UNIVERSITY PARK — Last season was one unlike any John Urschel and his teammates had ever seen.
They’ll likely never experience the range of emotions they went through as the spring turned into summer and those months blossomed into one of the unlikeliest of seasons.
It began with tragedy and in its wake Urschel his teammates watched as their universe was turned on its head. They were suddenly a team under severe NCAA sanctions. There would be no bowl game. Uncertainty lurked early and often as a free transfer waiver was created to allow Penn State players to switch schools without having to sit out.
Eventually, Urschel and the Nittany Lions made peace with the sanctions. They had to. Some players left. The season started shaky then ended in triumph.
The transfer waiver expired when the second training camp under Bill O’Brien began and Penn State players such as Urschel now find themselves at the forefront, expected to lead the latest group of Lions.
But they’re not hoping to simply repeat the results of last year, when the team finished 8-4 and O’Brien won numerous Coach of the Year awards in his first season. They want to be even better.
“If you ask any of the guys from that team,” Urschel said. “If you ask Malcolm (Willis), Glenn (Carson), it was a blast. We all loved it. It was a great time and I can only hope this year is as much fun.”
So they’ve adopted the mantra “Next Level” to help them approach this season.
Urschel is among the leaders who have stepped forward. In addition to Carson and Willis, two of the team’s veteran defenders, Urschel returns to an offense that is solid at the skill positions and along the offensive line.
Seven of Penn State’s top eight all-purpose yardage leaders return to a unit that ranked fourth in the Big Ten Conference in total offense.
In addition to boasting one of the conference’s deepest tight end collections, Penn State returns All Big Ten wide receiver Allen Robinson who led the conference with 1,013 yards and snagged 11 touchdowns last season. The tight ends include Kyle Carter, who was on pace to shatter Penn State single season receiving records for a tight end before he was hurt in the Nebraska game, workhorse Jesse James and Matt Lehman. The trio combined to catch 75 passes for 1,025 yards and 10 touchdowns in 2012.
Brandon Felder is back after providing Robinson with a solid compliment and players have raved about the progress young wideout Eugene Lewis has made in camp.
The running game that got more lethal down the stretch in 2012 looks to be more dangerous with 1,000-yard grinder Zach Zwinak, shifty Bill Belton and newcomer Akeel Lynch in the backfield.
While the names on paper are the same, don’t expect Penn State to bring the exact same schemes to the stadium every weekend.
“We’re a totally different team than we were last year,” O’Brien said. “We‘re doing a lot of different things. We’re very, very different.”
Especially different is the quarterback situation.
Last season, O’Brien went into training camp with fifth-year senior Matt McGloin entrenched as his starter. Now Penn State is trying to break in a new quarterback, either junior college transfer sophomore Tyler Ferguson or true freshman Christian Hackenberg. At press time, O’Brien had yet to name a starter.
Either player figures to be somewhat comfortable behind an offensive line that returns three starters and three others who have played big minutes over the past few seasons.
“We’ve think we’ve got like nine guys on the offensive line that can play for us this year,” O’Brien said. “And (offensive line coach Mac McWhorter) does a good job of playing a lot of guys there.”
Urschel will lineup at right guard with Miles Dieffenbach on the left. Donovan Smith returns to his left tackle spot and Ty Howle, who played a lot last season, takes over at center. Garry Gilliam has switched to tackle and will provide depth behind or could fill in for Adam Gress on the right side of the line.
Importantly, O’Brien has been impressed with the camps young linemen Angelo Mangiro and Andrew Nelson have had, in addition to the depth veteran Eric Shrive provides on the interior. Shrive can play tackle if needed.
As for tacklers, Penn State returns a handful of starting safeties, a talented but unproved cornerback duo and a front seven that is deep along the line but lacking experience at linebacker.
Safeties Malcolm Willis and Stephen Obeng-Agyapong return. Willis will start again next to Adrian Amos, who will likely play safety most of the time. Amos played corner last season and also will be the team’s nickel back this fall, he said.
Trevor Williams, who played as a true freshman at receiver last season, moved to corner and will join Jordan Lucas as the defense’s new bookends.
Along the front line, Penn State returns preseason all-conference end Deion Barnes, who will be aided by returning defensive tackle DaQuan Jones. C.J. Olaniyan and Austin Johnson are poised to take over for Sean Stanley and Jordan Hill at defensive end and tackle, respectively.
Jones, who has slimmed down for his senior season, was recently named the best defensive tackle prospect that will be available in the upcoming NFL Draft. But Jones won’t let the hype get to him. He said he feels no pressure, only more athleticism that’s come from shedding nearly 15 pounds.
“Losing that much weight, you can play longer, be in the game longer,” Jones said. “Last year, I could only go about 35 plays. This year I can hopefully go about 60. So losing that much weight, I can go out there and play harder, faster for a longer period of time.”
As is defensive line coach Larry Johnson’s M.O., Penn State figures to work a handful of defensive linemen, including former end Kyle Baublitz, into the rotation.
“You also have (defensive tackles) Derek Dowrey and Brian Gaia. These two guys are tough guys, they’re strong and they’ve done well,” O’Brien said. “I can see a rotation of five or six guys going in there.”
O’Brien limited contact in training camp to preserve the health of his roster, which only includes 67 scholarship players.
The Nittany Lions must be down to 65 scholarships by next season per NCAA sanctions.
With turnover and the transfer waiver, Penn State has been left shallow at linebacker. Carson returns to lead the group and Mike Hull will play an every-down role this season on the strong side. They’re joined by redshirt freshman Nyeem Wartman, who was forced to sit out last year after injuring a knee in the second game of the season.
O’Brien has consistently called Hull one of the best players on the team. A year ago, he backed up seniors Mike Mauti and Gerald Hodges, both now with the Minnesota Vikings. Hull started against Wisconsin when Mauti was out with a knee injury.
“I’ve always prepared to play every single snap, even if I wasn’t the starter in previous years,” Hull said. “Right now, me, Glenn and Nyeem are really just trying to help the younger guys learn the defense, because a lot of those guys are freshmen and they just came in here and it’s a lot to pick up.”
Gary Wooten is a redshirt freshman linebacker whose name keeps popping up as a player who is progressing.
The Nittany Lions also hope to have Ben Kline available at linebacker as soon as he is fully recovered from offseason shoulder surgery. Kline is day-to-day.
Penn State could afford to improve its special teams play.
Last season the Nittany Lions suffered along with kicker Sam Ficken, who had a disastrous introduction when he went 1-for-5 in a Week 2 loss at Virginia. But Ficken recovered to nail 12 of his last 13 kicks, including the game-winner in overtime against Wisconsin.
The team’s punting and kickoff coverage teams have big areas for growth.
Penn State ranked 11th in the Big Ten with just 34.5 net yards per punt and was 10th in the league with just under 40 net yards given up on each kickoff return. Meanwhile, Penn State was last in kickoff returns and ninth in punt returns.
O’Brien his hoping to spice up the return game by working in different players. Williams, Belton, Lewis, speedster Alex Kenney, Lynch and Richy Anderson will all compete for return reps.
As for this season, Urschel’s final one in a blue and white uniform, competing with last year in terms of its memorability? Urschel will have to wait a while to pass judgment.
“I’m definitely going to try to soak everything in my senior year,” Urschel said. “This is definitely going to be a year I remember, but last year was a very interesting year and it was the most memorable year of football that I’ve had, mainly because of just the guys on the football team. But I’d say this is going to be a year that I won’t forget, just because of all the seniors we have and all that we’ve been through together in our four or five years here.”