Last year, everyone wondered how much Penn State would regress. Publicly, that was the perception after the NCAA hammered the program with sanctions in the summer of 2012. But few players left, and coach Bill O'Brien introduced a fast-paced new offense, captained by a revitalized Matt McGloin at quarterback. Penn State went 8-4, winning eight of its last 10 games.
While the mystery last year centered around an unprecedented NCAA decision, this season might actually offer more question marks. Unlike last year, O'Brien does not have veterans at several key positions. While the offensive line has proven contributors, it will be blocking for a first-year quarterback. A secondary with three returning starters will be backing up one former starting linebacker, one former reserve and a redshirt freshman.
If everything goes right and health is not a major issue, a relatively successful season of 8-4 could be in the mix again. If the lack of depth becomes a concern and a worthy quarterback doesn't emerge, Penn State could be in trouble.
The Penn State opener
• Game: Penn State vs. Syracuse.
• Where: East Rutherford, N.J.
• When: 3:30 p.m., Aug. 31.
• TV: WTAE or ESPN2.
Here are the five most pressing questions facing the Nittany Lions in the run-up to the 2013 season:
1. Do the linebackers have enough depth?
This is Penn State, Linebacker U, the place where every year seems to bring NFL prospects and 100-tackle seasons. That might be the case again this year, with returning starter Glenn Carson and returning key reserve Mike Hull, a Canon-McMillan High School graduate who excelled on third downs and special-teams situations. But, after them, Penn State faces uncertainty. Redshirt freshman Nyeem Wartman likely will be the third starting linebacker, and he has limited experience, missing all last season after an injury against Virginia. Players such as Ben Kline, Gary Wooten, Charles Idemudia and perhaps true freshman Brandon Bell will need to emerge for Penn State to feature as effective a linebacker corps as it has in the past.
2. Who will best support wide receiver Allen Robinson?
Last season, Robinson was one of the best wide receivers in the nation and had one of the best seasons in Penn State history. He finished with 77 receptions for 1,013 yards. He did this despite facing double-teams in the latter part of the year. So imagine what he could do if there were other significant receiving threats. While tight ends such as Kyle Carter and Jesse James partially fill that role, another legitimate wide receiver would greatly benefit Penn State. Brandon Moseby-Felder, who had 437 receiving yards last season, is listed as Penn State's other starting receiver, but also watch for Eugene Lewis. A redshirt freshman, Lewis was the nation's 22nd-ranked wide receiver his senior year of high school.
3. Where will Adrian Amos play?
The answer might be everywhere. Amos rotated between cornerback and safety last year, totaling 45 tackles and two interceptions. In July, O'Brien said he might use Amos, along with safety Stephen Obeng-Agyapong, at linebacker. He's also always in the discussion as a possible punt-returner. Amos is one of the best athletes on the team and a thrill to watch. Whether he has the right size and energy level to switch to linebacker at times will be something to watch.
4. Will we hear much from running back Bill Belton?
About this time last year, O'Brien declared that Belton was going to be his primary running back, a 20-carries per game type of guy. It didn't work out. Belton was injured in the season opener, had one memorable performance against Iowa, rushing for 103 yards and three touchdowns, and then disappeared in the latter third of the season as Zach Zwinak emerged. This summer, Belton missed some of the team's workouts because he needed to focus on academic issues, O'Brien said. He added that he should find out shortly after practice begins whether Belton will be eligible for this season.
5. How many people will watch?
The athletic department has brought out its big guns for promoting, or forcing upon the public, Penn State football. To buy individual tickets for the popular Michigan and Nebraska games, fans must buy tickets for the lesser non-conference games at Beaver Stadium. Last season saw an attendance-decrease of 4.6 percent. Given the declining popularity of live football, the sanctions and the STEP seating program, it wouldn't be surprising to see another drop.
Mark Dent: firstname.lastname@example.org or Twitter @mdent05. First Published August 4, 2013 4:00 AM