SIX PACK: On the Rise

Get an early look at a group of young Nittany Lions who are poised to make a bigger impact on the program in 2009 and beyond.

Though Penn State still has the Rose Bowl ahead this season, the Nittany Lions have some reloading to consider for 2009.

Sure, it's a bit early, But let's take an early look at six athletes who have made some rumbles this season and are in a position to possibly make significant impacts in 2009. The year listed is their current eligibility.

Drew Astorino, safety, redshirt freshman: Astorino should be no secret to FOS premium members as he made several appearances in our off-season Nittany Notes. Back then he was described by observers as "one of those guys who digs deep and makes the players around him better just by the way he plays" and, surprisingly, "the best player in the secondary."

Well, Astorino has not disappointed this season, seeing action in every game, pulling down 37 tackles, 28 of which were unassisted. He started in three contests and grabbed two interceptions. Astorino suffered a broken thumb against Ohio State, but continued to see action.

With the departure of senior safeties Mark Rubin and Anthony Scirrotto, Astorino has a major opportunity ahead. Although he has seen reps at both free and strong safety, he is the likely candidate to step in at Scirrotto's free safety spot in 2009.

Impact Gauge: Very High

Jack Crawford, defensive end, true freshman: In the preseason, Crawford was said to have a "good all-around build, but he'll need to build up his legs to play [defensive] end effectively." Overall he received positive reviews during the preseason.

This season Crawford has seen action in all 12 games, grabbing only four tackles, but showing impressive leverage and penetration skills off the snap. As one observer said, "[Coach Larry Johnson] likes the progress Jack has made this season. He's refined his technique and is getting better with his footwork."

With the graduation of Josh Gaines, Crawford is expected to make a move to a more significant role in the defensive end rotation next season. He still has to battle the likes of Aaron Maybin, Maurice Evans and Eric Latimore, though.

If he continued to pack on muscle, there is a chance he could move to tackle, where he played early this season.

Impact Gauge: Medium

Michael Mauti, linebacker, true freshman: With time a safety and linebacker this past off-season, some observers said they "have to remind myself that he's a true freshman." Mauti came in with impressive technique and a deep desire to make an impact, quickly immersing himself in the playbook. He enrolled at PSU last January.

This season it paid off with early playing time, as Mauti has made 24 and forced a fumble. "He hits like a tank. When coaches say play through the whistle, that is Mauti. He doesn't try to hit the ball-carrier, he tries to go through him," an observer said.

The linebacker unit says goodbye to Tyrell Sales, but welcomes back Sean Lee from his knee injury. "[Coach Ron Vanderlinden] will continue to be the envy of most teams with the depth he's working with. But I'll be shocked if Mike isn't on the two deep [next season]," according to one observer.

Impact Gauge: High

Chimaeze Okoli, defensive tackle, redshirt freshman: In the preseason, Okoli was getting strong reviews, with observers reporting to FOS that he was "impressive with his penetration technique and overall bull-rush. He's got tremendous strength and is tough to contain. He needs better control of his surge, though."

This season Okoli has seen action in seven games, grabbing only one tackle, but "displaying the type of fundamentals and basics L.J. loves in his tackles. He's tenacious — he made some mistakes, but he keeps his engine revving and keeps his legs pumping," an observer said.

The biggest challenge for Okoli at this point is the sheer depth of the defensive tackle positions. With the likes Jared Odrick, Abe Koroma, Ollie Ogbu and Tom McEowen likely back next season and Devon Still and Brandon Ware ready to get in to make an impact, Okoli has a tall order ahead of him. "He could break into the rotation if he keeps progressing like this," an observer said. "He's got to work, though. He can't let up."

Impact Gauge: Medium

Nate Stupar, linebacker, redshirt freshman: Stupar has made noise in our Nittany Notes since he played Illinois linebacker J. Lehman on the scout team in 2007. Stupar shadowed Sean Lee throughout the off-season that year and many observers felt back then he had the speed to play the weak side and the strength to handle the strong side. As one observer said this past off-season, "Vandy really seems to like his technique and spends a lot of time with him working his lateral motion and read."

This season Stupar was a special teams machine. He ended the regular season with 21 tackles (10 unassisted) in 12 games, a blocked punt and some great coverage plays. "Nate was usually the first guy down the field in practice in coverage drills. What's impressive is that he was usually among the first to the returner in games, too," as one observer put it. "And he can lay a hit that will be felt for a week and a half."

Stupar is in a similar position to Mauti in that both will be vying for time in one of the most talented linebacker units in the nation. "Personally, I already have him penciled in on the two-deep. He's that good in my book," one observer explained.

Impact Gauge: High

Graham Zug, wide receiver, redshirt sophomore: In the preseason Zug was also getting his fair share of compliments out of practice. He was described as "a hard-nosed kid who really fights for balls and pushes all out. He know he'll have to work to see time, but he rarely lets up."

With 11 receptions for 174 yards and two touchdowns, it's not the stats that have been impressive for the young receiver, but the types of clutch catches he has made that has practice observers impressed. "He just goes after the ball. He's quicker than you think. And although he's unassuming, when you look at it he's really aggressive on a route — he'll go right after the ball," one observer said.

With Deon Butler, Jordan Norwood and Derrick Williams departing, there is likely no other unit that has a greater opportunity for immediate impact than the wide receiver corps. Zug has shown impressive flashes and will battle the likes of Brett Brackett, Chaz Powell, Derek Moye and A.J. Price for playing time. But he has to be viewed among the front-runners at this early stage.

Impact Gauge: Very High

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