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updated: 8/14/2013 6:01 PM

QB, depth concerns will test Penn State

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  • Penn State offensive tackle Donovan Smith (76) blocks for running back Zach Zwinak (28) last November in State College, Pa.

      Penn State offensive tackle Donovan Smith (76) blocks for running back Zach Zwinak (28) last November in State College, Pa.
    Associated Press

 
Associated Press

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Bill O'Brien yelled, cajoled and kept careful watch on his two new quarterbacks as they ran through Penn State practice.

Either junior college transfer Tyler Ferguson or touted freshman Christian Hackenberg will be taking control of the offense in 2013. Just how quickly the attack measures up to last season's potent version will depend on how quickly Ferguson and Hackenberg get used to the speed of play in their respective first seasons of Division I play -- let alone pick up O'Brien's complicated schemes.

"I just want them to continue to grasp what we're trying to do and go out there and play the next play. Don't worry about the last play," O'Brien said. "Play the next play, and you're going to make mistakes. It's not an easy offense to learn as a quarterback."

It should help the whole team that there's decidedly less stress in camp than a year ago. No tough questions about sanctions. No worries about players transferring.

For the most part, just football.

For sure, the NCAA penalties from the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal still haunt the program. Depth is a concern at certain spots as O'Brien pares the roster to the 65 scholarship limit required by the NCAA by 2014.

But there's a comfort level now with second-year coach O'Brien, and a team-wide confidence that Penn State can succeed under tremendous adversity after finishing 8-4 in 2012.

Five things to watch for the Nittany Lions this season:

1. QUARTERBACK DERBY: Whether it's Ferguson or Hackenberg, the new signalcaller will at the very least need to get up to speed quickly enough to effectively manage an offense stocked with quality options. O'Brien says both candidates have the potential to succeed. Both quarterbacks -- especially Hackenberg -- are more well-regarded upon their arrivals than predecessor Matt McGloin. All the former walk-on McGloin did his senior year in 2012 was set school passing records. There will be rough spots over the next few months, but the long-term potential is promising with O'Brien being able to mentor the starting quarterback from Day 1.

2. FRONT FIVE: That new starting quarterback will need time to grasp the game at full speed. An experienced front five should help. When he doesn't have his head buried in math textbooks trying to maintain a 4.0 GPA, senior guard John Urschel is setting the pace up front. Donovan Smith is a 6-foot-5, 327-pound behemoth at left tackle. Penn State will be breaking in new starters at center and right tackle, but the guys expected to step up are seniors with extensive playing time, too.

3. IN DEPTH: After quarterback, the most pressing question is depth. A smaller scholarship roster means an injury could wreak havoc on the depth chart. It's a mild concern on the offensive line, but Penn State has prepared by rotating linemen in and out of games last year for experience. The defensive line has already taken a hit with a season-ending knee injury to Brad Bars. But the biggest depth concern is at linebacker. Glenn Carson and Mike Hull form a rock-steady base, but after that new defensive coordinator John Butler will have to rely on less-experienced backups returning from injury (Nyeem Wartman, Ben Kline); first-year players like Brandon Bell and Gary Wooten; or the expanded walk-on program.

4. FAMOUS AMOS: Moving flexible pieces around in a deeper secondary could ease the depth concerns elsewhere while throwing new defensive wrinkles at opponents. Hard-hitting junior Adrian Amos could see time at three different positions. He was moved from corner to safety in the offseason, and could even see time in nickel situations as a hybrid linebacker. Fellow safety Stephen Obeng-Agyapong, a senior, could also be used in "big nickel" looks.

5. TESTED STARS: For all the consternation about quarterback, the Nittany Lions are stocked with talented players who came up clutch in a 2012 season unlike any other team has previously experienced. Affable wideout Allen Robinson emerged to lead the Big Ten in receiving. A once-questionable tight end position is now a strength, led by Kyle Carter. Zach Zwinak is a 1,000-yard rusher bouncing back from a wrist injury. Athletic 6-foot-4 defensive end Deion Barnes will draw more attention after recording six sacks in his freshman season, while Carson and Hull could be Penn State's next big-name linebacking duo.

Predicted order of finish: 3rd, Big Ten Leaders Division.

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