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The Countdown

A bottom-to-top assessment of the F.B.S. landscape heading into the 2012 season.

A Retrospective

The Year in Review: Penn State (9-4, 6-2)

Penn State didn’t sign one quarterback in either 2002 or 2003. To compensate, Joe Paterno and the Nittany Lions signed four quarterbacks in 2004. One, Paul Cianciolo, made a greater impact on the school’s baseball team. Another, Adam DiMichele, never enrolled, opting instead to try his hand at minor league baseball before returning to football at Temple, where he was a two-year starter. A third, Kevin Suhey, the sixth member of his family to play at Penn State, never moved beyond the scout team. Rounding out the quartet was Anthony Morelli, who won 18 games over his two seasons in the starting lineup but never came close to approaching his five-star hype.

The Nittany Lions added Daryll Clark a year later, though he was originally part of that 2004 class: Clark, due to some academic issues, spent a year at prep school before enrolling in 2005. After beating out Pat Devlin for the starting job in 2008, Clark ushered in a new era of Penn State offense: the spread — or an offense with some spread characteristics, at least. Two years and 22 wins later, Clark ended his career as one of the most prolific passers in school history.

Another two quarterbacks were brought on board in 2006: Devlin and Brett Brackett. Devlin transferred after the 2008 season, when he served as the backup after losing the preseason position battle to Clark. He ended up at Delaware, where he started as a junior and senior, throwing 22 touchdowns in his final season. Brackett moved to receiver and made 17 career receptions.

The Nittany Lions didn’t sign a quarterback in 2007 or 2008. Penn State had five quarterbacks on its roster in 2007: Cianciolo, Clark, Devlin, Morelli and Suhey. That number dropped to three in 2008: Clark, in his first season as the starter; Cianciolo, then a senior; and true freshman Matt McGloin, a walk-on.

Therefore, signing at least two quarterback in the class of 2009 would have seemed like a task of vital importance to the Nittany Lions. Paterno only added one, four-star Kevin Newsome, who picked Penn State over offers from Michigan and Ohio State, among others. After failing to gain the starting role in 2010 and last fall, Newsome opted to transfer; like DiMichele before him, Newsome chose Temple.

Return to 2010, and add Paul Jones and Rob Bolden into the mix. Jones has been stymied by grade issues at every turn, though it seems as if he’ll be available for action this fall. Bolden has started games in each of his first two seasons, though the results have been far from satisfactory: he completed less than 40 percent of his attempts in 2011, and was benched midway through the season in favor of McGloin.

Penn State didn’t add a quarterback in 2011, and only one, Steven Bench, during the difficult recruiting period following Paterno’s dismissal. By the numbers: Penn State has signed 11 quarterbacks since 2002, or one for every recruiting cycle — seven since 2005, and not one in either 2007 or 2008. How many have panned out for the Nittany Lions?

Three of the 11 — DiMichele, Devlin and Newsome — either transferred or never enrolled. A fourth, Brackett, ended up at a different position. Another trio rarely saw the field: Cianciolo, Suhey and Jones, with the latter’s career still very much salvageable. Six of the 11 never made an impact in State College; another pair, Jones and Bench, haven’t had the opportunity.

Morelli’s play never matched his star rating, though he did help the Nittany Lions post back-to-back nine-win seasons in 2006 and 2007. Bolden’s regression last fall is distressing; in addition, he came very close to transferring following the 2010 season. Of the 11 quarterbacks Penn State has signed since 2002, only one, Clark, played at an all-conference level.

So it’s no wonder that Penn State’s search for Paterno’s eventual successor zeroed in on two coaches known for their work with the position. After serving as Jim Harbaugh’s lead offensive assistant at Stanford, Greg Roman helped Alex Smith finally reach his potential. Bill O’Brien’s work with Tom Brady and the New England Patriots spoke for itself.

O’Brien’s job moves beyond his work at the quarterback position, of course; he’s the new face of the program, and will need to adjust his coaching viewpoint — very position-focused to this point — to reflect that fact. But in terms of quarterback play, the Nittany Lions will benefit from O’Brien’s arrival in two ways: one, in his effect on the current group of quarterbacks, like McGloin and Bolden; and two, in the sort of high-caliber recruits he should be able to lure into the program.

You’ve already seen how O’Brien’s name recognition plays with high school recruits. Penn State’s most recent verbal commitment, quarterback Christian Hackenberg, told StateCollege.com that “What (O’Brien) did with Tom Brady, it’s definitely a great opportunity for me.”

Season grade: B- Penn State was 8-1 leaving October, having lost only to Alabama, 27-11, in September. Then came the sexual abuse scandal, which led the university to dismiss Paterno, and the season ran off the rails. Will never know whether Penn State would have survived a difficult November schedule even had everything remained the status quo; the defense was superb, but their offensive deficiencies kept the Nittany Lions from ever being considered a true B.C.S. contender. Under such a tremendously dark cloud, it’s not surprising that Penn State lost three of its last four, including an embarrassing 38-point loss at Wisconsin. After carrying the team through much of the regular season, the defense seemed to run out of steam.

High point The Nittany Lions put the clamps down on Iowa on Oct. 8, holding the Hawkeyes to only 253 yards of total offense and a field goal. A little more than a month later, Penn State beat Ohio State in Columbus for — believe it or not — only the second time since joining the Big Ten in 1993.

Low point A 45-7 loss to Wisconsin in the regular season finale was joined by a 30-14 loss to Houston in the TicketCity Bowl. Penn State’s performance against the Cougars in one word: listless. Another: disinterested. A third: pitiful.

Offensive M.V.P. After playing so well over Penn State’s seven-game winning streak in September and October, running back Silas Redd disappeared down the stretch. The Nittany Lions won games when they Redd was the featured player on offense: he averaged 26.6 carries per game over the first five games of Big Ten play, all Penn State victories. In comparison, Redd averaged only 12.3 carries per game during Penn State’s 1-3 finish. Despite closing with a whimper, Redd finished fourth in the Big Ten with 1,241 yards rushing. That he fared so well statistically despite Penn State’s lack of a strong passing game helped Redd earn second-team all-conference honors.

Defensive M.V.P. Defensive tackle Devon Still was a first-team all-American, a first-team all-Big Ten pick and the inaugural winner of the league’s Smith-Brown Defensive Lineman of the Year, which pretty much means what you think. Everything Penn State did defensively — and the defense did quite a bit, finishing fifth nationally in scoring — came as a result of Still’s dominant play in the middle of the line. How good was he? Still was impossible to handle one-on-one, which left his teammates in a position to make plays. Not that he didn’t fill up the stat sheet: Still finished sixth in the Big Ten in tackles for loss despite suffering the lion’s share of attention from opposing offensive linemen.

Stock watch O’Brien doesn’t inherit a stacked deck. The offensive line needs to be retooled. As noted, Penn State’s quarterback play has been abysmal. The receiver corps lost its leading contributor. Still leaves a huge hole in the middle of the defense. The secondary was decimated by graduation. Clearly, it’s a time of great change for the program. The good news: O’Brien will have an immediate impact on the offense. Even with those losses, the Nittany Lions can’t possible be any more inept than they were for extended periods a season ago. And the defense, while breaking in several new starters, has enough talent to remain one of the stouter units in the Big Ten. The best news? The Leaders division lacks a clear leader.

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  1. Parker says:

    Hi Paul

    Nobody dominated Penn State early like Houston did. It was 17 zip before Penn State had a first down.

    I’m sure Penn State wasn’t thrilled about their bowl trip. Still, new UH skipper Tony Levine had the Coogs extemely well-prepared with a great game plan.

  2. jason says:

    Psu only graduated one receiver from last years team, Derek Moye.
    Everbody else returns

    Paul: Thanks for the note. I got my wires crossed in the final section. Wide receiver lost its leading contributor while the secondary was decimated by graduation, not vice versa. Fixed above. Thanks again.

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