Penn State football: Season of difficulty, challenges, pressure

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Football season is finally here, meaning Penn State will start practice Monday. That, in itself, may bring some relief for players and fans because there was no guarantee the Nittany Lions would play football two weeks ago.

Instead, Penn State, which was 9-4 last year, will compete without any opportunity for a postseason bowl and with four years of scholarship limits ahead. Most players have come back, with only a few transferring since NCAA penalties were levied.

The group that remains faces a difficult schedule, the test of playing under a new coach and a new system, the challenge of rising from the sanctions and the pressure of being watched by an entire nation.

1 What can be done to boost the offense?

Penn State's scoring has declined the last three years, going from 28.8 points per game in 2009 to 24.5 in 2010 to 19.3 in 2011. The Nittany Lions finished 11th in the Big Ten in scoring offense last season and 10th in total offense (341.8 yards per game). Bill O'Brien will be bringing a brand-new attack, the same that he ran at New England. (The Patriots finished second in the NFL in total offense and third in scoring last season.) Of course, the personnel won't be the same. He'll have a former walk-on quarterback, Matt McGloin, who has never buttoned down the starting job, and plenty of other unproven athletes.

2 How damaging is the loss of Silas Redd?

After the NCAA sanctions were imposed, Redd transferred to USC. Of the transfers so far, his departure matters the most. He ran for 1,241 yards last year. He scored seven touchdowns. And -- not to be taken lightly -- he was a big name. As Penn State attempts to crawl out from under the scandal that has defined the last nine months, it could use a star. Redd, a candidate for the Maxwell and Walter Camp awards, is one of those players. But one of the great aspects of college football is that anybody can appear from nowhere in a given year and become one of the best. (2011 example: Kansas State quarterback Collin Klein.) Somebody must do that. Curtis Dukes and Bill Belton should get the most carries at running back.

3 Is the defense still solid?

When Michael Mauti announced that Penn State's starting defense would not have any transfers, he wasn't 100 percent correct. Linebacker Khairi Fortt was penciled in as a co-starter at middle linebacker and he has left for California. Besides Fortt, the defense is intact and the front seven is particularly imposing. Linebackers Gerald Hodges, Mauti (who missed nine games because of injury last year) and Glenn Carson all return. Hodges led the team in tackles last year with 106 and had 4.5 sacks. On the defensive line, Jordan Hill and Sean Stanley are back and played significant roles last season. Hill had 59 tackles.

4 Is the secondary experienced enough?

Penn State's four top defensive backs -- all seniors -- from last season are gone, including Nick Sukay and Drew Astorino. Astorino was the team's second-leading tackler, and Sukay led the team in interceptions. The good news is that three of the four projected starters, Stephon Morris, Adrian Amos and Malcolm Willis, all played significant time in the secondary last season. Still, senior Morris has started the most games of anyone in the defensive backfield, with 13 in his career. The secondary's ability to mature quickly could mean the difference between a good season and a mediocre season.

5 Will Bill O'Brien love this job?

Say what you want about the fairness of the NCAA sanctions, they are here, and barring unforeseen circumstances, their effects will linger for the next few years. The sanctions pose a formidable challenge for O'Brien, as well as a tremendous opportunity. Expectations won't crush the coach because, given no postseason play for four years, expectations in the traditional sense cannot exist. O'Brien can take his time. He can tailor the team to his system. With fewer players, he can get to know individuals better and foster a sense of unity. And he has job security. O'Brien is making about $2.3 million a year for nine years.

psusports

Mark Dent: mdent@post-gazette.com, 412-439-3791 and Twitter @mdent05.


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