Penn State Nittany Lions: Penn State

Penn State helmet stickers: Week 5

September, 28, 2014
Sep 28
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There weren’t a lot of standout players for Penn State during its 29-6 loss to Northwestern on Saturday, but we’d still like to hand out some helmet stickers:

Linebacker Mike Hull: With Nyeem Wartman injured, even more was expected out of Hull this game. And he stepped up. It wasn’t a pretty contest in the fourth quarter, but that certainly wasn’t on the senior linebacker. Hull finished with a game-high 16 tackles and a stop in the backfield. He had at least twice as many stops as every other player on Saturday, Northwestern included.

Wide receiver DaeSean Hamilton: Another game, another 100-yard effort for Hamilton. This is his third such game this season, as he finished with six catches for exactly 100 yards. Hamilton showed consistency, something redshirt sophomore Geno Lewis lacked on Saturday with one or two key drops. Hamilton was the lone bright spot of this offense. No running back gained more than 25 yards, and no other receiver gained more than 35 yards.

Punt returner Jesse Della Valle: He likely won’t win Big Ten special-teams player of the week anytime soon, but Saturday was his best game as a returner. He put this offense in good position with a career-best 41-yard punt return. And, by not calling a fair catch on one play, he helped draw a flag when one Wildcats player ran into him right before receiving the ball. That moved PSU ahead another 15 yards. On a day when few shined, Della Valle stood out.

PSU dons no-name jerseys vs. Wildcats

September, 27, 2014
Sep 27
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STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- In a nod to its past, Penn State players wore blue no-name jerseys Saturday afternoon -- the first time since the Joe Paterno Era the jerseys have gone without last names.

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The move is significant for fans of the Nittany Lions. For more than 120 years, Penn State wore the same, plain no-name jerseys, and it’s a tradition many purists hold dear. Even first-year head coach James Franklin said the most common question he received this offseason centered around the jerseys.

A Penn State spokesman said the change was in honor of Homecoming, but would not discuss the move further. He said Franklin would address the topic after the noon game at Beaver Stadium.

Former coach Bill O’Brien changed the practice of wearing no-name jerseys in 2012, when he felt players who stayed during the sanctions deserved to be honored. Franklin has said he wants to strike a balance between honoring the past and respecting players’ opinions.
PISCATAWAY, N.J. -- Christian Hackenberg flexed like a prizefighter at midfield, tilted his head back and let out a scream as his sideline erupted into smiles and chest-bumps.

Penn State’s quarterback had just transformed Saturday night from a potentially historic one for Rutgers -- what could have been its first win in its first-ever Big Ten game -- into a footnote of his own, by leading his fourth career game-winning drive in a 13-10 win. His teammates couldn’t hide their relief or delight, either: Defensive end Deion Barnes turned to the crowd and waved good-bye, wideout DaeSean Hamilton flung his gloves into the front row, and linebacker Brandon Bell leaped around with a grin.

[+] EnlargeChristian Hackenberg
Jim O'Connor/USA TODAY SportsChristian Hackenberg led Penn State's late comeback win against Rutgers.
Maybe this is a rivalry; maybe not. But don’t say this wasn’t a big game -- and don’t think players didn’t take some things personally from this past week.

"I just felt they didn’t respect us," Bell, a New Jersey native, said matter-of-factly.

Added PSU tailback Bill Belton, also from New Jersey: "They asked for a big-time game, and they got one."

This was Rutgers’ chance at respect, for showing up that team from Pennsylvania and proving wrong the opposing fans who sneered at their (lack of) tradition. The importance of this game can’t be minimized; Rutgers wideout Leonte Carroo told the Asbury Park Press a win could "change New Jersey and Rutgers football forever."

Instead, the contest sold out in record time, but question marks are now swirling around whether quarterback Gary Nova should remain the starter after throwing five interceptions. Instead, the crowd set the school’s attendance record, but lingering Rutgers fans were forced to hear "We Are … Penn State!" chants after the final whistle. Instead of putting Rutgers atop the Big Ten East and halfway to bowl-eligibility, it’s more of the same for a team that boasts the hardest schedule in the conference.

"This hurts. It should hurt," Rutgers coach Kyle Flood said. "But I will not allow them to be defined by their losses."

Bass from the loudspeakers thumped so hard you couldn’t feel your own heartbeat, and the pageantry surrounding High Point Solutions Stadium served as the tinsel to what could have been an unprecedented Rutgers victory. One large, stenciled sign read, "Enemies of the State" and listed all the New Jersey natives on Penn State’s roster. (Bell said word of the sign made its way around the locker room before the game.) And Penn State coach James Franklin added that Rutgers fans greeted the Nittany Lions’ buses by waving their middle fingers.

There were plenty of similar ingredients here for a future rivalry -- disrespect, a close game, proximity -- but both teams walked off the field with completely different mindsets. Flood referred to this loss as "devastating," and Franklin summed everything up by saying he felt "really, really proud."

This could have been a dream start for Rutgers but, instead, it’s a dream one for Penn State. Several thousand PSU fans spilled into the street last Monday, some crowd-surfing on mattresses, after the NCAA announced this team was once again postseason-eligible. Now it’s nearly on the cusp of a bowl berth.

The Nittany Lions are playing for more than just dignity now, and Hackenberg and these Lions now stand -- improbably -- atop the Big Ten East. They are the only undefeated team in their division and just one of two undefeated teams left in the conference (Nebraska). If it wasn’t for that final touchdown against Rutgers, all that could have been flipped upside down. And Hackenberg and these Lions knew it.

Hackenberg seemed to exorcise all that emotion and those "what-ifs" with that one, long yell on the field. Once he reached the postgame media room, his demeanor had already reverted back to its normal, calm self. He spoke as if the game had ended days before; he didn't even so much as grin while recounting his game-winning drive that came about 30 minutes prior.

You ever take time to enjoy these wins, Christian? It seems like you always just talk about how you guys have a long way to go.

"It’s just one of those things, man. We do," he said, stone-faced. "Looking at that film after a win feels a lot better than looking back on that film after a loss. ...

"This is huge because a win’s a win’s a win. We’re 3-0 right now, and we’re confident. We haven’t played our best ball yet."

Bird's-eye view of the PSU celebration

September, 9, 2014
Sep 9
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STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- For two years, fans of Penn State football waited to hear that the Nittany Lions’ sanctions would be lifted. And on Monday, all that waiting -- the anger, the doubt, the questions -- melted into relief and gave way to celebration.

Several thousand students converged on campus to celebrate the NCAA’s afternoon announcement that PSU will be eligible for the postseason this year and will have full restoration of its scholarships next season. Students first met on the lawn of Old Main, the central administrative building, with reports coming just before 9 p.m. about the growing crowd.

Just before 10 p.m., the crowd -- decked out in blue and white -- spilled onto the campus sidewalks and paths on its way to Beaver Stadium. Some sprinted, some walked and most yelled. A few didn’t even know where they were going.

“Where are you guys headed?” one reporter asked.

“We have no idea!” was the response.

The size of the crowd was difficult to gauge around the stadium’s Gate A, where students routinely enter for football games. But some in the closely packed crowd stood atop merchandise vans, and constant chants rang throughout the night: “We Are ... Penn State!” “Dominate the State!” “Joe Paterno.” “I believe ... that we will win!”

Several players showed up, but most watched from across the street. Two greeted the students briefly, leading a Penn State chant, before taking off once TV cameras arrived.

Several police cars remained in the area, but no major incidents were witnessed. State College Police Chief Tom King later told Onward State, a student-run PSU blog, that he considered this “a peaceful crowd.”

After milling around the stadium, the group finally decided to head to Beaver Canyon, a downtown spot on Beaver Avenue that’s right next to traditional late-night snack spot Canyon Pizza. That’s where the crowd grew even larger.

The street was cordoned off, and police rerouted traffic around the crowd. The buzz of the group was palpable from at least three blocks away. Some students crowd-surfed on mattresses, others just gawked and took pictures, and apartment balconies flooded with fans taking it all in.

As students joined in the celebration, and as they got to within a block, most just took off in a full sprint. The energy was akin to an upset over the top-ranked team in the nation.

“Do we run?” asked one female student in pink dress clothes.

“Yeah, we run,” her friend responded, before a group of about five well-dressed students took off in a sprint.

The celebration subsided about 12:30 a.m. Tuesday, 10 hours after the initial NCAA announcement at 2:30 p.m. Monday. Classes on Tuesday began at 8 a.m.

What we learned in Week 2: Penn State

September, 7, 2014
Sep 7
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STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- What we learned from Week 2 in Penn State's 21-3 nonconference win against Akron:

1. The new, aggressive defense is a winner: This wasn’t a terrible Akron offense, and the defense came up big time and time again. First quarter? Held the Zips to a (missed) field-goal attempt after Akron reached the 7-yard line. Second quarter? Made the Zips punt after they reached the PSU 34. Third quarter? Well, you get the idea. Whether it was a huge stop on fourth-down (Brandon Bell) or a touchdown-saving tackle (Ryan Keiser), this defense was the epitome of bend-don’t-break. And it barely bent at all in the second half. At this point, it seems safe to say: This Bob Shoop defense is a big upgrade over John Butler’s.

2. Christian Hackenberg is forcing the ball, in part, because the running game is non-existent: There is a lot of pressure on Hackenberg in this offense. If he struggles, the entire offense struggles because the offensive line simply can’t open up holes for the backs. Through three quarters Saturday, Penn State averaged just 2.3 yards per carry. Hackenberg has to get smarter on some of his throws -- several were truly head-scratchers -- but, if he can’t get the job done, it seems like no one else on this offense can. This is Penn State’s top concern going forward. Hackenberg has to play smarter, but this offensive line also has to jell quicker.

3. The Wildcat isn’t going anywhere: This is what coach James Franklin said after the game: "I know people seem to hate the Wildcat. I love it." The WildZach didn’t make an appearance this week -- thankfully -- but Bill Belton and Akeel Lynch both saw some time in the formation. It especially makes sense for Belton since he played quarterback in high school. He is versatile and can really open up the playbook when taking the direct snap. PSU needs this running game to work somehow, and it found quite a bit of success with the Wildcat on Saturday. Expect to see more of it going forward.

4. DaeSean Hamilton-Geno Lewis might be the top receiving tandem in the B1G: There, I said it. It’s difficult to find a team with two other solid options. Maybe Nebraska’s Kenny Bell and Jordan Westerkamp? Or Maryland’s Stefon Diggs and Deon Long? But PSU certainly belongs in the conversation. Lewis has the ability to catch the deep ball, and Hamilton has a knack for turning those short passes into longer gains. Both guys complement each other well, and it’s a unique development compared to last season’s "Just throw the ball to A-Rob" offense. Fearless prediction: Lewis makes at least two "SportsCenter top 10" plays this season. He might not have the team’s best hands, but he’s one heck of an athlete.

5. Special teams have definitely improved: Sam Ficken was a perfect 4-of-4 last week, and punter Chris Gulla broke a freshman record Saturday with an average of 48.8 yards per punt. Gulla was incredibly consistent; he punted five times and kicked three within the 20. There weren’t many complaints about the kick coverage teams, either, and Von Walker had a nice return. So you can definitely see the extra practice hours paying off here. Then again, after last season's awful special teams, there was really no place to go but up.

Big Ten Wednesday mailbag

August, 27, 2014
Aug 27
5:00
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Big Ten football kicks off in 26 hours. Let's get you ready with a mailbag:

Josh Moyer: Hmmm ... it's a bit tricky this week since only three of 14 games don't feature huge double-digit favorites (Rutgers-Washington State, UCF-Penn State, Wisconsin-LSU). Out of those three, though, I like Wisconsin the most as an upset pick. LSU has a new quarterback and running back and its run defense shows a few cracks. The Tigers ranked 94th in the nation last season in stopping ball carriers behind the line and were No. 35 in run defense. And you know what happens when Melvin Gordon finds room on the outside (hint: touchdown). Wisconsin has fared well against better run defenses, so they should be able to keep the ball moving Saturday. We'll see if that's enough.

Josh Moyer: After a sub-par freshman campaign, it sure looks as if Derrick Green is on pace to be Michigan's feature back. Brady Hoke named him the starter, although he added that De'Veon Smith will be "1A." But if you look at how Doug Nussmeier and Brady Hoke have approached running backs since 2010, the top guy has always received at least twice as many carries as the backup. (One exception: Alabama's Eddie Lacy and T.J. Yeldon split carries in 2012 but combined for 66.5 percent of team carries.) Green had 27 percent body fat last year and naturally looked sluggish; he's at 9 percent right now. He'll be better. As for Jabrill Peppers, count me among the believers. Devin Gardner said recently that Peppers and Devin Funchess are the best athletes on the team. That's big praise. So sure, Peppers has generated a lot of hype -- but I think he'll live up to it.

Josh Moyer: In our season predictions this morning, I was the only Big Ten reporter to pick Minnesota to win fewer than six games. Everyone else said six or seven. I'll admit I waffled slightly between choosing five and six wins, but the Minnesota passing game -- or lack thereof -- really concerns me. The Gophers ranked No. 105 in the nation last season in total offense and, without a playmaker like Ra'Shede Hageman on defense, I'm not yet sold on the defense being as good as last year. In some ways, last season's 8-5 record was a best-case scenario -- especially with surprising wins against Penn State and Nebraska, and close wins against Norhtwestern and Indiana. When I look at this season's schedule, I see seven losses: at TCU, at Michigan, Northwestern, Iowa, Ohio State, at Nebraska, and at Wisconsin. Northwestern was the toss-up for me but, as it stands, I see the Wildcats winning a close one.

Josh Moyer: It's the biggest question mark on the team, and I think it's going to be the determining factor in whether Penn State finds success. I picked the Nittany Lions to win seven games and, honestly, I think that's even slightly optimistic with this line. (Two players who were defensive tackles in February are now starting inside as offensive guards, and absent is basically any quality depth.) This offense has for which to be excited: Christian Hackenberg, two terrific running backs, my pick for B1G tight end of the year and a plethora of talented young wideouts. The only thing that's missing is a solid O-line -- and all the talent in the world doesn't mean anything if Hackenberg and Co. can't find time. If last season's O-line returned, I might even pick Penn State to win 10 games. The potential is there, but the offensive line is going to act as the cap. 

Big Ten lunch links

June, 27, 2014
Jun 27
12:00
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So, the USA outlasts Spain, Italy and England? Losing never felt so good.

Big Ten lunch links

June, 20, 2014
Jun 20
12:00
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If we hit that bull's-eye, the rest of the dominoes will fall like a house of cards. Checkmate.

Big Ten lunch links

June, 13, 2014
Jun 13
12:00
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Tyrion will be OK ... right? Right?!
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Penn State assistant Herb Hand has beaten himself up over past decisions, but none was probably as public as Tuesday night’s second-guessing: Why, oh why, didn’t the father of three toss his rice noodles with that Thai peanut sauce?

“I learned there are a lot of armchair chefs out there,” Hand told ESPN.com with a laugh.

Not a lot of football coaches find fans questioning their sauce-making capabilities. But not a lot of coaches have appeared on Food Network’s nationally televised “Chopped” show, either. Hand taped the four-person, three-round elimination competition last October -- which explained his gold Vanderbilt shirt -- and the show aired late Tuesday night.

In “Chopped,” four chefs scramble for 30 minutes to transform a mystery basket of ingredients into a dish judged on creativity, presentation and taste. They’ll do that with an appetizer, entrée and dessert -- with one chef eliminated after each round.

“When we actually walked out on set when they were filming, that’s when I was like, ‘What are you doing, man? You’re about to cook on national television,’” Hand said, laughing. “But it’s just like anything else. When the clock started and it was time to compete, I just wanted to do my best.”

The offensive line coach cruised past the first round with his winning combination of potato chip-crusted sole with bacon and garlic red Russian kale -- a sentence that will likely never again appear on ESPN.com. And Hand also won over cooking fans by sharing an ingredient with a competitor and asking the timeless question, “Who am I to hog another man’s bacon?” But the offensive line coach slipped up in the entrée round when the judges criticized the presentation of his lamb with Thai peanut sauce.

Hand was “chopped,” or eliminated, in the second round.

Hand watched the show Tuesday night alongside his fellow Penn State coaches, who were crammed in a bus on their way to help with a satellite camp in Florida. The coaches laughed and read aloud some of their favorite tweets, while playfully yelling at the TV as if it were the NBA Finals … which was airing simultaneously, but could always wait. After all, that series happens once a year. How often does a coach take over Twitter with "DominatetheKitchen" hashtags?

Penn State head coach James Franklin shook his head right before Hand’s televised elimination, as the judges told a sullen Hand that his lamb was beautifully cooked -- but the sauce lacked depth and the presentation wasn’t pretty.

“It always comes down to execution, Herb!” Hand remembered Franklin yelling.

Hand, who was playing for "Curing Kids Cancer" in honor of Wilson Holloway, said it took a day or two for him to fully recover from the Thai peanut sauce fiasco. And, once the football season ended, he started questioning himself again. If he could do it all over again -- something countless Penn State foodies have undoubtedly wondered … probably -- Hand said he would’ve tossed the sauce with the noodles, added some green onion and cilantro, and maybe mixed in some carrots for crunch.

He searched the Food Network pantry for some crushed peanuts for the dish but, regrettably, couldn’t find them and had to settle for sesame seeds.

“When the clock is running, man, you just want to get it done. You just want to get it done,” Hand repeated. “When they say to open the baskets and your time starts now, your time starts now. There are no redos or stopping the clock. It’s go time.”

To prepare for the competition, Hand treated it almost like football. He literally looked for tendencies in the judges -- scouting report on judge Scott Conant? Steer clear of pastas -- and basically broke down film with his wife. They would relax on the sofa, flip on some “Chopped,” and his wife would pause the TV during a mystery basket to ask him what he would make.

No, Hand didn’t come away as the winner on Tuesday night. But his talent for food is already well-known in Happy Valley. On the morning of signing day, during an event that was open to media and some fans, he briefly took over a chef station and flipped some omelets for fun. He also started a Penn State “pizza crawl” and, for charity, he has auctioned off a few home-cooked dinners, where he’ll travel to the winner’s home with ingredients in tow.

So, despite the outcome, don’t expect Hand to stop cooking anytime soon.

“I just love doing it,” he said. “When you can make a great meal for people you love, it’s really an expression of love. And I enjoy that -- whether it’s my wife and kids or my friends or my players. It’s just something I enjoy doing.”

Big Ten roundtable: Impact freshmen

June, 6, 2014
Jun 6
9:00
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With incoming freshmen set to report to their respective B1G teams later this month, we thought now would be a perfect time to take a closer look at the 2014 class.

Who'll end up as the most memorable player? And who'll see time right away? Adam Rittenberg, Brian Bennett and Josh Moyer joined Big Ten recruiting writer Tom VanHaaren in discussing the big questions surrounding the freshmen.

So let's get started ...

Based on talent, which freshman is too good to leave off the field?

[+] EnlargeJabrill Peppers
Miller Safrit/ESPNJabrill Peppers is the type of physical defensive back that Michigan's defense needs.
Bennett: First, let's start off with the caveat that college is a lot different from high school, and more goes into being successful at this level than pure physical gifts. That said, I have never heard anyone dispute the natural talent and football instincts of Michigan’s Jabrill Peppers. He was ESPN's No. 2 recruit in the Class of 2014 for a reason. The comparisons to Charles Woodson are already being made, and the corner spot is open with Blake Countess playing nickelback. Michigan needs to get more physical in its pass coverage and have more defensive playmakers in general. If Peppers fulfills even 80 percent of his hype, he'll be on the field early and often for Brady Hoke.

VanHaaren: Peppers is the first name that comes to mind. Michigan doesn't really have anyone like him on the roster. His combination of size and speed, which he displayed at a recent track meet by running a 10.52-second 100-meter dash, is something that Michigan needs in the defensive backfield. I just don't see a scenario where a healthy Peppers doesn't see the field in some capacity.

Moyer: Everyone should be familiar with Peppers, so let's forget about him for a minute. Someone whom Buckeyes fans already know -- and whom other B1G fans should familiarize themselves with -- is linebacker Raekwon McMillan, who was rated as the top inside linebacker recruit in the nation. He's already enrolled, he's already impressed Urban Meyer, and he's already a physically imposing athlete. At 240 pounds, he's bigger than all but one of OSU's 10 other linebackers. Almost every scouting report you read on the guy describes him as a "thumper," and Meyer said three months ago that there'll be no redshirt for McMillan. He should make an impact early on.

Based on need, which freshman is a lock to start from Day 1?

Bennett: I'll go with Purdue's Gelen Robinson. He's following in the footsteps, sort of, of his dad -- Boilers basketball legend Glenn "Big Dog" Robinson. The younger Robinson was Purdue's most celebrated recruit in this class, but not just because of that name. He's also an outstanding athlete who should force his way onto the field from Day 1. He'll likely play outside linebacker, which is a position of need for Darrell Hazell's team. Heck, they need players everywhere, but particularly difference-makers on defense. Robinson will get every opportunity.

Rittenberg: It's hard for true freshman offensive linemen to step in immediately, but keep an eye on Maryland's Damian Prince, the nation's No. 26 prospect in the 2014 class. The recent suspension of potential starter Moise Larose creates a need at tackle, and both Prince and Derwin Gray both have a chance to win starting jobs this summer. Wisconsin will play several of its freshman wide receivers, and I could easily see a guy like Dareian Watkins entering the starting lineup. And let's not forget about Michigan State defensive tackle Malik McDowell. The Spartans lost a few pieces on the interior defensive line.

Moyer: Penn State wideout De'Andre Thompkins. In a normal year, he might be a redshirt candidate. He's incredibly athletic -- Bill O'Brien recruited him thinking he could be a two-way player and compete at nickelback -- but he's also a bit raw since he played mostly at running back in high school. He still needs to sharpen his routes but, between the scholarship reduction and the lack of experience at receiver this season, Thompkins will have to step up sooner rather than later. The early enrollee has already proven he's the fastest player on the roster, and he's taken reps as a return man. So he should play on Day 1, in some capacity.

When this freshman class graduates, who will be remembered as the best player?

Bennett: Peppers is the easy and safe choice here. Another possibility is Maryland's Prince. He's a mountain, and given the value of offensive tackles in the NFL, we could be hearing his name early in the 2017 or 2018 draft.

VanHaaren: It could very well be either Peppers or McMillan. It's tough to argue against those two just based off of talent and ability, and I would probably go with Peppers here. I saw him at the Under Armour All-America Game and coach Herm Edwards told me Peppers was the best high school prospect he had coached in the few years he had been coaching at the event. That's high praise for a former defensive back.

[+] EnlargeDamian Prince
Tom Hauck for Student SportsThe massive Damian Prince might be too good to keep out of Maryland's starting lineup.
Rittenberg: McDowell's recruiting melodrama gained a lot of attention, overshadowing how good a player he could be for MSU. Mark Dantonio isn't one to heap praise on freshmen but held a news conference specifically to discuss McDowell, saying, "Malik will be on the field for us, he's too big and fast [not to be], he can play inside or outside." I've been told McDowell's parents are on board with MSU now, and with the distractions behind him, he should become a star for an already elite defense.

What redshirt freshman should fans keep an eye on?

Bennett: I trust the player development program at Michigan State. Guys there just seem to get better and better throughout their careers, especially on the defensive side of the ball. Defensive end Demetrius Cooper turned a lot of heads this spring and forced himself into the rotation, even with standout returning starters Shilique Calhoun and Marcus Rush ahead of him. Cooper was just a three-star recruit, according to ESPN, but the Spartans have made a living turning moderately-rated recruits into true college stars.

VanHaaren: I don't know if this is cheating or not because he's a sophomore, but I'm really interested to see what quarterback Wes Lunt does for Illinois. I put him here because he transferred and had to sit out the last season. I think he could be a big boost to that program if he can get things rolling offensively for the Illini.

Rittenberg: Iowa wide receiver Derrick Willies. Not only did he have a breakout spring for the Hawkeyes, but he's the type of receiver Iowa has lacked for a while: tall, fast and explosive. Iowa wants to ramp up the offensive tempo even more this season, which likely means the ball will be spread around more. Expect some big plays from Willies in his first game action.

Moyer: Minnesota running back Berkley Edwards. If it wasn't for an ankle injury early last season, he probably would've played. As it is, he'll definitely see the field this fall -- and he might see it quite a bit. Jerry Kill was asked earlier this spring if Edwards might get five to seven carries a game. "We'll see," Kill said, chuckling, to the Minneapolis Star Tribune. "He might need more touches." Edwards is an exciting player who has a chance to break it anytime he touches the ball, and he could end up being an important change-of-pace back for the offense. Definitely worth watching.
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Penn State has a new offensive coordinator, a new running backs coach and a new (inexperienced) offensive line. But not everything has changed -- both of its starting running backs return for their final seasons.

As seniors, Zach Zwinak and Bill Belton are among the Nittany Lions' most experienced players. Zwinak has led the team in rushing the past two seasons, but Belton was widely regarded as the team's most improved player last fall. He finished his junior campaign with 803 rushing yards and edged Zwinak with 5.1 yards per carry.

Belton has earned a reputation as one of Penn State's hardest workers and, if you don't know his name yet, he's hoping you will by the end of this season. ESPN.com checked in with him earlier this week.

[+] EnlargeBill Belton
Matthew O'Haren/USA TODAY SportsPenn State RB Bill Belton rushed for 803 yards (5.1 ypc) and 5 TDs last season, and is expecting even more of himself this year.
It's June, so the football season's creeping up. How are you preparing yourself for your senior year, and what's been the focus this offseason?

Bill Belton: I'm doing a lot of the same things, but I'm going two times harder than I did last season, just to improve on some things and take my game to the next level. I'm getting in the weight room, building more strength because, oftentimes, you hear things like, 'He's too small. He can't play all three downs.' So I've just been trying to build up my strength and conditioning at all times to help my team win and put my team in the best position.

You told me last season you save online articles where you receive criticism, that it gives you motivation. Is that where you got the "he's too small" stuff from?

BB: Yeah. I mean, I read stuff to see what people are saying. I see some crazy stuff out there, but it doesn't affect me whatsoever. Basically, I'm just coming to get the respect I deserve, be the best player I can, push myself and hold myself to a high standard -- and become one of those players that people talk about.

How is 2014 Bill Belton different from the 2013 or 2012 version?

BB: A better teammate, a more vocal person. Just being not only a good player but a great player that helps his teammates when they need it. Not just standing off and allowing things to happen but stepping up in situations and making sure everyone's on the same page and, basically, just being a model teammate and giving the younger guys someone to come to when they need advice.

So you're finding yourself talking to or mentoring younger running backs, like Akeel Lynch, a bit more this offseason?

BB: Not just him. A kid that I really see a lot of potential in is [wideout] DaeSean Hamilton. We've been doing two-a-days, running in the morning and working out later on with the team in the afternoon and doing work. So it's not only just the running backs, but it's the receivers and DBs and whoever needs help and wants to work to get better.

It's no secret there are some concerns with the offensive line since it basically returns one starter. It seems fair to say that your job will be a little harder. Has that changed your approach at all?

BB: All we got to do is keep working and we'll be just fine ... And, no, you just got to continue to prepare the way you were before. Like I said before, I've been working my behind off to be known throughout the Big Ten and throughout the country. That doesn't really change anything; it's going to work. We're happy; none of us are upset with what's going on. That's the hand we were dealt, and we want to continue to work and we're going to be good come Aug. 31.

Let's talk a little bit about your head coach, James Franklin. What are your impressions of him, and how does he compare to Bill O'Brien?

BB: Every guy is different; every head guy who comes here is different. They have ways they do things. Franklin came in, and he was a fiery guy. He instilled that competitive spirit throughout our team so, whatever we're doing, we're competing and trying to get better and take this team to where it has been before and just return it to that prominence in the Big Ten. O'Brien and Franklin, they have a relationship, so things they do are pretty similar.

Including interim guys, you've had five head coaches over your college career. That's unprecedented at Penn State. What kind of adjustment has that been, and is there any good that comes from having that many coaches?

BB: The good coming from it is, if you think about all the guys from our team, everyone wants to take the step to the next level. And we learned a lot of systems, and the systems we learned can help us at the next level. And with the coaching situation, it's just something we have to deal with. It's not something we asked for, but we had a chance to play under a few different guys and every time it was different. There was nothing, like, terrible to come out of it. It was just a learning experience.

One player who's been alongside you for the entire ride is Zwinak. What's your relationship like off the field, and what's it been like splitting carries with one another? Last season, you had 36 carries against Illinois and then seven the week after.

BB: We have a good relationship off the field. It's basically the same thing -- we're total opposites, but sometimes opposites get along. And that's what it's been like. We have fun with each other, and we compete with each other. But, at the end of the day, we both know we're going to need each other. I'm going to feed off him, and he's going to feed off me.

When one guy gets going, we support. It's not something like, 'I'm against you and you're against me.' At the end of the day, we're on the same team and we're all trying to accomplish the same thing.

Final question. Franklin likes the Wildcat. You were an all-state high school quarterback. So, I'm curious -- any chance we see you throwing the ball a little, or at least lining up at quarterback for a few plays?

BB: I don't know, I don't know. Maybe. I don't know. We'll just have to wait and see. [Laughs]

Big Ten lunch links

May, 15, 2014
May 15
12:00
PM ET
The spring meeting of Big Ten athletic directors is over. Back to the offseason lists and polls.
  • Wrapping up from Rosemont, the “cost of attendance” discussion remains alive.
  • Good take by Andrew Logue on the complexities of Jim Delany.
  • More Big Ten athletic directors weigh in on the eastward movement of the league. Just don't expect the football championship game to go the way of the basketball tourney.
  • Iowa AD Gary Barta comments on the status of the Hawkeyes’ series with Iowa State.
  • Illinois wants to make it clear: No alcohol sales at Memorial Stadium. But is Michigan heading in a different direction? Other athletic directors discuss the issue.
  • Michigan State and Notre Dame would like to keep playing, but the format of the series will change.
  • More details from the incident that that led to the arrest of former Minnesota and Rutgers QB Philip Nelson.
  • Former Chicago prep star running back Ty Isaac is leaving USC. Next stop, the Big Ten?
  • Solid results for Big Ten football programs in the NCAA’s new report for 2012-13 on academic progress rates, including a big jump for new member Maryland.
  • Rare insight into the work of Mark Pantoni, the Ohio State director of player personnel, a job with a wide range of responsibilities.
  • Tom Shatel remembers the football career of a former two-sport Nebraska star who continues to bring a grinder mentality to his alma mater.
  • Ex-Nebraska QB Taylor Martinez fails a physical with the Eagles. Some insight into the alleged bike theft by Nebraska linebacker Josh Banderas.
  • A Rutgers offensive line recruit brings plenty of intensity.
  • Eugene Lewis looks like a worthy replacement for Allen Robinson at Penn State. James Franklin has watched “Moneyball” at least seven times. A new Nittany Lions logo arrives as part of a $10 million scoreboard replacement project.
  • It’s a tradition at Michigan for its quarterback pledges join in the recruiting battle.

Big Ten lunch links

May, 9, 2014
May 9
12:00
PM ET
Fourteen Big Ten programs combined to produce four first-round NFL draft picks. Louisville, Northern Illinois and Buffalo together had five. Eleven of 32 came from the SEC. Discuss.
  • A big night at the NFL draft for Michigan's Taylor Lewan, who landed with the Titans at No. 11 to lead off a better opening day for the league.
  • Ohio State's defensive duo, Ryan Shazier at No. 15 to the Steelers and Bradley Roby at No. 31, went to the Broncos.
  • And Michigan State's Darqueze Dennard found a home with the Bengals at No. 24.
  • Michigan’s other offensive tackle, Michael Schofield, has used a family struggle as his motivation to prepare for this draft.
  • Former Indiana receiver Cody Latimer went to New York to hear his name called at the draft. He’s still waiting.
  • Also waiting, defensive tackle Ra'Shede Hagemen of Minnesota, which hasn’t had a player drafted since Eric Decker in 2010. And the wait is almost over, too, for Wisconsin’s Chris Borland.
  • Tracking the Maryland prospects for the second through seventh rounds.
  • Meanwhile, Purdue’s 15-year streak of landing at least one player in the draft is in jeopardy.
  • Former Ohio State coach Jim Tressel lands the presidency at Youngstown State after he was bypassedat the University of Akron.
  • What to do this offseason? Shane Morris can play catch ... with himself.
  • Michigan State appears interested in the younger brother of tight end Dylan Chmura.
  • James Franklin and the Penn State coaches continue their 17-stop caravan in Pittsburgh. Can the grayshirting of recruits help PSU overcome its scholarship limitations.
  • Former Rutgers quarterback Tom Savage earns the endorsement of ex-coach Greg Schiano.
  • Former Nebraska quarterback Joe Ganz will remain on staff in 2014 as a graduate assistant. An appeal is deniedfor the summer jail sentence in Colorado for offensive tackle Alex Lewis is denied.
  • Minnesota loses a backup defensive lineman to North Dakota.
  • Kirk Ferentz marches to the beat of his own drum in recruiting, but even he occasionally extends a scholarship offer to a high school freshman.

Big Ten lunchtime links

May, 8, 2014
May 8
12:55
PM ET
Good things come to those who wait ...

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