Pressing Questions: PSU's Spring Priority

With Penn State kicking off spring practice today, it is time to draw to a close our Big Ten Pressing Questions confronting the program. Over the past week and a half, FOS scribes Mark Harrington and Mark Brennan have tackled one question per day. Today, in the final installment, they talk about the team's main goals for the spring.

1. Penn State's single most important goal of the spring should be:

BRENNAN ANSWERS: Improving the offensive line. For everything we've talked about in this series — coaches and players on hot seats, disco music, pimping rides with “turbo under the hood” — the ultimate success or failure of any college football program usually boils down to the performance of its offensive line. Penn State is no different. The Lions have not had a great line or lineman in a decade now. It is hardly a coincidence they've not had a great team in that stretch, either. I'm guessing the recent suspension situation will shake down with at least two of the three offensive linemen involved returning for the 2005 season, so this area will have experience and depth. Now it has to produce.

HARRINGTON RESPONDS: As much as I'd love to, I can't disagree with you on this one. The skill positions are moot points if the quarterback isn't protected, doesn't have time to deliver the ball, or the running backs don't have lanes to run through. The success of all three points directly to the offensive line. Hear that? Mr. Opportunity is knocking on the door for the younger linemen, the question is will they answer it? Come on guys, don't leave the man waiting.

HARRINGTON ANSWERS: It's simple: win. This team needs a winning attitude. It needs confidence — something in which Derrick Williams should teach a class. The goal should be win, win, win. Success is what the program lacks — it is a fundamental that Penn State must become experts in. This team needs confidence first and foremost - the players must believe they can win every game and not just believe it, but know they will win. Attitude goes so far — you go into something with a negative attitude and you're already half way to defeat.

BRENNAN RESPONDS: Hey, I thought you were a Justin King guy. As much as I hate to close this discussion by agreeing with you, you have a point. The early schedule is set up for the Nittany Lions to have a strong start, which should lead to more confidence. That will be critical for the rest of the season and beyond. The best way to begin this chain reaction is with a great spring.

2. What is the most overblown storyline of the spring:

HARRINGTON ANSWERS: Dare I say the H-back storyline? Remember a few years ago when the rumors circulated around the addition of a “superback?” Word is Penn State has trapped a young sasquatch and is teaching it the “superback” position as we speak. I don't see PSU incorporating a new position as complex as a true H-back is. I think if we see anything it will be a glorified slot-receiver post that is referred to as the H-back.

BRENNAN RESPONDS: By God, you're finally starting to make sense. In the spirit of Easter, you'll get no argument from me.

BRENNAN ANSWERS: Michael Robinson vs. Anthony Morelli at quarterback. We've all followed Joe Paterno long enough to know he won't turn his back on a senior like Robinson, who has sacrificed so much for the program. If Matt Senneca received his shot as the undisputed No. 1 QB, you better believe Robinson will get that and more. His future in the NFL will be at another position, but once Robinson and the staff agreed he'd be under center as a senior, the starting job became his. From this angle, Morelli is as likely to redshirt as start.

HARRINGTON RESPONDS: You said it. Morelli probably has a better chance at the H-back spot than he does to start at QB out of the gate. That is not because of a lack of talent, either. Paterno himself just said, “I think Morelli is too good to sit on the bench all of the football game.”

3. What is one change I'd like to see that won't happen:

BRENNAN ANSWERS: A new quarterbacks coach. Someone I respect said if Penn State QB coach Jay Paterno had a different last name, he wouldn't receive nearly as much criticism as he gets. I respectfully disagree. In the five years he's been at the position, has anyone improved under JayPa? Zack Mills and Michael Robinson both had better passer ratings as freshmen than they did last season. PSU needs someone with a proven track record with quarterbacks.

HARRINGTON RESPONDS: You're such a tease! You're right, we won't be seeing that anytime soon.

HARRINGTON ANSWERS: I would love to see Penn State consistently run a four-receiver set to spread the field thin and give the passing game a variety of options. And send one or two of those receivers across the flat once in a while and actually throw to them. Scratch that, late reports indicate Derrick Williams will see time at the No. 3 and No. 4 receiver spots … how about a play-calling system that doesn't require a decision-tree, a set of dice and a game of telephone?

BRENNAN RESPONDS: I would love to see “Gentle Thursday” resurrected on the Hub Lawn this spring, too. Don't you need four decent wideouts to run a four-wideout set? Even if the Lions had them (which they don't this spring), I'm not buying it. Penn State will never get back to being a consistent Top 25 program until it re-establishes itself as a physically dominating outfit. As for the play-calling system, I'm with you on that.

4: If I could move one player from defense to offense, it would be:

Editor's Note: These answers were given before the news hit of three offensive linemen and one defensive lineman being suspended from the team.

HARRINGTON ANSWERS: I would go with J.R. Zwierzynski. He reportedly wants to play fullback, the position he tore up in high school. With Dan Connor, Paul Posluszny, Dontey Brown and Tim Shaw at linebacker, and Jerome Haynes and Sean Lee coming, the linebacker spot is getting back-filled quickly.

BRENNAN RESPONDS: If JRZ wants to “tear it up,” he's better off staying at linebacker. Last season, the PSU 'backers had more yards on interception returns (22) than the Lion fullbacks had rushing (four). What in the name of Matt Suhey is going on here? Now, if you want to put Zwierzynski at H-back, I'm all for it. Come to think of it, I'd try every defensive player at H-back. All of them except A.Q. Shipley, that is.

BRENNAN ANSWERS: How about Rodney Kinlaw? Just kidding there. I'll point to my other obsession of the spring, the offensive line, which is in serious need of an attitude adjustment. I know, the current line is full of former high school All-Americans with great size and athletic ability. But take away their hunting gear, and the players I've seen couldn't intimidate Bambi. That's where A.Q. comes in. Though only a redshirt freshman, the big boy looks mean and is mean.

HARRINGTON RESPONDS: A.Q. got a shot on the O-line and hated it. The kid is a force. Penn State should exploit it by playing him where he wants to play — defense. I'd rather have him pumped to play defensive tackle than play half-heartedly on the offensive line.

5. If I could move one player from offense to defense, it would be:

BRENNAN ANSWERS: I can't shake the image of an explosive athlete like Rodney Kinlaw spending most of his career on the bench. Haven't we seen this movie before, starring Kenny Watson, Omar Easy, Eddie Drummond and — to an extent — Larry Johnson. All NFL-caliber players; all misused in Happy Valley. One of the knocks on Kinlaw has been that he has bad hands. That's not nearly as big a problem in the secondary as it is for a tailback or slot back. Austin Scott's injury will preclude this from happening this spring, but I'd like to see it in the future.

HARRINGTON RESPONDS: Wow, you are all about messing up Kinlaw, huh? First you have the guy on the hot seat and now you want to bump him to defense? What did Rodney ever do to you?

HARRINGTON ANSWERS: Isn't offense the side of the ball that needs all the help? I have always wondered how Dan Lawlor would do as a small defensive end or a big linebacker. Not that I would move him. Honestly, there are not a lot of spots on offense that are solid enough in my view to pull someone out.

BRENNAN RESPONDS: Strike up the Blue Band, Harrington (almost) delivered a direct answer. As for messing up Kinlaw: When an athlete of his caliber has a grand total of 93 rushing yards and zero receiving yards (not to mention the lowest per-carry average of all the tailbacks) in his first season of eligibility, I'd say someone beat me to it.

6. One walk-on who will make some noise is:

HARRINGTON ANSWERS: Ross Muir. He has the size, power and heart to make an impact on the offensive or defensive line. He is coming off an ACL tear from last year, but has impressive speed for a big man. My close second is DB Deon Butler. Not the biggest guy, but some turbo under the hood and good hands to boot. Oh, one more, keep an eye on Ryan Harford at fullback, who we recently uncovered.

BRENNAN RESPONDS: Turbo under the hood? You've been watching too much “Pimp My Ride.

BRENNAN ANSWERS: Lineman Tommy Schnell. He reportedly exhibited serious potential on the foreign team O-line last season. The way this line has gone in recent years, would it surprise anyone if a walk-on like Muir or Schnell made a strong push up the depth chart? That, of course, is if they don't somehow land on defense. The other key walk-on, obviously, is place-kicker Pat Humes. He has a shot to set a tone this spring before Kevin Kelly comes rolling in.

HARRINGTON REPONDS: Doesn't Schnell mean “fast” in German? Hmmmm … you may be onto something. Maybe he has some turbo under the hood, too.

7. Bigger immediate impact, King or Williams:

BRENNAN ANSWERS: Both players will be important this spring and next season. But since I have to pick one, it'll be Derrick Williams. I expect his playmaking ability and winning attitude to rub off on the other receivers. That should make life easier for the quarterbacks and struggling offensive line. If he stays healthy, I can see him hitting the end zone as a receiver, rusher and passer next fall.

HARRINGTON RESPONDS: Receiver, rusher and passer? OK, Brennan, let's not get any wild and crazy ideas here. Next thing you'll be predicting is Penn State throwing to the tight end … I need a drink!

HARRINGTON ANSWERS: I love Williams' big-play ability, but I have to go with Justin King. Why? Special teams. With King on returns the Lions could get an immediate impact in the battle for field position. This is huge, and an impact he can make by himself. Best of all, if they stick King out there, fans can get the bad Bee Gees music out of their head, which comes to mind every time Calvin Lowry “busts a move” on returns. Plus, King could see time in the secondary. Williams' impact depends on a variety of other factors, including a QB who can deliver the ball. King wins this race.

BRENNAN RESPONDS: Enough of this Jive Talkin' Harrington. Though Lowry has been Stayin' Alive in his role as primary punt-return man for two years, we all agree King would be an improvement over that Tragedy. Nobody Gets Too Much Love from Joe Paterno, but Lowry has come close. I'll believe the coach will replace a senior (and two-year) starter when I see it happen. However that battle plays out, I think it is safe to say King and Williams will help restore an element of Saturday Afternoon Fever to Beaver Stadium. You Should Be Dancing next fall.

8. One Penn State coach on the hot seat is:

HARRINGTON ANSWERS: Anyone associated with that offensive line. I mean, come on, Zack Mills was lucky to walk out of Happy Valley with all his limbs attached after the hits absorbed last year. This year is what, strike five for the offensive line staff?

BRENNAN RESPONDS: Can we start playing by the rules here? The question asked for one coach. With that said…

BRENNAN ANSWERS: If you are going to cheat, so am I. It's my job to name names, and the TWO people who must pick it up are Bill Kenney and Dick Anderson. Penn State's offensive line has been so bad for so long now that someone besides the players must be held accountable. If nothing else, PSU ought to turn over the whole unit to Anderson.

HARRINGTON RESPONDS: Weren't those who I was getting to? You want answers, Brennan?

BRENNAN RESPONDS: I want the truth!

HARRINGTON COUNTERS: You can't handle the truth if you think Dick Anderson is the solution. God bless him, but this unit needs to be torn down and built back up. It's back to basics and it starts with coaching, philosophy and strategy. As the offensive line goes, so goes the offense.

9. Which one player is on the hot seat:

BRENNAN ANSWERS: Rodney Kinlaw. With Austin Scott out due to a broken ankle, Kinlaw will get more reps at tailback. If the speedy redshirt sophomore does not make the most of this chance by showing he is completely past the injury issues and poor hands which have hurt him to this point of his career, he could be left in the dust.

HARRINGTON RESPONDS: Kinlaw has the speed and moves, but has not had the opportunity. My concern circulates around his size, but if he is given the shot he will make the most of it. He'd better, because Lydell Sargeant is reporting for duty soon.

HARRINGTON ANSWERS: Can I go with an entire unit? If yes, it's gotta be the offensive line. These guys have got to pull it together and give this offense a fighting chance. If I have to pick one guy … no I'll stick with the starting five — none of them should be safe headed into spring sessions.

BRENNAN RESPONDS: Come on, Harrington. Pick a player. Any player. Of all the linemen, this year is most critical for Levi Brown. He was terrific as a freshman before falling into a sophomore slump. This season, we'll discover if he's the real deal or if the rookie success was an aberration.

10. Over/under on Blue-White game attendance (the scrimmage will take place April 23):

HARRINGTON ANSWERS: It's a peek at the future baby!

Nice weather with both King and Williams: 65,000

Nice weather with just one playing: 60,000

Nice weather with neither playing: 50,000

Poor weather with both playing: 50,000

Poor weather with just one playing: 35,000

Poor weather with neither playing: 30,000

BRENNAN RESPONDS: What, no number for partly cloudy and Francis Claude playing?

BRENNAN ANSWERS: 45,000. I understand it could be a carnival atmosphere, though (stayed tuned to FOS for more on this).

HARRINGTON RESPONDS: Carnival? I can only imagine what kind of freaks that will attract. I think your number is a little light. With the prospect of getting a first look at King and Williams in Blue and White — in other words, history — I don't care if they stand around thumb-wrestling in their uniforms, more than 50,000 will show up to see them. Add in seeing Connor and Poz and the Nittany Nation will be out in force.

11. The first revealing comment Joe Paterno makes at his pre-spring practice press conference (Wednesday at 12:30 p.m.) will be:

Editor's Note: These answers were given before Paterno's press conference. To see which (if either) prediction came true, check out our coverage of the event here.

BRENNAN ANSWERS: “Don't discount Paul from South Carolina.” He'll be referring to redshirt freshman quarterback Paul Cianciolo. Though the “don't discount” line has been a kiss o' death for other Lion QBs (think Chad Kroell, Matt Senneca and Chris Ganter), I'm hearing very good things about Paul from South Carolina.

HARRINGTON RESPONDS: Good call. I've been an early fan of PC. Don't get me wrong, Morelli's arm could be the best Penn State has ever had in its arsenal, but I hear Cianciolo has been a diamond in the rough with heart, head and humility. Don't expect him to launch 70-yard, flat-footed bombs, a la the “Italian Stallion,” but don't count him out either.

HARRINGTON ANSWERS: “We can do some things we haven't done before with some of this young talent.” Translation: I have a supercharged set of freshmen who will scorch your whale pants and set your purple poncho on fire. That is, if I think they are ready to play. I doubt even Paterno can keep these two phenoms off the field.

BRENNAN RESPONDS: You can bet your whale pants Paterno neither brings up star rookies Justin King and Derrick Williams, nor answers questions about them. He helped created the hype. Now he's going to try to diminish.

This completes our series. Stay tuned to FOS for more On Your Marks discussions from Harrington and Brennan in the near future.

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