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Penn State Suffers Mass Exodus; QB Next?

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With yet another coaching change, two more years of NCAA sanctions and the departure of star receiver Allen Robinson, Penn State desperately needs freshman quarterback Christian Hackenberg to return in 2014. Photo by Mike McGinnis/Getty Images.
With yet another coaching change, two more years of NCAA sanctions and the departure of star receiver Allen Robinson, Penn State desperately needs freshman quarterback Christian Hackenberg to return in 2014. Photo by Mike McGinnis/Getty Images.

The Nittany Lions managed a winning season in 2013 despite crippling NCAA punishments, but 2014 looks dire after the school lost its coach, its star receiver and possibly its top two quarterbacks.

Penn State on Thursday officially launched its search to replace head coach Bill O'Brien, which in truth it has anticipated for some time.

Athletic director Dave Joyner made it public by naming defensive line coach Larry Johnson as interim.

“We intend to move quickly in our search to identify the next great Penn State football coach," Joyner said in a statement.

O'Brien, of course, is the new Houston Texans coach. Former Rutgers and Tampa Bay Bucs coach Greg Schiano has been mentioned as a potential replacement. Names like Mike Munchak (Tennessee Titans), James Franklin (Vanderbilt), Al Golden (Miami) and Greg Roman (San Francisco offensive coordinator) have surfaced in media reports, though some don't seem like realistic possibilities.

Whomever takes over will be without Allen Robinson, who caught 97 passes this season as a junior. Robinson declared for the NFL draft on Tuesday.

Even more frightening for Nittany Lions fans, freshman quarterback Christian Hackenberg is not sure about returning to the school. Hackenberg honored his commitment to PSU despite heavy NCAA sanctions largely due to his relationship with and belief in O'Brien. He proceeded to throw 20 touchdowns against 10 interceptions in his first college season, beating Michigan in overtime and winning at Wisconsin.

Despite significant relief in the scholarship reductions, which O'Brien successfully lobbied from the NCAA, Penn State still is two years away from bowl eligibility and full scholarship strength.

If Hackenberg decides to leave, it could be a devastating trifecta of departures for the Nittany Lions heading into the 2014 and 2015 seasons. Backup Tyler Ferguson decided to transfer earlier this month. Quarterbacks coach Charlie Fisher left before O'Brien did, and Steven Bench, the lone returning quarterback entering 2013, transferred to South Florida in May.

Penn State will look to hire its third coach in four years after Joe Paterno held the job from 1966 to 2011. On his way out, O'Brien suggested that pressure from Paterno loyalists was one of the reasons he decided to return to the NFL.

Many described heavy NCAA sanctions as "crippling" and "devastating," yet the school won 15 games the last two years. (Penn State won 16 games during Paterno's last two seasons as coach.) But look at the teams PSU will face in 2014: Fiesta Bowl winner UCF, Rose Bowl winner Michigan State, Orange Bowl participant Ohio State, and teams expected to improve in Michigan and Northwestern.

Without Hackenberg, it's hard to imagine a winning record, so Penn State's next coaching hire may be even more important than O'Brien's was. But no one expected the Nittany Lions to do as well as they have since the Jerry Sandusky scandal, JoePa's resignation and death, so maybe the school will surprise us again.