Saturday’s Blue-White Game at Beaver Stadium was the second under head coach Bill O’Brien and the weather in Centre County mirrored O’Brien’s initial season at the helm. In the early going, it was blustery and cold with snow falling heavily, but as the first half evolved, the sun arrived on the scene and remained for the duration of the “game.”
Forget the bizarre scoring system – not that scoring ever mattered nor ever will during these spring scrimmages – and the crooked rosters; this is all about fan excitement. At the start of this the 15th and final practice of spring football, O’Brien and his staff already have a basic shell of the two-deep roster. It’s not as if this scrimmage which happens to be played in the stadium in front of 50,000 fans on the final day of spring ball will determine much of anything as far as the depth chart is concerned. No. Most of those remaining to-be-determined decisions will occur during August.
Just take this day and this game as it’s supposed to be taken every year. It’s a chance for fans to reconnect with the team and receive their fill of football, albeit a tiny sampling, in an attempt to fill the agonizing gap between November (and in several years a return to January) and Labor Day Weekend.
But because this is the only chance for Nittany Nation to actually watch a practice, a review is certainly warranted.
As with any football team on any level, the top focus on offense is the quarterback. The battle to replace Matt McGloin appears to have a leader in the form of Steven Bench, who looked more comfortable in the pocket than fellow sophomore Tyler Ferguson. That’s certainly not a surprise because Bench already has a full year in O’Brien’s complex scheme as well as actual live game action in 2012. Ferguson, a junior college transfer, looked every bit of a junior college quarterback but did show his tremendously big arm. Just not too accurately.
D.J. Crook and Austin Whipple squared off in the battle to win Project Protect Hackenberg’s Redshirt – otherwise known as the third-string quarterback. Although Crook didn’t put up any numbers of note and threw an interception (on a tipped ball), he looked considerably more comfortable and fairly mobile in the pocket. Whipple’s arm strength doesn’t appear – at least at this stage – to be strong enough to do much of anything. The fact that points were scored during the time that Whipple was on the field under center is namely due to the abundance of rushing yards and had little to do with anything he did.
Speaking of the ground game, here’s the good news: Zach Zwinak picked up right where he left off against Wisconsin five months ago when he gained 179 bruising yards on 36 carries. Zwinak excels at rushing inside because he sees the hole so quickly and darts both toward and through it. On Saturday, it was as if that Wisconsin game simply continued as the junior tailback was quite sharp and consistently reached the second level by following/running through the inside holes and gaps.
And now for the even better news: Akeel Lynch. And now for the even better, better news: Lynch is only a freshman. Anyone who watched this scrimmage saw glimpses of a very talented athlete. Lynch showed excellent explosion rushing off-tackle, which he’ll mostly be doing to compliment Zwinak’s grinding inside game. Never can a comparison be made to Doc Blanchard and Glenn Davis, but Zwinak and Lynch could be Penn State’s version of Mr. Inside and Mr. Outside. That’s how effective this duo has the potential to be.
Where art thou, Billy Belton?
The fact that none of the quarterbacks were particularly sharp is the main reason that the wide receiving corps did not have an exceptional day. However one wideout in particular should be the subject of great interest and likely thankfulness to come, but not because of anything he’s done on the field (at least not yet).
Geno Lewis is a highly-touted redshirt freshman from the commonwealth and is expected to provide a significant athletic boost to Allen Robinson and Co. in the fall. But it was Lewis’ presence that allowed the staff to move Trevor Williams, who played WR last season, to the defensive backfield. On a scale of 1-10 in terms of early gains, this move looks like a five-dimer. A nice pass breakup early in the second quarter preceded an even prettier one in the closing moments of the first half and clearly showed both the athleticism and speed that Williams will bring to the secondary. Williams’ outing was so good, in fact, that his (new) presence alone could turn the secondary from an area of concern into one of stability.
On the last day of August when State opens its season in metropolitan New York, the starting linebackers will be Mike Hull, Glenn Carson and redshirt freshman Nyeem Wartman. It’s already known what Hull and Carson bring to the table – solid positional angle play and sound tackling. The wild card of the trio was and still is Wartman, who still holds freshman eligibility despite seeing action in 2012 as a true frosh. Wartman suffered a knee injury early enough in the season that the NCAA granted him a medical redshirt. Wartman did not disappoint; he showed great speed and a nose for the ball on Saturday.
Two other defensive players who raised a positive eyebrow were lineman Brad Bars and linebacker Gary Wooten. Maybe that’s why new defensive coordinator John Butler is suddenly wearing glasses?
One recruiting note: DeAndre Thompkins, a running back/wide receiver (rated as an athlete by most prep scouting services) from North Carolina, was so impressed with the atmosphere that he gave O’Brien a verbal commitment. Don’t get too excited, though. Everybody knows how ever-lasting verbal commitments are these days.
“I’m still moved by your stronger than oak…thing, Matt.”