Penn State Nittany Lions: Penn State

Things to watch in Blue-White Game

April, 11, 2014
Apr 11
3:00
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STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- There will be plenty to watch when the Blue-White Game kicks off at 1:30 p.m. Saturday, but here's a look at some of the more interesting storylines:

1. How the offensive line performs. This unit will go a long way in determining Penn State's success this season. There's enough talent at the skill positions that the Nittany Lions could surprise again this year, but only if this battered line can hold up and hold its own. Neither guard Miles Dieffenbach, who's reportedly out for the season with a knee injury, nor tackle Andrew Nelson is expected to play on Saturday. Guard Anthony Alosi isn't listed on the roster, as he's facing criminal charges. And the status of center Angelo Mangiro is unknown.

[+] EnlargeChristian Hackenberg
Dan Sanger/Icon SMIChristian Hackenberg looks poised to build on a sensational freshman season.
There's a lot of uncertainty on this line, and the bigger questions are at guard. Brendan Mahon practiced at right tackle last week, so it's possible that converted defensive tackles Brian Gaia and Derek Dowrey could start inside during the Blue-White Game. At the very least, the two are sure to get considerable playing time on Saturday, and it will be interesting to see how they've progressed since learning of the position changes about a month ago. Left tackle Donovan Smith said Thursday that he has had to slow his pace a little bit as a result of playing alongside an inexperienced teammate.

2. Christian Hackenberg's ability to make any throw. Some analysts have already started wondering aloud if Hackenberg might be the No. 1 overall pick if/when he declares early for the NFL draft. Maybe that happens; maybe it doesn't. But the fact that's even being discussed now should give you an idea of his talent level.

He was one of the Big Ten's best passers last season, despite moving into Happy Valley just a few short months before the opener. His progress was pretty notable from Week 1 to the finale against Wisconsin. Bill O'Brien called running plays on third-and-long against Syracuse in the opener so he wouldn't put Hackenberg in a tight spot. Against 24-point favorite Wisconsin? Hackenberg was nearly perfect -- 21-of-30, 339 yards, 4 TDs, 0 INTs, 89.4 QBR -- and led the Lions to an upset.

Expectations were incredibly high for Hackenberg last season and he still managed to surpass them. After another few months on campus, he's bound to impress yet again. And it would be even more surprising if James Franklin didn't give fans something to cheer for by having Hackenberg lob a few deep balls in the Blue-White Game.

3. An improved secondary. This has been the Lions' Achilles heel the past two seasons, but it shouldn't be anymore. There will be an influx of talented freshmen this summer but, even before then, this secondary's stock is on the rise. Adrian Amos is much more comfortable at safety this season, and cornerback Jordan Lucas has been putting in a lot of work this offseason. Young players last year -- such as Malik Golden and Jordan Smith -- are evolving into good backups who could challenge for playing time. Trevor Williams and Ryan Keiser are really the questions here, but they have one more year of experience under their belts.

Amos has All-Big Ten ability, and his transition back to safety will be crucial to the defense. If he can read Hackenberg or catch up to a speedster like De'Andre Thompkins on Saturday, that can only mean good things for Penn State.

4. WR Thompkins and DT Anthony Zettel. You've seen the running backs and wideout Geno Lewis before. You know what Mike Hull and Jesse James are capable of. But this could be a coming-out party for both Thompkins and Zettel. Zettel has impressed the last two seasons, but he mostly played as a defensive end -- and now he's gained weight and moved inside. Zettel could be the surprise on the defense this season, as his speed certainly sets him apart. And, with a beaten-up offensive line in the Blue-White Game, he could have a field day. As far as Thompkins, he has been on campus three months but he's already the fastest player on the team. He needs to improve his hands and his route-running but, when he gets the ball, he's electrifying.
Saquon Barkley tossed off his backpack, when a stack of more than 50 letters -- several blue envelopes on top, bigger white ones below -- caught his eye on the kitchen table.

"What's this?" he asked his mother.

"The mailman hates you," she said with a laugh. "They're all from Penn State."

[+] EnlargeJames Franklin
MCT via Getty Images James Franklin and Penn State were busy on national signing day and they're working to build on the recruiting successes.
Barkley, a three-star tailback in the 2015 class, committed to the Nittany Lions nearly two months ago -- and the letters arrived at Barkley's home just last week. He still hasn't gotten around to opening them all.

That thick stack of envelopes, with two rubber bands holding them together, stands as just one of the testaments to the extra work that James Franklin and his staff have put in. They've inundated commits with handwritten letters, wooed recruits with heaps of attention -- and, most important, have somehow persuaded 11 prospects in the 2015 class to pledge to the Blue and White. It's one of the biggest surprises in the recruiting world.

"Coach Franklin, he's a great guy. If he wants you and needs you on this team, he's going to get you," said Barkley, who flipped from what he labeled his dream school in Rutgers. "I'm telling you the truth. He just has face time for no reason, just to see how I'm doing or my family's doing. Even now, when I'm already committed."

This early recruiting success is unprecedented for the Nittany Lions. Since 2006, when ESPN began tracking recruiting, Penn State never boasted more than five commits before April 10 -- and never, even during a full recruiting cycle, garnered more than six ESPN 300 commits. They're already up to six such players, and with 10 months remaining.

It's not as if Franklin is focusing upon longtime Penn State fans, whose parents drive around with "409" bumper stickers. He's changing the minds of out-of-state high schoolers with confidence -- "I'm not letting you go anywhere else" -- and with an energy usually reserved for motivational speakers who have a predilection toward espresso. Two of Penn State's most recent commits would've offered blank looks or a confused stare if you told them two months ago they'd be changing their Twitter backgrounds to a Nittany Lions logo.

"I would've just said, 'No,' " offensive guard Steven Gonzalez said with a laugh. "I would've said that I most likely would've been a Buckeye."

Added linebacker Josh Barajas, a heavy Notre Dame lean: "I would've told you that you were crazy."

Barajas gave Penn State a chance when he started receiving more handwritten letters from the university than anywhere else. He then arrived to a practice that featured Franklin performing the worm and playfully spraying water in the kicker's face before a field goal. And when Barajas sat down to a lunch of cheesesteak and fries, a time normally reserved for just recruits, Franklin pulled alongside a chair and ate with his family.

Barajas didn't expect that. It was a small gesture -- but it was one no other coach had done. Bill O'Brien, whose office prominently displayed a photo of him alongside Tom Brady, often called recruits into his office to chat. He won top prospects over with his track record but induced sweaty palms and stammers. Here, Franklin's personality is putting recruits at ease -- and then winning them over.

"Sometimes you're kind of uneasy sitting around a guy that important," Barajas said, "but I was just talking to him like he was my friend. We talked about a lot of stuff, too, not just football."

Franklin landed on the Happy Valley tarmac on a wet January morning and, following his introductory news conference, joked with reporters that he needed to leave so he could get to work. He landed a 2014 commit later that night. Two weeks ago, he offered reporters a six-minute chat before leaving abruptly and saying, "As much as I love you, I love [recruits] more." He reeled in two more 2015 commits that weekend.

He's now sleeping on a mattress in his office -- seriously. And he treated signing day like Christmas, complete with several pipers piping. Several commits weren't even quite sure how to explain Franklin's success, but Franklin has an idea.

"For us, it's not work," he told ESPN.com. "It's calling around to all your buddies, it's bringing recruits up and having fun with them, showing them how much fun we have at practice. When we write letters and direct-message and do those things, it's not dry, standard material. It's us showing these kids and these parents and these high school coaches who we are as men and who we are as coaches, and having fun with it."

Franklin made a splash on Day 1 when he repeated -- twice -- that his staff planned to dominate the state and region at recruiting. So far, he has. And, so far, even some of his own commits can't quite believe it.

"I'm definitely surprised," Barajas said. "I didn't think they were going to blow up like this.

"But, then again, I don't see them stopping anytime either."

Big Ten lunchtime links

April, 4, 2014
Apr 4
12:00
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Winter is coming ... but not soon enough.
Every night, as Saeed Blacknall's head hits his pillow, his mind races through the same scenario.

Every night, the details are identical. And, every night, Penn State's incoming freshman receiver relives his future career's first touchdown. He laughs while running through the scenario aloud, because he already has imagined it dozens -- maybe hundreds -- of times. And he won't even report to campus until June 28.

Christian Hackenberg is throwing me a bomb right in front of the student section, and they're all cheering. I just see them all. And It's just like, 'Wow, I can't believe this is happening.' I finally touch my foot in the end zone, and then I run back to the sideline and I see Coach [Josh] Gattis. We jump in the air, and he tells me congratulations on my first touchdown. I see that all the time.

Blacknall, an ESPN 300 receiver, can't shake how much he might contribute this season or how much the Nittany Lions will be counting on him -- in part because James Franklin and the staff won't let him, or any of the other incoming freshmen, forget.

Blacknall texts with Gattis, the receivers coach, about every other day, and the assistant never fails to mention how much the Nittany Lions are expecting from him. Cornerback Grant Haley said he received a direct tweet just last week from his position coach, "Keep looking at that playbook, and be ready to go." And offensive tackle Noah Beh said he received a text in the last week or two that said, "We wish we had you now for spring ball because numbers are low."

"Coach Franklin definitely makes that known anytime we're on campus," incoming wide receiver Chris Godwin said. "He lets us know that, that we're going to play a big role in this team's success and this team's future."

With limited depth and 10 fewer scholarships, the remnants of sanctions from two years ago, Franklin has responded vocally when asked how he plans to overcome the disadvantage. Bill O'Brien's plan two seasons ago was that the non-scholarship athletes needed to run, not walk, and referred to them as run-ons. Franklin is telling this freshman class -- constantly -- that it needs to arrive in Happy Valley at a full sprint.

"We're going to have to play a lot of freshmen," Franklin said Saturday. "I typically prefer not to do that, but I've already been direct-messaging these guys and telling them they need to come in in with the mentality they need to play."

Few positions at Penn State boast the benefit of depth. Franklin was already forced to move two defensive tackles to the offensive line because of numbers, and the leading returning wideout started four games and finished with just 18 catches. It's an issue that Franklin knows will only be solved with time -- and the next few freshman classes.

And this 2014 group, ranked No. 24 in the nation by ESPN, isn't blind to the plight; Franklin's staff has tried to ensure that with weekly phone calls, texts or Twitter messages. And these freshmen have taken it upon themselves now to remind each other.

Beh milled around a friend's living room on Sunday during March Madness. While his friends watched their brackets fall apart, the offensive tackle continued to group-text with his fellow freshmen. In all, Beh believed about 50 texts were sent Sunday. It's a daily occurrence. And, Beh said, nearly every topic centers around how this freshman class needs to prepare to contribute come August.

"It's just a timing thing. I don't want to say it's up to us, but I think there's a kind of pressure on us that we need to step up," Beh said. "All of us, all of us need to get ready. We all have a chance to contribute our first year."

Four of Penn State's freshmen said Franklin never mentions the word "redshirt." It's not really a luxury the Nittany Lions have; even last season, 54 percent of the Lions' roster consisted of true and redshirt freshmen. And Penn State came away with the last two Big Ten freshman of the year awards. So, players like Haley and Blacknall have tacked extra workouts onto their day so they can continue the streak.

Haley takes it all one step further. The cornerback -- who turned down offers from the likes of Florida and South Carolina -- rolls out of bed at 5 every morning, drives to his Georgia high school and works out for two hours before the first bell rings. Blacknall will run through track practice after school and, depending on the day, either will hit the weight room or perform some footwork drills and text his coach a clip or two.

It's rinse-and-repeat for Blacknall. Every night, he'll come home, head to bed -- and think about how the Nittany Lions already are depending on him. He'll run through that dream scenario. And he can't wait for those daydreams to become reality.

"It's unreal," Blacknall said. "I catch myself thinking about this all the time and, every time I talk to [Franklin] or when he talks to my family, he just reminds us how important this freshman class is. ... I can't wait to get up there."
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- John Urschel might need a new trophy mantle after this offseason.

The Penn State offensive lineman was announced Friday as a finalist for yet another honor, this time the AAU Sullivan Award, which goes to the nation's top amateur athlete and is billed as the "Oscar of sports awards." Urschel previously earned the William V. Campbell Trophy, which is known as the "academic Heisman."

The winner of the Sullivan Award will be announced April 11, the day before the Blue-White Game, during a banquet in Orlando, Fla.

Urschel is the only football player still in the mix for the award, which honors the athlete who "demonstrates the qualities of leadership, character, sportsmanship and the ideals of amateurism." The other two finalists include Florida's Cory Ann McGee (track and field) and Nebraska's Kelsey Robinson (volleyball).

The offensive guard is in pretty elite company already, but if he wins he would join a very small class of players to win both the Campbell and Sullivan awards. Only three others have claimed both trophies: Peyton Manning (Tennessee, 1997), Tim Tebow (Florida, 2007) and Andrew Rodriguez (Army, 2011).

Urschel finished his senior season with a perfect 4.0 GPA, published several academic papers and even taught a class to fellow Penn State students. On the gridiron, he earned All-Big Ten honors, and The Associated Press named him a third-team All-American. He was a recipient of the Big Ten Medal of Honor and was also the keynote speaker at Chicago's Big Ten luncheon.
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- James Franklin and the Nittany Lions have remained quiet so far this spring, so some questions still don't have answers. Players haven't spoken to the media, and Franklin hasn't held a Penn State news conference since practice first started.

Penn State's coach will address the media on Saturday but, in the meantime, here's a look at three big questions for the Lions this offseason:

Just how good can Christian Hackenberg get?

[+] EnlargeChristian Hackenberg
Dan Sanger/Icon SMIThere seems to be no limit on how good Christian Hackenberg can be as Penn State's quarterback.
Franklin has deflected questions about Hackenberg so far this offseason, saying how the team is more than just one player. That may be true, but the Nittany Lions haven't had a signal-caller this skilled since Kerry Collins. The Sporting News looked ahead to the 2016 draft last month and ran the headline, "Will Christian Hackenberg go No. 1 in 2016?" NFL Draft Scout currently ranks him the second-best QB in the 2017 draft class, and ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper believes he'll garner a lot of NFL interest after his junior season.

In other words, a lot of experts think Hackenberg's potential basically has no ceiling. He operated a complicated Bill O'Brien offense after just two months on campus, he easily cruised to the Big Ten freshman of the year award, and it seems as if he's just getting started. So how good can he get? He could be the best passing quarterback in the Big Ten this season, and he's certainly on pace to be the best quarterback from his respective class. (ESPN ranked him No. 1 coming out of high school for a reason, after all.) It would be a surprise if he didn't pick up Franklin's offense quickly. Hackenberg will undoubtedly be good, but it's unclear of just how good he can really get.

Can DE Deion Barnes and DB Adrian Amos rebound?

Barnes is blessed -- or cursed, depending on how you look at it -- with a terrific memory. He stood in the Lasch Building around this time last year and went through, play by play, the sacks he missed during his impressive freshman campaign. Then, as a sophomore, he was pushed around and saw his sack production drop from a team-leading six to just two. O'Brien didn't start him for two games to send a message. Without a strong presence in the middle, Barnes will be especially important this fall. And there's no forgetting last season.

As for Amos? His struggles at safety were pretty well-documented. He switched back to corner around midseason and fared much better there, but he's back at safety again this spring. Amos said he felt like a freshman all over again in 2013 since he was learning a new position, but the current staff feels as if safety is his natural position. Amos and Barnes have shown before they're talented players, but they're both trying to rebound from disappointing 2013 campaigns. Amos is trying to become accustomed to a new position; Barnes is trying to figure out just what happened in 2013. How they're progressing this spring will go a long way in determining whether last season was just a one-year slump.

Will the offensive line be OK?

This blog labeled the line as the biggest weakness heading into the spring. Assistant coach Herb Hand tweeted this in response: "Obstacle or opportunity? It's all about perception. #ChoosePositivity." Two starters return to this unit -- left tackle Donovan Smith and offensive guard Miles Dieffenbach -- while center Angelo Mangiro has seen plenty of time on the field, too, over the past two seasons.

The real question comes down to the two redshirt freshmen, Andrew Nelson and Brendan Mahon. Nelson has all but locked up his spot at right tackle, and Mahon certainly seems on pace to take over the left guard spot. (Dieffenbach will likely move the right to balance the line out a bit.) One could draw some comparisons to Penn State's 2010 offensive line, which also boasted just two returning starters, and it finished No. 10 nationally in sacks allowed (0.85 sacks a game) while springing the rushing game to 4.1 yards a carry. Then again, 2010's new starters all saw playing time before; Mahon and Nelson have not. Those two players, along with the health of this unit, will dictate just how far this offensive line goes in 2014. And how they fare this spring will have a big say in that.
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Penn State quarterback Christian Hackenberg hasn't even completed two weeks of spring practice, so it's still anybody's guess how the reigning Big Ten freshman of the year will perform in 2014.

But, over the last 25 years, five other Big Ten quarterbacks have found themselves in similar positions. Like Hackenberg, they impressed fans with memorable rookie campaigns, were named the Big Ten freshman of the year and raised expectations over the offseason.

[+] EnlargeChristian Hackenberg
MCT via Getty ImagesHow will Nittany Lions signal-caller Christian Hackenberg follow up his fantastic freshman season?
Hackenberg's sophomore season won't be in the books for quite some time. But here's a look at those other five QBs and how they fared in their sophomore seasons and in their careers:

Braxton Miller, Ohio State, won award in 2011

Sophomore stats (2012): 148-of-254 passing (58.3 percent); 2,039 yards, 15 TDs, 6 INTs; 227 carries, 1,271 yards, 13 TDs

Ohio State record (2012): 12-0, no postseason due to sanctions (2011: 6-7, lost to Florida in Gator Bowl)

Sophomore synopsis: It would've been difficult to ask Miller for a much better sophomore campaign. He was the Big Ten's offensive player of the year, finished fifth in the Heisman voting and even bested Carlos Hyde in both rushing yards (1,271 to, 970) and yards per carry (5.6 ypc to 5.2 ypc). Miller was more renowned for his legs than his arm, but he was still the second-most efficient passer in the conference. He also came up big when his team needed; the Buckeyes won six games that were decided by a touchdown or less.

His career: He could've opted to leave early for the NFL this offseason but instead decided to stay one last season. He's becoming more well-rounded with each season, and he's once again one of the favorites to win the Heisman.

Terrelle Pryor, Ohio State, won award in 2008

Sophomore stats (2009): 167-of-295 passing (56.6 percent); 2,094 yards, 18 TDs, 11 INTs; 162 carries, 779 yards, 7 TDs

Ohio State record (2009): 11-2, beat Oregon in Rose Bowl (2008: 10-3, lost Fiesta Bowl vs. Texas)

Sophomore synopsis: With the top tailback (Chris Wells) and wideout (Brian Robiskie) from 2008 both gone, Pryor put the offense on his back and carried it to an improved record. Pryor led the team in rushing yards and rushing touchdowns, and he was instrumental in the Buckeyes' Rose Bowl win. He threw for 266 yards, rushed for a game-high 72 yards and was named the MVP. Statistically, his sophomore campaign wasn't his best season -- but he had a lot to overcome.

His career: He led the Buckeyes to three straight BCS bowl berths, but his legacy was marred by an early exit. He was suspended for the first five games of his senior season -- due to Tattoo-Gate -- so he instead opted for the NFL's supplemental draft in 2011. The Oakland Raiders took him in exchange for a third-round pick, although reports this week have said Pryor is now seeking to cut ties with the Raiders because he hopes to be a starter somewhere.

Brooks Bollinger, Wisconsin, won award in 1999

Sophomore stats (2000): 110-of-209 passing (52.6 percent); 1,479 yards, 10 TDs, 7 INTs; 157 carries, 459 yards, 6 TDs

Wisconsin record (2000): 9-4, beat UCLA in Sun Bowl (1999: 10-2, beat Stanford in Rose Bowl)

Sophomore synopsis: The Badgers needed to fill the big shoes of Heisman Trophy winner Ron Dayne, so they leaned a little more on the passing game in 2000. But, make no mistake about it, this was a run-first team that lived and died on the ground while relying heavily on Michael Bennett. Still, Bollinger played a big role as an effective dual-threat quarterback -- and this Wisconsin team came close to equaling success from the year before. Three of the Badgers' four losses were decided by six points or less, and two of those losses came in overtime.

His career: Bollinger never put up big passing numbers -- he never ranked higher than third in a given Big Ten stat category -- but he was consistent and did what was asked of him. The Big Ten Network even chose him as one of the 10 best quarterbacks in the conference from 2000 to 2010. He played five seasons in the NFL and was the Pittsburgh Panthers' QB coach for two seasons.

Antwaan Randle El, Indiana, won award in 1998

Sophomore stats (1999): 150-of-279 passing (53.8 percent); 2,277 yards, 17 TDs, 7 INTs; 224 carries, 788 yards, 13 TDs

Indiana record (1999): 4-7 (1998: 4-7)

Sophomore synopsis: Randle El's sophomore season was his best, by passing numbers, in his four years as a starter. He accounted for 69 percent of the entire offense that season and led the Big Ten with 30 combined touchdowns. The main reason Randle El couldn't lead Indiana to more wins? The defense allowed at least 30 points in nine of 11 contests. The highlight of the Randle El's season came against Illinois in October, when he overcame a 21-point deficit late in the third quarter to force overtime. Neil Rackers nailed a field goal to open up overtime for Illinois, but Randle El tossed a 25-yard TD pass on the very next play to seal the 34-31 win.

His career: The Hoosiers never won more than five games during his career, but he was clearly the team's best player. (And he was probably the most athletic person on campus -- he also played two years of basketball and one year of baseball.) He had a nine-year NFL career with the Pittsburgh Steelers and Washington Redskins.

Eric Hunter, Purdue, won award in 1989

Sophomore stats (1990): 200-of-366 passing (54.6 percent); 2,355 passing yards, 12 TDs, 14 INTs; 97 carries, 0 yards, 7 TDs

Purdue record (1990): 2-9 (1989: 3-8)

Sophomore synopsis: Hunter was looked upon as a young Randall Cunningham, but his career never lived up to those freshman expectations. He threw 11 TDs on 178 attempts as a freshman and just 12 TDs on 366 attempts as a sophomore. The main problem was an inexperienced offensive line, and it only got worse as the season wore on. In the last five games, Hunter had 11 picks.

His career: Those sophomore struggles led to the firing of Purdue's coach, which meant a new coach and a new system for Hunter. The line continued to struggle, Hunter never got back on track, and he saw less time on the field each season thereafter. He earned a reputation for his inability to read defenses, and the Boilermakers never won more than four games a season during his career.
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- We’ve finally reached the end of this week’s countdown, which involves five predictions for the spring.

Up today is a look at who’s going to step up into a leadership role …

[+] EnlargeJordan Lucas
Zuma Press/Icon SMIThe evolution of Jordan Lucas' game at Penn State has been evident.
CB Jordan Lucas emerges as the defense’s vocal leader

Jordan Lucas lacked confidence as a freshman. His friend and teammate, Stephon Morris, knew it. His father knew it. And he knew it.

But when Morris graduated, Lucas stepped up as a sophomore and put together the strongest season out of the defensive backs. (Sorry, Adrian Amos fans, those games at safety didn’t help.) Lucas is a charismatic person, not unlike his head coach, and his evolution has been pretty evident.

If there was any doubt about his work ethic or his confidence, that was put to rest in the last month. Not only did Bill Belton name Lucas as one of the team’s hardest workers last October, but strength coach Dwight Galt also praised the corner about a week ago for being a gym rat.

As for that confidence? Fans were treated to a glimpse of that during a memorable exchange at coach James Franklin’s signing day pep rally. Lucas was handed the microphone and skipped the usual “Thanks-for-coming” cliché by turning to PSU great LaVar Arrington and asking the crowd, “LaVar said it’s What-U?”

“LBU,” Arrington responded.

“You guys like that, LBU?” Lucas asked. “What about LBU and DBU?”

Lucas carried himself well, while Arrington and Franklin joked about the light-hearted exchange. “Jordan likes the microphone,” Franklin said. Added Arrington: “Jordan came out with his muscles and his tattoos, and he lost his mind.”

Safety Malcolm Willis was regarded as the secondary’s leader last season, and middle linebacker Glenn Carson stepped into a team leadership role. With those two gone, a new leader has to emerge -- and Lucas certainly seems ready for the role. Both Amos and Ryan Keiser aren’t very vocal, so the secondary needs someone in that department. And, as the defense searches for someone new to help lead, Lucas isn’t one to shy away from the task.

More predictions:

No. 5: A more public, eager-to-please coach
No. 4: Blue-White attendance more than doubles from 2013
No. 3: OL struggles surpass secondary as biggest concern
No. 2: Tarow Barney and De'Andre Thompkins make immediate impact
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- It’s Monday, so you know what that means: the start of another countdown to help the offseason tick by a little faster.

Every day this week, we’ll be looking at another position battle to keep an eye on this spring. Up Monday is a battle that returns one of the most inconsistent players Penn State has had in the last decade.

[+] EnlargeFicken
Justin K. Aller/Getty ImagesSam Ficken struggled down the stretch last season.
No. 5 position battle: Kicker

Departures: None

Returning players: Sam Ficken (15-of-23 field goals), Chris Gulla (one game played), Troy Stivason (incoming freshman), Joe Julius (incoming freshman)

Breaking it down: Ficken is a two-year starter, but his job isn’t exactly secure right now. It seemed like he had things figured out by Week 4 last season, making 15 consecutive field goals dating to 2012, but then his maddening inconsistency returned. He converted just half of his eight field goals in the last five games, and no attempt was longer than 37 yards.

When Penn State entered the red zone, there was no guarantee -- no matter how close -- that it would come away with three points. And, this summer with the addition of two walk-ons, there’ll be more competition for Ficken than there has ever been. That being said, Gulla will be the man to challenge Ficken this spring. Gulla is a sophomore who boasted other walk-on offers from the likes of South Carolina, and he’ll likely be the starting punter this season. However, field-goal kicking was Gulla’s specialty when he first arrived at Penn State. He should at least push Ficken this offseason. The main key here, though? Consistency. If a kicker here can find consistency -- at any range -- it would go a long way in deciding this race.

Pre-camp edge: Ficken. He has the experience, and Gulla’s attention right now has to be focused on punting. Both he and his high school coach said at this time last season that punting was what Gulla had to work on the most, so James Franklin might not want to divide his attention -- as long as Ficken is serviceable. Ficken is truly a wild card; he could nail a 55-yard field goal on one possession and shank a 24-yard kick on the next. He holds the Penn State record for most consecutive made field goals (15), but he also has managed to record a career 65.2 percent field goal rate. If he finds his groove, just as he did during those 15 field goals, he could be an All-Big Ten kicker. Or he could be buried on the depth chart by August. There might not be a bigger question mark on the team, when it comes to performance, than Ficken.

Big Ten lunchtime links

February, 28, 2014
Feb 28
12:00
PM ET
Nice hook, Marty.
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- There’ll be a lot of players and positions to watch closely this spring, but there’s one name that comes up time and time again when it comes to these watch lists.

So, to finish off this week’s countdown on the five players to watch, we have a player whom the most eyes will be on at Penn State.

[+] EnlargeLewis
Matthew O'Haren/USA TODAY SportsWill this be the season Geno Lewis lives up to his potential?
No. 1 spring player to watch: WR Geno Lewis

2013 review: The middle of the season -- outside of the six-catch Indiana game -- was a statistical desert for Lewis, as he sat behind both Allen Robinson and Brandon Felder in addition to playing second-fiddle behind the tight ends. Still, he showed great potential in the first and last games. In the opener against Syracuse, he made an athletic adjustment to catch an underthrown 54-yard TD pass. And in the finale against Wisconsin, he reeled in an over-the-shoulder 59-yard TD grab. Those two games accounted for all of Lewis’ three TD receptions and 65 percent of his season’s receiving yards (153 of 234 yards). He overtook Felder in the lineup in the final two or three games of the year, but that finale is really what got people talking.

Why spring is so important: This spring, and this season, are boom-or-bust time for Lewis. The Pennsylvania native headlined the 2012 recruiting class, and this will determine whether he’s ready to step up and live up to that potential. With early enrollee De’Andre Thompkins and three talented incoming freshmen on their way, this is Lewis’ time to assert himself. If it doesn’t happen this season, then it’s never going to happen. Someone needs to fill A-Rob’s shoes, and Lewis is the top candidate. Wide receiver is a wild card for the Nittany Lions this season, because they have plenty of talent but not a whole lot of experience. Lewis could play a major role in this offense or he could flounder. There’s really no telling where he might end up right now. So, if there’s one player to watch this spring, it’s him.

Best-case scenario: No, he doesn’t surpass Robinson in terms of talent or numbers. But he establishes himself as one of the Big Ten’s better wideouts and finds a spot on the All-Big Ten’s second-team offense. He finishes with more than 55 catches, and he becomes Christian Hackenberg’s top weapon downfield. He might not lead the team in touchdowns since those 6-foot-7 tight ends are awfully hard to miss once in the red zone, but he’s the big-play threat this offense needs. He leads the team -- by far -- in yards per catch, and at least one of his athletic catches makes an appearance on SportsCenter’s top 10 plays.

Worst-case scenario: He starts in the season opener but, as the freshmen develop, they quickly overtake Lewis. The redshirt sophomore becomes an offensive afterthought, much like Felder did late in the season, and he’s buried on the depth chart behind at least two of the freshmen. Hackenberg relies on the tight ends and the young receivers, while Lewis struggles and finishes with about 25 catches. Because of the new recruits coming in, that ends up being a career high. He never lives up to expectations, and Penn State struggles while the young line and receivers take time to jell.

More players to watch:

No. 5: DB Adrian Amos
No. 4: LB Nyeem Wartman
No. 3: DL Anthony Zettel
No. 2: OT Andrew Nelson
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- We’re getting closer to our top spot of this week’s countdown, which involves the five players to watch closest this spring.

Up today is a critical player who hasn’t yet played in a Penn State game …

No. 2 spring player to watch: OT Andrew Nelson

2013 review: Nelson redshirted as a true freshman, but former coach Bill O’Brien lauded him quite often … which was pretty unusual for a first-year player. O’Brien even said back on signing day that, “We think he’s going to be a heck of a player.” That might sound like Coachspeak -- and maybe it was -- but O’Brien was very careful not to do that with players outside of Christian Hackenberg. O’Brien expected a lot out of Nelson and placed pretty high expectations on his shoulders.

Why spring is so important: Nelson will almost have to be the starting right tackle by default, so his importance cannot be understated. He’s the only true returning tackle on scholarship, outside of starting LT Donovan Smith, and he’s kind of a wild card to fans and the media since no one outside of the team has seen him in action. This spring -- and the annual scrimmage -- will help reveal just what the Nittany Lions have in Nelson, who almost seems a lock to become a four-year starter.

Best-case scenario: Nelson catches on quickly and performs like a healthy Smith from 2012. He’s not yet an All-Big Ten player and he’s not one of the top two or three players on the line, but he’s also not a weak point. He makes long strides as the season progresses, however, and fans already consider him a future NFL draft pick by the time his 2014 campaign is over. He lays the foundation for a solid career.

Worst-case scenario: Nelson just isn’t ready to block Big Ten defensive ends, but James Franklin really has no other place to turn. Offensive line coach Herb Hand is forced to reshuffle the line, maybe plugging in true freshman Chasz Wright or seeing if OG/OT Anthony Alosi fares any better, because Nelson struggles. The right side of the line is a weakness of the Nittany Lions all season, and Hackenberg takes more hits and sacks as a result.

More players to watch:

No. 5: DB Adrian Amos
No. 4: LB Nyeem Wartman
No. 3: DL Anthony Zettel
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- We’ve reached the midpoint of this week’s countdown, which is ranking the five players to keep an eye on this spring.

Up next is a versatile defensive lineman who was quite the spark plug last season …

No. 3 spring player to watch: DL Anthony Zettel

[+] EnlargeAnthony Zettel
MCT via Getty ImagesAnthony Zettel proved to be a solid pass-rusher and keeping him on the edge could help the Penn State defense.
2013 review: Zettel played in every game and was a key reserve who came up with four sacks, an interception and six tackles for loss. He didn’t see as much time as those numbers suggest, but he was almost a lock to make his stops in the backfield. He finished with just 16 tackles, and more than one in three ended up going for a loss. He saw more time as the season progressed and was one of the nicer surprises for the defensive line. He played both defensive end and, in passing situations, also played defensive tackle. He was surprisingly effective inside on those situations, despite playing at just 258 pounds.

Why spring is so important: There are a few questions surrounding this line: Can Deion Barnes rebound from his sophomore slump? Can this defensive line improve without DaQuan Jones? Who’ll start alongside Austin Johnson at defensive tackle? All those answers will touch on Zettel one way or another. If Barnes struggles, Zettel could take his spot just as he did twice last season against Michigan and Illinois. Zettel also has the ability to play inside and, if the other defensive tackles start off slow, he could potentially make a permanent move and start alongside Johnson. Zettel finished second in team sacks (4) last season despite starting just two games, and he definitely has the ability to challenge for a starting job or at least earn more considerable playing time.

Best-case scenario: For the team? Barnes returns to old form and either Brian Gaia, Derek Dowrey or Tarow Barney progress quickly enough to be a solid option at defensive tackle. Defensive line coach Sean Spencer doesn’t start Zettel but plays him constantly, and Zettel still finishes near the top when it comes to sacks and tackles for loss. Best-case for Zettel? His talent can no longer be ignored, and he either surpasses Barnes on the depth chart or he gains weight in the offseason and takes up a spot alongside Johnson. He leads the team in at least one stat category and is in the conversation as an All-Big Ten player.

Worst-case scenario: Zettel is forced to spend most of his team inside, and he’s unable to put on significant weight before the season opener. He does fine on passing downs, but Spencer is forced to keep him in on rushing plays -- and that’s where Zettel struggles. The interior becomes a defensive soft spot, and Big Ten teams run all over the Nittany Lions as a result. It’s nearly the opposite of the season before, and Penn State struggles against bigger running backs.

More players to watch:

No. 5: DB Adrian Amos
No. 4: LB Nyeem Wartman
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Two children, no older than 12, stood in matching gray Penn State T-shirts on Saturday while one pointed to Geno Lewis’ paper nametag on his locker.

“That’s the Lewis guy I was talking about,” one of the boys said, turning to the other. “Is he here? I want to talk with him.”

[+] EnlargeGeno Lewis
Matthew O'Haren/USA TODAY SportsPenn State receiver Geno Lewis is looking forward to breaking out in 2014.
Lewis was out of earshot of the boys’ conversation in the Lasch Football Building, one that occurred during the team’s annual Make-A-Wish event, but he smiled upon hearing the anecdote. The redshirt sophomore wideout wasn’t all that surprised -- he admittedly signed more autographs this year compared to last -- because he has become this passing attack’s new No. 1 receiver.

And everyone, even kids too young for a PG-13 movie, know it.

“I still feel like I have a long way to go, but I’m getting better every day,” Lewis said. “And when kids remember my name like that and everything, it’s just a blessing.”

For two seasons, Lewis’ name hid beneath the shadow of NFL-bound Allen Robinson, who quickly rose from an unknown to one of the Nittany Lions’ greatest wideouts. Lewis spoke quickly on Saturday without breaking eye contact. He was confident, but he also seemed realistic. He didn’t know if he’d reach Robinson’s production -- a bar raised so high it’s hard not to perform the limbo the season after -- and he didn’t seem eager at guessing how the 2014 season might end up.

“All I know,” he said, “is I’m blessed to be put in this situation, and I wouldn’t ask for it any other way. I’m going to go out there and play to the best of my ability and give this team all I've got to get a win.”

While chatter grew during every week of the 2013 season about Robinson’s next school record -- he set the school marks for both catches (97) and receiving yards (1,432) -- Lewis either stood on the sideline or played the role of distraction while on the field. Robinson accounted for more than 46 percent of the Nittany Lions’ passing yards last season, while Lewis finished with 18 catches for 234 yards.

But it’s obviously not Lewis’ production that has excited fans and increased the number of autograph seekers. It’s his potential and athleticism. Lewis was the headliner of the 2012 recruiting class, a solid four-star prospect, and he wowed onlookers with an over-the-shoulder 59-yard TD grab against Wisconsin.

If Lewis wasn’t forced to shift from high school quarterback to college receiver, he most certainly would’ve contributed as a freshman. But he has spent these past two seasons not as a bitter rival to Robinson and Brandon Felder, but as a patient student who has tried to perfect his route-running. And the time for patience has passed.

“I’m smarter, more ready and I’m going to be more physical,” he said. “Just as long as I’m getting better, that’s all that matters.”

But, even with his improvement, does he really think this passing attack can somehow get better without a player like Robinson? Can Penn State really be better without its MVP?

“I think we can,” he said, adding that his fellow receivers and tight ends now have a full offseason to work with Christian Hackenberg.

Lewis said his teammates have wasted no time in improving their chemistry with the Big Ten’s reigning freshman of the year. The receivers and defensive backs have already taken to meeting in Holuba Hall and elsewhere, practicing routes and developing better timing with their quarterback.

And Lewis is looking forward to seeing how his patience -- and his teammates’ work -- pays off.

“I think we’re going to surprise a lot of people,” he said. “I just can’t wait.”
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Every year, Penn State’s football team hosts a Make-A-Wish event in the football building, where about 30 families will descend to chat with the players and tour the facilities.

The event is part of THON weekend, which is an annual 46-hour dance marathon that raises money to fight pediatric cancer. More than $13 million was raised this year alone.

Here’s a look, through the eyes of Twitter, of the Make-A-Wish event and the football team’s participation in THON this past weekend:

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