Take Your Marks: Spring Offense

Mark Brennan and Mark Harrington go over where the Penn State offense stands heading into the summer. Who projects as the MVP? Who must step up? They tackle those questions and more.

Welcome to the latest installment of Take Your Marks, the occasional series in which FOS staffers Mark Brennan and Mark Harrington discuss and debate Penn State football. In this edition, they tackle the Nittany Lion offense coming out of spring practice.

No sense wasting time. Who will be the starting quarterback in the fall?

Mark Brennan: Matt McGloin. In his most telling comment of the spring, new head coach Bill O'Brien said he was most concerned with the decision-making and accuracy of the QBs, as well as their ability to grasp the offense. There was nothing about arm strength or size (where Paul Jones and Rob Bolden both have an edge on McGloin). And there was nothing about speed (none of the three is especially fast, so that's really a wash, anyway). McGloin's career completion percentage, touchdown-to-interception ration and QB rating are all much better than Bolden's numbers. And while Jones made strides in the spring, he was said to be inconsistent. That's hardly surprising considering he has never taken a snap in a college game. Look for McGloin to be the man and Jones to earn the second-team job. The staff would be wise to redshirt Bolden so he can get a year of seasoning playing against the Lions' first-team defense.

Mark Harrington: While I think many fans are hopeful that Paul Jones will be able to pull it off, I agree. O'Brien and QBs coach Charlie Fisher are looking for a quarterback who can do his job but doesn't have to carry the team. While I think Jones has the physical advantage, it's going to be hard to ignore the experience of McGloin -- although he's only won six games as a starter he has had opportunities to come off the bench and win some games. Jones is said to have the arm strength but given his lack of game experience I am skeptical that they will give him the straight nod. I do expect him to see some snaps in early games, though. Personally, and this may be harsh, I am not sure the redshirt makes all that much sense for Bolden with Steven Bench and Christian Hackenberg coming to PSU, and Jones making strides.

What is the biggest offensive concern heading into the offseason?

Mark Harrington: I have to go with the offensive line. No doubt Craig Fitzgerald's revamp of the strength program has helped the offensive linemen the most, with players like Adam Gress and Miles Dieffenbach in particular. On top of that the line has seen some impressive off-season progress from players, but across the anticipated starting line of LT: Gress, LG: Dieffenbach, C: Matt Stankiewich, RG: John Urschel, RT: Donovan Smith you have 11 starts, all by Stankiewich last season. Granted, the coaches have liked the early cohesion of the line and Mac McWhorter gives the front a fresh look. But it's hard to ignore the inexperience the unit has on the whole, particularly with questions surrounding the quarterback situation.

Mark Brennan: A key for the offensive line is that Penn State won't face a really stout defensive front until the midway point of the season. So the reshuffled unit ought to be able to develop some chemistry by the time it travels to Iowa and then faces Ohio State at home in games No. 7 and 8. A more pressing concern to me is whether the entire unit will be able to absorb the offense O'Brien brought with him from the New England Patriots. This is a complete overhaul, one where guys at all the skill positions are asked to make post-snap reads. The players are excited about it, which is good. But how are they all going to respond when live game action starts?

Who will be the offensive MVP?

Mark Brennan: Tailback Silas Redd was the star of the show last year and I only see him improving in O'Brien's offense. The team's leading rusher caught just nine passes in 2011, and I'll bet that number triples this year. Also, the versatility of O'Brien's offense should prevent opposing defenses from keying on Redd as much as they did last season. That will lead to more big-gainers.

Mark Harrington: Redd is the obvious pick, but I am going to go with Justin Brown, who is now the go-to receiver in the unit with Derek Moye's departure. He's said to have increased confidence and is stronger. Granted that brings more attention to him, but if he can get someone to deliver the ball with any semblance of consistency I expect him to top the 35 catches for 517 yards and two touchdowns he had last season.

Which offensive player (regardless of class) will surprise people?

Mark Harrington: I am going with wideout Allen Robinson. With Brown attracting the attention of defenses, this should open things up for Robinson, who had an impressive spring and is said to run sharp routes and have sound receiving fundamentals. PSU will need a multitude of targets, so if Robinson can step up it will add a crucial dimension to the offensive scheme.

Mark Brennan: Tight end Garry Gilliam is poised to have a big year. After missing nearly two full seasons with an ACL injury (and complications in his recovery), he has returned with a vengeance in O'Brien's tight end-friendly attack. Gilliam is huge (6-foot-6, 277 pounds), athletic and has good hands. He worked off the rust in the spring and by the end of drills appeared to be a full speed. Had he been healthy, Gilliam would have been (by far) Penn State's best tight end the last two years.

It is now or never for which player?

Mark Brennan: Gress. The redshirt junior offensive tackle received strong reviews from teammates and coaches in the spring. Most agreed he had benefited from the new strength program as much as anyone on the roster. After seeing limited action through the 2011 season, Gress was penciled in as the starting left tackle at the outset of spring ball and was never seriously challenged. In the Blue-White Game, however, he was beaten several times by second-team defenders. While that could very well have been because the offense was extremely limited, it was still troubling to see. There are so many variables at work in this new passing attack, but none of them will matter if Gress and the rest of the linemen can't keep the quarterback (whoever it may be) safe. This will be a defining season for Gress, one that tells us whether the 6-6, 306-pounder has NFL potential or one that reminds us why he was on the pine the past few years.

Mark Harrington: Wideout Devon Smith; Smith saw action in all 13 games last season, grabbing 25 passes for 402 yards and two touchdowns. Over the past two seasons he caught 40 passes for 444 yards. Granted, his yardage through the air improved by a factor of about 8.5 from his sophomore to junior years, but he hasn't stepped into that versatile weapon many expected him to. The question is whether O'Brien's staff will changeup how they position and use Smith given that they have discussed their mantra of "speed in space." However, with a foot injury that knocked him out of spring drills and coping with an off-field incident, Smith has a tough incline to get over to make a greater impact this spring.

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