Penn State was hit with unprecedented NCAA sanctions in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky case in the summer of 2012, but first-year coach Bill O'Brien deftly guided the Nittany Lions to a surprising 8-4 record last fall. Penn State has had only nine players selected in the past three drafts, and the prevailing wisdom was that the Sandusky fallout would severely damage Penn State recruiting for at least five years. That hasn't necessarily been the case; in addition, there are numerous underclassmen on the roster with NFL potential.
O'Brien's arrival meant an offensive upgrade, and that should lead to better skill-position players. Penn State won't be the best team in the Big Ten this fall, but a top-three finish in the Leaders Division seems assured and a second-place finish is a possibility. In addition, there is enough talent on the roster to keep Penn State above .500 for the next few seasons, which is eye-opening considering the dire predictions about the program's direction in the summer of 2012.
Top senior prospects
LB Glenn Carson: Carson (6-3, 240) is the latest model rolling off the Penn State linebacker assembly line -- there have been nine Nittany Lions 'backers selected in the past seven drafts. Carson will be a three-year starter in the middle and is especially adept against the run. He moves well but hasn't shown a knack for making big plays.
DT DaQuan Jones: Jones (6-foot-3, 318 pounds) burst on the scene in a big way last season. After serving as a reserve in his first two years on campus, Jones became a vital part of a solid defensive line last fall. He is a big-time run-stuffer who mucks up things in the middle -- he isn't much of a pass rusher, though. Jones was a highly regarded offensive lineman in high school.
OG John Urschel: He is heading into his third season as a starter and is an extremely effective run blocker who needs to get better in pass protection. Urschel (6-3, 307) is a solid technician and coming off an All-Big Ten season. Urschel is the epitome of a solid citizen: He is in his second year of grad school after receiving his undergraduate degree in math in three years -- and with a 4.0 GPA.
CB Adrian Amos: Amos (6-0, 211), a junior, has good size and is heading into his second season as a starter. He lacks elite speed, but adds a physical presence to the secondary and had two picks and three pass breakups last fall. He leads what should be one of the Big Ten's top secondaries this season.
DE Deion Barnes: Barnes (6-4, 249) redshirted as a true freshman in 2011, then blossomed into Penn State's top pass rusher last season, finishing with six sacks and being named the Big Ten freshman of the year. He has big-time athleticism but still is learning the intricacies of the position. Barnes needs to add some bulk and get better against the run, but his pass-rushing skills set him apart.
TE Kyle Carter: O'Brien's arrival meant tight ends became a legitimate part of Penn State's passing attack, and Carter was one of the top pass-catching tight ends in the league last season. Carter (6-3, 244), a third-year sophomore, could stand to add some bulk and become a better blocker, but he used his speed to finish second on the team with 36 receptions and 453 receiving yards despite missing three games with injuries.
OG Miles Dieffenbach: He didn't play at all in his first two seasons, then was moved from center to guard by the new staff and became a force in the middle of the line last season. Dieffenbach (6-3, 297) overcomes some physical limitations with a strong work ethic and can be a mauler in the running game. His dad spent 36 years as a tennis coach at Pitt, overseeing the men's and women's programs at varying times.
QB Christian Hackenberg: Hackenberg (6-3, 218) is a true freshman who didn't arrive on campus until this summer. He arrived amid a ton of hype and what looks to be a real chance to earn the starting job. On the official depth chart released by coaches in mid-June, he was listed as the co-starter at quarterback with junior-college transfer Tyler Ferguson, a sophomore who enrolled in January and went through spring drills. Hackenberg has a strong arm and good mechanics, and was the consensus No. 2 pro-style quarterback nationally in the 2013 recruiting class.
OLB Mike Hull: Hull (6-0, 226), a junior, lacks ideal size, but runs well, has excellent instincts and always seems to be around the ball. He had four sacks, an interception, two fumble recoveries, a blocked punt and four pass breakups to go with 58 tackles last season. His dad, Tom, played linebacker for Penn State and in the NFL in the 1970s.
WR Allen Robinson: He adapted quickly to O'Brien's offense and made a huge splash as a sophomore last season, leading the Big Ten with 77 receptions, 1,018 receiving yards and 11 receiving touchdowns. Robinson, who is from the Detroit area, has excellent size (6-3, 215), good speed and strong hands. He can get deep, too, as he had nine receptions covering at least 30 yards. He's the best receiver in the Big Ten.
OT Donovan Smith: Smith (6-5, 327) redshirted as a true freshman in 2011, then won the starting left-tackle spot in spring drills before the 2012 season. Coaches rave about his athleticism and toughness. He plays a physical brand of football.
OLB Nyeem Wartman: Wartman (6-1, 240) redshirted last season as a true freshman following a knee injury he suffered in the second game of the season, but he won a starting job during spring drills. Wartman runs well, has good instincts and is expected to be especially tough against the run. His coverage skills are a question, though.
FB Zach Zwinak: Zwinak (6-1, 240) carried the ball only twice as a redshirt freshman in 2011, then emerged to rush for 1,000 yards and six touchdowns last fall as the Nittany Lions' featured back in O'Brien's diversified offense. Zwinak lacks speed and would have to play fullback in the NFL, but he looks to have the necessary toughness to do so. He is a capable receiver, too.
Three must-see games of 2013
Oct. 26 at Ohio State: The Nittany Lions travel to take on the Big Ten's most talented team. The Buckeyes' spread offense will put a lot of pressure on Penn State's linebackers, so Hull, Carson and Wartman will have a chance to stand out. Jones and Barnes will be going against some solid offensive linemen. In addition, Robinson could make more national noise with a big performance against a star-studded Ohio State secondary.
Nov. 23 vs. Nebraska: The Huskers' run-oriented offense gives Penn State's linebackers another shot at making some big plays. This contest also will be a test for Barnes and Jones because of Nebraska's physical offensive line.
Nov. 30 at Wisconsin: The winner likely will finish second in the Leaders Division. The line play for both teams should determine the outcome, as there will be some stud offensive linemen on display.
Follow Mike Huguenin on Twitter @MikeHuguenin.