Penn State quarterback Christian Hackenberg (14) and running back Deron Thompson walk off the field Monday at Beaver Stadium after participating in the team’s media day in University Park, Pa.
By Mark Dent / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- Most of Penn State's 105-man roster dressed in game uniforms and basked in the Monday afternoon sun at Beaver Stadium, milling about for media and chatting with each other, content in knowing the season finally is here.
Monday was the first practice of fall camp, and, at the first practice, with the entire season still intact and undiluted, they could talk of an outlook for the season as pleasant as the clear afternoon the Happy Valley was experiencing.
In many of these conversations, the players and coaches stressed the often tiresome and overused phrases about chemistry and teamwork and stepping up. But for Penn State, these phrases are more apt this year. The Nittany Lions have talent at key positions like quarterback, running back, tight end and the secondary. Everywhere else, not as much. Depth and inexperience are an issue. Coach James Franklin envisions veteran players at certain positions fortifying the rest of the team -- at least until other positions are more developed -- and his players say they are ready to respond to that challenge.
"I feel like we got a lot better," tight end Kyle Carter said. "There's a lot of questions that people have about our team, but I feel like when come out there and start practicing, everything will come together."
Tight ends like Carter have a particularly important role under the current offensive philosophy. The tight ends are one of the most talented and experienced groups on the team. Carter has the most career receptions of any current Penn State player (54). Jesse James and Adam Breneman have played significant roles already and are considered to have two of the highest ceilings among Penn State's players.
It's the opposite for the wide receivers. With Allen Robinson and Brandon Felder gone, a handful of freshmen and upperclassmen with minimal experience will be contending for playing time. The offensive line's weaknesses are similar, and the need for supplementing the lack of depth there with quality play from the tight ends and running backs is greater, considering the player who will be leading the offense, quarterback Christian Hackenberg.
"We are looking for improvements from Hack, but I'm going to be honest with you where our focus really is, is on the pieces of the puzzle around Hack," Franklin said.
"That's going to allow him to continue to develop, making sure that we're able to protect him with the offensive line, making sure we're able to be balanced offensively and run the ball with our offensive line. Tight ends have a huge impact in that as well. Finding some wide receivers to make up for the production we lost. All these things factor into it."
Defensively, defensive coordinator Bob Shoop plans to work around its own lack of depth -- most glaringly at linebacker -- by installing different formations. His goal is to maximize the defense's athletic ability.
To do this, Penn State could use 4-2-5 system for its defense or have a player at the Star position, which is a hybrid safety/linebacker. Stephen Obeng-Agyapong played in this position at times last year, and it is becoming common throughout college football.
"That hybrid safety/linebacker has become a key component of what we do," Shoop said.
And for Penn State this season, it will be another way to better use experienced players to address depth concerns. Added Shoop, "I think there are ways to scheme around depth at any position."
Mark Dent: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-439-3791 and Twitter @mdent05.
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