CHARLOTTE DOUGLAS INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT – Because, why wouldn’t I go farther in a different direction than to my final destination merely to begin my trip to Indiana?
Just some random Penn State football-related thoughts as I have a bit of free time during my sojourn to the heart of the Midwest.
The first two notes actually will appear in the print edition Saturday on our GAMEDAY page (in a slightly cut-down form), but since we do not offer them with the online coverage, I included them in this blog post. (Probably a good idea for me to continue to do that in the future, because sometimes there’s some hidden gems here).
Enjoy the game Saturday. Give the TribLive PSU show podcast a listen, if you are so inclined.
**Youthful PSU roster just keeps getting younger**
As the season progresses, freshmen have earned the Penn State coaching staff’s trust and some upperclassmen have been unable to play because of injury. The result is the further erosion of the experience of the Nittany Lions’ already-youthful roster.
PSU began the season with the second-highest percentage of seniors and juniors of any FBS team in the country. But with junior linebacker Ben Kline, senior guard Mikes Dieffenbach, senior running back Zach Zwinak and senior safety Ryan Keiser all missing significant time because of injury (of that group, only Dieffenbach has a chance to play at all during the remainder of the season), the Lions’ youth is even more magnified.
Check some of the player-participation notes from this past Saturday’s game against Maryland:
- The offense had exactly one senior play (running back Bill Belton, who gained 14 yards on his eight touches)
- Four freshmen and four sophomores started on offense, in addition to three juniors
- More freshmen (five) than seniors (four) were in the starting offensive and defensive lineups combined
- Breakdown by class among the 22 starters: Four seniors, seven juniors, six sophomores, five freshmen
- On opposite ends of the eligibility spectrum, there were two true freshmen who started and nine overall who played; there were two fifth-year seniors who started and three overall who played
- Even forgetting fifth-year players, there were more true freshmen who played (nine) than seniors (eight) – when redshirt freshmen are counted, that former number swells to 14
**‘Genius’ turns around PSU defense**
Last season’s Penn State defense ranked in the bottom half of the Big Ten in scoring and yardage, and was in the middle of the conference against the rush.
From it, four starters were subtracted – two of whom are currently in NFL rosters – heading into 2014. Any new additions to the roster are mostly freshmen who, while their impact is gradually growing, have generally played complementary roles over the first two-thirds of this season.
The result? The Nittany Lions rank No. 3 in total defense, No. 9 in scoring defense and No. 1 in rushing defense in the country.
“Coach Shoop is a genius,” sophomore defensive tackle Austin Johnson said, unsolicited, of PSU defensive coordinator Bob Shoop.
Shoop, a Riverview High School graduate, also counts Yale among his alma maters.
“I think he’s just a genius,” said linebacker Brandon Bell when told of Johnson’s comment. “When he says things are going to happen (a particular) way, they do. It shows up.”
The current coaching staff has no shortage of candidates to be a future college head coach. For many of them, their youth suggests that, if their career ascension continues and success at PSU follows, it could be, in theory, within the realm of possibility.
Wide receivers coach/offensive recruiting coordinator/assistant special teams coordinator (these hyphenated titles kill my word counts) Josh Gattis is certainly among that group. Barely into his 30s, Gattis has a charisma that helps allure recruits, and he is well-spoken and intelligent enough to be the proverbial face of a program with the media.
That was on display Thursday, when Gattis was the one assistant that is available to the media weekly. (Don’t get me started on how they are doubling up on some coaches, while others – offensive coordinator John Donovan, anyone? – have been shielded… but that’s for another time).
Among the highlights was his opinion on the two true freshmen who are playing at receiver this season, Chris Godwin and Saeed Blacknall: “I think those guys are really progressing. I’m really happy about Saeed and Chris. Those guys are playing really good ball. They are making some plays out there. It’s hard sometimes when you have a bunch of guys rotating in. Some of the opportunities they aren’t in for, they can’t make. But as far as their attempts, their completions and their targets, I’ve really been pleased with how they are playing as they continue to develop. This is a young group. DaeSean still has room to develop, but he has been playing really good football. Geno is a young player who is playing good football, but he still has a lot more room to grow. I think as a group, we have to continue to find ways to get those guys more active as far as Saeed Blacknall and Chris Godwin. We need to continue to get those guys more and more reps.”
**Zettel a playmaking machine**
Even the previous two seasons, when he was playing much more sparingly, Anthony Zettel was making an impact seemingly every time he was on the field. Now, in 2014 – at a different position, no less – Zettel is emerging as one of the Big Ten’s best defensive linemen.
Listen to opponents’ press conferences in the week leading up to playing Penn State. They invariably always mention the 6-4, 274-pound fourth-year junior. I expect a monster 2015 from him, after having had a full season to settle into playing on the interior and another year of experience and physical maturity to rely on.
Still, despite being among the Big Ten leaders among defensive tackles in sacks and tackles for loss (and interceptions and touchdowns, for that matter), Zettel doesn’t sound overly impressed with himself.
“Yeah, I’m pleased, but I also know I have a lot of stuff to improve,” he said. “I’ve left a lot of plays out on the field that if I could have done something simple or technique‑wise, I could have made more of a play. So I know I have a lot to improve to be a great player. I’m just going to keep striving to be that.”
Penn State’s special team rankings in the Big Ten: Kickoff returns (seventh), punt returns (13th), punting (12th), kickoff coverage (11th).
Good thing for Sam Ficken, who’s missed just two of 36 kicks all season (mid-range field goals against Rutgers and Northwestern in September) and has a respectable 18 touchbacks on 41 kickoffs this season.
Too bad he can’t punt.
Or can he?
“I did a little bit of that in the spring,” Ficken said Tuesday. “ But right now that’s something that I’m not focused on. We have faith in our guys right now, so I don’t think you’ll see me punting.”