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Column: Lions hoping health holds

Most Penn State football fans, be they of the optimistic or pessimistic varieties, have two major concerns heading into the 2013 season: a lack of experience at the quarterback position and a relative lack of overall depth.

Penn State's offense missed Carter late in the season but showed it could survive without him.

The first concern is a legitimate one; taking on the Big Ten with a sophomore who played at the College of the Sequoias last season and/or a true freshman who has yet to partake in his first Penn State practice will test the mettle and patience of the entire squad, the coaches and yes, the fans as well. Steep learning curves are ahead for Tyler Ferguson and Christian Hackenberg.

The second concern, though, is one that might not be as concerning as some might think.

Bill O'Brien has hinted at it or come right out and said it at several points this spring: Yes, the Nittany Lions could certainly use some more depth. Part of that has to do with the nine senior starters that departed after last season and part of it, of course, has to do with the fact that Penn State will enter the season with about 65-67 scholarship players (the number seems to change by the week) versus the typical 85.

As we've shown with our recent "Summer Shakedown" series, the Nittany Lions could likely withstand an injury or two at some positions (tight end, safety, wide receiver) but be devastated by even a couple of untimely hamstring pulls at others (linebacker, offensive tackle, running back).

Getting an entire squad of players through a full football season without at least a few injuries is about as likely as O'Brien sending his punter or kicker onto the field on every single fourth down, but if the 2013 Nittany Lions hold up as well as the 2012 team did in that regard, there's no reason they shouldn't be competitive each week, scholarship limitations or not.

Of the 22 Nittany Lions who started last season's opener against Ohio, 10 went on to start each of the remaining 11 games. Seven more made at least nine starts, and that doesn't include wide receiver Brandon Moseby-Felder, who did not start against the Bobcats but would start nine of the last 11 games of the year.

Most of the positions that didn't have the same starter each week featured a by-committee approach that had little to do with injuries anyway. A total of nine different players, for example, started at one of the tight end or one of the wide receiver positions; sometimes the Nittany Lions opened in two-tight end sets, sometimes three-wide sets. Kyle Carter, who led all Penn State tight ends with 36 catches, missed three of the final four games with injuries, but he had only started in two of the first eight games and was still one of the team's most productive players.

That by-committee approach among the wideouts and tight ends is unlikely to change this year, especially given the aforementioned stockpile of weapons at the tight end position and O'Brien's tendency to tweak the offense based on the opponent.

Three players -- Deion Barnes, Sean Stanley and Pete Massaro -- made 23 of the possible 24 starts at the two defensive end spots last year (C.J. Olaniyan got the other one, against Temple). Nagging injuries to Massaro were a big factor in that rotation but so was the rapid development of Barnes; the Big Ten's Freshman of the Year might have eventually overtaken a healthy Massaro in the starting lineup anyway.

At the positions where communication and cohesion and consistency truly matter -- the offensive line, secondary and quarterback -- the Nittany Lions stayed healthy. Malcolm Willis was the only player in Penn State's back four to miss a start with injury in 2012, and it was no coincidence that a group of defensive backs that were shaky in the early part of the season gradually came together as the year went on -- because they were on the field together each game.

Left tackle Donovan Smith was the only offensive lineman to miss a start with an injury (left guard Miles Dieffenbach came off the bench for Ty Howle in the finale against Wisconsin but that was not an injury-related decision). Like the secondary, that group improved as the year went on, and Mac McWhorter was able to mix in some other players to build depth and safeguard the line against injuries.

The Nittany Lions' ability to keep McGloin on the field -- other than for a handful of plays in the second quarter at Virginia -- was one of the keys to the season, and allowed so many of the other pieces to fall into place. If they can do the same for whichever quarterback emerges as the starter this fall, and the injury bug doesn't bite them any harder at other positions than it did in 2012, the difference between 65 and 85 might not be as deeply felt as originally feared.

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