Big Ten spring practice preview: Penn State

Penn State
2009: 11-2 (6-2)

Fresh off of his vision surgery and a victory over LSU in the Capital One Bowl, Penn State head coach Joe Paterno and his Nittany Lions opened spring practice on Thursday in Happy Valley with major questions at quarterback and linebacker.

While there is no specific timetable on a decision, there is indeed a quarterback competition to replace Big Ten co-MVP Daryll Clark.

Losing Clark’s ability as a signal-caller is one thing, but losing his leadership is quite another. But that is the challenge facing JoePa and his staff as last year’s backup Kevin Newsome, Paul Jones and Matt McGloin will compete for the starting job under center. Newsome is the veteran of the bunch — and he just saw limited action in ’09. But Paterno believes he can take command of the huddle; additionally, he runs well and is probably athletic enough to play multiple positions. Early enrollee Jones has a live arm, which should impress teammates and offensive coordinator Galen Hall in camp, but his youth is of primary concern.

“Paul's obviously a good athlete, but it's tough to walk into a situation as a freshman and have to play the teams we do — especially on the road [Alabama, Ohio State, Iowa],” Paterno told reporters. “I don't even want to think about going to Tuscaloosa [Sept. 11] with a freshman.”

McGloin, more of a traditional pocket-passer, is a former walk-on who may be steady enough to stay in the race until deep into fall. He’s the one guy who doesn’t seem to be given a chance, but quarterbacks coach Jay Paterno is high on him as a leader. The one candidate who isn’t on campus yet is Robert Bolden, who may have the best skill set but will probably be too far behind to claim the job in the fall.

The other major concern for the Nittany Lions is replacing their top three linebackers — two-time first-team All-Big Ten selection Navorro Bowman, Sean Lee and Josh Hull — who anchored coordinator Tom Bradley’s stingy defense that yielded just over 12 points per game in ‘09. Eight times last season the defense gave up less than two touchdowns, a result of good defense all around but certainly spearheaded by the linebacker corps.

Good thing Linebacker U. is located in State College.

Four players will likely be competing for the three starting jobs. Senior Bani Gbadyu is the most experienced, notching 37 tackles in five starts. Redshirt senior Nathan Stupar started twice in ’09 and tallied 31 stops. Senior Chris Colasanti, a 2008 All-Big Ten Academic honoree, made 18 tackles in ’09, while redshirt sophomore Michael Mauti sat out last season with a torn ACL. In ‘08, however, he played in every game as a freshman. Mauti is still undergoing rehab, so Colasanti has the inside track for the starting nod — but Mauti could be the next special linebacker at State. Sophomore Gerald Hodges, who played safety last season, is intriguing in that he could bring a level of athleticism and playmaking ability too tantalizing to pass up for the defensive staff.

Losing a potential first-round draft pick in defensive tackle Jared Odrick obviously hurts any defense, but with Devon Still ready to be the star of the line and athletic junior Jack Crawford ready to be a consistent pass-rusher, PSU should be fine defensively up front.

The Nittany Lions’ offensive line will need to protect whoever is under center and allow tailback Evan Royster to have some big games — particularly as the new signal-caller gets more comfortable in the offense. Paterno said he is looking for the five best offensive linemen to start, which could mean junior center and All-America candidate Stefen Wisniewski moves back to guard, a position he played in ’08. All-conference left tackle Dennis Landolt departs, along with his counterpart on the right side, Ako Poti. Senior Lou Eliades, juniors DeOn'tae Pannell and Johnnie Troutman and sophomore Matt Stankiewitch all have started in the past with varying degrees of success. Quinn Barham, a junior, and redshirt freshman Eric Shrive could find a starting job with a good spring.

Royster won’t get a lot of work this spring, as Paterno noted that he has very little to prove. After recording two straight 1,000-plus yard seasons, Royster is 480 yards away from Curt Warner’s career school-record of 3,398 yards. Backup Stephfon Green and former walk-on Shaine Thompson will get the majority of spring reps, while Brandon Beachum will only do light running while he recovers from a knee injury.

In the secondary, A.J. Wallace departs, but the Nittany Lions will return aggressive cornerbacks D’Anton Lynn and Stephon Morris. The sophomore Lynn started a year ago and Morris played a lot of nickel as a true freshman. Depth at corner will be one of PSU’s strengths in the fall. Starting safety Drew Astorino will miss the spring with a shoulder injury.

Junior wide receiver/running back Chaz Powell, one of the fastest players on the team who had 28 receptions in ’09, will get a look at cornerback and possibly even safety this spring. Powell played in the secondary and at wideout in high school. Wideout is another position of strength for PSU, and junior Derek Moye led the way in ’09 with 48 catches for 785 yards. Sophomore Curtis Drake, one of the best in the Big Ten after the catch, can be used exotically in the offense because of his running, catching and throwing ability.

Penn State definitely has top-25 talent despite losing six All-Big Ten performers, but will the experience of Iowa, Ohio State and Wisconsin be too much for the Nittany Lions to finish higher than fourth in the Big Ten standings? If the linebacker play is solid and the production under center is sufficient, playing on New Year’s Day once again is a distinct possibility.

You can catch your first glimpse of the 2010 Penn State squad during the Blue-White Game on April 24, which will be televised on ESPN2 at 2 p.m. EST.

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