Sept. 2, 2009
By Larry Watts
Joe Paterno heads into his 44th year as head coach at Penn State with an offensive line, receiving corps and secondary newer than the hip he had replaced last December. But if anyone in the Big Ten thinks the venerable 82-year-old or his Nittany Lions are about to slow down after last year's 11-2 finish (7-1 Big Ten, tied for first) that would be a big mistake.
Paterno's squad had the inside track on a run to the national championship game last year. But following the euphoria of a 13-6 victory at Ohio State, they stubbed their toes with a 24-23 setback at Iowa on a last-second field goal. And even though the Lions, who finished eighth in the final national polls, return only five starters on offense and four on defense, they expect to be in the thick of the title hunt once again in 2009.
OFFENSE: The No. 1 priority is keeping senior quarterback and Heisman Trophy candidate Daryll Clark healthy. Not only has Clark had three concussions in his career, but his backup this season is a true freshman -- Kevin Newsome. Clark, a first-team All-Big Ten selection last year, passed for 2,592 yards and accounted for a school-record 29 touchdowns (19 passing, 10 rushing). The problem is Clark's offensive line graduated three first-team All-Big Ten selections in tackle Gerald Cadogan, guard Rich Ohrnberger and center A.Q. Shipley. Senior (RT) Dennis Landolt returns for his third season while junior Stefen Wisniewski, who is on the Outland Trophy watch list, will be switching from right guard to center. Sophomore DeOn'tae Pannell, a backup as a true freshman, moves in at left tackle. The guards figure to be junior Lou Eliades and sophomore Johnnie Troutman. Seniors Andrew Quarless and Mickey Shuler shared starting duties last year. Penn State graduated three of the top four receivers in school history, but Clark should have no trouble spotting his new crop because they all range from 6-foot-1 to 6-6. Junior Brett Brackett (6-6) and sophomore Derek Moye (6-5) should pose plenty of mismatches in the secondary. Junior Graham Zug and sophomore Chaz Powell should also excel. Brackett had 13 receptions for 160 yards in 2008 while Zug caught 11 balls for 174 yards. Junior tailback Evan Royster, the top returning rusher (1,236 yards, 12 TDs) in the Big Ten, should again be the workhorse in the backfield. Named to the Doak Walker watch list, Royster spent the summer working on his receiving skills, where he caught 17 passes for 155 yards last year.
DEFENSE: Expect the same seek and destroy approach from the front half of the Nittany Lion defense in 2009. Defensive tackle Jared Odrick and linebackers Navorro Bowman and Sean Lee are all candidates for the Nagurski Award. Odrick, a senior who registered 9.5 tackles for loss last year, will anchor the middle with junior veteran Ollie Ogbu. Sophomore Jack Crawford had a big spring and is expected to line up at end along with Kevion Latham or Eric Latimore, both juniors. A healthy Lee, who missed the entire 2008 season with a knee injury, with Bowman could represent the best tandem of linebackers in the conference. Lee posted 138 tackles in 2007 while Bowman, a first-team All-Big Ten honoree last year, lead the Lions with 106 tackles and 16.5 hits for lost yardage. Sophomore Michael Mauti was in the hunt for the other linebacker slot until tearing his ACL in fall camp. Senior Josh Hull, a former walk-on, now has the inside track to the other starting role at linebacker. In the secondary, all four starters in the Rose Bowl graduated. Sophomore Drew Astorino, a nickel back in 2008, and junior Cedric Jeffries figure to line up as the safeties. Seniors Knowledge Timmons and A.J. Wallace have the inside track at the corners, but Wallace will miss one, and possibly two starts, due to academic issues. Senior Devinn Fentress is waiting in the wings.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Senior Jeremy Boone was the Big Ten's top punter last year with a 43.0 average. Junior Collin Wagner, who only kicked one field goal and three extra points in 2008, won the kicking battle over freshman Anthony Vera in the spring. The speedy Powell, who averaged 28.8 yards on kick returns last season, could be the primary man for all returns this fall.
MISCELLANEOUS: Not only does Penn State have the comfort of playing its first four games in Happy Valley, but two of the biggest challengers for the Big Ten title, Iowa (Sept. 26) and Ohio State (Nov. 7), will be among eight opponents coming into Beaver Stadium. Iowa is slated for prime time and expect a whiteout for both contests ... In just 16 years, Joe Paterno has already moved into sixth place in conference wins (80) and needs two more to climb past Michigan's Lloyd Carr for fifth. Paterno is 383-127-3 in his 43 years at Penn State, where he has taken his team to 35 bowl games ... Looking to the future, Penn State and Alabama have agreed to two-year series for 2010-11. The Nittany Lions will travel to Tuscaloosa, Ala. on Sept. 11, 2010 and the Crimson Tide will head to Happy Valley in 2011.