Penn State Nittany Lions: Penn State
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.
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.
- Jim Delany said the Big Ten is not looking to add Friday games, but one of its priorities is scheduling more Saturday night games in November.
- NFL Network analyst Charles Davis shared his thoughts on the Big Ten prospects in this Q&A with the Big Ten Network and said Michigan's Taylor Lewan caught his eye.
- Athlon Sports ranks all of the conference's rosters, based on the last five years of recruiting classes, and points out seven things to learn from them.
- The head of Ohio State's strength and conditioning program showed players videos of Michigan State players clenching roses in their teeth to recharge the team.
- The pay raises of Michigan State's staff are put into perspective, as the Detroit Free Press' Joe Rexrode shows that Mark Dantonio is technically fourth in the conference when it comes to annual salary.
- Michigan offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier didn't delve deep into the new offense he's forming but said he wants to have a multiple running back attack.
- ESPN Junior 300 tailback Andre Robinson surprised himself by committing to Penn State, making him the Nittany Lions' seventh pledge -- and fifth in-state player -- of the 2015 class.
- Wisconsin players received mixed reviews at the NFL combine, with the stock of linebacker Chris Borland falling after a slow 40 time.
- Three Nebraska players will miss spring ball with injuries, including senior offensive guard Mike Moudy.
- 2015 athlete Drew Cook is following in his All-American father's footsteps by committing to the Hawkeyes.
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.
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
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
Up next is a versatile defensive lineman who was quite the spark plug last season …
No. 3 spring player to watch: DL Anthony Zettel
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
“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.”
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.”
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:
25-30 Make-A-Wish families are here at the Lasch Football Building, meeting the FB team, as part of THON weekend pic.twitter.com/abbcpx31T3— Josh Moyer (@ESPNJoshMoyer) February 22, 2014
Tour hasn't started yet for the Make-A-Wish families ... but they're still finding ways to pass some time. pic.twitter.com/6oWnwDKEC0— Josh Moyer (@ESPNJoshMoyer) February 22, 2014
Spider addresses the THON families as they tour Lasch building, "from the Penn State football family, we love you." pic.twitter.com/2QGAIHWFzV— Abby Drey (@ADreyPhotos) February 22, 2014
So blessed to havmet some great kids today during the make a wish event. I pray the best for each one of them in their fights against cancer— Dougie Crook (@juicebucket21) February 23, 2014
Hackenberg stopping by the locker room for some pictures and autographs. Little line forming behind him ... pic.twitter.com/KN90piiY1v— Josh Moyer (@ESPNJoshMoyer) February 22, 2014
Tom Pancoast and Adam Cole share a few pointers during the Ice Cream Social pic.twitter.com/iGVPYfFAVb— Michael Kilcoyne (@mjkilcoyne3) February 22, 2014
Had an awesome time with this strong little man Alexander and his family today! Great having the… http://t.co/Ip43H0J29E— Jack Seymour (@jseymour12) February 22, 2014
THON !!!!!!! 2014 https://t.co/kLXIUtNvLi— B.Bell (@Thee1NonlyBBELL) February 23, 2014
We’ll have a different countdown every week until spring practice starts to help time tick by a little faster. And, this week, we decided to take a look at the five players you should watch the closest this spring.
Up first is a defensive back who's trying to live up to big expectations …
No. 5 spring player to watch: DB Adrian Amos
Why spring is so important: Amos is undoubtedly a talented player, but he was not a great safety last season. Defensive coordinator Bob Shoop believed Amos would "probably" still begin the spring at safety, but it's still no guarantee that's where he'll finish. Right now, he's a better cornerback -- he's the best corner on the team -- but this spring will help determine whether Amos can put together a solid season at safety. He appears to be needed there more because the position is such a liability.
Best-case scenario: Amos said he felt like a freshman all over again last season because he was basically learning a new position (safety). Well, this year, he returns to old form and has the best season out of any of the other defensive backs. Safety is no longer the weakness of this defense, and Amos leads the team in interceptions on his way to All-Big Ten honors. Talk of his NFL potential once again picks up around the defense's playmaker.
Worst-case scenario: Amos continues to struggle at safety and, instead of being a great cornerback, is forced to settle for being a mediocre safety. The secondary is once again a punching bag for opposing offenses, and Amos finds himself out of position on several big plays that draw the ire of fans. He's better than 2013, but his performance still leaves fans wondering "what-could-have-been" because of all the potential he showed as a freshman. At some point, he's moved back to cornerback -- but his confidence is shaken.
We’ve arrived at the final stop to this week’s countdown of Penn State’s most impactful recruiting classes of the past decade. This top spot was an easy pick, as this class helped bring Penn State out of the “dark years."
No. 1 most impactful class: Class of 2005
Top prospects: QB Daryll Clark, K Kevin Kelly, CB Justin King, OT Dennis Landolt, LB Sean Lee, S Anthony Scirrotto, CB Lydell Sargeant, TE Mickey Shuler, CB Knowledge Timmons, WR Derrick Williams
Impact player: Lee. He was overshadowed by Paul Posluszny and Dan Connor, but he was still a solid ‘backer in his own right. He was a three-year starter who finished his career within the top five of Penn State’s career tacklers. Athlon Sports even placed him in the top 25 when it came to the best Big Ten linebackers of the BCS era. He was the 2007 Alamo Bowl MVP, a team captain and now a solid NFL player for the Dallas Cowboys.
Why this class is important: This class is basically the 2013 class before 2013. This group committed during the “dark years,” back when PSU had four losing seasons scattered over five years. The Nittany Lions were fighting for a return to national prominence, and some had already written them off.
Then this class came in. King and Williams were both five-star prospects, two players near the top of the rankings, and made a national statement when they committed to Penn State. Williams was widely regarded as the country’s top athlete, and both ended up as All-Big Ten players. This class helped put an end to those dark years. Penn State made seven straight bowl games after they committed.
Landolt, Lee and Scirrotto were three-year starters. Williams and Kelly were four-year starters. And, all together, this class combined for a half-dozen first-team All-Big Ten selections. This class not only had the talent to help turn Penn State around, it helped symbolize and reinforce -- with the help of King and Williams -- PSU’s return to prominence.
More impactful recruiting classes:
No. 5: Class of 2011
No. 4: Class of 2004
No. 3: Class of 2006
No. 2: Class of 2013
Up next is a class you should be very familiar with ...
No. 2 most impactful class: Class of 2013
Biggest surprise: Bell. He made a lot of strides as a freshman and even made a start toward the end of the season. Bill O’Brien plugged him in for nine games in 2013, and Bell played a lot in the last three. He made 15 tackles in his final three contests -- 24 total on the year -- and even forced a fumble against Nebraska. He should end up starting the next three seasons.
Impact player: Hackenberg. Does this choice really need to be explained? He was the Big Ten Freshman of the Year, one of the better quarterbacks in the conference, and he took off running after enrolling over the summer. Penn State doesn’t often start true freshmen in season openers, but Hackenberg surpassed Tyler Ferguson pretty quickly with a calm demeanor and a penchant for learning a lot in a short time. Hackenberg could end up being Penn State’s best quarterback since Kerry Collins.
Why this class is important: This countdown isn’t just a list of the classes with the best prospects; it’s the most impactful. And when sanctions hit and the nation wondered whether Penn State would suffer a fate worse than death, top prospects such as Hackenberg and Breneman took center stage and showed that the university still could reel in the best of the best -- instead of simply settling for MAC-level recruits, as some predicted.
This class might not produce as many All-Big Ten players as the 2006 group. It might not even end up with an All-American. But this class is so important, and impactful, because of what it symbolized at the time. Happy Valley was still a destination, in part, because of the big names in this class. They offered fans hope. And they helped keep Penn State together while having a profound, ancillary effect in other areas.
You think Penn State reels in arguably the best 2014 class of receivers without Hackenberg? No chance. You can measure impact different ways, and this recruiting class is undoubtedly one of the most important in Penn State history.
More impactful recruiting classes:
No. 5: Class of 2011
No. 4: Class of 2004
No. 3: Class of 2006
No. 1: Safeties
Last season: This group has been the Nittany Lions' Achilles' heel for the past two seasons. Amos started 2013 as a safety while Trevor Williams tried his hand at cornerback. Neither fared well, however, and that experiment was abandoned midseason with Keiser taking over. Keiser didn't fare any better, and the safeties found themselves constantly out of position. A third-and-long play was no guarantee for a punt the next down, and better quarterbacks -- like Blake Bortles and Braxton Miller -- absolutely shredded this secondary.
What's missing: Ability. There's really no other way to put it. You could go with speed or athleticism or awareness, but all adjectives point back to that same simple trait: talent. Malcolm Willis was a really hit-or-miss player last season, but he was at least a team leader who knew the signals well enough to become the "quarterback of the defense." With his graduation, that won't be easily replaced either. Amos is a great corner, too, but he wasn't such a great safety.
Moving forward: It's not an easy exercise to even decipher who might be a safety next season. Amos didn't fare well, but the newest roster update still puts him at the position. Even Jordan Lucas could technically play the position. Those two are clearly the best cornerbacks, but the concern is obviously how much of a liability safety is with the team's top two DBs both at corner. Last season, PSU fared better with both at corner. This season -- who knows? One of the incoming freshmen could become a Day 1 starter, or maybe Golden takes over after a strong spring. Whatever happens, though, the most surprising move might be having two of the more experienced safeties -- Keiser and Della Valle -- both starting alongside one another. Both came to Penn State without scholarships and have impressed in that regard, but they're simply not a good season-long solution to PSU's issues at safety.
On the bright side, though, could Penn State's safety play really be any worse than it was the last two seasons?
The top pick will be unveiled Friday. But up today is a group that wouldn't be a bad choice for No. 1 either ...
No. 2: Offensive line
Last season: This group started off slow and struggled picking up the heavy blitz, but it really improved as the season wore on. Tailbacks Zach Zwinak and Bill Belton combined for just two 100-yard rushing performances in the first seven games but finished the last five games with five -- and Penn State even outplayed Wisconsin's mammoth line in the finale. John Urschel was a first-team All-Big Ten selection, while three substitutes -- Garry Gilliam, Eric Shrive and Mangiro -- saw considerable time.
What's missing: Experience and depth. Eight players saw a lot of time last season and five are now gone. PSU has just one returning offensive tackle on scholarship with any kind of game experience, and new coach James Franklin will be forced to plug in two rookies on the starting line. Health is obviously paramount here.
Moving forward: Former coach Bill O'Brien raved about Nelson, who redshirted last season as a freshman, and Nelson will almost certainly take over the starting right tackle position. There's really no one else to consider, outside of incoming freshmen and walk-ons. But the big question comes from the interior. At guard and/or center, Dieffenbach and Mangiro will be a part of some kind of combination, but there's no telling who else fits into Franklin's plans. Laurent could be the center. Or Mangiro could take over that position and Franklin could slide in Mahon at one of the guard positions. Or maybe Franklin decides to move a defensive tackle to the offensive side of the ball. There are a lot of moving pieces right now, and a lot has to go right for this group to start off smoothly. The question marks surrounding this position likely won't be answered by Week 1.
That's an exaggeration, of course, a joke to give recruits an idea of his high-energy personality. But that also seems appropriate now, especially given how many flips he has produced from Vanderbilt's class to Penn State's.
He has flipped five pledges from his old school -- six, if defensive end Lloyd Tubman (Louisville, Ky./Seneca) sticks with PSU -- which is the second-most of this college football offseason. Only Washington's Chris Petersen possesses more (six), but he was hired in early December and boasted more than a month's head start.
Franklin has averaged more than a flip per week. And he also has reeled in eight hard verbals from eight different states in less than a month on the job. So his success has a lot of fans and fellow recruits shaking their heads and wondering just how he managed to achieve this so quickly.
In separate interviews, four of those flips told ESPN.com that energy is exactly what sold them on Franklin. He's the kind of coach who awoke on a recent Sunday morning and high-fived and hugged visiting recruits at breakfast. He speaks quickly and loudly, as if he perpetually just polished off a six-pack of Red Bull.
Three-star offensive tackle Chance Sorrell (Middletown, Ohio/Middletown) said that energy is a big reason for his relationship with Franklin. He recalled with a laugh the time an assistant told him how Franklin pulled alongside a Tennessee car sporting a Georgia Bulldogs flag. Franklin stepped out of his vehicle, knocked on the window -- and asked the driver what it would take for him to attend a Commodores game.
"The way he's involved, you can just tell he genuinely cares about all of his players and everyone he meets," said Sorrell, who flipped to Penn State five hours after Franklin was introduced as the head coach. "He's very persuasive. It doesn't matter where you're from; he'll make you want to play for him."
Sorrell's future teammate McSorley said he spoke to about 10 head coaches over the course of his recruitment, and none came close to matching Franklin's energy. That's Franklin's trademark, his signature, and it's what's helped fuel Franklin as the pied piper of Vanderbilt commits.
McSorley watched part of Franklin's introductory news conference, when he loudly proclaimed -- several times -- that he intended to "dominate the state" and "dominate the region" in recruiting. Franklin's hour-long talk impacted the fan base so much that it led to the instant creation of at least three T-shirts with his adopted slogans.
One of the few people who wasn't surprised? McSorley. He knew Penn State's new head coach wasn't in a good mood or wasn't "on" that day. "That's just how he is. That's exactly the person he is. All the time."
Added three-star offensive tackle Brendan Brosnan (Park Ridge, Ill./Maine Township South): "It's the way he carries himself, with all that energy. That energy shows he wants to be there, that he's giving it his all every day. It's contagious; his energy is contagious."
This isn't to say Franklin's energy, or even Franklin himself, is the sole reason for all these commitments, but it certainly seemed to play the largest role. A lot of these commits believe in Franklin's vision of Penn State reclaiming its spot as a national powerhouse.
Seven assistant coaches followed Franklin to Penn State because they believe that as well, and recruits also believe in the theory that because Franklin brought success to Vanderbilt, he certainly can do it at Penn State. Penn State has a bigger fan base and better facilities -- Vanderbilt doesn't even have a players' lounge -- and plays in a less competitive conference. It's a program that offensive line coach Herb Hand deemed as one of the 15 "haves" in a college football world of "have-nots."
"The biggest piece of advice people gave me during the recruiting process is don't commit to a coach, commit to a school," Brosnan said. "And I agree with that a little bit.
"But I think a coach, especially in Franklin's case, plays a large part. He played a large part in Vanderbilt's success and, the way I see it, the ceiling for success is higher at Penn State. It really is."
- Illinois OL Corey Lewis knew something wasn't right with his left knee and, as it turns out, he might have played the entire season without an ACL.
- Taylor Martinez is serious about pursuing his NFL dreams and, if quarterback doesn't work out, the former Nebraska QB isn't opposed to trying wide receiver.
- Michigan's student newspaper labeled the university's response to the Brendan Gibbons' incident as "shameful."
- Former Ohio State OL Nick Mangold recently took part in a video where Kate Upton took snaps from him.
- Michigan State has two or three spots left in its 2014 recruiting class, and it's still heavily pursuing about a half-dozen prospects.
- PennLive's Bob Flounders tackles the differences between Bill O'Brien and James Franklin as a recruiter.
- Rutgers' recruiting class was the third-best in the Big Ten back in August but, after a dozen decommitments, it's now 11th -- and signing day can't come soon enough.
- Jerry Kill is optimistic about his recruiting class and says he doesn't put much stock in how many stars appear next to a recruit's name.
During separate interviews, each assistant on Friday afternoon echoed the same sentiment. Most of the staff -- seven of nine who came straight from Vanderbilt -- explained how they turned a have-not program into a good SEC team. So, they said, it stands to reason they can do even more with a university that boasts more tradition, renown and finances than their last stop.
"There are 'haves' and there are 'have-nots' in college football, that's the truth," said offensive line coach Herb Hand, adding that maybe 15 'haves' exist in the FBS. "And this is one of the 'haves' -- and I'm excited about that."
During a visit to La Salle in Philadelphia last season, teachers left their classrooms and walked down a flight of stairs to catch a glimpse of Bill O'Brien. An army of students manned their cellphones and hoped for a picture. And, for a day, the targeted recruit -- linebacker Zaire Franklin -- felt like the most popular kid there and fielded dozens of questions at lunch about his experience. ("Does he have big hands?" was one of the odder questions.)
James Franklin didn't have that at Vanderbilt. Far from it. He took over a program that struggled in every facet of football. And, even during its success, he stopped at fraternities and tried to increase attendance at every opportunity. During his first day on the job at Penn State, he joked that he would blow up birthday balloons in backyards if people asked him.
"That was a mistake, obviously," Franklin said with a smile Friday, as he has received quite a few offers to do exactly that.
A largely intact staff that performed wonders at Vanderbilt certainly boasts a higher ceiling at a program like Penn State. The competition in the Big Ten isn't as fierce as the SEC. The Nittany Lions have already pulled off back-to-back winning seasons under the sanctions, and they basically have a head-start over what the staff started with at Vanderbilt.
"We've been at some places where you kind of never had the resources you had here," defensive line coach Sean Spencer said. " It's going to be very exciting to know the playing field is going to get a little more level.
"Whatever we did at Vanderbilt was unbelievable, right? You know that playing field was getting to the point where it was level with the rest of the SEC. Well, now, [Penn State] is already pretty level. So now what are we going to do? The sky is the limit."
It wasn't just the implication of Big Ten titles during Friday's news conference and sit-down talks with the assistants. Some didn't shy away from saying that's exactly what the goal is -- and exactly what this program is capable of.
That's something Penn State fans haven't heard for quite awhile. Joe Paterno wasn't one to make promises, and O'Brien tended to temper expectations. Franklin's staff not only has embraced those lofty expectations, it has taken them to another level.
Again, right now, it's all talk without actions. But Franklin and his staff have certainly caught this fan base's attention -- and they're aiming high. Penn State has shared one Big Ten title in the last eight seasons, and it was vacated because of the sanctions.
"We came here to build a Big Ten championship -- and a national championship-caliber defense," defensive coordinator Bob Shoop said, reiterating that very point three minutes after he initially made it. "That's the only thing we know."
Added offensive coordinator John Donovan: "I'm excited to recruit for this school and bring a championship to Penn State."
Challenges Facing Franklin at Penn State
BIG TEN SCOREBOARD
Final Washington State 45 Colorado State 48 Final 20 Fresno State 20 25 USC 45 Final Buffalo 24 San Diego State 49 Final Tulane 21 Louisiana-Lafayette 24
Final Pittsburgh 30 Bowling Green 27 Final Utah State 21 23 Northern Illinois 14
Final Marshall 31 Maryland 20 Final Syracuse 21 Minnesota 17 Final Brigham Young 16 Washington 31
Final Rutgers 16 Notre Dame 29 Final Cincinnati 17 North Carolina 39 Final Miami (FL) 9 18 Louisville 36 Final Michigan 14 Kansas State 31
Final Middle Tennessee 6 Navy 24 Final Ole Miss 25 Georgia Tech 17 Final 10 Oregon 30 Texas 7 Final 14 Arizona State 23 Texas Tech 37
Final Arizona 42 Boston College 19 Final Virginia Tech 12 17 UCLA 42 Final Rice 7 Mississippi State 44 Final 24 Duke 48 21 Texas A&M 52
Final Nebraska 24 22 Georgia 19 Final UNLV 14 North Texas 36 Final Iowa 14 16 LSU 21 Final 19 Wisconsin 24 9 South Carolina 34 Final 5 Stanford 20 4 Michigan State 24 Final 15 UCF 52 6 Baylor 42
Final 13 Oklahoma State 31 8 Missouri 41 Final 12 Clemson 40 7 Ohio State 35