Friday, December 7, 2012

The very early sneak peek at Penn State football 2013: Defense and special teams

With no bowl to prepare for despite a winning season, Penn State can get a head start on 2013. What might the Lions look like on the field next season? A post last week examined the offense, this one takes a look at the defense and special teams.

Penn State moves into the next phase of the post-Sandusky world in 2013.

The shock of the sanctions is behind, and the scholarship limits begin. The Lions are allowed to sign just 15 in February. It is the first of four years with such a restriction (2013-16).

The 65 total scholarship limit doesn't start until 2014 and lasts through 2017, but PSU almost was under that mark this past season. The Lions had 67 scholarship players for most of 2012. So the 65 total won't have much of an impact since PSU can add just 15 scholarships each year anyway.

Also, all transfer restrictions on PSU players are lifted again by the NCAA from the end of the 2012 season until the start of the 2013 season, so PSU might incur more offseason attrition than usual, as college coaches can actively recruit the Nittany Lion players. Yes, it's a ridiculous sanction.

So what will PSU look like on the field next season? Who will be in the lineup when the Lions take the field against Syracuse at the Meadowlands on Aug. 31? A sneak peek at the defense and special teams, with some best-guesses - and assuming no one transfers:

Projected 2013 Penn State depth chart
(all stats from 2012 unless otherwise indicated; key departures listed in italics)


Defensive End
1. Deion Barnes (So.)
1. C.J. Olaniyan (Jr.)
2. Anthony Zettel (So.)
2. Brad Bars (Jr.)
3. Garrett Sickels (true Fr.)
3. Evan Schwan (Rs Fr.)
4. Jordan Kerner (So.)
4. Curtis Cothran (true Fr.)
4. Tanner Hartman (true Fr.)
starter Sean Stanley and reserve Pete Massaro graduated
  • The skinny:  Barnes (6-4, 246) was a revelation in 2012, leading PSU in tackles for loss (10) and sacks (6). He is arguably PSU's most promising player. Olaniyan, Zettel and Bars (6-3, 254) make plays happen with hustle, and Olaniyan (6-3, 248) and Zettel (4 sacks) will compete for a starting spot after both made 15 tackles in spot duty in 2012. Zettel might end up at DT. Sickels is a highly regarded recruit, but at 6-4, 230 likely needs a year of college weight training before making an impact on Saturdays; same with the 6-5, 230-pound Cothran. The lanky Schwan (6-6, 223) has had that year under his belt and could push for playing time, perhaps as a passing-down specialist; he racked up the tackles for loss in HS. Hartman (6-4, 255) might get a look at OL and TE. RS So. Jordan Kerner's career came to a premature close in January due to a chronic back injury; he never played for the Lions.

Defensive Tackle
1. DaQuan Jones (Sr.)
1. Kyle Baublitz (Jr.)
2. Anthony Zettel (So.)
2. Austin Johnson (Rs Fr.)
3. Derek Dowrey (Rs Fr.)
3. Brian Gaia (Rs Fr.)
4. Parker Cothren (true Fr.)
starter Jordan Hill and reserve James Terry graduated
  • The skinny:  The DTs, along with the QBs, are perhaps the biggest concern on the team. Which is why the Lions tried to jump in late on the recruitment of Juco DT Marquel Combs. Zettel (6-5, 253), who also is listed at DE - where he played this season - and who is reminiscent of former Lion Scott Paxson, could bulk up and switch to DT if necessary, as Baublitz (6-5, 287) did last season. Jones (6-3, 324) was adequate as a starter (19 tackles) rotating with James Terry alongside the indefatigable All-Big Ten lineman Jordan Hill in 2012, and Baublitz (3 tackles) played a little bit in reserve, and that's it - there's no one else with any experience whatsoever. A trio of redshirt freshman will vie for playing time: Johnson (6-4, 297) cracked the depth chart this season, though he never played, so presumably the coaches think more of him at this juncture than Dowrey (6-3, 311) and Gaia (6-3, 271). OL Alosi could be moved here, too. Cothren could get a look a OL, and at 265 pounds he won't be ready to contribute. It's very rare that PSU isn't tough in the middle of the DL, but that appears to be a very real possibility in 2013, depending on the improvement rate of Jones, Baublitz, Johnson, Dowrey, Gaia and possibly Zettel and Alosi, as well as Combs or another late-add recruit.

1. Glenn Carson (Sr.)
1. Mike Hull (Jr.)
1. Ben Kline (So.)
2. Nyeem Wartman (Rs Fr.)
2. Gary Wooten (Rs Fr.)
2. Brennan Franklin (Rs Fr.) transferring
3. Zayd Issah (true Fr.)
3. Brandon Bell (true Fr.)
3. Jonathan Walton (true Fr.)
starters Michael Mauti and Gerald Hodges and reserves Jamie Van Fleet and Michael Yancich graduated
  • The skinny: The Lions long have had an embarrassment of riches at LB but now have some concerns after losing superstars Mauti and Hodges and veterans Van Fleet (who missed 2012 due to an injury) and special teams star Yancich. Carson and Hull will be top-flight starters in 2013. After that the questions begin. Kline appears to have the ability to start and could emerge. Wartman also could emerge, as he impressed early before an injury sidetracked his season. He should be granted a redshirt for 2012 as he only played in two games. Wooten - perhaps the first dreadlocked Lion - is a 6-2, 230-pound Miami native who graduated in 2011 but didn't enroll in a college until coming to PSU just before the start of the 2012 season. He hasn't played since his HS senior season in the fall of 2010, when he weighed 190 pounds and had low-level FBS scholarship offers. O'Brien has praised him since his arrival. Franklin also was a late offer/arrival in the summer of 2012, and the Arizona native is undersized (5-11, 220) and could become a safety. Khairi Fortt would have been a surefire starter in 2013 if he hadn't transferred to Cal when the sanctions hit. Issah, Bell and Walton all are likely to redshirt unless they contribute on special teams and/or pick things up at LB very quickly. This is perhaps LB coach Ron Vanderlinden's biggest challenge in nearly a decade, but the cupboard definitely is not bare. 

1. Adrian Amos (Jr.)
1. Da'Quan Davis (So.)
2. Jesse Della Valle (Jr.)
2. Jordan Lucas (So.)
3. Jake Kiley (Rs Fr.)
3. Jordan Smith (true Fr.)
4. Kasey Gaines (true Fr.)
4. Anthony Smith (true Fr.)
starter Stephon Morris and reserve Mike Wallace graduated
  • The skinny: Amos established himself as a stud in 2012 and is one of the top returning defensive backs in the Big Ten for 2013. Morris' blazing speed and tough tackling will be missed. Davis was the top backup as a true freshman and played well in stints when Amos moved to safety. Davis seems like the only player listed above who is locked in at CB - all others also could play safety, too. Wallace barely played in his career, missed all of 2012 with an injury, and apparently is bypassing his final year of eligibility. Lucas played special teams almost exclusively as a true freshman, though he was on the field at some key moments of the finale vs. Wisconsin. Same with former walk-on Della Valle - the primary punt returner in 2012 rarely saw action in the secondary yet played some at crunch time vs. Wisconsin. Della Valle seems like a prime contender for the 5th DB spot, and presumably PSU will play much more nickel formation in 2013 as it should have a little more depth in the secondary and won't be as fabulous at LB. Kiley had a quiet redshirt season and could end up at safety. The Smiths are likely to redshirt. Jordan Smith is more highly regarded, and both he and Anthony Smith will be on campus/enrolled in January. Gaines is a small (5-9, 160), fast HS safety who will try CB first.

1. Malcolm Willis (Sr.)
1. Stephen Obeng-Agyapong (Sr.)
2. Jesse Della Valle (Jr.)
2. Ryan Keiser (Jr.)
3. Jordan Lucas (So.)
3. Jake Kiley (Rs Fr.)
4. Neiko Robinson (true Fr.)
4. Kasey Gaines (true Fr.)
co-starter Jake Fagnano graduated
  • The skinny: Willis and Obeng-Agyapong have the experience and talent to be one of the best safety tandems in the Big Ten. They'll both need to play better than they did in 2012, however, to achieve their potential. Former walk-on Keiser got some playing time when Willis was injured late in the season and didn't distinguish himself either way. It was interesting when Keiser and the graduating Fagnano, both former walk-ons, were paired together at safety, showing the depth of PSU's walk-on program, which O'Brien calls the "run-on" program and hopes to ramp-up even more. Della Valle and Lucas are competing for nickel back duties and might be more likely to see action at CB. Southerners Robinson (Florida) and Gaines (Georgia) are likely to redshirt, and the fleet, undersized Gaines played safety in HS but will get a look at CB first.


1. Sam Ficken (Jr.)
2. Kevin DiSanto (Jr.)
reserve Evan Lewis graduated

1. Alex Butterworth (Sr.)
2. Reynolds Parthemore (So.)
reserve Joe Baker graduated
  • The skinny: Ficken was one of the 2012's great college football turnaround stories, and after making his final 10 FGs he is the clear-cut No. 1 kicker for 2013, though the staff will aggressively pursue walk-ons. Butterworth's position is much more tenuous. He was last in the Big Ten in net (34.5) and gross (37.4) average. He did vastly improve not punting into the end zone this season, with only two touchbacks. End-zone punts/touchbacks were ridiculously excessive in 2011. Parthemore is a former minor league pitcher. Expect more walk-ons to contend at punter also.

Kickoff Returner
1. Alex Kenney (Jr.)
1. Bill Belton (Jr.)
2. Adrian Amos (Jr.)
2. Jesse Della Valle (Jr.)
3. Trevor Williams (So.)
3. Eugene Lewis (Rs Fr.)
3. Malik Golden (Rs Fr.)
3. Akeel Lynch (Rs Fr.)
  • The skinny: Belton had the most kick return chances for PSU in 2012 with nine, and his lackluster season was reflected in his sluggish 15.6 average, which was the worst of the five PSU players with at least four chances. The surprising Della Valle was the only one with a return longer than 30 yards (he busted one for 46), so he had the highest average (25.2). Amos, Williams and Kenney had four returns each with middling results. Kenney has the most potential to take one the distance, though Lewis is well-regarded. If Belton is the No. 2 tailback, he could make a bigger impact here, potentially, but he needs to get his mojo back. 

Punt Returner
1. Jesse Della Valle (Jr.)
1. Adrian Amos (Jr.)
2. Allen Robinson (Jr.)
2. Bill Belton (Jr.)
3. Eugene Lewis (Rs Fr.)
3. Alex Kenney (Jr.)
reserve Evan Lewis graduated
  • The skinny:  The Lions frequently employed two punt returners, and for most of the season it was two undistinguished walk-ons: Della Valle, who led the team in returns (15 for 114 yds, 7.6 avg. - third-best average in the Big Ten among those with enough returns to qualify), and Lewis, who made little impact. The first game featured star LB Gerald Hodges at punt returner - until he muffed one. A safety is the default returner in punt-safe alignment, which makes Amos a good candidate to pair with Della Valle. The rest of the names listed are little more than educated guesses, or suggestions. Robinson's sure hands and ability to make the first guy miss on quick swing passes would serve him well as a punt returner.

For more insight, analysis and opinions about Penn State football, check, or follow Pete Young on Twitter @AllPSUfootball.

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