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Five Burning Questions: Penn State Nittany Lions

Penn State has a little bit of everything this season. Quarterback competition still up in the air just days away from the season opener? Check. Rising star at running back? Check. Veteran offensive and defensive lines? Check. Top secondary in the Big Ten? Check. Legendary coach? Check. Names on the uniforms and fancy Nike Pro Combat uniforms?

Well, OK. Almost everything.

Penn State opens their 2011 season Saturday afternoon against Indiana State from the FCS ranks, and all eyes in Pennsylvania, and in the Big Ten, are already looking forward to week two when Alabama comes to State College for the first time since before Penn State joined the Big Ten. Still with some questions to answer, we turn to the staff of Nittany Lion’s Den for some insight on the team.

1. Silas Redd looks to be flying under the national radar this season, but Penn State fans are expecting big things from him in 2011. What is it about Redd that generates such excitement in State College and what will it take for him to become a name everybody knows?

Mike Prince: If you think of the top running backs in the nation for this upcoming 2011 season, you think of guys like Oregon‘s LaMichael James and South Carolina’s Marcus Lattimore. You may think of Alabama’s Trent Richardson and Auburn’s Michael Dyer, but you won’t hear Redd’s name mentioned near any one of those players.

And while Redd may not be at their level just yet, the talent and potential are both certainly there.

Redd is a strong runner with excellent agility who wowed fans with his elusive moves and cutbacks in high school and continued that in his freshman season with Penn State. His blend of perimeter speed and toughness, along with his confidence and the right amount of patience, will help him to thrive as a tailback. He has a strong build and a body composition which any coach would love to see from his back at the college level.

He brings something which Royster never really brought to Beaver Stadium, even with all of his garbage 100-yard games and inflated stats. Excitement and the realization that Penn State may finally have another future first-round draft pick standing in the backfield.

Last year, Redd’s shake and bakes, his ability to make tacklers miss and his ability to create opportunities to gain positive yardage on broken plays made Nittany Lions fans realize there may be reason to believe in the hype.

(Read Prince’s full response to this question in today’s column on Nittany Lion’s Den.)

2. Penn State has been Linebacker U for a long time now. What should people know about this year’s crop of linebackers?

Derek Aschman: This year’s linebacker corps is the most talented and least proven that Penn State has had in a long, long time. Sophomore MLB Glenn Carson has yet to play a meaningful snap on defense, but proved enough to take over the starting position, ultimately knocking 5th-year senior Nate Stupar off the first team defense. Junior Michael Mauti is being hyped up around Happy Valley as the next big thing, but has suffered knee injuries in the past and has only started a few games. The last starter in junior Gerald Hodges, who suffered a knee injury on the opening kick-off of the second game last year. Most Penn State fans believe he will be the fastest and hardest-hitting linebacker in the conference, however he too has yet to prove it on the field.

Despite all the uncertainty, most Penn State fans believe that the starting LBs will be one of the fastest and best trios in the country. Furthermore, Nittany Lion fans love the depth at each position. Back-ups Mike Hull, Khairi Fortt and Nate Stupar could almost all be starting at most other schools, and will see sufficient playing time this fall as Coach Vanderlinden would like to run a 6-man rotation with the linebackers.

3. Let’s talk about the schedule. Division play in the Big Ten does away with the Michigan State “rivalry” but replaces the Spartans with the Wisconsin Badgers, and Nebraska is now an annual match-up. As far as Penn State is concerned, the division format is pretty sweet except for not having Michigan perhaps. But this season all eyes are focused on Alabama in week two. Given the schedule, what will be Penn State’s realistic expectations for the season and Big Ten championship picture?

Derek Aschman: Within the conference, the talent gap is not that wide between Penn State and anybody, as shown here. There is no reason to believe that Penn State can’t keep up with anybody on the schedule – but there’s also no reason to believe they will.

The great thing about Penn State’s schedule is how back-loaded it is. Nittany Lion fans expect to start 8-1, finally getting the Iowa monkey off our back. That leads them into Red November – Nebraska, at Ohio State and at Wisconsin in consecutive weeks. Penn State’s BigTen championship dreams live and die with this stretch. The optimistic view towards these games says that Nebraska will be pounded and bruised by a BigTen schedule by this time, Ohio State will not be the same without Tressel and Penn State will beat Wisconsin because Penn State always beats Wisconsin. The realistic expectation, however, is that Penn State will go 1-2 during this stretch. That would take them out of the inaugural BigTen championship game.

However, you are absolutely correct that Penn State fans don’t even acknowledge the BigTen schedule yet. September 10th, Bear Bryant, Joe Paterno, Penn State, Alabama, enough said. Many Penn State fans have had this game circled since it was supposed to be played six years ago. The feeling around campus right now is that we will definitely lose…and yet there is this quiet sense of optimism. If Penn State pulls off the improbable, the rest of the season means relatively little. If they win, the rest of the season is in November, which will be National Championship or Bust.

4. The quarterback situation has been the most focal position battle for the past year now, and we get ready to head in to week one without an idea of who will be the team’s starter (again) this season. Rob Bolden and Matt McGloin are the two contenders, so who ultimately wins the job, and who gives the team the best chance to win this season?

Troy Weller: Going into the week leading up to the first game of the season, Penn State is still without an official starting quarterback, just like last season. And just like last season, look for Rob Bolden to be named the guy fairly soon.

Yesterday, the preseason depth chart for the Nittany Lions was announced, and the starting quarterback was listed as “Rob Bolden OR Matt McGloin”. This again comes as no surprise to fans, as this was the same exact thing that happened last year. But the difference between last year and this year is that this year, Bolden has had a full year of learning under his belt. Last season, he had only been in Happy Valley for over 2 months.

Bolden has potential. A lot of it. His early season losses to Alabama and Iowa do not tell the whole story because the games were actually closer than the scores indicated. He was growing as a player as the season went on, but he needed to grow as a leader, especially at a time when that Penn State team needed one. Against Minnesota, Bolden was forced to sit out with a concussion. And against Minnesota, the Nittany Lions found that leader.

Matt McGloin came into that game and threw 2 TDs. He then started the next week against Michigan, in the absence of Bolden, and helped guide the offense to 41 points. The next week against Northwestern, Bolden started but was pulled after two drives. McGloin entered, brought the Nittany Lions back from 21 down, and played the rest of the season.

The case for McGloin as the starter hinges on the fact that he is a great leader and has moxie. McGloin had a better presence in the huddle last season, when Bolden seemed passive at times. This can be attributed to the experience factor. McGloin had been on campus for 3 years when he started last season. Bolden was months removed from his senior prom.

With loads of talent, a year to learn the system and time to grow as a leader, Rob Bolden is poised to be the starting quarterback this season for Penn State. Matt McGloin has most likely hit his ceiling, but Bolden has the skills to build off his freshman season and lead PSU to a very solid showing this year. With all the talented weapons the Nittany Lions have on offense, they need a talented weapon calling the shots in order to give them the best chance to win.

Robert Bolden is that talented weapon.

5. Saving the obvious for last, because no set of Penn State questions can be properly done for a national audience without addressing it. Joe Paterno. Final year of contract. Is he back on the sidelines in 2012? Discuss.

Ryan Murphy: If you watch telecasts of Penn State games from the eighties, you’ll hear commentators talk about Joe Paterno as an elder, a statesman, and a legend. Now, here we are thirty years later, still marveling at the man who just keeps on winning.

The mantra that echoes from everyone in the know is that JoePa will keep coaching as long as he wants to coach. I bought into rumors earlier in the decade about other people having any sway over the all-time winningest coach in major college football history. If there was ever a time to fire the guy or strongarm him into retirement, it was 2004. And the AD and president of Penn State got a door slammed in their face for all their effort. Since the Orange Bowl team of 2005, the Lions have been considerably better than they were in 2000-2004. While Penn State hasn’t been a perennial BCS team the past few years (like their unscrupulous Big Ten neighbors to the west), they are just a year removed from back-to-back eleven win seasons (2008-2009). You don’t fire an all-time legend for one injury-plagued and inexperience-ridden season, like the Lions had in 2010.

Could Paterno and PSU administration end some of this speculation (which also ran rampant in 2008 as he coached through the last year of his contract) by simply inking the octogenarian to three or four more years? Even if it were written on a napkin, at least it would quiet some of the talk. But is it necessary? Recruits are as zealous as ever to come to Penn State. The current class is ranked around #10, and PSU rarely comes in higher than that. Some fans desire blockbuster classes (like Ohio State, Miami, and USC…cough, cough), but the Nittany Lions were seconds away from championship game appearances in 2005 and 2008 with less-touted groups. And who was the architect of such powerhouse teams? Paterno. The only people who seem worried about Paterno’s contract expiring seem to be the fans and the media.

I too get antsy for a new regime in State College from time to time, but Penn State and the “success with honor” trademark that runs through their whole athletic program is too synonymous with Joe Paterno to handle the end of his career badly. He’s certainly showed signs of slowing down over the past few years, but the only one who will bring the JoePa train into the station is the man himself. Expect another three-year extension to be announced sometime after the season, if that’s what Joe wants. And I think that’s fair. After all, what Joe has wanted for the last half century has been great for the Pennsylvania State University.

For more coverage of the Penn State Nittany Lions, visit Bloguin’s Nittany Lion’s Den at NittanyLionsDen.com and follow on Twitter @TheNLD.

Also, be sure to follow Crystal Ball Run on Twitter @CrystalBallRun and Google+.

Kevin McGuire

About Kevin McGuire

Contributor to College Football Talk on NBCSports.com. Member of the FWAA and National Football Foundation. College Football Hall of Fame voter. Also managing Bloguin's NittanyLionsDen.com and Macho-Row.com.

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