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March 27, 2009

Despite departures, high hopes at Penn State

Penn State tied for the Big Ten title last season, then won the tiebreaker and went to the Rose Bowl. But instead of remembering that, most folks will remember that if not for a one-point, late-season loss at Iowa, the Nittany Lions would've played for the national title.

Penn State's performance in the Rose Bowl wasn't necessarily a good one, and the Nittany Lions lost 13 starters and some key reserves off the 2008 team.

Still, expectations are high in Happy Valley, and spring practice will be important this year as coach Joe Paterno and his staff look for replacements for star players at wide receiver, in the offensive line, at defensive end and in the secondary.

Here's a look at the Nittany Lions as they prepare for spring drills.

PENN STATE AT-A-GLANCE
Quarterback Daryll Clark returns, but he will need to find some new targets.
THE BASICS
Coach: Joe Paterno
Last season: 11-2, 7-1 Big Ten. Lost to USC in the Rose Bowl.
Spring dates: March 27-April 25
RETURNING STARTERS
Offense (5): QB Daryll Clark, T Dennis Landolt, TB Evan Royster, TE Mickey Shuler, G Stefen Wisniewski.
Defense (4): LB Navorro Bowman, LB Josh Hull, T Jared Odrick, T Ollie Ogbu.
Special teams (1): P Jeremy Boone.
Positions of strength

The Nittany Lions will have a nice offensive backfield led by quarterback Daryll Clark and a trio of solid tailbacks Evan Royster, Stephfon Green and Brent Carter. The linebacking corps could be special with the return of Sean Lee from injury. The defensive tackles look good.

Help is needed

The secondary must be totally rebuilt. Who is going to catch Clark's passes now that starting wide receivers Jordan Norwood, Derrick Williams and Deon Butler are gone? The top three defensive ends are gone, with two leaving early for the NFL. Three new starters on the offensive line are needed. And don't discount the loss of kicker Kevin Kelly, who will be replaced by incoming freshman Anthony Fera.

Keep an eye on

LB Sean Lee: No, he's not a newcomer or even an underclassman, but Lee a senior missed the 2008 season after suffering a season-ending knee injury last spring and needs to prove he is healthy. An aggressive Lee would go a long way toward making this another great Penn State defense.

WR A.J. Price: At 6 feet 4, Price a redshirt freshman is an inviting target. Price has good hands and impressive leaping ability. But he needs to refine his route-running skills and add bulk to his 173-pound frame if he wants to play a big role.

OT DeOn'tae Pannell: Pannell, another redshirt freshman, likely will be entrusted with protecting Clark's blind side. Pannell has tremendous mobility and explosion, making him a natural to occupy this key spot. But will he be consistent?

His time is now

With Josh Gaines, Maurice Evans and Aaron Maybin gone, Penn State is starting over at defensive end. Playmakers are needed, and that is senior Jerome Hayes' cue. His career has been marred by injury. Hayes was poised for a big 2008 before suffering a season-ending injury in the second game of the season.

The buzz

Who will be the leaders with players such as center A.Q. Shipley and free safety Anthony Scirrotto gone? Lee needs to make this his team after missing last season with an injury. Clark and Stefen Wisniewski, who is moving from guard to center, also need to fill leadership positions. If Penn State can start to solidify its offensive and defensive lines this spring, as well as begin piecing together a new secondary, the Nittany Lions will be one of the favorites to win the Big Ten.

Tom Dienhart is a national senior writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at dienhart@yahoo-inc.com.



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