In each installment of this series, we focus on an issue facing the Nittany Lion football program. We start by looking at the six players who are most instrumental to Penn State's success in 2010. Last year our Six Pack included Daryll Clark, Jared Odrick, Jack Crawford and Stefen Wisniewski. See who makes our list this year.
Evan Royster, RB: We might as well start with the easiest pick. With unanswered questions on the offensive line and quarterback, Royster is a veteran the offensive staff is looking to spark the ground game. Sure, Penn State is loaded at running back and could find success with Stephfon Green, Curtis Dukes and/or Silas Redd, but Royster's experience, reliability and determination make him an impressive weapon for the Lions. Plus, he's shown he can be a dependable receiver out of the backfield, which will be a welcome target for the young quarterbacks.
Devon Still, DT: PSU lost a lot when Odrick was selected in the first round of the NFL Draft by the Miami Dolphins. However, Odrick regularly pointed to Still as another tackle who could carry the defensive line's banner. The interior of the defensive line has impressive depth with linemen like Ollie Ogbu, James Terry, Jordan Hill and Brandon Ware.
But Stills' strength, agility and sheer size (6-foot-5, 305 pounds) set him apart as a massive pressure point for offensive lines. The question is whether his power is enough to demand double-teams like Odrick managed throughout his career. If it is, even part-time, it should open up opportunities for ends Crawford and Eric Latimore to collapse the pocket and force some fast QB decisions.
Reports out of preseason practice all suggest Still has stepped up as a leader on the defense. That was also an area where Odrick excelled last season.
Quinn Barham, LT: The right side of the offensive line is solid with veterans Lou Eliades (RT) and Stefen Wisniewski (RG), so the question is how the left side of the line will manage protecting the QBs' blindsides.
Barham has been impressive enough to hold the starting position in the spring and preseason; the question is whether he has the technique and endurance to keep the pass rush at-bay and off the backs in live game action.
Teams are likely to come fast and hard off the left side, so Barham will be tested early and often. If he manages to preserve the pocket, it should pay dividends for the passing game.
Anthony Fera, P: OK, this may not be a sexy pick for many fans, but Fera's leg could prove to be a significant weapon in the battle for field position this season.
Fera has the ability to not only punt the ball long distances, but also get some great hang-times to allow the coverage men to get down-field and in their lanes.
His problem has been with consistency, which is not surprising considering the arrived at PSU as a scholarship place-kicker, not a punter.
Along those lines, expect Fera to handle the bulk of the kickoff duties, where he should have a significant improvement over Collin Wagner in terms of hang time and distance.
Garry Gilliam, TE: With offensive line and quarterback questions, Gilliam is a player who can help the offense on two levels: first, he can help pick up the rush and serve as another key blocker. And with opponents likely testing the line, the staff has been getting him a lot of blocking reps to nail down his technique. Second, Gilliam could prove to be an important target for the QBs, allowing them to hit his sizable 6-6 frame with some key short/intermediate passes, which will not only move the chains, but also increase the confidence and comfort levels with the passers.
Gilliam has shown impressive aggression and has the strength to help keep the pressure off the pocket. He just has to be consistent in his block technique.
Drew Astorino, S: Considered by some in the program to be among Penn State's best tacklers, the question with Astorino is the health of his shoulder. The safety played much of last year with a lingering shoulder injury and has a minor aggravation of it this preseason. Astorino is hard-nosed and dependable with tackles and isn't afraid of making tackles, but the staff will need him to remain healthy in order to play up to his abilities and provide leadership and support to the secondary.
Robert Bolden, QB: Did you honestly think we would wrap this one up without discussing the quarterback position? With Clark gone the coaches have been working the practices to find their helmsman. By all accounts they have found him, but the question is the staff and namely head coach Joe Paterno comfortable enough to go against the grain and start a true freshman passer.
Despite the myth, Paterno is not against playing freshmen, although the evidence certainly points toward a hesitation to play freshmen QBs. Consider that the last time Penn State had a true freshman passer start was Wally Richardson in 1992 and before that it was 1988 (Tony Sacca).
By all accounts, Bolden has the mechanics, strength, agility and head for the game. Maybe there is a little bit too much hype. But strip the freshman tag off him and he'd likely already be the guy; after all there seems to be little concern with the experience level of Matt McGloin, who has had exactly two more game passes than Bolden. When it comes down to brass tax, Bolden has separated himself from the pack on a variety of levels. If he gets the nod and leverages the talent around him (receivers, ans running backs) the offense could be multi-dimensional enough to be potent -- perhaps not lethal early, but with a solid defense it probably doesn't have to be.
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