In each installment of this series, we focus on an aspect of or issue with the PSU football program. In this edition we look at the six freshmen players who are unproven but are turning heads in preseason practices.
NOTE: We talked about rookie kicker Sam Ficken in our Pivotal Players Six Pack earlier in the preseason.
Anthony Alosi, DE: Alosi was the only Class of 2011 early enrollee, kicking his career off in January. Given the early jump Alosi has made impressions at defensive end. With the shifting of DaQuan Jones to defensive tackle, Alosi has been battling redshirt freshmen Kyle Baublitz and C.J. Olaniyan attempting to get into the two-deep. Former linebacker Brad Bars is also in the mix.
The extra time has "paid off early" for Alosi, as he has had a jump on the playbook and went through spring drills, where he was introduced to the position and approach of the ends.
"He's working on controlling his shoulders and upper body to get around (the edge)," an observer said. "He's working on engagements and identifying and hitting the gap."
Breaking into the defensive end rotation will be no easy task, but as he progresses with the position and gets more comfortable, "it's a possibility."
Bill Belton, WR: The 5-foot-10, 205-pound wideout gets the first mention among many observers because the staff has him handling some kick returns. "Fast and powerful," is how Belton is described. He has a "strong build" and "good upper-body strength."
Belton's biggest asset appears to be his speed. "He's got good technique and gets a strong stride out of his legs," ne observer explained. He also has a "pretty good eye for anticipating holes." The coaches have worked with him on picking his angles. In terms of receiving, "He has to sharpen his routes; some fast guys feel that they can play looser and can just compensate with their feet."
In regards to overall impact, Belton could be an option on kick returns, but is going up gainst Chaz Powell and fellow speedsters Devon Smith and Alex Kenney. Depending on how they handle the job will likely determine whether Belton has the opportunity to make an early on-field impact.
Shawn Oakman, DE: The 6-7, 260-pound Oakman is another guy who "doesn't look like a freshman" given his "massive size." However, he's also said to be in "good shape" and "well conditioned" entering the program. The sentiment is that the staff wants him to add some weight to his frame, though.
Oakman "will need time with [D-Line coach Larry Johnson]" to learn the end position and "how to make the corner," but observers "like his motor." He also has had good showings in the 1v1/2v2 drills.
Technique is a big thing for Oakman, and along those lines he appears destined for a redshirt. But don't be surprised if he gets a look if injuries are as much a problem at DE this season as they were in 2010.
Donovan Smith, OT: At 6-5, 313 pounds, Smith obviously has eye-popping size. Described as "towering" and a player who "doesn't look like he just graduated from high school," Smith has had a decent preseason showing. Most feel he carries his weight well.
He's shown good endurance, managing the pace of the preseason. "A lot of the bigger guys have a tough time with the pace and heat," one observer said. "He's held his own — it's not easy, but he's in pretty good shape. He needs to get better. But for a guy who just arrived, he's managed well."
Smith has good strength and is "put together well." In terms of impact, he's expected to redshirt barring a rash of injuries with the veterans ahead of him. However, "if he can pick up the technique and scheme I think he could eventually own one of the [tackle spots]. We'll see, but he has a lot of what you can't teach." Penn State starting tackles Chima Okoli and Quinn Barham are both seniors, so it will be interesting to see if the staff keeps Smith with the regular offense in practice this season (as opposed to working with the foreign team) to help him pick up the schemes more quickly and be ready to help in event of an injury.
Matt Zanellato, WR: The 6-3, 184-pound receiver arrived on campus with "a good set of fundamentals" with his game. As one observer said, "He takes care of the ball and has shown consistency with his pull-ins." Zanellato has good size, but also been praised for his quick feet.
He's straight-ahead speed is "not record-breaking," however, "he's quick and with tight routes that can be dangerous." Zanelatto "is pretty precise on routes," which is said to "give him a big advantage among most younger wideouts. He also provides a big target and "uses his body well with the coverage."
With veteran players like Derek Moye, Justin Brown, Shawney Kersey, Devon Smith and Brandon Moseby-Felder in the mix at receiver — not to mention the athletic Belton — it's unlikely the coaches would use up a year of eligibility for limited playing time for Zanelatto. However, some feel that he could step in and perform well enough to really benefit from it.
Anthony Zettel, OL/DL: Zettel has a "great motor," "great burst" and "doesn't quit." As one observer said, "It's pretty clear why he had offers around the country."
At 6-foot-5, 260 pounds, Zettel has seen early work on the offensive and defensive lines this preseason at offensive guard, defensive end and defensive tackle. There has been some "debates" among coaches as to who gets him. In either case the true freshman will likely have to add weight, particularly if he heads to guard or end.
Zettel has impressive strength and is "really built." His initial focus has been with his feet and hands, but "plays right through the whistle." He's aggressive and said to be "very coachable."
When FOS was at practice, Zettel was working with the defensive tackles. That's a pretty good indication that he is headed for a redshirt. While PSU has played some undersized DTs in the past decade (think Jay Alford, Tamba Hali and Jack Crawford when they were young), there is enough talent in the middle of the D-line right now that Zettel does not have to be rushed into action.
Ryan Nowicki, OL: With a 6-5, 280-pound frame, the Arizona native has good size. It's expected that the staff will look to get the O-lineman to add additional weight over the coming year. "His size gives him good inertia, but increasing his baseline strength, particularly with his legs will allow him control the corner better," an observer said.
Nowicki is said to "have a bit of a mean streak." As one observer said, "He's shown some fight out of the gate. He's got work to do, but he's putting the time in."
Nowicki is another lineman who is expected to redshirt this coming season, but "has handled himself well and seems to have his head screwed on."