In less than nine months, the Penn State Nittany Lions will begin their 2014 season -- in Dublin, Ireland, of all places.

The Lions will open against Central Florida at Croke Park in what Coach Bill O'Brien is billing as a bowl game of sorts for a program that's banned from the postseason. Yes, that's the same Central Florida team that beat Penn State 34-31 earlier this season in Beaver Stadium and currently is ranked No. 15 in the nation with a 10-1 record.

It will be no easy task for the Lions.

The PSU team that takes the field on Aug. 30 against the Knights will look markedly different than the one that just finished its 2013 season at 7-5 after a stunning 31-24 victory over 24-point favorite Wisconsin on Saturday in Madison.

Gone will be stalwarts such as offensive guard John Urschel, center Ty Howle, defensive lineman DaQuan Jones and middle linebacker Glenn Carson. Central York High School graduate Kyle Baublitz, a starter at defensive tackle, will also not return, electing to move on with his life as a teacher. They will all be missed.

The Lions' biggest loss, however, may well be Allen Robinson. The two-time Richter-Howard Big Ten Receiver of the Year has another year of eligibility remaining, but he's also a potential early-round NFL draft pick. It's hard to imagine that Robinson will pass up a millions of dollars in order to return to a PSU team that can't go to a bowl or win a championship.


Even if Robinson does not return, however, the Lions still have a decent chance to improve on their 7-5 record next season. The 2014 schedule is not brutally difficult, the NCAA has eased the school's scholarship penalties and another solid recruiting class looks headed to Happy Valley. Those factors should all help.

Most importantly, however, the Lions must see some of their younger players improve and get healthy. Here's a rundown of what to look for next season.

Quarterback: It's no surprise that Christian Hackenberg is first on this list.

The true freshman quarterback struggled at times during the season, as expected, but he saved his best performance for last in the upset of the Badgers, throwing four touchdowns with no interceptions. If Hackenberg can improve his accuracy and decision-making to go along with his obvious physical gifts, the Lions will have one of the top QBs in the nation next season.

Receivers: With Robinson likely gone, Geno Lewis will probably become Hackenberg's No. 1 target in 2014.

Like Hackenberg, Lewis is coming off his best game of the season vs. Wisconsin (three catches, 91 yards, two TDs). Another wideout also needs to emerge -- possibly Richy Anderson.

Penn State is blessed with numerous tight ends. True freshman Adam Breneman got better as the season wore on and Jesse James (6-7, 260) can be a beast to bring down. But the Lions really need Kyle Carter to get fully healthy and regain the form he showed as a freshman, when he made 35 catches.

Running backs: The Lions look well-stocked here with Zach Zwinak and Bill Belton returning, along with Akeel Lynch. It's a formidable trio -- if they can hang on to the ball.

Offensive line: The key here is Donovan Smith, the 6-5, 320-pound left tackle.

Smith is a superior talent, but can be maddeningly inconsistent. His repeated procedure penalties against Wisconsin got him benched during that game. He was also benched earlier in the season for mediocre play. Smith must step up and become a dominant force on the offensive line next season.

Defensive line: The loss of Jones and Baublitz will be felt, but Anthony Zettel and C.J. Olaniyan became real playmakers by season's end.

If Deion Barnes can rebound from a poor sophomore campaign and again become the pass-rushing fiend that he was as a freshman, this area could be a strength next season.

Linebackers: Health is the big issue here.

Mike Hull and Dallastown High School graduate Ben Kline battled injuries, as did Nyeem Wartman. If they can all return to 100 percent, they could combine with promising true freshman Brandon Bell to give Linebacker U. a unit that lives up to its nickname.

Defensive backs: Cornerback Jordan Lucas, after a strong sophomore season, will likely be the leader of this unit.

Adrian Amos and Trevor Williams each saw starting time at the other corner and overachieving Ryan Keiser should be a steadying influence at safety. This should be an area of strength next season.

Special teams: This area, more than any other, is in desperate need of improvement.

Placekicker Sam Ficken is wildly inconsistent, punter Alex Butterworth is serviceable, at best, and the coverage and return teams, which were packed with walk-ons, were among the Big Ten's worst.

Bolstering the special teams should be Job No. 1 for O'Brien next season.

Overall: Given the schedule, the recruiting class and the returning talent, anything less than a winning record should be unacceptable next season.

With a few exceptions (wideouts, offensive line), the Lions should be better at most spots.

How does that translate? Probably 8-4, with losses to Central Florida, Michigan, Ohio State and Michigan State, but a 9-3 mark is possible if things break PSU's way.

As always, time will tell the tale. In less than nine months, we'll start to learn a lot more about the 2014 Nittany Lions.

Steve Heiser is sports editor of The York Dispatch. He can be reached at