Penn State Nittany Lions: C.J. Olaniyan

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- There are several ways to combat the unique depth challenges Penn State faces with its reduced roster.

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.

[+] EnlargeMiles Dieffenbach
AP Photo/Gene J. PuskarLosing guard Miles Dieffenbach to a knee injury puts further stress on a Penn State offensive line that was thin to begin with.
2. Pray for good health: Penn State's projected starters could yield good results in the fall. But the Lions can't afford many injuries because at many spots there's a sizable drop off between starter and backup. Although Penn State could get lucky here, veteran guard Miles Dieffenbach reportedly suffered a serious knee injury last week. It's hard to imagine he'll be the only key Lion to go down. Just the nature of the game.

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.
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Veteran defensive end Brad Bars is seeking a sixth year of eligibility, and he said Thursday afternoon that Penn State's compliance office is already working on putting together a case.

"I would absolutely love to get a sixth year," said Bars, who missed the entire 2013 season with a ruptured Achilles tendon. "I missed over 28 games at Penn State because of injury, so I've missed plenty of games to get that sixth year."

Bars played in eight games as a redshirt sophomore and made just two tackles. But he was expected to see an increased role in 2013 as a backup, until he suffered the injury during workouts in mid-July.

He'll likely be the primary backup at defensive end this season and, with the impending graduation of senior C.J. Olaniyan, could challenge for the starting job next season -- if the NCAA grants his request.

"It's such a long process," Bars said. "You have to have the medical documentation from the doctors, and we had previous doctors here and previous trainers. So, a lot of that stuff takes time to get. ... It's kind of been progressing along, but I'd say there's still a lot of work to be done to get that."

Bars is most well-known for a key play during his redshirt freshman season, when he blocked an Illinois punt in the fourth quarter in the Nittany Lions' 10-7 win. Illinois led 7-0 prior to the play.

The Nashville, Tenn., native said the sixth year of eligibility has rested in the back of his mind since last summer. But he's trying not to focus on that this spring.

"Honestly, I'm just working my butt off for this year," Bars said. "If I take care of my business and stay healthy, this is going to be a great year for our team and for myself. So I'm not thinking about my sixth year right now.

"I'm focusing on 2014 because that's a definite, and I don't know if my sixth year's for sure or not."
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- The first week of Penn State’s spring practice is underway so a lot of eyes will be on different position battles and rising starters. But what about those under-the-radar players?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hall should, at the very least, be an important member of the scout team -- and will likely see plenty of time on special teams. It’s not necessarily Hall's play that’s going to be important to this team. It’s the intangibles. There are a lot of walk-ons on this team, and Franklin only singled out Hall. So he’s definitely worth a second look.
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If you live in State College and haven't shaken James Franklin's hand, high-fived the Penn State coach or snapped a picture with the new leading Lion, you're probably a recluse.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Relationships take time."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hand's response? Bring it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But there's an even bigger objective.

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

"Once you win the locker room, everything else will take care of itself."
We're taking snapshots of each position group with each Big Ten team entering the spring. Up next: the defensive lines.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

National signing day is less than 48 hours away, and Big Ten fan bases are preparing to officially welcome the 2014 class. My interest in recruiting has increased during the years, but I likely will never reach the mania of many fans.

[+] EnlargeWilliam Gholston
Zuma Press/Icon SMIWilliam Gholston played three seasons for Michigan State, recording 142 tackles and 10 sacks.
The reason: There have been so many examples of supposed top recruits who go bust, and under-the-radar guys who become stars, especially in a largely developmental league like the Big Ten. Recruiting evaluation is an inexact science.

As we prepare for the faxes to roll in, especially from the Big Ten prospects in the ESPN 300, it's always interesting to take a look back at how the top Big Ten recruits from four years ago performed. There wasn't an ESPN 300 back in 2010, just an ESPN 150, which included 15 Big Ten players. Some became stars, some never got started and others haven't closed the book on their college careers.

Let's take a closer look (positions listed according to ESPN recruiting profiles):

Top 50

  • No. 12: Demar Dorsey, S, Michigan -- Although Dorsey signed with Michigan, he was denied admission to the school. He had a checkered past but reportedly was given no specific reason for the denial. Dorsey appeared headed to Louisville but never made it and played for Grand Rapids Community College in 2011. He planned to transfer to Hawaii in 2012 but never played for the Warriors.
  • No. 42: William Gholston, DE, Michigan State -- Gholston played three seasons for the Spartans, recording 142 tackles, including 30 for loss and 10 sacks. He started 24 games and stood out in bowl wins against Georgia and TCU. After a big performance in the 2012 Outback Bowl, Gholston appeared on several preseason watch lists but underachieved at times during the 2012 campaign. He skipped his final season and was a fourth-round pick in the 2013 NFL draft.
Nos. 51-100

  • No. 56: Rod Smith, RB, Ohio State -- Smith redshirted the 2010 season and has been in a reserve role the past three seasons, playing briefly at linebacker in 2012. He has 83 career rushes for 448 yards and four touchdowns. Smith once again will compete for the starting job this fall.
  • No. 66: Khairi Fortt, LB, Penn State -- He played two years for Penn State, recording 50 tackles, including 6.5 tackles for loss and 2.5 sacks, before transferring to Cal in 2012 when the NCAA imposed sanctions on PSU. Fortt sat out the 2012 season because of injury and had 64 tackles (3.5 for loss) in nine games last season before suffering an arm injury. He declared for the NFL draft last month.
  • No. 70: Dakota Royer, DE, Penn State -- Royer didn't play at linebacker in his first two seasons, moved to tight end after spring ball in 2012 and moved back to linebacker early in camp. He then decided to walk away from football, remained on scholarship and graduated in May.
  • No. 80: James Louis, WR, Ohio State -- Louis redshirted the 2010 season and then opted to transfer from Ohio State to Florida International. He never played for FIU and is no longer listed on the roster.
  • No. 82: C.J. Fiedorowicz, TE, Iowa -- He appeared in every game during the past four years and started the past two-and-a-half seasons, earning first-team All-Big Ten honors from the coaches as a senior in 2013. Fiedorowicz had 91 career receptions for 899 yards and 10 touchdowns, including six this past season.
  • No. 88: Evan Hailes, DT, Penn State -- Hailes redshirted in 2010 and played two games in 2011, recording two tackles. A series of blood clots, which first surfaced in the spring of 2011, ended his career in 2012. He remained with the team in a coaching role.
[+] EnlargeDevin Gardner
AP Photo/Charlie NeibergallThe reviews have been mixed for Devin Gardner, who passed for 2,960 yards and 21 touchdowns in 2013.
Nos. 101-150

  • No. 112: Rob Bolden, QB, Penn State -- Bolden in 2010 became the first freshman quarterback in 100 years to start a season opener at Penn State. He made 16 starts in two years at Penn State but transferred to LSU after the NCAA imposed sanctions on the program in 2012. Bolden has yet to play for the Tigers and has one season left.
  • No. 118: Miles Dieffenbach, C, Penn State -- Dieffenbach redshirted in 2010 and didn't play in 2011 before starting 23 games the past two seasons at left guard. He'll likely enter the 2014 campaign in the same spot.
  • No. 128: Devin Gardner, QB, Michigan -- Gardner appeared in 12 games as a reserve quarterback in his first two seasons before alternating between wide receiver and quarterback in 2012, starting the final four games under center. He started 12 games at quarterback in 2013 and passed for 2,960 yards and 21 touchdowns, delivering several huge performances and also some duds. Gardner, who received a medical redshirt for the 2010 season, returns for his final year this fall.
  • No. 131: Darryl Baldwin, DE, Ohio State -- Baldwin worked as a reserve defensive lineman in 2011 before moving to offense in the spring of 2012. He played mostly special teams in 2012 and backed up left tackle Jack Mewhort the past two years. Baldwin could move into a starting role in his final season.
  • No. 137: Corey Brown, WR, Ohio State -- After recording just 22 receptions in his first two seasons, Brown emerged as the Buckeyes' top option in the passing game as a junior and senior. He combined to record 123 catches for 1,440 yards and 13 touchdowns and earned second-team All-Big Ten honors in 2013 from the coaches.
  • No. 147: Andrew Rodriguez, G, Nebraska -- Rodriguez played mostly in a reserve role for his first three seasons and then started every game as a senior in 2013, alternating between right tackle and right guard for an injury-plagued Husker line. He earned honorable mention All-Big Ten honors from both the coaches and the media.
  • No. 148: C.J. Olaniyan, DE, Penn State -- After redshirting in 2010, Olaniyan recorded 18 tackles and a sack during his first two seasons. He started every game last fall at defensive end and led Penn State in both sacks (5) and forced fumbles (3), recording 11 tackles for loss, an interception and a fumble recovery. He'll enter his final season projected as a starter.

More misses than hits in the group, although several players still could finish their college careers as stars.

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Most Penn State players reacted with a stunned silence when told of the news that their head coach, Bill O'Brien, was heading to the NFL's Houston Texans.

The story broke about 90 minutes before the new year, and most players were either with friends or on their way to parties. Linebacker Brandon Bell was driving when he answered his buzzing cell phone.

"It's official?" he asked at 10:30 p.m. Tuesday night. "I don't have much to say. ... Yeah, I guess I'm surprised."

[+] EnlargeBelton
Rich Barnes/USA TODAY SportsBill OBrien's departure caught Bill Belton and his teammates by surprise, but the players feel Penn State will be just fine moving forward.
He paused a few seconds and then continued on: "You can't worry about what you can't control. We got to do what we got to do."

Fifteen minutes later and defensive end C.J. Olaniyan said he hadn't heard anything about O'Brien heading elsewhere either. He seemed just as off-guard and even a bit reticent to believe the breaking story.

"Like I said, I haven't heard anything," Olaniyan said. "But no matter what happens, Penn State has shown -- everybody's shown -- that we're going to keep striving forward. No matter what happens."

The overwhelming sentiment from players on Tuesday and Wednesday was one of surprise, but not of betrayal. Their emotions were mixed but not polar -- they felt disappointed, but they were happy for their head coach. They seemed down, but they spoke with conviction about their university and the next season.

"As long as we have each other," wideout Jake Kiley said Wednesday, referring to his teammates, "we'll be fine. I think everyone's in the same mind-set."

Tailback Bill Belton wanted to enjoy the new year, forget about the coaching change and deal with it later. Wideout Allen Robinson hung up as soon as O'Brien's name was mentioned. Offensive guard John Urschel took to Twitter to congratulate his head coach.

Different players reacted differently. But everyone seemed to agree that Penn State's certainly been through worse, and that it would emerge once again just fine.

Those same players who congratulated their head coach first met O'Brien in January 2012 when the relative unknown landed in Happy Valley and told the media he was "thrilled to be the head football coach," months before the NCAA levied unprecedented sanctions against the school. O'Brien asked players for their commitment, their loyalty, and they overwhelmingly surrendered it.

Eugene Lewis, now a rising redshirt sophomore, was one of those players. The coveted four-star recruit arrived on campus a few weeks before those sanctions, and he could've chosen to transfer elsewhere without penalty. But he decided to stick with O'Brien in Happy Valley.

And, even now, Lewis doesn't regret his decision. Even now, he bristled at feeling even the slightest twinge of betrayal by his old coach.

"That's a strong word because you have to look at it from his point of view," Lewis said Wednesday. "He came into a position that was hard for his family, with the sanctions that we got. You have to look at what he did and how he did all he could. You can't really be mad at him for leaving after two years. I still really respect him."

Lewis was at a friend's house, watching ESPN, when he discovered the news of O'Brien's departure. His phone buzzed with calls and texts from his teammates shortly before midnight. They agreed they'd enjoy the night and then just see what happens.

But Lewis was adamant, whomever the next head coach turns out to be, that he'll still be all-in.

"At the end of the day, we all know we're family and we all know we still have to go out there and play for our school," he said. "You have to be able to fight through adversity, and this is just another obstacle. I'm not mad at Coach O'Brien, I'm happy with what he's done for me and this university.

"I know my team and everyone else there at Penn State -- everyone -- is going to be behind us, and we're going to greet the next coach the same way we greeted Coach O'Brien."

Defensive end Curtis Cothran echoed Lewis' words and succinctly summed up the message from Penn State's players: "We're going to be OK."

Looking to the past & future: DL

December, 26, 2013
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It's never too late -- or too early -- to see what we learned from this season and also look ahead to next season. So, we've started breaking down each position on the Nittany Lions.

Up today: Defensive line.

REWIND

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

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

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

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

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

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

FAST FORWARD

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

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

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

Few surprises for PSU on B1G teams

December, 2, 2013
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STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- As expected, Allen Robinson was once again the big Penn State winner when it came to the Big Ten's All-Conference Selection Show on Monday night.

He was the Big Ten's lone semifinalist for the national Biletnikoff Award so it wasn't much of a surprise when he was named a unanimous All-Big Ten first-team selection and earned the conference's Richter-Howard Receiver of the Year Award for the second straight season. He finished his junior campaign with a PSU-record 97 catches and 1,432 yards.

There weren't many surprises for Penn State, and there was just one pick that could've been perceived as a snub. Here's a closer look at how it all played out for Penn State (all players are first-team selections unless otherwise noted):

COACHES' TEAM

WR Robinson
OG John Urschel
DT DaQuan Jones

Honorable mention: DB Adrian Amos, LB Glenn Carson, QB Christian Hackenberg, C Ty Howle, CB Jordan Lucas, DE C.J. Olaniyan, LT Donovan Smith

MEDIA'S TEAM

WR Robinson
OG Urschel
DT Jones (second-team)

Honorable mention: LB Carson, K Sam Ficken, QB Hackenberg, C Howle, TE Jesse James, CB Lucas, DE Olaniyan, LT Smith

Really, the only perceived snub could be on Jones making the second-team on the media's list. Ohio State DL Noah Spence earned the spot over him, but it was a pretty tight race. Jones had more overall tackles (33 solo, 56 total) than Spence (20 solo, 46 total) and helped stop the run and clog up the middle.

Spence rushed the passer and finished with 13.5 tackles-for-loss, eight sacks and four quarterback hurries. Jones had 11.5 tackles-for-loss, three sacks and no hurries. Spence also had his hand in more turnovers.

Outside of that, there didn't appear to be anyone who was really left off the list. If anything, the list of honorable mentions might've raised a few eyebrows for opposite reasons.

Amos played relatively well at corner, but most of his season was spent playing not-so-well at safety. He earned a nod from coaches but not from the media. It's clear this season was a step down from 2012.

The biggest surprise came from the media's list, however, with the inclusion of Ficken. That pick would've made sense had this season ended around Week 6, but he struggled in the second half. He finished the season by making 15-of-23 (65 percent) field goals and by missing an extra point. In the last five games, he made just half of his kicks -- and he was just 1-of-5 on field goals longer than 30 yards during that stretch.

The Big Ten will continue with the major awards being named Tuesday night. But there shouldn't be too many surprises there, either. Expect Penn State to pick up its second straight freshman-of-the-year honor.

Week 14 helmet stickers

December, 1, 2013
12/01/13
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Recognizing the best and the brightest from the Nittany Lions in Week 14's season finale:

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

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

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

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

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

Five things: Penn State-Wisconsin

November, 30, 2013
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STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- The Badgers are still trying to keep their hopes for a BCS bowl alive, while the Nittany Lions are trying to finish with a winning season.

Penn State is about a three-touchdown underdog, and it would be a small victory just to keep this game close. Here are five things to watch in PSU's season finale:

1. Two of the best true freshmen in the Big Ten. OK, Penn State fans, the first one's a pretty easy guess -- quarterback Christian Hackenberg. He seems to be the favorite for the Big Ten freshman of the year award, and he's played pretty well considering he only enrolled over the summer. But Wisconsin also boasts one of the best true freshmen in the conference, and it's someone whom Hackenberg's going to have to deal with -- 5-foot-9 cornerback Sojourn Shelton, who leads his team with four interceptions. Shelton will be lined up against Allen Robinson at times, and he's looking forward to the matchup. Here's what he told ESPN.com earlier this week: "It's marked on my calendar; it's a very serious situation. I played pretty good receivers all this season, but this is that one where this is your chance to blow up as a guy. I want to be talked about like Darqueze Dennard and Bradley Roby -- and this is my shot. You can either seize the moment or you can fold." Think he's not fired up? Should be interesting to see a glimpse of the future with these two.

2. Wisconsin running game vs. PSU run defense. The average Badgers' offensive lineman is a little more than eight pounds heavier than the average Green Bay Packers' OL, and Wisconsin's two tailbacks -- James White and Melvin Gordon -- have had no trouble running this season. Wisconsin leads the nation in rushes of 30 yards or longer (21) and 50 yards or longer (9). And it's averaged a BCS-high 9.1 yards per carry on designed runs outside the tackles -- and it just so happens that's a weakness of the Penn State defense. DEs Deion Barnes and C.J. Olaniyan will have to contain and be on top of their games -- or this could get ugly. Fast.

3. One-dimensional pass offenses. Robinson and Jared Abbrederis are basically their teams' only receiving threats. Abbrederis (61 catches, 916 yards) has accounted for more than one in every three Wisconsin completions, and he's accounted for 43 percent of the passing offense. It's even starker for Penn State. Robinson (89 catches, 1,310 yards) has accounted for 40 percent of the offense's completions and 47 percent of the passing offense. When Hackenberg targets Robinson, he's completing 63.6 percent of his passes and has thrown five TDs to one pick. When he targets any receiver not named Robinson? His completion rate drops to 50.4 percent, and he's passed for four TDs and four picks. Basically, if neither wideout can get going, it means neither can the passing games.

4. Repeat performance for Zach Zwinak? The 240-pound back is playing his best football right now, as his last three games have been his three biggest rushing performances of the season (150 yards, 149 yards, 149 yards). And he had quite the game last year against Wisconsin, when he carried the ball 36 times for 179 yards. Don't think Wisconsin forgot. "That is something that stuck with me," senior safety Dezmen Southward told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. The Badgers are out for revenge, and Penn State's offense needs the running game to remain strong for it to have any shot at keeping the game close.

5. Wisconsin on play-action passes. Yes, just the threat of Wisconsin running the ball helps out the offense. It's night and day when Joel Stave attempts a pass off a play-action pass compared to without. Without, he has eight TDs to seven interceptions, averages 6.5 yards through the air and has a dozen completions that have gone for longer than 20 yards. With the play-action, he's almost been a different quarterback. He's passed for nine TDs to two picks, averages 12.1 yards through the air and has 18 completions that have gone for at least 20 yards. So, really, whenever Wisconsin turns toward its tailbacks for a handoff -- even if it's a fake -- that could spell trouble for the Penn State's defense.

Planning for success: Penn State

November, 27, 2013
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STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Defensive end C.J. Olaniyan knows what's coming Saturday.

He knows all about Wisconsin's rushing attack, about the Big Ten's toughest one-two punch in James White (1,281 yards; 6.5 ypc) and Melvin Gordon (1,375 yards; 8.2 ypc). He knows how they like to bounce outside and how any chance at an upset is tied to just how well he and the defense can slow those two down.

[+] EnlargeOlaniyan
AP Photo/Gene J. PuskarC.J. Olaniyan and Penn State will try to stop Wisconsin's ground game.
And he's looking forward to it.

"For me personally, I love when we play teams that run the ball because I like to be physical," he said. "So I know it's going to be a physical game. Each play, you got to bring it."

Olaniyan might want to be careful with his wishes. Penn State's last two meetings with top rushing offenses didn't go so smoothly. Nebraska ranks No. 19 nationally in rushing -- and Ameer Abdullah rushed for 147 yards and nearly 6 yards a clip against Olaniyan's defense. Ohio State ranks No. 5 in rushing -- and the Buckeyes rolled to 408 yards and 8 yards a carry.

Wisconsin is No. 8 and, behind a mammoth offensive line, has amassed nearly 300 yards a game on the ground. The average starting Wisconsin lineman weighs in at 321 pounds, or 8 pounds heavier than the average OL starter on the Green Bay Packers.

"Wisconsin's a good team, big line," linebacker Mike Hull said. "I don't think it really helps them or hurts them in any way. Just another Big Ten opponent. We've got to attack it the same way."

Hull said the only way to prepare for the running game is to focus on fundamentals and make sure his Nittany Lions get off blocks. But Olaniyan is taking it one step further this week. Every time he finds some free time -- whether it's after practice, a quick bite or a nap -- he breaks out his iPad or laptop and continues to watch the film.

To beat Wisconsin, a three-touchdown favorite, he didn't hesitate when asked just how much more film he's looking at now.

"Every extra moment that I get," he said.

This is a must-win game for Wisconsin. If the Badgers want to keep their hopes alive for a fourth straight BCS bowl berth, then they can't let up against Penn State. For the Lions, it's a bit more complicated.

On paper, this game means nothing. Penn State won't be heading to a bowl no matter what. But the difference between a win and a loss Saturday is the difference between a winning season and a 6-6 season. And that still means a lot to these Lions.

"Winning is always the standard we strive for," Olaniyan said. "So, of course, we're going to be disappointed if we go .500."

And if Olaniyan and Co. can't stop Wisconsin's running game, it'll almost certainly be in for that disappointment.

Week 11 helmet stickers

November, 10, 2013
11/10/13
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Recognizing the best and the brightest from the Nittany Lions in Week 11:

Tailback Zach Zwinak. He had a total of just 17 carries in the three prior games, but his number was called early and often against Minnesota. Zwinak plowed through defenders and showed he could still be a factor in the Penn State offense. He picked up seasons bests in both carries (26) and yards (150). This game helped show Zwinak, who's now wearing gloves, has put his fumbling problems behind him. He may no longer be the unquestioned starter, but he's still an important part of the offense.

Defensive end C.J. Olaniyan. The defense went through its hot-and-cold streaks on Saturday, but Olaniyan seemed to play well throughout. He finished with six tackles, 2.5 tackles-for-loss and assisted on a sack. But his biggest play came in the third quarter when Donovahn Jones bobbled the exchange and Olaniyan came up to force the fumble. Olaniyan put the offense just 37 yards from the end zone -- although it couldn't take advantage and punted after a three-and-out. It wasn't the best day for the Penn State defense, but it was a good one for Olaniyan. And he deserves a helmet sticker.

Midseason power rankings: Penn State

October, 17, 2013
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It's the halfway point of the season, and that can only mean one thing. It's time for the midseason Penn State power rankings.

Each player was ranked based on his production, performance and importance to the team. Here's the top 10:

1. WR Allen Robinson: Does this one really need to be explained? Without Robinson, there might not be much of a passing attack. He's been incredibly dependable, he can turn short receptions into long passes, and he can make huge catches when the game calls for it. It's debatable whether he's the best overall offensive player in the conference, but it's clear he's the MVP to his team. He might just be the best receiver in school history.

2. DT DaQuan Jones: He entered the season with quite a bit of fanfare, as Gil Brandt named him the nation's best senior defensive tackle. But he's lived up to those expectations -- actually, he might have even surpassed them. He leads the conference in tackles-for-loss (8.5), and he's second on the team in tackles (31.5). And, get this, no one on Penn State -- not even the linebackers -- boasts more solo tackles than his 24. He stepped up after Jordan Hill's departure, and he's a big reason why teams have struggled to run inside.

[+] EnlargeChristian Hackenberg
Matthew O'Haren/USA TODAY SportsSo far, Penn State true freshman Christian Hackenberg has lived up to the status he arrived with as the nation's No. 1 quarterback prospect.
3. QB Christian Hackenberg: For a player who's been on campus for about four months, he's done a remarkable job. Heck, for a player who would have enrolled early, this would be a great job. True freshmen historically struggle in this first season, but Hackenberg has thrown nearly twice as many TDs (11) as interceptions (6) so far. He's on pace to break Matt McGloin's single-season record for passing yards, and he'll likely leave Happy Valley with every meaningful school passing record. He's shown poise beyond his years, and he's an easy pick for this spot.

4. LB Glenn Carson: There hasn't been a lot of consistency on the defense, and that's what makes Carson so important. He's not the flashiest player to ever don the Blue and White, but he gets the job done week in and week out. He leads the team in tackles (34.5), and he's one of the leaders on this defense. He won't end up on the semifinalist list for the Bednarik Award, but he deserves credit for helping shore up the middle of this defense. He's a big reason why PSU has the nation's No. 19 run defense.

5. RB Bill Belton: Let the debate begin. Who's been more valuable to this team -- Belton or ZZ? Belton gets the slight edge right now after a strong game against Michigan, which saw him make a key fourth-and-1 run in addition to the game-winning touchdown. He's made some nice catches this season, has averaged 5.3 yards a carry -- a full yard per carry more than the other guy -- and come up big in clutch situations. Belton looks like the surprise of the offense so far this season.

6. RB Zach Zwinak: OK, OK, let's address the elephant in the room. He did not have a good game against Michigan. At all. But point to another Penn State player who has had six strong games. It's not easy. He's been the workhorse, the player who can pick up short yardage and wear a defense down. He's had eight rushing touchdowns so far this year, and he's played no small role in PSU's No.17-ranked red-zone offense. He still leads the team with 393 rushing yards.

7. LB Stephen Obeng-Agyapong: Think about just how important he's been this season, especially when Mike Hull went down. Maybe he's not the best linebacker in recent memory, but he gets bonus points for switching positions and exceeding expectations. The Nittany Lions could've walked away with a Week 1 loss had Obeng-Agyapong not stepped up, especially considering that Syracuse targeted him constantly that game. He's already run the gamut of football stats -- he has a sack, a pick, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery so far this season. He's obviously good in pass coverage, and he's been a speedy blitzer when called upon. The safety-turned-linebacker has helped hold this thin corps of LBs together.

8. WR Brandon Moseby-Felder: If we were just going off the U-M game, Moseby-Felder might be as high as second or third. But he missed the Indiana game due to injury and went a span of three weeks with four catches for 39 yards. He's clearly important to this team, as evidenced by that game against the Hoosiers, and he made several critical catches against the Wolverines -- including a back-shoulder grab for a touchdown. If he can keep that up, he'll undoubtedly make his way up this list by the end of the season.

9. CB Jordan Lucas: The secondary has not been a strong point for PSU, but Lucas seems to have had the best season so far. He's a first-year starter, but defensive coordinator John Butler has used him in quite a few ways. He's blitzed off the edge a bit, has been decent in run support and has made some nice plays as cornerback. He leads the team with eight pass deflections, seven pass breakups and an interception. Also, believe it or not, he's second on the team with 4.5 stops in the backfield. He hasn't played error-free football, but he's done well.

10. DE C.J. Olaniyan: He obviously had a monster game against Michigan, as he was named the Big Ten defensive player of the week. But even before that, he was doing pretty well. He's first in sacks (3.5), second in tackles for loss (6.5), fifth in tackles (21.5), and he also has a forced fumble and two pass breakups. If Olaniyan can string together more games like that, he'll earn quite a reputation for himself in the Big Ten. For now, though, his stock is on "hold" because he needs to show he can consistently perform like that.

What we learned: Week 7

October, 13, 2013
10/13/13
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Lesson learned from Penn State's 43-40 quadruple OT win against Michigan in Week 7:

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

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

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

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

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