Penn State Nittany Lions: Anthony Zettel

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 was prepared to deliver a persuasive talk on why defensive end Anthony Zettel should move inside. He was ready to tell him how valuable he would be; he was ready to sit him down and detail how defensive tackle was his calling.

[+] EnlargeAnthony Zettel
MCT via Getty ImagesAnthony Zettel finished second on the team in sacks with four in 2013.
But Franklin never even had a chance to finish his speech over the offseason.

Before Franklin’s conclusion, as the two discussed a potential move, Zettel told him outright that he already wanted to move to defensive tackle. That was his plan.

“I learned a long time ago,” Franklin said Monday with a smile, “once it’s been sold, stop selling.”

Franklin landed in Happy Valley on Jan. 11 and has tried his best to build up relationships before Monday’s first spring practice. But, if he would have taken over the Nittany Lions in November, he would have realized how this move was a long time coming.

Zettel alternated between end and tackle throughout the 2013 season, giving the defense a critical sparkplug and finishing second on the team with four sacks. He played mostly defensive end since he weighed in at 258 pounds, but he wasn’t shy about his preference for the interior.

Said Zettel in November: “I enjoy moving inside. I think the future for me is inside, maybe. I can play with lower pads, and I don’t have to think as much. I enjoy getting banged around like that.”

Penn State’s new head coach didn’t divulge exactly what was said during that offseason discussion. But Zettel clearly has wanted to move to defensive tackle for quite some time -- and Franklin clearly knew that was best for his team.

And if that wasn’t clear last week, it certainly was during Franklin’s news conference Monday afternoon. Franklin announced that two returning defensive tackles -- redshirt sophomores Brian Gaia and Derek Dowrey -- were moving to offensive guard.

That clears the way for Zettel to start at defensive tackle, alongside returning starter Austin Johnson. Franklin now has just five scholarship defensive tackles, and only Zettel and Johnson have any game experience.

“He’s excited about doing it; he wants to do it,” Franklin said. “He’s really put on great size, tested extremely well -- but really excited about him at the three-technique and what he’s going to be able to do at the position.”

There is cause for some excitement with the move. In limited time last season, Zettel still finished with six tackles for loss and four sacks. And he flashed plenty of ability in 2012 when, during an 11-play span against Navy, he came away with six tackles and two sacks.

Franklin said Zettel, despite his weight nearing 280 pounds, still clocked in one of the fastest 40s on the defensive line. And both he and the staff knew Zettel would be better served at defensive tackle full-time, as opposed to last season when he saw time inside only during passing downs.

Once the staff saw tape of Zettel, it didn’t take long for them to come to the same conclusion as Zettel.

“When you put on the film, that guy’s a player,” defensive coordinator Bob Shoop told ESPN.com. “He brings an intensity to us; he brings athletic ability. And a lot of things we do are movement-oriented, so he fits in really well.”
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. – And then there were two.

We’re nearing the start of Penn State’s spring practice, which means we’re nearing the end of our countdown series. This week’s countdown, involving five predictions for the spring, continues with a look at two early enrollees who should earn playing time in 2014...

Barney and Thompkins make immediate impact

[+] EnlargeDe'Andre Thompkins
Steve Dipaola/NikePenn State early enrollee De'Andre Thompkins, who was ranked No. 73 in the 2014 ESPN 300, could be a starter in 2014.
Defensive tackle Tarow Barney and wide receiver De'Andre Thompkins aren’t just poised for considerable playing time in 2014; they could very well find themselves as starters on the spring depth chart.

Thompkins will battle with sophomore Richy Anderson in the slot, and Thompkins might have a higher ceiling. He’s faster and more athletic, but how quickly he ascends centers on his route-running ability. He finds himself in a similar position as Geno Lewis was in his first season, because Thompkins is transitioning from high school tailback to receiver. Regardless, Thompkins is best when he’s in open space -- and he’s sure to wow with a big play or two during the spring scrimmage.

Even if Thompkins isn’t quite ready to surpass Anderson -- and the prediction here is that he will -- the freshman can still vie for a starting job as a returner. On kickoffs, he posted video game-type numbers as a high school junior (11 returns, 560 yards, 51 yard average). And, on punts as a senior, he returned three for an average of 61 yards. Just take a look at his highlight video.

As for Barney, it’s no secret that the Nittany Lions need some help at defensive tackle. Without DaQuan Jones and Kyle Baublitz, redshirt sophomore Austin Johnson will take over one of the spots. The other one is wide open. The position battle here will likely be between Barney and redshirt sophomore Brian Gaia. (Defensive end Anthony Zettel could also be a factor, but for now it’s difficult to see him in an interior role outside of passing downs.)

Even if Barney doesn’t win out, he’s still going to see plenty of time. Defensive line coach Sean Spencer likes to use a lot of personnel and a lot of combinations, not unlike the philosophy of former offensive line coach Mac McWhorter, so Barney will have every opportunity to make a splash.

Thompkins and Barney both have a lot to learn a lot in a short period of time -- Thompkins is changing positions; Barney’s coming from a junior college and took up football a little more than three years ago -- but both players will be thrown into the mix early out of pure need. In other seasons, the staff might bring them along slowly. But this spring? Expect to see them on the field early -- and expect them to make an immediate impact.

More predictions:

No. 5: A more public, eager-to-please coach
No. 4: Blue-White attendance more than doubles from 2013
No. 3: OL struggles surpass secondary as biggest concern
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Penn State lost quite a few solid starters this offseason, but that should make the spring position battles all the more interesting.

As part of this week’s countdown, which centers on those position battles, we’re taking a closer look today at one such position that lost two experienced players ...

No. 3 position battle: Defensive tackle

Departures: DaQuan Jones (56 tackles; 11.5 tackles for loss), Kyle Baublitz (23 tackles, three sacks)

Returning players: Tarow Barney (early enrollee), Parker Cothren (redshirted), Brian Gaia (5 tackles; 11 games played), Austin Johnson (27 tackles; three tackles for loss), Antoine White (early enrollee)

Breaking it down: Johnson will take up one starting spot, but there’s a big question mark surrounding the other. Derek Dowrey appears to have moved to the offensive line, and there’s still a chance that defensive end Anthony Zettel could slide inside on a permanent basis. But for now it appears as if the main battle will be between Barney and Gaia.

Gaia boasts more experience than Barney, an early enrollee -- but not by much. Barney is a bit bigger at 290 pounds, according to the current online roster, and it should be a good battle. Penn State really needs someone who can stuff the run, since Zettel can always rush the passer inside. So whoever is better in the run-stuffing department should take this spot. Defensive line coach Sean Spencer likes to use a lot of bodies and combinations along the line, too, so even the backup should see quite a bit of playing time this season.

Pre-camp edge: Gaia. He has the edge since he’s spent more time with the team and the strength program. But anything can happen here. Tyler Ferguson had the advantage at quarterback last May, and look what happened there. Barney isn’t as used to this level of competition as Gaia since he’s coming from a community college in Mississippi, so it will take some time to adjust. Make no mistake; Gaia has the advantage right now. But that advantage could be eroded by the time the Blue-White Game swings around April 12. That’s what makes this position battle one of the best ones to watch.

More position battles to watch:

No. 5: Kicker
No. 4: Tight ends
We're taking snapshots of each position group with each Big Ten team entering the spring. Up next: the defensive lines.

Illinois: This is a significant concern for the Illini, especially after the recent departure of Houston Bates, who started last season at the Leo (defensive end/outside linebacker) spot. Illinois also loses its other starting defensive end, Tim Kynard. The team will rely heavily on junior-college players such as Jihad Ward and Joe Fotu, but it also needs holdovers like Dawuane Smoot and Paul James III to step up on the perimeter. Illinois returns more experience inside with Austin Teitsma and Teko Powell, but there should be plenty of competition, especially with the juco arrivals, after finishing 116th nationally against the run.

Indiana: The anticipated move to a 3-4 alignment under new coordinator Brian Knorr creates a different dynamic for the line this spring. Indiana must identify options at the all-important nose tackle spot, and possibilities include sophomores Ralphael Green and Darius Latham, both of whom are big bodies. Nick Mangieri had a nice sophomore season and should be in the mix for a starting job on the perimeter (end or outside linebacker), while David Kenney could be a good fit as a 3-4 end. Defensive end Ryan Phillis is the team's most experienced lineman, and Zack Shaw also has some starting experience.

Iowa: This group should be the strength of the defense as Iowa returns three full-time starters -- tackles Carl Davis and Louis Trinca-Pasat, and end Drew Ott -- as well as Mike Hardy, who started the second half of the season opposite Ott. End Dominic Alvis departs, but Iowa brings back almost everyone else from a line that allowed only eight rushing touchdowns in 2013. Junior Darian Cooper could have a bigger role and push for more playing time inside, and Nate Meier provides some depth on the perimeter after recording two sacks in 2013. Iowa is in good shape here.

Maryland: The Terrapins employ a 3-4 scheme and appear to be in good shape up front, as reserve Zeke Riser is the only rotation player to depart. Andre Monroe leads the way at defensive end after an excellent junior season in which he led Maryland in both sacks (9.5) and tackles for loss (17). Quinton Jefferson started at defensive end last season and recorded three sacks. There should be some good competition this spring at nose tackle between Keith Bowers and Darius Kilgo, both of whom had more than 30 tackles last season. The challenge is building greater depth with players such as end Roman Braglio.

Michigan: If the Wolverines intend to make a big step in 2014, they'll need more from the front four, which didn't impact games nearly enough last fall. Michigan's strength appears to be on the edges as veteran Frank Clark returns after starting every game in 2013 and recording a team-high 12 tackles for loss. Brennen Beyer, who started the second half of last season, is back at the other end spot, and Michigan has depth with Mario Ojemudia and Taco Charlton. There are more questions inside as Willie Henry, Chris Wormley and others compete for the starting job. Young tackles such as Henry Poggi and Maurice Hurst Jr. also are in the mix, and Ondre Pipkins should be a factor when he recovers from ACL surgery.

Michigan State: The Spartans return the best defensive end tandem in the league as Shilique Calhoun, a second-team All-American in 2013, returns alongside Marcus Rush, one of the Big Ten's most experienced defenders. Joel Heath, Brandon Clemons and others provide some depth on the perimeter. It's a different story inside as MSU loses both starters (Micajah Reynolds and Tyler Hoover), as well as reserve Mark Scarpinato. Damon Knox, James Kittredge and Lawrence Thomas, who has played on both sides of the ball, are among those who will compete for the starting tackle spots. If Malik McDowell signs with MSU, he could work his way into the rotation.

Minnesota: Defensive tackles like Ra'Shede Hageman don't come around every year, and he leaves a big void in the middle of Minnesota's line. The Gophers will look to several players to replace Hageman's production, including senior Cameron Botticelli, who started opposite Hageman last season. Other options at tackle include Scott Ekpe and Harold Legania, a big body at 308 pounds. Minnesota is in much better shape at end with Theiren Cockran, arguably the Big Ten's most underrated defensive lineman. Cockran and Michael Amaefula both started every game last season, and Alex Keith provides another solid option after recording five tackles for loss in 2013.

Nebraska: Other than MSU's Calhoun, Nebraska returns the most dynamic defensive lineman in the league in Randy Gregory, who earned first-team All-Big Ten honors in his first FBS season. If the Huskers can build around Gregory, they should be very stout up front this fall. Nebraska won't have Avery Moss, suspended for the 2014 season, and players such as Greg McMullen and junior-college transfer Joe Keels will compete to start opposite Gregory. The competition inside should be fascinating as junior Aaron Curry and sophomore Vincent Valentine both have starting experience, but Maliek Collins came on strong at the end of his first season and will push for a top job.

Northwestern: It will be tough to get a clear picture of this group in the spring because of several postseason surgeries, but Northwestern should be fine at defensive end despite the loss of Tyler Scott. Dean Lowry, Ifeadi Odenigbo and Deonte Gibson all have significant experience and the ability to pressure quarterbacks. Odenigbo, who had 5.5 sacks as a redshirt freshman, could become a star. The bigger questions are inside as Northwestern must build depth. Sean McEvilly is a solid option but must stay healthy. Chance Carter and Max Chapman are among those competing for starting jobs at tackle.

Ohio State: A total mystery last spring, the defensive line should be one of Ohio State's strengths in 2014. Noah Spence and Joey Bosa could become the Big Ten's top pass-rushing tandem, and the Buckeyes have depth there with Jamal Marcus, Adolphus Washington and others. Returning starter Michael Bennett is back at defensive tackle, and while Joel Hale might move to offense, there should be enough depth inside with Tommy Schutt, Chris Carter and Washington, who could slide inside. Nose tackle is the only question mark, but new line coach Larry Johnson inherits a lot of talent.

Penn State: Like the rest of the Lions defense, the line struggled at times last season and now much replace its top player in tackle DaQuan Jones. The new coaching staff has some potentially good pieces, namely defensive end Deion Barnes, who won 2012 Big Ten Freshman of the Year honors but slumped as a sophomore. Barnes and C.J. Olaniyan could form a dangerous pass-rushing tandem, but they'll need support on the inside, where there should be plenty of competition. Austin Johnson will be in the mix for a starting tackle spot, and early enrollees Tarow Barney and Antoine White also should push for time. Anthony Zettel provides some depth on the perimeter.

Purdue: The line endured a tough 2013 campaign and loses two full-time starters (tackle Bruce Gaston Jr. and end Greg Latta), and a part-time starter (end Ryan Isaac). Competition should be ramped up at all four spots this spring. Senior end Ryan Russell is the most experienced member of the group must take a step this offseason. Evan Panfil and Jalani Phillips will push for time at the end spots, along with Kentucky transfer Langston Newton. The group at tackle includes Ryan Watson and Michael Rouse III, both of whom started games in 2013.

Rutgers: Keep a close eye on this group in the spring as Rutgers begins the transition to the Big Ten. The Scarlet Knights lose two starters in end Marcus Thompson and tackle Isaac Holmes, as well as contributor Jamil Merrell at tackle. Darius Hamilton provides a building block on the inside after recording 4.5 sacks and 11.5 tackles for loss in 2013, and end Djwany Mera is back after starting throughout last season. David Milewski played tackle last year, but both he and Hamilton likely need to add weight for their new league. Rutgers has some talent in the younger classes and needs players such as Sebastian Joseph, Kemoko Turay and Julian Pinnix-Odrick to emerge.

Wisconsin: Linebacker Chris Borland is the biggest single departure for the Badgers' defense, but the no position group loses more than the line. Wisconsin must replace several mainstays, most notably nose tackle Beau Allen, who performed well in the first year of the 3-4 set under coordinator Dave Aranda. Senior Warren Herring will step in for Allen after three years as a reserve. Konrad Zagzebski is a good bet to fill one of the end spots, but there will be plenty of competition with players such as Jake Keefer, James Adeyanju, Arthur Goldberg and Chikwe Obasih.
Tags:

Nebraska Cornhuskers, Ohio State Buckeyes, Penn State Nittany Lions, Wisconsin Badgers, Big Ten Conference, Illinois Fighting Illini, Iowa Hawkeyes, Michigan State Spartans, Michigan Wolverines, Indiana Hoosiers, Maryland Terrapins, Rutgers Scarlet Knights, Minnesota Golden Gophers, Northwestern Wildcats, Purdue Boilermakers, DaQuan Jones, Deion Barnes, Anthony Zettel, Noah Spence, C.J. Olaniyan, Dominic Alvis, Louis Trinca-Pasat, Larry Johnson, Ryan Isaac, Ryan Russell, Darius Latham, joey bosa, Tyler Scott, Evan Panfil, Malik McDowell, Antoine White, Bruce Gaston Jr., Adolphus Washington, Randy Gregory, Joel Hale, Ra'Shede Hageman, Tommy Schutt, Tim Kynard, Joe Keels, Shilique Calhoun, Mark Scarpinato, Aaron Curry, Ifeadi Odenigbo, Michael Rouse III, Carl Davis, Vincent Valentine, Sean McEvilly, Marcus Rush, Dave Aranda, Nick Mangieri, Theiren Cockran, Avery Moss, Beau Allen, Greg McMullen, Teko Powell, Lawrence Thomas, Drew Ott, Tarow Barney, Tyler Hoover, Jihad Ward, David Kenney, Ralphael Green, Langston Newton, B1G spring positions 14, Paul James, Alex Keith, Andre Monroe, Arthur Goldberg, Austin Teitsma, Cameron Botticelli, Chance Carter, Chikwe Obasih, Chris Carter, Damon Knox, Darian Cooper, Darius Kilgo, David Milewski, Dawuane Smoot, Dean Lowry, Deonte Gibson, Djwany Mera, Greg Latta, Harold Legania, Houston Bates, Isaac Holmes, Jake Keefer, Jalani Phillips, Jamal Marcus, James Adeyanju, James Kittredge, Jamil Merrell, Joe Fotu, Julian Pinnix-Odrick, Keith Bowers, Kemoko Turay, Konrad Zagzebski, Maliek Collins, Marcus Thompson, Max Chapman, Micajah Reynolds, Michael Amaefula, Nate Meier, Quinton Jefferson, Roman Braglio, Ryan Phillis, Ryan Watson, Scott Ekpe, Sebastian Joseph, Warren Herring, Zack Shaw

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- We’ve reached the midpoint of this week’s countdown, which is ranking the five players to keep an eye on this spring.

Up next is a versatile defensive lineman who was quite the spark plug last season …

No. 3 spring player to watch: DL Anthony Zettel

[+] EnlargeAnthony Zettel
MCT via Getty ImagesAnthony Zettel proved to be a solid pass-rusher and keeping him on the edge could help the Penn State defense.
2013 review: Zettel played in every game and was a key reserve who came up with four sacks, an interception and six tackles for loss. He didn’t see as much time as those numbers suggest, but he was almost a lock to make his stops in the backfield. He finished with just 16 tackles, and more than one in three ended up going for a loss. He saw more time as the season progressed and was one of the nicer surprises for the defensive line. He played both defensive end and, in passing situations, also played defensive tackle. He was surprisingly effective inside on those situations, despite playing at just 258 pounds.

Why spring is so important: There are a few questions surrounding this line: Can Deion Barnes rebound from his sophomore slump? Can this defensive line improve without DaQuan Jones? Who’ll start alongside Austin Johnson at defensive tackle? All those answers will touch on Zettel one way or another. If Barnes struggles, Zettel could take his spot just as he did twice last season against Michigan and Illinois. Zettel also has the ability to play inside and, if the other defensive tackles start off slow, he could potentially make a permanent move and start alongside Johnson. Zettel finished second in team sacks (4) last season despite starting just two games, and he definitely has the ability to challenge for a starting job or at least earn more considerable playing time.

Best-case scenario: For the team? Barnes returns to old form and either Brian Gaia, Derek Dowrey or Tarow Barney progress quickly enough to be a solid option at defensive tackle. Defensive line coach Sean Spencer doesn’t start Zettel but plays him constantly, and Zettel still finishes near the top when it comes to sacks and tackles for loss. Best-case for Zettel? His talent can no longer be ignored, and he either surpasses Barnes on the depth chart or he gains weight in the offseason and takes up a spot alongside Johnson. He leads the team in at least one stat category and is in the conversation as an All-Big Ten player.

Worst-case scenario: Zettel is forced to spend most of his team inside, and he’s unable to put on significant weight before the season opener. He does fine on passing downs, but Spencer is forced to keep him in on rushing plays -- and that’s where Zettel struggles. The interior becomes a defensive soft spot, and Big Ten teams run all over the Nittany Lions as a result. It’s nearly the opposite of the season before, and Penn State struggles against bigger running backs.

More players to watch:

No. 5: DB Adrian Amos
No. 4: LB Nyeem Wartman
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: DL

December, 26, 2013
12/26/13
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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: Defensive line.

REWIND

Expectations entering the 2013 season: Believe it or not, more question marks surrounded the defensive tackles than the defensive ends. Although Gil Brandt named DaQuan Jones the best senior DT in the country, the senior was still an unproven commodity. And the starter alongside him -- Kyle Baublitz or Austin Johnson -- was widely considered a liability.

[+] EnlargeDaQuan Jones
Rob Christy/USA TODAY SportsDT DaQuan Jones lived up to the preseason hype and led the Nittany Lions in stops in the backfield and was fifth on the team in tackles.
Deion Barnes had already garnered NFL hype, and 10 sacks didn't seem out of the realm of possibility for the reigning Big Ten freshman of the year. The line wasn't expected to be as good as 2012, but it was still expected to be in relatively good shape.

How they fared: Jones was the best player on the defense, finishing fifth in tackles (56), first in stops in the backfield (11.5) and making it difficult for any tailback to find room up the middle. The combination of Johnson/Baublitz fared better than most thought, too.

But the defensive ends? Well, Barnes might've been the most disappointing player on the team. He followed up his strong freshman season with just four sacks, and he struggled with his run-defense. Bill O'Brien didn't start him for a game or two to send a message. C.J. Olaniyan played especially well in the second half of the season, although his forte wasn't exactly setting the edge, either. Still, he wound up with 11 tackles-for-loss and a team-high five sacks, four quarterback hurries and three forced fumbles. Anthony Zettel also played well in spots.

What we learned: Barnes isn't the first-round NFL lock we thought he was. At least not yet. He utilized his speed a lot in 2012, but he was just outmuscled in 2013. He needs to add weight and get stronger before his production matches his freshman season. Teams are aware of him now, so he's not taking anyone by surprise. He's going to be a huge factor on this team moving forward, and we learned he needs to add some tangibles before he reaches double-digit sacks.

Grading the position: B. No, this group wasn't as strong as 2012. But it was still the best group on the defense in 2013 and often set the tone. When the defensive ends set the edge, fans knew the team would be in OK shape. When they didn't? Disaster loomed. They were able to pressure quarterbacks in the conference season, and -- outside of the Ohio State game -- the run-defense performed well in the Big Ten.

FAST FORWARD

Key losses: Jones and Baublitz. PSU's top three DEs return, but it loses two of its best three DTs. The interior was a strength in 2013, while the ends were more of an issue. In 2014, that situation's a bit flip-flopped.

Position stock watch: Trending downward. Jared Odrick, Devon Still,Jordan Hill, Jones -- PSU has had a lot of luck finding future NFL DTs to step in one season after another. But that might end in 2014. If Barnes can improve his production from his freshman season and Olaniyan can make some strides, then it won't be all bad news. But when you lose the best player on your line -- and on your defense -- that usually doesn't work in your favor. Couple that in with Baublitz's decision to leave, and depth at defensive tackle will definitely be a concern.

Key to next season: Production of the No. 2 DT. It's as simple and as difficult as that. Johnson will return as a starter, but who will start alongside him? The early favorite is probably Zettel, who could move from DE. But incoming juco Tarow Barney (Bainbridge, Ga./Northwest Mississippi C.C.) or freshman Thomas Holley (Brooklyn, N.Y./Lincoln) playing immediately isn't a total stretch either. If PSU finds a solid replacement, this line is likely in store for another "B" grade next season. If it doesn't? It's going to have to deal with an Achilles' Heel all season. Just ask Trevor Williams how that worked out.

Week 14 helmet stickers

December, 1, 2013
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Recognizing the best and the brightest from the Nittany Lions in Week 14's season finale:

QB Christian Hackenberg: This was easily his best game of the season and certainly should provide PSU some hope moving forward. He was 21 of 30 for 339 yards with four TDs and no interceptions. He played especially well in the first half -- throwing just one or two bad balls -- and was the driving force behind the Penn State offense. He was able to spread the field, showed composure when Wisconsin called for a heavy blitz, and was the biggest reason for PSU's huge upset win over the Badgers.

DE C.J. Olaniyan and the PSU defensive line: The average Wisconsin offensive lineman weighs 321 pounds, which is about 8 pounds heavier than the average Green Bay Packers' lineman. But PSU still managed to pressure Joel Stave and limit the rushing attack to only 120 yards. The entire line played well, but Olaniyan deserves special consideration after finishing with three quarterback hurries and returning an interception 33 yards. Anthony Zettel added two stops in the backfield, Kyle Baublitz (1 TFL) and Austin Johnson led all PSU linemen with four tackles apiece, and Deion Barnes deflected a critical third-and-3 pass.

WR Allen Robinson: No explanation is needed here. Seriously. He caught eight passes for 122 yards. You know how good he is by now. He's on this list every week, and he's one of the best receivers in Penn State history. He showed that yet again against Wisconsin.

RB Zach Zwinak: The 240-pound back gets this award mainly because of one play, his 61-yard rush on a draw with less than 4 minutes left in regulation. Had he not picked that up, Wisconsin would've had great field position and plenty of time left to score the tying touchdown. That was a critical play, and Zwinak played especially well in the second half. He carried 22 times for 115 yards, with more than half of his yardage coming off that one play. Wisconsin players vowed revenge earlier this week after Zwinak ran all over them last season -- but he once again quieted the Badgers.

WR Eugene Lewis and TE Adam Breneman: These two freshmen -- Lewis a redshirt; Breneman a true -- will be looked upon a lot in the future, so their performances were good to see for PSU fans. Breneman caught three balls for 78 yards and a touchdown. But his big play came early in the game when he took a short pass, broke a tackle and rumbled 45 more yards for the score. Lewis also finished with three catches but came down with 91 yards and two touchdowns. Every catch he made was a big one. The first was a 29-yard catch that came on third-and-7, the second was a 3-yard TD and the third was a 59-yard TD bomb that acted as a nice bookend to his Week 1 TD catch.

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.

Big Ten lunchtime links

November, 7, 2013
11/07/13
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Nothing big happening in college football today, is there?
  • Brady Hoke responds to critical comments about his program and left tackle Taylor Lewan.
  • Off the radar as a recruit, Darqueze Dennard has turned himself into one of the most productive defensive players in the country at Michigan State.
  • Minnesota may have some options it feels good about at wide receiver, but it would certainly prefer to have Derrick Engel (recovering from ankle injury) available when it takes on Penn State.
  • There have been ups and downs for Nebraska linebacker Josh Banderas, but it looks like he's on the rise heading into a crucial game for the Blackshirts at Michigan.
  • Ohio State's BCS future could become more clear on Thursday night, and Urban Meyer and his players will tune in to watch.
  • The tattoo on the right arm of Penn State defensive lineman Anthony Zettel set the tone for a player whose toughness is easy to see on the football field.
  • Not everybody appears to be a fan of Northwestern's special uniforms for next week's game with Michigan.
  • Conor Boffeli remembers the feeling of nervousness all too well before his first start on the Iowa offensive line. Experience is definitely helping him sleep better.
  • Illinois might like to run the football better, but it actually doesn't appear to be a priority for offensive coordinator Bill Cubit.
  • The jury is still out on Purdue's new-look defense.

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."

RB battle about more than just a start

October, 24, 2013
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STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- The soft-spoken Zach Zwinak didn't take the dais this week. Bill Belton didn't address reporters on teleconference calls, either.

Players deflected questions about the two running backs, but the simple conjunction on the depth chart -- "OR" -- next to their two names said a lot.

It said either tailback could start against Ohio State on Saturday night. It said that maybe, just maybe, Belton is the Nittany Lions' best option at this point. And that there's at least a drizzle of controversy in the Penn State backfield for the first time since last September.

The red-haired, 240-pound Zwinak had been the main ball-carrier in 13 of 14 games up until the Michigan contest. That could change Saturday -- and, that, really is the story.

[+] EnlargeBill Belton
Matthew O'Haren/USA TODAY SportsBill Belton scored the winning touchdown against Michigan and is listed as the co-starter on Penn State's depth chart for its game at Ohio State.
The player who starts against OSU might not see the most carries by the end of the game. So, forget who starts. But Belton is making a push to be the guy, a title Zwinak carried ever since trampling a Temple defense last season and grinding out 94 yards.

And that's what that simple "OR" really signifies.

"We'll continue to rotate guys in at that position," Bill O'Brien said Tuesday, crossing his arms and trying to downplay the change. "And both of those guys will play against Ohio State."

Belton was nothing more than an offensive afterthought last year. But the New Jersey native has burst onto the scene as the Lions' most improved player on offense -- he's averaging 5.3 yards a carry this year, a full yard more than Zwinak -- while his heavier counterpart has struggled with fumbling issues.

Those fumbles aren't so insignificant. Zwinak coughed up the ball to open the second half against Michigan and Frank Clark scooped it up for a touchdown to change the complexion of the game. Offensive guard John Urschel defended Zwinak earlier this week by saying, "To play this game you have to have a short memory, so he learns from it. ... At the end of the day, he's moved on."

But this wasn't an isolated incident. Zwinak has been a positive threat in the red zone but also a threat to turn the ball over. He's fumbled seven times since last season. That means, since he first started, he fumbles once an average of every 42 carries. According to ESPN Stats & Info, the average NCAA tailback fumbles once every 91 carries.

This isn't meant to pile it on Zwinak, who often leaves piles of dazed defenders in his wake. He's undoubtedly a talented tailback. But it's those mistakes that have given the shifty Belton enough room to wiggle his way toward the top of the depth chart.

When Zwinak turned the ball over against Michigan, Belton jogged into the huddle on the next series while the tailback affectionately known as "ZZ" didn't touch the pigskin for the rest of the four-hour, 11-minute classic. If Zwinak showed he was PSU's best tailback last season during the Temple game, then this Michigan contest was Belton's turn.

Zwinak is a good running back with a big asterisk next to his name. Belton is proving to be a good running back. Belton made a patient first down on a critical fourth-and-1 play in the fourth overtime and also ran for the game-winning TD against Michigan. He's blocked well, made a few nice catches -- and he hasn't fumbled for 126 consecutive carries. Statistically, Zwinak would've averaged three fumbles over that same workload.

O'Brien has shown he's not afraid to make changes to the depth chart. Defensive end Anthony Zettel started in place of reigning Big Ten freshman of the year Deion Barnes two weeks ago. Safety-turned-linebacker Stephen Obeng-Agyapong has started in place of Nyeem Wartman. Even walk-on long-snapper Zach Ladonis, who's been on the roster for just a few weeks, is seeing time on the field now.

The Penn State head coach made those changes because he believed they gave his team the best chance to win. And, right now, Belton might just be Penn State's best option -- even if that "OR" doesn't translate into a start.

What we learned: Week 7

October, 13, 2013
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Lesson learned from Penn State's 43-40 quadruple OT win against Michigan in Week 7:

1. Penn State can make plays when it needs to, after all: Against Central Florida, the defense couldn't make a key stop when it needed. With Indiana, the team imploded when it counted in the fourth quarter. But against the best team it's played so far? It couldn't have asked for much more. Christian Hackenberg led the team on a five-play, 80-yard touchdown drive with 50 seconds left in regulation. And, in overtime, defensive tackle Kyle Baublitz was able to help block a Michigan field goal to keep the game going. Before this contest, the Nittany Lions seemed to fall apart against better competition. They proved this game they're capable of overcoming the odds -- time and time again -- to get the win.

2. Bill Belton is a critical part to this offense: Is he the best running back on the team? That's certainly worth debating now. When Zach Zwinak fumbled, Belton watched his workload increase dramatically -- and he made the most out of it. He showed patience when it was needed, he held onto the ball, and he made an impact on the passing game. He greatly underachieved last season, but there's really no question about it in 2013: He's a valuable member of the offense. And, heading into the next game, it'll be interesting to see how he and Zwinak share carries.

3. Bill O'Brien will stick to those fourth-down attempts no matter what: Penn State's head coach couldn't be blamed if he felt a bit gun-shy after a first-quarter risk that didn't pan out. But in the fourth overtime, when he needed just a short field goal to tie, he decided to once again go for it on 4th-and-1. Belton waited and then found an opening to gain 3 yards and complete the conversion, but it was a gutsy move. "I felt like it was time for someone to win the game," O'Brien matter-of-factly said afterward. If O'Brien thinks he can win a game by not going for a field goal, expect him to go for the first down -- no matter what. We knew before he loved going for it on those fourth downs, but the game against Michigan took that to another level.

4. This defensive line is good, even without Deion Barnes: Anthony Zettel started in Barnes' place, and the line got a tremendous push all night. Barnes has struggled early on this season, and defensive coordinator John Butler wanted to send him a message. It certainly seemed to work. The Wolverines tried to establish a running game, but they only picked up yards when Devin Gardner scrambled. (Michigan's tailbacks combined for 28 yards on 30 carries.) DE C.J. Olaniyan finished with 2.5 sacks and had the best game of his career, while DT DaQuan Jones routinely clogged up the middle. There are plenty of question marks with the secondary and the depleted group of linebackers, but this line is the defense's strength. And it was a big reason for the win.

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