Penn State Nittany Lions: Brandon Felder

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- We’re inching closer to the top spot of this week’s countdown involving the top spring position battles at Penn State.

Up today is a spot that will be forced to plug in a new starter ...

No. 2 position battle: Offensive guard/center

Departures: Ty Howle (12 starts), John Urschel (12 starts), Tanner Hartman (one game; transferring at end of semester)

Returning players: Miles Dieffenbach (12 starts), Angelo Mangiro (11 games played), Wendy Laurent (five games played), Brendan Mahon (redshirted)

Breaking it down: There are a few other players who could also compete inside such as Anthony Alosi, but this position battle should really come down to two names: Mahon and Laurent.

Dieffenbach is the only returning starter on the interior, so he’ll reclaim his spot at left guard with ease. Mangiro, a strong sub the past two seasons, is also nearly a lock to start. But where he plays -- guard or center -- will be dependent upon Mahon and Laurent. If Laurent excels, then he’ll start at center, Mangiro will move to right guard, and Mahon will be a sub. But if Laurent falters, then Mangiro will likely move to center and Mahon will start at right guard.

Those are the two most likely scenarios right now. The chemistry of the line will be greatly increased if one of those two players can quickly separate himself. The incoming freshmen are all projected to be tackles since there are only two returning players on scholarship there, so this position battle could really be decided in the next two months.

Pre-camp edge: Laurent. He’s a redshirt sophomore who gained just six pounds, from 278 to 284, between the 2012 and 2013 seasons. He has experience, so he has the slight edge on Mahon right now -- but there’s no doubt that 305-pound Mahon has the higher ceiling. As a result, this is somewhat akin to the Brandon Felder-Geno Lewis dilemma at receiver last season. Mahon appears to be the long-term answer, but it’s not yet certain if he’s ready. If he’s not, Laurent will take over -- it's his job to lose.

More position battles to watch:

No. 5: Kicker
No. 4: Tight end
No. 3: Defensive tackle
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- There’ll be a lot of players and positions to watch closely this spring, but there’s one name that comes up time and time again when it comes to these watch lists.

So, to finish off this week’s countdown on the five players to watch, we have a player whom the most eyes will be on at Penn State.

[+] EnlargeLewis
Matthew O'Haren/USA TODAY SportsWill this be the season Geno Lewis lives up to his potential?
No. 1 spring player to watch: WR Geno Lewis

2013 review: The middle of the season -- outside of the six-catch Indiana game -- was a statistical desert for Lewis, as he sat behind both Allen Robinson and Brandon Felder in addition to playing second-fiddle behind the tight ends. Still, he showed great potential in the first and last games. In the opener against Syracuse, he made an athletic adjustment to catch an underthrown 54-yard TD pass. And in the finale against Wisconsin, he reeled in an over-the-shoulder 59-yard TD grab. Those two games accounted for all of Lewis’ three TD receptions and 65 percent of his season’s receiving yards (153 of 234 yards). He overtook Felder in the lineup in the final two or three games of the year, but that finale is really what got people talking.

Why spring is so important: This spring, and this season, are boom-or-bust time for Lewis. The Pennsylvania native headlined the 2012 recruiting class, and this will determine whether he’s ready to step up and live up to that potential. With early enrollee De’Andre Thompkins and three talented incoming freshmen on their way, this is Lewis’ time to assert himself. If it doesn’t happen this season, then it’s never going to happen. Someone needs to fill A-Rob’s shoes, and Lewis is the top candidate. Wide receiver is a wild card for the Nittany Lions this season, because they have plenty of talent but not a whole lot of experience. Lewis could play a major role in this offense or he could flounder. There’s really no telling where he might end up right now. So, if there’s one player to watch this spring, it’s him.

Best-case scenario: No, he doesn’t surpass Robinson in terms of talent or numbers. But he establishes himself as one of the Big Ten’s better wideouts and finds a spot on the All-Big Ten’s second-team offense. He finishes with more than 55 catches, and he becomes Christian Hackenberg’s top weapon downfield. He might not lead the team in touchdowns since those 6-foot-7 tight ends are awfully hard to miss once in the red zone, but he’s the big-play threat this offense needs. He leads the team -- by far -- in yards per catch, and at least one of his athletic catches makes an appearance on SportsCenter’s top 10 plays.

Worst-case scenario: He starts in the season opener but, as the freshmen develop, they quickly overtake Lewis. The redshirt sophomore becomes an offensive afterthought, much like Felder did late in the season, and he’s buried on the depth chart behind at least two of the freshmen. Hackenberg relies on the tight ends and the young receivers, while Lewis struggles and finishes with about 25 catches. Because of the new recruits coming in, that ends up being a career high. He never lives up to expectations, and Penn State struggles while the young line and receivers take time to jell.

More players to watch:

No. 5: DB Adrian Amos
No. 4: LB Nyeem Wartman
No. 3: DL Anthony Zettel
No. 2: OT Andrew Nelson
We're taking snapshots of each position group with each Big Ten team entering the spring. The wide receivers and tight ends are up next.

Illinois: The Illini are looking for more from this group after losing top target Steve Hull, who exploded late in the season to finish just shy of 1,000 receiving yards. While running back Josh Ferguson (50 catches in 2013) will continue to contribute, Illinois could use a boost from Martize Barr, who arrived with high expectations but only had 26 receptions last fall. Another junior-college transfer, Geronimo Allison, could make an impact beginning this spring, but there's some mystery at wideout. Illinois looks more solid at tight end with seniors Jon Davis and Matt LaCosse.

Indiana: Despite the somewhat surprising early departure of All-Big Ten selection Cody Latimer, Indiana should be fine here. Shane Wynn is the veteran of the group after recording 633 receiving yards on 46 catches last season. Kofi Hughes and Duwyce Wilson also depart, so Indiana will be leaning more on Nick Stoner and Isaiah Roundtree. The Hoosiers have high hopes for early enrollee Dominique Booth, a decorated recruit who could fill Latimer's spot on the outside. Productive tight end Ted Bolser departs and several players will compete, including early enrollee Jordan Fuchs.

Iowa: Almost all the wide receivers are back from a group in which none eclipsed more than 400 receiving yards in 2013. Balance is nice, but separation could be nicer for the Hawkeyes this spring. Kevonte Martin-Manley is the most experienced wideout and has 122 career receptions. Tevaun Smith also returns, and Iowa fans are excited about big-play threat Damond Powell, who averaged 24.2 yards on only 12 receptions last season. Iowa loses its top red-zone target in tight end C.J. Fiedorowicz and will need Jake Duzey to deliver more Ohio State-like performances.

Maryland: When the Terrapins get healthy, they might have the Big Ten's best wide receiving corps. Stefon Diggs and Deon Long, both of whom sustained broken legs against Wake Forest last season, have the ability to stretch the field as both averaged more than 15 yards per reception before the injuries struck. Leading receiver Levern Jacobs also returns, alongside junior Nigel King and sophomore Amba Etta-Tawo, who averaged more than 16 yards per catch in 2013. Marcus Leak, who started seven games in 2012, rejoins the team after a year away. The Terps are unproven at tight end after losing Dave Stinebaugh.

Michigan: There's a reason why some Michigan fans want Devin Gardner to return to wide receiver for his final season. The Wolverines are thin on the perimeter after losing Jeremy Gallon and Drew Dileo. Redshirt sophomores Jehu Chesson and Amara Darboh are both candidates to start, and Dennis Norfleet could be the answer in the slot. But there's plenty of opportunity for younger players like Drake Harris, an early enrollee. Michigan's best pass-catching option, Devin Funchess, is listed as a tight end but plays more like a receiver. The Wolverines will be without their second-string tight end, Jake Butt, who suffered an ACL tear in winter conditioning.

Michigan State: Remember all the justified angst about this group a year ago? It has pretty much gone away as the Spartans wideouts rebounded nicely in 2013. Bennie Fowler departs, but MSU brings back its top two receivers in Tony Lippett and Macgarrett Kings, who showed explosiveness down the stretch last fall. Aaron Burbridge had a bit of a sophomore slump but provides another option alongside veteran Keith Mumphery, who averaged 16.6 yards per catch in 2013. Josiah Price leads the tight end group after a solid freshman season.

Minnesota: Here's a group to watch during spring practice, particularly the wide receivers. Minnesota has proven it can run the ball and defend under Jerry Kill, but the passing game was putrid in 2013, ranking last in the Big Ten and 115th nationally. Youth is partly to blame, and while the Gophers still lack experience, they can expect more from promising players like Drew Wolitarsky and Donovahn Jones. Senior Isaac Fruechte provides a veteran presence. Minnesota looks solid at tight end with sophomore Maxx Williams, the team's receiving yards leader (417) in 2013.

Nebraska: The Huskers lose a significant piece in Quincy Enunwa, who led the team in receiving yards (753) and had three times as many receiving touchdowns (12) as anyone else in 2013. Kenny Bell is set to recapture the No. 1 receiver role, which he had in 2012, and comes off of a 52-catch season as a junior. Nebraska must build around Bell this spring with players like the mustachioed Jordan Westerkamp, who had 20 catches as a freshman, including a rather memorable one to beat Northwestern. Will Jamal Turner turn the corner this offseason? Juniors Sam Burtch and Taariq Allen also return. Cethan Carter started six games at tight end last fall and should take over the top spot there as Jake Long departs.

Northwestern: The passing game fell short of expectations in 2013, but there's reason for optimism as Northwestern returns its top three pass-catchers in Tony Jones, Christian Jones and Dan Vitale. The two Joneses (no relation), who combined for 109 catches in 2013, lead the receiving corps along with junior Cameron Dickerson. Speedy Rutgers transfer Miles Shuler provides a playmaking spark, possibly at slot receiver. Vitale, who had a somewhat disappointing sophomore season, has All-Big Ten potential at the superback (tight end) spot. Although Northwestern rarely plays true freshmen, superback Garrett Dickerson, Cameron's brother, could see the field right away.

Ohio State: A group that drew heavy criticism from coach Urban Meyer two springs ago is stockpiling talent. Devin Smith is the familiar name, a big-play senior who has started each of the past two seasons and boasts 18 career touchdowns. Ohio State must replace top wideout Corey Brown and will look for more from Evan Spencer. Michael Thomas has stood out in practices but must translate his performance to games. This could be a breakout year for H-back Dontre Wilson, who averaged nine yards per touch as a freshman. Buckeyes fans are eager to see redshirt freshmen Jalin Marshall and James Clark, and incoming players like Johnnie Dixon could make a splash right away. Ohio State returns an elite tight end in Jeff Heuerman.

Penn State: The Lions have very different depth situations at receiver and tight end. They're looking for contributors on the perimeter after losing Allen Robinson, the Big Ten's top wide receiver the past two seasons, who accounted for 46 percent of the team's receiving production in 2013. Brandon Felder also departs, leaving Geno Lewis as the likeliest candidate to move into a featured role. Richy Anderson also returns, but there will be plenty of competition/opportunity at receiver, a position new coach James Franklin targeted in recruiting with players like Chris Godwin and Saeed Blacknall. Things are much more stable at tight end as the Lions return three talented players in Jesse James, Kyle Carter and Adam Breneman.

Purdue: If you're looking for hope at Purdue, these spots aren't bad places to start. There are several promising young players like receiver DeAngelo Yancey, who recorded a team-leading 546 receiving yards as a freshman. Cameron Posey also had a decent freshman year (26 catches, 297 yards), and Danny Anthrop averaged 18.4 yards as a sophomore. A full offseason with quarterbacks Danny Etling and Austin Appleby should help the group. Tight end also should be a strength as Justin Sinz, who led Purdue with 41 catches last season, is back along with Gabe Holmes, who returns after missing most of 2013 with a wrist injury.

Rutgers: The good news is tight end Tyler Kroft returns after leading Rutgers in both receptions (43) and receiving yards (573) last season. Kroft will immediately contend for All-Big Ten honors. Things are murkier at wide receiver, where top contributors Brandon Coleman and Quron Pratt both depart. Leonte Carroo took a nice step as a sophomore, averaging 17.1 yards per catch and enters the spring as the frontrunner to become the team's No. 1 wideout. Ruhann Peele is another promising young receiver for the Scarlet Knights, who boast size with Carlton Agudosi (6-foot-6) and Andre Patton (6-4).

Wisconsin: The quarterback competition will gain more attention this spring, but Wisconsin's receiver/tight end situation could be more critical. The Badgers lose Jared Abbrederis, their only major threat at receiver the past two seasons, as well as top tight end Jacob Pedersen. Players like Jordan Fredrick and Kenzel Doe must translate their experience into greater production, and Wisconsin will look for more from young receivers like Alex Erickson and Robert Wheelwright. Help is on the way as Wisconsin signed five receivers in the 2014 class, but wideout definitely is a position of concern right now. Sam Arneson is the logical candidate to step in for Pedersen, but there should be competition as the Badgers lose a lot at the position.
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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, Football Recruiting, Indiana Hoosiers, Maryland Terrapins, Rutgers Scarlet Knights, Minnesota Golden Gophers, Northwestern Wildcats, Purdue Boilermakers, Adam Breneman, Allen Robinson, Kyle Carter, Jesse James, C.J. Fiedorowicz, Jacob Pedersen, Jared Abbrederis, Josh Ferguson, Kenny Bell, Devin Funchess, Devin Smith, Kenzel Doe, Ted Bolser, Aaron Burbridge, Cody Latimer, Kofi Hughes, Corey Brown, Shane Wynn, Richy Anderson, Chris Godwin, Jamal Turner, Jeremy Gallon, Jalin Marshall, Dan Vitale, Garrett Dickerson, Saeed Blacknall, Danny Etling, Dontre Wilson, James Clark, Austin Appleby, Drake Harris, Drew Dileo, Isaac Fruechte, Gabe Holmes, Quincy Enunwa, Jordan Fredrick, Danny Anthrop, Johnnie Dixon, Cameron Dickerson, Alex Erickson, Martize Barr, Amara Darboh, Geronimo Allison, Kevonte Martin-Manley, Geno Lewis, Tony Jones, Christian Jones, Justin Sinz, Nick Stoner, Steve Hull, MacGarrett Kings, Brandon Felder, Jake Duzey, Maxx Williams, Jordan Westerkamp, Donovahn Jones, Sam Burtch, Dominique Booth, DeAngelo Yancey, Josiah Price, Damond Powell, Brandon Coleman, Michael Thomas, Stefon Diggs, B1G spring positions 14, Amba Etta-Tawo, Andre Patton, Cameron Posey, Carlton Agudosi, Cethan Carter, Dave Stinebaugh, Drew Wolitarsky, Duwyce Wilson, Evan Spencer, Isaiah Roundtree, Jehu Chesson, Jordan Fuchs, Keith Mumphery, Leonte Carroo, Levern Jacobs, Marcus Leak, Matt LaCosse, Miles Shuler, Nigel King, Quron Pratt, Robert Wheelwright, Ruhann Peele, Sam Arneson, Taariq Allen, Tevaun Smith, Tony Lippett, Tyler Kroft

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Two children, no older than 12, stood in matching gray Penn State T-shirts on Saturday while one pointed to Geno Lewis’ paper nametag on his locker.

“That’s the Lewis guy I was talking about,” one of the boys said, turning to the other. “Is he here? I want to talk with him.”

[+] EnlargeGeno Lewis
Matthew O'Haren/USA TODAY SportsPenn State receiver Geno Lewis is looking forward to breaking out in 2014.
Lewis was out of earshot of the boys’ conversation in the Lasch Football Building, one that occurred during the team’s annual Make-A-Wish event, but he smiled upon hearing the anecdote. The redshirt sophomore wideout wasn’t all that surprised -- he admittedly signed more autographs this year compared to last -- because he has become this passing attack’s new No. 1 receiver.

And everyone, even kids too young for a PG-13 movie, know it.

“I still feel like I have a long way to go, but I’m getting better every day,” Lewis said. “And when kids remember my name like that and everything, it’s just a blessing.”

For two seasons, Lewis’ name hid beneath the shadow of NFL-bound Allen Robinson, who quickly rose from an unknown to one of the Nittany Lions’ greatest wideouts. Lewis spoke quickly on Saturday without breaking eye contact. He was confident, but he also seemed realistic. He didn’t know if he’d reach Robinson’s production -- a bar raised so high it’s hard not to perform the limbo the season after -- and he didn’t seem eager at guessing how the 2014 season might end up.

“All I know,” he said, “is I’m blessed to be put in this situation, and I wouldn’t ask for it any other way. I’m going to go out there and play to the best of my ability and give this team all I've got to get a win.”

While chatter grew during every week of the 2013 season about Robinson’s next school record -- he set the school marks for both catches (97) and receiving yards (1,432) -- Lewis either stood on the sideline or played the role of distraction while on the field. Robinson accounted for more than 46 percent of the Nittany Lions’ passing yards last season, while Lewis finished with 18 catches for 234 yards.

But it’s obviously not Lewis’ production that has excited fans and increased the number of autograph seekers. It’s his potential and athleticism. Lewis was the headliner of the 2012 recruiting class, a solid four-star prospect, and he wowed onlookers with an over-the-shoulder 59-yard TD grab against Wisconsin.

If Lewis wasn’t forced to shift from high school quarterback to college receiver, he most certainly would’ve contributed as a freshman. But he has spent these past two seasons not as a bitter rival to Robinson and Brandon Felder, but as a patient student who has tried to perfect his route-running. And the time for patience has passed.

“I’m smarter, more ready and I’m going to be more physical,” he said. “Just as long as I’m getting better, that’s all that matters.”

But, even with his improvement, does he really think this passing attack can somehow get better without a player like Robinson? Can Penn State really be better without its MVP?

“I think we can,” he said, adding that his fellow receivers and tight ends now have a full offseason to work with Christian Hackenberg.

Lewis said his teammates have wasted no time in improving their chemistry with the Big Ten’s reigning freshman of the year. The receivers and defensive backs have already taken to meeting in Holuba Hall and elsewhere, practicing routes and developing better timing with their quarterback.

And Lewis is looking forward to seeing how his patience -- and his teammates’ work -- pays off.

“I think we’re going to surprise a lot of people,” he said. “I just can’t wait.”

Penn State positions to improve: No. 3

February, 12, 2014
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STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- We've made it to the middle of this week's countdown, and this next position shouldn't come as much of a surprise. This group is now without Penn State's MVP.

No. 3: Wide receivers

[+] EnlargeGeno Lewis
Matthew O'Haren/USA TODAY SportsGeno Lewis' 18 catches as a redshirt freshman makes him the leading returning wide receiver for Penn State.
The players: Geno Lewis (18 catches, 234 yards), Richy Anderson (13 catches, 111 yards), Matt Zanellato (4 catches, 53 yards), Jake Kiley (played in one game), DaeSean Hamilton (redshirted), De'Andre Thompkins (early enrollee), Chris Godwin (incoming freshman), Saeed Blacknall (incoming freshman), Troy Apke (incoming freshman)

Last season: Allen Robinson finished with the best statistical receiving year in Penn State history. He broke the school's single-season records for both receptions (97) and receiving yards (1,432) on his way to earning his second straight honor as Big Ten receiver of the year. He accounted for about 46 percent of the passing offense -- the most a single PSU receiver's been relied on in more than 25 years -- while Brandon Felder, a senior in 2013, finished second with 28 catches for 312 yards. Robinson was among the best receivers in the nation, but Christian Hackenberg had few reliable targets outside of him who weren't listed at tight end.

What's missing: A-Rob and experience. One quick look at the returning players is all it takes to understand what Penn State's going up against. Four of the nine scholarship wideouts are true freshmen, and only one -- Zanellato -- is an upperclassman. Lewis is the closest thing to a proven commodity, and he needs to improve his route-running for PSU to experience any hint of success here. The future looks bright with one of the nation's top classes of incoming freshmen, but without Robinson there's obviously going to be a drop-off at this position.

Moving forward: Lewis is the only returning wideout who played in every game last year, so he certainly appears to be the No. 1 -- unless a true freshman can usurp him. James Franklin is going to need those true freshmen to do a lot of heavy lifting this season because there's really no alternative. Zanellato and Anderson will play, but neither is the gamebreaker that Thompkins, Godwin or Blacknall have the potential to be. Thompkins played more tailback than receiver in high school -- catching just 44 balls in the last three seasons -- so he could become the early No. 2 if he learns quickly in the spring. A breakout spring for him would go a long way in putting this staff's minds at ease.

A record number of underclassmen elected to take the NFL plunge this year, but the Big Ten barely made a splash. Only four Big Ten juniors are entering the draft, continuing a recent downturn after just six left early a year ago. Several stars certainly could have entered the draft, so this is good news for fans who enjoy seeing the league's top players stay for a fourth year. But it also underscores a lack of top talent, especially when compared to the SEC and Pac-12.

Despite a small contingent of early entries, Big Ten teams have some significant holes to fill. As spring ball approaches, here's a look at who's gone and who might replace them.

Leaving: Indiana WR Cody Latimer

[+] EnlargeShane Wynn
AJ Mast/Icon SMIShane Wynn averaged 13.8 ypc this season and scored 11 TDs. His stock and those numbers should soar higher as he takes on a bigger role next season.
The replacement: Shane Wynn

Wynn and Latimer obviously have different body frames, but both produce at a high level, particularly when it comes to touchdowns. Latimer led Indiana by wide margins in both receptions (72, next highest: 47) and receiving yards (1,096, next highest total: 739), but Wynn had more touchdowns with 11 (Latimer at nine). The departures of Latimer, Kofi Hughes and tight end Ted Bolser make Wynn the team's only returning receiver with more than 15 receptions in 2013.

Indiana certainly could use a bigger receiver to play on the outside where Latimer roamed, and perhaps Nick Stoner or incoming recruit Dominique Booth fills that role. But the Hoosiers undoubtedly will rely more on Wynn, a 5-foot-7 dynamo who averaged 13.8 yards per reception last season. Of the Big Ten's early entries, Latimer is the most surprising, given the strength in the draft at wide receiver, but Indiana has had little trouble developing strong pass-catchers.

Leaving: Penn State WR Allen Robinson

The replacement: Geno Lewis

Latimer's departure raised a few eyebrows, but Robinson's had been expected for some time, especially after coach Bill O'Brien left Penn State for the NFL's Houston Texans. Robinson earned the Big Ten's Richter-Howard Receiver of the Year award in both 2012 and 2013 after recording back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons to lead the league each year. The Penn State standout had 97 catches for 1,432 yards last season, topping the Big Ten charts in both categories despite not playing in the postseason.

Lewis likely will move into the No. 1 spot, in part because Penn State doesn't much experience at receiver. In addition to Robinson, the Lions lose No. 2 wideout Brandon Felder. Although Penn State returns a wealth of talent at tight end, Lewis is the leading returning wide receiver with 18 catches for 234 yards and three touchdowns in 2013. Lewis showed potential during his redshirt freshman season, especially with a 91-yard performance in the finale at Wisconsin. After struggling midway through the fall, Lewis' strong finish sets him up well to be quarterback Christian Hackenberg's top option in 2014.

Leaving: Ohio State CB Bradley Roby

The replacement: Doran Grant. Grant played opposite Roby throughout last season and recorded 58 tackles, 3 interceptions, 10 pass breakups, a forced fumble and a blocked kick. He endured some ups and downs in a secondary that struggled for much of the season, especially after losing safety Christian Bryant to injury, but the experience should prove valuable going forward. Not surprisingly, Grant was challenged more than Roby, but as these numbers show, he held his own despite some mistakes here and there.

Roby's early departure is the least surprising of the group, as he announced before the season that it would be his last at Ohio State. His presence will be missed, especially on special teams, but Grant could develop into a top corner. Ohio State certainly has bigger problems to address in the back four as it welcomes in new coordinator/secondary coach Chris Ash from Arkansas.

Leaving: Ohio State LB Ryan Shazier

The replacement: Trey Johnson. Ohio State returns starters at the other two linebacker spots in Curtis Grant and Joshua Perry, and it's possible Perry could slide over into the role where Shazier excelled. But Johnson served as Shazier's backup in 2013 and boasts the athleticism to step in and perform. Johnson played sparingly last fall, recording 11 tackles in six games, but his role undoubtedly will expand with Shazier moving onto the NFL.

There should be plenty of competition at linebacker, a spot where depth has been a concern for head coach Urban Meyer. Like Johnson, Mike Mitchell came to Ohio State as an extremely decorated recruit and should push for playing time this spring after a redshirt season. Camren Williams and converted safety Devan Bogard also are possibilities, although Bogard will be coming off of a second ACL tear.

Looking to the past & future: WRs

December, 20, 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, over the next two weeks, we'll break down each position on the Nittany Lions.

Up today: Wide receivers.

REWIND

Expectations entering the 2013 season: Allen Robinson was expected to be better than ever but -- with a true freshman quarterback -- it wasn't quite certain if his numbers would equal his breakout 2012 season. Even Robinson acknowledged numbers might not reflect his improvement.

[+] EnlargeAllen Robinson
AJ Mast/Icon SMIAllen Robinson posted eye-popping numbers despite the lack of a credible threat on the other side.
But he gained weight, speed and strength and was sure to play a huge role in the offense. Outside of him, Brandon Felder was expected to step up to become a consistent No. 2 option. And some pegged 2013 as a breakout season for Eugene Lewis, who could overtake Felder early in the season.

How they fared: It's difficult to surpass high expectations when they're practically touching the clouds, but that's exactly what Robinson did. He set the school's single-season record (again) with 97 catches and added another school record with 1,432 receiving yards. He accounted for 46 percent of the passing offense.

The problem here is that all the other wideouts fared poorly. Felder struggled with drops and inconsistency all season. He had a good game against Michigan (six catches, 97 yards), but that and the next game were the beginning of the end. Bill O'Brien clearly had enough of his mistakes, as he wound up with just two catches in the final five games.

Lewis was still a little rough around the edges, the result of not playing wideout until college, and he had good performances in the first and last games of the season. But in the 10 games between? He had 72 receiving yards. And those were the No. 2 and 3 receivers.

What we learned: Without Robinson, this corps is in trouble. Lewis showed glimpses of potential, but not enough to quiet the questions surrounding this group. If it wasn't for Robinson, the receiver position might've been as weak as the safeties ... and that's saying something.

Grading the position: C+. Robinson gets an A, but the rest of the group gets a D. Average that together, and you get this mark. Robinson was one of the nation's best, but the rest of the group was definitely below average. They certainly had their moments but didn't consistently factor into the gameplan. It was a season to remember for Robinson and a season to forget for every receiver not named Robinson.

FAST FORWARD

Key losses: Felder and (possibly) Robinson. A-Rob still hasn't officially stated whether he'll declare early for the NFL draft, but it sure seems as if that's a likelihood. On the positive side, PSU has three talented incoming freshmen at the position -- including ESPN 300 wideouts De'Andre Thompkins and Chris Godwin. One could be asked to immediately step in to plug the gap created by Felder and/or Robinson.

Position stock watch: On hold, but likely trending downward. It's a simple equation. If Robinson stays, this position will be better than last season. Felder was a nonfactor, and his departure won't be felt that much, while Lewis should only get better. But if Robinson leaves? Well, feel free to hit that panic button because PSU just lost the best player on its team. This position would instantly become the biggest question mark on the offense, right ahead of the offensive line.

Key to next season: Finding someone to complement and/or replace Robinson. Penn State needs at least two solid options at receiver in O'Brien's pass-heavy offense, but that's far from a guarantee next season -- even if Robinson returns. Expectations will be very high for Lewis, who needs to take a few steps forward after an overall disappointing redshirt freshman season. Lewis obviously has playmaking ability, as he caught three highlight-worthy passes from Christian Hackenberg, but that needs to be parlayed into an every-game performance.

What we learned: Week 13

November, 24, 2013
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Lessons learned from Penn State's 23-20 overtime loss to Nebraska in Week 13:

1. Running-back-by-committee is nice -- but not required. Bill Belton missed the game with an undisclosed illness and stood on the sideline in street clothes, so it was the "Zach Zwinak Show" on Saturday -- and he came through just fine. Zwinak carried the ball 35 times for 149 yards. But it wasn't the first time a Penn State tailback has been asked to carry the full load. Belton had 36 carries against Illinois while Zwinak was in the midst of his fumbling phase (at least we think it was a phase). So it's clear these tailbacks are conditioned enough to handle a heavy load. Obviously, neither guy can do this every game over a full season. But if one guy is injured for a week or two? Definitely not time to hit the panic button. Having two guys who can run like that definitely has to make the staff feel better about its depth at the position.

2. Special teams needs more than just coaching to improve. Bill O'Brien said last Saturday, following the win against Purdue, that maybe he needed to find hungrier players to put on the kick-coverage team. On Tuesday, he changed his mind and said he just needed to coach better. Well, Bo Pelini said the players were coached just fine, but PSU's special-teams units still had their worst combined performance of the season. Kenny Bell ran back a kick 99 yards for a TD, a punt return was fumbled, a punt was blocked, and an extra point was missed. It was a day to forget for the special teams and, clearly, something has to give there. Maybe O'Brien and Co. need to coach better, but maybe they also need to find more athletic run-ons for special teams, too.

3. Tight ends could be the answer next season. Senior Brandon Felder and redshirt freshman Eugene Lewis had games to forget for Penn State as wideouts. But, outside of Allen Robinson, the tight ends really showed up to play. Six-foot-7 TE Jesse James flashed some speed on a swing pass that turned into a 46-yard touchdown. TE Adam Breneman caught a nice touchdown pass. And Kyle Carter looked good at times, as well. If Robinson doesn't return next season -- and that's looking more and more like an inevitability -- then these tight ends might just be the future. Saturday's game could've been a glimpse of that.

4. There could be some hope for this defense after all. It's not time to break open the champagne or anything, but true freshman linebacker Brandon Bell played well. And the secondary didn't look completely lost against a receiving corps that Jordan Lucas called the best it would face all season. The defense surrendered just one touchdown -- special teams allowed the other -- and, if it can string together more bend-don't-break games like that, then fewer fans are sure to call for the head of defensive coordinator John Butler. It was a positive step. The defensive line got great pressure on Nebraska, and that seemed to be key.

What we learned: Week 11

November, 10, 2013
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Lessons learned from Penn State's 24-10 loss against Minnesota:

1. Complementary football is not a strength of Penn State. The Nittany Lions' offense moved the ball relatively well in the first half, as it scored on two of four drives, while the defense couldn't stop anything in the first half and allowed scores on four straight drives. In the second half? That was completely reversed, as the defense shut out Minnesota ... and then the PSU offense was shut out by Minnesota. Complementary football is something Bill O'Brien has preached, and it's not something Penn State has done particularly well lately. The Indiana loss was one example, but this might have been the most striking example all season. Penn State is just not operating on all cylinders right now; when it fixes one problem, another seems to pop up in its place.

[+] EnlargeZach Zwinak
AP Photo/Ann HeisenfeltZach Zwinak had season highs in carries and yards against Minnesota.
2. Take away Allen Robinson, and there's not much to this passing offense. Minnesota shadowed Robinson with two defenders for most of the afternoon. (Gophers coach Tracy Claeys acknowledged afterward that you could count "on one hand" the number of times Robinson wasn't double-teamed.) The most surprising part of that strategy is that more teams haven't used it. Robinson still accounted for half of Christian Hackenberg's 14 completions, but he finished with just 63 yards -- and no target stepped up in his place. Brandon Felder couldn't haul in at least one big pass, and the alleged No. 2 WR didn't finish with a single catch. Tailback Bill Belton and true freshman TE Adam Breneman were the only other players to register more than one reception. It's Robinson-or-bust for this passing offense.

3. Penn State has a good "problem" at running back. The only problem is answering, "Who should be on the field on this drive?" Belton rushed for 201 yards last week in the best game of his career, while Zach Zwinak rushed for 150 yards Saturday in the best game of his season. O'Brien seems to be relying on the running game more, as Belton hit a career-high for carries last week (36) and Zwinak hit his season-high for carries on Saturday (26). Both players have made their mistakes -- Belton fumbled on the first play against Minnesota -- but both players seem to be on top of their games right now. When Zwinak was in a slump, Belton stepped up and made a name for himself. And, Saturday, Zwinak showed that he's back to his usual self. Who'll see most of the carries from here on out? That's no longer an easy answer -- but that's a good problem to have.

4. There's little to celebrate on defense. The worst part of Penn State's bad defense is the secondary, but that's not the only cause for concern. PSU gave up 165 passing yards by halftime, and then the rush defense couldn't stop David Cobb (24 carries, 139 yards) in the second half. Nyeem Wartman missed a critical tackle at one point, and the linebackers didn't exactly have their best gameon Saturday either. Depth has been a concern all season but, even when this team's healthy, the talent level on defense just isn't high enough to compete with decent Big Ten teams. That issue won't be corrected this season ... and there might be too many problems to fix by next season, too.

Bye week to-do list: Penn State

October, 16, 2013
10/16/13
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Sure, Penn State's bye week comes just three weeks after its first one. But it certainly comes at a good time.

PSU played Michigan to a four-hour, 11-minute 4 overtime classic Saturday night that caused several members of its thin roster to tweet about how sore they were -- on Monday. As a result, coach Bill O'Brien said he held a scrimmage Monday with the younger players and only had the veterans work on conditioning.

[+] EnlargePenn State
AP Photo/Gene J. PuskarReceiver Brandon Felder caught six passes for 97 yards and two touchdowns in the Nittany Lions' win over Michigan.
After the quadruple-OT win, the Nittany Lions are looking to make a splash in the Big Ten. Here are three things they'll have to do to achieve that:

1. Heal up, and forget about Michigan. There's no question this is at the top of PSU's priorities. The atmosphere at Beaver Stadium was about as electric as any home game since the PSU-OSU game in 2005, so it's difficult to blame players if they dwelled on the win a bit longer. Many were still tweeting about it early in the week. And, as a result of the back-and-forth game, PSU is obviously nursing quite a bit of strains and soreness. Said O'Brien: "The biggest goal for us this week is to get healthy." The week off should certainly help out safety Ryan Keiser, who's still recovering from a hand injury. But everyone could use some extra time to rebound after an energy-draining contest like that, especially considering the Nittany Lions only boast approximately 61 scholarship players.

2. Shore up the secondary. Some things never change, and the Nittany Lions' DBs have been a glaring question mark since last season. That isn't going change over the bye, but something clearly has to be done here. Michigan's players dropped several balls -- including at least one touchdown pass -- and wideout-turned-cornerback Trevor Williams has to show more improvement. Defensive coordinator John Butler made a few tweaks to the defensive line, and that seemed to pay dividends. Maybe it's time to take a closer look at the secondary now.

3. Find playmakers not named Allen Robinson. Michigan could be a turning point for several players. Brandon Felder was the leading receiver Saturday -- the first time all season -- and made one back-shoulder catch that really got fans talking. The Nittany Lions have needed another receiving target to step up and, if Felder can continue to perform like that, quarterback Christian Hackenberg should take a giant step forward in the conference season. It's not just at wideout, though. Running back Zach Zwinak committed a critical fumble in the third quarter, and he has been hindered by those turnovers since he took over last season. Bill Belton filled in nicely for him and, if Zwinak can't get those problems under control, Belton might be the answer. Even if Zwinak can, Belton might be the answer anyway. He's more of a home-run threat than Zwinak, and he could wind up being an offensive playmaker. PSU needs more of those.

Why Penn State, OSU fit for Gesicki 

October, 15, 2013
10/15/13
1:40
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One question has been making the rounds in Columbus, Ohio, and State College, Pa., this week, and it has gathered steam since Penn State’s improbable 43-40 quadruple overtime win over Michigan.

It’s a question many are asking and one that has the interest of the Big Ten.

What will tight end Mike Gesicki (Manahawkin, N.J./Southern Regional) do on Friday when he announces between Ohio State and Penn State?

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