Penn State Nittany Lions: Adam Gress

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Spring practice is still several weeks away, so we're bringing you a different countdown every week to try to make that time tick a little faster.

This week's countdown involves a look back at the past decade of recruiting classes, from 2004 on, and figuring out the five most impactful groups. Up today is a more recent class, so the names here will definitely ring a bell ...

No. 5 most impactful class: Class of 2011

Top prospects: DB Adrian Amos, DE Deion Barnes, RB Bill Belton, TE Kyle Carter, LB Ben Kline, OG Angelo Mangiro, WR Allen Robinson, OT Donovan Smith, DL Anthony Zettel

[+] EnlargeAllen Robinson
AP Photo/John BealeAllen Robinson came to Penn State as a two-star prospect. He left as one of the greatest wide receivers in school history.
Biggest surprise: Robinson. He came in as a two-star prospect with the second-lowest grade of the class, behind only OL Anthony Alosi. Three years later, he's leaving Penn State early as one of its greatest wide receivers ever. He set the single-season school records for both catches (97) and yards (1,432), and accounted for more than 46 percent of the Nittany Lions' passing offense in 2013. He was the team's best player this past season and the offense's top threat in 2012.

Impact player: Besides Robinson? Amos. There's some good variety to choose from here -- hence why this class is No. 5 -- and, although Amos struggled some as a sophomore, he's still the team's most athletic defensive back. He's going to finish his career as a four-year starter and, if he sticks with cornerback or starts off hot at safety, he should bounce back from that sophomore "slump." He's got a high ceiling and has the ability to to be an All-Big Ten player.

Why the class is important: Depth was not a strength for PSU in 2012 or 2013, and this class hit just where it needed to when it needed to. Take a look at who's currently behind some of the key players from this class. Imagine a 2013 receiving corps without Robinson or a 2013 offensive line that was forced to start Adam Gress and Garry Gilliam every game. How about a 2012 secondary led by Stephon Morris and ... Da'Quan Davis? Or a defensive line without Barnes and Zettel? If this class was a bust like 2010, the Nittany Lions would not have bounced back quite so strongly after the sanctions.

This was the class of the "Supa Six," and although that nickname's now gone along with A-Rob, there are plenty of players who'll turn out to be three- or four-year starters. Amos, Barnes, Carter and Smith are among them. This wasn't a flashy class when it signed -- only two ESPN 150 prospects were included -- but it's more than made up for that with its production and potential.

Looking to the past & future: OL

December, 24, 2013
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It's never too late -- or too early -- to see what we learned from this season and also look ahead to next season. So, we've started breaking down each position on the Nittany Lions.

Up today: Offensive line.

REWIND

Expectations entering the 2013 season: OL coach Mac McWhorter's group was expected to start fast, as it returned three primary starters and several other players who saw significant time in 2012.

[+] EnlargeDonovan Smith
AP Photo/Kevin TanakaOffensive tackle Donovan Smith was expected to be a breakout star, but he didn't quite live up to his potential this season.
LT Donovan Smith was a favorite on projected breakout lists, and John Urschel often said that center Ty Howle was the most underrated lineman on the team. The real question mark surrounded right tackle, and whether Adam Gress or Garry Gilliam could step up. With an extra year under McWhorter and strength coach Craig Fitzgerald, many believed this line would be as good -- or better -- than 2012.

How they fared: They didn't quite get off to the start they wanted -- even Urschel admitted that. Consistency was difficult to come by early in the season, and Smith certainly didn't live up to his potential. Bill O'Brien didn't start him for a game -- and that certainly appeared to send a message -- but this line played its best football at the end of the year.

Zach Zwinak rushed for 563 yards in the last four games. And, overall, PSU allowed 22 sacks on the season -- which isn't too bad considering a rookie was standing in the pocket and sometimes taking too long to throw the ball. This line played as expected in the second half of the season, but it was a different story in the first half.

What we learned: This line is pretty versatile. Left tackle and right tackle were relatively interchangeable, Angelo Mangiro could play anywhere along the interior and Eric Shrive could play anywhere outside of center. We saw this in 2012, but 2013 just reinforced it. When some players found themselves injured or in slumps, this line showed it was pretty flexible and able to adjust.

Grade: B. This a little tricky because the grade in the first six games would've been markedly different than the last six games. Overall, though, this line played above-average. Urschel was an All-Big Ten player who was selected as a third-team All-American by the AP. Gilliam was a pleasant surprise, Smith a disappointment, and everyone else played close to as expected.

FAST FORWARD

Key losses: OG Urschel, C Howle, OT Gress. Gilliam still hasn't made up his mind on whether to stay. First, he was staying, then leaving ... and then he wasn't sure. His decision will have quite an impact on this group, however. If he leaves, PSU has to plug three openings on the line -- and right tackle will be the biggest concern of all since three of PSU's top four tackles would then graduate.

Position stock watch: Trending downward. Even if Gilliam stays, the offensive line is going to have a lot of question marks to overcome. Mangiro will be able to fill one spot along the interior, but who else will start? Wendy Laurent, who played in five games? And just think about that hole at right tackle if Gilliam does leave. It seems as if freshman Andrew Nelson might have to take over out of necessity. Depth is a thing of the past for this group.

Key to next season: Finding key contributors to add depth. For the last two seasons, PSU hasn't had to search long to find players who could give the starters a quick breather. But it's going to be a bit more difficult this offseason. Laurent, Anthony Alosi and Tanner Hartman have to add weight to their frames before they become viable options. (No lineman under 290 pounds saw significant time last season, and those three are all under 290.) And players who look the part -- such as 6-foot-4, 305-pound OG Brendan Mahon or 6-5, 297-pound OT Nelson -- haven't yet played a single snap. PSU is likely going to have to play some linemen who aren't quite ready, so they're ability to overcome the obvious learning curve will be paramount.

3 PSU players to forgo final seasons

November, 19, 2013
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STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Coach Bill O'Brien announced Tuesday that three Penn State players will forgo their final seasons of eligibility and be honored Saturday along with the seniors.

Here's a look at each player, what he has meant to the team and who will be taking his place next season:

DT Kyle Baublitz, 6-foot-5, 281 pounds

Season stats: Started seven out of 10 games. 17 tackles, two sacks, one blocked kick.

Synopsis: Baublitz announced Saturday he decided to move on with his life and will perform student-teaching next year at State College Area High School instead of starting along the PSU interior. He will be missed immensely, as he was expected to start alongside Austin Johnson in 2014 as the clear No. 1. His departure leaves PSU in a very difficult spot with DaQuan Jones graduating. PSU clearly doesn't feel very good at this position because it continues to go after juco defensive tackles -- and it wouldn't be out of the question for a first-year player to make an impact next year either.

Taking over: No returning defensive tackles have a lot of experience (i.e. -- Derek Dowrey and Brian Gaia), so the smart money would be on defensive end Anthony Zettel moving inside. Zettel said several weeks ago he feels confident he can make an impact along the interior, and PSU could certainly use him. PSU likes to use at least three players on a rotation, so expect Zettel-Johnson to start inside with another guy -- possibly a first-year player -- also seeing a good amount of time.

RT Garry Gilliam, 6-6, 303

Seasons stats: Played in nine games and started four. Helped PSU average 4.2 ypc.

Synopsis: Gilliam is easily the most surprising of the bunch. He moved from tight end to offensive tackle in the offseason, and he has done a tremendous job at transitioning. He has battled Adam Gress for the starting spot all season and, if he returned next year, he'd almost certainly be the starter opposite LT Donovan Smith -- especially considering the other competition, Gress and Eric Shrive, are set to graduate. There's not a lot of options at offensive tackle with Gilliam leaving.

Taking over: O'Brien has been high on freshman Andrew Nelson all season, and he could be the heir apparent. There really aren't too many other options. Anthony Alosi can play both guard and tackle -- but he'll be the only other returning player who's listed as a tackle on the roster. PSU needs to replace two inside linemen, too, so moving a guard to the outside will require quite a bit of forward thinking.

WR Alex Kenney, 6-0, 195.

Season stats: Played in six games with zero starts. Has three catches for 25 yards.

Synopsis: He's the least-surprising player to graduate early. He came in to Penn State as a four-star recruit, but he never really made an impact. He always seemed to be a track athlete in a football uniform. He was supplanted this season by freshman Richy Anderson, and he hasn't caught a pass since Week 3. Even with PSU's top-two receivers likely leaving after this season, Kenney still wouldn't have seen time next season.

Taking over: Anderson has already taken over for Kenney, so it's not much of a stretch to think he'll stay at his slot position. Anderson has 11 catches for 95 yards so far.

Planning for success: Penn State

November, 7, 2013
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STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Offensive tackle Adam Gress offered a slight shrug.

He didn't have any simple answer as to why his Nittany Lions seemed to struggle on the road. He wasn't totally sure why PSU dropped a game to Indiana, 44-24, and Ohio State, 63-14, while away from Beaver Stadium.

"I doubt that's really related to being on the road," he said. "I wouldn't say that it has that much to do with being on the road as it does with how the game went."

[+] EnlargeBill O'Brien
Rich Barnes/USA TODAY SportsBill O'Brien says it's hard to say why Penn State has struggled on the road.
Penn State has only played away from Happy Valley twice this conference season -- losing both times -- and, although the Nittany Lions don't seem to know the cause for those two road woes, they're hoping for a change on Saturday against Minnesota.

The Golden Gophers are 7-2 , and they're 4-1 so far at home. Their only loss at TFC Bank Stadium came more than six weeks ago against Iowa.

"We didn't really address it," defensive end Anthony Zettel said of those road troubles. "This is a big game for us. … Sometimes they might go bad, but we're going to come out prepared."

Added Bill O'Brien: "Obviously, we haven't played as well on the road. It's hard to pinpoint why. Hopefully that changes."

Sure, the sample size -- two games -- is a bit small and it might be too early to label a two-game skid on the road a trend. But it's just one more question mark the Nittany Lions will have to deal with this weekend.

Minnesota is playing its best football of the season right now. Philip Nelson threw for a career-high 298 passing yards last week, and his team's riding a three-game Big Ten win streak thanks to Northwestern, Nebraska and Indiana. Penn State's inconsistent defense will be matched up against a run-first offense that's starting to open up the playbook -- and the Lions seemed much more concerned with that than any notion of trouble on the road.

"They're 7-2," cornerback Adrian Amos said. "And that says something because you really don't go 7-2 being a slouch team."

O'Brien said his team will focus on Minnesota's tells for play-action passes. He'll help coach the defense to stay on top of routes. And he'll try to mix up the tempo on offense to throw the Gophers off.

If they do all that, O'Brien intimated, those road woes will start turning into road wins.

"We'll string some good practices together and be ready to go on Saturday," he said. "So, hopefully, we can change the tide of not playing well on the road right now."

Penn State finds its own motivation

October, 23, 2013
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It's natural to wonder about Penn State's motivation.

We’re nearing the final month of the season in a physically demanding sport and the Nittany Lions' players have no possibility of a bowl game because of NCAA sanctions.

There's no reason, however, to wonder about Penn State's motivation for this week.

If any player, however, needs a reason to get excited about going to play the No. 4 team in the country, on the road, under the lights and in front of 100,000 fans, then he should return his shoulder pads and scholarship check immediately. Playing at Ohio State at the Horseshoe on Saturday night is about as good as it gets.

"No offense to the bowl system," Penn State head coach Bill O'Brien said Tuesday, " ... [but] I I don't know of too many bowl games that are better than that, other than the national championship game."

Penn State has no natural rivals in the Big Ten. At least until Maryland and Rutgers join the league next year, Ohio State remains the nearest school geographically, and of course, the Buckeyes have often presented the biggest road block for a conference or division title. While the two programs might not exactly fit the mold as rivals, this is about as close as it gets for Penn State.

"It's definitely a game that we're a little bit more into and that we're definitely excited to play," linebacker Glenn Carson said. "Ohio State is probably one of our biggest games that we look forward to every year and talk about every year."

It's not quite true to say Penn State has nothing to play for. The Nittany Lions can technically win the Leaders Division title and trophy, as Ohio State did last year while on probation. While they trail the Buckeyes by one game in the standings, a win in Columbus would give them the head-to-head tiebreaker going forward.

Penn State can also play the role of spoiler this season. It can ruin Ohio State's streak of perfection by finding a way to win at the 'Shoe a la 2011 and 2008. The Lions can also have a say in the Big Ten race later this season when they host Nebraska on Nov. 23, or potentially mess up a BCS at-large bid for Wisconsin in the finale at Madison.

But the players say they don't think too much about those things. In fact, the big picture rarely enters their mind since their picture is limited in scope, anyway.

[+] EnlargeOhio Stadium
David Dermer/Getty ImagesPenn State will get a raucous, night-game crowd at Ohio State this weekend.
"We go in expecting to win every game, but we also go in embracing the underdog role," offensive lineman Adam Gress said. "Every game is a big game with nothing to lose, in our opinion. It's no secret that we're not going to bowl games and things like that. So every game's a big one."

O'Brien stresses that Penn State plays a dozen one-game series. Yes, it's cliché coachspeak to some degree, but O'Brien has to come up with ways to keep the team excited. While on probation last year, Ohio State could push for an unbeaten season, a carrot that's already out of reach for the Nittany Lions. And since the current bowl ban is unusually long -- Penn State is not eligible for a bowl until 2016, unless the NCAA decides to shorten that sanction -- there's no reward on the immediate horizon.

So the only choice is to look at each game as its own opportunity.

"Everyone on the team just loves to win and loves to play hard each week," Carson said. "We just come in really determined to get that win. That's really all the motivation that we need."

No one questioned Penn State's motivation last week when it beat Michigan in an emotional four-overtime game a week after a dispiriting loss at Indiana. Maybe you can wonder what the Nittany Lions are playing for next month, when they face Illinois, Minnesota and Purdue in three straight games.

But definitely not this week.

"I think our kids are very, very motivated for the challenge of playing in this conference," O'Brien said.

Video: Penn State RT Adam Gress

September, 19, 2013
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Josh Moyer talks with Penn State right tackle Adam Gress about the offensive line's improvement, upcoming opponent Kent State -- and why teammates call him "Sasquatch."

Big Ten lunchtime links

September, 19, 2013
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Unlike in Cleveland, there are no white flags waving here in September.
  • Given the choice between two of Michigan's rivals, Brady Hoke knows who he is cheering for when Michigan State takes on Notre Dame. The Wolverines are looking to "redeem themselves" with a primetime audience watching on Saturday night.
  • Connor Cook is getting the majority of the work leading Michigan State's offense at quarterback, but there are still four guys in the mix at the position. The Spartans have struggled defensively over the last couple games with Notre Dame.
  • Minnesota quarterback Philip Nelson's injured hamstring hasn't fully healed yet, so Mitch Leidner is in line for more work on Saturday against San Jose State. The Gophers will have their hands full defensively against David Fales, one of the most efficient passers in the nation.
  • Stephen Houston is making the most of life as a backup running back for the Hoosiers. A run of injuries on the offensive line is testing Indiana's depth (subscription required).
  • Taylor Richards is grading out well with the coaches and earning praise from him teammates, and Purdue can certainly use his playmaking ability on defense. The Boilermakers have played some "Jump Around" at practice and are working on their communication to prepare for the noise at Wisconsin.
  • Freshman cornerback Matt Harris is turning heads on the practice field for Northwestern, and he's making a bid for more playing time, perhaps even a starting role. The secondary is still making some plays either way, and safety Ibraheim Campbell has an impressive streak going.
  • Tim Beckman has broken the season into quarters, and the first one was a measured success for Illinois. Quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase is taking some of the blame for sack issues early in the season.
  • Big plays from receiver Jeff Duckworth have earned him a legendary nickname from Wisconsin. The Badgers are seeing quarterback Joel Stave improving every game, even though he only put up average passing numbers last weekend.
  • The Nebraska administration, with an assist from Tom Osborne, has helped the program avoid a potentially nasty turn in the Bo Pelini saga, writes Steven M. Sipple. On the field, Huskers assistants are still trying to make adjustments on both sides of the ball.
  • Cornerback Jordan Lucas and the Penn State defense have something to prove coming off a rocky outing against Central Florida. Like growing long hair, allowing an offensive line to come together takes time, according to right tackle Adam Gress.
  • Forget about the nickel and dime, Ohio State's "penny" defense is its answer for spread offenses thanks to depth in the secondary. Braxton Miller was on the practice field on Wednesday and is likely to play a limited role against Florida A&M, but defensive end Adolphus Washington will miss a second consecutive game with a groin injury.
  • Mark Weisman is carrying the football at a record pace for Iowa, and his body is handling the workload just fine. The Hawkeyes are gearing up for a big test in the secondary from Western Michigan.

Hackenberg continuing to evolve at PSU

September, 18, 2013
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STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Bill O'Brien isn't one to shower praise upon his players. The Penn State head coach is more likely to punt on fourth-and-inches than to lob compliments at a standout performer.

He tends to diffuse praise throughout the team, reiterating that wins don't come from individuals. But that exercise has become a bit trickier lately with his true freshman quarterback, whom he's been asked about at every opportunity.

[+] EnlargeChristian Hackenberg
Nabil K. Mark/Centre Daily Times/Getty ImagesFreshman quarterback Christian Hackenberg has already started to become a leader for the Nittany Lions.
Is he surprised Christian Hackenberg is completing 71 percent of his passes? "I expect him to complete every pass," O'Brien said flippantly. What about a performance that's seen him win two Big Ten freshman of the week awards and rank third in the conference with 851 passing yards? "I'd give 'em a 'B,'" O'Brien said.

One wonders what it might take for an "A" on the O'Brien grading scale. But the coach is just trying to keep the aw-shucks kid from Virginia humble. Fans had anointed Hackenberg the quarterback of the future, the savior of the offense, before he could attend a senior prom. He was a household name in the Keystone State a year before he ever slid on his No. 14 jersey.

And he has still met lofty expectations and become a staple of the O'Brien press conference by coming a long way in just three short weeks. Against Syracuse in the season opener, O'Brien called run plays on third-and-long and steered his quarterback into short, high-percentage passes. In Week 2, against Eastern Michigan, Hackenberg aired out the ball more following his first quarter fumble that was returned for a touchdown. O'Brien chose to pass on eight straight third downs.

And, in Week 3, against Central Florida? Hackenberg ran the NASCAR no-huddle offense, checked down on some plays, didn't commit a turnover and nearly led a comeback in PSU's 34-31 loss. He finished with a QBR of 82.9; a perfect score is 100.

"There's definitely not as much anxiety," Hackenberg said Wednesday afternoon. "I've experienced pretty much everything that I could on the field at this level so, really, it just comes down to preparation and continuing to get better each week."

Ask Hackenberg's teammates about his evolution, and a theme will clearly emerge. His offensive linemen, Ty Howle and Adam Gress, used the term "confident" repeatedly, more often than they used the term "freshman." Hackenberg's leadership is even apparent on the other side of the ball.

"He's starting to help other guys come along and become a leader," linebacker Glenn Carson said. "He was getting fired up on the sideline and getting guys going. That was comforting to see from a quarterback, especially a young quarterback."

Hackenberg shared Wednesday that his teammates' respect wasn't handed to him just because he's the kid under center. When he enrolled in June, he knew he had something to prove in the weight room. When he stepped outside, alongside his receivers, he knew had something to prove during drills.

But he tried to build off every experience. As the respect started to come, he became more vocal. As he became more vocal, more teammates started to look upon him as a leader. After Zach Zwinak's fourth-quarter fumble Saturday, for example, Hackenberg turned to him and told the redshirt junior to keep his head up and that they'll keep fighting.

And when talking about Allen Robinson, the Big Ten receiver of the year and a man two years his senior, the 18-year-old quarterback referred to him as "kid." As in, "Kid's got a 38-inch vert, so I just gave him a shot."

Hackenberg is a calm and poised quarterback -- "which is great for me," O'Brien added, "because I'm not a calm guy" -- and has used each week as another step toward success.

O'Brien seems to dangle perfection in front of Hackenberg like a carrot on a stick. He's played well but, O'Brien's sure to add, he's making about six or seven key mistakes every game. The true freshman insists he knows what he's doing wrong and, behind the respect of his team, he's hoping there's nowhere to go but up.

Who knows? At this pace, maybe -- by the end of the year -- O'Brien might even give him an A.
As part of an ongoing series, NittanyNation will preview a different position leading up to the season opener against Syracuse on Saturday. Up today: Offensive linemen.

Projected starters: Adam Gress (6-foot-6, 320 pounds), John Urschel (6-3, 301), Ty Howle (6-0, 293), Miles Dieffenbach (6-3, 295) and Donovan Smith (6-5, 322)

Key losses: RT Mike Farrell and C Matt Stankiewitch

Next in line: The Nittany Lions will use a rotation again this season, with Angelo Mangiro as the next man up when it comes to the interior. At tackle, Eric Shrive and Garry Gilliam will compete for time. (Shrive is also versatile enough to play inside.)

Those three should see the most time besides the starters. Others who could contribute include Anthony Alosi, Wendy Laurent and true freshman Andrew Nelson.

What to expect: With another season under OL coach Mac McWhorter and strength coach Craig Fitzgerald, this line should take another step forward. Sure, the loss of Stankiewitch and Farrell hurt -- but Howle isn't that much of a downgrade and Smith is healthy for a change.

If the right tackle (Gress or Gilliam) can get off to a good start, this line will be better than last season. Smith could be the next great lineman at Penn State, and the interior is very strong. As a result, Zach Zwinak should see plenty of holes inside and the running game should improve.

This group isn't entirely bigger weight-wise -- Gress, Howle and Dieffenbach lost weight from last season -- but don't let that fool you. This group is stronger, literally, from last season and should push around opposing defensive linemen a bit more.

Recruiting trail: In-state product Noah Beh (Scranton, Pa./Scranton Prep) is the lone offensive lineman of the 2014 class right now, and he won't make an instant impact at Penn State. He's no more than 260 pounds, so he'll need some time to fill out.

On the plus side, he can also play on the defensive line. And he has a lot of upside. Next season, however, could be the "Year of the Offensive Lineman" for Penn State.

PSU could take about three prospects there, and it's already extended offers to more than a half-dozen players -- including the likes of ESPN Junior 300 prospects Sterling Jenkins (Pittsburgh, Pa./Baldwin), Tristen Hoge (Pocatello, Idaho/Highland), Ryan Bates (Warminster, Pa./Archbishop Wood) and Richie Petitbon (Washington, D.C./Gonzaga).

Best-case scenario: At least three linemen earn All-Big Ten honors, as Smith breaks out and earns a reputation as Levi Brown's heir apparent. The line takes great strides, further increasing the legend of the crazy-in-a-good-way strength coach. (He wears shorts in 20-degree temperatures, does the worm before some games and once licked the gym floor to fire up his players.) Fans can breathe easy in future years knowing the linemen are in the hands of Fitzgerald and McWhorter.

Worst-case scenario: The right tackle is a big letdown and creates havoc along the line, while Smith shows himself to be injury prone. The interior is still good, but the tackles struggle without Smith and don't give the quarterback much time to throw.

Top position question: How does Donovan Smith compare to Levi Brown? Well, the last staff sure thought they were similar -- because that was one of the Nittany Lions' big recruiting pitches.

Former PSU coach Bill Kenney playfully pulled aside Smith's seat during a recruiting trip in 2010, telling him it was Brown's seat. The two were both initially recruited to play the defensive line, and Kenney showed Smith some clips of the 2007 first-round NFL draft pick.

Brown, 29, is currently listed at 6-6 and 324 pounds. Smith is 6-5, 322. And Urschel previously hinted that Smith held more potential than second-round pick Stefen Wisniewski. So Smith certainly has the potential to follow in Brown's footsteps.

Notes on PSU's newest depth chart

August, 26, 2013
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Penn State's depth chart was released on Monday and, much to no one's surprise, a starting quarterback was not named. An "OR" appears next to the names of Tyler Ferguson and Christian Hackenberg.

Still, there were a few notable changes on the depth chart and in the game notes:
  • Adam Gress was nursing an injury last week, and he was not listed as the definite starter at right tackle. He's still battling with TE-turned-OT Garry Gilliam. Bill O'Brien will likely update Gress' progress on Tuesday.
  • Von Walker, a run-on whom O'Brien complimented last week, is listed as competing for the No. 2 kickoff return spot with Akeel Lynch. Walker is an athlete whom PSU hopes to utilize as a slotback. This might be the biggest surprise on the depth chart. You can read more about Walker here.
  • D.J. Crook is listed as the third-string quarterback. He was competing with Austin Whipple and Jack Seymour for the No. 3 spot. He was listed as the third-stringer on the post-spring depth chart as well.
  • Bill Belton is still listed as the No. 2 tailback, ahead of Lynch ... but that likely doesn't mean much. Both will see carries.
  • There's an "OR" listed next to Malcolm Willis' name, signifying he's still competing with Ryan Keiser at safety. Willis is obviously expected to be the starter -- barring injury. O'Brien will undoubtedly be asked about that on Tuesday.
  • Middle linebacker Glenn Carson is still listed as the snapper at punter, despite picking up a run-on whose specialty is snapping and having Howle snapping on field goals.

Humble Barnes focused on improving

March, 28, 2013
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Deion Barnes smiled under his flat-brimmed Yankees cap Wednesday. He laughed and seemed relaxed with reporters crowding around him with their cameras and recorders.

He shook his head -- but still continued grinning -- as he talked about missing some sacks during the regular season. He didn't seem disappointed, didn't seem angry with himself, but his parents seemed to intimate that was just a show for the media.

"I go by what he thinks he should do," his mother, Cynthia, said. "And he said he wanted to have like 13 sacks and, when he didn't get that, he was disappointed."

She turned to her husband, Mike, and asked him for some reassurance. He agreed: "Oh yeah, he was disappointed."

[+] EnlargeDeion Barnes
JC Shurburtt Deion Barnes had a team-high six sacks for Penn State last season.
"Do you ever watch him when he doesn't get a sack?" Cynthia asked. "He. Is. Pissed. He doesn't want anyone to say anything or touch him. He just comes back with a vengeance."

Barnes left that anger on the field on Wednesday, but the defensive end spoke passionately about his first season as a starter. He led the Nittany Lions with six sacks as a redshirt freshman, and his trophy for Big Ten freshman of the year still rests on a mantle back home in north Philadelphia. But he didn't talk about his successes on Wednesday. No, he talked about the misses.

He didn't smile because he was pleased with six sacks. He shook his head because, he said, he should've had at least 10.

Four months have passed since he last threw on shoulder pads and stepped foot inside Beaver Stadium, but he still remembers those missed sacks. He talked about them as if they happened yesterday. He can't seem to forget; he knows them all. Each and every one.

"I had one missed against Iowa, two against Temple -- one against Temple, I can't believe I missed. It was like he was right there," Barnes said, extending his arms as if still trying to wrap up that signal-caller. "And I missed one against Ohio State, too."

(Read full post)

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Every spring, a few players step up and offer the first glimpses of an upcoming breakout season. Often, the media can only guess and project since they're not at every practice, weightlifting session and team meeting.

The players, however, are there and can see who might be the next Deion Barnes or Allen Robinson. So, NittanyNation polled several players inside the Lasch Football Building on Wednesday and also took information from Wednesday teleconferences.

The question: Who's made the biggest impact this spring or who's been the biggest surprise? Here's what Penn State's veterans had to say:

Linebacker Glenn Carson: "I'm really impressed with Jesse James. He's had a great winter. That kid's just an animal. I'm really excited to watch him play this year. I think he's a freak athlete. I think he can do amazing things. And if you haven't been impressed by him yet, I think you're going to be even more impressed by him next year."

Offensive guard John Urschel: "Ty Howle is a great center and a great football player. I'd say he's one of the most underrated football players on our team. You don't hear about him enough. I don't think you guys talk about him enough. I don't think we're going to have any problems with him playing at center."

[+] EnlargeGaia
Davide De Pas for ESPN.comCould defensive lineman Brian Gaia break out for the Nittany Lions in 2013?
Defensive tackle DaQuan Jones: "I really think Austin Johnson, Derek Dowrey and Brian Gaia. They're young, but they're showing a lot of ability. They're going to be great down the road. I'm happy seeing their competitiveness in spring ball."

Safety Malcolm Willis: "It's a number of guys. If I had to pick one, it'd probably be John Urschel. He comes in every day early and gets his workout in early. And pound for pound, he's probably one of the strongest guys on the team. Mike Hull, he's another guy who works his butt off. Adrian Amos. Zach Zwinak -- I work out with him in the weight room every day, and the amount of weight he can put up, it's crazy. Those are a couple of the guys who have really impressed me so far."

Offensive tackle Adam Gress: "I'd have to say a lot of the defensive linemen are coming along. All of the younger guys are really working hard, and the guys I was playing against on the scout team last year, now those guys are players. They're people we compete with. So that group's made a lot of progress. ... Austin Johnson's definitely made a lot of progress."

Linebacker Mike Hull: "Nyeem [Wartman] has looked good so far. He's doing a great job filling in. I think he's going to be a great player for us. We just need to all come together as a unit. He's looking good so far, so we just have to see how he progresses."

Defensive end Deion Barnes: "I think it would be Kyle Baublitz. I think he's doing a great job right now. Whoever's been talking to him has done a great job because he's come out of his shell. I've never seen him like this before."

Spring primer: QBs, injuries & more

March, 18, 2013
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STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- While Bill O'Brien's voice carried over the field Monday afternoon, quarterbacks coach Charlie Fisher directed his players in a calmer manner.

[+] EnlargeTyler Ferguson
Tom Hauck for ESPNTyler Ferguson showed off his big arm at practice Monday.
During position drills at Penn State's first spring practice, Fisher stood about five yards in front of his four quarterbacks as they took turns taking three- and five-step drops. The quartet of red jerseys would look at Fisher, quickly scan the field and then throw to a stationary receiver.

"Eyes here," Fisher told sophomore Steven Bench in a conversational tone, pointing to his his right. "Work through it, work through it."

Bench or Tyler Ferguson could wind up as the starting quarterback come Aug. 31, and Monday offered a glimpse of the two signal-callers. Media were invited to attend 20 minutes of open practice, and O'Brien began by calling together a competition: A defensive back would line up against a wideout or tight end in press coverage, while Bench and Ferguson would alternate snaps.

The first team -- offense or defense -- to win three battles would be declared the winner. The losers would be forced to perform five hit-its. It was more for honor than anything and only four passes were thrown while the quarterbacks tried to shake off the rust.

Bench began by just overthrowing Allen Robinson on a roughly 35-yard pass, and Ferguson then hit Jesse James in stride downfield on an over-the-shoulder grab. Bench followed that up by throwing behind his target on cross route, and Ferguson barely overthrew Matt Lehman for two straight incompletions.

The offense, along with Ferguson and Bench, then hit the turf for their hit-its while the defense cheered.

"They're both athletic, they both can throw the football," O'Brien said during a Monday news conference. "Now it's going to depend on how well they make decisions and how accurately they throw the ball.

"They sit in the front row, they pay attention, they take a lot of notes. It's a fun group to be around."

(Read full post)

Springing ahead: 5 players to watch 

March, 7, 2013
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STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- With spring practice less than two weeks away, NittanyNation takes a look at five players fans should keep an eye on.

5. CB Da'Quan Davis, sophomore

Last year's stat line: Five tackles, one fumble recovery, three pass breakups

Where they ranked as recruits: Offense 

February, 5, 2013
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Allen RobinsonRich Barnes/US PresswireAllen Robinson's production shows that recruiting grades are just projections and it's not just the elite recruits who become elite players.

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- With signing day just a day away, all the focus will be on the four-star talent and the big-name players. But it's not always the elite recruits who contribute most.

After all, where did Penn State's current starters rank when they were recruits?

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