Can Bill Belton step up to fill the void left by Silas Redd's departure?
By Mark Dent Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
1. Bill Belton and Company
Bill Belton has looked great in practice, no denying that. Coach Bill O'Brien and quarterback Matt McGloin are among those who have praised Belton so far.
He has been the topic of discussion for a reason. The center of Penn State's offense last year was running back Silas Redd. He rushed for 1,241 yards. And he was going to be the focal point again this season until he left for Southen California.
At the beginning of training camp, O'Brien said he would not retool the offense because of the loss of one player. Everything will stay the same. Next man up, he's said countless times, and Belton has been designated that man.
Last year, he carried the ball 13 times for 65 yards. O'Brien has said Belton could run the ball up to 25 times a game this year.
If Penn State has any chance of building on last year's mediocre offense, it needs help from Belton and the rest of the running backs: Derek Day, Zach Zwinak, Akeel Lynch and Curtis Dukes.
2. Success of the secondary
Losing four senior starters (Nick Sukay, Drew Astorino, D'Anton Lynn and Chaz Powell) will deplete any secondary. Losing another (Derrick Thomas) to transfer and then having a projected starter (Jake Fagnano) miss most of preseason practice with injury adds even more of a challenge.
And that's what Penn State faces. The defensive line and the linebackers are among the best in the Big Ten, but the secondary could -- at the very least -- struggle at the beginning.
Its success will hinge on the maturation of an inexperienced core. Senior Stephon Morris has the most career starts of any returning defensive back with 13, but sophomore Adrian Amos' role could be the most important.
Last week, O'Brien said Amos could play anywhere except the defensive line. He is listed on the depth chart as a starting cornerback.
If Amos, Morris, Fagnano and Malcolm Willis improve throughout the season, then Penn State, like last year, has one of the best defenses in the Big Ten. If not, then good teams will be able to pick apart the Nittany Lions with their passing attacks.
3. Can they win the close ones?
Last year, Penn State had the necessary personnel for success in tight games. Although the passing game had its deficiencies, Penn State had a star running back, a stifling defense and an all-conference kicker/punter in Anthony Fera. Those combinations allowed the Nittany Lions to finish 7-1 in games decided by 10 or fewer points.
Now Penn State is introducing a new kicker in Sam Ficken and punter in Alex Butterworth. The secondary is inexperienced. The offense is operating under a new system.
With so much turnover, it might be difficult to duplicate the same successful late-game management that Penn State had and needed last season.