In each installment of this series, we focus on an aspect of or issue with the Penn State football program. In this edition we look at the six players who are unproven, but if they step up could contribute greatly to Penn State's success in 2011.
Matt Stankiewitch, C: With the loss of Doug Klopacz to graduation (he started all 13 games in 2010) Stankiewitch steps in to take on the challenging role of center. Stankiewitch saw action in five games in 2010 before battling a bout of mono mid-season.
At 6-foot-3, and approaching 300 pounds, Stankiewitch, a redshirt junior, has the size and frame to handle the role. "He's continued to improve picking up the rush and keeping his feet under him," one observer explained. "The biggest challenge is really seeing the alignment and making (adjustment) calls. The job has a lot involved — review the defensive lineup, make adjustments, get a clean snap, pick up your assignment; it's mental and physical."
Stankiewitch is assuming a line with veteran talent on the ends with Quinn Barham at left tackle and Chima Okoli at right tackle. He also has Johnnie Troutman to his left at guard (a starter in 11 games who saw action in all 13 contests last year.
The right guard position needs to be "shored up" with John Urschel (who only saw action in three games in 2010) and DeOn'tae Pannell (who saw action in eight games in 2010) as the main candidates. "The lynchpin to it all is the center; he's got to see and adjust and give the QB a clean delivery and maintain integrity inside."
Jack Crawford/Eric Latimore, DE: OK, this is two guys. But PSU needs these seniors, who are both coming off injuries, to step up this year. This really goes to the entire defensive end unit, but specifically it's "now or never" time for the two seniors. Crawford saw action in 10 games last year, starting in seven of those outings. In those contest he grabbed 14 tackles (four solo), two sacks and 4.5 tackles for loss. Latimore played in the first six games but sat the remainder of the season after sustaining a wrist injury against Illinois.
Crawford dealt with a nagging foot injury last season as well, but simply did not get consistent pressure off the corner to help the line disrupt and collapse pockets.
With the interior of the line in good hands with Devon Still and Jordan Hill leading the way at tackle, the end positions will be critical to disrupting opposing offenses and creating forced errors and opportunities.
The question remains whether Crawford and/or Latimore can pull it all together and serve that role. Neither's preseason has been described in head-turning terms, but the attention Still and Hill tend to demand has opened things up for the ends more. But with ends like Sean Stanley and DaQuan Jones (who is currently at DT, but can play DE) in the mix, Larry Johnson has a variety of options to fill the role, so the seniors should feel the pressure.
Andrew Szczerba, TE Kevin Haplea stepped into a challenging situation last season and played solid for a true freshman. However, with Garry Gilliam still out rehabbing from his torn ACL, all eyes are on Szczerba to help fill in the depth at tight end.
With chronic health issues over his Penn State career, including lingering back problems that knocked him out for all of 2010, Szczerba is said to be "100 percent" and has been practicing this preseason after a limited spring period.
Through the preseason Szczerba has "appeared healthy" and "looks fine" in drills. His combination of receiving skills and ability to block are a needed boost for the passing game in terms of both blocking and serving as a target. The question remains as to if he can remain healthy and provide needed depth to a somewhat shallow unit.
Glenn Carson, MLB: This may be placing a lot of pressure on the sophomore 'backer, but Carson has had a impressive off-season that has afforded him the opportunity to get first-team reps at middle linebacker, referred to as the "QB of the defense." It is position that is not easily picked up all that often by young players.
Carson has shown "athletic prowess" but perhaps more importantly for the MLB position a "aptitude for the position," which is responsible for reading the offense and making defensive adjustments.
Justin Brown, WR: There has been a lot of buzz surrounding Brown and his 6-3 frame since he arrive on campus two years ago. The junior wideout saw action in all 13 games in 2010, starting in seven of those contests.
It was not surprising Brown was unable to bypass Derek Moye as the team's leading receiver last season. However, he also failed to out-perform wideout/tight end Brett Brackett. On the year, Brown pulled in 33 passes for 452 yards (13.7 YPC) and a touchdown.
Those numbers aren't necessarily bad, but the staff is looking for another "step-up threat" in the passing game to pull the focus off Moye, provide options and spread out the attention of opposing secondaries. Brown is no doubt the candidate, and he's had a good off-season, but he'll have to continue progressing with his play to position himself for a break-out year to boost the offense.
Brandon Beachum, RB: Another guy who has battled injuries throughout his career, including an ACL tear late in the 2009 season, is Beachum. Beachum missed the 2010 season, but healthy once again, he's had an "impressive" off-season since the spring period and "could be an impressive combo with Silas [Redd]."
At about 230 pounds, Beachum is described as "powerful" with "a good step" for his size. With the loss of Stephfon Green, Beachum is looked at a critical component of the offensive backfield. "He can run it and has the size to block, he just needs to stay healthy," one observer explained.
If Beachum can continue his off-season performance he should add a nice dimension to the running game with backs like Redd, Joey Suhey and Michael Zordich.
DaQuan Jones, DT: With three solid defensive tackles in the mix with Still, Hill and James Terry, and with Brandon Ware gone, Larry Johnson is looking for a fourth tackle to build into his rotation.
Observers have been high on Jones and his ability to manage assignments and break into the backfield. What may be most impressive, though, is his versatility. Jones saw action in the final nine games last season at tackle and defensive end.
Having a guy who can effectively play inside or outside on the line becomes very beneficial to the staff given the road trip personnel limitations they are held to. Jones has certainly progressed as expected, but having him break into the rotation has been a major plus for the defensive line.