28 August 2006

Penn State Football season preview

Here we are: the Monday before the start of the college football season. The last weekend without college football is gone. If I were home, I'd be digging out the blue and white face paint, the blue and white t-shirts, anything I can find with the Penn State blue and white on it. This time of year my blood runs blue. Friday night is Football Eve and the season begins against Akron on Saturday. Here is my Penn State Football season preview:

Penn State's football season will hinge on two things, and they're both in the trenches: on offense, the very inexperienced offensive line. And on defense, the defensive line.

The offensive line will be the key to Penn State's ability to move the football. Only Senior All-American Levi Brown returns at left tackle. The rest of the line is green. Their ability to gel will determine everything: making running room for tailbacks Tony Hunt and Austin Scott, and giving Anthony Morelli enough time to find his speedy receivers.

With Hunt and Scott at tailback, and the speedy Rodney Kinlaw backing them up, there is no lack of talent there. Scott demonstrated in the Orange Bowl that he can step it up when necessary. Hopefully that earned him some additional playing time this year. Hunt and Scott would make a nice one-two punch.

The receiving corps is young but experienced, and represents one of the best in the country. Derrick Williams is lightning fast (he runs a 4.25 40) and could be Heisman material down the road, especially if he continues to play multiple positions. Jordan Norwood, Deon Butler, Terrell Golden, all quality receivers. The depth here is awesome. And that doesn't even include the incoming class.

Anthony Morelli has a cannon arm. Assuming the offensive line can protect him, he should have no trouble finding those receivers open down the field. Michael Robinson was an amazing athlete, but only an average passing quarterback (witness 52% completion percentage). Morelli may not be the runner that Robinson was, but the air show should be fun to watch this season, especially as he gains experience.

The defensive line will be the central focus of this year's rebuilding effort. Three of the four starters on the line are gone. Replacing Tamba Hali will be especially tough. On runs the key for the line will be occupying blockers, allowing the linebackers to run free. On passing downs, the key will be getting enough pressure on the opposing quarterbacks so that the secondary isn't out there all alone.

The linebackers are the best in the nation. Without doubt. Paul Posluszny is an All-American who is the only defensive player listed as a Heisman candidate. Not that he'll be seriously considered for it, but the mention alone is enough. On the other side, junior Dan Connor is, frankly, just as good. In the middle is Tim Shaw, the fastest of them all. Depth here is also good: Sean Lee, Tyrell Sales and Joe Cianciolo could start on most other teams.

All four secondary starters are gone, but their projected replacements should be fine: speedy corner Justin King played quite a bit on defense last year. Safety Donnie Johnson played nickel last year. Corner Tony Davis and safety Nolan McCready round out the secondary. Experience will help this bunch grow. But I think eventually they'll turn out to be faster and more athletic than their predecessors.

Special teams: Kicker Kevin Kelly had a solid freshman season and should only continue to improve. He's smooth under pressure and his leg could be the difference in a couple of games this year. Punter Jeremy Kapinos is one of the best in the Big Ten, and his punts will help the defense in the field position battle. Punts will be returned by either Derrick Williams, Anthony Scirrotto, Justin King, or Lydell Sergeant. The solid consistency of Calvin Lowry should be replaced with more speed and the potential to take one all the way (which Lowry never did in three years). Fans will want Williams and his ability to break it, but I'd be surprised if Paterno doesn't go with Scirrotto or Sergeant. We'll see. Derrick Williams and Rodney Kinlaw, and possibly Austin Scott, will return kickoffs.

Finally, who will replace Ethan Kilmer? He led the team in special teams tackles last year, something an astute observer would have guessed in a heartbeat. He was almost always the first one down on punt coverage, and never overran the punt returner as many speedy coverage players often do. His consistent ability to recover and take the correct angle to the tackle is something I have never seen in many years of watching football. Someone will need to step up and replace this amazing guy.

Schedule: I'm obviously biased toward Penn State, and I think they could win every game. But I'll try to be fair and list games as projected wins, losses, or too close to call.

Wins (9): Akron, Youngstown State, Northwestern, Minnesota, Illinois, Purdue, Wisconsin, Temple, Michigan State.

Losses (0): None.

Too close to call (3): Notre Dame, Ohio State, Michigan.

There you have it. Somewhere between 9-3 and 12-0. I know that's not too much of an amazing prediction, but it is fair. The season will hinge on week 2 (at Notre Dame) and week 4 (at Ohio State). Even losing those two games, Penn State can still pull a 10-2 season and go on to a New Year's Day bowl. Those two games will be especially tough. Penn State will be out for revenge against Michigan, and the home crowd will be deafening (by my count this noise was responsible for at least two Ohio State timeouts last season). The white-out will be in effect and Penn State should be able to pull this one off.

Of course everyone is a potential national champion in August. It would be a stretch for Penn State to play for the national championship in January, but its certainly not impossible. Likewise, they could struggle and play .500 football, but I don't think either is likely. My best guess is 9-3 or 10-2 with a chance to repeat for the Big Ten title (especially if they end up with only one conference loss) and a strong chance for a New Year's Day bowl game.

I'll try to give you week-by-week previews to each game. Also, I'll link back to this article in January and we'll see how I did.

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