1. In defense of the defense
For a long time, 46 years to be precise, two characteristics could be readily applied to Penn State each season. You could count on a one-dimensional offense that sometimes struggled but never caused too many problems because of a successful defense. That was Penn State. Linebackers. Physical football. Last year, under coach Bill O'Brien, the defense remained stout, ranking 29th nationally in total defense.
This year will be challenging. Gone are many of the primary pieces of that defense: linebackers Michael Mauti and Gerald Hodges, cornerback Stephon Morris and defensive tackle Jordan Hill. Defensive end Deion Barnes and linebackers Mike Hull and Glenn Carson lead a less experienced unit. DaQuan Jones and Kyle Baublitz must pick up where Hill left off. Someone will have to become a solid reserve at linebacker -- perhaps Ben Kline or Gary Wooten. The secondary returns most of its key players but is still short on depth and finished eighth in pass defense in the conference last year.
A successful defense wouldn't be a surprise for Penn state, but it will be a work in progress.
2. The importance of health
It seems like O'Brien has expressed concern about his team's health at every public appearance these last few months. He knows that Penn State can't suffer injuries, not with just over 65 scholarship players.
This fall, O'Brien has been keeping veterans out of practice or contact drills just so they are rested. He has instituted a policy of "thud" tackling -- defenders do not take ball carriers all the was to the ground -- at most practices. All of these measures have been undertaken to prevent injuries. Will they work? Not perfectly. That's just not possible.
Last year was a relatively injury-free year, and Hill, Mauti and tight end Kyle Carter all missed time with injuries. Somebody important will get injured this season. Penn State just has to make sure five or six important somebodies aren't getting hurt.
3. Staying new
Last season O'Brien often said he wasn't using all of his offense. Not yet. It was too complex for players to understand in one year. Players repeated this suggestion, saying they couldn't wait to get more experienced and learn how to better run O'Brien's offense. So will they now?
This season begins with a significant number of returnees on offense, particularly at the skill positions. Wide receivers like Allen Robinson and Brandon Felder are back, same with tight ends Kyle Carter, Jesse James and Matt Lehman, and running back Zach Zwinak.
The Big Ten defenses they confused last year have seen Penn State before. The shock factor is gone unless they can introduce new sets and formations, and who knows what O'Brien has in store? He has hinted at a more diverse offense, as have some of his receivers. As the season progresses fans will be able to find out how different and perhaps how much better the offense could be and see if defenses will be ready for it.