By: C.J. Doon
In less than 2 weeks, the Penn State football team will be trotting onto the field amidst a chorus of cheers from a jam-packed Beaver Stadium, and maybe, for a moment, everything will seem normal again in Happy Valley. That is, until they see the names emblazoned on the back of the familiar blue and white jerseys.
In the wake of the child sex abuse scandal involving former defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky, Penn State was issued “unprecedented” sanctions by the NCAA. These sanctions include a fine of $60 million, a four-year football postseason ban, a reduction in scholarships, and a vacation of all wins dating back to 1998, effectively erasing 111 wins from Joe Paterno’s storied coaching career. Paterno, who passed away in January after a short battle with lung cancer, was the NCAA’s all-time leader in wins, with 409 before the sanctions were handed down. Now the title belongs to Florida State’s Bobby Bowden, with 377 wins.
Along with the sanctions, the NCAA allowed current Penn State football players to transfer to other Division 1A schools without having to sit out a year, effectively turning the Nittany Lions into a flock of amateur “free agents”. In response to this news, Penn State has seen the loss of eleven players in a span of four weeks, including star running back Silas Redd (USC), wide receivers Justin Brown (Oklahoma) and Devon Smith (Marhsall), linebacker Khairi Fort (California), kicker/punter Anthony Fera (Texas), and third-string quarterback Rob Bolden (LSU).
There is no question that the remaining players left on the roster will have big shoes to fill, but Coach Bill O’Brien is “very confident” his players are committed to the team, the community, and, most importantly, to Penn State. The biggest problem facing the team will be replacing the production of sophomore running back Silas Redd. Redd, a second-team All-Big Ten rusher, led the team with 1,241 yards and seven touchdowns on the ground last year. Bill Belton and Curtis Dukes, two uniquely different running backs, will likely split time at tailback to start the season, in an attempt to find the new “go-to guy”. The quick and shifty Bill Belton seems poised to be that guy after showing flashes of brilliance last year running the Wildcat offense against Ohio State (as well as a game-high 50 yards on only seven carries in the annual Blue-White Game). Curtis Dukes, a 6’-1” 250 lb. bruiser, did not see much action this spring due to academic issues, but showed positive signs during the 2011 campaign, and will hopefully continue to be a key contributor when the Nittany Lions unveil their new offense this fall.
The loss of wide receivers Justin Brown and Devon Smith, as well as the departure of special teams superman and Lou Groza award semi-finalist Anthony Fera, are not to be overlooked. Justin Brown quickly became one of Matt McGloin’s favorite targets, gaining more than 517 receiving yards on 35 catches, and was the only Nittany Lion to have a reception in all 12 games. Devon Smith was poised to have a breakout season this year as the Lions slot receiver, a spot where New England Patriots’ wide receiver Wes Welker shined in Bill O’Brien’s offense, but a misdemeanor drug charge threatened to cut down his playing time. Junior wide receivers Shawney Kersey and Brandon Moseby-Felder, as well as rising sophomore Allen Robinson, will see the bulk of the action in place of the departing wide outs, and will have to step up and become reliable targets for quarterback Matt McGloin.
On defense, the departure of Khairi Fort will weaken the depth of the line-backing corps, but outside linebackers Michael Mauti and Gerald Hodges are more than capable of fulfilling the duties of a Penn State linebacker. Mauti, coming off a season that was cut short due to an ACL tear in his left knee, is the unquestioned leader of the Lions defense. Even though injury forced Mauti to sit out the entire season, the fifth year senior could be seen standing next to his coaches and teammates during football games, instructing young linebackers, barking into his headset, and firing up his teammates. Hodges, a first-team All-Big Ten linebacker, was a disruptive force on the field last year and a key component in building the fifth best defense in the nation. The senior linebacker became only the 22nd Nittany Lion to record at least 100 tackles in a season during last year’s campaign, and is poised to deliver another stellar year as part of “Linebacker U”.
The loss of impact players is crippling to an already bruised and battered program, but the Nittany Lions won’t go down without a fight. In a team statement issued to the media on July 25, fullback Michael Zordich said, “We want to let the nation know that we’re proud of who we are. We’re the true Penn Staters. We’re going to stick together through this. We’re going to see this thing through.” Linebacker Michael Mauti also had strong words for the media, saying, “No sanction, no politician is ever going to take away what we’ve got here. None of that is ever going to tear us apart. Right now all we can do is put our heads down and we’re just going to work. That’s all we can do. We’re going to fight for Penn State and each other because this is what Penn State is about – fighting through adversity. We’re going to show up every Saturday and we’re going to raise hell.” Coach Bill O’Brien has preached an “us-against-the-world” mindset, and the players have responded well to the first-year coach. The rest of the college football world better take notice, because come this fall, the Nittany Lions are going to be playing with a very big chip on their shoulders.