by Chris Johnson (@ChrisDJohnsonn)
Players to watch
Offense: Matt McGloin QB
The schematic tweaks implemented by new coach Bill O’Brien have increased McGloin’s productivity in an offense largely bereft of dynamic skill players. Without senior wideout Justin Brown and junior tailback Silas Redd, McGloin has been thrust into a larger role. He’s handled his larger responsibilities with deftly. While McGloin certainly deserves the lions share of plaudits for this production leap – McGloin carries a 136.6 passer rating into week six and has thrown for 1,217 yards and 10 touchdowns to just two interceptions – O’Brien’s offensive expertise and quarterbacks coach Charlie Fisher have guided his rapid developmental trajectory. The recent wave of transfers also may have played a part in McGloin’s improvement – namely, the departure of backup quarterback Rob Bolden, whose constant pressing for the starting job disrupted McGloin’s comfort at the position. Now that he’s assured of his starting position, McGloin has blossomed without any notable talent around him. Needless to say, learning from Tom Brady’s personal mentor affected his progression.
Defense: Michael Mauti LB
At the heart of Penn State’s post-scandal renewal movement is Mauti, the Lions’ emotional leader and arguably their best player. With the national sports public shining a critical light on State College, Mauti was the emotional leader Penn State needed. He’s been equally important on the field this season. Through five weeks, it’s difficult to argue Mauti hasn’t been the Big Ten’s best defensive player. The conference recognized him as such last week after a four tackle, two-interception game against Illinois. His dominance is not a huge surprise. Two serious knee injuries have limited Mauti’s effectiveness over the past two years; with his health sorted out, Mauti is playing to the level his talent, hard-work and fervent enthusiasm for all things Penn State dictates. Alongside Gerald Hodges, another ferocious defensive force, Mauti’s star-turn has been fascinating to follow, particularly given the grim circumstances hovering over the program this season. Penn State’s defense is one of the Big Ten’s best, and Mauti is arguably the biggest reason why.
Biggest Strength: Coaching
Many questioned the hiring of O’Brien, formerly the offensive coordinator of the New England Patriots. His lack of college experience and the extraordinarily difficult situation he inherited – replacing a coaching legend whose tenure was for many years inextricably attached to Penn State and all it represented – raised legitimate doubts about his ability to make the oft-unsuccessful NFL-college leap. At this point, it’s safe to say O’Brien was the right hire. In fact, he’s already produced massive improvements on both sides of the ball. Despite several key players transferring, O’Brien has boosted Penn State’s offensive aptitude, particularly at quarterback, where McGloin has morphed into arguably the Big Ten’s best pure passer. O’Brien’s pro-style system and McGloin’s perceptive decision-making has proven a perfect match. Though recruiting will suffer in the coming years, O’Brien has handled an inordinately cumbersome situation as well as any new coach could have. The 0-2 start was less than favorable, but Penn State is just now hitting its stride. Thanks in large part to O’Brien’s cultural and on-field adjustments, the doom and gloom of the past year’s events is beginning to wear off.
Biggest Weakness: Field Goal Kicking
It may not have seemed this way at the time, but losing place kicker/punter Anthony Fera in the post-sanctions transfer flow was a season-altering development. Fera handled the Lions’ punting and place-kicking in 2011, and was a semifinalist for both the Lou Groza and Ray Guy awards. With a 41.95-yards per punt average and a 14-17 make rate on field goals, Fera gave the Lions’ one of the Big Ten’s best kicking games. He was a paradigm of consistency. Penn State’s replacement efforts thus far haven’t come close to meeting that standard. Finding a replacement for a player as consistent and as effective as Fera is a daunting proposition. But the Lions’ backup plan has been downright awful. Penn State has made just two of eight field goals this season, and dropped their second game of the season at Virginia almost entirely as a result of four missed field goals from backup kicker Sam Ficken. Backup kicker isn’t necessarily a major recruiting focus for most programs, but Penn State may want to rethink their approach to that position.
Under the Radar: Kyle Carter TE
It is not at all shocking to think O’Brien would bring at least a small portion of the complex Patriots playbook to Penn State. But a fundamental offensive shift from an old-school vanilla offense to a complex passing attack should require years of adjustment and transition. O’Brien has streamlined that process. The Lions offense already draws significant parallels to the Tom Brady-led attack in New England. The similarities include personnel specifics, where Carter has stepped into the “F” tight end position inhabited by Aaron Hernandez. After redshirting last season, Carter has acquitted himself well in O’Brien’s system. In five games, Carter has 19 receptions and one touchdown. He’s developed a rapport with McGloin while surfacing as one of Penn State’s more explosive receiving targets. At 6-3, 247, Carter has a size advantage on most defensive backs. He’s also too quick and elusive for most linebackers. That’s the portrait of a physically dominant player. With a diverse skill set and unique physical tools for his position, Carter is a primary weapon in the Lions’ offensive attack. As Hernandez comparisons go, this one’s about more than just coaching analogy – Carter looks and plays like him, too.