June 10, 2009
Phil Steele preaches it, the Wall Street Journal made it a headline, and now the Big Ten blog The Rivalry, Esq., looking askance at the long list of top-10 projections for Penn State, has made offensive line experience the centerpiece of its skeptical take on the Nittany Lions as pending flop of the year:
Offensive Line: Last year's offensive line had three All-Big Ten selections. It was the best line in the Big Ten and one of the best at Penn State in the last twenty years. They're gone. This will be a problem. Phil Steele compiled the data of returning starts by offensive linemen. I love these numbers. Obviously, it doesn't mean that the team with more returning starts will beat the team with fewer starts, but it does give hard data for my plow horses.
Big Ten -- Returning Offensive Line Starts
Ohio State: 62
Mich. State: 52
Penn State: 39
Not good for Penn State, wouldn't you say?
The Wall Street Journal and Phil Steele would say, obviously, and it would be hard to disagree: One of the worst numbers in the country in any area can't be a positive.
But that's on top of a problem even diehard Lions have seen coming from a mile away: Penn State can't recruit offensive skill players. Scratch that -- PSU can recruit skill players, as evidenced by the extremely productive receiving trio of Derrick Williams, Jordan Norwood and Deon Butler the last four years. Those three alone accounted for 56 percent of the catches and 60 percent of the receiving yardage from 2005-08, shares that were consistent across all four seasons.
What contributions their replacements have made have been predominantly (though not entirely) of the garbage-time gimme variety, but inexperience is only one kind of problem. With the lead contributors gone, this is the moment Lion fans have been dreading since it became obvious that recruiting at the skill positions wasn't going to produce a clear heir apparent.
Aside from oft-suspended tight end Andrew Quarless, in fact, of the players who figure to touch the ball for the PSU offense on a regular basis this fall, none was rated higher than three stars by Rivals, and none had an offer from either of the other big recruiting guns in the Big Ten, Ohio State and Michigan. Only one, backup receiver James McDonald, chose Penn State over Notre Dame, and from his position on the depth chart, he doesn't figure to improve much on the seven catches he's hauled in over his first three years. The most productive returnees at receiver, Brett Brackett (right, in the Rose Bowl) and Graham Zug, are a converted quarterback and a walk-on recruited mainly by I-AA schools, respectively. The most talented receiver by those standards, Derek Moye, has three career catches, all in blowouts.
Lion fans will no doubt be the first here to point out that signing day projections are not destiny -- among the very few significant grabs to date by Brackett or Zug were big gains by both in last year's low-scoring win over Ohio State. (A 49-yard catch by Zug, one of his three non-blowout receptions of the year, set up a Lion field goal in the first half.) And neither of the two unquestioned stars of the attack, All-Big Tenners Daryll Clark and Evan Royster was particularly highly sought as a recruit; neither was Stephfon Green, who was productive as Royster's back-up. No doubt many concerns in Penn State circlues since January (and probably before) have already been quashed on that basis.
Still, even if you refuse to accept recruiting as a generally solid basis for forming expectations in lieu of better information, no top-10-ish team is as obviously vulnerable in as many areas as the Lions: Exceedingly green offensive line, entirely revamped secondary and mystery receivers who threaten to send last year's suddenly explosive offense scurrying back into its shell if they can't provide their potentially harried quarterback with a viable downfield outlet. I may wind up agreeing with them by the end of the summer, but the optimists so far either have a lot of faith in the Penn State brand, generally, in Clark and Rosyter, specifically, or in the persistent mediocrity of the rest of the Big Ten. (I guess playing Akron, Syracuse, Temple and Eastern Illinois outside of the conference really can take you places.)