If the Nittany Lions are to transition back from surviving to thriving during the next few years, they will do it on the shoulder pads of these 25 guys, the most important players for the future of the program.
Last week Penn State head coach Bill O'Brien referenced something called the "Supa Six."
The grammatically challenged Supa Six is a sextet of second-year Lions - RB Bill Belton, WR Allen Robinson, OT Donovan Smith, TE Kyle Carter, CB Adrian Amos and DE Deion Barnes - who have tagged themselves collectively as, um, "Supa."
Hubris aside - O'Brien poked a little fun at their self-anointing - these six are good, promising young players.
However, PSU needs more than six "supas." It needs about 25. Needs to find, develop and keep them.
(The Supa Six also provide a lesson in recruiting. Carter, Amos and Robinson were 2- or 3-star recruits, tops, yet all three are entrenched starters and budding stars in just their second year on campus.)
The NCAA sanctions will permeate and inhibit everything Penn State tries to accomplish the next few years.
The scholarship restrictions will carve a wedge in the side of the program: No more than 15 signees a year, no more than 65 total on scholarship.
Making it worse, as soon as this season ends and right up until fall drills begin in 2013, the transfer rules go out the window again. PSU players can be recruited (and transfer), with no restrictions, by character-challenged college coaches.
It's an absurd sanction that harms more student-athletes than it might help. It is in no way merited, reasonable or beneficial. It is an embarrassment to the NCAA, the governing body supposedly looking out for the welfare of student-athletes. Instead it is creating chaos in their lives by allowing them to be continually recruited while already in college and working hard to be successful student-athletes.
And it is a huge crutch for the PSU coaches, who constantly have to deal with re-recruiting their own players while simultaneously trying to coach these same players.
Therefore, it's a little harder to gauge who will be on the Penn State roster in 2013 and beyond. O'Brien and his staff have stabilized the program as well as possible, but the counterproductive, excessively punitive transfer rules might result in at least a few more players departing Happy Valley, for whatever reason.
But we'll forge ahead and project which players should have the biggest impact for Penn State football moving forward. Below are the most important players for helping PSU defy the college football pundits and maintain a high-quality, successful program during the sanction era.
If the Nittany Lions are to transition back from surviving to thriving during the next few years, they will do it on the shoulder pads of these 25 guys, the most important players for the future of the program. (And yes, we cheated a little, bunching some players by age or position to make the list a little more than 25.)
The criteria? Potential impact on the field for PSU; need at, and importance of, their position (i.e. QBs are most important); length of time they can make an impact at PSU (i.e. freshmen have more potential impact than seniors), and potential impact off the field (i.e. how they can impact the perception of PSU football to potential recruits, the public at large, football fans, etc.)
This is a fluid ranking that could change after every Saturday afternoon this fall, depending on who does what on the field. But here's how things look right now, four games into the 2012 season and sanction era.
The Terrific 25: The Cornerstones of Penn State's football future
25. Sr. DT Jordan Hill - The Lions need big plays from the hustling, resourceful NT the rest of this season in order to have a chance at going .500 and generate momentum for 2013 and beyond. He had the fabulous interception against Virginia and played ferociously against Temple. PSU needs more of that from him.
24. Jr. LB Glenn Carson - Penn State has had at least one genuine star LB every season for nearly a decade, and frequently more than one. Carson, in his second year as the starting MLB, is the top candidate to be that guy in 2013. He'll need to be, with Mike Mauti and Gerald Hodges graduating.
23. So. WR Alex Kenney - He's got the speed and talent, now it needs to translate into production. Whether as a slot receiver, on kickoff returns or as a deep threat, Kenney has the potential to make numerous big plays the next few years.
22. Jr. DT DaQuan Jones - Just now becoming an impact player, it's a shame his redshirt season was wasted in 2010, when he scarcely played and did so only after a bevy of injuries. The 6-3, 324-pounder will anchor the interior in 2013.
21. Fr. DTs Austin Johnson, Brian Gaia and Derek Dowrey - Collectively, the three true freshman, who all likely are redshirting (Johnson might not - he's listed on the depth chart), will be counted on the next few years to clog the defensive interior line. With standout Jordan Hill and solid reserve DT James Terry departing after this season, only the aforementioned Jones and So. Kyle Baublitz will have any experience at DT.
20. Jr. G John Urschel and So G Miles Dieffenbach - Urschel is superstar student - 4.0 GPA in math, earned his undergraduate degree in three years - and solid player. He sets an image for PSU that's just like the old image, showing that as much as things have changed, they haven't changed. Dieffenbach is emerging as a quality interior lineman and figures to be a fixture in 2013-14.
19. So. K Sam Ficken - Ficken, or whoever the kicker is at any given time in the future, is going to have to be consistent and make big kicks, because PSU figures to be a middle-of-the-pack team involved in a lot of close games.
18. Fr. LB Nyeem Wartman and Rs Fr. LB Ben Kline - These fuzzy-cheeked linebacking backups are making an impact on special teams and getting a cup of coffee at LB. Both Wartman and Kline could become three-year starters, though only one of them is likely to start at LB next season, alongside Carson and Mike Hull.
17. Fr. WRs Trevor Williams and Eugene Lewis - Though Lewis might be on his way to a redshirt, these two both should be fixtures in the WR rotation, along with Allen Robinson and Alex Kenney, the next few years. Both have good size and all-around skill sets.
16. Jr. S Malcolm Willis and Jr. S Stephen Obeng-Agyapong - The blame for PSU's disastrous third-down defense the first two games this season fell mainly on these two, and especially on SO-A. Since this figures to be the starting safety tandem the rest of this season and next, SO-A's much-needed improvement playing the ball in the air is critical to PSU's success. Against passing-challenged Navy and Temple, at least, there were signs of progress.
15. HS Sr. OL Brendan Mahon and HS Sr. DE Garrett Sickels - The two 4-star commitments from New Jersey can help PSU fill its limited scholarships with quality players, and also demonstrate the Lions can reel in big-time recruits despite the sanctions.
14. Fr. CB Da'Quan Davis - The top backup CB already in a desperately thin secondary, Davis could slide into Stephon Morris' starting position for 2013-14-15. And if PSU can find another CB it is comfortable with (Fr. Jake Kiley? So. Jesse Della Valle? Fr. Jordan Lucas?) for 2013-14, that would free up Adrian Amos to move to safety.
13. Sr. FB/TB Michael Zordich, Jr. TB Curtis Dukes, So. TB Zach Zwinak and Fr. TB Akeel Lynch - The top backups to Bill Belton the next few years are, collectively, going to figure prominently at various times - such as against Temple when Zordich and Zwinak pounded the Owls into submission with a combined 33 carries for 171 yards . All have the talent to be a quality tailback and bring different skills to the table.
12. Fr. QB Steven Bench - If all-everything prep QB commitment Christian Hackenberg doesn't come to PSU, or doesn't pick up the offense super quickly, or simply isn't as good as everyone anticipates, or gets injured, then Bench will play a critical role in PSU's future fortunes. Also, his progression as a quarterback will be a referendum on O'Brien's talent as a quarterback guru and offensive coordinator. So far so good, as Bench, an unheralded recruit, has developed quickly enough for O'Brien to move erstwhile No. 2 QB Paul Jones to TE.
11. So. LB Mike Hull - His versatility and talent will make him a productive fixture in 2013-14. Considered transferring after the sanctions were levied, but seems unlikely to consider it again after the season. A special teams stalwart, top backup at all three LB spots and potential replacement for Michael Zordich and Michael Mauti in the "fiery team leader/PSU football legacy'' role.
10. Rs Fr. DE Anthony Zettel and Rs Fr G/C Angelo Mangiro - Both highly recruited linemen redshirted in 2011 but figure prominently from here on out. For Zettel, this ranking might be a bit of an overreaction to his performance in the 4th quarter against Navy in garbage time. But he was a big recruit who has good size (6-5, 253) and battles to the whistle every play. Could team with Deion Barnes to form a formidable DE tandem for 2013-14-15. Mangiro's versatility and talent should vault him from top backup this season to three-year starter for 2013-14-15.
9. Sr. LBs Mike Mauti and Gerald Hodges - Obviously, the dynamic OLB duo is the backbone of the 2012 team. But both are capable of playing better and dominating, and they are Penn State's best pro prospects for the 2013 draft. They will be counted on for superb play the rest of this season, and to demonstrate during the next few years that O'Brien's staff can produce viable NFL talent.
8. Sr. QB Matt McGloin - Yes, the 5th-year senior only has eight games left in a PSU uniform, at most. But the former walk-on signal caller's progress the remainder of this season is critical on two counts: PSU needs every win it can get and McGloin is the team's most important player, and his continued development will reflect well on the staff, which is rapidly establishing credibility with pundits and recruits. These next couple of games are critical, as McGloin must translate his success against Navy and Temple into Big Ten play.
7. RsFr. TE Kyle Carter and Fr. TE Jesse James - It's easy to see these two playing a big part in the offense the next three seasons. O'Brien's TE-friendly attack has taken Carter from meh recruit to playmaker (16 rec, 190 yds, 1 TD) seemingly overnight. Carter might have emerged eventually on the old offense, but he is a great fit as an "F" TE in O'Brien's system, and he has shown a knack for making catch-and-run plays. James is a "Y" and loaded with talent at a massive 6-7, 264 and with surprising straight-line speed. He needs some polish, for sure, but James' ability is very similar to former PSU/current NFL TE Andrew Quarless, only a few inches taller.
6. So. TB Bill Belton - Getting his ankle recuperated and back on the field is the top priority right now, as the solid collection of backup TBs lacks Belton's big-play potential. Long-term, Belton, at 202 pounds, figures to be a 15-18 carries a game guy, very effective in the passing game and good for a couple of 15-yard plus plays a game. PSU needs those big plays in the running game, to offset the loss of Silas Redd and help open up the passing game.
5. So. CB Adrian Amos - Amos is "The Stabilizer" in a shockingly depleted secondary. He has played like a veteran almost from the day he showed up in 2011. Can play corner or safety but the need is greater at CB at the moment. If he can get a tick faster, he'll be a nice NFL prospect.
4. So. TE/QB Paul Jones - The talented Jones can make a contribution as a TE, where he has practiced just a few weeks. More than that, he can set the tone for the era by simply being a team player and embracing the position switch. It had to be a huge psychological blow to lose the No. 2 QB job and move to another position, but so far Jones appears amenable. If it continues - you can be sure this offseason the scoundrels will try to lure Jones from PSU with the promise of a QB job - it will help show the players believe in O'Brien and are buying in. And, because stranger things have happened, Jones could end up playing QB again someday for the Lions. Or play in the NFL - at tight end.
3. So. WR Allen Robinson - Every good passing game requires a good No. 1 receiver, and Robinson has suddenly emerged and appears to be on his way. The production is there, though he has had a few drops, too. Through four games he has a whopping 29 catches for 404 yards, 13.9 avg, 5 TD. If he remains the No. 1 receiver, keeps improving and stays healthy, he could challenge school records.
2. Rs Fr. OT Donovan Smith and Rs Fr. DE Deion Barnes- These big-time 2011 recruits both redshirted last season. They probably spend a lot of time going head-to-head in practice and they might have the most upside of anyone on the team. With hard work and a little luck, the NFL is in their futures. If Smith can get back on the field from the somewhat mysterious injury dogging him right now, he has the look of a four-year starter and anchor at left tackle. Barnes is a backfield disrupter (team-high 3 sacks) who should continue to improve as he adds girth (he's 6-4, 246) and spends more time with DL coaching guru Larry Johnson Sr.
1. HS Sr. QB Christian Hackenberg and HS Sr. TE Adam Breneman - It's about both perception and jackpot on-field potential impact for these two primo recruits. If Hackenberg and Breneman (and Sickels and Mahon and others) follow through on their PSU pledge and sign on the dotted line in February, and then stick around for several years and prosper as student-athletes, then what they accomplish individually on the field is almost a bonus. In theory, Hackenberg might never beat out Steven Bench - you never know. (In 2010, who saw Matt McGloin beating out Kevin Newsome, Rob Bolden and Paul Jones for most of the next three seasons? Exactly.) But PSU football will be much better off just for Hackenberg's coming to Happy Valley, because perception is huge and he is known to everyone in college football circles. The pundits have declared PSU recruiting DOA for a few years, and Hackenberg would put the kibosh on that. Regarding Hackenberg's buddy Breneman, perhaps the nation's top TE prospect, considering his knee injury and the depth PSU is developing at TE, it could be 2015 before he makes a big impact on the field. But the reverberations of his expected early enrollment in January, 2013 will make him a highly impacting player immediately. He has "program ambassador" written all over him, and if he fully recovers from the injury, watch out - his highlight tapes are awesome.