“The player development is the main thing I like (about Michigan),” Williams said. “You can see that they develop their players. They get them in the gym and they work them hard. And their hard work pays off.”
"He's a hard worker, and he watched me and Tim (Hardaway Jr.) and Nik (Stauksas) put work in to become (first-round picks), and I'm just happy he's getting better," Burke said. "It's great for the program, too. It shows what type of program the University of Michigan is and the direction it continues to go in."
For undoubtedly not the final time, Joe Paterno doesn't know when or if he will retire. This goes on a lengthy list of things Joe Paterno couldn't tell you about:
why his players are treating the Happy Valley criminal code like a scavenger hunt
advances in football technology since 1978
the dangers of nepotism
where his pants are at the moment.
And so it goes for Penn State, belted into the Paterno Express with no clear idea where the ride is going or how they're going to get off.
There can be no clearer example of this than a dedicated Penn State fan's youtube pre-homage to the coming "Spread HD," the brain -- or at least limbic-system -- child of universally scorned Jay Paterno. Without any clear direction as to just what in the hell the new offense entails, the videographer picks everything:
Jay Paterno is sick of calling Some Guy Runs For Three Yards and Oh God Anthony Morelli Thinks He Can Fit That In There and has instead decided to call Fifty Yard Touchdown on a more regular basis. An excellent plan. If only we weren't talking about Jay Paterno.
''It's a run offense,'' Jay Paterno said. ''It's really a glorified wishbone offense.''
JayPa is running the spread 'n' shred. No, seriously. When Daryll Clark came in against Youngstown State, PSU went right for the zone read:
This is a transparent attempt to recapture the Michael Robinson mojo that led to Penn State's unexpected 11-1 season in 2005. But, hey, that's not exactly the worst idea, right?
Not that this is any surprise, but Penn State's passing game was somewhere between mediocre and atrocious while its ground game was steadily effective. This will be a theme we return to with the defense, but it would probably be best to check out the conference numbers since the toughest opponent on Penn State's nonconference schedule last year was probably Buffalo.
Said conference numbers are more polarized than those at left: Penn State was last in pass efficiency but second in YPC. It's worth noting that PSU's offense got the toughest draw in the Big Ten by skipping Northwestern and Minnesota, the two worst defenses in the conference.
It's just as you suspected. Anthony Morelli was horrible, the running backs surprisingly effective for having no NFL prospects to speak of, and the overall result was meh.
In The JayPa Era
Rating: 1. At right please find another edition of our handy chart that sums up at least 80% of Penn State's issues this millennium: Jay Paterno. Penn State's quarterbacks "coach" has presided over befuddled players for going on a decade now and has never once had a player crack the top 40 in passer efficiency. Blessed with a senior returning starter who was a precious five-star recruit in a past life, Penn State was a thudding 74th in passer efficiency.
This represented an above-average year for them.
Okay, yes, it was clear by the time Anthony Morelli threw consecutive pick-sixes against Ohio State in 2007 that he was a recruiting service miss, but it still takes a remarkable incompetence to crack the top 70 in passer efficiency once in the last five years, especially when you've usually got a pounding ground game and nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition(!) of a five-yard out.
This is a long way of saying the usual. Until Jay Paterno is relieved of his duties there is no reason to expect the Penn State quarterback to be even average.
This goes double for this year, when a mere two candidates will duke it out for the starting position. Sophomore Pat Devlin is highly-rated and immobile. Redshirt junior Daryll Clark was low-rated and mobile, which makes him the heavy favorite as Penn State returns to the run-heavy spread offense that blasted them to an unexpected Orange Bowl two years ago. Michigan fans may remember Clark as the second Penn State quarterback to wander off the field mumbling about pancakes in the 2006 game.
Unfortunately for Penn State, Clark is unlikely to be the same caliber of athlete as Robinson. Robinson was a huge deal recruit out of Virginia powerhouse Varina in 2001, a four-year starting quarterback named Offensive Player of the Year by the relevant newspaer in-state. Parade rated him the third-best "athlete" recruit in the nation. After his Penn State career he was drafted in the fourth round to play running back; he's currently the backup for the 49ers.
By contrast, Clark was a middling recruit out of Ohio, a low three-star with a couple nice offers (Iowa, Nebraska) but also a listed 40 time of 4.7. He was Rivals' #24 dual-threat quarterback that year; Rivals only rated 25. Scout gave him two stars and didn't bother to rank him otherwise.
This is the juncture where someone jumps in to say that recruiting rankings don't matter and it's all about heart and desire and you can't measure either of those things in a forty-yard dash. A response: Penn State is moving to a spread offense specifically to take advantage of Clark's athletic skills, and the thing recruiting sites are the absolute best at is saying "dayum, that guy is fast." Also we are talking about possibly the poorest-coached position at a BCS school; if there's anywhere a recruit's projected ability in high school is relevant it's there.
Clark is a slower, smaller, less experienced version of Michael Robinson, who you may remember was pure awful until his unexpected Heisman run in 2005. And, no, he's not Pat White, either, unless you can produce evidence that LSU wanted him as a wide receiver. The forecast, as always, is grim.
Tailback & Fullback
Rating: 4. It's a tribute to the rest of the Penn State staff that the Nittany Lion rushing game hardly blinked when much-maligned senior Austin Scott saw his career end with rape charges. (They were later dropped.) PSU plugged in little-used midget Rodney Kinlaw, who proceeded to tear off 5.5 YPC. And it wasn't just Penn State's candy-cane nonconference schedule: PSU finished second to Illinois in Big Ten YPC despite missing Northwestern (#74 in rush D) and Minnesota (#114!).
Kinlaw's gone now, leaving redshirt sophomore Evan Royster (above) the presumed starter. The Penn State blogger known as "Run Up The Score" is a levelheaded sort, so I tend to believe him when he says Royster is pretty dang good:
Personally, I'm hoping and praying that opposing defensive coordinators under-estimate Royster. He's an excellent running back with perhaps the best vision of any RB in the last ten years at Penn State. If you love the weird, little things in football, pay close attention to Royster. He doesn't waste a single step and gets the most out of every run. Two-yard runs become four-yard runs. Eight-yard runs become eleven-yard runs. It's uncanny. Very Mike Hart-ish, if you will. I understand the infatuation with speedy Stephfon Green, but Royster is the clear starter at this point.
Skill position players are the easiest for laymen to evaluate and really obsessive fans will put more time into player evaluation of their guys than any journalist; I'm on board.
The stats, limited though they are, back up RUTS: Royster went for 6.2 YPC last year and all but nine of those carries were against Big Ten competition or A&M. Slice out Florida International and Temple and the YPC drops to... 6.0. That's only 82 carries and therefore not definitive, but we're talking about a lightly-regarded redshirt freshman here. Chances are he drops the "lightly regarded" by year's end.
Penn State's depth at the position is sketchy, like it is everywhere on offense except the line. RUTS mentioned Stephfon Green, a redshirt freshman from the Bronx who scooted for a long touchdown in the spring game. According to Penn State's always-entertaining official site, Green "provided the Nittany Lion defense with a talented and swift tailback to try and corral as a member of the foreign team in 2007." The existence of a "foreign team" coupled with last year's revelation that one of Penn State's linebackers is named "Fritz" overloads my JoePa-is-still-reliving-WWI humor circuits.
He was a meh recruit, given two stars by Rivals and a middling three by Scout. Prognosis: bleah. Incoming freshman Mike Shaw Brandon Beachum is a pounding straight-ahead type who many rated as a linebacker; he could be another Tony Hunt.
Royster will (probably) be one of the surprise stars of the Big Ten, Green a change-of-pace back that muddles around offering 3 YPC but mixes in a few long runs; Beachum sees sporadic carries in short yardage.
Wide Receiver & Tight Ends
Rating: 3. We've been hearing how awesome the receiving corps of Derrick Williams, Jordan Norwood, and Deon Butler is for going on three years now... for some reason. Butler's the best of the three and he had 47 catches for 633 yards last year. Whoop de freakin' doo. Normally this would not warrant Youtube clips, but MGoBlog rule #59 ("All highlight videos set to Bon Jovi must be deployed") supersedes:
These three are the wide receiver equivalents of Jaycen Taylor and Korey Sheets at Purdue: established, competent, uninspiring, hard to tell apart. Butler is slightly faster than the other guys and more likely to get open deep; if not overthrown he can haul it in, whereupon he will immediately fall over. Williams is shiftier but has not developed into the playmaker everyone expected when he was the nation's #1 recruit a few years back; he's basically Steve Breaston. He averaged fewer than ten yards a reception last year. Norwood has no distinguishing characteristics whatsoever.
With the graduation of Terrell Golden and the Crocodile Dundee dismissal of Chris Bell, there's no help coming unless tight end Andrew Quarless can work his way out of the doghouse. After a promising freshman year Quarless was expected to break out in 2007, but a couple of minor alcohol violations landed him squarely in the doghouse. Paterno even kicked Quarless "off the team," by which he meant "not off the team," but whatever.
Quarless spent the year in onfield purgatory, catching only 14 passes (despite being wide, wide open the whole game against Michigan). He's kept his nose clean since; as Penn State's most talented offensive player he should be a larger part of the offense this year.
Rating: 5. I was dead wrong about the line last year, predicting it to be in shambles after Levi Brown's departure and a lot of questionable shuffling. Instead, they paved the way for Kinlaw's impressive numbers above and kept Morelli relatively clean (Penn State was 34th in sacks allowed at about 1.5 per game).
The run game is the impressive thing. Every indicator on Kinlaw from recruiting rankings to four uninspired years at Penn State to his NFL fate (undrafted) was negative, and yet there is extremely strong statistical evidence Penn State's running game was second only to Ohio State's in conference. That's more likely to be a product of a kickin' offensive line than everyone on the planet, including Penn State's coaches, screwing up their evaluations of Kinlaw.
It is therefore definitely a plus that everyone is back. The interior of the line is excellent, featuring first-team All Big Ten center AQ Shipley and second-team guard Rich Ohrnberger; the other guard is true sophomore Stefen Wisniewski, who shoved a decent junior starter out of a job midway through last year. That's two established All Big Ten players who carried a who-dat runningback to an excellent season and a true freshman who bulled his way into a starting job. Jebus.
The tackles aren't quite as intimidating, though Gerald Cadogan did pick up honorable mention All Big Ten last year. Dennis Landolt, the right tackle, was decent as a sophomore and should improve this year.
Penn State's rushing defense is officially creepy, checking in at #7 nationally for the third straight year. But we should really hop right to the conference stats since Temple, Notre Dame, FIU, and Buffalo are perhaps the worst collection of nonconference offenses in the universe. (A&M, the bowl opponent, was good enough; they're outvoted.)
There Penn State goes from outstanding to just pretty good. YPC shoots up from 2.7 to 3.4, good for second in the conference but inflated by picking up a lot of sacks and missing the conference's worst rushing attack (Northwestern) and a mediocre one (Minnesota). All things considered, PSU was probably the fourth-best rush defense in the Big Ten, behind OSU, Illinois, and Iowa but considerably in front of #5 Michigan.
Pass defense was a bit worse; PSU missed the #5 and #8 pass efficiency offenses -- about average -- and finished 7th in conference. The sacks push them up a bit, but enjoying the Ryan Mallett Experience pushes them back down.
Good, not great run defense, slightly below average pass defense. Don't let the numbers at right fool you; Penn State was just okay last year.
Rating: 4. This was going to be a massive strength and almost inconceivable collection of talent and depth before Joe Paterno finally booted DTs Phillip Taylor and Chris Baker for various beatings delivered to Penn State students. Even with the departures it might be the best line in the conference.
The headliner is Maurice Evans (above), a moderately shirtless recruit who futzed around a bit as a freshman before blowing up as a true sophomore. Evans ran over, around, and through opposing offensive lines to the tune of 21.5 TFLs and 12.5 sacks last year. This would be the point where I'd break down how many of those were against serious opposition if Penn State's website worked; it does not so we just have to say "eh."
The other defensive end spot is split between mediocre Josh Gaines and edge-rushing youngster Aaron Maybin. Gaines was accurately covered last year:
Traditional MGoBlog heuristics lead one to be skeptical of a major leap forward for Gaines. He was a meh recruit in 2004 who contributed little in his first year starting despite playing next to a couple of defensive tackles who demand more attention in the passing game than most and in front of an aggressive, blitzing linebacking corps. The picture painted is one of a lot of effective single blocking of Gaines by right tackles. He was a redshirt sophomore a year ago -- less upside than a guy in his first or second year in the program -- and started largely because the situation at defensive end was so dire it required the Shaw move. If Penn State can get a mediocre season out of him, it would be a small victory.
Again, Gaines turned in 5 TFLs and 2.5 sacks despite playing opposite holy terror Evans and next to a rotating array of penetrating defensive linemen. His maximal upside is Rondell Biggs; chances are he's below average. Meanwhile, Maybin's four sacks is a good return considering his limited time last year, but they came against the confused lemming offenses of FIU, Notre Dame, and Iowa. Jury's out on him; he could waddle around for another year or make a leap to real productivity. I'm relatively bullish on him, but think he's a year away from real contributions.
At defensive tackle, only Penn State could have two major contributors axed (Taylor and Baker combined for 7.5 sacks and 14.5 TFLs last year) and still return a heap of talent. Jared Odrick is the headliner and stupendously-named Ollie Ogbu isn't far behind; both were extremely impressive when Michigan ground out a victory on 44 Mike Hart carries:
What was the deal with all the Penn State defensive tackles all up in Mike Hart's grill?
One: Penn State appears to have an outstanding DT rotation. Though Michigan had played three very sketchy defenses to start the year, they were moving guys like Trevor Laws around like they were on skates. The Lions had guys overpowering Michigan players time and again. They're young but Penn State's defensive line was extremely impressive in the run game.
(Michigan crushing Trevor Laws, who ended up a second round draft pick, remains one of the great mysteries of 2007. That performance was a severe aberration). Ogbu had 3 TFLs in a starting role in that game. Ogbu got replaced later and Odrick broke his ankle; I assume these guys will be fine. Top backup Abe Koroma was supposed to start last year before a broken foot knocked him out of the first half of the season. When he returned the guys in front of him were already playing very well.
Rating: 3. Linebacker U returned with a vengeance over the past few years as Penn State executed a seamless transition from outstanding white guy middle linebacker to outstanding white guy middle linebacker. Posluszny begat Connor who begat Lee who is in the process of begetting Colasanti. Problem: Lee's ACL exploded, knocking out Connor's heir apparent. Between the two losses Penn State is down an astounding 283 tackles, 25.5 behind the line of scrimmage. Suddenly the Penn State linebackers look a little wobbly.
True sophomore Chris Colasanti steps into the middle now. It's not necessarily that Colasanti won't be good. Lee himself was a breakout star as a sophomore, drawing attention in that year's Penn State UFR despite being flanked by both Connor and Posuszny. Whatever crazy mojo Penn State has working isn't going to stop because Sean Lee's ACL isn't cooperating. They're probably good for one unexpectedly excellent linebacker a year. Colasanti may be it; it may be someone else.
The problem comes in options 2 and 3. The past couple years I've documented a slight softening in the Penn State run defense. In 2006, Connor, Posuszny, and Lee were all awesome but the defensive line was devoid of playmakers and big, tough running attacks found success. In 2007, starting weakside linebaker Tyrell Sales had limited production (50 tackles, 5.5 TFL, 3 sacks -- not bad but not Lee) and the run defense slipped to merely above average. Now you're stripping out two good options at defensive tackle and trying to find two new guys to slot in. Touchy.
Fortunately for Penn State fans, at least one player seems likely to suceed. Redshirt sophomore Bani Gbadyu was well-regarded by the recruiting services and initially chose LSU before switching to Penn State; he held offers from 40 schools including Georgia, Ohio State, and Oklahoma. He was going to step into Lee's vacated OLB spot as Lee shifted inside.
The slot vacated by Lee's injury, however, looks dicey. Sophomore MLB Chris Colasanti competes with junior walk-on Josh Hull. Michigan fans will recognize this as the exact same scenario confronting Michigan's much-discussed quarterback search, down to the experience levels and rankings of the recruits involved. (Colasanti saw a total of 48 snaps last year.) At least Colasanti wasn't recruited to be a pocket linebacker, whatever that would mean.
Bowman hasn't been productive and there are two sophomores stepping in to starting roles. Even if they're highly touted they should be a significant step down from the usual terrors. The bet is Bowman remains okay but only that and the newcomers struggle early with one emerging into a potential star late in the year.
Rating: 3. Justin King is off to the middle rounds of the NFL draft; the other five members of the secondary who saw significant time return. This would normally be an excellent sign, but as noted above the Penn State secondary was deceptively mediocre when not allowed to tee off on Jimmah(!) Clausen.
AJ Wallace (right; don't get excited, he's just returning a kick) and Lydell Sargeant return at the corners. Tony Davis joins them after an unproductive season at safety. Sargeant and Wallace fought a pitched battle opposite King last year to see who would be the frequent target of opponents, with Sargeant starting out the year poorly (70 tackles -- most in the secondary -- without a full year of playing time) before being replaced by Wallace.
At safety, Anthony Scirotto returns. He's not as good as everyone thought he was after a six-interception sophomore year, but he did get at least one All Big Ten vote from the coaches last year and that was with an idiotic seven cornerbacks in the eight slots provided for defensive backs. Insert default white guy stuff here: steady, not going to wow you with his athleticism, etc. Ten interceptions in his career is pretty impressive, though, and if the Big Ten named all-confeence teams that made a damn bit of sense he'd probably make it.
Mark Rubin, who's bounced from receiver to safety to receiver and is finally back at safety, replaced Davis late last year when Davis required an emergency appendectomy. He returns and will start opposite Scirotto.
This is probably not good. Rubin started five games, one a nothing game against Temple, another against aerially useless Stephen McGee and A&M. There was one decent performance against Purdue where Curtis Painter threw a bunch but managed only 5.3 YPA. Then this:
OSU QB Todd Boeckman had 253 yards on just 26 attempts, throwing three touchdowns and one interception.
MSU QB Brian Hoyer had 257 yards on 21 attempts, four touchdowns, and two interceptions.
Neither of those guys were exactly world-beaters late last year. Powerful anecdotal evidence from Penn State's official site:
Perhaps no Nittany Lion better defines the term "team player" than fifth-year senior Mark Rubin.
Perhaps no backhanded compliment better says "I can't believe this guy is starting" than overused cliche Team Player. Also: two time academic All Big Ten, an award inversely correlated with being Actual All Big Ten.
So. One good safety, one very probably bad safety. Three experienced cornerbacks, but none who have played particularly well. One should emerge into a star or star-ish player -- probably Wallace, who's younger, was better than Sargeant at the end of last year, and had better guru ratings -- and the others will be okay.
Rating: 4. Last year this preview described Kevin Kelly as "a version of Garrett Rivas with delusions of grandeur." This proved accurate. Kelly was perfect on 17 attempts shorter than 40 yards and 2/7 on attempts further out. Expect more of the same.
Penn State lost a good punter in Jeremy Kapinos last year, but then-junior Jeremy Boone improved significantly on Kapinos' Ray Guy finalist season, averaging 43 yards a kick. Only a third of his punts were even returned, which equals awesome when combined with the gross yardage. Penn State was third in net punting last year. Boone was first-team All Big Ten. A couple anomalous boomers helped out the cause, so expect a small backslide; Penn State should still be top 20 (top 10?) here.
Despite the presence of the universe's fastest man, Penn State returns were mediocre a year ago. AJ Wallace did have a kick return touchdown.
The theory of turnover margin: it is nearly random. Teams that find themselves at one end or the other at the end of the year are highly likely to rebound towards the average. So teams towards the top will tend to be overrated and vice versa. Nonrandom factors to evaluate: quarterback experience, quarterback pressure applied and received, and odd running backs like Mike Hart who just don't fumble.
Not much to see here; close to even is close to even.
Position Switch Starters
Theory of position switches: if you are starting or considering starting a guy who was playing somewhere else a year ago, that position is in trouble. There are degrees of this. When Notre Dame moved Travis Thomas, a useful backup at tailback, to linebacker and then declared him a starter, there was no way that could end well. Wisconsin's flip of LB Travis Beckum to tight end was less ominous because Wisconsin had a solid linebacking corps and Beckum hadn't established himself on that side of the ball. Michigan flipping Prescott Burgess from SLB to WLB or PSU moving Dan Connor inside don't register here: we're talking major moves that indicate a serious lack somewhere.
Mark Rubin doesn't quite count since his position switch happened last year, but I'm still leery of him.
An Embarrassing Prediction, No Doubt
Chris Colasanti and Daryll Clark are the hinge players this year for Penn State. If Clark is even reasonably good the Penn State offense will be one of their best in the last decade. Best of the 50-cent prizes and all that, but it would be a step up. If the defense manages to hang together despite the unexpected losses, 11-1 could be in the offing.
If Clark is Troy Smith in 2005 and Penn State's defense cracks seriously, they could be .500 in conference -- not an uncommon occurrence of late for them -- and lose their actual nonconference game against Oregon State, leaving them at 7-5.
I am hugely surprised to come to this conclusion, but here it is: I think Jay Paterno is on to something with his "Spread HD" thing. He's a horrible quarterbacks coach and can't organize a passing game for crap. He's got a dual-threat quarterback sort of reminiscent of Michael Robinson, a number of little slot receivers who aren't much use downfield, and a decent-to-good running back or two. His entire offensive line is back. So why not adopt an offense that can bang out 6 YPC even when you're using the passing game as a glorified decoy?
I do think that to be great a spread offense has to have a great quarterback -- any offense, really -- and though the system might minimize Daryll Clark's deficiencies, it's not going to turn him into Michael Vick or even Michael Robinson. But I also think that the crushing offensive line is well suited for an offense that wants to run 60 or even 7o percent of the time, that Evan Royster is likely to be at least good, and that Derrick Williams is best deployed on fruity little screens. Penn State's personnel is an excellent fit for the spread 'n' shred and this could be an offense as effective as the 2005 offense was. Which wasn't great by any means, but it was good enough.
One potential caveat: maybe the big burlies up front aren't actually a good fit in a scheme that wants nimble guys to wall off defensive linemen.
Defensively, I think this is the year Penn State takes a noticable step back. They haven't been quite as good the last couple years, but lousy nonconference opponents helped cover that up and Penn State's crappy offense -- which gave opponents every motivation to get 20 points and go home -- did the rest. This year Penn State has a real OOC test in Oregon State and might have an offense that requires opponents to go full-bore.
This is a recipe for some minor unpleasantness when combined with the shaky secondary, somewhat depleted defensive line, and Shawn Lee's ACL tear. If you can get Maurice Evans blocked and get out to the young, confused MLB you'll be able to move the ball some.
@ Ohio State
Again with the caveat that I haven't looked too hard at many Big Ten teams, but I think Penn State goes into the year the most plausible challenger to Ohio State hegemony. They'll probably get submarined a few times along the way due to quarterback struggles or linebacker issues or the general decay of the Paterno era; they're still my tentative pick for #2 in the Big Ten. I'm torn between 9-3 and 10-2 here; I think we'll go with the more conservative estimate: 9-3 it is.
College football deals are signed way in advance. Miami (FL not OH so no hur-hur, haha comments) and OSU agreed to a home and home back around the '02 season and you know when they will be playing it? -- after OSU and USC do their home and home deal. These series are done way in advance so smartass comments like: "so they signed the deal in what, 1997?" are actually the the truth.