Penn State Nittany Lions: Ben Kline

We're taking snapshots of each position group with each Big Ten team entering the spring. Up next: the linebackers.

Illinois: The Illini lose an All-Big Ten player in Jonathan Brown but still have decent overall depth at linebacker. Mason Monheim started every game at middle linebacker in 2013, and Mike Svetina started all but one game at the star position. Both players return as juniors. Svetina will move into Brown's spot on the weak side, while the other position could be filled by T.J. Neal, who recorded 38 tackles last season. Ralph Cooper has logged significant reps as a reserve, and Eric Finney gives Illinois some flexibility after playing the star position (safety/outside linebacker).

Indiana: This becomes a more significant position under coordinator Brian Knorr, who plans to use a 3-4 alignment. Indiana should have enough depth to make the transition as it returns two full-time starters from 2013 -- David Cooper and T.J. Simmons -- as well as two part-time starters in Forisse Hardin and Clyde Newton, who started the final four games of his freshman season. Like Simmons and Newton, Marcus Oliver played a lot as a freshman and provides some depth. The key here will be converting all the experience into sharper, more consistent play.

Iowa: If you're of the mindset that Iowa always reloads at linebacker, you can rest easy this spring. If not, keep a very close eye on what happens as the Hawkeyes begin replacing one of the more productive linebacker groups in team history: James Morris, Christian Kirksey and Anthony Hitchens. There are high hopes for sophomore Reggie Spearman, who played in 10 games as a freshman last fall. Spearman, junior Travis Perry and senior Quinton Alston enter the spring as the front-runners to take over the top spots. The biggest challenge could be building depth behind them with Cole Fisher and others.

Maryland: The good news is the Terrapins return three productive starters from 2013 in Cole Farrand, L.A. Goree and Matt Robinson, who combined for 233 tackles, including 19 for loss. The bad news is Maryland loses its top playmaker at the position in Marcus Whitfield, who recorded nine sacks and 15.5 tackles for loss last season. But the overall picture is favorable, and the depth should be strong when Alex Twine and Yannik Cudjoe-Virgil return from their injuries. Young players such as Abner Logan (37 tackles in 2013) will push for more time.

Michigan: There are a lot of familiar faces in new positions as Michigan not only has shuffled the roles of its defensive assistant coaches, but also its top linebackers. Standout Jake Ryan moves from strong-side linebacker to the middle, while junior James Ross III moves from the weak side to the strong side and Desmond Morgan shifts from the middle to the weak side. Joe Bolden, who had 54 tackles last season, can play both outside and inside, and players such as Ben Gedeon, Royce Jenkins-Stone and Allen Gant add depth. The talent is there for a big year if the position switches pan out.

Michigan State: It won't be easy to replace the Big Ten's top linebacker tandem in Max Bullough and Denicos Allen, not to mention Rose Bowl hero Kyler Elsworth, but Michigan State has some promising options. Ed Davis appears ready to step in for Allen after recording four sacks as a sophomore. Junior Darien Harris and two redshirt freshmen, Shane Jones and Jon Reschke, will compete at middle linebacker. Returning starter Taiwan Jones is back at the star position, and Mylan Hicks should be in the rotation. Depth is a bit of a question mark here entering the spring.

Minnesota: The Gophers lose key pieces in all three areas of the defense, and linebacker is no exception as two starters (Aaron Hill and James Manuel) depart. Minnesota will lean on Damien Wilson, who started in 12 games at middle linebacker in his first season with the Gophers and recorded 78 tackles. Junior De'Vondre Campbell seems ready to claim a starting spot after backing up Manuel last season. There will be plenty of competition at the strong-side linebacker spot, as Nick Rallis, De'Niro Laster and others are in the mix. Jack Lynn is backing up Wilson at middle linebacker but could work his way into a starting spot on the outside with a good spring.

Nebraska: Optimism is building for the Blackshirts in 2014, thanks in large part to the returning linebackers. The three players who finished last season as the starters -- David Santos, Michael Rose and Zaire Anderson -- all are back, as Rose will lead the way in the middle. Josh Banderas and Nathan Gerry also have starting experience and return for 2014. If younger players such as Marcus Newby develop this spring, Nebraska could have the Big Ten's deepest group of linebackers, a dramatic departure from the Huskers' first few years in the conference. Good things are happening here.

Northwestern: The top two playmakers return here in Chi Chi Ariguzo and Collin Ellis, who combined for seven interceptions and 11.5 tackles for loss in 2014. Northwestern's challenge is replacing the leadership Damien Proby provided in the middle. Ellis has shifted from the strong side to the middle, and Northwestern has moved safety Jimmy Hall from safety to strong-side linebacker. Drew Smith and Hall will compete for the third starting spot throughout the offseason. Sophomores Jaylen Prater and Joseph Jones should provide some depth.

Ohio State: Coach Urban Meyer has made it clear that Ohio State needs more from the linebackers, so it's a huge offseason for this crew, which loses superstar Ryan Shazier. The Buckeyes return starters at the outside spots in Curtis Grant and Joshua Perry, although competition will continue throughout the spring and summer. Redshirt freshman Darron Lee surprisingly opened spring practice Tuesday working with Grant and Perry on the first-team defense. Camren Williams appeared in all 13 games as a reserve and will be part of the rotation, along with Trey Johnson. Meyer said last month that the incoming linebacker recruits won't redshirt, which means an opportunity for mid-year enrollee Raekwon McMillan.

Penn State: Linebacker U is looking for more bodies at the position after struggling with depth issues throughout 2013. The Lions lose leading tackler Glenn Carson but bring back two players, Mike Hull and Nyeem Wartman, who started most of the season. The new coaching staff is counting on Hull to become a star as a senior. Brandon Bell, who appeared in nine games and recorded 24 tackles as a freshman, will compete for a starting spot along with Gary Wooten. Penn State hopes Ben Kline can stay healthy as he provides some experience, and incoming freshman Troy Reeder could enter the rotation right away.

Purdue: Expect plenty of competition here as Purdue loses leading tackler Will Lucas and must get more consistent play from the group. Joe Gilliam started for most of the 2013 season and should occupy a top spot this fall. Sean Robinson also brings experience to the field, and Ryan Russell could fill more of a hybrid linebacker/defensive end role this season. Redshirt freshman Danny Ezechukwu is an intriguing prospect to watch this spring as he aims for a bigger role. Ezechukwu is just one of several younger players, including decorated incoming recruit Gelen Robinson, who have opportunities to make a splash.

Rutgers: The Scarlet Knights return a good deal of production here with Steve Longa and Kevin Snyder, who combined for 219 tackles, including 15 tackles for loss and five sacks. Quentin Gause also is back after racking up 53 tackles (8.5 for loss) in a mostly reserve role last season. Gause likely will claim the starting strong-side linebacker spot as Jamal Merrell departs. The starting spots are seemingly set, so Rutgers will look to build depth with Davon Jacobs, who had 30 tackles as a reserve last season, and L.J. Liston, both sophomores.

Wisconsin: Do-it-all linebacker Chris Borland is gone, along with Ethan Armstrong and Conor O'Neill, so Wisconsin must replace three of its top four tacklers from 2013. Derek Landisch and Joe Schobert can be penciled in as starters, along with Michael Caputo, who played mostly safety last season but should slide into one of the outside spots. Marcus Trotter brings experience to the rotation. The spotlight will be on younger linebackers such as Vince Biegel, who had 25 tackles last season, as well as dynamic sophomore Leon Jacobs and Alec James, a decorated recruit who redshirted in 2013.
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Nebraska Cornhuskers, Ohio State Buckeyes, Penn State Nittany Lions, Wisconsin Badgers, Big Ten Conference, Illinois Fighting Illini, Iowa Hawkeyes, Michigan State Spartans, Michigan Wolverines, Big Ten, Indiana Hoosiers, Maryland Terrapins, Rutgers Scarlet Knights, Minnesota Golden Gophers, Northwestern Wildcats, Purdue Boilermakers, Denicos Allen, Jonathan Brown, Max Bullough, Brandon Bell, Mike Hull, Nyeem Wartman, Ben Kline, Gary Wooten, Chi Chi Ariguzo, Jake Ryan, Trey Johnson, Ryan Russell, De'Niro Laster, Troy Reeder, Jon Reschke, Shane Jones, De'Vondre Campbell, Reggie Spearman, David Cooper, Michael Trotter, Marcus Whitfield, Curtis Grant, Zaire Anderson, Raekwon McMillan, Mason Monheim, Darron Lee, Collin Ellis, Damien Wilson, Drew Smith, Derek Landisch, Eric Finney, Jimmy Hall, James Ross III, Leon Jacobs, Joe Gilliam, Josh Banderas, Gelen Robinson, Joe Schobert, T.J. Simmons, Damien Proby, Clyde Newton, Marcus Oliver, Nathan Gerry, Mylan Hicks, Camren Williams, Taiwan Jones, Michael Rose, Ed Davis, Marcus Trotter, Darien Harris, Brian Knorr, Joshua Perry, B1G spring positions 14, Matt Robinson, Abner Logan, Alec James, Alex Twine, Allen Gant, Ben Gedeon, Cole Farrand, Cole Fisher, Danny Ezechukwu, David Santos, Davon Jacobs, Forisse Hardin, Jack Lynn, Jamal Merrell, Jaylen Prater, Joe Bolden, Joseph Jones, Kevin Snyder, L.A. Goree, L.J. Liston, Marcus Newby, Mike Svetina, Nick Rallis, Quentin Gause, Quinton Alston, Ralph Cooper, Royce Jenkins-Stone, Steve Longa, T.J. Neal, Travis Perry, Vince Biegel, Yannik Cudjoe-Virgil

No. 4 PSU player to watch: LB Wartman

February, 25, 2014
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STATE COLLEGE, Pa. – There will be plenty of Penn State players to keep a close eye on this spring, but a few rise to the top for one reason or another.

So, as part of this week’s countdown, we’re looking at the five players to watch the closest this spring. Up today, at No. 4, is a player who made waves after a punt block as a freshman.

No. 4 spring player to watch: LB Nyeem Wartman

[+] EnlargeNyeem Wartman
Matthew O'Haren/USA TODAY SportsNyeem Wartman started in eight games as a redshirt freshman, but seemed to fade as the season progressed.
2013 review: Wartman entered the season with big expectations because he was in line to be a four-year starter, quite a rarity at Linebacker U. He finished the season by starting eight games and playing in the other four, but he didn’t quite progress as quickly as the staff had hoped. He showed flashes of potential -- making several highlight-worthy tackles and compiling eight stops against Michigan -- but other linebackers had surpassed him toward the end of the season. Ben Kline earned starts over him for two games (Illinois, Minnesota) before another injury sidelined Kline, and freshman Brandon Bell started over Wartman in the season finale. In the last five games, Wartman made just five tackles.

Why spring is so important: Penn State is light on experience at linebacker and, outside of Mike Hull, Wartman is the most seasoned linebacker on the team. So, for this group of linebackers to succeed, Penn State needs Wartman to succeed. Kline is overcoming two surgeries this offseason, one for lingering shoulder issues and another for a torn pec, and both Stephen Obeng-Agyapong and Glenn Carson have graduated -- so there’s really no one else to step in Wartman’s spot. It’s sink or swim, and if he sinks, Penn State sinks. Wartman made a lot of waves as a true freshman in 2012 before an injury led to a medical redshirt, and he needs to step up as a redshirt sophomore. This spring will help determine whether he can do that.

Best-case scenario: Wartman becomes a solid outside linebacker and is the team’s second-best linebacker behind Hull. He takes his run-stuffing ability to the next level, gains a conference-wide reputation for his penchant for the big hit and forces several key turnovers. He finishes the season as an honorable-mention selection on the All-Big Ten team and picks up the slack while the other outside linebacker, likely Bell, finds his footing.

Worst-case scenario: Wartman’s production flatlines, as Bell continues his quick rise and overtakes him. Wartman remains a below-average to mediocre linebacker and adds little to the defense, except the occasional big tackle that makes fans wonder where that intensity is at other times. James Franklin tries playing other linebackers, either Kline once he gets healthy or a freshman, to spark the defense.

More players to watch:

No. 5: DB Adrian Amos
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.

Penn State positions to improve: No. 4

February, 11, 2014
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STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- This week's countdown continues with the No. 4 spot.

Once again, until spring practice starts, we'll have a different countdown every week. Up next are the positions of concern for Penn State, and this group is one that historically hasn't been an issue for the Nittany Lions.

No. 4: Linebackers

[+] EnlargeNyeem Wartman
Matthew O'Haren/USA TODAY SportsKeeping Nyeem Wartman healthy will be a big part of the linebackers' success at Penn State in 2014.
The players: Mike Hull (78 tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss), Nyeem Wartman (32 tackles, 4 pass breakups), Brandon Bell (24 tackles), Ben Kline (18 tackles, 1 sack), Gary Wooten (6 tackles), Troy Reeder (incoming freshman), Jason Cabinda (incoming freshman)

Last season: Depth was a huge concern throughout the season, and PSU tried to overcome that with position switches and different combinations. Safety Stephen Obeng-Agyapong moved to the outside and filled in for Hull when he was injured, while Bell, Wartman and Kline split time as the season progressed. The health of this unit was an ongoing issue, but Glenn Carson turned in a solid season And Hull, when healthy, was also good -- although he failed to meet lofty expectations (in part because of those injuries).

What's missing: Depth. It's the same issue as 2013, except the most solid starter in Carson is now gone. Kline once again has two surgeries to recover from this offseason, and Wooten appears to be more of a special-teams contributor. Outside of those two, there are just five linebackers on scholarship -- and that includes the two incoming freshmen.

Moving forward: Wartman and Bell were both greenhorns last season, so they at least have experience now. And they'll both need to be solid -- and healthy -- for this group to experience success. An injury to Hull or those two could be disastrous. Kline is once again a wild card because he's coming off of serious injuries, so PSU might have to turn to a non-scholarship player or a true freshman to pick up some slack. Incoming freshman Koa Farmer could play safety or linebacker, and Reeder appears more game-ready than Cabinda. For the second straight season, linebacker is once again a concern for Linebacker U.

Looking to the past & future: LBs

December, 27, 2013
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It's never too late -- or too early -- to see what we learned from this past season and also look ahead to next season. So, we've started breaking down each position on the Nittany Lions.

Up today: Linebackers.

REWIND

Expectations entering the 2013 season: This group was clearly going to take a big step back from 2012. Without Michael Mauti and Gerald Hodges, this was probably the group that was going to receive the heftiest downgrade.

[+] EnlargeStephen Obeng-Agyapong
Nabil K. Mark/Centre Daily Times/Getty ImagesFormer safety Stephen Obeng-Agyapong was pressed into duty at linebacker because of injuries.
Still, many pointed to Mike Hull as a candidate for PSU's top breakout player. Hopes were high for Nyeem Wartman, and there wasn't much concern surrounding middle linebacker Glenn Carson. This position was clearly shallow, however, and everyone knew a single injury could derail the group. The best-case scenario was to be a good unit -- because it was never going to be great.

How they fared: Injuries were a concern, and they were felt almost immediately. Hull injured his knee against Syracuse, and it took him weeks before he was back to 100 percent. Safety Stephen Obeng-Agyapong was forced to take over, and he allowed the linebackers to bide some time until Hull returned. He wasn't a factor in the second-half of the season.

Ben Kline, who overcame a serious shoulder injury, did the most with the time he saw once healed -- but then he fell again to another serious injury. Hull didn't meet expectations, and neither did Wartman, but Brandon Bell was a nice surprise toward the end. This group avoided total disaster, but it would be difficult to rank it above-average.

What we learned: Linebacker will take a few years to reload. Penn State grew accustomed to churning out one strong corps of linebackers after another, but 2013 was the exception. If everyone stayed healthy -- and Kline was never injured in the offseason -- it might've been different. But those are a lot of "what ifs." It became clear in 2013 that linebacker wasn't going to be just a one-year or two-year fix. It'll take a few years for Linebacker U to return to glory.

Grading the position: C. Yes, average. This wasn't one of the better groups in the Big Ten, and it wasn't among the worst. Carson was above-average, but he was the only linebacker who earned an honorable mention on the All-Big Ten team. None were named to the first or second team. Tackling was an issue at times, and so was pursuit, but it wouldn't be fair to say the linebackers were a liability, either. Once again, it was an average group ... while most PSU fans are used to great in this department.

FAST FORWARD

Key losses: Carson. Sure, everyone else returns, but Carson was the most solid of the bunch. Hull needs to show he's not as injury-prone as 2013 suggests, and PSU should receive some extra bodies in the form of incoming freshmen Troy Reeder (Wilmington, Del/Salesianum) and Jason Cabinda (Flemington, N.J./Hunterdon Central).

Position stock watch: Trending downward. On one hand, two of PSU's starting spots should improve from last season. On the other, Carson's departure is sure to be felt ... and the other two spots are far from guarantees. Kline has to overcome two surgeries in the offseason, so PSU finds itself in a similar position as last season. One injury could completely derail this group. It needs Hull, Wartman and Bell to be on top of their games -- and stay healthy. If they don't? Well, fans might miss the performance from the 2013 season.

Key to next season: Finding depth ... somewhere. The trio of Hull, Wartman and Bell can't stay on the field all game every game -- so, not only do those three need to take huge steps from last season, but Penn State also needs more players to step up at this position. Redshirt sophomore Gary Wooten hasn't contributed much outside of special teams and -- outside of an injured Kline -- Wooten is next in line. That means Penn State will needs a true freshman or a non-scholarship player to step up. Maybe it can move a backup DB over a la Obeng-Agyapong; maybe not. O'Brien needs to find someone, anyone, who can contribute.

What we learned: Week 12

November, 17, 2013
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Lessons learned from Penn State's 45-21 win against Purdue in Week 12:

1. Fumbling issues aren't behind Zach Zwinak ... or Bill Belton: Zwinak fumbled for the fourth time this season Saturday -- even with the gloves -- while Belton lost his third fumble of the season. The Nittany Lions are among the most fumble-prone teams in the country and, despite constant emphasis on holding onto the ball, it's obvious that still remains an issue. They've both been great for PSU this season -- but with one large asterisk. Fumbles.

2. Changes could be coming on the kickoff team: The Lions surrendered a 100-yard kick return TD, the first time that's happened since Michigan State's Derek Mason pulled it off in 1994. And then it nearly happened again but, luckily for the Lions, Sam Ficken stepped up to take down the returner. As a result, Bill O'Brien said the staff will look into making some changes on that special-teams unit this week. Maybe, he mused, some guys just aren't hungry enough.

3. "Complementary football" isn't out of reach: O'Brien's squad performed the opposite of "complementary football" against Minnesota last week. But against Purdue? PSU forced three turnovers, and the offense converted each of those into a touchdown. When the offense needed the defense to step up, it did -- and vice versa. That's why, even when this game was just a one- or two-score game, it felt so out of reach for Purdue. PSU played a below-average opponent, but it still played relatively well. It should reach at least seven wins this season if it can keep that up.

4. The freshman linebackers still have quite a way to go: Redshirt freshman Nyeem Wartman missed a few tackles -- again -- and he's looked lost at times this season. True freshman Brandon Bell also saw more time than usual against Minnesota, and he's trying to get his feet wet because he could compete for a starting job next season. With Ben Kline's injuries, which require two separate surgeries, only Mike Hull, Wartman and Bell will be the returning linebackers with considerable playing time under their belts. Bell and Wartman are more important than ever now, and they could see more time in the final two games.

Five things: Purdue at Penn State

November, 16, 2013
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Both the Nittany Lions and the Boilermakers are still trying to find their footing late in the season. A win gives Purdue something to build on for next year, while a PSU win would at least get the Lions back on some kind of track before the final two games.

Here are five things to keep an eye on:

1. Two true freshman QBs with lots of potential. OK, you already know plenty about Christian Hackenberg and how he's making a strong case for the Big Ten freshman of the year award. But Purdue's Danny Etling could have a bright future ahead of him, too. The Boilermakers are struggling, but Etling said -- despite the numbers -- he's improving every week. He was a four-star recruit last season, the Boilermakers' highest-rated prospect since ESPN started keeping track, and he's been the starter since Week 6. He has thrown five interceptions to four TDs so far this season, but his best football is ahead of him. Same goes for Hackenberg. Watching these two players Saturday should be like catching a quick glimpse of the B1G future.

2. Allen Robinson nearing another school record ... again. No, this isn't a misprint. He broke Bobby Engram's single-season receiving mark of 1,084 yards last week -- and he could set the single-season receptions record against Purdue. Robinson set that record last year with 77 catches, and he currently boasts 73 receptions. He's the only Penn State receiver to reach the 70-catch mark, and no PSU wideout has ever reached the 80-reception plateau. Expect more of the same from Robinson; he's making history just about every week now.

3. Running wild over Purdue. The Boilermakers have allowed 200-yard rushing games five times so far this season, as they're ranked No. 111 in the country in rush defense. That means big games could be in store for both Bill Belton and Zach Zwinak. It's been difficult to predict lately who'll handle the heavier workload, but both are likely to see plenty of time in the afternoon. Zwinak can run on the inside and blow over defenders for extra yards, while Belton's cutting ability has improved greatly since last season. Both players should be able to pad their stats against Purdue's dismal run defense.

4. Third-down defense. The Lions' defense took a step back last week, as they allowed the opposition to convert on 7-of-10 third downs during the first half of last week's game. They couldn't get off the field, and that was a big reason they were manhandled in the first two quarters -- so it's worth keeping an eye on that same down Saturday. The good news for Penn State is that Purdue is among the worst in the country (notice a trend?) and ranks No. 114 in terms of converting third downs (30.6 percent). So, if PSU can't stop Purdue on third down, then it probably won't be able to stop future opponents Nebraska and Wisconsin.

5. New PSU player roles? LB Ben Kline didn't open the season as the starter, but he started the last two games and seemed to be making a lot of progress. He's out for the season now, so it'll be interesting to see if this corps takes a step back against Purdue. Stephen Obeng-Agyapong and Nyeem Wartman will likely compete for his spot, just as they did before Kline earned the starts, but Bill O'Brien also mentioned that true freshman LB Brandon Bell should see an increased workload. On the offensive side of the ball, O'Brien told reporters to expect to see more of redshirt freshman wideout Eugene Lewis, who made an outstanding 54-yard TD catch in Week 1 ... but has only accounted for 71 yards since. If Robinson leaves early for the NFL, Lewis could be PSU's top wideout next season.

Penn State LB Kline out for season

November, 12, 2013
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STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Penn State linebacker Ben Kline, who overcame offseason shoulder surgery in time for the 2013 season, will miss the rest of the year with a torn pectoral that will require surgery.

The redshirt sophomore will also undergo a second shoulder surgery that will come after the pectoral surgery, Penn State coach Bill O'Brien said.

"I think he can definitely come back from those," O'Brien said Tuesday afternoon. "I brought him in and had this exact conversation with him. I told him, 'We look forward to bringing you back next year.'

"He's still at the meetings. I look at Ben Kline as a tough kid."

Kline tore his pec on the second play of Saturday's game against Minnesota but played the rest of the game. He finished with four tackles.

Depth at linebacker was among O'Brien's chief concerns this season, and Kline played in every game, starting the last two. He finished the season with 18 tackles and one sack.

Redshirt freshman Nyeem Wartman and safety-turned-linebacker Stephen Obeng-Agyapong will likely compete for the starting job in his place.

Kline addressed the media last week and said his shoulder continued to bother him this season. He said he had finally gotten his confidence back and praised the trainers for getting him prepared.

"It's been a little more trying than other seasons," Kline said last week. "But I'm just trying to do what I can to help the team."

Kline has two years of eligibility remaining.

Injury impact: Big Ten

October, 24, 2013
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Injuries are an unfortunate part of the game. Every team must deal with them, but some teams get hurt harder than others. Today, we're taking a look at the teams that have been impacted the most this season. Here's our ranking of the top three:

1. Northwestern: Injuries have played a major role in the Wildcats' 0-3 start in Big Ten play. All-American kick returner and star tailback Venric Mark has been healthy enough to play exactly one full game -- against Ohio State. Quarterback Kain Colter has been banged up just about all season as well. Both were reinjured at Wisconsin and missed all of last week's loss to Minnesota. In addition, top defensive tackle Sean McEvilly has played in only three games, while starting cornerback Daniel Jones suffered a season-ending knee injury in the opener at Cal.

2. Penn State: The Nittany Lions had major depth issues to begin with because of NCAA sanctions. It hasn't helped that they have also dealt with a series of injuries. Tight ends Matt Lehman and Brent Wilkerson and defensive end Brad Bars were lost for the season. Linebacker Mike Hull was hurt for most of the first two months, as was tight end Kyle Carter. Wide receiver Brandon Felder missed the Indiana loss with an ankle problem. Linebacker Ben Kline has been limited after offseason shoulder surgery. Safety Ryan Keiser has been dealing with a hand injury since the Kent State game. This team can't afford many more injuries as it approaches the homestretch of the season.


3. Nebraska: The Huskers' injury problems haven't adversely affected them -- at least not yet. Still, it's never easy when you lose your four-year starting quarterback, and Taylor Martinez hasn't played since Week 3 versus UCLA because of turf toe. He could be back this week, but All-American guard Spencer Long was lost for the season in the last game against Purdue with a knee injury. He'll be tough to replace.

Sanctions, depth impact Penn State defense

September, 17, 2013
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STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Penn State's fiery defensive coordinator, John Butler, just crossed his arms and stared up at the big screen after UCF's third touchdown Saturday.

Maybe he just needed to make sure this was real, that he wasn't trapped in a nightmare. Maybe he couldn't believe how his players missed tackles, moved in slow motion or struggled in coverage. Whatever Butler was thinking, it didn't get any better for a defense that surrendered 34 points and 507 yards.

The game's been over now for nearly three days, but answering the questions has only just begun. Some fans have already, tongue-in-cheek, called for PSU to reinstate former defensive coordinator Tom Bradley. Others are blaming thud practices, in which no player is tackled to the ground.

In a valley that's never happy after a loss, Bill O'Brien did little to ease concerns when he deflected talk Saturday by saying he'd need to watch the film. But Penn State's struggles, to a great extent, don't need to be viewed on a flat-screen to be explained.

Just look at the roster. Look at the numbers.

[+] EnlargeJohn Butler
Matthew O'Haren/USA TODAY SportsPenn State defensive coordinator John Butler is receiving some blame for the Lions' poor day on defense, but the problem runs a lot deeper.
This isn't the 2012 team led by two Butkus Award semifinalists at linebacker. This isn't the 2009 squad with three future NFL players at defensive tackle. And it's certainly not the 2010 group that ranked No. 16 in pass defense.

"We knew what we had to to do to stop them," Butler said. "And, to be honest with you, we couldn't stop what we needed to stop."

O'Brien is ESPN's reigning coach of the year and Butler is considered a rising defensive coordinator, but they're not King Midas. The Nittany Lions have fewer scholarship players than every team they're facing this season, and the Knights peeled back any illusion that PSU would cruise through this schedule unscathed.

Safety-turned-linebacker Stephen Obeng-Agyapong acknowledged he initially feared he was too small for his new role -- but he fared well in the first two weeks. The 5-foot-10 senior was exposed Saturday. Wideout-turned-cornerback Trevor Williams earned praise after stopping an Eastern Michigan passing attack that's about as a high-powered as a water pistol. He was exposed Saturday.

Penn State really doesn't have anywhere else left to turn. It's a Whack-a-Mole of depth problems. Butler can move Adrian Amos back to cornerback, but then he might have to move Obeng-Agyapong back to safety ... and then who takes over at linebacker?

Mike Hull appears to be fighting a lingering injury, Ben Kline has seen limited time after recovering from offseason shoulder surgery and Gary Wooten is ... well ... just not ready for prime time. Butler has MacGyver-ed his way to even fielding a defense, calling upon first-year starters to pick up the slack.

Four defenders made their first career starts this season. Another two had just one career start before the 2013 season. Butler doesn't have a deep defense to choose from. He's not a bad coach; he's a handicapped coordinator -- not unlike Bradley, the same coach some might prefer, earlier in his career.

Bradley, affectionately known as "Scrap," didn't fare too well in Year 2 as coordinator, either. (And, in his first season in 2000, he lost to Toledo.) In 2001, the Johnstown native's defense gave up 443 yards a game. Only 17 teams fared worse that season, as Penn State's defense finished behind the likes of Hawaii, UTEP and New Mexico State.

It was an era when fans were bluer than the Penn State home jerseys. But Scrap just didn't have the players early in his tenure. PSU finished No. 98 in total defense in 2001. Afterward? PSU never finished worse than No. 50 and, during the next 10 seasons, finished within the top 20 a total of seven times.

That's a lot of numbers -- but it goes to show that Bradley was a good coordinator who simply didn't have a lot to work with. Give the best poker player in the world a bad hand and you can't expect them to rake in fistfuls of chips.

So it's a bit early to jump on Butler. Yes, these were the cards that Penn State was dealt -- but that doesn't mean the wrong man's playing the hand.

It's just one game, and PSU could rebound. It did after poor showings last season. But the Big Ten slate is loaded with high-powered offenses, such as Indiana (50 ppg), Michigan (42.7 ppg) and Ohio State (44.7 ppg) -- and those are just Penn State's opponents in October.

It's too early this season for Chicken Littles to proclaim the sky's falling over Beaver Stadium. But it's not too early to remind that this defense is short on depth. It will struggle at times, and Butler will be blamed for it.

But it's not Butler, it's not thud and it's not the game plan. It's primarily the depth -- and it's these sanctions.

O'Brien: LB Mike Hull will play Saturday

September, 10, 2013
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STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Linebacker Mike Hull missed Week 2 with an unspecified injury but he'll practice Tuesday and will play Saturday, Bill O'Brien said during his weekly press conference.

The news was expected but remains a big boon to a Nittany Lions' defense that's short on linebacker depth. Plus, Hull is PSU's best coverage 'backer, and PSU will be facing 2012 3,000-yard passer Blake Bortles this weekend.

"He's a pro prospect," O'Brien added about the UCF quarterback.

Bortles has yet to commit a turnover this season and might be the best pocket-passer that Penn State faces. He's already thrown for 528 yards and four touchdowns -- so Hull's return is a big one.

Hull was injured in the first quarter of Week 1. He returned with a brace on his right knee, played some, but then stood in street clothes in the second half. If he was needed, he could've possibly played against Eastern Michigan. But he's clearly needed more against a high-powered Central Florida offense.

O'Brien said Hull will start alongside Glenn Carson and Nyeem Wartman again. Safety-turned-linebacker Stephen Obeng-Agyapong will also see time, as will Ben Kline.

In other injury news, Penn State's head coach said tailback Bill Belton is probable and will likely practice Wednesday. Safety Ryan Keiser is listed as questionable.

Notes on PSU's newest depth chart

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

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

PSU position preview: Linebackers

August, 14, 2013
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As part of an ongoing series, NittanyNation will preview a different position leading up to the season opener against Syracuse on Aug. 31. Up today: Linebackers.

Projected starters: Mike Hull (2012 stats: 58 tackles, four sacks, one interception, two fumble recoveries, one blocked kick), Glenn Carson (85 tackles, three tackles-for-loss) and Nyeem Wartman (one tackle, one blocked kick)

[+] EnlargeRex Burkhead
Justin K. Aller/Getty ImagesNittany Lions linebacker Glenn Carson had 85 tackles last season.
Key losses: Michael Mauti (95 tackles, three interceptions, three forced fumbles) and Gerald Hodges (109 tackles, 8.5 tackles-for-loss, two interceptions, nine pass deflections)

Next in line: Ben Kline could've challenged Wartman for the starting job if it weren't for a nagging shoulder injury, but he's missed a lot of time after offseason surgery. (Bill O'Brien said Kline will "hopefully" be ready for the season opener.) He's still clearly the top backup here, but he'll have to shake off rust quickly to be effective.

Outside of Kline, the staff will be forced to turn to a raw Gary Wooten who redshirted last season. And then there's always true freshman Brandon Bell and the run-ons. Safety Stephen Obeng-Agyapong will also be utilized at times this season, likely replacing Wartman on passing downs, and could possibly play more weakside if injuries become a pressing concern.

What to expect: If there's one position that concerns O'Brien, when it comes to depth, it's linebacker.

ESPN's coach of the year has echoed that sentiment throughout the offseason and training camp. There are two solid starters here, in Carson and Hull, but every other linebacker is a question mark. Wartman flashed a lot of potential in two contests last season before a season-ending injury, and he looks to become a four-year starter. But can he be effective with such limited experience?

Even if does play well, the Nittany Lions are one injury away from a disaster at linebacker. Wartman can be good this season, but there's a lot less faith in those backups. Kline missed the spring and the summer, and he might not be ready to go in time for Week 1. If PSU has to rely on Wooten or someone else here, that player immediately becomes the Achilles' heel of this defense.

Recruiting trail: The Nittany Lions seemed to be in a lot better shape earlier in the summer. Sure, they still have four-star MLB Troy Reeder (Wilmington, Del./Salesianum), who is just on the outside of the ESPN 300, but they also basically lost two other linebackers.

Since July, the Lions have parted ways with Class of 2013 LB Zayd Issah (Harrisburg, Pa./Central Dauphin) after another run-in with the law and three-star LB Jared Wangler (Warren, Mich./De La Salle), who decommitted in favor of Michigan. That makes LB a much bigger priority now.

Syracuse commit Jason Cabinda (Flemington, N.J./Hunterdon Central) could be the next in line for an offer. He impressed the staff during a June camp, and PSU badly needs to take another linebacker now.

Best-case scenario: Wartman shows he'll be the next big thing at Linebacker U and earns an honorable mention on the All-Big Ten team. There's only a slight drop-off in production from last season, but the linebacking corps remains one of the team's strengths as Carson and Hull form to become the best duo in the conference.

Worst-case scenario: Carson or Hull go down early and miss the season, while Kline's shoulder continues to bother him throughout the year. Wooten or Bell are then plugged in before they're ready, and the group of linebackers struggles as a whole and brings down the entire defense.

Top position question: What kind of linebacker will Wartman be? He's a run-stuffer, first and foremost, which is why the Lions will likely plug in a safety at his position on passing downs. It'll basically be the 2013 version of the "Roadrunner" package.

But that doesn't mean quickness is a problem for Wartman. He boasts great straight-line speed, and the Florida Gators recruited him heavily for that very reason. He also garnered a reputation in high school as a hard-hitter, and that was clearly well-earned.

During the Blue-White Game, he diagnosed a screen pass and blew up the intended receiver in the hit of the game. (He was a bit disappointed in himself about that hit because, although the receiver crumpled to the turf, he didn't wrap up the target because he "was licking my chops too much.")

It would come as no surprise if Wartman forced a few fumbles. He'll likely end up as a four-year starter for Penn State. This might not be the year where PSU fans start buying No. 5 jerseys en masse -- but it should happen by 2014 or 2015.

5 lessons learned: PSU's media day

August, 9, 2013
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STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Penn State's media day might be over, but there's still plenty to reflect on.

Here's a look at five lessons learned from a day spent talking to coaches and players:

1. Tyler Ferguson currently boasts the early edge at quarterback. That wasn't a huge surprise, considering Christian Hackenberg enrolled over the summer while Ferguson started school in January. But Hackenberg has picked up things quickly, and there's no telling where the race might be in another week or two.

But, as luck would have it, that's exactly when Bill O'Brien hopes -- hopes -- to name the starter. The head coach isn't a fan of waiting until the night before the season opener because he wants the starter to get more reps with the first team. At this juncture, most of the media believes Hackenberg will start ... but O'Brien said that Ferguson holds the slight lead right now.

2. Linebacker is the biggest concern when it comes to depth. Penn State might be known as Linebacker U, but it's not very big on quantity this season. When asked about depth on defense -- since the DTs don't have the greatest numbers either -- O'Brien didn't hesitate in expressing his concern over the linebacker unit.

Nyeem Wartman will start as a redshirt freshman and the top backup, Ben Kline, is still coming off a shoulder injury and didn't participate in Thursday's practice. One more injury at this spot could spell doom for this defense. Safeties such as Adrian Amos and Stephen Obeng-Agyapong could come in relief of Wartman on passing downs, but there's only so many tweaks this staff can make to shore up the depth here.

3. Special teams are a point of focus. The Nittany Lions finished among the bottom of the country in just about every special teams category last season -- No. 103 in net punting, No. 90 in punt returns, No. 112 in kick returns, etc. O'Brien said the team is working hard on improving those numbers.

Sam Ficken remains the starting kicker, but he should be pushed by preferred walk-on Chris Gulla. That true freshman has also practiced punting a lot, so he should also compete with Alex Butterworth. And, as far as kick returners, those duties remain between eight candidates -- including Richy Anderson, Alex Kenney, Bill Belton, Trevor Williams, Akeel Lynch and Eugene Lewis.

4. Newest injuries don't affect depth that much. True freshman wideout DaeSean Hamilton, a four-star wideout from Virginia, is out for the season with a wrist injury suffered from high school. But Hamilton was a redshirt candidate before the announcement, and the corps there is pretty deep. PSU shouldn't miss a beat at wideout.

Redshirt freshman Brent Wilkerson also suffered a back injury and is "out for a while," although O'Brien declined to elaborate. Regardless, tight end is the deepest position on the roster -- and there are at least four other tight ends who could see time here. Kyle Carter and Jesse James remain the starters, but Matt Lehman is a solid backup and Adam Breneman could see time as a true freshman.

5. WR Allen Robinson is just getting started. Robinson broke the longstanding school-record for receptions last season, but assistant coach Stan Hixon said Robinson has just scratched the surface of his potential. The All-Big Ten wideout improved his strength, speed and hounded teammates over the summer for some extra 7-on-7 drills.

Robinson acknowledged he might not top last year's numbers -- 77 catches, 1,013 yards, 11 TDs -- but that doesn't mean he's not a better wideout. He has been timed at 4.6 seconds in the 40-yard dash, and he has worked hard on winning more one-on-one battles this offseason. He's a good basketball player with a strong vertical leap, and he could be the big-play threat this offense desperately needs. He's the best player on this offense -- and he has gotten better. Much better.
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Bill O'Brien's voice will soon regularly echo across the practice field. Allen Robinson will soon continue cementing his legacy as one of PSU's best. And Deion Barnes will, once again, soon start giving quarterbacks a case of happy feet.

Monday marks the start of training camp and a new season, which comes on the heels of one of the most memorable performances in school history. PSU shocked the nation with a gutsy 8-4 record last season ... but that was last season.

The Nittany Lions are trying to take another step forward in 2013, and it won't be easy. The limited roster has its fair share of question marks, so NittanyNation's outlined a few of the bigger ones:

Who will become the QB, and can he succeed?

[+] EnlargeChristian Hackenberg
Tom Hauck for ESPN.comPenn State freshman Christian Hackenberg was the No. 1 quarterback prospect in the nation last year.
It's a two-man race between Christian Hackenberg and Tyler Ferguson -- and Ferguson, the juco signal-caller, didn't do himself any favors. He missed about a month of voluntary workouts, so he's going to have to get re-acclimated ASAP.

O'Brien tried to downplay Ferguson's absence, but safety Malcolm Willis spoke candidly at the Big Ten media days: "If it was me, I would have trouble picking things back up and just being away from the team."

Few analysts are betting against the fresh-faced rookie, in Hackenberg, to start. He was the top-rated quarterback in his class, the 15th-best prospect in the nation, and he's eyeing immediate playing time. O'Brien insisted starting a true freshman like Hackenberg would not be unusual, and it looks a lot better for Hackenberg than it did a month ago.

It's an open competition, and O'Brien hoped to name a starter midway through camp. But whoever takes over isn't going to have an easy time. Sure, Matt McGloin picked up a complex offense in a short period of time -- but he was used to facing Big Ten defenses and digesting college-level playbooks. His touchdown-interception ratio (24:5) was one of the best in PSU history, and it would be hard for even an experienced quarterback to match those numbers.

Quarterback is really the only question mark on this offense. But it's a big one. If PSU succeeds here, it doesn't just bode well for 2013 -- it gives fans hope for 2014, 2015 and 2016. This is the biggest storyline on the team, and it's one that will be watched closely all season.

Can this front seven match last year's performance?

Michael Mauti and Gerald Hodges formed the best LB tandem in the conference and one of the best in the nation last season. PSU was the lone school to place two linebackers on the semifinalist list for the Butkus Award. And Jordan Hill was an All-Big Ten player who dominated the season finale in a fashion that few defensive tackles have done before.

Those three key players are gone, and it's really not up for debate whether this front seven will be as good as last year. It won't ... but just how good can it be? Players like MLB Glenn Carson and OG John Urschel have pointed to LB Mike Hull as the guy who's impressed them the most this offseason. He's been a staple of any "Players poised to break out" lists, and he'll be carrying a full-time workload this season as opposed to situational playing time.

Hull is a special player, but the young LB lining up on the other side of the field is where the concerns start. Nyeem Wartman made an early mark last season with a big punt block but was lost for the year just one week later. Defensive tackle is also a huge concern without Hill. Big things are expected out of DaQuan Jones, whom Gil Brandt named as the top senior DT in the country, but Kyle Baublitz and Austin Johnson will be taking on a much bigger role this season. Johnson has potential, but it's not yet known if either player will be a force in 2013.

How will PSU counter the depth issues?

Get used to this question because it'll be asked until the sanctions finally end. O'Brien wants to lessen some of the hitting in practice, and he's often said he boasts a "next man up" philosophy. When someone goes down, there's no hesitation -- that next player has to and will be ready.

That's a nice philosophy to have, but there are just key areas on this team that can ill afford injuries of any type -- such as linebacker, quarterback and defensive tackle. (Without Brad Bars, PSU has just one experienced backup DE in Anthony Zettel. Ditto at LB in Ben Kline.) There are some run-ons to choose from and a class of 16 recruits, but it's no secret that the overall quality of this team will suffer with each and every injury at those key places.

O'Brien was able to keep his players fresh in the trenches with a nice rotation last season, and it wouldn't be a big surprise if some players -- such as DT Jones -- sit out in, say, the fourth quarter of the Eastern Michigan contest. Also, there's a good chance fans won't see too many Wisconsin repeats this year -- where Zach Zwinak carries the ball 36 times.

There's only so much O'Brien and Co. can do here, though. Ultimately, a lot of it comes down to preparing the players and then just crossing fingers and hoping everyone stays healthy. A healthy Penn State could become a BCS buster; an unhealthy Penn State could struggle getting past .500.

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