Penn State is in the midst of seismic transitions as the Bill O’Brien Era supplants the half-century long Joe Paterno Era. The changes that O’Brien’s trying to implement on offense (and the ones that new DC Ted Roof is bringing to the defensive front) should make Saturday’s spring scrimmage a fascinating watch for Nittany Lions fans.
The quarterback battle is always first priority, and the decision-making and leadership of Matt McGloin, Paul Jones, and Robert Bolden are far and away the number one area of focus. I’m not even going to mention those three in the following list. After that supremely important position battle, here are the top players you should be watching if you’re wondering what your 2012 Lions squad will look like.
- WR Allen Robinson. With the departure of three-year contributor Derek Moye, Penn State needs some new faces to step up at the receiver position. Curtis “Rocky Balboa” Drake and Bill Belton have been moved from WR (to cornerback and running back, respectively), and rising senior Devon Smith missed most of the spring with a foot injury. Freshmen Eugene Lewis and Matt Zanellato could make waves in the fall, but observers were very impressed by sophomore Allen Robinson’s play. Robinson, a legit 6’3”, 200 lbs., could be the perfect complement for senior Justin Brown.
- OTs Mike Farrell and Donovan Smith. Farrell, a redshirt senior, has gotten the most first team reps this spring, but Smith (just a redshirt freshman) has pushed him hard at the right tackle spot. In the old regime, the upperclassman Farrell would have had the spot locked down tight; will new OL coach Mac McWhorter see things similarly? The new staff locked players into positions early this spring and gave them ample time to gel. Hopefully that cohesion (not to mention the re-vamped strength and conditioning program) will pay off for the inexperienced OL in the fall. The right tackle spot is one to watch on Saturday.
- DE Deion Barnes. After Tamba Hali, Maurice Evans, and Aaron Maybin provided ferocious production from the DE position from 2004-2008, PSU fans began to take success at that position for granted. Without a superstar DT like Jared Odrick or Devon Still on the 2012 defensive line, a force needs to emerge at the end position. Pete Massaro (who isn’t expected to play on Saturday) should be healthy this fall and could provide that edge attack, and senior Sean Stanley has been nothing if not consistent over his career. But the young Barnes could be the next superstar at DE for Penn State. Sacks aren’t allowed on Saturday, but watch for the disruption created by Barnes on the outside.
- LB Mike Hull. Although defense is rarely featured in an exhibition game like the Blue-White Game, look for the contributions by Hull. With Mike Mauti about 80% rehabilitated from his second major knee injury (but still sitting out on Saturday), Hull will push the starting linebacking corps both on Saturday and in the fall. JR Khairi Fortt, JR Glenn Carson, and SR Gerald Hodges should be running first team reps on Saturday, but Hull is described as an instinctive linebacker with a nose for the ball. If you’re looking for the next Poz or Connor or Lee, watch out for No. 43.
- TE Garry Gilliam. The redshirt junior had flashes of brilliance last year, but a major knee injury kept him off the field. In Coach O’Brien’s New England Patriots system, the tight end is an emphasized position. Along with junior Kevin Haplea, Gilliam is needed to emerge as a force this fall. The 6’6”, 277 pounder has the measurables. His performance on Saturday might be the best glimpse we’ll have of the future of Penn State football. Joining Gilliam and Haplea on the field in 2013 will be the nation’s No. 1 tight end prospect, Adam Breneman, who verbally committed to Penn State on March 9th and will be in attendance at the game with numerous other PSU commits and prospects.
Whether you’re in Happy Valley or waching/listening from home on April 21, pray for sun and go Lions!