UNIVERSITY PARK — For now ‘Linebacker U’ has become ‘Linebacker Who?’
As in, who will step up and replace the on-field production and off-field leadership provided by departed seniors Gerald Hodges and Michael Mauti? Penn State football coach Bill O’Brien is hoping spring practice, which began Monday, will yield the answer.
“We don’t have a lot of depth at linebacker, that’s for sure,” O’Brien said.
Returning defenders Glenn Carson and Mike Hull will anchor the linebacking corps with senior and junior eligibility, respectively. They played in every game, combined for 13 starts and will be relied upon heavily again.
That doesn’t mean there aren’t talented players in the pipeline who are ready to take on expanded roles.
O’Brien was quick to mention two intriguing options, redshirt freshman Nyeem Wartman and redshirt sophomore Ben Kline, as soon-to-be contributors. Penn State will have to wait to see Kline in action as he recovers from recent shoulder surgery.
“We think (Wartman) has a really bright future,” O’Brien said. “Ben Kline won’t be (practicing) in the spring but we know that he’s going to help us in the fall as a special teams player and then fighting for time at linebacker. I’m really looking forward to watching Hull, Carson and Wartman play together.”
They didn’t get many chances to do so last season.
While Hull and Carson ate up most of the playing time next to Hodges and Mauti, Wartman was knocked out by a knee injury in the second game of the season.
Meanwhile, Hull and Carson established themselves as reliable options when called upon. Carson finished third on the team with 85 tackles while Hull added 58 and provided key versatility on third downs. He’d step in for Carson and allow corner Adrian Amos to move to safety while Da’Quan Davis would come in at corner. Hull, who also was a valued special teams contributor, has packed on 13 pounds to his 6-foot frame and is now listed at 226 pounds.
Off the field, both said all the right things too.
“Glenn Carson and Mike Hull have really worked hard. They are leaders on this football team,” O’Brien said. “They are tough guys, good players and then Nyeem, I think he worked very hard this offseason and we are looking forward to seeing what he can do.”
Due to the heavy turnover at the linebacker spots, O’Brien hinted that a number of young players will get more chances to prove their worth in multiple roles.
By the time the team’s training camp opens in the summer, O’Brien said he could see incoming linebackers Zayd Issah and Brandon Bell contributing, especially on special teams.
“Certainly it’s not because of lack of talent. That’s not what we’re saying,” O’Brien said. “We think we have a lot of really good players, but based on numbers, there are some depth issues so a guy like Brandon Bell or Zayd Issah, we’ll be looking for those guys to come in here in the summertime and see what they can do.”
Zwinak frontrunner at RB
Fresh off a 1,000-yard rushing season, junior Zach Zwinak enters spring practice as the Nittany Lions’ starting running back.
But as he did in his first year at the helm, O’Brien won’t be shy about taking a running-back-by-committee approach. Such is the luxury when you have a handful of talented players with varying skill sets at your disposal as O’Brien contends.
Junior Bill Belton is back and healthy after an injury-filled 2012 campaign and freshman Akeel Lynch will enter the fold after redshirting last season. Prospect Richy Anderson, who enrolled in January, could compete for carries and play some slot receiver, O’Brien said.
“It’s a very competitive position,” O’Brien said. “As long as I’m the head football coach here the running back position will always be a competitive position. That’s a day-to-day, who practices the best, is the starter the next day, really.”
While Penn State lost the hard-running of Michael Zordich, the Nittany Lions’ rushing attack shouldn’t lose much of its snarl.
Zwinak was rarely taken down for a loss last season and showed off his ability to punish tacklers at the end of runs by driving through defenders. Belton, O’Brien said, is leaner this season and his quickness should provide a good change of pace.
Lynch, listed at 6-foot, 214 pounds, could offer a bit of both qualities, O’Brien said.
“I think you’ve got three very, very different skill sets (in Zwinak, Belton and Lynch),” O’Brien said. “It will be fun to watch those guys and then we’ll have to, especially me, I’ll have to do a good job of putting them in the right spot to take advantage of what they do best.”
QB battle heating up
While Steven Bench and Tyler Ferguson split repetitions in the portion of Monday’s practice open to the media, O’Brien expects a third horse to enter the quarterback race in the summer to become Penn State’s starter.
O’Brien hasn’t yet given any thought to redshirting the top quarterback recruit, Christian Hackenberg.
“You bring these guys in, they are on full scholarship,” O’Brien said. “Unless they are injured, you’re going to put them into the mix and let them compete and you’re going to play the best players.”
Ferguson, a 6-foot-3, 199-pound junior college transfer from College of the Sequoias, and Bench a 6-foot-2, 205-pound sophomore who played sparingly behind Matt McGloin last season, were joined by walk-ons Austin Whipple and D.J. Crook at practice. They threw deep balls and intermediate routes to receivers and one another during the session open to the media.
For now, Bench is ahead in terms of knowing more of the offense, O’Brien said.
“I would say Steven probably knows it a little bit better than Tyler right now just because he’s been here for a year,” O’Brien said. “(Ferguson) is catching up and he’s doing a good job learning.”
Hackenberg will have even less time when he arrives on campus in June, but that won’t immediately disqualify him.
O’Brien gave up some insight on how he approaches redshirting particular players — it is easier for him to decide on redshirt years for offensive and defensive linemen due to the strength levels required at those spots.
“The skill positions, if you have the athletic ability, it’s a bit easier to play as a freshman if you pick up the system and you come in there and you’re physically in good condition and ready to go,” O’Brien said.
O’Brien said he believes redshirt freshman Malik Golden and senior Nate Cadogan could be two players who see time on both offense and defense.
Golden was moved to defensive back and spent the portion of practice open to the media working with a group of safeties. Meanwhile, Cadogan has switched positions numerous times throughout his career and will now primarily slot in with the defensive tackles.
“Those were discussions that we had with those players,” O’Brien said. “Certainly there are other moves that may be made because we are going to try to do what's best for the football team. If we think a guy can help us on defense and maybe still play offense, because of the numbers that we have, we'll certainly look at doing that.”
Meanwhile, junior Miles Dieffenbach, who was listed as a center on Penn State’s roster Monday, will return to his left guard spot. O’Brien clarified the switch to center as a typo.
Instead, senior Ty Howle entered spring practice as the starting center, although redshirt freshman Wendy Laurent will also get a chance to snap the ball in the spring.
“(Offensive line coach) Mac (McWhorter) does a great job of teaching tackles how to play guard,” O’Brien said. “Some guys play all five positions, which is really extraordinary, and so we train a lot of guys to be center.”
Resting up for now
In addition to Kline, a few other players will be held out of contact portions of spring practice as they recover from ailments.
Senior safety Stephen Obeng-Agyapong (shoulder), sophomore tight end Kyle Carter (wrist) and sophomore offensive lineman Angelo Mangiro (hamstring) also will be limited this spring.
True freshman tight end Adam Breneman has been cleared for all activities, however. Breneman, who enrolled in January, is coming off a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee suffered last June.