Our initial panel of 6ers is a veritable who's who of the most respected Penn State posters in cyberspace.
They are, in the order they submitted their first entry:
Ed001: Back from his summertime hiatus, the venerable one is once again talking Penn State football. And a lot of people are listening.
BMan2: Something of a new kid on the block, he refuses to horse around when it comes to tackling the Nittany Lions.
MarshCreek: With online roots stretching back to his days at PSU Playbook and LionNews, he is well known as a river of football information.
HowardStern: Anything but a shock jock, he is renowned for his well-formed opinions on recruiting and Nittany Lion football.
fp001: Brace yourself for input from someone who knows the program inside and out.
KokobewareHI: Living proof that one need not be physically close to the Penn State football program to be close to the Penn State football program.
With introductions out of the way, on to this installment's question:
What is your primary concern regarding the Penn State football team heading into the 2007 season? Ed001
I'm sure most people will say their primary concern is the offensive line or possibly the inexperienced defensive line. Perhaps some will say that we don't have a proven running back to replace Tony Hunt. I think the O-line will be fine. Depth is being developed on the O-line and likewise with the D-line. We have a number of very talented athletes who will rotate on the D-line to keep it fresh. Meanwhile, Austin Scott should have a big year at running back if he avoids the injury bug. There is enough overall talent in the backfield to be more than effective and to take the heat off the passing attack.
So I'll take a different tack than most people.
My biggest area of concern for this team is the kicking game. Will Kevin Kelly overcome his back injury to be more consistent? Will he be healthy enough to be automatic inside the 40-yard line? Will he be able to mix in a good percentage between 40-50 yards out? Will Ryan Breen win the kickoff duties to allow Kelly the luxury of concentrating on field goals and extra points, to take some of the wear and tear off of his back?
Who will punt? Jeremy Kapinos was an often-overlooked weapon who could best be described as steady in the clutch. Will Jeremy Boone or Breen be able to handle the tough kick out of their own end zone in the big game? Will they get enough hang time to allow PSU's speed to cover the punt and not make the defense defend a short field? Will they field the snap cleanly under pressure and not allow for a cheap blocked punt?
Is this nitpicking?
Probably, but Joe Paterno has always preached that a solid kicking game is a formula for success, and can be the difference between a great season and a good season. Just ask Bobby Bowden. How many more national titles and undefeated teams would he have if he had paid more attention to place-kicking? Will a "wide right" or shanked or blocked punt cost PSU a must-win game this year?
Hopefully not, but it is an area of concern to me.
After seeing what we've seen in the preseason, there are two players I think are indispensable for us this year - quarterback Anthony Morelli and center A.Q. Shipley. If either guy is hurt, it will have a gigantic impact on the team, because depth at both positions is questionable.
So my big concern is what happens if Morelli and/or Shipley go down.
No one wants to say it, but at quarterback, Daryll Clark has been erratic in August. He is an unbelievable athlete and has a magnetic personality. But I'm just not sure that would be enough to carry him should he have to step in as the starter. The consistency throwing is just not there, even though he's received the bulk of the second-team reps for more than a year now.
Pat Devlin has all the tools to get it done, but how many redshirt freshman quarterbacks have experienced success here at Penn State? I see Devlin as a long-term answer, but wonder how he will do if pressed into emergency action early this season.
As for Shipley, nobody else at center is remotely close to being in his league. We have three solid guards — Rich Ohrnberger, John Shaw and Lou Eliades — but I doubt any of them have the natural leadership skills or ability to make the offensive line calls to shift to center in a pinch.
Injuries are part of the game, and I'm sure we will have our share of them this season. But keep your fingers crossed that they don't involve the starting QB or the guy who snaps him the pig.
I have multiple areas of concern for 2007, and that is going to be the general theme here. I don't see anywhere we are really weak, but we have multiple areas for concern.
Along the offensive line we look strong in the middle, but neither Gerald Cadogan nor Dennis Landolt has proven anything at the two offensive tackle spots. Then there is the issue of depth. It appears that Lou Eliades will back up both guards, but who will be backing up Shipley at center? And if I am somewhat concerned over inexperience at the two tackle spots, what about their backups?
While we have experience at all the offensive skill spots, the whole unit stalled worse than a leaky '67 Ford Galaxy 500 last year. Have Anthony Morelli and the WRs really improved as much as we are hearing, or are we all just experiencing the normal preseason giddiness that so often afflicts major college football fans? Will Austin Scott even hold up for an entire year of pounding?
I have little to no concern about our linebackers or the defensive secondary. That back seven might be the very best in college football this year. But count me very concerned with the interior defensive line.
I actually felt pretty good about the DT spots this past April, but then Chris Baker became involved in "the incident," Phillip Taylor sprained a knee, incoming freshman Devon Still tore an ACL and redshirt freshman Abe Koroma hurt a foot. All this while Tom McEowen has been rehabbing an injured knee of his own. The D-line has a veritable boatload of talent, but will we be healthy enough and will it all come together quickly enough given the tough early slate of games?
Then you have special teams. The NCAA has adopted a new kickoff rule forcing teams to kick from the 30-yard line instead of the 35. Kevin Kelly has a nice leg, but he doesn't really kick a high ball. If he doesn't get it into the end zone, that five extra yards will prove important to a cover team protecting a low-ball kicker. Then you have the inconsistent results on field goals last season. On top of all this, we are replacing a guy who was a very good punter in Jeremy Kapinos with a freshman.
In summation, I'm less concerned that we'll be really weak anywhere than I am that we'll be good enough everywhere.
Going into the 2007 football season there are several question marks relating to the success of the team. If a few things go well it is not out of the realm of possibility that PSU will be a BCS participant again.
One thing the team needs to do in order to achieve that level of success is to find and establish some sort of a consistent running game. If PSU is unable to establish a serviceable running game, the offense will be dead in the water before it starts. But if Penn State can field at least a decent ground attack, that will mean that another perennial question mark for Nittany Lion fans — the offensive line — is doing well. That would bode well for another aspect of the offense that is already expected to be a strength — the passing game.
The coaching staff must find someone to be the starter, or go-to guy, at tailback. Apparently to start the season that is going to be Austin Scott. Most fans know Scott is an unproven quantity as a college back. Outside a strong first half against Florida State in the Orange Bowl two years ago, he has done nothing to distinguish himself at Penn State other than to sustain injuries and reside in Joe Paterno's infamous doghouse for off-the-field issues. To Scott's credit, he has apparently worked his tail off and is attacking his final go-round as a PSU tailback. But the jury is out as to whether he can be a reliable and productive Big Ten runner.
Behind Scott at tailback the situation is an even greater unknown. Speedy senior Rodney Kinlaw looks to be the top backup. But Kinlaw has been so injury prone throughout his career that he makes Scott look like Cal Ripken. When he has been healthy, Kinlaw has struggled running between the tackles. That doesn't bode well for him trying to establish himself in the Big Ten. Kinlaw clearly relies on his considerable speed to get by. But it takes more than speed to succeed at this level. Based on the last three years, it appears Kinlaw can be a situational performer but lacks what it takes to be the full-time tailback at Penn State.
Right there fighting for the backup tailback job is redshirt freshman Evan Royster. Besides his lack of experience, Royster showed a discouraging propensity to be dinged up during his redshirt season. It remains to be seen whether he can physically withstand the pounding that a tailback receives in the college game. But based on seeing Royster this past spring in the Coaches Clinic and Blue-White Game, he has the necessary skills (speed, quickness, vision, burst) to be a productive collegiate tailback.
A wildcard who has emerged out of nowhere in the tailback sweepstakes is true freshman Stephfon Green. Lightly recruited and relatively unknown coming out of John F. Kennedy High in the Bronx, N.Y., Green has surprised his teammates and coaches with breathtaking speed and game-breaking abilities. Even more surprising to the coaches has been the toughness Green has displayed while running inside. However, it is way too early to anoint Green as the answer to our collective tailback prayers. But Penn State appears to have found a diamond in the rough. Could he be another Steve Slaton type in that he was a relatively unknown speedster who exploded on the college football scene?
Heading into the season, my biggest concern is the linebacker unit. Just kidding. In all seriousness, what worries me the most is the offensive line, particularly the tackles. Gone is stalwart Levi Brown, an anchor and leader on the unit for the past four seasons. Gone is right tackle John Shaw, who will now man the right guard position. Replacing last year's starting tackles will be no easy task, especially since the tackles will face some elite defensive ends, particularly from Wisconsin, Iowa and Ohio State.
The task of replacing Brown and Shaw will fall to Gerald Cadogan and Dennis Landolt, respectively. Landolt will be starting his first game come Sept. 1 and even more worrisome is that he will be receiving extended playing time for the first time in his career. I don't think anyone really knows what to expect out of Landolt. He obviously has some talent and the weight he added in the off-season should help him tremendously. But I still worry about his lack of experience, particularly in regard to pass protection.
Cadogan started a few games at left guard in 2006 but it was plainly obvious to most people that he was just not suited to play guard. Cadogan is a long, lean offensive lineman who relies more on his athleticism and wingspan than his power or explosion — traits more suited for tackle play than guard play. Needless to say, there will be enormous pressure on Cadogan; all he has to do is replace an All-American and a Top 5 NFL Draft Pick while containing opposing teams' best pass rusher.
Luckily for the new tackles, the first game should be nothing more than a glorified scrimmage. In addition, Notre Dame's DEs and OLBs shouldn't scare too many people. Following Notre Dame is another glorified scrimmage in which the new tackles should be able to improve their technique and play in preparation for what will undoubtedly be a daunting Big Ten schedule.
In my opinion, the play at tackle will decide whether this team contends for a Big Ten title and a BCS bowl or simply contends for a winning season and a New Year's Day bowl.
I had barely enjoyed the Outback Bowl win and my thoughts were already shifting to the 2007 season. While many of the pieces are in place for PSU to make a special run, will Anthony Morelli be able to carry the momentum that he created vs. Tennessee into his senior season? In addition, will a young and inexperienced (yet athletic) defensive front four be able to handle the big uglies of the Big Ten?
Fortunately, spring practice and summer workouts helped to answer many of my doubts regarding the defensive front. My fear was a repeat of the 2003 season. You all remember the Nebraska game, which was a precursor of things to come. Watching PSU try to defend the run well, it was like watching a local Hawaiian trying to ice skate; not pretty. However, the current crop of defensive linemen is way ahead of the 2003 group in just about every facet of the game. Unfortunately, the injury bug has struck and struck quite hard. As of this writing, PSU has two fully functional DTs, one coming off an ACL injury and one fully entrenched in the doghouse. The rest are banged up. Shades of 2003 are starting to run through my head again. Fortunately for PSU, my wife's best friend's mother is a local Kahuna (witch doctor). A couple of chants to the Gods might be all our boys who need to get healthy.
As for Anthony Morelli, his performance against Tennessee was a revelation. Fantastic game management, sound decision-making and he moved around the pocket much better than at any time during the 2006 regular season. However, was this an aberration or a sign of maturity? And, maybe more importantly, will the offensive staff be able to use our offensive weapons more effectively in 2007? Assuming our DTs recover quickly, in my opinion the key to the 2007 season will be the maturity of Morelli as a QB and a leader, and if the offensive staff will truly turn over the proverbial keys to the car to him.
This could very well be the difference between a 9-3 shoulda, coulda, woulda season and a Big Ten title. Remember, since joining the Big Ten, PSU's most successful teams (1994, 2005) have also been their most explosive and have been captained by NFL caliber players (Kerry Collins, Michael Robinson).
Please Joe, release the hounds. We'll know if my cry has fallen on deaf ears come Sept. 22. in Ann Arbor. Road Game. The Underdog. Gulp. I think it's fair to say that the Mai Tais will be flowing all game long.