As Penn State opens up the first of 15 spring practices, head coach Bill O'Brien is looking to see his players compete with more confidence this spring, especially on special teams.
Kicker Sam Ficken was shaky at the start of the 2012 season but finished his season on a strong note, gaining confidence down the stretch. O'Brien noted Ficken should absolutely start the year with a more confident leg, which will avoid a slow start. Punter Alex Butterworth, whom the Nittany Lions head coach referred to as Butters, had a strong winter workout schedule O'Brien noted, earning special recognition from strength and conditioning coach Craig Fitzgerald as top the top specialist this winter. O'Brien hopes that leads to Butterworth adding a few extra yards on to his punting average, as special teams will continue to be vital for Penn State in 2013.
Confidence, O'Brien seems to believe, will be there for a number of young players coming in to the spring. A number of younger players stepped up last season and should mold in to some leadership roles after Penn State loses a number of respected leaders from the 2012 roster.
"I wouldn't say it's a concern," O'Brien said when asked about the leadership of the 2013 Nittany Lions. "Every year is different."
Christian Hackenberg in the QB mix
Though he will not be able to practice with the team until the summer, Class of 2013 prized recruit Christian Hackenberg is expected to be in the heat of a quarterback competition according to O'Brien, who said a redshirt season is not on the table right now.
"It's not necessarily the case," O'Brien said when asked if Hackenberg would be given a redshirt for 2012. He will "certainly be in the mix," O'Brien said of Hackenberg, who will get a late start on competing for the starting quarterback job with sophomore Steven Bench and junior college transfer Tyler Ferguson.
Bench and Ferguson have both been working hard already at preparing for the spring and O'Brien commended their individual work ethics, saying they sit in the front and center of the meeting room and are attentive, ready to work hard. O'Brien also said Bench feels more comfortable in the offense after one year backing up Matt McGloin last season.
"We're going to play the best players at each position, O'Brien said, noting that all freshmen coming in will have an opportunity to compete for playing time.
"It's fun when you're working with the guys we're working with here."
Zwinak to lead the running game
Running back Zach Zwinak enters the spring sitting atop the spring depth chart according to O'Brien, but that does not mean others will not be involved.
"As long as I'm here that running back position will always be competitive," O'Brien said when discussing the position. Zwinak moved up from third on the depth chart last season to lead the Nittany Lions in rushing with a 1,000-yard season. O'Brien seemed to feel happy with the shape of Bill Belton, who started the 2012 season as the team's go-to tailback before getting banged up and slipping down the depth chart. O'Brien said Belton was in good shape entering the spring and he hopes to see him bounce back. Akeel Lynch also appears to be in O'Brien's good graces this spring, as the head coach had some complimentary statements to make about him as well. Zwinak, Belton and Lynch should all compete for some good playing time in the fall starting this spring.
Offensive line notes
Ty Howle will start the spring at center with the first team offense. Howle is the veteran option at center, and adds a little extra weight on the line, but Wendy Laurent and Angelo Mangiro will also be competing for the job. Mangiro is also hampered slightly by a hamstring but will be practicing.
Miles Dieffenbach was listed on the spring roster at center but O'Brien confirmed he will remain at guard, suggesting a possible error on the previously released roster.
Lack of linebacker depth a concern
"There's not a lot of depth at linebacker," O'Brien said. "That's for sure."
Penn State loses Gerald Hodges and Michael Mauti from the starting linebacker positions this spring, but O'Brien looks forward to watching Glenn Carson be joined by Michael Hull and Nyeem Wartman on the field with the first team this spring. Hull and Wartman are expected to be the likely starters when the 2013 season starts.