Penn State Football

Penn State football: Grading the Nittany Lions by position

Quarterbacks — No grade (yet)

Penn State has two viable prospects in sophomore transfer Tyler Ferguson and freshman Christian Hackenberg but it is up in the air as to which one will suit up as the long-term starter and there’s no substitute for experience. Neither has any at this level. It might not really matter yet as Penn State coach Bill O’Brien has said both quarterbacks will play. All things considered, Ferguson and Hackenberg have similar skill sets. Both are 6-foot-3 and over 210 pounds. They both move well in the pocket and have strong arms. Walk-ons D.J. Crook and Austin Whipple provide depth in emergency situations. For now this position group gets no grade, as not one quarterback on the roster has played in a game yet. Still, the upside is there.

Running backs — B

Zach Zwinak is a brutal, physical runner. His teammates in the secondary protested to the staff to let them hit Zwinak back after the junior running back was thudding with a red jersey on last week. Zwinak is fully recovered from the hand injury he sustained in April and will be joined by an equally healthy Bill Belton, who was hampered by injuries all last season. Belton switched from wide receiver last spring and never looked comfortable save for a breakout performance at Iowa. He dedicated himself to better learning the offense and improving his conditioning this summer. Belton is the best receiver this unit has potential to be used out of the backfield. Akeel Lynch has a good blend of size (6-feet, 210 pounds) and speed to replace Michael Zordich’s production. Pat Zerbe will serve as the fullback.

Breakout player: Belton didn’t fare well against first contact last season, rarely breaking a run after he was hit the first time. But he was rarely healthy and learning a new position on top of a new offense. With his versatility, expect him to get more opportunities this season, especially as a receiver out of the backfield.

Wide receivers — A

The departures of Justin Brown and Shawney Kersey proved to be the biggest blessings in disguise for Penn State last season as Allen Robinson ascended quickly and was the only receiver in the Big Ten to compile more than 1,000 receiving yards. Robinson will have his dominant moments this season. He is joined by Brandon Felder, who’s in his fifth year and is a reliable target himself. Eugene Lewis is in line to take over some of the snaps Trevor Williams vacated by moving to defense.

Breakout player: Lewis isn’t as physically imposing as Robinson and he’s not as experienced as Felder, but he still has the size already as a redshirt freshman (6-foot-1, 201 pounds) to give opposing defensive backs fits.

Tight ends — A

You know a team feels good about a certain group of players when it takes one of its stalwarts and asks him to switch positions. That’s what happened with Garry Gilliam who moved from tight end to offensive tackle. But Gilliam left behind Kyle Carter, Jesse James and Matt Lehman who combined for 75 catches for 1,025 yards and 10 touchdowns last season. Lehman is a sturdy blocker and a viable intermediate threat while Carter possesses soft hands and makes highlight reel catches. James is a dangerous redzone target at 6-foot-7 and led this trio with five scores last season.

Breakout player: Freshman Adam Breneman has shown encouraging signs of being fully recovered from knee and shoulder surgeries he needed last summer and has even been given a vote of confidence by O’Brien, who has declared that Breneman will play this season. Gilliam wasn’t used as a receiver primarily, but the athletic Breneman will get plenty of looks in O’Brien’s multi-tight end sets.

Offensive line — B

Penn State lost an All-Big Ten center in Matt Stankiewitch, but has a pretty good one in Ty Howle stepping into the breach. Howle started a game at left guard last season and will join guards John Urschel and Miles Dieffenbach on the inside. Donovan Smith is back at left tackle after a superb 2012 campaign in which he guarded Matt McGloin’s back as the quarterback broke multiple Penn State passing records. Adam Gress has experience at tackle and will likely earn the starting spot. Gilliam has come on strong and added nearly 60 pounds to his frame and could split time with Gress.

Breakout player: Howle is a tough-nosed player who didn’t let an injury deter him last year, rehabbing a torn pectoral over the first three games and working his way back into the rotation for the final nine. He watches film on former Penn State great A.Q. Shipley and possesses a similar build to the former Lions standout center.

Safeties — B

Adrian Amos, Malcolm Willis and Stephen Obeng-Agyapong could be thought of as safeties 1a, 1b and 1c. All three played a lot last season. Most of Amos’s reps came at corner, but playing safety is no stranger to him. They’re joined by Ryan Keiser and Jesse Della Valle, both possessing experience. Malik Golden switched positions to further help this unit’s depth.

Breakout player: Although Amos is an established veteran as a junior, this could be the year he emerges as one of the best defenders in the country. He has a penchant for physical play and lining up at safety will give him more opportunities to deliver big hits and pick off overthrown balls. His versatility as a corner and option to play nickel back make him arguably the most valuable piece on the defense.

Cornerbacks — C

Da’Quan Davis returns after playing a lot as a true freshman. Davis saw a lot of time last season and will be a complimentary piece to new starters Jordan Lucas and Trevor Williams this season. Williams played wide receiver last season and Lucas got most of his experience on special teams. Jordan Smith, Devin Pryor and Anthony Smith add depth but both Smiths are true freshmen.

Breakout player: Lucas has the size and speed to become an every down defender with the ability to physically disrupt passing games. He’ll have plenty of chances to do so this season with Stephon Morris moving on and Amos shifting to safety.

Defensive line — B

Deion Barnes is the player most teams will be wary of before any other. His strength and reach combined with his speed around the outside make him one of the Big Ten’s most dangerous pass rushers. Penn State needs C.J. Olaniyan or Evan Schwan to ratchet up the pressure on the other edge. Tackle DaQuan Jones already has scouts buzzing with his NFL potential and he’s lost weight in order to increase his athleticism this season. Austin Johnson, Kyle Baublitz, Derek Dowrey and Brian Gaia will all rotate in at defensive tackle.

Breakout player: He’s only been in the program for a year, but already Johnson is turning heads. He’s 6-foot-4 and hovers around 300 pounds. He could develop into a disruptive force in the middle of the Penn State defense.

Linebackers — C

Penn State has two really good linebackers and another one that seemingly has tons of upside. Senior Glenn Carson and junior Mike Hull are the de facto leaders, while talented redshirt freshman Nyeem Wartman locks down the third spot. Wartman redshirted last season after getting hurt in the second game. Sophomore Ben Kline continues to work his way back from offseason shoulder surgery and should be able to provide immediate depth. But further down the depthchart, experience is thin for Linebacker U.

Breakout player: Penn State players have seen plenty out of Hull to declare him one of the best players on the team. But in a bigger role this season Hull has the instincts and physical tools to become a household name nationwide.

Specialists — C

The Nittany Lions finished near the bottom of every special teams category last season. Sam Ficken recovered after a miserable start to the season and seems to have turned a corner. Alex Butterworth notched punts of 50 or more yards five times but finished at the bottom of the league in net punting yards per game. Some of that falls to the coverage unit that also was among the league’s worst. A handful of players including Belton, Williams, Alex Kenney and Lynch could return kicks. Penn State needs its run-ons to emerge here.

Breakout player: Kenney has wheels, but can he get on the field and stay there? If he can, the former State College star could be dangerous player in the open field.