, a Trinity H.S. alum who was initially recruited as a linebacker, is spending time with the tight ends during spring practice. Further, the recruitment for the Class of 2012 has indicated a clear need for tight ends, with Brent Wilkerson and Jesse James already pledging their verbal commitments to Penn State (though Wilkerson likely projects as a defensive end in college). Gilliam will hopefully return to pre-injury form and Haplea now has the experience to be an effective weapon in the Penn State offense. Unfortunately, Szczerba is dealing with a back injury, the consequences of which may outweigh the benefits of one last year of football with Penn State.
Likely Outcome: Gilliam and Haplea should occupy spots on the two-deep. If Szczerba is healthy by September, he may push for playing time, but back issues are notoriously difficult to recover from, and even then, the risk is great. Yancich and true freshman Kyle Carter are available as safety valves, if needed.
The Cast: No less than 20 players, from true freshmen to redshirt seniors.
Looking Back: The offensive line was marred by inconsistent play in 2010, making life tough for Penn State's quarterbacks. Early in the season, when Robert Bolden was making his historic debut as a freshman quarterback for the Nittany Lions, the offensive line had trouble keeping people out of the backfield. It's tough to say exactly when, but at some point toward the middle of the season, the line picked up its game and helped Matt McGloin run off a few victories in a row. The unquestioned star of the line, Stefen Wisniewski, is headed for the NFL, and starting center Doug Klopacz is also gone. Further, no fewer than 13 offensive linemen saw playing time last year, as the group just couldn't find a cohesive unit (an injury to "Big" Lou Eliades early in the season didn't help either).
Looking Ahead: Johnnie Troutman started the last 11 games of the season, but will start the beginning of 2011 in the infamous Joe Paterno doghouse after some legal troubles. Fellow senior DeOn'Tae Pannell has also been bumped down the depth chart, opening the door for some of the highly-touted younger players. Predicting what will happen on the offensive line in September is a fool's errand, but during spring practice some new players (along with some experienced players) are getting some quality playing time. Quinn Barham and Chima Okoli, each of whom started at least eight games in 2010, should have the starting tackle spots lined up. The guard spots are pretty up for grabs, though Mike Farrell and John Urschel are getting most of the first-team looks in the spring. Matt Stankiewitch (redshirt junior), Ty Howle (redshirt sophomore, and Miles Dieffenbach (redshirt freshman) are the players to watch at center.
Likely Outcome: Barham and Okoli lock up the left and right tackle spots, respectively. Their experience is valuable, even if they were part of a struggling 2010 unit. Troutman might work his way back to the interior, but Farrell and Urschel (or surprising Canadian Alex Mateas) earn the guard spots. One of Stankiewitch or Howle wins the starting center spot, but the future of the position belongs to Fox Chapel's Miles Dieffenbach, who earns the spot by opening day 2012, if not earlier.
Penn State fans have wildly divergent levels of confidence in the three groups of players profiled here. The wide receiver corps should be one of the strongest in the conference, even if Curtis Drake is missing (due to injury or otherwise). The tight ends, if they stay healthy, can be very effective. Big things are expected from Garry Gilliam and Kevin Haplea, and hopefully the hype matches reality. Finally, the offensive line is once again a question mark, a trend that the younger linemen hope to reverse.
Check back next week, when we take a look at the defensive front seven.