Thursday, December 1, 2011

The Fab 44 of Penn State Football 2011

PSU's best players and coaches this season, ranked in order, after the Lions compiled a 9-3 overall record, 6-2 in the Big Ten, and played the final three regular season games immersed in the greatest scandal in school history

The Fab 44 for 2011
  1. Tom Bradley, DC/Head Coach - Perhaps his best season yet in his 12th as a coordinator, comparing favorably to 2005, 2008 and 2004. But much more than just good PSU defensive play was the steady hand Bradley provided in the most difficult of circumstances when asked to replace Joe Paterno in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky scandal. Despite the blowout finale at Wisconsin, Bradley gets Penn State football's top honor for 2011 from RFBS.
  2. Devon Still, DT, Sr. - For PSU to succeed, he had to play every snap like a beast. He did. Rarely taking a breather, Still consistently made big plays, including 17 tackles for loss, Still has earned all of the honors coming his way, such as Big Ten defensive lineman of the year, the fifth Nittany Lion to do so (Courtney Brown 1999, Jimmy Kennedy 2002, Tamba Hali 2005, Jared Odrick 2009), and conference defensive player of the year. Should be picked in the first two rounds of the NFL draft.
  3. Ron Vanderlinden, LB Coach - Since about 2004, there have been no better collection of LBs in college football than Penn State's. And Vanderlinden, in his 11th season at PSU, is as much the reason for that as anyone. Emerging star Michael Mauti injured his knee early on, and PSU barely flinched, plugging in Nate Stupar and continuing to excel.
  4. Larry Johnson, DL Coach - And the beat goes on, Part II. Like Vanderlinden, since about 2002 there have been few if any DLs in America than can match PSU. And Johnson, in his 15th season at PSU and 11th as defensive line coach, is as much the reason for that as anyone. 
  5. Gerald Hodges, LB, Jr. - When Mauti went down in Game 4, Hodges, a true junior who was injured much of his sophomore year, stepped it up, emerging as a complete 'backer, big-play maker  and occasional pass-rush specialist. He joined Still as PSU's lone first-team All-Big Ten selection, leading the Lions with 97 tackles.
  6. Silas Redd, RB, So. - As the season went along and the passing game regressed, Redd kept adding more and more responsibility. He responded in a big way - until an injury Nov. 12 vs. Nebraska slowed him for two weeks - leading the nation in rushing in October. Chosen second-team All-Big Ten, Redd finished with 1,188 rushing yards, a 5.2 avg and 7 TDs. Barring injury, he should challenge PSU's all-time rushing mark before he is finished.
  7. Jack Crawford, DE, Sr. - Once upon a time he was considered a prime candidate to be the next great PSU defensive lineman. It never quite materialzed, but Crawford was a rock this season and should be a mid-round NFL draft pick due to his size/speed/toughness combination. Led PSU with 6.5 sacks and led the DLs with 5 passes defensed.
  8. Derek Moye, WR, Sr. - He missed almost three games due to a freak foot injury, but his gutty return for the final drive vs. Illinois was one of the highlights of the season, and it's not his fault the QBs were lame. With good health and QB play, Moye (40 receptions) would have been first-team all-conference. He departs third all-time at PSU in receiving yards (2,395), fourth in receiving TDs (18) and fifth in receptions (144), and like Crawford figures to be a mid-round NFL draft pick.
  9. Jordan Hill, NT, Jr. - The always-hustling overachiever just keeps getting better. Like Still, he rarely took a breather due to lack of quality depth at DT, yet he continued to make plays into the fourth quarter, notching 58 tackles, 8 for loss, and 3 fumble recoveries - great numbers for a nose tackle.
  10. Anthony Fera, K/P, So. - Started the season in Paterno's doghouse and on the bench, then pounded too many punts into the end zone. But he was very good on field goals (14-17), good on kickoffs (10 touchbacks) and his punting improved late in the year, stabilizing PSU's special teams.
  11. Chaz Powell, CB/KR, Sr. - His excellence on kickoff returns gave him an edge among the quartet of senior DBs in these ratings. He could play in the NFL if he can settle on a position at the next level (offense? slot receiver? nickel back/special teams gunner?) and devote himself to special teams.
  12. Joe Paterno, former Head Coach - Penn State's internal investigation of the Sandusky scandal, and the trial, obviously will dramatically alter Paterno's perception and legacy. We'll see how much. As far as his coaching this season goes, JoePa needs to get some credit for the close wins and strong defense and some blame for the offensive regression.
  13. Drew Astorino, SS, Sr. - In the playing rotation since his redshirt freshman season, the once lightly-regarded recruit had the best season of his career, finishing second in tackles with 77, with 5 for loss and 7 passes defensed. His size/speed combo makes him an NFL longshot.
  14. Nate Stupar, LB, Sr. - Stupar figured to be the hard-luck story of the year, a productive veteran supplanted in the starting lineup when Mauti moved from MLB to OLB in the preseason. Then Mauti got hurt, Stupar stepped in and was superb the rest of the way, finishing fourth with 68 tackles. Like LB predecessors Tim Shaw and Josh Hull, Stupar could stick in the NFL and might be a late-round draft pick.
  15. John Thomas, Strength/Conditioning Coach - In his 20th season at PSU, Thomas must be credited for the extraordinary performance in the second half of games by the Lions defense this season.
  16. Nick Sukay, FS, Sr. - Had a good season and made a lot of big plays, but also seemed to just miss on some other critical opportunities and occasionally struggled tackling (he's now featured on Montee Ball's highlight reel). Sukay also could possibly get a look from the pros if he's dedicated to playing special teams and his 2010 injury continues doesn't red-flag him with NFL teams.
  17. Johnnie Troutman, LG, Sr. - A bull in the trenches, Troutman was good at pulling or plowing on run plays and was stout against the pass. Like Powell, Sukay, Stupar and a few other PSU seniors, he has just enough ability to play in the NFL if he can stay healthy and is fully committed.
  18. Justin Brown, WR/PR, Jr. - Despite improvement each season, Brown, a true junior, still seems to be not quite fulfilling his potential. Came very close to making several great catches, made a few of them, but looks a bit overweight for a WR and misses some makable plays for someone with his ability. Finished second to Moye with 34 receptions for 448 yards.
  19. Chima Okoli, RT, Sr. - PSU quarterbacks were sacked just 12 times, least in the Big Ten, and Okoli was one of the primary reasons. He played DL for a few years before settling in at RT last season, and this season earned second-team All-Big Ten honors.
  20. Quinn Barham, LT, Sr. - Had played relatively little prior to this season (13 starts) for a senior captain starting at an important position, and by and large he came through for the Lions. Bookend tackles Barham and Okoli won't be confused with Levi Brown, but they were solid. 
  21. Dick Anderson and Bill Kenney, OL/TE Coaches - The offensive line was loaded with fifth-year seniors, but it wasn't overly experienced or talented. Nonetheless, Anderson (centers/guards, 34th season at PSU) and Kenney (tackles/TEs, 24th season) molded them into a quintessentially solid-but-unspectacular unit (of note is that the TEs were well below average this season). Redd's 5.2 per carry average and the low sack total are excellent measures for the OL.
    1. D'Anton Lynn, CB, Sr. - Injured in a midseason collision, Lynn missed a couple of games, and he came up with few big plays (the Nebraska game was not a good one for him). But Lynn was reliable most of this season and in his four seasons in the lineup. He's one of many seniors on the bubble re: the NFL, where he might play safety and special teams. 
    2. Sean Stanley, DE, Jr. - With the graduation of Crawford and Eric Latimore, Stanley will be counted on even more next season. Though a bit undersized (6-1, 245), he notched 4.5 sacks and 3 forced fumbles in 2011 - and could pair with returning-from-injury Pete Massaro and redshirt freshman Deion Barnes, among others, in a nice DE rotation in 2012.
    3. Glenn Carson, MLB, So. - Named a surprise starter just before the season, Carson proved his back injury was a thing of the past and that he is a capable Big Ten-caliber LB. He'll need to take it up a notch next season as fellow sophomore Khairi Fortt and others are pushing for playing time.
    4. De'Onte Pannell, RG, Sr. - Had some bad moments, but overall was decent. He fended off John Urschel to remain the starter throughout the season and put a generally good finish on a very uneven career.
    5. Matt Stankiewitch, C, Jr. - The nondescript offensive line steadily improved as the season went along, as did Stankiewitch. He will be counted on next season to lead a revamped unit as the lone returning starter.
    6. Joe Suhey, FB, Sr. - Ultimately it was a disappointing season for the talented Suhey. He battled injuries at midseason and was underused otherwise, his excellent receiving and surprising rushing skills rarely on display. He also split time with Michael Zordich in PSU's "legacy" FB tandem. Suhey should get a chance to make an NFL roster as a FB, H-Back and special teams player. 
    7. Stephfon Green, RB, Sr. - Green capped a bizarre season and career with a blaze of glory in the final few games. Booted off the team for several months, Green was granted a reprieve during training camp after the seniors pleaded with Paterno for his reinstatement. He scarcely touched the field the first half of the season but finished with 203 rushing yards and 5 TDs. His special teams prowess and third-down back potential should get him a free agency opportunity in the NFL.
    8. Matt McGloin, QB, Jr. - Provided leadership during the Sandusky crisis and handled the two-quearterback situation much better than Rob Bolden, earning the starting job the final few games. Nonetheless, if/when the new coaching staff comes in McGloin, due to mediocre performance, will be tossed back into the pool of QB candidates for 2012, along with Paul Jones, possibly Bolden (who seems likely to transfer) and likely incoming recruit Skyler Mornhinweg.
    9. Kermit Buggs, Safeties Coach - PSU safeties Sukay, Astorino and Malcolm Willis played both the pass and the run well throughout 2011, aside from the Wisconsin game (which could be said about many PSU players). Buggs is in his ninth year on the staff and fourth working with the safeties.
    10. Michael Mauti, LB, Jr. - Was off to a sensational start before tearing an ACL for the second time in his career early in the fourth game of the season. Has the total package of LB skills and looked like the successor to Posluszny, Connor, Lee, Bowman, etc. The questions now are if he can get back up to speed, and if he can remain healthy.
    11. Eric Latimore, DE, Sr. - An occasional starter throughout his career, Latimore was always hustling, if not always producing. Continued the pipeline from Delaware (Devon Still, Justin Brown) to PSU. His size (6-6, 275) and effort will get him an NFL look.
    12. Devon Smith, WR/KR, Jr. - Bad hands, diminutive stature and bad instincts (impossible to believe he didn't block the Wisconin DB who made the tackle on Stephfon Green's 89-yard run that was called back vs. Wisconsin) offset Smith's blazing speed and grit. Third-leading receiver with 23 catches for 353 yards and 2 TDs.
    13. Khairi Fortt, LB, So. - Saw significant action as Carson's backup, and it will be hard to keep Fortt from getting more playing time in 2012. Shows good instincts and speed and should be in the Top 20 on this list the next two seasons, if not higher.
    14. Malcolm Willis, DB, So. - With the four senior DB starters departing, Willis will anchor the secondary next season, and like Fortt should be a defensive pillar the next two seasons. He should be up to the task after stepping in adequately for an injured Sukay in 2010, and playing effectively in some nickel and dime packages this season.
    15. Michael Zordich, FB, Jr. - If not for a late-season "hands of stone" display, Zordich would be much higher. The fiery blocker dropped a few passes and fumbled a kickoff, costly errors. With Suhey graduating, Zordich will need to improve his ball skills for next season.
    16. Adrian Amos, CB/KR, Fr. - The true freshman was a revelation in limited duty in the secondary and as a kickoff returner. When Lynn and Stephon Morris both were injured, Amos stepped in at CB like a veteran. Should start at CB or safety next season and vault up this list. He's a gamer.
    17. Stephon Morris, CB, Jr. - Small (5-foot-8) speed merchant played better this season in limited action than the past two seasons when he started 10 games. A prime contender to regain his starting CB role in 2012, Morris had five passes defensed.
    18. Curtis Dukes, RB, So. - A big back (237 pounds) with good speed, Dukes had a nice stretch as Silas Redd's backup then fell off the map, allowing Stephfon Green to shine in the final few games of his career. Dukes was second in rushing yards with 237 and a robust 5.8 avg.
    19. Galen Hall, Offensive Coordinator/RB Coach - Though the play-calling was poor much of the season and the offense was mediocre at best overall, Hall must be given some credit for the sterling performance this season by RB Silas Redd.
    20. Curtis Drake and Shawney Kersey, WRs, So. - Both are spectacularly underutilized, combining for just 10 catches for an eye-popping 21 yards per catch. In Drake's case his recuperated broken leg apparently had lingering issues, but he's a playmaker when healthy as demonstrated the final two games when he played some option QB. Kersey, for unknown reasons, receives scant playing time. 
    21. Jay Paterno and Mike McQueary, QB and WR Coach (respectively) - Had to be one of the toughest seasons ever for JayPa, with Rob Bolden's regression and the Jerry Sandusky scandal resulting in the firing of his father. McQueary's ascending career was derailed by his grand jury testimony and subsequent administrative leave, putting his future in the profession in doubt.
    22. Brandon Beachum, RB, Jr. - Never quite seemed fully recovered from an ACL injury, though at times he was the No. 2 RB and short-yardage specialist before a hamstring injury slowed him. Sadly, late in the final game at Wisconsin he broke his leg. Apparently he might not return for his final season of eligibility. Was fourth with 137 rushing yards.
    23. Rob Bolden, QB, So. - Whatever happened to the skinny kid with the textbook release who started at QB from Day 1 of his true freshman season in 2010 after just a few weeks on campus? Hopefully we see him again someday. Bolden 2.0 was a case study in lost confidence.

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