By now you have heard about how Penn State is turning the page to a new chapter in their football history this weekend. That could not be farther from the truth. Penn State is starting a brand new book altogether when it hosts Ohio on Saturday (12 p.m. / ESPN).
You do not need me, or anyone else, to remind you just how much has changed at Penn State, but I will do it anyway. Former New England Patriots offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien steps in to the middle of one of the biggest reconstruction projects of all-time, following in the footsteps of a fallen icon in Joe Paterno as the program receives a massive punch to the gut in the form of crippling NCAA sanctions – a four year postseason ban, massive reduction in scholarships and a $60 million fine – and the entire university and community continues to search for answers amid a lack of responsible leadership.
The NCAA has granted free transfers to any Penn State player choosing to leave, and some have taken that rare opportunity, including running back Silas Redd (USC), wide receiver Justin Brown (Oklahoma), linebacker Khairi Fortt (Cal) and kicker Anthony Fera (Texas). A few others have left the program, including some recruits, which was to be expected, and O’Brien will have a tough job ahead of him to keep more players from leaving in the off season.
Yes, it is a brand new era for Penn State football. They even have names on the jerseys now. But Saturday afternoon will serve a larger purpose for many. It will be an opportunity for the community and fans to come together and get a release from the real life issues that loom larger than football. While the conduct and statements of some in the Penn State community appear to do more harm than good, everybody at this point deserves a couple hours to have nothing more to worry about than a football game, even if that does play in to the culture argument that has been widely discussed.
So, what can we expect from Penn State as it opens the 2012 season? That’s an excellent question, because it’s nearly impossible to answer at this point.
The defense should be in solid condition, with Marple Newtown’s Pete Massaro back from another ACL injury and looking to see some time on the defensive line. As expected from Penn State, the linebackers will also be in good form, with last year’s three starters back for another fall, including Michael Mauti. Mauti is also coming back from an ACL injury, but he has worked hard to be ready to go this season and his senior leadership will be vital for keeping this team together. Mauti will be joined by Glenn Carson and Gerald Hodges, who turned down a chance to enter the NFL Draft to come back for his senior season.
The name fans around the Big Ten will likely get to know from Penn State’s defense will be defensive tackle Jordan Hill, who looks to follow in the footsteps of Devon Still and Jared Odrick. Hill is a monster in the trenches but will be in for a tough test against Ohio’s offensive line, who does as good a job protecting quarterback Tyler Tettleton as any line in the country (well, except for Alabama, perhaps). The success of the front seven will be key because Penn State must replace all four starters in the secondary. Sophomore Adrian Amos looks to be the young player to watch this season, as he can move from defensive back to safety if needed.
The concerns are clearly on the offense. Matt McGloin is far from Tom Brady, although he has joked otherwise, and with a new crop of wideouts looking to replace the three leading receivers from last season (Derek Moye graduated, Brown transferred and Devon Smith was cut and transferred to Marshal), who knows what to expect from the passing game. Further complicating things could be the fact that McGloin and everyone on the offense will be looking to pick up a new style. Of course, with new players stepping in to the receiving game perhaps the offensive philosophy change may not be as much a detriment as it could for most teams. Allen Robinson, Shawney Kersey and Alex Kenney will be some of the names to watch step in to the receiver spots.
With Silas Redd moving to the west coast, O’Brien is not being shy about hyping up sophomore Bill Belton, who was used as a wildcat option late last season under interim head coach Tom Bradley. O’Brien quickly made sure he was moved to running back and was prepping him to back-up Redd. Now O’Brien says Belton is a guy he can count on for a good number of carries each week.
O’Brien is breathing new life into the Penn State football program in more ways than one, but now he needs to find a way to win some football games. Or at the very least, prove he knows how to be a head coach. Success for Penn State now will not be measured in wins and losses on the field, but how the team sticks together on and off the field.
Whatever lies ahead for O’Brien and Penn State, it begins Saturday afternoon at noon, against the Ohio Bobcats.
Follow Kevin’s college football coverage on Twitter @KevinOnCFB.