Brennan: From a personnel standpoint, Penn State is solid here, with 2005 stalwart Tony Hunt and Orange Bowl hero Austin Scott both returning for their senior seasons at tailback, and BranDon Snow reprising his role as starting fullback. And don't forget how effectively Galen Hall used Derrick Williams (and Justin King) out of the backfield. If there is a serious personnel issue here, it is whether Scott should redshirt to allow him to return as the starter in 2007. I don't see that happening unless true freshman Evan Royster blows away the staff in the preseason.
Harrington: The only real personnel issue is too much depth. The staff will have a challenge leveraging all the backfield talent on this team, particularly with Austin Scott's head-turning performance against Florida State. I also don't expect a redshirt for Scott, even though it would make sense in the long run. Hall certainly has the horses for some backfield creativity, working in a variety of split-back, I-formation and broken-set looks. Not exactly a bad situation to be in.
Harrington: The first priority is to set the depth chart and let the backs know where they stand early on. Obviously Hunt and Snow are the odds-on favorites at running back and fullback, respectively. Hunt needs 1,465 yards to break the all-time PSU career rushing mark set by Curt Warner. Of course, though that number is achievable, the key is getting the offensive line to work effectively out of the gate. An effective run game will take the pressure off the inexperienced quarterback and help to open up the passing game.
Brennan: Shoring up the pass protection from the backs. With a rebuilt offensive line and a new, less mobile quarterback, the backs will play more of a factor in this area. Hunt is a proven commodity here, but the rest of the tailbacks all need to make serious improvement. As for Snow, he has been an outstanding run blocker to this point, but can tighten up his pass protection to round out his game.
Keep An Eye On
Brennan: If he can improve his pass and run blocking, I will not be surprised if fullback Matt Hahn emerges as more of an impact player this fall. Unlike Snow, whose longest play from scrimmage last season was seven yards, Hahn can make things happen when he gets his hands on the pigskin. But we know from experience that he won't see much PT if he can't block effectively, too. Don't get me wrong; Snow is (and should be) THE man at fullback. But Hahn can offer an interesting change of pace.
Harrington: I would keep an eye on Dan Lawlor. Nearly identical to Snow's size, Lawlor is big and powerful and hits like a freight train, according to one observer. If he can stay healthy he could add a lot in the realm of pass protection and also serve as a target out of the backfield. He could be the future of PSU's fullback position and has learned a lot watching Snow.
Behind The Scenes
Harrington: The odd man out once again appears to be Rodney Kinlaw. However, the staff is looking to focus his skills on the return game. In terms of the backfield situation, the staff feels Kinlaw may have the speed to play a role similar to Derrick Williams as a ultility back, as one observer put it. The staff knows it has talent with Kinlaw, but continues to struggle to identify where to use him given the sheer depth of the position.
Brennan: Kinlaw looked lost in the offense last season, but I guess that happens when you get only 16 touches. I still contend a move to DB early in his career might have given him a chance to make more of an impact with the program (outside of special teams). Look for Lydell Sargeant, another scat back-type who is having trouble finding a home on offense, to get a look in the secondary this spring.
Setting The Record Straight
Brennan: OK, so Penn State experimented with the H-back last off-season, with linebacker Tim Shaw moonlighting in the role. But when fellow linebacker Dan Connor was suspended for disciplinary reasons, Shaw moved from inside to outside and the plans to use him at H-back were scrapped. Will he get another look there this spring? Don't count on it. Shaw, about to embark on his senior season, prefers to focus on one position.
Harrington: It seems like every year around spring practice there is buzz around a new form of back that will revolutionize PSU's ground game, be it Z-back, H-back, Superback, etc. While Penn State's staff may incorporate minor elements of new positions, the buzz around these transforming positions is more often than not simply hot air. With the depth of talent PSU has in the backfield, we may hear buzz about an Ultra-megaback appear this off-season, but expect PSU to stick with its standard base backfield set and focus on pass protection along with a solid straight-ahead ground game.