Philadelphia, PA – 2011 SEASON IN REVIEW: There was a time last fall that when Penn State was the topic of discussion, more than likely it would involve actual football to some degree. That may seem like a really long time ago in the wake of an unthinkable scandal that has cast a shadow over Penn State.
Still, the Nittany Lions did play football games in 2011 and they actually started strong enough, winning nine of their first 10 games, with the lone loss coming to eventual national champion Alabama. However, in early-November, details began to emerge of a grand jury investigation regarding a child sex abuse scandal on campus, setting off a chain of events that would forever change the Penn State community.
Joe Paterno, serving his 46th season as the Nittany Lions' head coach, was fired on Nov. 8 for failing to take the necessary steps to protect kids from convicted sexual predator Jerry Sandusky, a former defensive coordinator under Paterno. The team stumbled down the stretch, dropping three of its final four games under interim coach Tom Bradley. In January, Paterno died of lung cancer as Sandusky awaited trial and the FBI investigated 14 years worth of child sex abuse claims, and the school's role in covering up those allegations.
Weeks before Paterno's death, Penn State announced the hiring of former New England Patriots offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien as the new head coach. In July, the NCAA imposed heavy sanctions on the football program, banning the Nittany Lions from bowl games for the next four years, fining the school $60 million and vacating all of Paterno's wins dating back to 1998, including the nine wins compiled last season.
OFFENSE: In the fallout from the NCAA's sanctions against Penn State, several players have since left the program. One of those players was running back Silas Redd, who rushed for 1,241 yards in 2011 and was poised to be one of the top backs in the Big Ten. Redd announced on Aug. 1 that he was transferring to USC. Around the same time, his backup, Curtis Dukes, was considering leaving for Syracuse (he later decided to stay), while second-leading receiver Justin Brown packed his bags for Oklahoma. And so it goes for O'Brien and the rest of his coaching staff.
As preseason camps around the country were getting started, O'Brien was simply trying to figure out who he'd have on his roster come Week 1. One of those players is quarterback Matt McGloin, who took a step back last year as a junior.
"Matt McGloin is our starter," O'Brien declared. "He's smart, tough, competitive -- I'm proud to have him as the starting quarterback at Penn State."
Despite the vote of confidence, it would be wise to keep expectations in check. After all, it took Tom Brady the better part of a decade to master New England's offensive schemes. O'Brien recently told the story of a film session prior to spring practice when he showed some Patriots game tape.
"I looked back at the team and I saw a lot of white eyes, because they were watching that film as fans," he said. "So I shut the projector off and I said 'Look, guys, we're looking at the schemes here. Don't worry that that's Tom Brady and don't worry that that's Wes Welker and Gronkowski and the other guys' and that was a pretty fun moment in our team meeting room."
If the players pick up O'Brien's schemes rather quickly, perhaps the Nittany Lions can have some fun on the field this year, too.
DEFENSE: As if Penn State didn't have enough problems already, the defense must somehow find a way to replace star tackle Devon Still, the 2011 Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year. Fortunately, the team has another potential star in the making in Jordan Hill (6-1, 298), who will also provide some much needed senior leadership. Both of last year's starting defensive ends are gone, but former starter Pete Massaro (8.0 TFL in 2010) is back from a torn ACL that cost him all of last season.
Linebacker U is alive and well, as PSU is locked and loaded. Seniors Michael Mauti (6-2, 239) and Gerald Hodges (6-2, 233) cover lots of ground on the outside, while junior Glenn Carson (6-3, 238) had a breakout year in the interior. However, the cupboard has been left completely bare in the secondary, and opponents will no doubt look to test that unit by airing it out early and often.
SPECIAL TEAMS: The special teams took a big hit just before preseason camp -- and the deadline for Penn State players to transfer without losing eligibility -- when all-conference punter and kicker Anthony Fera chose to transfer to Texas. He averaged 42.0 yards per punt in 2011, his third year handling that role. Fera also doubled as the kicker, and last year he made 14-of-17 attempts, showing off his strong leg on occasion, too. Now that he's gone, sophomore kicker Sam Ficken will likely step into a starting role, while Alex Butterworth (38.5 yards per punt) figures to handle the punting duties.
OUTLOOK: At his Big Ten kickoff press conference, coach O'Brien would not make any predictions about his team this season, but he did express lots of confidence in the players that decided to stick around.
"These kids have a lot of pride in Penn State and pride in the university," he said. "And most importantly they have tremendous commitment to each other."
With the child sex abuse scandal putting a serious dent in this year's recruiting class, and with several players jumping ship prior to camp, that commitment will have to take the Nittany Lions a long way.
For the seniors, that means pushing forward despite knowing they won't be playing in a bowl game or challenging for the conference title. While O'Brien will deploy a lot of the same schemes he used in New England, Matt McGloin won't be confused for Tom Brady anytime soon. The defense boasts some serious talent in the front seven, but the secondary is a huge question mark. In all likelihood, the Nittany Lions will struggle to win on a consistent basis as they adjust to a new coaching staff, and a whole new culture at Penn State.