BIGGEST SURPRISE OF THE SPRING
BRENNAN: I have to admit I was caught off guard by the news that Chris Bell (allegedly) threatened a teammate with a $4 kitchen knife at training table. I suppose the batteries had gone dead on his Little Tikes Busy Builder Chainsaw, which would have been REALLY scary. Anyway, it is probably best for everyone that Bell has been permanently jettisoned from the team. It will allow him to concentrate on working with his Easy-Bake Oven.
On the field, I was surprised by the move of true freshman linebacker Michael Mauti to safety. I doubt he stays there. He has outstanding athletic ability for a linebacker, but does not move quite well enough to be a top-flight safety. However, I like the change for now. Even with the loss of Sean Lee to an ACL injury, Penn State has good depth at the linebacker positions for 2008. And the one serious knock on former Lion 'backers Paul Posluszny and Dan Connor when they entered the NFL Draft was that they struggled in coverage.
Giving Mauti practice reps at safety this early in his career can only help in that regard.
HARRINGTON: Sophomore Stefen Wisniewski is an impressive offensive lineman. Even so, for me, one of the biggest surprises of the spring was the fact that he displaced senior guard Mike Lucian. Lucian emerged into a consistent starter in 2007, and as a veteran, I expected he had the position basically locked up through the spring.
However, early in the spring Lucian shifted to center behind captain A.Q. Shipley to provide depth and Wisniewski gained the starting role at guard. This move once again created a counterpoint to the argument that Joe Paterno favors the senior starters on his team.
It will be interesting to see if the coaches use Lucian in a rotation at the guard positions, given that, barring injury, Shipley is THE man at center.
HARRINGTON: I am actually a bit surprised we didn't get the annual fabricated position switch from certain experts, a la years past when Deon Butler was begging to move to cornerback or Brett Brackett was certain to move to flex tight end. I expected at least a good revamp of the Daryll Clark to linebacker rumor from last off-season.
For me the unexpected storyline from this spring, aside from the Bell fiasco, was the apparent dead heat between Pat Devlin and Daryll Clark. I expected one of the quarterbacks to emerge as the front-runner. However, they split first-team reps for most of the spring and the coaches refused to say one was (or is) ahead of the other. Both showed flashes of excellence in the Blue-White game. At face value, it appears to be a fairly even race.
In my view, the coaches are more comfortable with Clark's style and that will ultimately give him the edge. But the race is more competitive at this stage than I expected.
BRENNAN: I never expected to be wondering who would provide on-field leadership for the defense. But Lee's injury near the end of spring drills made that an issue. The fact that he was named a team captain even after sustaining the injury is testament to the respect he has from the coaching staff and players.
End Josh Gaines was voted a defensive captain by his teammates. So was safety Anthony Scirrotto, who is entering his third year as a starter and has gone above and beyond to redeem himself after getting into a sticky off-field situation in 2007. And linebacker Tyrell Sales has become more vocal in Lee's absence. All are seniors and all have said they intend to be leaders.
But we may not know how effective they are until the defense finds itself in a tough game.
KEY UNANSWERED QUESTIONS
BRENNAN: There is only one for me: When will Joe Paterno and Graham Spanier stop playing political football and start worrying about the health of the program?
I can speak from personal experience when saying the coach and the school president are both exceptionally intelligent. But that doesn't give them license to treat everyone else like idiots. And that's exactly what both are doing by saying there is no need to address Paterno's contract situation -- he is in the final year of his deal -- until AFTER the 2008 season.
Paterno claims it is not hurting recruiting. We can only assume he realizes his team had exactly one verbal commitment for the Class of 2009 by the end of spring practice, and that his staff has a full complement of grants with which to work this year.
Spanier says with a head coach of Paterno's stature and tenure, there is no need to address the contract situation until after the season. We can only assume he has talked to the assistant coaches who do the vast majority of the football recruiting legwork, to get their take on how the uncertainty about the head-coaching situation is impacting the program.
Come to think of it, here is another unanswered question:
If contact extensions really are no big deal, why did the university and athletic department both offer glowing press releases when Paterno received a four-year extension in May of 2004, more than seven months before the contract he was under then was scheduled to expire?
HARRINGTON: Beyond what has already been discussed, here are a few other items:
Who will emerge to provide depth to a very veteran receiving unit? With Deon Butler, Jordan Norwood and Derrick Williams all in their final years, who will fill out the two-deep and perhaps set a tone for 2009? Clearly Derek Moye, Brett Brackett and Graham Zug are among the favorites. But none has made a serious impact in a game as of yet.
Also, how will the secondary shake out, particularly at safety? Scirrotto is solid at one spot. But with Tony Davis shifting back to his favorite position of corner, can veteran Mark Rubin maintain a firm grip on the safety spot opposite Scirrotto? Or will a youngster like Chaz Powell unseat Rubin? And what of the Mauti experiment from 'backer to safety?
Finally, what sort of scheme will the offense really run? OK, so we saw flashes of a hybrid shotgun/spread with split backs in the spring. However, will the coaches actually run this or once again pack it up in the big games?
NEEDED TO PRODUCE AND DID
HARRINGTON: I'll go with Bani Gbadyu. With Lee out, the Lions will be relying on the speedy redshirt sophomore to emerge as a playmaker at outside linebacker. But all accounts, Gbadyu had a solid spring. He added bulk to his frame and maintained his quickness.
BRENNAN: For all the talk of how poorly PSU has recruited at tailback in recent years, I think the Lions are in great shape there now. Evan Royster has the look of a workhorse (if he can stay healthy), Stephfon Green is the team's first home-run threat in the backfield since Larry Johnson and there is good depth behind them. With Williams and possibly even speedy corner A.J. Wallace taking occasional snaps out of the backfield, not to mention a veteran offensive line opening holes, this group has the ability to inflict some serious damage on opposing defenses.
Also, the defensive line -- even without a few impact players who were missing due to suspensions or injury -- continued to impress.
NEEDED TO PRODUCE AND DIDN'T
BRENNAN: On the Big Ten Network telecast of the Blue-White Game, Paterno himself said Penn State's second-team offensive line was terrible. I don't think he meant that in a nice way.
With that in mind, if the opportunity presents itself in the non-conference portion of the schedule, it is imperative for the reserve linemen to log as much game action as possible to gain experience and build cohesion.
HARRINGTON: Along those lines, junior college transfer offensive linemen Nerraw McCormack and Ako Poti were brought on board in 2007 to help shore up the front five, particularly the tackle spots. Both players are now in their final seasons, and there are serious concerns about their ability to step should one of the starting tackles go down.
Neither has reached the point where they need to with fundamentals and footwork, one observer told us. During the spring, the staff moved guard Lou Eliades to tackle, hoping he can get the position down for the 2008 season and beyond.h