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So you want more prime-time games in the Big Ten? How does Penn State vs. Michigan in the Big House sound?

The Wolverines, of course, have hosted two night games in Michigan Stadium. Those games, against Notre Dame in 2011 and 2013, turned into events and created an electric atmosphere.

No. 3 under the lights will be a conference game against Penn State on Oct. 11. The Notre Dame rivalry is great and all, but this will be two titanic Big Ten programs squaring off in an East Division showdown. It's a worthy addition to the short history of night games at the Big House.

"The night game atmosphere created by our fans has been electric and we expect that same type of energy for our first-ever conference night game against Penn State,” Michigan coach Brady Hoke said in a statement. “Our players really enjoy playing in prime time at Michigan Stadium.”

The Notre Dame-Michigan night games were enhanced by exciting shootouts on the field. We can hope for the same this year between the Nittany Lions and Wolverines, who played a 43-40, four-overtime thriller in Beaver Stadium last year. Because Ohio State-Michigan will likely never be in prime time and Michigan athletic director Dave Brandon doesn't want to play Michigan State at night, this is about the best in-conference matchup you could wish for under the lights at the Big House.

Expect more league prime-time games to be announced soon. This one already has us salivating.
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The Big House is turning on the lights again, and this time it's for a Big Ten showdown.

Michigan and Penn State announced on Monday that their Oct. 11 game in Ann Arbor will kick off at 7 p.m. ET and be televised by ESPN or ESPN2.

This will be the third prime-time game in the history of Michigan Stadium, with the first two coming against Notre Dame in 2011 and 2013. The Wolverines won both contests.

"The night game atmosphere created by our fans has been electric and we expect that same type of energy for our first-ever conference night game against Penn State," Michigan coach Brady Hoke said in a statement released by the school. "Our players really enjoy playing in prime time at Michigan Stadium."


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Big Ten's lunch links

April, 7, 2014
Apr 7
12:00
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Big Ten is desperate for a title. Which one of you is willing to make the sacrifice?

Links time ...

Why future is bright for Penn State

April, 7, 2014
Apr 7
11:32
AM ET

Bear Bryant is most famous for his days as Alabama's head coach, but he may have done his best coaching when he was in charge of the Texas A&M program from 1954 to 1957.

The Aggies were placed on probation after going 1-9 in Bryant's inaugural season at College Station, but his intense recruiting, legendary tough practice sessions at Junction and hyperaggressive approach to overcoming adversity led to an incredible turnaround. Over the next three seasons, Texas A&M went 24-5-2 while winning its first Southwest Conference title since 1941 and first road victory over archrival Texas since 1922.

It is certainly way too early to label what James Franklin is doing at Penn State as a Bryant/Texas A&M-caliber success, but it is hard to ignore some of the similarities to how Franklin is going about turning this program around. His early successes bode well for the Nittany Lions to continue their upward recovery trek and return to conference and national prominence sooner rather than later.

Recruiting/leadership

To get an idea of just how dynamic Franklin can be on the recruiting trail, consider that Penn State recently landed a top-25 recruiting class only a couple of years after the program went through a potential existential crisis.

ESPN Big Ten recruiting reporter Tom VanHaaren had some interesting comments when asked if Franklin will be able to keep up this level of recruiting performance.

"It's looking very likely that Franklin will be a huge force on the recruiting trail within the Big Ten and nationally," VanHaaren said. "Franklin already has 11 commitments in the 2015 class, six of which are ESPN Junior 300 prospects. The new coach said he wanted to dominate the state and the region, and he is already showing that wasn't lip service. All six of the ESPN Junior 300 commitments are from Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Maryland and Virginia.

"This staff isn't afraid to go to battle for top prospects and has already beaten out Ohio State and Michigan within the conference for a few recruits, including offensive lineman Steven Gonzalez (Union City, N.J./Union City) and linebacker Josh Barajas (Merrillville, Ind./Andrean)."

Offense

One of the most important tools a coach can have in turning a program around is a topflight quarterback, and Franklin has that in Christian Hackenberg.

Hackenberg, whom ESPN Big Ten blogger Adam Rittenberg called "a once-in-a-generation type quarterback", won the Big Ten Freshman of the Year award last season in part by closing out strong. He finished third in the conference in Adjusted Total QBR (a metric that adjusts Total QBR by strength of schedule) from November through the end of the season (72.3). He saved his best for last when he posted one of the conference's best individual performances of the season in leading Penn State to a 31-24 road victory over a Wisconsin squad that was favored by 24 points.

A repeat of last season will be made more difficult due in part to the departure of leading wide receiver Allen Robinson, who made an early declaration for the NFL draft.

As meaningful as a loss of that caliber can be, the Nittany Lions do have a number of ways to potentially overcome it.


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STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Last Thursday morning, a barefoot James Franklin exited his office and walked -- Franklin's walk is most people's jog -- through the Penn State football lobby.

Asked about his footwear situation, Franklin explained he had a speaking engagement and needed to change. Moments later, he returned to the lobby and opened a side door filled with shirts and suits.

"That's what happens," Franklin said after selecting his outfit, "when you live in the office."

A lot of football coaches say they live in their offices. It fits the round-the-clock, pedal-down, never-stop-working-'cause-the-other-guy-won't culture of their chosen profession. But at some point, they actually go home, if only for a few hours.

Franklin is actually living in his office at Penn State. He hasn't left for weeks. He recently drove around town simply to get away from the building.

His nights end on couches or on a faulty air mattress. Makes it tougher to do those back handsprings out of bed that Franklin famously begins his days with.

[+] EnlargeJames Franklin
MCT via Getty ImagesEven while sleeping in the office, James Franklin has not lacked for energy in his first few months on the job at Penn State.
"Every night when you leave, you see him pushing couches together," Penn State defensive line coach Sean Spencer said. "You're like, 'You're not staying here again, are you?' And he just shuts his door.

"If he wasn't in here, he'd be in at 5 in the morning and probably leave at 10 or 11 at night anyway. So I guess for the six hours he's going to take a nap, he'll just stay."

There's a somewhat reasonable explanation for Franklin's living situation: His family remains in Nashville, Tenn., and they've yet to secure a new home here. On the other hand, Franklin could easily spring for a hotel room. After signing a contract with Penn State that will pay him $4.25 million annually, he could buy out the entire hotel.

This is more his style. Franklin's corner office is more luxurious than the spare room he lived in while working at Kutztown University, where he earned a $1,200 salary and made ends meet by filling soda machines and tending bar on Sundays. But his approach to coaching -- total immersion, relentless energy -- is the same.

At Franklin's introduction Jan. 11, he delighted Penn State fans with talk of dominating the state in recruiting and unifying the community. He didn't win the news conference. He crushed it.

But his performance left some people wondering two things:

1. Is this guy for real?

2. Is he always like this?

According to Franklin's new players, the answer to both is a resounding yes. Franklin doesn't downshift and neither does his staff. They're propelling Penn State through another potentially treacherous transition -- Franklin is the Lions' fourth coach since November 2011 -- and they aren't slowing down.

"I've never lacked for energy, I've never lacked for enthusiasm," Franklin said. "I'm a realist and see the challenges and issues, but we're going to find ways to overcome 'em."

Penn State faces many challenges in Franklin's first season. The program is only halfway through the four-year period of severe NCAA sanctions.

The scholarship penalties were reduced last year, but the Lions are thin in several spots: offensive line, wide receiver and linebacker. The Lions return an excellent centerpiece in quarterback Christian Hackenberg and other potential All-Big Ten players, but they have to keep them all healthy. Franklin said of the offense: "We're probably going to spend our first two years here solving problems, hiding deficiencies, rather than attacking the defense."

One thing that will never be deficient: Franklin's drive. Penn State players he recruited at past stops see the same full-throttle approach from the coach.

"He's that person all the time," safety Adrian Amos said. "That's very important. It builds a little bit of trust. You know what you're getting."

Added offensive tackle Donovan Smith: "Being a big recruit, coaches would tell you things just because. Coach Franklin always kept it real. Genuine since day one."

Franklin and his assistants, eight of whom he brought to PSU from Vanderbilt, needed to create trust with a team that has endured more recent adversity than any in the country. Although Hackenberg said he's never been on a team so close, players needed to open themselves up to new coaches and schemes.

"Any time there's transition, the players are anxious," defensive coordinator Bob Shoop said. "Sometimes the relationships get tested because you're challenging and pushing them. But [Franklin] always says we can demand a lot as long as we show them how much we care."

During the recruiting rush after Franklin's hiring, Shoop sent late-night text messages to his players, introducing himself and commenting on their play. If he rides a player during practice, he'll send an encouraging text afterward (We're critiquing the performance, not the performer).

Spencer and special teams coordinator Charles Huff use symbolism such as wild dogs and nektonic sea predators to inspire their players. As the team practiced the two-minute drill Wednesday, Franklin called a timeout, clapped his hands in front of kicker Sam Ficken's face and screamed, "I'm icing your ass!" Not only did Ficken make the ensuing field goal, but he drilled a 55-yarder to prevent a team run. Players mobbed Ficken and Franklin.

"I always talk [to players] about matching my intensity," Spencer said. "And as coaches, we have to match the intensity of the head coach, which is hard to do. Ever walk behind that guy? I've never seen anything like it. It's a full-on sprint."

Shoop calls the staff's spirit "our secret sauce," but enthusiasm and hard work don't guarantee wins in the fall.

The Lions have only two healthy offensive linemen (Smith and Angelo Mangiro) who lettered last year. Their leading returning wide receiver, Geno Lewis, had 18 catches in 2013. They lose their only All-Big Ten defender, tackle DaQuan Jones, from a unit that, by Penn State's standards, really struggled. They enter a division featuring Michigan State, Ohio State and Michigan.

PSU needs versatile players, walk-on contributions and good fortune on the injury front.

But after the most turbulent period in team history, the Lions also need consistency. Franklin and his staff intend to provide it.

"The coaches the players see the first week are the same guys they're going to see when they show up here for the 20-year reunion," Franklin said. "It's going to be the same energy and the same personality."
Enjoy the Final Four. And for you Michigan fans out there, enjoy the spring game at the Big House.

Don't forget: Twitter!

To the inbox ...

Kenny from Cincy writes: I was comparing on-the-field accomplishments of the past two Ohio State QBs and I feel like Terrelle Pryor has had a better career (you know, despite crippling the program the next year but I feel like most in Buckeye land have forgiven him). Pryor: 3 Big Ten championships, a Rose Bowl win, and a Sugar Bowl win over a SEC team in three years (I know the games were vacated, but it did happen). Braxton Miller: 0-2 in bowls and 0 Big Ten championships, but two Silver Footballs and 24 wins in a row are nice. My question is, due to the expectations that QBs like Troy Smith and Pryor elevated, do you think Miller has to win a Big Ten championship or more this year or will the Braxton Miller years be seen as a failure in Buckeyes fans' eyes?

Adam Rittenberg: Kenny, this is a really interesting debate regarding each quarterback's legacy. There's no doubt Miller has accomplished more individually than Pryor. He could be the first Big Ten player to win three offensive player of the year awards. He likely would have won a Big Ten championship in 2012 if Ohio State had been eligible for postseason play, but when you look at macro team accomplishments -- league titles and BCS bowl wins -- Pryor definitely gets the edge. He likely was an ill-timed blitz away from having a third BCS bowl win in the 2009 Fiesta Bowl against Texas. One big difference is Pryor played on teams with much better defenses. Miller had several reasons to return for his senior season, and winning a Big Ten title certainly is one of them.


Joe from Phoenix writes: I don't understand everyone's love for a nine-game conference schedule. I do not believe rematches in college football are a good thing, as it makes the first game irrelevant. With a nine-game schedule, you almost guarantee a rematch in the championship game. Why not schedule one more "quality" nonconference game? That way all Big Ten schools have an opportunity to have one more win on their record, and look better for the bowl committees.

Adam Rittenberg: Joe, I hear you and it definitely increases the likelihood of a rematch in the Big Ten championship, but I also see the league's viewpoint. It wants a greater schedule rotation to enhance your product week after week. It wants players to face every league team at least once in a four-year period. I also think it's tricky to demand another quality nonleague game in place of the ninth Big Ten contest. Some schools would step up, but you need teams from other power conferences to play ball, too, which is no guarantee. I also think some schools would schedule cupcakes. Bowl committees rarely care about strength of schedule.


Joe from South Bend, Ind., writes: Adam, what was maybe one thing you found impressive with your visit to Happy Valley and was your one big takeaway?

Adam Rittenberg: Joe, I'm very impressed with James Franklin's staff. They're very sharp guys who know how to keep the energy level high and relate well to a group of new players. Everyone knows that Franklin operates in fifth gear, but his assistants do, too, and there's tremendous cohesion with the staff. It would have been much harder if the staff lacked familiarity as it tried to get to know the players. My big takeaway: Penn State's defense is much further along than the offense, and the Lions likely will need to win low-scoring games this fall. Coordinator Bob Shoop has a good plan and inherits some good pieces. Quarterback Christian Hackenberg is a once-in-a-generation type quarterback, but he'll face more pressure this year because of the issues with the offensive line.


Kevin from Las Vegas writes: Is history the only thing that qualifies a team for elite status? Wisconsin is seen as a sleeper in the B1G, and two years ago they were "elite." Michigan and Ohio State would never be considered "sleepers," even after down years. Is this simply because of historic achievements (lots of national championships when Teddy Roosevelt was president), branding (our helmets have wings!), or lazy writers (not you guys, of course)? Do teams like Wisconsin, Michigan State or Iowa ever really have a shot of being elite because their legacy doesn't include deep history?

Adam Rittenberg: Kevin, it's a good point to raise, especially because I think Michigan State is being overlooked heading into 2014 just because it hasn't been a traditional power. You hear a lot about Ohio State making a run for the College Football Playoff, but Michigan State dominated the Big Ten last year (nine wins by 10 or more points), won the Rose Bowl and brings back quarterback Connor Cook and defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi, among others. Wisconsin has gained national respect in the past 20-plus years, but the Badgers also recently lost three consecutive Rose Bowls, which hurt their cause. Iowa has had its moments but lacks the consistency of Wisconsin. Michigan State, meanwhile, really has it rolling under Mark Dantonio. At some point, the Spartans need to be viewed as elite for what's happening now, not in the past.


Charlie from Chicago writes: What recruits in the conference are due to have breakout seasons in their freshman year?

Adam Rittenberg: There are potentially quite a few this year, Charlie. Early enrollees have an advantage, so keep an eye on players such as Ohio State LB Raekwon McMillan, Michigan WR Freddy Canteen, Ohio State WR Johnnie Dixon and Penn State WR De'Andre Thompkins. Other potential impact recruits arriving in the summer include Michigan CB Jabrill Peppers (the Big Ten's top-rated recruit in the 2014 class), Illinois DE Jihad Ward (junior college transfer), Minnesota RB Jeff Jones and Michigan State DT Malik McDowell, whom Mark Dantonio gushed about Wednesday after he finally signed.
Who is the greatest Big Ten coach of all time?

Our all-time Big Ten coaches tournament is attempting to answer that question, and we're down to our final four candidates. Our first semifinal opened yesterday with No. 3 seed Nebraska's Tom Osborne taking on No. 2 seed Michigan's Bo Schembechler.

Now it's time to take a look at our other Final Four showdown ...

No. 4 Penn State's Joe Paterno vs. No. 1 Ohio State's Woody Hayes

Tournament résumés:
  • SportsNation

    Which coach wins this semifinal matchup?

    •  
      52%
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      48%

    Discuss (Total votes: 22,118)

    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.
  • Hayes: He's the No. 1 seed in the tournament for a reason. Hayes won 205 games, the most of any coach while a member of the Big Ten, and a record 152 league games. He also captured 13 Big Ten championships, tying him for the most all time, and five national titles (1954, 1957, 1961, 1968 and 1970). He was irascible, unyielding and one of a kind, and some of those qualities led to his downfall. But he is virtually synonymous with Ohio State and the Big Ten.

Which coach moves on to the title game? Voting will be open through the weekend, and make sure to drop us a note saying why you voted the way you did. The best responses will run in our results posts.

Big Ten lunchtime links

April, 4, 2014
Apr 4
12:00
PM ET
Winter is coming ... but not soon enough.
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- There are several ways to combat the unique depth challenges Penn State faces with its reduced roster.

1. Upgrade recruiting: If Penn State brings in more players who can make significant contributions early in their careers, it should have fewer gaping holes on the depth chart. Not surprisingly, James Franklin and his assistants are already succeeding here. Penn State signed a top 25 recruiting class in February, less a month after Franklin's hiring. The Nittany Lions already have 11 verbal commitments for the 2015 class, the most in the country, and six ESPN 300 prospects in the fold.

[+] EnlargeMiles Dieffenbach
AP Photo/Gene J. PuskarLosing guard Miles Dieffenbach to a knee injury puts further stress on a Penn State offensive line that was thin to begin with.
2. Pray for good health: Penn State's projected starters could yield good results in the fall. But the Lions can't afford many injuries because at many spots there's a sizable drop off between starter and backup. Although Penn State could get lucky here, veteran guard Miles Dieffenbach reportedly suffered a serious knee injury last week. It's hard to imagine he'll be the only key Lion to go down. Just the nature of the game.

3. Maximize versatility: If a smaller group of players fills a larger number of roles, teams can avoid major trouble spots. It's more of a patchwork solution, but Penn State's sanctions, while originally labeled catastrophic, appear to be a short-term challenge, especially with the way Franklin is recruiting.

As Franklin and his staff evaluate personnel this spring, they're looking for talent, but they're also looking for versatility.

"We as coaches have to be open-minded, and players have to be open-minded," said Charles Huff, PSU's running backs coach and special teams coordinator. "They've got to understand, 'I'm not just a linebacker, I'm not just a running back, I'm not just a wideout. I'm a football player. There may be times, whether it's by play, by game, by unit, that I'm asked to do some things that may not be under the umbrella of my given position.'

"And as coaches, we have to step out of the box with what we're comfortable with and do some things that fit the players better."

No position group at Penn State has greater depth issues than the offensive line. With Dieffenbach out, left tackle Donovan Smith is the only returning starter practicing this spring. Angelo Mangiro is the only other returning letterman who played offensive line in 2013.

There's a need for versatility up front, and Derek Dowrey and Brian Gaia, two converted defensive tackles who shifted to guard only two days before spring practice, both are in the mix for playing time.

"Sometimes it takes months or even a full year to really get it, and those guys for the most part have adapted pretty quickly," offensive coordinator John Donovan said. "It's one thing to learn a new system. It's another thing to learn a new side of the ball plus a new system."

Both Gaia and Dowrey have adjusted so well that Smith can't even tell that they played defense just months earlier.

"They've probably had a better spring than I have," Smith said.

Dowrey and Gaia could help Penn State put a decent starting five on the field this season. But Donovan would like three sets of linemen: the starters, the backups and the redshirts/developmental/emergency group.

Penn State won't have that luxury this season, so the coaches and players must get creative. Franklin recalls how one of his former Vanderbilt players, Wesley Johnson, started at all five offensive line spots during his career.

"We're going to have to have that here," Franklin said. "When you don't have a two-deep of scholarship players, you've got issues. I don't know if there's too many Division I programs that don't have at least a two-deep at every position. We don't. It is what it is. We're going to have to find ways to overcome it.

"It might be a situation almost like an NFL roster where you have your five starters and then your sixth man backs up every position."

Penn State's personnel situation is better on defense, but coordinator Bob Shoop and his staff still look for flexibility. Although Deion Barnes and C.J. Olaniyan have played defensive end throughout their careers, Shoop thinks both could play outside linebacker when the Lions switch from a 4-3 alignment to a 3-4.

Adrian Amos already has started at both safety and cornerback for the Lions. While he’s back at safety, he could help on the perimeter opposite Jordan Lucas if needed. Shoop has shown Amos film of how he used Vanderbilt defenders in multiple roles. They watched film on Wednesday of Mark Barron of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers working at both safety spots and as as linebacker in the dime package.

"He could definitely play corner," Shoop said of Amos. "He could play safety, he could be a nickel, he could be a dime for us. He and Jordan both provide a significant amount of flexibility."

Scholarship players who can play several positions is one way to combat depth issues. Another is the strong walk-on program that Franklin inherits at Penn State.

His PSU predecessor Bill O'Brien repeatedly emphasized the importance of non-scholarship players, whom he called run-ons. Penn State recently had a meeting for potential walk-ons and 160 students attended, according to Franklin.

"We could have given pizzas away at [Vanderbilt] and not had that many people show up," Franklin said. "We had seven guys playing for us who never played high school football. Here, we had really good numbers show up, really good quality."

The Lions coaches hope with versatile scholarship players and willing, capable walk-ons, they can win the numbers game this fall.
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Veteran defensive end Brad Bars is seeking a sixth year of eligibility, and he said Thursday afternoon that Penn State's compliance office is already working on putting together a case.

"I would absolutely love to get a sixth year," said Bars, who missed the entire 2013 season with a ruptured Achilles tendon. "I missed over 28 games at Penn State because of injury, so I've missed plenty of games to get that sixth year."

Bars played in eight games as a redshirt sophomore and made just two tackles. But he was expected to see an increased role in 2013 as a backup, until he suffered the injury during workouts in mid-July.

He'll likely be the primary backup at defensive end this season and, with the impending graduation of senior C.J. Olaniyan, could challenge for the starting job next season -- if the NCAA grants his request.

"It's such a long process," Bars said. "You have to have the medical documentation from the doctors, and we had previous doctors here and previous trainers. So, a lot of that stuff takes time to get. ... It's kind of been progressing along, but I'd say there's still a lot of work to be done to get that."

Bars is most well-known for a key play during his redshirt freshman season, when he blocked an Illinois punt in the fourth quarter in the Nittany Lions' 10-7 win. Illinois led 7-0 prior to the play.

The Nashville, Tenn., native said the sixth year of eligibility has rested in the back of his mind since last summer. But he's trying not to focus on that this spring.

"Honestly, I'm just working my butt off for this year," Bars said. "If I take care of my business and stay healthy, this is going to be a great year for our team and for myself. So I'm not thinking about my sixth year right now.

"I'm focusing on 2014 because that's a definite, and I don't know if my sixth year's for sure or not."

Big Ten lunch links

April, 3, 2014
Apr 3
12:00
PM ET
Sure looked like Eddie Johnson was onside to me. I'll count it as another rivalry win.
  • Ohio State offensive line coach Ed Warinner joined in the tradition of poking fun at a rival during a fundraising event with fans. Should anybody be offended by his canned jokes?
  • Michigan coach Brady Hoke responded to Warinner's comments with a bit of humor of his own.
  • Mark Dantonio doesn't usually hold press conferences to talk about one player, but the recruitment of Malik McDowell called for some discussion of how it all went down for Michigan State.
  • Penn State tight end Adam Breneman will be on the shelf for the rest of spring practice thanks to a bone bruise in his knee.
  • Nebraska wide receiver Sam Burtch is a no-nonsense guy, and his businesslike approach could be a boost for the offense this fall.
  • Mark Weisman saw plenty of room to grow after reviewing every carry from last season, and the Iowa running back might need to improve to keep getting most of the carries in a crowded backfield.
  • Purdue tailback Raheem Mostert's speed isn't up for debate based on his times on the track. The next thing he has to do is prove he can be physical on the football field.
  • Illinois is looking for more team speed on defense, and the early returns from spring practice suggest the unit might be getting faster.
  • Yet another Big Ten tight end is currently stuck on the sideline during spring practice, and like the others, Tyler Kroft is trying to make the most of it.
  • Deon Long is now "90 percent" healthy, but he's well on the way to getting back and helping Maryland at wide receiver.
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STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- The young and curious are approaching Christian Hackenberg more often these days, peppering the Penn State quarterback with questions about game speed and other topics.

It will slow down, Hackenberg tells his teammates. Just keep working. Everything's going to be alright.

Hackenberg is the reigning Big Ten Freshman of the Year. He's in the spring semester of his freshman year. He celebrated his 19th birthday on Valentine's Day.

He's also a graybeard at Penn State, as crazy as it sounds.

"The guys look at me as one of the older guys, especially the early enrollees," Hackenberg told ESPN.com on Wednesday. "'I still look at myself as the just-turned-19-year-old freshman."

[+] EnlargeChristian Hackenberg
Dan Sanger/Icon SMIEven though he's merely a rising sophomore, Christian Hackenberg has become a player that his younger Penn State teammates look up to.
That a Penn State quarterback going through his first spring practice -- remember, Hackenberg was in high school at this time last year -- could be labeled an old guy seemed laughable not long ago. In 2010, Rob Bolden became the first true freshman quarterback at Penn State to start the season opener since Shorty Miller in 1910. Future Nittany Lions coach Rip Engle was four years old at the time. Joe Paterno wouldn't be born for another 16 years.

Now the Lions have had two freshman opening-game starters in four seasons. Hackenberg's accelerated ascent isn't a huge surprise given the hype that surrounded him in high school. Anyone who watched him last season, especially in his final performance in an upset win at Wisconsin on the Badgers' senior day (339 pass yards, 4 TDs, 0 INTs), knew he was no ordinary freshman.

But after starting all 12 games for the Lions in 2013, Hackenberg has both the credentials and the credibility to claim a larger leadership role in an offense facing significant depth challenges along the line and at wide receiver.

"It's tough to try and claim that as a sophomore, but I'm one of the most experienced guys returning on this offense," said Hackenberg, who passed for 2,955 yards with 20 touchdowns and 10 interceptions last fall. "What I went through last year has prepared me to be able to step into that role more than if I would not have played or just played a little bit.

"I'm trying to be a leader through my actions."

His actions this spring include absorbing a new offense described as personnel-driven, pro-style. There are similarities to the system Hackenberg operated under former coach Bill O'Brien, especially the protections and some terminology.

But there's also a lot to learn.

"Some games we may come out in heavy tight end sets, some games we might come out in empty sets," Hackenberg said. "It's more multiple."

Hackenberg boasts the strongest arm in the Big Ten and is lauded for being able to make just about any throw. But it's the simple throws -- the underneath routes, which he "babied" at times last season, or the comeback routes -- where he wants greater consistency.

The 6-foot-4, 220-pound sophomore-to-be has formed a quick connection with new Lions offensive coordinator John Donovan, whose approach reminds him of O'Brien's. Hackenberg also has been in touch with quarterback guru George Whitfield Jr., with whom he worked at the Elite 11 high school camp. Whitfield has tutored other Big Ten quarterbacks such as Michigan State's Connor Cook and Ohio State's Braxton Miller in the offseason.

Nothing is set yet, but if Hackenberg seeks outside assistance, he'd pick Whitfield.

"He's worked with the best of the best the past couple years coming out," Hackenberg said, "so being able to get comparisons to that and see what they did to prepare, that would be good."

Hackenberg also must vary his targets in 2014. Wide receiver Allen Robinson, who had more than three times as many receptions (97) as any other Penn State player last season, is preparing for the NFL draft. There are capable options like tight end Jesse James, who shined during Wednesday's practice, as well as tight ends Kyle Carter and Adam Breneman and wideout Geno Lewis, but none likely can come close to Robinson's production.

"Allen was a guy I really leaned on because I honestly didn't know what to expect a lot of the times last year," Hackenberg said. "I was seeing things for the first time -- going to the Horseshoe for the first time, going against Ohio State’s defense for the first time, seeing Michigan here in a whiteout for the first time. So when you're in those situations, you tend to lean on guys you’ve worked with, and Allen and I worked really hard in the summer together.

"Now I look at myself as filling in Allen's shoes because we have a lot of guys coming in. I just want to be a guy who can help put those guys in situations to succeed. I really want to spread the ball around this year."

New PSU coach James Franklin sees Hackenberg as a smart, demanding player who brings more athleticism to the field that many believe. Hackenberg clocked a 4.7 in the 40-yard dash during Penn State's recent testing.

Franklin and his staff face plenty of challenges on offense, primarily a line with glaring experience and depth issues. But the Lions undoubtedly have their centerpiece.

"He's got a chance to be a special player," Franklin said of Hackenberg. "We're just going to have to keep developing him here over the next three years."

Phase 2 begins this fall.

Big Ten Wednesday mailbag

April, 2, 2014
Apr 2
5:00
PM ET
Back from Michigan. And back to the mailbag.

Caleb from MSU writes: With Malik McDowell finally in the fold, we now have a better look at the pieces available to the MSU defensive line. That being said, what are the chances McDowell starts and or contributes in a major way this year? With [Marcus] Rush and [Shilique] Calhoun on the ends, there could be some favorable matchups on the inside. Or do you think he needs time to mature to the college game?

Brian Bennett: Caleb, it's really tough to predict how much a young guy will contribute before he ever makes it to campus. But McDowell was a big-time recruit, or else we wouldn't have been nearly so interested in him. Mark Dantonio usually likes to redshirt guys on the lines, but he said Wednesday that McDowell would likely play this fall because, "I just think he’s too big and strong and fast.” The Spartans are excited about Joel Heath's potential on the inside, but after losing Tyler Hoover and Micajah Reynolds off last season's team, there should be some opportunities for McDowell to at least contribute.


Kyle G. from Prior Lake, Minn., writes: Curious as to what your thoughts are on the Gophers defense for this upcoming season. A lot of guys returning. Could they [rank] in the top half of the Big Ten?

Brian Bennett: Minnesota didn't lose a lot of players off last season's defense, but they must replace their best defensive lineman (Ra'Shede Hageman), two starting linebackers (Aaron Hill and James Manuel) and a very good defensive back (Brock Vereen). So those are concerns. But I think Jerry Kill and Tracy Claeys have shown they can put together a strong defense, and they still have some good players to work with such as defensive end Theiren Cockran and corner Eric Murray. If someone such as Scott Ekpe steps up to help replace Hageman in the middle and some young linebackers move forward, this has a chance to be an upper-level Big Ten defense.


Jon L. via Twitter writes: Read some stuff at NU specific sites but interested in a broader opinion... What will Kain Colter's legacy be in the BIG and at NU?

Brian Bennett: Good question, but the answer is tied to the eventual outcome of the unionization case. Maybe the full NLRB or the Supreme Court eventually rules against the union movement, or Northwestern's players elect not to unionize. Then this could become an interesting footnote. Or maybe Colter winds up as college sports' version of Curt Flood, an excellent player in his own right who's now known more for his role in bringing about free agency in baseball. Colter's legacy as a player is solid, as he helped lead Northwestern to 10 wins in 2012 and guided the Wildcats to their first bowl victory in 64 years. But whether he's eventually viewed as a pioneer who helped improve athletes' causes or someone who brought down college sports as we know them can't possibly be known yet.


Timmer S. via Twitter writes: Would an annual B1G-ACC football tourney ever be possible? Would be an awesome Week 2 event. Probably tough to schedule.

Brian Bennett: It would be a blast, and there are already some natural tie-ins with Penn State-Pitt, the Rutgers and Maryland connections and Notre Dame. But as we saw with the short-lived Big Ten/Pac-12 alliance idea, it's just extremely difficult to schedule these types of things in football because teams have vastly different priorities, rivalries, etc. The ACC has talked about having such an alliance with the SEC, where there are already a lot of established interconference clashes. So I don't think we'll ever see a Big Ten/ACC football challenge materialize.


Chris Grandview, Mo., writes: Brian, I am wondering why more and more people want Penn State over Iowa to play Nebraska on Black Friday? I mean, there is history for both Iowa and Penn State playing Nebraska, but why now does everyone think Penn State will be a better matchup now? Look at last year; no one picked Iowa, like I did, to beat Nebraska and Iowa completely dominated Nebraska. Are fans of the Big Ten afraid Iowa can't handle their own now, or that Penn State is some better program always, compared to Iowa? Thanks for your time, sir!

Brian Bennett: Fans from both Penn State and Nebraska have enjoyed that series, and there is some interesting history there, as you noted. So I understand that. But I've also said repeatedly that the Heroes Game series between Iowa and Nebraska just needs time to grow. The geography makes that a natural potential rivalry, and it will also be a West Division game. The Hawkeyes' victory in Lincoln was the first step in making that more of an actual rivalry. These things need some time to develop, and I think eventually Iowa-Nebraska can become a much more interesting end-of-season affair.
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- You've likely heard about SEC-style recruiting in the Big Ten, first with Urban Meyer at Ohio State and now with James Franklin at Penn State.

Franklin appears to bringing a taste of his former league to the practice field at Penn State. "Aggressive" was the word most often used by Lions players Wednesday when describing the atmosphere this spring with the new coaching staff.

Senior linebacker Mike Hull finds a direct correlation between Franklin's past at Vanderbilt and his present at Penn State.

"Everyone respects the SEC mentality and what those guys did down there," Hull said. "It's been really positive for myself and the rest of the guys."

Penn State players have gone through the Lion's Den, more commonly known as the Oklahoma Drill, in several practices this spring. Although the program is still dealing with limited scholarships, players are going through more contact in workouts than in the past.

"It's a lot more rugged, tough, a lot more demanding as far as hitting goes in practice," Hull said. "I think that's why those guys [in the SEC] play so tough. Definitely we're hitting a lot more."

Hull said Penn State hit during almost every practice period during the early part of spring practice, mainly so the coaches could evaluate what they inherited. Since then, things have been toned down a bit, but the mentality remains.

Offensive line coach Herb Hand wants his group, arguably the thinnest on the roster, to control the "lion of scrimmage."

"We're going to be dominant, impose our will," tackle Donovan Smith said. "Everybody thinks the defensive line has to be aggressive and the offensive line is just whatever. But that's changing."

Cornerback Jordan Lucas also used the a-word when describing the defense being installed this spring under coordinator Bob Shoop. The scheme allows players to "have personality," which suits Lucas.

"It lets me be myself as a player," Lucas said. "I'm going to be doing a lot of different things this year, so my aggression is going to help me out and work well within this defense."

Safety Adrian Amos isn't big on comparing Penn State to other teams or, in this case, another league. But the senior has noticed some changes this spring.

"We do have a competitive mentality, if that's what you're trying to say," he said. "We're competing in everything, just getting after it, how football is intended to be."

Court won't hear Sandusky appeal

April, 2, 2014
Apr 2
4:08
PM ET

HARRISBURG, Pa. -- The state's highest court on Wednesday said it would not review Jerry Sandusky's child molestation conviction. But other legal avenues remain open to the former Penn State assistant football coach.

Sandusky had asked the Pennsylvania Supreme Court to take up his 45-count conviction, arguing that his lawyers were rushed to trial in 2012 and that prosecutors improperly made reference to his decision not to testify.

He also said the trial judge should have issued a jury instruction about how long it took his alleged victims to report the abuse and that jurors should not have been told to weigh evidence of his good character against all other evidence.

Sandusky defense attorney Norris Gelman said he was disappointed by the court's decision, which was issued in the form of a one-sentence order. Sandusky can file a new appeal.

"I'm sure he will," Gelman said.

Attorney General Kathleen Kane, whose office prosecuted Sandusky, issued a statement saying she was pleased with the decision.

"Protecting Pennsylvania's children is one of my top priorities, and I remain committed to seeking justice for all victims of sexual abuse," Kane said.

The prosecutor's office argued that Sandusky did not provide sufficient basis for the Supreme Court to take up the matter and that decisions made by the trial judge did not violate his rights.

Michael Boni, a lawyer who represents Aaron Fisher and other Sandusky victims, said the Supreme Court made the right call.

"Hopefully this will, once and for all, put to bed any lingering hopes that Jerry will have his sentence reversed, his convictions reversed," Boni said. "It's a happy day for the victims."

Sandusky, 70, is serving a 30- to 60-year prison sentence for sexual abuse of 10 boys.


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