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National recruiting reporter Jeremy Crabtree discusses the hottest storylines in football recruiting, including programs off to hot starts in spring recruiting and how the Final Four schools have fared building for their football futures.

Big Ten's lunch links

April, 2, 2014
Apr 2
12:00
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Warren Buffett called. My bracket was so bad, he says I owe him $1 billion. D'oh!

Big Ten Tuesday mailblog

April, 1, 2014
Apr 1
5:00
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Coming at ya from Happy Valley. Dropping in on James Franklin and the Nittany Lions on Wednesday.

To the inbox ...

Ken from Kansas City, Mo., writes: Hey Adam! I loved the "dictator for the day" thread. I just have one suggestion ... since everyone was worried about some teams getting five home games and other teams getting four in a nine-game schedule, and with two bye weeks now due to extending games beyond Thanksgiving, how about every team has one of their conference games played internationally each year, following a bye week? This would: increase international exposure for the B1G, be a cool perk when it came to recruiting -- "your son will get to visit four or five foreign countries during their years at our university" -- and leave everyone with an even 4-4-1 split on conference game locations and make for some cool travel options for the fans.

Adam Rittenberg: Ken, a couple things here. The double-bye thankfully won't be an annual occurrence in college football. It takes place only when Aug. 30 or Aug. 31 falls on a Saturday, as was the case last year and again this fall. Also, Big Ten schools don't want to part with home games, especially for an international site that, while appealing to some, prevents many others from attending. It also disrupts the players' schedule. I like the way you're thinking because exposure is the name of the game, and occasional international events like Penn State's opener this fall make sense. But not every year.


Brian from Baltimore writes: So far PSU and James Franklin are "walking the walk"' as far as dominating recruiting. How surprising is this? After this torrid pace of commitments slows down, how do you see Penn State faring overall for 2015 recruits?

Rittenberg: Brian, while the sheer number of early commits is noteworthy, Franklin's recruiting success certainly is not. He has been regarded as a nationally elite recruiter since his time as a Maryland assistant, and the enthusiasm he brings to Penn State -- and a region where he and several of his assistants already have familiarity -- translates on the trail. Franklin did really well with early commitments in Vanderbilt's 2013 class, as 16 players pledged before the season. If Penn State hangs onto all these recruits and continues to add solid pieces, Franklin will bring in a nationally elite class next February.


Brian from West Michigan writes: If the Northwestern unionizing efforts succeed, are they aware of the unintended consequences that are coming from their actions? For instance, now that they are considered "employees," their scholarship value (upwards of 50K/year depending on the school) is considered compensation and eligible to be taxed. You hear stories of kids being able to use athletics to get them a degree that otherwise they couldn't have afforded. How does a college kid who is now "making" $50K/year scrape up the cash to pay Uncle Sam?

Rittenberg: Brian, the tax question looms large in the debate, and there are different opinions on what the players would be required to pay. Kevin Trahan addresses it well here, quoting several tax experts who say the players will have to pay taxes on their scholarships. College Athletes Players Association president Ramogi Huma, meanwhile, cites a provision in the tax code that states scholarships for "degree candidates" are not taxable. It doesn't sound like tax status will factor into the NLRB's final ruling on whether players are employees, but it's certainly a significant factor for the players as they pursue this route.


Jim from Virginia writes: A lot is made of "skill" positions (top three backfield, etc). Yet, when looking at the offensive and defensive lines, Nebraska seems to be able to make a case for turning a four-loss year last year -- when the offensive line got experience through injuries and the defensive line matured -- into maybe Bo Pelini's best campaign.

Rittenberg: Jim, I agree that Nebraska's ceiling this season largely depends on line play. Randy Gregory provides a major edge-rushing threat for the defensive line, and if Nebraska can stay healthy and generate more from the inside tackles, it should be pretty stout up front. There are more questions along the offensive line, which loses key players such as Spencer Long, Cole Pensick and Jeremiah Sirles. Alex Lewis is a key addition because he brings experience from Colorado. Lewis and Jake Cotton should anchor the left side of the Husker line. Nebraska must build depth and chemistry with the group the rest of the spring and through fall camp. It likely needs younger players such as Givens Price to blossom.


Keith from Kunming, China, writes: Hey Adam,You didn't like the Premier League model for B1G and MAC, but I do. You said it's not realistic to move between leagues, but it is if the B1G and the MAC have a contractual relationship, and the MAC is essentially absorbed into the B1G as a sort of junior league. B1G doesn't "own" MAC programs but it effectively subsidizes them. Michigan will continue to fill its stadium when relegated (oh! the joy in East Lansing!), which will be financially great for the MAC opponents. My only change to the model proposed is that relegation should happen every years, as in England. Why wouldn't this work?

Rittenberg: Keith, first off, thanks for reading from so far away. Although the Big Ten and the MAC have a strong relationship when it comes to scheduling, officiating and other areas, your proposal requires the Big Ten to shoulder a major financial and structural burden, while embarrassing its members in the process. I'm not saying it wouldn't be fun for fans, but does the Big Ten want to be so closely tied with the MAC, which has schools with profiles that differ markedly from those in the Big Ten? Scheduling would be a huge headache because you wouldn't know where certain teams would be. Money would be a problem on several levels, from television audience to stadium size.
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."

Big Ten's lunch links

April, 1, 2014
Apr 1
12:00
PM ET
It’s April Fool’s Day. Resist the urge.

Enjoy some spring football:
  • A feel-good story as a group of players from Rutgers continue to use their spring breaks to help rebuild infrastructure in Haiti. A grim outlook for Rutgers in the Big Ten, courtesy of a former long-time New Jersey legislator.

  • Penn State’s initial recruiting success under James Franklin is gaining notice nationally and on the local scene.

  • Ohio State looks forward to a deeper rotation on the defensive line, which means fewer snaps for Michael Bennett. As for the Buckeyes' offensive line, depth is still a concern.

  • The pursuit of defensive tackle Malik McDowell, once a Michigan State pledge, remains unsettled despite the passing of a deadline. The Spartans look for 5:30 a.m. workouts to build mental toughness.

  • Meanwhile, Michigan is also in search this spring of that elusive element of toughness, writes Jeremy Fowler. Michigan offensive lineman Ben Braden developed his athletic skills as a hockey player.

  • An op-ed from the New York Times on justice being served as Northwestern players bid to unionize. The leader of the newly-formed association is looking forward. But hold off on drawing major conclusions over all the recent union talk.

  • Minnesota linebacker Cody Poock reportedly has suffered a torn knee ligament.

  • Nebraska coach Bo Pelini says offensive tackle Alex Lewis has exceeded expectations and requirements in his transition to Lincoln after a troublesome time last year as he prepared to depart Colorado. Quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. must be pushed, writes Steve Sipple.




1. Reading USC’s spring prospectus, this nugget stopped me: In six games last season, the Trojans used a total of 14 or fewer players on defense. That’s a stark illustration of the effect of the NCAA scholarship penalties. USC has eight starters returning on each side of the ball. But of the 49 returning lettermen, 18 were either walk-ons, injured or scholarship guys who just didn’t play. That’s a reminder of the work that Steve Sarkisian has cut out for him, and of how well the Trojans did to go 10-4 last season.

2. Former Penn State assistant coach Jay Paterno entered the race for the Democratic nomination for Pennsylvania lieutenant governor late, and now he has withdrawn early. Another candidate challenged the legitimacy of the signatures on Paterno’s nomination petitions. The legal battle would have consumed considerable time and money leading up to the May 20 primary. Too bad, because as news stories go, it would have been interesting to see if Paterno could use his name recognition to make voters take him seriously. He seemed to be making headway.

3. If you love writing and you love college football history, make sure you read “His Ownself,” the just-published autobiography of legendary sportswriter Dan Jenkins. He saw TCU play for the 1936 Rose Bowl, and he saw TCU play in the 2011 Rose Bowl. No one covered the 1960s, the decade of Bear Bryant, John McKay and Darrell Royal, better. You also get Jenkins on the last 60 years of golf, from Hogan to Woods. It’s like standing in the corner of a bar with Jenkins holding court. It is great, great fun.

Graham Spanier wants case halted

March, 31, 2014
Mar 31
1:30
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HARRISBURG, Pa. -- Former Penn State president Graham Spanier filed a federal lawsuit Monday that seeks to put an end to his state court prosecution for an alleged criminal cover-up of child sex abuse complaints about former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky.

Spanier's lawyers filed a complaint in federal court in Harrisburg that said his case was undertaken in bad faith and that it violates his constitutional right to due process of law.

A spokesman for the defendant, Attorney General Kathleen Kane, said the office was reviewing the lawsuit but had no immediate comment.

Spanier awaits trial in Dauphin County court in Harrisburg, along with two of his former employees at Penn State: retired vice president Gary Schultz and retired athletic director Tim Curley.

In that case, all three defendants are waiting for a decision by the trial judge regarding claims that their right to legal representation was violated by the actions of former Penn State general counsel Cynthia Baldwin.

Baldwin's actions, and decisions by Frank Fina, a former state prosecutor, figured prominently in the 15-page complaint for injunctive relief filed by Spanier, who faces charges of perjury, obstruction, failure to report suspected child abuse, conspiracy and endangering the welfare of children.

Spanier's lawyers argued that when Fina subpoenaed Spanier to appear before a grand jury, Fina "had no evidentiary basis to believe that Spanier was criminally culpable or that Spanier had information that would further the investigation."

Fina did not respond to a voicemail left seeking comment on Monday.


(Read full post)


Big Ten lunch links

March, 31, 2014
Mar 31
12:00
PM ET
College basketball season is over in the state of Michigan, but the party continues in Wisconsin.

Ready for some spring football links? Here ya go ...
 
The Final Four field was determined this past weekend. Not just in the NCAA men's basketball tournament, but in our own version of March Madness: the all-time Big Ten coaches tournament.

Our top four overall seeds were in action after receiving first-round byes. Our second-round opener saw No. 4 seed Joe Paterno face No. 5 seed Fielding Yost.

The Penn State legend bested the Michigan legend, as JoePa won 62 percent of the vote to Yost's 38 percent. Paterno advances to face the winner of Game 6, which we'll discuss later on Monday.

And now, some of your thoughts on this matchup:
Sandra C. from Lititz, Pa.: WE had the BEST!!! Joseph Vincent Paterno!!!WE ARE PENN STATE! JoePa IS Penn State!!

Ry P. from Greensburg, Pa.: Joe Paterno is the greatest College Football Coach ever. The NCAA, B1G, and PSU [Board of Trustees] used his legacy as a scapegoat to their negligence. It is sad that a debate like this must occur. He won more games than anyone else but more importantly he graduated an unprecedent percentage of his players. Plus, how many football coaches are as well versed in literature as Joe Pa?

Joseph G. from Israel: I would say what puts Joe just a little better is his "grand experiment." It also influenced other schools to do the same.

David from St. Clair Shores, Mich.: No question Yost. He is the only coach to go undefeated in every game in a season and win the National Championship. He got a rough matchup to have to go against JoePa, who is loved and recent though.

Alex from Bloomington, Ill.: As a biased observer (a Michigan fan), my vote went to Yost. Much of the maize and blue history is owed in part to this man. Six national titles and he won eight of every nine games he coached in the B1G. That's consistently brilliant.

Just An Illini Guy from Illini Country: Although I'm sure Paterno will win, I voted for Yost. Paterno's involvement in the Sandusky scandal will forever tarnish his legacy and should eliminate him from these types of discussions.
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.

Big Ten Friday mailblog

March, 28, 2014
Mar 28
4:30
PM ET
Happy hoopin' (and spring footballin').

Twitter!

Inbox!

Marty from Orland Park, Ill., writes: My question is regarding the news that Northwestern players won their petition to unionize. I have read that this ruling would only have an impact on private colleges and universities if it is upheld. Does it also only relate to football players and not any other sport? Also, does it only apply to scholarship athletes, not walk-on athletes?

Adam Rittenberg: Marty, the specific ruling impacts only Northwestern players but could be used for groups from other private institutions. It applies only to Northwestern scholarship football players, as NLRB regional office director Peter Sung Ohr ruled that walk-ons constitute a separate category and wouldn't be part of a union. But if other Northwestern scholarship athletes sought to unionize, they could use this case in their favor.


M.A. Reed from Hamilton, Ohio, writes: Really? Miller and one returning starter ranked No. 3, behind a O-line that graduated---everyone? The Ohio"'lean" is more than obvious, but this is ridiculous. Michigan seven? With 9 starters back who are NOT 18 anymore. I could ID several other points, but it should be obvious. Still not buying in? Really?

Adam Rittenberg: Why should I buy in, M.A.? What has Michigan shown to make me believe it will have a top offense? It could happen. I like Devin Gardner more than most, Derrick Green is in his second year, and the offensive line should -- should, not will -- be improved. But Ohio State is simply a safer bet right now, even with a new-look offensive line. Urban Meyer is one of the best offensive coaches in the country and it's hard not to give Ohio State's staff an edge, especially with Ed Warinner coaching the line. Braxton Miller is a proven playmaker. Devin Smith and Jeff Heuerman provide some threats in the passing game. Michigan has big question marks at receiver aside from Devin Funchess. We see units improve all the time, and Michigan could make big strides this fall. But on paper, Ohio State is better.


Kenny from Cincy writes: Adam, I have been sensing good vibes out of Penn State with James Franklin and a weak schedule next year. It's nice to see it turning around, but can we be real about it? They aren't going to beat Michigan State and had a 60-spot put on that "tough" defense last year by the Buckeyes. They are also going to inevitably lose a game they shouldn't have, as they have done the past several years, and we are looking at a middle-of-the-pack, three- or four-loss season. And that's best-case scenario. Lots of false hope and unrealistic expectations. Rinse and repeat for next season. Am I wrong?

Adam Rittenberg: Kenny, I wouldn't write off the 2014 season before it starts, even though Penn State faces some obstacles. If the Lions can keep their starting 22 relatively healthy, they'll have a chance to do some damage. But it's important to be realistic about all the changes that the players have gone through, as well as the depth challenges that remain in key spots such as the offensive line. Penn State will be an underdog in several games, but it gets both MSU and OSU at home. You can do a lot with a good quarterback and a good coaching staff, and Penn State appears to have both.


Mike from Lincoln, Neb., writes: I have a question regarding two recent events in the B1G that tie together. Do you think the Illinois State Legislature foresaw the ruling in the Northwestern case and are trying to make a case to replace Northwestern? I remember reading that the former Northwestern president saying they might have to drop football if the players won the case. Could this be the way for the Illinois State legislature to replace the B1G's closest Chicago team with someone like Northern Illinois?

Adam Rittenberg: Mike, while I can see why you would make that connection, that's not the intent. The two state senators want to upgrade another state school to provide a second landing spot for strong Illinois high school students who don't get into the University of Illinois. They want a model like Michigan, Indiana and Iowa, which have two options with strong academics and big-time sports. What the senators and many others don't fully grasp is how difficult it would be to place another team in the Big Ten. The league has to want to expand, and most of its presidents and chancellors would have to approve a school like Northern Illinois. It's highly unlikely. Northwestern is a founding member of the league, and I don't anticipate the school's Big Ten status changing.


Bob from Houston writes: While I suspect my Boilermakers will struggle mightily again this year, I have to ask if you see a difference in player/team attitude and mental toughness this spring as opposed to last year.

Adam Rittenberg: I definitely do, Bob. Purdue had to start from scratch last season and spent so much time on simple things, such as how to line up. The teaching process, which I wrote about earlier today, is much more evolved and interactive this spring. There has been improvement in areas such as the offensive line, and more leaders are emerging. Will it translate to a winning season? The nonleague schedule is much easier, but the West Division looks solid and Purdue has crossovers against Michigan State (home) and Indiana (road). But progress is being made in West Lafayette.



SJL from State of Rutgers writes: You are right in labeling Tyler Kroft a "solid option at tight end". I expect big things from him this year. However, in your "Triple Threat Combinations" post you list Nova-James-Kroft as Rutgers' triple threat combination. I'm surprised you overlooked Leonte Carroo. I have to assume the only reason he isn't listed is the uncertainty at quarterback. I guess he won't be much of a threat if the QB play is as poor as it was last year.

Adam Rittenberg: Glad you brought up Carroo, who I could have and probably should have included on the list. If he stays healthy, he'll do some damage for Rutgers this fall. He averaged 17.1 yards per catch and had more than twice as many touchdown catches (nine) as any other Scarlet Knight. I'm interested to see how new offensive coordinator Ralph Friedgen uses Carroo this fall.

Big Ten lunchtime links

March, 28, 2014
Mar 28
12:00
PM ET
Hope your bracket is faring better than mine ...
Thanks to Twitter follower @RevDJEsq for posing an interesting question to us: You're made dictator of the B1G with power to implement three changes. What are they?

Bennett weighed in during Wednesday's mailbag, outlining his three changes: no more 11 a.m. CT kickoffs; a 10-game conference schedule (!!) and a rotation for the Big Ten championship game.

I wanted to weigh in with my three changes, and then open the floor to you.

Me first ...

[+] EnlargeOhio Stadium
Kirby Lee/Image of Sport/USA TODAY SportsNovember night games at the Horseshoe and other Big Ten stadiums? Yes, please.
1. November night games: I've been beating the drum on this issue for years, and we should finally see a breakthrough either this year or next. The Big Ten misses out in a big way when its Saturdays in November are over by 7 p.m. ET. College football is increasingly becoming a prime-time sport, and every league should be gunning for the big national TV window at 8 p.m. ET. Every other conference plays night football in November, including ones that have cold-weather schools, such as the Big 12 and ACC. The Big Ten should have at least one prime-time game the first few Saturdays of November.

2. A Penn State-Nebraska permanent crossover: I never was a huge fan of the permanent crossovers for every team in the Legends/Leaders setup, and I like the Big Ten's emphasis on a strong schedule rotation with the expanded league and the nine-game league schedule (which I prefer to 10 games). But one game I'd like to see every year, if possible, is Nebraska-Penn State. Both fan bases really like the series, and although both teams have potential rivals in their divisions, there are limitations to series like Nebraska-Iowa and Penn State-Ohio State. There's history and commonality with these two programs, and it would be a great game for the Big Ten to feature annually.

3. Variety on bowl game dates: This is another change that should soon materialize as the Big Ten ushers in a new bowl lineup this season. The Big Ten previously has tried to own New Year's Day with the bowls, but many fans don't like having to flip between games. It's more effective to sprinkle in games before, during and after Jan. 1. New Year's Day isn't what it used to be, and fans would prefer to see each game on its own and enjoy the entire bowl window.

You've heard from me. Now I want to hear from you.

Same drill: You're the Big Ten dictator. You get to make three changes to the league.

They can be with scheduling, division alignment, bowls, branding and more.

Send me your responses here. Please be concise -- no more than 80 words per item -- and I'll post the best ones Friday or early next week.
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.
The Elite Eight will be set in the NCAA tournament this weekend. We're already down to the elite eight in our Big Ten coaches tournament.

We started out with a 12-team field that has been narrowed to eight of the best coaches ever to carry a clipboard in the Big Ten (or for a current Big Ten school). Our top four seeds received byes but now have to square off against the first-round winners.

The second round opens with our No. 4 overall seed in action ...

No. 4 Penn State's Joe Paterno vs. No. 5 Michigan's Fielding Yost

Tournament résumés:
    SportsNation

    Which coach wins this second-round matchup?

    •  
      62%
    •  
      38%

    Discuss (Total votes: 9,631)

  • Paterno: For nearly half a century, JoePa was Penn State football. He won a record 409 games, plus two national championships (1982, 1986), and had four other undefeated seasons. He won all four major bowl games -- the Rose, Orange, Fiesta and Sugar -- and was the AFCA national coach of the year five times. Yes, his career ended in scandal and a huge chunk of his wins were vacated by the NCAA. You have to decide for yourself how much that affects his legacy.
  • Yost: Michigan might not be Michigan without Yost. He led the Wolverines to six national titles (1901, 1902, 1903, 1904, 1918 and 1923) while winning 10 Big Ten championships. His career winning percentage of .888 while a Big Ten head coach is the best among those who spent at least a decade in the league.

Which coach advances? Voting is open through the weekend, and drop us a note as to why you voted the way you did. The best responses will run in our results posts.

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Big Ten media days: Penn State's James Franklin
Penn State coach James Franklin talks to Brian Bennett at Big Ten media days.
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