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O'Brien Keeps Quiet On Position Battles

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Malcolm Willis might be the second-most experienced player on Penn State's roster, but he could be a backup to start the season. Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images.
Malcolm Willis might be the second-most experienced player on Penn State's roster, but he could be a backup to start the season. Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images.

Most teams have not yet made it to their opening kickoffs, but the chess games between opposing coaches have already started.

Penn State’s Bill O’Brien recently released a depth chart riddled with uncertainty to keep Syracuse guessing. No worries, though, Syracuse isn’t showing their hand either. They’ve not named a starting quarterback, much like Penn State.

Teams usually spin this scenario in multiple ways.

1. They’re both just so good that we can’t pick one.
2. We don’t want to give the other team an advantage.
3. Or, while no team would ever openly admit this, neither quarterback is particularly impressive.

It’s likely a combination of B and C for Penn State.

O’Brien graduated from the Bill Belichick School of Coaching in New England and, much like his mentor, is tight-lipped on decisions that could be made on game day. Still, Penn State’s quarterbacks are JUCO transfer Tyler Ferguson and true freshman Christian Hackenberg, and neither has ever thrown a pass for Penn State.

Maybe O’Brien has named his starter behind closed doors, but if the offense knows as much about the starting quarterback as we do, that’s trouble. Teams need to know who their leader is, not who they might be.

Penn State also has an unspoken competition at running back.

Bruiser Zach Zwinak may be the 1,000-yard runner from a year ago, but O’Brien likes the diverse Bill Belton, too. Chances are, each will get a fair share of carries early in the season, much like they did in the three games that they were each healthy in last season.

The Nittany Lions also have decisions to make at the tight end position, where they may have the best group in the country.

Kyle Carter is the most consistent tight end as both a blocker and pass catcher.  Matt Lehman and Jesse James are surprisingly athletic route runners and gifted receivers for such big men, though they need to be more effective as blockers. To borrow a coaching cliché, this is a good problem to have.

The Nittany Lions also have two head-scratching battles for the season opener.  

Right tackles Adam Gress and Garry Gilliam are battling to be protectors of their quarterback and steamrollers for their running backs.

Gress is a fifth-year senior that has been groomed for this season, in which he was expected to be a mauler. Gilliam felt he would be more valued as an athletic offensive tackle than a blocking tight end.

One might expect Gress to get the job due to his four years of experience at the position, but O’Brien tends to opt for more athletic players in positions battles. No matter who gets the spot, each will be on the field in heavy offensive sets.

Lastly, Penn State’s defensive backfield is mostly set with two sophomores, Trevor Williams and Jordan Lucas, starting at cornerback and Adrian Amos at safety.

The other safety spot is undetermined between Malcolm Willis and Ryan Keiser. Back in June, it was assumed O’Brien had picked Willis, who has started 17 games at safety for Penn State, as a key veteran player to be in a “position battle,” as a way to show that no job is safe.

As it turns out, Willis, the second-most experienced player on the Nittany Lions' roster, really could lose his job when the season starts.