Penn State Nittany Lions: Andrew Nelson

Things to watch in Blue-White Game

April, 11, 2014
Apr 11
3:00
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STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- There will be plenty to watch when the Blue-White Game kicks off at 1:30 p.m. Saturday, but here's a look at some of the more interesting storylines:

1. How the offensive line performs. This unit will go a long way in determining Penn State's success this season. There's enough talent at the skill positions that the Nittany Lions could surprise again this year, but only if this battered line can hold up and hold its own. Neither guard Miles Dieffenbach, who's reportedly out for the season with a knee injury, nor tackle Andrew Nelson is expected to play on Saturday. Guard Anthony Alosi isn't listed on the roster, as he's facing criminal charges. And the status of center Angelo Mangiro is unknown.

[+] EnlargeChristian Hackenberg
Dan Sanger/Icon SMIChristian Hackenberg looks poised to build on a sensational freshman season.
There's a lot of uncertainty on this line, and the bigger questions are at guard. Brendan Mahon practiced at right tackle last week, so it's possible that converted defensive tackles Brian Gaia and Derek Dowrey could start inside during the Blue-White Game. At the very least, the two are sure to get considerable playing time on Saturday, and it will be interesting to see how they've progressed since learning of the position changes about a month ago. Left tackle Donovan Smith said Thursday that he has had to slow his pace a little bit as a result of playing alongside an inexperienced teammate.

2. Christian Hackenberg's ability to make any throw. Some analysts have already started wondering aloud if Hackenberg might be the No. 1 overall pick if/when he declares early for the NFL draft. Maybe that happens; maybe it doesn't. But the fact that's even being discussed now should give you an idea of his talent level.

He was one of the Big Ten's best passers last season, despite moving into Happy Valley just a few short months before the opener. His progress was pretty notable from Week 1 to the finale against Wisconsin. Bill O'Brien called running plays on third-and-long against Syracuse in the opener so he wouldn't put Hackenberg in a tight spot. Against 24-point favorite Wisconsin? Hackenberg was nearly perfect -- 21-of-30, 339 yards, 4 TDs, 0 INTs, 89.4 QBR -- and led the Lions to an upset.

Expectations were incredibly high for Hackenberg last season and he still managed to surpass them. After another few months on campus, he's bound to impress yet again. And it would be even more surprising if James Franklin didn't give fans something to cheer for by having Hackenberg lob a few deep balls in the Blue-White Game.

3. An improved secondary. This has been the Lions' Achilles heel the past two seasons, but it shouldn't be anymore. There will be an influx of talented freshmen this summer but, even before then, this secondary's stock is on the rise. Adrian Amos is much more comfortable at safety this season, and cornerback Jordan Lucas has been putting in a lot of work this offseason. Young players last year -- such as Malik Golden and Jordan Smith -- are evolving into good backups who could challenge for playing time. Trevor Williams and Ryan Keiser are really the questions here, but they have one more year of experience under their belts.

Amos has All-Big Ten ability, and his transition back to safety will be crucial to the defense. If he can read Hackenberg or catch up to a speedster like De'Andre Thompkins on Saturday, that can only mean good things for Penn State.

4. WR Thompkins and DT Anthony Zettel. You've seen the running backs and wideout Geno Lewis before. You know what Mike Hull and Jesse James are capable of. But this could be a coming-out party for both Thompkins and Zettel. Zettel has impressed the last two seasons, but he mostly played as a defensive end -- and now he's gained weight and moved inside. Zettel could be the surprise on the defense this season, as his speed certainly sets him apart. And, with a beaten-up offensive line in the Blue-White Game, he could have a field day. As far as Thompkins, he has been on campus three months but he's already the fastest player on the team. He needs to improve his hands and his route-running but, when he gets the ball, he's electrifying.

Spring game preview: Penn State

April, 10, 2014
Apr 10
10:00
AM ET
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Saturday features a full slate of Big Ten spring scrimmages, and we're breaking down each one through Friday. Here's a closer look at what to expect from Penn State's Blue-White Game:

When: Saturday, 1:30 p.m. ET
Where: Beaver Stadium, State College, Pa.
Admission: Free; parking is also free and is first-come, first-served
TV: Big Ten Network (will air at 6 p.m.)
Weather forecast: Mostly sunny and mild, with a high near 67 degrees.

What to watch for: After two seasons of a head-scratching scoring system, where sacks and big plays netted points, James Franklin is taking the spring game back to its roots. It'll be structured like a traditional game, so a math whiz like John Urschel won't have to be on hand to tally the score.

Christian Hackenberg is the unquestioned leader of this offense, and he's the player whom all eyes will be on. He capped off his Big Ten freshman of the year campaign with an upset over then-No. 15 Wisconsin, a 24-point favorite, and big things are once again expected of him. He still hasn't been on campus for a full year, but he has said the college game has finally slowed down for him -- and that should be an unnerving thing for opposing defenses to hear.

The big question mark not just on the offense but on the team revolves around the offensive line. Franklin voiced concern about depth before spring practice even started, and it's only gotten worse. The Nittany Lions have reportedly lost their most-experienced lineman, guard Miles Dieffenbach; right tackle Andrew Nelson has missed several practices and was seen limping Tuesday; and backup guard Anthony Alosi is facing criminal charges and his status with the team is uncertain.

As a result, Franklin said Saturday that the offensive line will wear gray jerseys and likely play for both the Blue and White teams. He's still hoping to field two units with the offensive line, but it's not even known whether Penn State will be able to do that much, at least with scholarship players. Its depth is that concerning.

Elsewhere, Penn State will feature several new faces and feature veterans at different positions. Cornerback Adrian Amos is back at safety, OLB Mike Hull is taking over the MLB spot, and defensive end Anthony Zettel has moved inside. On offense, Hackenberg will have to focus on some new targets, notably Geno Lewis and freshman early enrollee De'Andre Thompkins. Thompkins has already turned heads, as he clocked the fastest 40-yard dash time on the team. His ability will be showcased for the first time Saturday, as will that of backup quarterback Michael O'Connor, whom was ranked as the No. 6 QB recruit in the nation.
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.
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- The first week of Penn State’s spring practice is underway so a lot of eyes will be on different position battles and rising starters. But what about those under-the-radar players?

Every year, coach James Franklin said there are at least one or two surprise players who jump into the spotlight. So here’s a look at five current backups who could make an impact:

1. RB Akeel Lynch
2013 stats: 9 games played, 60 carries, 358 yards, 1 TD
Currently behind: Zach Zwinak, Bill Belton

[+] EnlargeAkeel Lynch
Randy Litzinger/Icon SMIAkeel Lynch is primed to have a breakout season for Penn State.
Synopsis: He’s on quite a few reporters’ breakout lists this fall -- and for good reason. He has made an impression every time he has received a sizable workload. He was the star of the spring scrimmage in 2013, rushing 13 times for 83 yards, and he twice surpassed the 100-yard mark during the nonconference season. He’s a speedy runner who clocked a 4.48-second 40 last spring, and he could evolve into a nice spark plug. He needs to become more well-rounded, as he saw limited time last season due to blocking and similar concerns. However, he’s clearly excellent at carrying the ball.

Running backs coach Charles Huff said in January that a good system needs three good options on the ground. So Lynch will see an increased workload, and Franklin will have the ability to discover whether he has the talent to be the primary ball-carrier in 2015.

2. DE Brad Bars
2013 stats: Missed season due to injury
Currently behind: C.J. Olaniyan, Deion Barnes

Synopsis: Bars stood inside the Lasch Building last February and told the media that he felt 2013 would be a breakout year for him. He felt he could start or, at the very least, contribute heavily. But in July, Bars ruptured his Achilles’ tendon and was forced to miss the season. Franklin has repeatedly declined to address such injuries, but Bars’ initial rehabilitation plan was expected to end -- at the latest -- sometime in January. And the senior seemed fine on Monday when he sprinted during drills and took direction from the staff.

Bars won’t end up as a starter in 2014, but he could still see considerable playing time. Defensive line coach Sean Spencer likes to utilize a lot of different looks and rotations, and Franklin once again alluded to a scheme that would sometimes feature four defensive ends. With Anthony Zettel moving inside on a permanent basis, the Nittany Lions need some quality depth -- and Bars could be that answer. It might turn out that his prediction was just a year off.

3. S Malik Golden
2013 stats: 12 games played, 8 tackles, 1 pass breakup
Currently behind: Adrian Amos, Ryan Keiser

Synopsis: There are two ways this could go for Golden, and either way is significant. The redshirt sophomore could challenge Keiser for playing time this season -- or he could lose out. But, even if he doesn’t start, this season is no less important for his future. Both Amos and Keiser are seniors, so Penn State will need someone to step up in 2015.

There are plenty of freshman safeties enrolling over the summer, but Golden will obviously be the most experienced of that crew. He’s in a somewhat similar situation as Lynch, in that his play this season will determine whether he’s a future starter or just a career backup. He appears to be the next man up at safety, though, so he will see the field in 2014 -- it’s just a matter of how much and whether he can challenge Keiser.

4. CB Jordan Smith
2013 stats: 12 games played, 5 tackles
Currently behind: Jordan Lucas, Trevor Williams

Synopsis: Williams may be the projected starter at cornerback for now, but this position battle is far from decided. Lucas has taken Smith under his wing, not unlike Stephon Morris did for him, and Smith isn’t afraid to work. When he battled with insomnia in high school, he often did a couple hundred push-ups to pass the time. Also, it didn’t hurt that he trained with former NFL great Troy Vincent, either.

He wasn’t ready for a big role as a true freshman last season, but he’s definitely a player to watch as a sophomore. And he has the potential to follow in Lucas’ footsteps. As a sophomore, Lucas beat out a more-experienced player (Da’Quan Davis) for the starting job. Now, as a sophomore himself, Smith is hoping for the same.

5. OT Albert Hall
2013 stats: 5 games played
Currently behind: Donovan Smith, Andrew Nelson

Synopsis: Hall isn't just on this list because he’ll see a lot of playing time this season, or even in the future. There's more to him. He’s a converted tight end and a walk-on and is one of just four offensive tackles currently on the roster, and Franklin offered him a lot of praise on Monday.

“That guy is going to find a role on this team somehow,” Franklin said. "I’ve called him out in front of the team a number of times because I’ve been so impressed with him: His approach, his demeanor, his attitude.”

Hall should, at the very least, be an important member of the scout team -- and will likely see plenty of time on special teams. It’s not necessarily Hall's play that’s going to be important to this team. It’s the intangibles. There are a lot of walk-ons on this team, and Franklin only singled out Hall. So he’s definitely worth a second look.
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- We’ve reached the middle of this week’s countdown, which involves five predictions for the spring.

Up Wednesday is an issue that has been talked about a lot but is even more serious than it seems ...

OL struggles surpass secondary as biggest concern

Forget about the offensive line’s three new starters for a moment. Forget about the fact Penn State will likely start two redshirt freshmen, Andrew Nelson and Brendan Mahon, who have never played in a college game. And forget about the fact they’ll all be learning new schemes from a new assistant coach.

That’s all been talked about before. But take a closer look at this lack of depth; just look at the second-string offensive line. This should be the most this unit struggles since at least the "dark years" of the early 2000s.

[+] EnlargeLarry Johnson, Derek Dowrey
Matthew O'Haren/USA TODAY SportsFormer Penn State assistant Larry Johnson talks with Derek Dowrey during the 2013 spring game. Dowrey might be moving to the offensive line, where there's a big need for players.
Backups Wendy Laurent and Anthony Alosi have had very limited playing time, playing in 16 combined contests but receiving even less experience than that number suggests. And that’s the strong part of this backup offensive line. The other three spots this spring will be taken up by an early enrollee (Chasz Wright) and two walk-on underclassmen. The defensive line should dominate in the Blue-White Game.

That’s not to say the weakness with this unit is just depth; inexperience is the biggest issue among the starters. But that’s been pretty well documented. The mess behind them hasn’t been.

More position switches are bound to happen -- defensive tackle Derek Dowrey has already been linked to a move to the offensive line, contrary to the updated published roster -- and the big problem with this line is that it’s one injury away from disaster. It’s akin to the linebacker issue last season except this might be even worse. Safety Stephen Obeng-Agyapong was able to briefly make up for his size at linebacker with his speed, but there’s no hiding a weak link on the offensive line.

If Mahon or Nelson falters, this line falters. If one of the five starters suffers an injury, this line falters. With Bill Belton and Zach Zwinak returning, this is the best stable of running backs that Penn State has fielded in at least three seasons, and Christian Hackenberg has one of the strongest arms in Penn State history. But that won’t mean much if this line can’t jell by August. And while this staff tries to figure it all out this spring, it’s not going to be pretty.

More help will come over the summer in the form of three more signees, but this line will undoubtedly struggle even then. Still, it won’t get any worse than it will this spring.

More predictions:

No. 5: A more public, eager-to-please coach
No. 4: Blue-White attendance more than doubles from 2013

If you live in State College and haven't shaken James Franklin's hand, high-fived the Penn State coach or snapped a picture with the new leading Lion, you're probably a recluse.

Since his Jan. 11 introduction, Franklin has been a man about town, at least when he's not feverishly recruiting or attending the State of the Union address as a congressman's guest. From speaking to crowds at THON and other Penn State athletic events, to wearing a wig so he could get his (already bald) head shaved at a fundraiser, Franklin is everywhere.

But there's a group of Penn Staters with whom he has yet to connect, at least not nearly as much as he'd like to.

"We've had very little time to interact with the players," Franklin told ESPN.com. "The 20-hour rule and all those things are good rules, but when you're a new staff, it makes it challenging. We've got to build relationships, we've got to build trust, and we've got to get our system installed. That's why we've been successful in the past.

[+] EnlargeJames Franklin
AP Photo/Eric Christian SmithJames Franklin says offensively his system will be similar to that of former coach Bill O'Brien.
"That's what our focus is right now. We've been running since Day 1."

There will be running when Penn State opens spring practice Monday. Blocking and tackling, too. There will be installation in all three phases and position competitions -- all the standard signs of spring ball.

But the most important work will take place away from the field and might have nothing to do with football.

"It starts in the locker room and selling your vision, selling the culture you want to create," offensive line coach Herb Hand said. "You don't know the kids and they don't know you. That's the first challenge coming in, the development of relationships. You're doing that after you've been on the road recruiting for two or three weeks. And then you're in the middle of winter workouts and you're barking and screaming and getting after them and you hardly know them.

"Relationships take time."

The process is under way at Penn State after an intense winter program.

"I haven't had a coaching staff push us this hard as far as conditioning goes, and also as far as competition," senior linebacker Mike Hull said. "You can tell Coach Franklin's real passionate about what he does, and he fires us up.

"[The coaches] talk about building relationships, and that's exactly what they've done."

After the recruiting whirlwind concluded, Hand took the offensive linemen to dinner, wisely selecting a Chinese buffet ("When you walk in with 13 or 14 300-pound people, that'll garner some attention"). Defensive coordinator Bob Shoop, meanwhile, gleaned insight into his new team by spending last weekend reading John Bacon's book, "Fourth and Long: The Fight for the Soul of College Football," which chronicled Penn State's transition and tumult in 2012.

"These guys have been through a lot," Shoop said. "They've have had four [defensive] coordinators in four years. They've seen the good and bad of the profession. I'm just amazed with their approach and their maturity."

The second challenge for Franklin and his staff isn't a new one during the sanctions era. Scholarship reductions had a larger impact on the Lions' depth in Year 2 than Year 1, and as Franklin recently noted, "The longer you're in it, the more effect it has."

There are some potential trouble spots such as the offensive line, which enters the spring with only three scholarship tackles (Donovan Smith, Andrew Nelson and mid-year enrollee Chasz Wright). Franklin admits PSU has "major depth issues" up front.

Hand's response? Bring it.

"I could sit there and say this is going to be an obstacle for us and we'e going to struggle," he said. "You know what's going to happen? We're probably going to struggle because of our depth. But you go back to Core Value No. 1: have a positive attitude. Let's dwell on the opportunity."

When Shoop watched tape of PSU's defense last year, he saw the same linemen remaining on the field and few personnel combinations. Shoop's Vanderbilt defense used 20-22 players, while Penn State rarely played more than 15.

The hope is this year's defense will have more bodies, although Penn State is thin at tackle and cornerback. Shoop likes the foundation at defensive end with C.J. Olaniyan and Deion Barnes, and at safety, the position he directly coaches, as Adrian Amos returns alongside Ryan Keiser.

Linebacker depth surfaced in 2013, but Shoop is willing to get creative. One possibility: a 4-2-5 alignment with a hybrid safety/linebacker.

Amos, who has played both cornerback and safety but will start off at strong safety, provides a building block.

"So big, so strong, so fast," Shoop said. "He can contend for first-team All-Big Ten and be a guy who receivers national recognition if he pushes himself to the next level."

PSU returns an excellent centerpiece on offense in quarterback Christian Hackenberg, who will operate a system that, according to Franklin, won't differ dramatically from Bill O'Brien's. Franklin lived on the same street as O'Brien when the two worked at Maryland and is philosophically aligned with his predecessor.

Shoop will pressure more than the Lions did in the past, but the structure of the defense shouldn't change much, either.

"Very, very similar concepts," Franklin said. "The terminology is just a little bit different."

According to Shoop, the players are taking a businesslike approach to their latest transition. Hull came to a program that had been the model for stability in college football. It has been anything but in his time there.

"The first time was real hard," Hull said. "We didn't really know what to expect at all. This time, it’s been a lot easier. Whenever a new staff comes in, they want to get in all their policies and values. Some people it frustrates, but it's good to have myself, Miles Dieffenbach, some of the older guys tell them it will get better, it just takes time."

Penn State must maximize its time this spring. Installation, development and evaluation are the staff's top three goals, according to Hand.

But there's an even bigger objective.

"How do you prove trust?" Hand said. "Studying them, finding out where's their hometown, what's their family situation like, what's their major.

"Once you win the locker room, everything else will take care of itself."

B1G spring position breakdown: OL

February, 28, 2014
Feb 28
2:30
PM ET
We're taking snapshots of each position group with each Big Ten team entering the spring. Up next: the big uglies.

Illinois: This is another group that appears to be in significantly better shape now than at the start of coach Tim Beckman's tenure. The Illini lose only one full-time starter in tackle Corey Lewis, as four other linemen who started at least eight games in 2013 return. Senior tandem Michael Heitz and Simon Cvijanovic are two of the Big Ten's most experienced linemen, and guards Ted Karras also has logged plenty of starts. Right tackle appears to be the only vacancy entering the spring, as Austin Schmidt and others will compete.

Indiana: The Hoosiers have somewhat quietly put together one of the Big Ten's best offensive lines, and the same should hold true in 2014. Everybody is back, and because of injuries before and during the 2013 season, Indiana boasts a large group with significant starting experience. Jason Spriggs should contend for first-team All-Big Ten honors as he enters his third season at left tackle. Senior Collin Rahrig solidifies the middle, and Indiana regains the services of guard Dan Feeney, who was sidelined all of 2013 by a foot injury.

Iowa: The return of left tackle Brandon Scherff anchors an Iowa line that could be a team strength this fall. Scherff will enter the fall as a leading candidate for Big Ten offensive lineman of the year. Iowa must replace two starters in right tackle Brett Van Sloten and left guard Conor Boffeli. Andrew Donnal could be the answer in Van Sloten's spot despite playing guard in 2013, while several players will compete at guard, including Tommy Gaul and Eric Simmons. Junior Austin Blythe returns at center.

Maryland: Line play will go a long way toward determining how Maryland fares in the Big Ten, and the Terrapins will make the transition with an experienced group. Four starters are back, led by center Sal Conaboy, who has started games in each of his first three seasons. Tackles Ryan Doyle and Michael Dunn bring versatility to the group, and Maryland should have plenty of options once heralded recruit Damian Prince and junior-college transfer Larry Mazyck arrive this summer. Prince is the top Big Ten offensive line recruit in the 2014 class, according to ESPN RecruitingNation. New line coach Greg Studwara brings a lot of experience to the group.

Michigan: The Wolverines' line is under the microscope this spring after a disappointing 2013 season. Michigan loses both starting tackles, including Taylor Lewan, the Big Ten's offensive lineman of the year and a projected first-round draft choice. The interior line was in flux for much of 2013, and Michigan needs development from a large group of rising sophomores and juniors, including Kyle Kalis, Kyle Bosch, Jack Miller, Graham Glasgow, and Patrick Kugler. Both starting tackle spots are open, although Ben Braden seems likely to slide in on the left side. Erik Magnuson is out for spring practice following shoulder surgery, freeing up opportunities for redshirt freshman David Dawson and others.

Michigan State: The line took a significant step forward in 2013 but loses three starters, including left guard Blake Treadwell, a co-captain. Michigan State used an eight-man rotation in 2013 and will look for development from top reserves such as Travis Jackson (Yes! Yes!) and Connor Kruse. Kodi Kieler backed up Treadwell last season and could contend for a starting job as well. Coach Mark Dantonio said this week that converted defensive linemen James Bodanis, Devyn Salmon and Noah Jones will get a chance to prove themselves this spring. It's important for MSU to show it can reload up front, and the large rotation used in 2013 should help.

Minnesota: For the first time since the Glen Mason era, Minnesota truly established the line of scrimmage and showcased the power run game in 2013. The Gophers return starters at four positions and regain Jon Christenson, the team's top center before suffering a season-ending leg injury in November. Right tackle Josh Campion and left guard Zac Epping are mainstays in the starting lineup, and players such as Tommy Olson and Ben Lauer gained some valuable experience last fall. There should be good leadership with Epping, Olson, Marek Lenkiewicz and Caleb Bak.

Nebraska: Graduation hit the line hard as five seniors depart, including 2012 All-American Spencer Long at guard and Jeremiah Sirles at tackle. Nebraska will lean on guard Jake Cotton, its only returning starter, and experienced players such as Mark Pelini, who steps into the center spot. Senior Mike Moudy is the top candidate at the other guard spot, but there should be plenty of competition at the tackle spots, where Zach Sterup, Matt Finnin and others are in the mix. Definitely a group to watch this spring.

Northwestern: Offensive line struggles undoubtedly contributed to Northwestern's disappointing 2013 season. All five starters are back along with several key reserves, and coach Pat Fitzgerald already has seen a dramatic difference in the position competitions this spring as opposed to last, when many linemen were sidelined following surgeries. Center Brandon Vitabile is the only returning starter who shouldn't have to worry about his job. Paul Jorgensen and Eric Olson opened the spring as the top tackles, and Jack Konopka, who has started at both tackle spots, will have to regain his position.

Ohio State: Like Nebraska, Ohio State enters the spring with a lot to replace up front as four starters depart from the Big Ten's best line. Taylor Decker is the only holdover and will move from right tackle to left tackle. Fifth-year senior Darryl Baldwin could step in at the other tackle spot, while Pat Elflein, who filled in for the suspended Marcus Hall late last season, is a good bet to start at guard. Jacoby Boren and Billy Price will compete at center and Joel Hale, a defensive lineman, will work at guard this spring. Ohio State has recruited well up front, and it will be interesting to see how young players such as Evan Lisle and Kyle Dodson develop.

Penn State: New coach James Franklin admits he's concerned about the depth up front despite the return of veterans Miles Dieffenbach and Donovan Smith on the left side. Guard Angelo Mangiro is the other lineman who logged significant experience in 2013, and guard/center Wendy Laurent and guard Anthony Alosi played a bit. But filling out the second string could be a challenge for Penn State, which could start a redshirt freshman (Andrew Nelson) at right tackle. The Lions have to develop some depth on the edges behind Nelson and Smith.

Purdue: The Boilers reset up front after a miserable season in which they finished 122nd out of 123 FBS teams in rushing offense (67.1 ypg). Three starters return on the interior, led by junior center Robert Kugler, and there's some continuity at guard with Jordan Roos and Justin King, both of whom started as redshirt freshmen. It's a different story on the edges as Purdue loses both starting tackles. Thursday's addition of junior-college tackle David Hedelin could be big, if Hedelin avoids a potential NCAA suspension for playing for a club team. Cameron Cermin and J.J. Prince also are among those in the mix at tackle.

Rutgers: Continuity should be a strength for Rutgers, which returns its entire starting line from 2013. But production has to be better after the Scarlet Knights finished 100th nationally in rushing and tied for 102nd in sacks allowed. Guard Kaleb Johnson considered entering the NFL draft but instead will return for his fourth season as a starter. Rutgers also brings back Betim Bujari, who can play either center or guard, as well as Keith Lumpkin, the likely starter at left tackle. It will be interesting to see if new line coach Mitch Browning stirs up the competition this spring, as younger players Dorian Miller and J.J. Denman could get a longer look.

Wisconsin: There are a lot of familiar names up front for the Badgers, who lose only one starter in guard Ryan Groy. The tackle spots look very solid with Tyler Marz (left) and Rob Havenstein (right), and Kyle Costigan started the final 11 games at right guard. There should be some competition at center, as both Dan Voltz and Dallas Lewallen have battled injuries. Coach Gary Andersen mentioned on national signing day that early enrollee Michael Deiter will enter the mix immediately at center. Another early enrollee, decorated recruit Jaden Gault, should be part of the rotation at tackle. If certain young players develop quickly this spring, Wisconsin should have no depth issues when the season rolls around.
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STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- We’re getting closer to our top spot of this week’s countdown, which involves the five players to watch closest this spring.

Up today is a critical player who hasn’t yet played in a Penn State game …

No. 2 spring player to watch: OT Andrew Nelson

2013 review: Nelson redshirted as a true freshman, but former coach Bill O’Brien lauded him quite often … which was pretty unusual for a first-year player. O’Brien even said back on signing day that, “We think he’s going to be a heck of a player.” That might sound like Coachspeak -- and maybe it was -- but O’Brien was very careful not to do that with players outside of Christian Hackenberg. O’Brien expected a lot out of Nelson and placed pretty high expectations on his shoulders.

Why spring is so important: Nelson will almost have to be the starting right tackle by default, so his importance cannot be understated. He’s the only true returning tackle on scholarship, outside of starting LT Donovan Smith, and he’s kind of a wild card to fans and the media since no one outside of the team has seen him in action. This spring -- and the annual scrimmage -- will help reveal just what the Nittany Lions have in Nelson, who almost seems a lock to become a four-year starter.

Best-case scenario: Nelson catches on quickly and performs like a healthy Smith from 2012. He’s not yet an All-Big Ten player and he’s not one of the top two or three players on the line, but he’s also not a weak point. He makes long strides as the season progresses, however, and fans already consider him a future NFL draft pick by the time his 2014 campaign is over. He lays the foundation for a solid career.

Worst-case scenario: Nelson just isn’t ready to block Big Ten defensive ends, but James Franklin really has no other place to turn. Offensive line coach Herb Hand is forced to reshuffle the line, maybe plugging in true freshman Chasz Wright or seeing if OG/OT Anthony Alosi fares any better, because Nelson struggles. The right side of the line is a weakness of the Nittany Lions all season, and Hackenberg takes more hits and sacks as a result.

More players to watch:

No. 5: DB Adrian Amos
No. 4: LB Nyeem Wartman
No. 3: DL Anthony Zettel
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- We're nearing the end of this week's countdown, which involves ranking Penn State's most impactful recruiting classes of the past decade.

Up next is a class you should be very familiar with ...

No. 2 most impactful class: Class of 2013

[+] EnlargeChristian Hackenberg
Nabil K. Mark/Centre Daily Times/Getty ImagesChristian Hackenberg's commitment ensured there would be little drop-off in PSU recruiting despite the heavy sanctions.
Top prospects: QB Christian Hackenberg, TE Adam Breneman, OG Brendan Mahon, OT Andrew Nelson, WR DaeSean Hamilton, DE Garrett Sickels, WR Richy Anderson, LB Brandon Bell

Biggest surprise: Bell. He made a lot of strides as a freshman and even made a start toward the end of the season. Bill O’Brien plugged him in for nine games in 2013, and Bell played a lot in the last three. He made 15 tackles in his final three contests -- 24 total on the year -- and even forced a fumble against Nebraska. He should end up starting the next three seasons.

Impact player: Hackenberg. Does this choice really need to be explained? He was the Big Ten Freshman of the Year, one of the better quarterbacks in the conference, and he took off running after enrolling over the summer. Penn State doesn’t often start true freshmen in season openers, but Hackenberg surpassed Tyler Ferguson pretty quickly with a calm demeanor and a penchant for learning a lot in a short time. Hackenberg could end up being Penn State’s best quarterback since Kerry Collins.

Why this class is important: This countdown isn’t just a list of the classes with the best prospects; it’s the most impactful. And when sanctions hit and the nation wondered whether Penn State would suffer a fate worse than death, top prospects such as Hackenberg and Breneman took center stage and showed that the university still could reel in the best of the best -- instead of simply settling for MAC-level recruits, as some predicted.

This class might not produce as many All-Big Ten players as the 2006 group. It might not even end up with an All-American. But this class is so important, and impactful, because of what it symbolized at the time. Happy Valley was still a destination, in part, because of the big names in this class. They offered fans hope. And they helped keep Penn State together while having a profound, ancillary effect in other areas.

You think Penn State reels in arguably the best 2014 class of receivers without Hackenberg? No chance. You can measure impact different ways, and this recruiting class is undoubtedly one of the most important in Penn State history.

More impactful recruiting classes:

No. 5: Class of 2011
No. 4: Class of 2004
No. 3: Class of 2006

Penn State positions to improve: No. 2

February, 13, 2014
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STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- We've arrived at the top two in our countdown of the positions with the biggest question marks for Penn State.

The top pick will be unveiled Friday. But up today is a group that wouldn't be a bad choice for No. 1 either ...

No. 2: Offensive line

[+] EnlargeMiles Dieffenbach
AP Photo/Gene J. PuskarMiles Dieffenbach (65) is one of Penn State's veterans along the O-line.
The players: Donovan Smith (10 starts), Miles Dieffenbach (11 starts), Angelo Mangiro (11 games played), Andrew Nelson (redshirted), Brendan Mahon (redshirted), Wendy Laurent (five games played), Anthony Alosi (six games played), Tanner Hartman (one game played), Chasz Wright (early enrollee), Noah Beh (incoming freshman), Brendan Brosnan (incoming freshman), Chance Sorrell (incoming freshman)

Last season: This group started off slow and struggled picking up the heavy blitz, but it really improved as the season wore on. Tailbacks Zach Zwinak and Bill Belton combined for just two 100-yard rushing performances in the first seven games but finished the last five games with five -- and Penn State even outplayed Wisconsin's mammoth line in the finale. John Urschel was a first-team All-Big Ten selection, while three substitutes -- Garry Gilliam, Eric Shrive and Mangiro -- saw considerable time.

What's missing: Experience and depth. Eight players saw a lot of time last season and five are now gone. PSU has just one returning offensive tackle on scholarship with any kind of game experience, and new coach James Franklin will be forced to plug in two rookies on the starting line. Health is obviously paramount here.

Moving forward: Former coach Bill O'Brien raved about Nelson, who redshirted last season as a freshman, and Nelson will almost certainly take over the starting right tackle position. There's really no one else to consider, outside of incoming freshmen and walk-ons. But the big question comes from the interior. At guard and/or center, Dieffenbach and Mangiro will be a part of some kind of combination, but there's no telling who else fits into Franklin's plans. Laurent could be the center. Or Mangiro could take over that position and Franklin could slide in Mahon at one of the guard positions. Or maybe Franklin decides to move a defensive tackle to the offensive side of the ball. There are a lot of moving pieces right now, and a lot has to go right for this group to start off smoothly. The question marks surrounding this position likely won't be answered by Week 1.

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.
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.
video
Josh Moyer interviews four-star 2013 recruit and Penn State signee Andrew Nelson after the Big 33 game.

Nelson, the No. 17 OT in the 2013 ESPN player rankings, committed to the Nittany Lions in April 2012.
Zayd Issah, Andrew NelsonJosh Moyer/ESPNZayd Issah still has plans to join Andrew Nelson at Penn State after a year at a TBD prep school.
HERSHEY, Pa. -- Beneath the specter of an uncertain future, and a criminal act the community is all too aware of, Zayd Issah lingered on the field Saturday night -- and finally smiled.

With sweat running down his nose and his face, so that it was indistinguishable from what might have been tears, Issah smiled. It has been an emotionally taxing three months for the three-star athlete, who faces several charges for allegedly passing off counterfeit $20 bills at fast-food restaurants. He tried to enjoy an oasis of football on Saturday night.

Under the lights of Hersheypark Stadium, after Pennsylvania dominated Maryland 58-27 in the Big 33 Game, he quickly embraced four-star PSU signee Andrew Nelson. He sought out his family on the field, and he stopped every few seconds to sign autographs and pose for giggling girls who asked for group photos.

Issah obliged, but he kept walking, away from the crowds and the groups, without any destination in particular. It seemed as if he just wanted to soak in the moment and forget about his troubles for at least a little.

"They say football's a game of second chances," he said. "So I want to use mine to the best of my ability and make the most out of it."

Bill O'Brien has not severed ties with the talented linebacker out of Harrisburg (Pa.) Central Dauphin. The staff appeared to offer him an ultimatum: Head elsewhere or enroll in prep school, clean up your act and then maybe rejoin the PSU family in January.

That's still the plan for Issah, who is deciding between Fork Union (Va.) Military Academy and New Berlin (N.Y.) Milford Academy.

"Where do you stand with PSU?" asked one reporter.

"It's Linebacker U," he replied, harkening back to the same response he gave nearly 190 days ago. "Penn State's Linebacker U. That's all I got to say. I got my sights set on PSU right now, unless something changes."

Issah, still smiling and receiving pats on the back from passers-by, was pressed. What could that "something" be?

"I'll know when it happens, really," he said, nodding when asked if he's heading in with the mindset that he'll remain a Nittany Lion.

Individual defensive stats were not kept at the Big 33 Game, but Issah's name echoed over the PA system throughout the night. He started at outside linebacker, played defensive end during "speed packages," and seemed to leave all the emotion and bottled-up frustration of three months on the field.

On one early play, Issah drifted right but quickly reversed course and made a tackle near the opposite sideline. It was an effort not lost on Pennsylvania coach Art Walker, who focused on Issah's leadership this past week and didn't mention his less-recent hardship.

"He just had great work ethic," said Walker, who coaches Wexford (Pa.) North Allegheny. "He did a great job of anything we asked. He handled everything we threw at him. He responded well and had a great attitude.

"He's a good teammate, and he led by example. He's everything you want out of a player."

Issah isn't completely sure what comes next. He'll enroll in one of those two prep schools by August, but he's not yet sure which one. It'll likely come down to finances, he said.

The 6-foot-3 prospect already knows he'll be receiving scholarship assistance from FUMA. Milford hasn't yet responded with a number.

"I'm a little closer with Fork Union right now," he said, "so I'm still waiting to get a relationship with Milford."

Issah simply responded with, "Yeah," when asked if he felt like he received a fair shake. But, with his shoulder pads still on and that smile still fixed to his face, he thought for a moment when asked one final question, whether he wanted to get anything off his chest.

"I love to play football. I don't want to stop; that's it," he said. "And I'm glad they didn't take that chance away from me."

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