Penn State Nittany Lions 2009 Team Preview

PennState-BeaverStadiumIn the last four years, Penn State has won 40 games in the last, won two Big Ten titles, won an Orange Bowl, beat an SEC team (Tennessee) in an Outback Bowl, won an Alamo Bowl, and went to a Rose Bowl. Over that span, only USC, Texas, Boise State, Ohio State, Florida, West Virginia, and LSU have better winning percentages, and while the success has been at an elite level on the field, it’s also been strong in the classroom earning an Academic Progress Rate score of 976, putting the program in the 80th-90th percentile.

And you want Joe Paterno to move on, why?

Alright, maybe you don’t, but year after year there are articles and commentaries from those who feel it’s time for Penn State football to figure out where it’s going next. Here’s the answer: Nowhere.

Who cares how the program is succeeding with results like Penn State has come up with over the last four years? Who cares if Paterno has to limp up to a press box to see games from time to time? Fine, so maybe Paterno isn’t part of the new-wave of young, micromanager head coaches, but you never, ever, ever mess with what’s working. How many programs would like to have been within a last-second field goal of playing for the national title last year? Exactly.

Sure there have been widely publicized off-the-field character issues to put a minor taint on what’s been going on in the win-loss column, and while Paterno hasn’t handled all of the controversies as cleanly as some would like, at least he responds with punishments and isn’t afraid to duck the controversies. What has happened with some of the Penn State players, from DUIs to a marijuana bust, happens at every school and with every team, but you don’t hear about it. Actually, you do, but it’s cloaked in the ever nebulous Violation Of Team Rules catch-all.

As great as the last four years have been, it seems like the fun is about to slow down. The offensive line has to replace three all-stars, the four-year starting trio of wide receivers are gone, the entire secondary has to be replaced, the defensive line loses all of its ends, and ultra-reliable PK Kevin Kelly is being replaced by an untested walk-on. So it’s back to the days of 2004 with the program rebuilding and with too many problems to overcome and a possible losing season on the horizon.

And Paterno is about to switch to contacts.

The talent level remains ridiculously high with new stars about to replace the old ones. Gone are Deon Butler, Derrick Williams and Jordan Norwood from the receiving corps, and up will step 6-5 Derek Moye and Derrick Williams The Sequel, Chaz Powell. Gone is pass rushing terror Aaron Maybin, and in comes Jack Crawford. While there will be problems in the secondary and Kelly will be missed from the kicking game, the new starters are good enough to keep the production rolling, while there are some major positives to keep things on an even keel.

The backfield is loaded, led by Big Ten Player of the Year candidate Daryll Clark at quarterback and potential top five overall pick Evan Royster at running back. The linebacking corps goes from being a major question mark before last year to one of the best in the nation thanks to the return of Sean Lee from a knee injury and with Navorro Bowman an All-American who’ll do even more.

The schedule is beyond manageable, there’s as much overall speed and athleticism as the program has had in years, and the potential problems really aren’t that awful. It’s all in place for yet another big run and another great year for Paterno. Enjoy it while it lasts, and while you’re at it, ask Michigan how much fun it is for a mega-power to go through a change.

What to watch for on offense: The new receivers. The Nittany Lion top three receivers, Deon Butler, Derrick Williams, and Jordan Norwood, combined for 132 catches for 1,932 yards and 17 touchdowns last season. So good were those three that the passing game all but ignored the tremendous tight ends and didn’t throw to the backs enough. While the new receiving corps will need time to be as good. Chaz Powell is a sub-4.4 runner with tremendous quickness and No. 1 target capability, and Derek Moye is a sub-4.4 runner with tremendous quickness and No. 1 target capability, but he’s 6-5. The tight ends, Andrew Quarless and Mickey Shuler, are too good not to be more involved, and their reemergence will allow the wide receivers to create matchup nightmares.

What to watch for on defense: The secondary. This could be the Achilles heel. There will be production and the stats will be fine, but oft-injured corner A.J. Wallace has to suddenly use all his NFL tools and be a good college coverman. The safeties are promising, but untested, while Knowledge Timmons is a senior who has yet to put it all together at corner. This group will all hit and they’ll all make big plays against the run, but if it has to deal with a top-shelf receiving corps, watch out. That’s why …

The team will be far better if … no one notices that there’s no one on the schedule who can throw the ball. Illinois and Juice Williams threw the ball well last season, but that was about it as far as the top passing attacks the Nittany Lions faced. The stats were tremendous, allowing just six touchdown passes and picking off 16 in 12 games with just two 200+ yard passing games allowed. And then came a trip to Pasadena where Mark Sanchez decided he was ready to play like a No. 5 pick in the draft throwing for 413 yards and four touchdowns. This year’s Penn State secondary will once again put up great stats considering there’s absolutely no one outside of Illinois and maybe, don’t laugh, Akron who can throw a forward pass. Keep this in the back of your mind come bowl time.

The Schedule: The schedule is so light and breezy that the team should be able to throw on the helmet and win ten games without breathing hard. The only down side is missing Purdue off the Big Ten slate, but missing Wisconsin is a positive. The non-conference slate is a jaw-dropping embarrassment for a superpower playing Akron, Syracuse, Temple and Eastern Illinois. The trip to Illinois is as tough as it gets on the road until the regular season finale at Michigan State. The battle with the Spartans could be for the Rose Bowl, and even more, if Penn State can beat Ohio State in the Big Ten game of the year on November 7th.

Best Offensive Player: Junior RB Evan Royster. Daryll Clark will be the one in the hunt for league MVP honors, but it’s Royster whose name is being thrown around as a possible top ten overall pick if he decides to come out for the 2010 NFL Draft. He has it all with size, speed, and hands, but he’ll have to prove he can be more of a workhorse and he’ll have to show he can be durable. If he can prove he can handle 250 carries of work, which he won’t have to do unless Stephfon Green’s broken leg doesn’t heal as well as expected, he’ll answer all the questions.

Best Defensive Player: Junior LB Navorro Bowman. Sean Lee will make his triumphant return to the linebacking corps after blowing out his knee, and tackle Jared Odrick is a sure-thing All-American and one of the best interior defenders in America, but it’s Bowman who’ll be the team’s most disruptive force. With Lee able to clean up everything in the middle, Bowman should be able to freelance a bit more and do more in the backfield. Extremely fast, he has better range than Lee and will have the better year.

Key player to a successful season: Sophomore OT DeOn’tae Pannell. The offensive line will be fine no matter what the configuration is, but the combination has to be set as soon as possible this fall. The key part of the puzzle is Pannell, a 6-5, 313-pound next-level talent who has superstar potential if he can prove to be a consistent pass protector. The coaching staff really doesn’t want to move Dennis Landolt from right tackle to left, but that’s what might have to happen if Pannell can’t handle the work protecting Daryll Clark’s blindside.

The season will be a success if … Penn State wins 11 games for the third time in five years and goes to the Rose Bowl for the second year in a row. There are just enough holes and just enough concerns to forget about a national title shot. Even if the team goes unbeaten, it would miss out on the BCS Championship if two of the foursome of the SEC Champion, Texas, Oklahoma and USC go unbeaten. However, the team is talented enough, and the schedule is light enough, to demand nothing less than another double-digit win season.

Key game: Nov. 21 at Michigan State. The Ohio State game on November 7th is the big one, but that’s at home. Penn State will be the decided favorite against everyone else on the slate until the regular season finale, which could be dead even. Michigan State has the potential to grow into a Big Ten champion, and if it’s within range of a title, Spartan Stadium will be rocking when the Nittany Lions come to town. No matter what, if Penn State wants another conference title, it’ll likely have to close if out in East Lansing.