As the depth chart is currently situated, three of the four starters – in all fairness – are actually decent. Where trouble finds its way into the picture is the depth, or lack thereof, behind those starters as well as the fact that while Jake Fagano is a nice kid, he’s not a starting Big Ten safety. This is the big leagues and Fagano is not the answer. His counterpart on the other side of the field is Malcolm Willis, who is a solid and steady free safety. True sophomore Adrian Amos was slated by head coach Bill O’Brien for a move to safety but will now start as a member of the cornerback duet along with undersized yet feisty Stephon Morris.
Three out of four isn’t bad.
But this is where the losses of Drake and Thomas really hurt. In a perfect world, Thomas would’ve taken the spot in which Fagano is currently slated and Drake had the look of a perfect nickelback when such coverage was called upon. But as Judd Nelson reminded us over breakfast 20-plus years ago, “The world is an imperfect place.”
If centerfield becomes too vulnerable during summer practices, O’Brien will need to assess the junior college landscape for any possible immediate help. Although that’s not the preferred method, any temporary bandage will help Ted Roof’s inaugural season at the helm of the defense. It is imperative that Roof create havoc from the front seven to protect what will be a fairly vulnerable defensive backfield, and early reports from the post-spring practice assessments reveal that such a goal is definitely attainable.
On the other side of the ball, the naming of Matt McGloin as the starting quarterback was the right one; not only in its metric value but its timing as well. Penn State fans were terribly frustrated for years under Coach Paterno when the starting signal-caller was not revealed until the first offensive series on Labor Day Weekend. Now with that pressure removed from the equation, McGloin can spend the entire summer learning O’Brien’s complicated pro-style system. It can’t be stressed enough how important that is. Nobody on this roster and most importantly the quarterback has ever seen anything even moderately close to what O’Brien has brought to the offense and one cannot execute (especially with precision) what one doesn’t understand.
Another major change in methodology already witnessed under O’Brien is his willingness to rely on youth over veterans where this is a clear difference in talent level. The maxim that Paterno “never played freshmen” was vastly overstated. He definitely – more often than he was given credit for – inserted rookies into the lineup. But the times he didn’t do so when it was obvious to all that such a decision was warranted so vastly outweighed the others that the tag remained during his entire coaching career.
The offensive line, at least according to the spots in which O’Brien has already penciled in, is built mostly on youth. The charge of protecting McGloin’s blind side will be placed in the hands of redshirt freshman Donovan Smith rather than moderately-experienced Nate Cadogan. Next to Smith at left guard is sophomore Miles Dieffenbach, who still needs a late push but will likely beat out his elder statesman in the form of junior Mark Arcidiacono. The icing on the cake can be tasted at right tackle. With absolute certainty, under the former regime, fifth-year senior Mike Farrell would have started the first four games of the campaign. With O’Brien now in charge, Farrell is behind slated starter (and 6-foot-6, 310-pound junior) Adam Gress.
With so much hype and uncertainty at stake when this new-look offense (and defense for that matter) is unveiled in eight weeks, a certain amount of latitude must obviously be given. By the conference opener in late September at Illinois, though, State must be able score points with reasonable consistency. This program’s prodigious fanbase has endured – and continues to endure – more than they ever imagined possible off the field since the team last played and/therefore struggles on the field will not be tolerated for an extended period of time.
For most programs, it would be unreasonable to expect that the first season under a new coaching staff would or should produce immediate positive results. But Penn State isn’t most programs. As one of a dozen of the all-time most successful outfits in the history of college football, the pressure to win exists no matter who the boss is or how long he’s been in place. Just ask Michigan fans. After three terrible years under Rich Rodriguez, Brady Hoke came in and led the Wolverines to an 11-2 record with a Sugar Bowl victory last season.
The good news is that O’Brien gets it; he knows the type of scrutiny which accompanies this high-profile position. The bad news is that if it doesn’t happen for him right away, Nittany Nation is not a particularly patient bunch. The positive inroads he’s made to date should not be overlooked – the Coaching Caravan was looked upon favorably as well as his decision to immediately allow the beat writers access to practice and other areas of the facilities that were always formerly off-limits.
The remainder of July will only build the tension surrounding such a marked change in the program’s look, feel, touch and sound. And as preseason drills get underway on August 6, those ensuing four weeks will move very quickly (as the month of August always seems to do) with daily reports about McGloin, the secondary struggling to find its way, the return of Michael Mauti, Silas Redd looking like the All-American he can definitely become and the slowly-emerging theory that Justin Brown – under O’Brien – could join Bobby Engram as the only Penn Staters to ever total 1,000 receiving years in a single season. Brown is that good.
Can O’Brien, who replaced one of the greatest coaches in American sports history, lead Penn State back to the (soon-to-undergo-a-major-facelift) Bowl Championship Series in his first season?
Are there iPads in Cupertino?