Nittany Notes: Backs Against the Wall?

With the Nittany Lions into the third week of preseason practice, the primary focus of the offensive coaches has shifted to the running back situation, which is now of significant concern thanks to recent injuries.

Since the pads were put on last week several observers have commented on the "punishing" approach the defensive players have had with their hits. "The [defensive] guys are so fast and aggressive they have to be told to dial it down a notch or two in practice to avoid any unnecessary injuries."

Unfortunately, that is just what the PSU backfield is dealing with currently. Penn State football's running game has had questions which continue to swirl through preseason drills. Despite having a clear-cut starter in Tony Hunt, the depth of the tailback position was in question, but is not of paramount concern.

Although Austin Scott was recently sidelined with what has been described as a "minor" ankle injury, it is suspected that he never fully recovered from the knee injury he sustained in April which kept him out of the remainder of spring drills and the Blue-White Game, and limited his participation during the off-season.

The question still remains as to whether Scott will elect to redshirt this coming season, which, according to some observers seems to be plausible at this point.

"Scott needs to just get healthy," according to one observer. "He showed what he can do in the Orange Bowl — when he's determined. When he buckles down and is healthy he performs. He needs to get mended and decide what kind of final chapter he wants on his PSU career."

Running second team through the preseason has been Rodney Kinlaw, who sustained a knee injury last week which has the medical staff taking precautions with him. At 5-foot-9, 195 pounds, Kinlaw is quick and shifty, but "seems to lack the size to really handle the consistent battery a Big Ten back takes." Kinlaw's role had been expected to be a situational one. However, with question marks surrounding the health of Scott, the coaches wanted to see if Kinlaw could handled a larger role.

As one observer put it, "If you look at it closely, the running back situation is scary. Hunt is a great back; powerful and agressive, but he went down out of the gate in the [Orange] bowl. Who's that backup? That needs to be answered, but the options are pretty limited right now."

That turns the attention onto the freshmen, Evan Royster, Brent Carter and A.J. Wallace. Royster and Carter were seeing some third-team reps prior to Kinlaw's injury, while Wallace saw some running back snaps earlier this preseason. "Royster has good power and hits the holes hard. He needs to get comfortable with the zone blocking — things close up on him and he gets caught at times." At 6-foot-2, Carter needs to run lower and "get his shoulders down."

Of the freshmen, Royster was described as the "the most natural back," thanks to his frame and overall technique. However, Royster is expected to see limited action thanks to a shoulder injury sustained this weekend. "He's just a little banged up. He took a pretty big hit and looked like he landed pretty hard on his wing bone," an observer explained. "I am not sure how bad it is, but that's why these backs have to get low on their runs; to absorb those hits rather than getting their feet taken out from under them."

Although Royster's recovery is expected to be relatively quick, missing practice certainly doesn't help. "The young backs need every snap they can get. A break like this just makes the learning curve a little steeper."

With the situation the running back position is facing observers are suspecting that Matt Hahn may possibly get shifted over see some reps at the spot he played at times last year. "Hahn has been at fullback (due to the sidelining of BranDon Snow), but Dan Lawlor has shown he can really lay out a block. If Danny continues to get consistent, Hahn may need to move over for that depth out of the gate."

Since the fullback position is not a focal point of the Nittany Lion offense, the need to go a solid three deep there is not has critical as it is at tailback.

The consensus is that Hahn's aggression would help solify the depth of the running game. "He's tough. Not the most fluid runner, but he can be evasive. He's really hard to pull down, though. Guys will get a piece of his jersey and look like they're being dragged behind a horse for a few yards."

Another opportunity would be to shift over A.J. Wallace from wideout to running back. As a junior in high school Wallace rushed for 1,367 yards and 26 touchdowns. As a senior he ran fo 2,090 yards and 35 touchdowns.

Finally, some observers have said it only makes sense to pull Lydell Sargeant out of the cornerback crew and into the backfield. "Sargeant has some skills — let the guy make an impact where he's needed rather than at third-team cornerback. The defense has more corner candidates than they can count."

Whoever the coaches turn to, they need to find a solution quickly with preseason practice snaps running out and the season quickly approaching.

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