Penn State Nittany Lions: Brian Gaia
Good coaching and good players have buoyed the program in rough waters, and the bountiful recruiting start to the James Franklin era could prevent the drop-off many believed to be inevitable.
But there are spots on the roster where Penn State is struggling with the numbers game. None is more glaring than the offensive line.
"We have some talented guys," Penn State offensive line coach Herb Hand told ESPN.com. "We just don't have a wealth of them."
The good news: Hand has been here before. When Hand arrived at Vanderbilt in August 2010 -- Bobby Johnson had retired in July, and interim coach Robbie Caldwell made Hand his first hire -- he inherited 12 offensive linemen, five of whom were true freshmen.
He had just weeks to prepare them for the season. So he went to work.
"That's a challenge, but as those guys grow together, they're like balls of clay," Hand said. "They're guys you can mold and you can form and you can develop into exactly what you want them to be."
Exactly what Hand wanted back then at Vanderbilt, and now at Penn State, are linemen who aren't limited to one position. Centers that can play guard. Swing tackles. Guards who can move outside if need be. Tackles who can line up on either side.
Wesley Johnson started four seasons for Hand at Vanderbilt, finishing his career with the most starts (51) in team history and the longest active streak in the SEC at the time. He earned several awards, including SEC All-Freshman in 2010 and first-team All-SEC in 2013.
But perhaps his biggest achievement was playing all five line positions during his career. Although he started at left tackle throughout his final season, he was also the first option if Vanderbilt needed another center.
Hand needs the same flexibility from Penn State's linemen this season.
"We've always had to develop our depth through guys playing multiple positions," he said. "It’s almost like a basketball team. You've got your starting five and then you've got your sixth man, you've got your seventh man, and so on. That's the way we approach developing our offensive line. Let's get to where we have six guys, seven guys, eight guys who we can count on.
"That way, we can always get our top five on the field at any given time."
Mangiro played four positions during the Blue-White spring game. Brendan Mahon began the spring at left guard and finished it at right tackle. Wendy Laurent took reps at both guard spots and center.
Hand describes Dieffenbach as a "guy who could play all five spots."
"Typically, you'd like to have [6-foot-6] at tackle and 6-3 at guard and 6-3 at center," Franklin said. "Well, we might have 6-3 at tackle and 6-3 at center. It is what it is."
The only lineman likely to be left alone, namely because he protects quarterback Christian Hackenberg's blind side, is Smith. The 6-foot-5, 322-pound junior enters his third season as the starter and, according to Hand, has "got to be our bell cow."
Hand saw Smith improve his communication and work ethic throughout the spring as he learned a new system. Smith enjoys Hand's "Lions of scrimmage" mantra for the group, and the aggressive style the new coaches have brought to the offense.
"Being an older guy, being here for some years, it's definitely a lot of responsibility," Smith said. "It's going to make me better. You get older, people graduate and it's the next guy up. It's the way college football works."
Despite their inexperience on offense, Dowrey and Gaia also welcome the opportunity to be relied upon. Hand saw few players on either side of the ball improve more from the start of the spring until the end.
"I can't even tell that they played defense just last season," Smith said. "Their spring has been amazing. They probably had a better spring that I had in previous springs. I trust them playing next to me.
"If we had to play a game tomorrow, I'd be very comfortable with our offensive line."
Like many of Franklin's assistants, Hand has put an emphasis on building bonds among his group. The chemistry appears strong. The next step is to further absorb the system after the linemen "hit the ground walking" this spring, Hand said.
Hand is still waiting to coach a group with 10 game-ready offensive linemen. He usually has eight. That might be wishful thinking this season at Penn State.
"That's the one spot on the team we need to grow as fast as we can as far as depth," offensive coordinator John Donovan said.
It won't be easy, but if the Lions can win the numbers game on the offensive line, they'll be in better shape to win the ones on the scoreboard.
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- James Franklin smiled one last time as he trotted beneath the tunnel, waving goodbye and shouting, "Thanks for coming" to the lingering fans who leaned over the railing.
There's been a lot of reasons for Franklin to smile lately. At the start of the fourth quarter, the PA announcer boomed that a little more than 72,000 fans attended the spring game, which featured fan favorite Christian Hackenberg for just three short series. So far, no scrimmage has garnered a higher attendance. And, before the game, ESPN 300 defensive lineman Adam McLean committed to Penn State -- and half of the scouting services move the Nittany Lions' 2015 class to No. 1 in the nation.
Franklin, the "Pennsylvania boy with the Penn State heart," arrived in Happy Valley just three months ago. And, as the past weekend showed, he hasn't wasted much time in making an impact.
Fans fired up their grills and began tailgating as early as five hours before the 1:30 p.m. kickoff. Some opted to stay in the parking lot during game time; about half the crowd left by halftime, once the skill players traded in their helmets for a spot on the bench. Hackenberg ended up appearing for about eight minutes, the top three running backs combined for five carries and the starting offense never once took on the defensive starters. The first team suited up in Blue and, unsurprisingly, beat the White team of backups 37-0.
But the sense of excitement surrounding Franklin and this program was unmistakable. Hundreds of fans, maybe a dozen deep, lined up for the arrival of Penn State's blue buses while several recruits pressed their noses close to the glass from the comfort of the lounge overlooking the scene. "No vacancy" signs dotted the hotels in the surrounding area. And fans literally took off in a sprint to greet players during a 45-minute autograph session; with a crowd of about 5,000, the line more closely resembled a mosh pit.
It was the biggest crowd for the Blue-White Game since 2009, when the Nittany Lions were just three months removed from a Rose Bowl appearance. Because of the current sanctions, Penn State still can't appear in the postseason for another two years -- which really made the excitement surrounding Saturday all the more surprising.
"I can only imagine what a regular season game is like," defensive coordinator Bob Shoop said. And a minute later: "We're trying to take this program to the next level and compete for Big Ten and national championships."
That last line is likely a big reason for the optimism in Happy Valley. Franklin took the dais on Day 1 and vowed a return to national prominence, in addition to dominating the state and region in recruiting. The staff has reminded the media and fans so much of those intentions that Franklin doesn't even need to finish his sentences once he broaches the topic.
Once Penn State's first-year coach talked Saturday about hitting the recruiting trail hard, he stopped abruptly. "We are going to ...," he said, pausing. "Dominate the state," recruits mumbled from the balcony above press row.
"Exactly right," Franklin said.
Franklin's first game at Beaver Stadium almost seemed secondary to the atmosphere surrounding it. There was some "Wildcat," a formation Vanderbilt loved last season but former Penn State coach Bill O'Brien loathed, and a 56-yard double-reverse pass that wideout Geno Lewis swore wasn't rehearsed in practice.
Conversely, some concerns only became magnified. The offensive line -- seemingly the weakest unit on the team -- surrendered nine sacks and the offense failed to find much rhythm. But the thin-rostered line also lost center Wendy Laurent and Brian Gaia to injury in the first half. Counting that pair, the Lions were missing four OL starters in the final two quarters.
But, as is usual with these scrimmages, the game wasn't as much an indicator of the future as it was a show for the fans. And, with Franklin as its ringleader, the game generated as much hype as offseasons filled with BCS aspirations.
"Great crowd, unbelievable support from this community," Franklin said in his opening statement. "I'm not surprised one bit."
1. How the offensive line performs. This unit will go a long way in determining Penn State's success this season. There's enough talent at the skill positions that the Nittany Lions could surprise again this year, but only if this battered line can hold up and hold its own. Neither guard Miles Dieffenbach, who's reportedly out for the season with a knee injury, nor tackle Andrew Nelson is expected to play on Saturday. Guard Anthony Alosi isn't listed on the roster, as he's facing criminal charges. And the status of center Angelo Mangiro is unknown.
2. Christian Hackenberg's ability to make any throw. Some analysts have already started wondering aloud if Hackenberg might be the No. 1 overall pick if/when he declares early for the NFL draft. Maybe that happens; maybe it doesn't. But the fact that's even being discussed now should give you an idea of his talent level.
He was one of the Big Ten's best passers last season, despite moving into Happy Valley just a few short months before the opener. His progress was pretty notable from Week 1 to the finale against Wisconsin. Bill O'Brien called running plays on third-and-long against Syracuse in the opener so he wouldn't put Hackenberg in a tight spot. Against 24-point favorite Wisconsin? Hackenberg was nearly perfect -- 21-of-30, 339 yards, 4 TDs, 0 INTs, 89.4 QBR -- and led the Lions to an upset.
Expectations were incredibly high for Hackenberg last season and he still managed to surpass them. After another few months on campus, he's bound to impress yet again. And it would be even more surprising if James Franklin didn't give fans something to cheer for by having Hackenberg lob a few deep balls in the Blue-White Game.
3. An improved secondary. This has been the Lions' Achilles heel the past two seasons, but it shouldn't be anymore. There will be an influx of talented freshmen this summer but, even before then, this secondary's stock is on the rise. Adrian Amos is much more comfortable at safety this season, and cornerback Jordan Lucas has been putting in a lot of work this offseason. Young players last year -- such as Malik Golden and Jordan Smith -- are evolving into good backups who could challenge for playing time. Trevor Williams and Ryan Keiser are really the questions here, but they have one more year of experience under their belts.
Amos has All-Big Ten ability, and his transition back to safety will be crucial to the defense. If he can read Hackenberg or catch up to a speedster like De'Andre Thompkins on Saturday, that can only mean good things for Penn State.
4. WR Thompkins and DT Anthony Zettel. You've seen the running backs and wideout Geno Lewis before. You know what Mike Hull and Jesse James are capable of. But this could be a coming-out party for both Thompkins and Zettel. Zettel has impressed the last two seasons, but he mostly played as a defensive end -- and now he's gained weight and moved inside. Zettel could be the surprise on the defense this season, as his speed certainly sets him apart. And, with a beaten-up offensive line in the Blue-White Game, he could have a field day. As far as Thompkins, he has been on campus three months but he's already the fastest player on the team. He needs to improve his hands and his route-running but, when he gets the ball, he's electrifying.
Here's a closer look at the East:
- Defense has been a lingering Indiana concern for years, but coach Kevin Wilson believes he's starting to see a change, thanks to new defensive coordinator Brian Knorr. The scheme hasn't changed radically, but the Hoosiers return 10 starters there -- and Wilson's seen a promising spring so far with an added focus on competition and communication: "They've for sure held their own on a daily basis -- and, in some ways, probably even better -- against the offense."
- Wilson believes teams need to invest scholarships into the kicking game, but he thinks it's also too risky to offer recruits straight out of high school. If you look at the NCAA's top 25 kickers, Wilson estimated at least 15 started out as walk-ons. So he's hoping to find some walk-ons who are willing to work for a scholarship, rather than be granted one right away.
- At 5-foot-7, Shane Wynn is the Hoosiers' leading returning receiver, and he's transitioning to playing the outside. It's been a little different for Wynn, who said he's had to watch more film as a result. He's reading the corners now, instead of the safeties, as just one example.
- Maryland coach Randy Edsall is confident in his offense and believes the Terrapins have enough options so that opponents can't focus on just one person. If defenses lock on to wideout Stefon Diggs, then quarterback C.J. Brown can take off running or receiver Deon Long can pick up some slack. "The No. 1 thing I do like," Edsall said, "is we can spread the field."
- Maryland's staff has already started looking at film of Big Ten teams, so they know what to expect when the conference season begins. Edsall said he wants to at least get a feel for their personnel and what kind of schemes he'll face. He's also confident the Terps will be ready: "We fully expect to be able to compete when we get into the Big Ten this year."
- Brown said one of the main reasons he committed to Maryland was the coach who recruited him at the time, former Terps assistant and current Penn State coach James Franklin. He's looking forward to squaring off against Franklin this season, and Edsall said there's no question he would like to develop a rivalry with the Nittany Lions.
- The quarterback derby will continue, and Brady Hoke included all three of his options in the discussion heading into the offseason. The Wolverines coach did acknowledge, though, that Devin Gardner “probably would be” the starter if there was a game on the schedule this weekend. There isn’t, so Shane Morris and Wilton Speight will continue to be in the conversation.
- The first opponent on the schedule will always stir emotions for Michigan fans, but Hoke didn’t attach any revenge or sentimentality to his reasons for wanting to take on Appalachian State in the opener this fall. “We needed a game,” Hoke said. “I thought it would be a good game.” Defensive end Frank Clark was certainly aware of the history between the programs, even though he was still years away from joining Michigan and getting a shot at making up for the upset loss in 2007 -- which he called “shocking” and “shows how hard those guys play.”
- Michigan State is coming off a Rose Bowl victory, but coach Mark Dantonio and quarterback Connor Cook would prefer not to think about that any longer. Dantonio said they've talked a lot these last four months about not growing complacent, and Cook only echoed his coach. "A lot of people keep bringing up the Rose Bowl," Cook said. "But we're past that. We're focusing on the now."
- The offensive line has made some big strides since January, at least according to Cook. He felt like he had no time in the pocket last spring and said the pass rush was getting to him every time. This spring? He doesn't feel rushed in the pocket, and he thinks that's pretty indicative of how far this line has come.
- Jeremy Langford earned a lot of praise from Cook, who said the running back has become a much bigger part of the passing attack. "He's improved a lot with catching the ball," Cook said, complimenting Langford's versatility. "He's done so many different things for us."
- There is still work to be done in addressing the most glaring weakness on the team last season, but Urban Meyer called Ohio State’s pass defense “drastically improved” and will be watching closely for more signs of progress in Saturday’s spring game. The Buckeyes will play a traditional game, but the emphasis will be on throwing the football and assessing the skill players on both offense and defense -- giving Meyer a chance to evaluate backup quarterback Cardale Jones in a live setting in addition to checking out the secondary.
- Arguably the strongest part of last season's team is undergoing a transition without four senior starters, and the offensive line is somewhat of a concern for Meyer heading into the offseason. With guard Pat Elflein the only other player to have earned a first-team slot to play alongside junior Taylor Decker at this point, that competition is likely to spill over into preseason camp in August. Both tackle Darryl Baldwin and guard Antonio Underwood were praised for their work by defensive tackle Michael Bennett, and Billy Price and Jacoby Boren are dueling at center.
- Franklin said he knew exactly what he was getting into at Penn State, in terms of the current depth and sanctions. He and former coach Bill O'Brien worked together at Maryland, and he said the two had a lot of honest conversations about the current state of the Nittany Lions. The two have continued to talk since.
- Derek Dowrey and Brian Gaia are both making transitions from defensive tackle to offensive guard, and Franklin said he has been pleased with their performances so far: "They're doing a good job for us -- and they have to. We're thin at that position."
- Franklin said he feels especially comfortable with the talent at running back and defensive line. Middle linebacker Mike Hull was more specific about naming the players who impressed him, pointing to backup linebacker Gary Wooten and cornerback Da'Quan Davis. Hull said Wooten is always around the football and that Davis, who missed part of the spring with a hamstring injury, has come up with several interceptions.
- Another open competition at the most critical position on the field -- quarterback -- is still playing out at Rutgers, and coach Kyle Flood isn’t ready to declare a winner in what would seem to be a wide-open battle. Flood indicated that Gary Nova, Mike Bimonte and Chris Laviano are all “really vying for that first-team job.”
- The change in conference affiliation has been welcomed with open arms by the Scarlet Knights, who can “feel the energy” as theypractice for their first season in the Big Ten. Defensive tackle Darius Hamilton said the team was already buzzing with excitement about the opportunity, and Flood called joining the league a “positive in every way.” The move also presents the opportunity for a rivalry to develop with new divisional neighbor Penn State, with both Flood and Hamilton citing the proximity between the schools as a bonus.
1. Upgrade recruiting: If Penn State brings in more players who can make significant contributions early in their careers, it should have fewer gaping holes on the depth chart. Not surprisingly, James Franklin and his assistants are already succeeding here. Penn State signed a top 25 recruiting class in February, less a month after Franklin's hiring. The Nittany Lions already have 11 verbal commitments for the 2015 class, the most in the country, and six ESPN 300 prospects in the fold.
3. Maximize versatility: If a smaller group of players fills a larger number of roles, teams can avoid major trouble spots. It's more of a patchwork solution, but Penn State's sanctions, while originally labeled catastrophic, appear to be a short-term challenge, especially with the way Franklin is recruiting.
As Franklin and his staff evaluate personnel this spring, they're looking for talent, but they're also looking for versatility.
"We as coaches have to be open-minded, and players have to be open-minded," said Charles Huff, PSU's running backs coach and special teams coordinator. "They've got to understand, 'I'm not just a linebacker, I'm not just a running back, I'm not just a wideout. I'm a football player. There may be times, whether it's by play, by game, by unit, that I'm asked to do some things that may not be under the umbrella of my given position.'
"And as coaches, we have to step out of the box with what we're comfortable with and do some things that fit the players better."
No position group at Penn State has greater depth issues than the offensive line. With Dieffenbach out, left tackle Donovan Smith is the only returning starter practicing this spring. Angelo Mangiro is the only other returning letterman who played offensive line in 2013.
There's a need for versatility up front, and Derek Dowrey and Brian Gaia, two converted defensive tackles who shifted to guard only two days before spring practice, both are in the mix for playing time.
"Sometimes it takes months or even a full year to really get it, and those guys for the most part have adapted pretty quickly," offensive coordinator John Donovan said. "It's one thing to learn a new system. It's another thing to learn a new side of the ball plus a new system."
Both Gaia and Dowrey have adjusted so well that Smith can't even tell that they played defense just months earlier.
"They've probably had a better spring than I have," Smith said.
Dowrey and Gaia could help Penn State put a decent starting five on the field this season. But Donovan would like three sets of linemen: the starters, the backups and the redshirts/developmental/emergency group.
Penn State won't have that luxury this season, so the coaches and players must get creative. Franklin recalls how one of his former Vanderbilt players, Wesley Johnson, started at all five offensive line spots during his career.
"We're going to have to have that here," Franklin said. "When you don't have a two-deep of scholarship players, you've got issues. I don't know if there's too many Division I programs that don't have at least a two-deep at every position. We don't. It is what it is. We're going to have to find ways to overcome it.
"It might be a situation almost like an NFL roster where you have your five starters and then your sixth man backs up every position."
Penn State's personnel situation is better on defense, but coordinator Bob Shoop and his staff still look for flexibility. Although Deion Barnes and C.J. Olaniyan have played defensive end throughout their careers, Shoop thinks both could play outside linebacker when the Lions switch from a 4-3 alignment to a 3-4.
Adrian Amos already has started at both safety and cornerback for the Lions. While he’s back at safety, he could help on the perimeter opposite Jordan Lucas if needed. Shoop has shown Amos film of how he used Vanderbilt defenders in multiple roles. They watched film on Wednesday of Mark Barron of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers working at both safety spots and as as linebacker in the dime package.
"He could definitely play corner," Shoop said of Amos. "He could play safety, he could be a nickel, he could be a dime for us. He and Jordan both provide a significant amount of flexibility."
Scholarship players who can play several positions is one way to combat depth issues. Another is the strong walk-on program that Franklin inherits at Penn State.
His PSU predecessor Bill O'Brien repeatedly emphasized the importance of non-scholarship players, whom he called run-ons. Penn State recently had a meeting for potential walk-ons and 160 students attended, according to Franklin.
"We could have given pizzas away at [Vanderbilt] and not had that many people show up," Franklin said. "We had seven guys playing for us who never played high school football. Here, we had really good numbers show up, really good quality."
The Lions coaches hope with versatile scholarship players and willing, capable walk-ons, they can win the numbers game this fall.
Before Franklin’s conclusion, as the two discussed a potential move, Zettel told him outright that he already wanted to move to defensive tackle. That was his plan.
“I learned a long time ago,” Franklin said Monday with a smile, “once it’s been sold, stop selling.”
Franklin landed in Happy Valley on Jan. 11 and has tried his best to build up relationships before Monday’s first spring practice. But, if he would have taken over the Nittany Lions in November, he would have realized how this move was a long time coming.
Zettel alternated between end and tackle throughout the 2013 season, giving the defense a critical sparkplug and finishing second on the team with four sacks. He played mostly defensive end since he weighed in at 258 pounds, but he wasn’t shy about his preference for the interior.
Said Zettel in November: “I enjoy moving inside. I think the future for me is inside, maybe. I can play with lower pads, and I don’t have to think as much. I enjoy getting banged around like that.”
Penn State’s new head coach didn’t divulge exactly what was said during that offseason discussion. But Zettel clearly has wanted to move to defensive tackle for quite some time -- and Franklin clearly knew that was best for his team.
And if that wasn’t clear last week, it certainly was during Franklin’s news conference Monday afternoon. Franklin announced that two returning defensive tackles -- redshirt sophomores Brian Gaia and Derek Dowrey -- were moving to offensive guard.
That clears the way for Zettel to start at defensive tackle, alongside returning starter Austin Johnson. Franklin now has just five scholarship defensive tackles, and only Zettel and Johnson have any game experience.
“He’s excited about doing it; he wants to do it,” Franklin said. “He’s really put on great size, tested extremely well -- but really excited about him at the three-technique and what he’s going to be able to do at the position.”
There is cause for some excitement with the move. In limited time last season, Zettel still finished with six tackles for loss and four sacks. And he flashed plenty of ability in 2012 when, during an 11-play span against Navy, he came away with six tackles and two sacks.
Franklin said Zettel, despite his weight nearing 280 pounds, still clocked in one of the fastest 40s on the defensive line. And both he and the staff knew Zettel would be better served at defensive tackle full-time, as opposed to last season when he saw time inside only during passing downs.
Once the staff saw tape of Zettel, it didn’t take long for them to come to the same conclusion as Zettel.
“When you put on the film, that guy’s a player,” defensive coordinator Bob Shoop told ESPN.com. “He brings an intensity to us; he brings athletic ability. And a lot of things we do are movement-oriented, so he fits in really well.”
We’re nearing the start of Penn State’s spring practice, which means we’re nearing the end of our countdown series. This week’s countdown, involving five predictions for the spring, continues with a look at two early enrollees who should earn playing time in 2014...
Barney and Thompkins make immediate impact
Thompkins will battle with sophomore Richy Anderson in the slot, and Thompkins might have a higher ceiling. He’s faster and more athletic, but how quickly he ascends centers on his route-running ability. He finds himself in a similar position as Geno Lewis was in his first season, because Thompkins is transitioning from high school tailback to receiver. Regardless, Thompkins is best when he’s in open space -- and he’s sure to wow with a big play or two during the spring scrimmage.
Even if Thompkins isn’t quite ready to surpass Anderson -- and the prediction here is that he will -- the freshman can still vie for a starting job as a returner. On kickoffs, he posted video game-type numbers as a high school junior (11 returns, 560 yards, 51 yard average). And, on punts as a senior, he returned three for an average of 61 yards. Just take a look at his highlight video.
As for Barney, it’s no secret that the Nittany Lions need some help at defensive tackle. Without DaQuan Jones and Kyle Baublitz, redshirt sophomore Austin Johnson will take over one of the spots. The other one is wide open. The position battle here will likely be between Barney and redshirt sophomore Brian Gaia. (Defensive end Anthony Zettel could also be a factor, but for now it’s difficult to see him in an interior role outside of passing downs.)
Even if Barney doesn’t win out, he’s still going to see plenty of time. Defensive line coach Sean Spencer likes to use a lot of personnel and a lot of combinations, not unlike the philosophy of former offensive line coach Mac McWhorter, so Barney will have every opportunity to make a splash.
Thompkins and Barney both have a lot to learn a lot in a short period of time -- Thompkins is changing positions; Barney’s coming from a junior college and took up football a little more than three years ago -- but both players will be thrown into the mix early out of pure need. In other seasons, the staff might bring them along slowly. But this spring? Expect to see them on the field early -- and expect them to make an immediate impact.
No. 5: A more public, eager-to-please coach
No. 4: Blue-White attendance more than doubles from 2013
No. 3: OL struggles surpass secondary as biggest concern
As part of this week’s countdown, which centers on those position battles, we’re taking a closer look today at one such position that lost two experienced players ...
No. 3 position battle: Defensive tackle
Departures: DaQuan Jones (56 tackles; 11.5 tackles for loss), Kyle Baublitz (23 tackles, three sacks)
Returning players: Tarow Barney (early enrollee), Parker Cothren (redshirted), Brian Gaia (5 tackles; 11 games played), Austin Johnson (27 tackles; three tackles for loss), Antoine White (early enrollee)
Breaking it down: Johnson will take up one starting spot, but there’s a big question mark surrounding the other. Derek Dowrey appears to have moved to the offensive line, and there’s still a chance that defensive end Anthony Zettel could slide inside on a permanent basis. But for now it appears as if the main battle will be between Barney and Gaia.
Gaia boasts more experience than Barney, an early enrollee -- but not by much. Barney is a bit bigger at 290 pounds, according to the current online roster, and it should be a good battle. Penn State really needs someone who can stuff the run, since Zettel can always rush the passer inside. So whoever is better in the run-stuffing department should take this spot. Defensive line coach Sean Spencer likes to use a lot of bodies and combinations along the line, too, so even the backup should see quite a bit of playing time this season.
Pre-camp edge: Gaia. He has the edge since he’s spent more time with the team and the strength program. But anything can happen here. Tyler Ferguson had the advantage at quarterback last May, and look what happened there. Barney isn’t as used to this level of competition as Gaia since he’s coming from a community college in Mississippi, so it will take some time to adjust. Make no mistake; Gaia has the advantage right now. But that advantage could be eroded by the time the Blue-White Game swings around April 12. That’s what makes this position battle one of the best ones to watch.
More position battles to watch:
No. 5: Kicker
No. 4: Tight ends
Up next is a versatile defensive lineman who was quite the spark plug last season …
No. 3 spring player to watch: DL Anthony Zettel
Why spring is so important: There are a few questions surrounding this line: Can Deion Barnes rebound from his sophomore slump? Can this defensive line improve without DaQuan Jones? Who’ll start alongside Austin Johnson at defensive tackle? All those answers will touch on Zettel one way or another. If Barnes struggles, Zettel could take his spot just as he did twice last season against Michigan and Illinois. Zettel also has the ability to play inside and, if the other defensive tackles start off slow, he could potentially make a permanent move and start alongside Johnson. Zettel finished second in team sacks (4) last season despite starting just two games, and he definitely has the ability to challenge for a starting job or at least earn more considerable playing time.
Best-case scenario: For the team? Barnes returns to old form and either Brian Gaia, Derek Dowrey or Tarow Barney progress quickly enough to be a solid option at defensive tackle. Defensive line coach Sean Spencer doesn’t start Zettel but plays him constantly, and Zettel still finishes near the top when it comes to sacks and tackles for loss. Best-case for Zettel? His talent can no longer be ignored, and he either surpasses Barnes on the depth chart or he gains weight in the offseason and takes up a spot alongside Johnson. He leads the team in at least one stat category and is in the conversation as an All-Big Ten player.
Worst-case scenario: Zettel is forced to spend most of his team inside, and he’s unable to put on significant weight before the season opener. He does fine on passing downs, but Spencer is forced to keep him in on rushing plays -- and that’s where Zettel struggles. The interior becomes a defensive soft spot, and Big Ten teams run all over the Nittany Lions as a result. It’s nearly the opposite of the season before, and Penn State struggles against bigger running backs.
More players to watch:
No. 5: DB Adrian Amos
No. 4: LB Nyeem Wartman
This week, we're taking a look at Penn State's top five position groups with room to improve. No. 1 will be unveiled on Friday, so sit back and relax as this countdown kicks off.
Up today: No. 5 -- defensive tackles.
The players: Austin Johnson (27 tackles, 1 sack, 1 fumble recovery), Brian Gaia (5 tackles), Derek Dowrey (1 tackle), Parker Cothren (redshirt), Antoine White (early enrollee), Tarow Barney (early enrollee).
Last season: The interior was a strength in 2013, with 318-pound DaQuan Jones anchoring it. Jones earned the team's MVP award by routinely taking on double teams and still leading PSU with 11.5 tackles for loss. He also ensured that neither of Wisconsin's tailbacks reached the 100-yard mark Penn State's upset over the then-No. 15 Badgers. Kyle Baublitz rotated in with Johnson on the other side and put up respectable numbers (3 sacks, 1 blocked kick) before deciding to move on with a teaching career. The line was the defense's strong point last season.
What's missing: Experience. Jones is heading to the NFL, Baublitz is heading to State College Area High, and Johnson is the only returning defensive tackle who saw serious time at the position last season. Put simply, there are a lot of question marks. Former coach Bill O'Brien was set on taking a junior college defensive tackle because he was in such desperate need of finding an immediate contributor, so it wouldn't be surprising to see new coach James Franklin plug in a newcomer right away.
Moving forward: Defensive end Anthony Zettel could move inside and, in a lot of ways, that would help quiet those questions surrounding experience. But he's only 258 pounds right now, so of course there's the question of his weight. Defensive line coach Sean Spencer likes to rotate a lot of players on his line, so we could see more of a lot more combinations this season. Johnson is really the only lock, but he has a bright career ahead of him.
The staff needs to decide quickly what it wants to do with Zettel and, from there, find at least one more DT who can separate himself. Gaia played in 11 games last season and likely holds the slight edge right now, but Dowrey's not that far behind. Barney and Cothren are both darkhorses, and a lot of eyes will be on them in the spring.
I love my 2014 class of PSU ....we have that brothers connection and we didn't even enroll to PSU yet— Marcus Allen (@Chico_Ehhh) January 2, 2014
If it wasn't for Coach OB I probably wouldn't be playing football anymore, I wish him the best in the NFL.— Devin Pryor #16 (@D_Pryor16) January 1, 2014
We all we got! No reason to panic or jump ship! Doesn't matter the system nor the coach...players win games period— Bill Belton (@W3BII) January 1, 2014
No matter what happens football games will be played and won by the Nittany Lions love all my brothers we will stick together #WeAre— Hunter Crafford (@Craf_FordTough) January 1, 2014
Never worry about the things you can't control— Malik Golden (@_goldenboy6) January 1, 2014
A man's gotta do what a man has GOT TO DO. It's life baby !— Stephen Obeng-Agy... (@BigBENGTheory7) January 1, 2014
New Year, New Head Coach I suppose— DaeSean Hamilton (@SkeeterMills__) January 1, 2014
Bout to be the best year for me yet and bout to be the best year for Penn State #WeAre— carter Henderson (@hendydo_42) January 1, 2014
I hope I have another chance to play under Coach O'B. I love the guy, I appreciate everything he's done for me. I couldn't be more thankful.— Jesse James (@JJames18_) January 1, 2014
Good luck to Coach O'Brien and his family. Made a tremendous impact on my life and many others during his time at Penn State.— Ty Howle (@THowle60) January 1, 2014
Best of luck to the O'Brien family and to the lucky man that gets to coach this prestige organization... I can't wait to meet you— Troy Stivason (@teejaystives) January 1, 2014
To all of the Penn State family: Penn State is and will always be about more than any one man. WE ARE everything we have always been— Derek Dowrey (@doubleDowrey) January 1, 2014
Coach O'Brien was a great mentor, coach and father figure but every coach has the aspirations to coach in the NFL. glad coach can chase his.— Brian Gaia (@that_gaia) January 1, 2014
Gotta keep on movin forward people that's all we can do #yafeelme— Austin Johnson (@AJohn15) January 1, 2014
One thing OB taught me is that this is a business, and u should do what's best for you.Texans are getting a good coach, I wish him the best— Deion Barnes (@DBarnes_18) January 1, 2014
Coach O'brien is a great coach and great person! Proud to have called him my coach. It was his dream to coach in the NFL, best of luck. #PSU— Mike Hull (@m_hull4943) January 1, 2014
I'll love Coach Obrien forever. He will always be apart of Penn State. One of the greatest men I've ever known. #PennStateForever— Miles Dieffenbach (@Curiousjorge65) January 1, 2014
Fight on. We still are and forever will be.— Garrett Sickels (@Sickels_90) January 1, 2014
Time to move on Penn State! We will find the right man for the job. BOB did plenty for us. Time for a true Blue and White bleeder! #WeAre— OJ McDuffie (@ojmcduffie81) January 1, 2014
Here's a look at each player, what he has meant to the team and who will be taking his place next season:
DT Kyle Baublitz, 6-foot-5, 281 pounds
Season stats: Started seven out of 10 games. 17 tackles, two sacks, one blocked kick.
Synopsis: Baublitz announced Saturday he decided to move on with his life and will perform student-teaching next year at State College Area High School instead of starting along the PSU interior. He will be missed immensely, as he was expected to start alongside Austin Johnson in 2014 as the clear No. 1. His departure leaves PSU in a very difficult spot with DaQuan Jones graduating. PSU clearly doesn't feel very good at this position because it continues to go after juco defensive tackles -- and it wouldn't be out of the question for a first-year player to make an impact next year either.
Taking over: No returning defensive tackles have a lot of experience (i.e. -- Derek Dowrey and Brian Gaia), so the smart money would be on defensive end Anthony Zettel moving inside. Zettel said several weeks ago he feels confident he can make an impact along the interior, and PSU could certainly use him. PSU likes to use at least three players on a rotation, so expect Zettel-Johnson to start inside with another guy -- possibly a first-year player -- also seeing a good amount of time.
RT Garry Gilliam, 6-6, 303
Seasons stats: Played in nine games and started four. Helped PSU average 4.2 ypc.
Synopsis: Gilliam is easily the most surprising of the bunch. He moved from tight end to offensive tackle in the offseason, and he has done a tremendous job at transitioning. He has battled Adam Gress for the starting spot all season and, if he returned next year, he'd almost certainly be the starter opposite LT Donovan Smith -- especially considering the other competition, Gress and Eric Shrive, are set to graduate. There's not a lot of options at offensive tackle with Gilliam leaving.
Taking over: O'Brien has been high on freshman Andrew Nelson all season, and he could be the heir apparent. There really aren't too many other options. Anthony Alosi can play both guard and tackle -- but he'll be the only other returning player who's listed as a tackle on the roster. PSU needs to replace two inside linemen, too, so moving a guard to the outside will require quite a bit of forward thinking.
WR Alex Kenney, 6-0, 195.
Season stats: Played in six games with zero starts. Has three catches for 25 yards.
Synopsis: He's the least-surprising player to graduate early. He came in to Penn State as a four-star recruit, but he never really made an impact. He always seemed to be a track athlete in a football uniform. He was supplanted this season by freshman Richy Anderson, and he hasn't caught a pass since Week 3. Even with PSU's top-two receivers likely leaving after this season, Kenney still wouldn't have seen time next season.
Taking over: Anderson has already taken over for Kenney, so it's not much of a stretch to think he'll stay at his slot position. Anderson has 11 catches for 95 yards so far.
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Offensive guard Miles Dieffenbach watched the referees walk back the go-ahead touchdown in overtime. He watched the points disappear off the scoreboard.
He couldn't have been blamed for harvesting a few doubts at that point. Blame the inevitable loss on dumb luck, a holding call, or take solace in an eventual field goal. But Dieffenbach said this team's been through some hard times -- through players leaving, unprecedented sanctions, a 63-14 thumping against OSU -- so playing against the odds in a simple overtime game? He didn't dwell.
For Penn State, it was just more of the same old, same old.
Dieffenbach turned to his freshman quarterback in the huddle, on third-and-11 from the 15, and told him he was moments from throwing the game-winning TD. Other offensive linemen patted his helmet and told him similarly. Dieffenbach just remembered Christian Hackenberg smiling back -- seconds before finding tight end Kyle Carter on a 15-yard touchdown strike, minutes before an interception would seal another Penn State comeback win.
This win didn't say Penn State's a great team. It didn't even say that PSU's a good team. Bill O'Brien took the dais after the game, shook off any notion of this being a fortunate win -- "You're fortunate to win the lottery," he countered -- and said he still thinks Penn State has a chance to be a good football team.
Carter, who admittedly made the play of his career, agreed. Penn State is not a great team. Not yet. But it's getting there.
"We're not there yet. We haven't proved yet that we're a great team," he added. "Great teams beat other great teams. And we just got to definitely keep doing what we're doing."
But that's not say this win meant nothing, that it should be filed away and not celebrated. The Nittany Lions did prove one fact beyond a reasonable doubt on Saturday afternoon, in front of fans bundled up in winter jackets and praying the rain would hold off: You can never count Penn State out.
Trailing by a field goal, with about five minutes left, O'Brien's squad drove 69 yards before a fumble on the 2-yard line halted the drive. For most teams, that would've spelled game over. For Penn State, it just meant a win would take a little longer. Hackenberg spent time on the sideline calmly talking with Richy Anderson and Bill Belton; he told the media, at that point, he knew the game wasn't over.
"We got scrappers," he said.
PSU's struggling defense held Illinois to a three-and-out. And, then, PSU got the ball back at midfield with no timeouts and 1:44 left. Just like two games ago against Michigan, PSU knotted the game up at the end of regulation. And just like two games ago, the Lions sprinted on the field in ecstasy at the end of overtime -- but not in disbelief.
Dieffenbach said he expected this. He put his arm around the smiling freshman quarterback and told him he loved him. Right tackle Garry Gilliam patted Hackenberg on the shoulder and bobbed his head before sprinting toward the railing to high-five the student fans. Adam Breneman and Brian Gaia embraced.
Illinois had a bowl bid on the line. Penn State, on paper, had nothing really. Except pride. But like the scrappy, hard-headed boxer who gets beaten down time and time again, Penn State bounced right back up.
The defense took a beating at times. The offense struggled in the red zone. But, just when the bout seemed lost, when these Lions were down for the count, they delivered a knockout blow and grabbed the unlikely win.
This isn't a great team, but it sure is a gutsy team. The win doesn't say it's good either, but it does say -- with a large, bolded exclamation mark -- that it is something else.
"It does say we're resilent," Carter said. "We're a resilient bunch of guys."
Projected starters: DaQuan Jones (2012 stats: 22 tackles, two tackles-for-loss, one fumble recovery) and Kyle Baublitz (three tackles, one sack).
Key losses: Jordan Hill (64 tackles, 8.5 tackles-for-loss, 4.5 sacks, one interception, one forced fumble, one fumble recovery) and James Terry (13 tackles, one sack).
Next in line: Redshirt freshman Austin Johnson might not be next in line -- he could very well overtake Baublitz as a starter. Bill O'Brien said on his weekly radio show last season that he expected big things out of the younger defensive tackle, and he's already 21 pounds heavier than Baublitz.
Derek Dowrey, Brian Gaia and Tyrone Smith will all compete to see who sees situational time a la Baublitz in 2012. True freshman Parker Cothren likely needs a redshirt season to add bulk before he sees any time on the field.
What to expect: Huge expectations are being squarely placed on the shoulders of Jones, and he'll need to match Hill's performance to live up to all the hype. Gil Brandt recently named Jones the top senior DT in the country -- which was a little surprising considering he made just 12 tackles in the last nine games once Hill faced fewer double-teams and stepped up his game. By comparison, Jones made 10 tackles in the first three games.
For this defensive line to find success, Jones will have to become quickly accustomed to those double teams -- because it'd be an even bigger surprise if teams sent just one interior lineman after him. This position is one of the bigger concerns on the team because, even if the 318-pound Jones does succeed, his other starting teammate will likely be overmatched this season.
Baublitz appears to be a band-aid until Johnson is ready to take off. And Johnson undoubtedly boasts a high ceiling -- but it doesn't seem as if this is the season it will all come together. If the staff had that much faith in him, he would've initially been named starter over Baublitz. Expect PSU's 23rd-ranked run defense to drop, at least a little, in the rankings.
Recruiting trail: The Nittany Lions have already picked up one 2014 prospect in Antoine White (Millville, N.J./Millville), a three-star commit whom ESPN scouts label a "tweener" but who also "gives good effort in pursuit and is a solid wrap-up tackler."
He's about 270 pounds right now, so he needs to bulk up. But PSU's staff really liked the explosiveness of his first step and like his attitude. His high school coach said he and a teammate constantly put in extra work, and White was the lone junior captain on his team last season.
PSU also appears intent on grabbing at least one more DT, likely either ESPN 300 prospect Thomas Holley (Brooklyn, N.Y./Lincoln) or a junior college DT such as Joe Keels (Highland, Kan./Highland C.C.).
Best-case scenario: Jones picks up right where Hill left off and becomes an unstoppable run-stuffer who lives up to Brandt's top billing. PSU's No. 23 run defense holds steady, while Johnson breaks out and shows fans that he'll be a four-year starter.
Worst-case scenario: Jones initially struggles with double teams and gets hurt later in the season, leaving an inexperienced Johnson and a limited Baublitz as the starters. Those two struggle, and Big Ten running backs set up their respective offenses by running straight up the middle.
Top position question: If Jones falters, what happens to this defense? Penn State can't withstand mediocre performances at defensive tackle and linebacker. If Jones doesn't live up to expectations, it'll have an ripple effect on the entire defense.
If Jones doesn't play well, that means more work for middle linebacker Glenn Carson -- who's been the beneficiary of some great DTs in NFL draft picks Hill and Devon Still. Jones is crucial to this defense's success in a lot of ways, and it was able to overcome a young secondary last season by limiting opponents to 3.54 yards a carry on the ground. If Jones struggles, those rushing numbers increase.
And if those rushing numbers increase? PSU allowed more than four yards a carry in just two of the last 10 seasons. In 2003, it allowed 4.29 yards a carry and finished with a 3-9 record. In 2010, PSU allowed 4.46 yards a carry and went 7-6. In other words, if Jones falters and the run defense struggles, then it might become tricky to get to eight wins.
The players, however, are there and can see who might be the next Deion Barnes or Allen Robinson. So, NittanyNation polled several players inside the Lasch Football Building on Wednesday and also took information from Wednesday teleconferences.
The question: Who's made the biggest impact this spring or who's been the biggest surprise? Here's what Penn State's veterans had to say:
Linebacker Glenn Carson: "I'm really impressed with Jesse James. He's had a great winter. That kid's just an animal. I'm really excited to watch him play this year. I think he's a freak athlete. I think he can do amazing things. And if you haven't been impressed by him yet, I think you're going to be even more impressed by him next year."
Offensive guard John Urschel: "Ty Howle is a great center and a great football player. I'd say he's one of the most underrated football players on our team. You don't hear about him enough. I don't think you guys talk about him enough. I don't think we're going to have any problems with him playing at center."
Safety Malcolm Willis: "It's a number of guys. If I had to pick one, it'd probably be John Urschel. He comes in every day early and gets his workout in early. And pound for pound, he's probably one of the strongest guys on the team. Mike Hull, he's another guy who works his butt off. Adrian Amos. Zach Zwinak -- I work out with him in the weight room every day, and the amount of weight he can put up, it's crazy. Those are a couple of the guys who have really impressed me so far."
Offensive tackle Adam Gress: "I'd have to say a lot of the defensive linemen are coming along. All of the younger guys are really working hard, and the guys I was playing against on the scout team last year, now those guys are players. They're people we compete with. So that group's made a lot of progress. ... Austin Johnson's definitely made a lot of progress."
Linebacker Mike Hull: "Nyeem [Wartman] has looked good so far. He's doing a great job filling in. I think he's going to be a great player for us. We just need to all come together as a unit. He's looking good so far, so we just have to see how he progresses."
Defensive end Deion Barnes: "I think it would be Kyle Baublitz. I think he's doing a great job right now. Whoever's been talking to him has done a great job because he's come out of his shell. I've never seen him like this before."