On Saturday, the Nittany Lions will start to find out which, if any, of those changes will pay off this season. Quarterback Michael Robinson is as eager as anyone to see how it goes.
I'm anxious, very anxious, to get out there and see what our offense does against people other than ourselves, he said Wednesday. Our defense knows exactly what we're going to do, and it still works [in practice]. So I'm interested to see how we do against a different team.
The Lions threw for 180.8 yards per game last season. Among Big Ten teams, only Ohio State and Wisconsin fared worse, and the Badgers' low numbers were largely a reflection of their emphasis on the running game.
Robinson sounded confident the Lions would fare better this season, partly because he expects to fare better personally. The fifth-year senior admitted he sometimes tried too hard to make plays as a younger quarterback, forcing passes where they didn't belong. His career statistics reflect that trait. Robinson's completion rate is a modest 44.3 percent, and he's thrown more interceptions (11) than touchdown passes (6).
I always felt like to get a 50-yard gain, I had to throw the ball 50 yards, he said. But I can throw the ball 10 yards and let the receiver do the rest.
So he hopes, anyway. The past two years, the Lions lacked receivers with the speed and elusiveness to make yardage after the catch. Now, he believes he has them.
One of those players is newcomer Derrick Williams. The presence of a true freshman atop the published preseason depth chart may be unprecedented at Penn State, which in the past shielded its rookies from the attention such publicity invited. But it would probably be futile to try shielding Williams and fellow freshmen Justin King and Lydell Sargeant, both of whom are listed behind Williams and redshirt sophomore Terrell Golden at wideout. After all, much of the praise those players have received has come from their teammates.
Those guys have made big plays against our first-team defense, and [the defensive backs] were beating our receivers up with press coverage, Robinson said. They're turning short plays into big gains. They don't seem nervous this week. They're still making big plays, big catches. At this stage, that's all you can ask for.
Senior cornerback Anwar Phillips said the secondary was determined to show the team's new playmakers what to expect at the college level. He said they were nervous at first but settled down and began to make plays in practice.
Now they understand the tempo, Phillips said. The battles are changing, they're catching on to things. The game is basically slowing down for them. They can calm their emotions and do their special moves, their patented moves, on defenders.
They should have an opportunity to do just that if the Lions deploy their new spread offense against South Florida. Robinson said he expects the Lions to use the formation in their opener. Penn State tried out the spread in the off-season, joining a number of Big Ten teams that have adopted the new look. He likes the spread because it unmasks coverage schemes and makes the quarterback's job easier.
Defenses have to declare early, Robinson said. There's a lot more opportunity for big plays to happen, and that's what we want this year.
It didn't happen at all last year, and the breakdowns in the passing game had a ripple effect that stifled the entire offense. The Lions averaged 17.7 points, worst in the Big Ten. It's a memory they want desperately to put behind them. Way behind them.
We've been wanting to play football since senior day last year against Michigan State, Robinson said. I'm anxious to go out there and see what we can do.