TYM: Spring Practice Issues

FightOnState.com staffers Mark Harrington and Mark Brennan take off the gloves in the latest edition of our occasional series, tackling a variety of issues confronting the Penn State football team and eschewing the the holiday spirit to a few pot shots at each other.

Welcome to another installment of Take Your Marks, the occasional series where FOS staffers Mark Harrington and Mark Brennan discuss and debate timely issues regarding the Penn State football program. In this edition, the two tackle a variety of topics relating to spring practice and the 2006 season.

WHAT ARE YOUR THOUGHTS ON THE QUARTERBACK POSITION COMING OUT OF LAST WEEKEND'S COACHES CLINIC SCRIMMAGE?

BRENNAN: If the offensive line can keep his jersey clean, junior Anthony Morelli will be fine as the starter. He has clearly accepted the role of leader and has the arm, athletic ability and confidence to get the job done. From what we witnessed in the scrimmage, however, there have to be some serious concerns about the backup QBs.

HARRINGTON: I am with you on the offensive line serving as the lynchpin for Morelli's success, but my greater concern is with the depth of the position. With the odds-on backup, Daryll Clark, out for spring practice, the second-team job has been a tossup between Paul Cianciolo and Kevin Suhey. Unfortunately, despite some moderate success, neither has seized the opportunity. That means the staff will look to Clark once he returns, as well as incoming freshmen Brett Brackett and Pat Devlin, which translates into some serious early pressure for both to pick up the offense and perform out of the gate. Either way, protecting Morelli is job one for the line.

BRENNAN AGAIN: You can bet your lynchpin that in his Blue-White Game press conference, Joe Paterno will say Penn State “is fine” at QB, and that he has faith in the young passers on the roster. Yet I was wondering why, even after landing Brackett to an already crowded quarterback corps, the Nittany Lions went after Devlin with such vigor last winter. After watching the Coaches Clinic Scrimmage, I get it. The Penn State offense is going to be in a world of short-term hurt if Morelli is … uh … hurt.

HARRINGTON FINAL WORD: Which brings us back to the offensive line — if it protects Morelli and keeps him healthy, Penn State has a shot at having a high-flying offense. If Morelli gets the Zack Mills treatment from his line, there will be serious issues for the offense. Looks like the offense is once again “walking the line” this season.

WHAT'S ALL THIS I HEAR ABOUT THE 3-4 DEFENSE AND HOW MUCH HAS PENN STATE USED IT IN THE SPRING?

HARRINGTON: That buzz you heard through the early going of spring was not from the bees, but from some exciting storylines that invariably pop up at this time of year. Sometimes these storylines turnout to be true (like Spencer Ridenhour's shift to safety), but more often than not they do not (like Deon Butler to corner or Mark Rubin to tight end). In regards to the 3-4, the PSU staff went down to Morgantown, W.Va., to take a look at the Mountaineers' 3-4 “odd-stack” defensive set in the off-season. At best the staff will implement this as a situational scheme, similar to the use of the nickel and penny sets, while maintaining the 4-3 as the defense's base set. In order to effectively run this 3-4 as a base, the staff would have to find a monster defensive tackle to play the nose. That could be Ed Johnson or incoming freshman Phillip Taylor, but Johnson is shaking off the rust from his year off and Phillips has yet to even suit up in blue and white. The team finally introduced some 3-4 drills last Monday, but the set has only been seen limited action so far.

BRENNAN: With the depth the program has at linebacker, the staff was expected to consider a 3-4 in the off-season. But with the return of Johnson from his 2005 suspension, along with fellow tackle Jason Alford and end Jim Shaw, I'm sure the coaches realized they had a strong nucleus of linemen around which to build a conventional base 4-3 set. With all of that said, they wouldn't be toying with the 3-4 unless they felt it was a way to — on occasion — get talented young 'backers like Sean Lee, Tyrell Sales and Jerome Hayes on the field next fall.

HARRINGTON AGAIN: Settle down there and take a hit of your Ritalin before you get too caught up in this. Sure, the coaches realize they need to take full advantage of the talent logjam at linebacker, but I don't see the 3-4 as the long-term answer, beyond it being a situational set. However, if they can effectively use the stack, nickel and penny sets in specific situations, they have the ability to get young impact guys like Lee and Ridenhour in on the action this season, both of whom could possibly play safety or linebacker.

BRENNAN FINAL WORD: You can pass on the Ritalin in favor of a memory supplement. Because even with Connor missing three games last season, no linebacker besides him, Posluszny and Shaw had more than 19 tackles. Coordinator Tom Bradley just is not big on rotating his starting linebackers or defensive backs, especially when he has proven commodities on the first team. Also, as you know, PSU's nickel and dime defenses actually take linebackers OFF the field, and the penny does not add a 'backer. Situational or not, if PSU is going to get the young 'backers playing time, some version of the 3-4 will likely be part of the answer.

WILL MARK RUBIN, WHO BEGAN HIS PSU CAREER AS A WIDEOUT, STAY AT SAFETY?

BRENNAN: This is one of the real quandaries for the coaching staff. While not a natural safety, Rubin looked comfortable at the position in the Coaches Clinic Scrimmage. He did not shy away from contact, was solid in run support and better than I expected in coverage. Trouble is, if he remains on the third team, I can't see him getting many reps in the regular season. I'll bet you couldn't tell me who PSU's third-team safeties were last season without the aid of a depth chart. With the three- and four-wide sets we are sure to see in the fall, he can make more of an impact at receiver.

HARRINGTON: “Quandaries?” Look who broke out their SAT prep guide for this report. While Rubin can probably play safety, I'd argue that he is not suited to work his way up a depth chart boasting the likes of Donnie Johnson, Anthony Scirrotto, Ridenhour, Nolan McCready and well as a possible corner or two who could eventually shift over. He saw some first-team reps in Wednesday's scrimmage, but he lacks the “initial explosiveness” on reads. Rubin has shown he is an effective wideout who can pull in clutch passes. Though many fans may point to his relative lack of speed as a detriment to his ability to beat out the likes of Derrick Williams, Deon Butler, Jordan Norwood or James McDonald, Rubin's size gives the receiving unit an added dimension, particularly as a possession target. For those who are chomping at the bit to see him at tight end, his 214-pound frame isn't nearly big enough to play that position effectively.

BRENNAN AGAIN: Stop agreeing with me, already. As for my SAT score, let's just say I'm glad I didn't have to deal with any Clearinghouse before going to college. If Rubin does move back to wideout, as we both expect, I think he'll be a better receiver because of his time on defense. Having played in the secondary, he'll have a greater sense for what opponents are trying to do to stop him.

HARRINGTON FINAL WORD: Believe me, agreeing with you pains me deeply, but never before have you been right so often. The bottom line is that with all of the other players there, the safety positions simply don't need Rubin. Keeping him there will be a misuse of his abilities. On the other hand, adding him back to the wide receiver unit can be another weapon for Morelli and the passing game.

WHO DO YOU SEE EMERGING AT TIGHT END?

HARRINGTON: This position is among the weakest on the squad. The coaches are stressing the ability to block first and foremost in order to maintain consistent pocket integrity for Morelli. However, the staff still would like to have the tight end to have the ability to pull in a pass or two. Through the spring Patrick Hall has seen the bulk of first-team reps, however as of late Jordan Lyons has moved up to the second team. The staff is working him hard to read, pick up and hold his blocks. Many observers feel Lyons could play the role effectively, given he is an excellent pass-catcher.

BRENNAN: For the record, Hall had more TD catches (2) than Derrick Williams (1), Jordan Norwood (0) and Isaac Smolko (0) combined last season. Of course, they were his only two grabs of the year, and both came on tight end release plays from goal-line formations. So he was not exactly stretching the field. Though injuries to Lyons and the smartly named Brennan Coakley have hurt the overall development of this position, with the number of scholarship tight ends on the roster this spot should not be the huge question mark it is. I have no idea who will get the most snaps at tight end this season, but I would not be surprised if true freshman Andrew Quarless finished with the most catches.

HARRINGTON AGAIN: It is a tall order for a true freshman to come in and make an impact like you are suggesting with Quarless. Given that the tight end position has Hall, Lyons, Kevin Darling, Francis Claude, J.R. Zwierzynski and Coakley in the mix, Quarless better bring his “A” game off the bat if he expects to make the impact you are suggesting he will - particularly with his blocking.

BRENNAN FINAL WORD: I have a sneaking suspicion one of Galen Hall's next tasks will be transforming tight end from the soup kitchen it has become — give us your tired, your poor, your huddled former linebackers and defensive ends — into a more viable part of the passing game. Quarless obviously won't have the most pancake blocks of the group. But he will have the most athletic ability, and even if he does not start I'm betting that translates into a fair number of catches.

WHAT IS YOUR OVER/UNDER FOR THE BLUE-WHITE GAME?

BRENNAN: After last spring's nasty weather, PSU is due for a sunny Blue-White afternoon. I'll go with 58,000.

HARRINGTON: 58,000? Puh-lease! If the weather holds I think Beaver Stadium sees upward of 65,000. After all, we are talking about the fans having the ability to see what could easily be the fastest team Joe Paterno has ever coached. I think the prospect of seeing Williams, King, Butler, Morelli, Norwood, Hayes, and Lee among others drives the numbers up.

BRENNAN AGAIN: Check out the sentence above, the one written in big red letters. The question asks for an over/under figure, not a best-case scenario. However many folks show up, I'm sure a strong percentage will FightOnState.com family members. Be sure to stay tuned early next week as we reveal the Official FOS Friday Night Hangout and the other different places you will be able to catch up with staffers over the course off Blue-White weekend. I may even invite you, Harrington.

HARRINGTON FINAL WORD: Oops, my reading comprehension obviously needs some work. Let me borrow that SAT guide when you are done with it. Oh, and good luck on the test — I wonder what the over/under would be on your score…

THE OVERALL FINAL WORD: Have a great and safe holiday weekend everyone.

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