It all starts with the offensive line according to that certain famous video game’s namesake, so it makes sense to begin the process of checking out the 2013 Penn State offense with a look at the big bellies up front. With some, not all, due respect to Dick Anderson, it is wonderful news for State fans that he is no longer in charge of this unit. Mac McWhorter is to Anderson what smartphones are to flip phones. (The Zack Morris-style handheld was not available for comment.)
2013 will be McWhorter’s second season as the man responsible for the o-line and he’ll have several returning letterman to rely on. The right side of the starting rotation will be the most interesting aspect of this unit because a) its counterpart is already set with Donovan Smith protecting the blind side and Miles Dieffenbach next door (more on them later), and b) the fact that a legitimate scholar holds court thereon.
Despite his supposed soldier status in the weight room, Adam Gress needs to do his best non-Adam Gress to solidify the starting nod at right tackle for his senior season. The combination of Gress’ minor injury during training camp and the position change to/progress of former tight end Gary Gilliam to tackle has led to the closest battle for a starting position on the squad.
This space stood on the sideline about five feet from Gress, who at the time was a senior at West Mifflin High, during the 2008 Penn State-Illinois game. Gress’ eyes were bigger than melons as he inhaled the atmosphere inside Beaver Stadium. That night, as should’ve been par for the course at the time, Gress was overwhelmed by the sheer size of the place, the noise which accompanied it and the students who stood above him chanting his name and yelling for him to sign with Penn State.
Gress now needs to prove that after a full matriculation through the program, his vision has improved from that October night nearly five years ago. He and close buddy/fellow fifth-year senior Eric Shrive have been through the war together since arriving in University Park together in the summer of 2009; an 11-2 mark during their redshirt season, the Jerry Sandusky scandal, a new head coach/new strength coach/new offensive line coach and most importantly, a new and much more complicated scheme. Upon Shrive’s graduation from the program, the lengthy chapter of Anderson’s Disappointments (yes, the “D” is purposely capitalized) will be closed forever.
For more on this subject, see Nittany Nation v. Mark Farris, Joel Holler, Greg Harrison et al., 32 F. Supp. 2d 251 (M.D. Pa. 2006).
Smith is a gigantic sophomore who is not only talented but very well-liked by head coach Bill O’Brien and possesses everything except the experience (yet) to become State’s best all-around tackle since Kareem McKenzie. His battery mate Dieffenbach is a solid left guard who at times last season showed flashes of being overpowered; however, a full calendar year in the weight room under the tutelage of Craig Fitzgerald should somewhat improve that situation.
The brain behind this operation belongs to John Urschel, the starter at right guard. In addition to his improving performance on the field toward the latter portion of 2012, especially with respect to run-blocking, Urschel has never recorded a grade less than an “A” in any single one of his classes at Penn State. Not one. And he graduated in three years. And he’s won just about every academic award in existence for Penn State student athletes. And he spoke at the Big Ten Media Conference in late July as the representative of all the conference’s gridironers. And he’s on his way to a second graduate degree. And he’s an all-conference performer on the field. Other than that, though, he’s not really all that special.
O’Brien lauded Urschel’s work ethic in the weight room during the spring session and he’ll be counted on quite heavily to continue to pave the way for the strong inside running of Zach Zwinak. Akeel Lynch, who showed flashes of potential stardom in April’s Blue-White scrimmage, was surprisingly edged out by Billy Belton in camp, but both will see time behind Zwinak.
At center, senior Ty Howle should be solid enough at a position for which a superstar is not needed. Taken as a whole and in a marked change for the Nittany Lions over the last 15 years, the offensive line appears to be an area of strength instead of its annual question-mark predecessors.
The overall group of receivers, including both wideouts and tight ends, possesses the second-most raw talent behind Ohio State in the conference. The tight ends themselves are the best in the conference by far and there might not be a better duo at the position in college football than Kyle Carter and Jesse James. Add in senior Matt Lehman along with freshman Adam Breneman and the picture becomes clear that State has an embarrassment of riches at this position.
Allen Robinson is the reigning Big Ten receiver of the year and is on the fast track to become an All-American in 2013. He just needs to keep his ego in check. Reports out of training camp have Robinson getting so animated during practice that he gave Adrian Amos a love tap of the uppercut fashion on the chin during a heated exchange. Obviously only those who were there know exactly what happened, but it was apparently enough of an issue that Robinson could sit during the first quarter/several series on Saturday as a form of minor punishment.
Brandon Felder (apparently the “Moseby” has been dropped) will be a solid complement to Robinson and redshirt freshman Geno Lewis will see plenty of action, both in place of Felder and as the starting slot receiver when applicable. Native State College resident Alex Kenney, true freshman Richy Anderson, and Matt Zanellato will add depth, but it’ll be hard for any receiver not named Robinson or Felder/the other starter to post statistics of any magnitude due to the fact that so much of the receiving yards will be consumed by the tight ends.
Expect Christian Hackenberg to start under center and/but O’Brien has stated numerous times that both he and Tyler Ferguson will see playing time. To project their success (or lack thereof) would be silly because neither has yet to take a live FBS snap. The only known is what everybody knows – the former is a thoroughbred and the latter is not. But if there is one man perfectly fit for the charge of grooming either into a dominant big-time college quarterback, O’Brien certainly fits the bill (some puns are so dumb yet simply irresistible). Look for the passing attack to be slightly dumbed-down in the early going with a heavy reliance on the ground game until the starting QB can fully grasp the complex playbook.