Penn State Nittany Lions: C.J. Olaniyan

Big Ten Wednesday mailblog

June, 25, 2014
Jun 25
5:00
PM ET
Tackling the second of three mailblogs this week. Have questions? Send them here or tweet me here.

What's on your mind?

@mikemagnus via Twitter: Would there be as much pushback adding Maryland and Rutgers if they were added at the same time as Nebraska rather than separately?

Adam Rittenberg: Really interesting question, Mike. As Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany often says, not every expansion addition can be Nebraska or Penn State. There is filler out there (hello, Utah, Colorado and TCU) and schools brought in more for their locations than their athletic tradition. I think if this happened in 2010, the reaction could have been different. Nebraska would be celebrated and Rutgers and Maryland would be seen as a way to get closer to the superconference model.

Some of the criticism would remain, and some would wonder why the Big Ten didn't add other Big 12 schools. Remember, the eastern movement wasn't a B1G objective at the time, and the ACC hadn't added Syracuse and Pittsburgh. But overall, I don't think the backlash would be as strong because Nebraska would be a nice distraction.


Brian from Raleigh, North Carolina, writes: Hey Adam, one thing really stood out about the B1G Presidents & Chancellors' letter: they endorsed most of Kain Colter and CAPA's stated goals. As you say, none of the ideas are new, but is it safe to call this a (provisional) vindication for Colter? And what should we make of the fact that they didn't endorse a formal seat at the decision-making table for athletes?

Rittenberg: Brian, it's definitely a victory of sorts for Colter and CAPA. They would like to see more specifics and protections in the medical plans schools will offer athletes (current and former), but it's significant that the medical coverage piece is part of the signed letter. CAPA has been smart in not advocating first for a pay-for-play model, as few can argue with a push for greater medical coverage for athletes. Good point about the omission of an athlete seat at the decision-making table, although Delany and other league leaders have voiced their support for one.


Isaiah from the South Carolina cornfields writes: Adam, I believe that the best approach for scheduling nonconference opponents is a balanced one. Games against only FBS teams is a great start, but let's be honest, Eastern Michigan is probably a worse team than North Dakota State. Really, what is important is the quality of the opponent. Teams that finish within 25 places from where your team does should be the norm; this could include playoff FCS teams as well. One opponent should be a marquee team as well. Some opponents will dud out, sure, but it's better than beating up on Sun Belt and MAC teams.

Rittenberg: Isaiah, glad to hear from some cornfields outside Big Ten country. I like your plan for teams to play more comparable opponents as much as possible, but there are some potential problems. Since scheduling is done so far in advance, an opponent that looks comparable at the time the series is scheduled might have declined by the time the games are played. Ohio State found this with its recent Cal series, as Cal went from a Top 25 program between 2004-08 to a very bad one the last two seasons. I could live with FCS playoff teams, as many are better than the bottom of the FBS and they would help Big Ten teams meet their home-game demands.


@lukebilotta via Twitter: Who is the player nobody is talking about but is poised for a breakout season?

Rittenberg: Luke, since you're an Indiana fan, I know you talk about Tevin Coleman quite a bit, but he's not a known name around the Big Ten. That should change this season if Coleman stays healthy. Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon might be the top big-play back in the country, but Coleman isn't far behind. He averaged 7.3 yards per rush and 141.7 all-purpose yards in nine games last year. Perhaps that qualifies as a breakout season, but Coleman should be an even bigger part of IU's offense as a junior, and he runs behind arguably the Big Ten's best offensive line, another group no one talks about (check the blog on Thursday for more).

On defense, keep an eye on two linemen: Penn State's C.J. Olaniyan and Northwestern's Ifeadi Odenigbo. Olaniyan quietly had 11 tackles for loss and five sacks last season, and he should be even better this year. Odenigbo is a speed rusher who, in limited work, had 5.5 sacks last season. When he figures it out, he'll be a force off of the edge.


Mark from Snyderville writes: I think having a solid slate of semi-cupcakes is respectable but lacking. The MUCH tougher noncon slate in my opinion is one that can make or break your season and league perception in one game. For instance, Wisky plays LSU. That is HUGE for the B1G. Win and the perception of Wisky and the B1G changes overnight. Maybe the perception changes just for the rest of the season, but it gives you a big boost for the upcoming playoffs. Kansas State plays Auburn at home on a Thursday night. You think that game means more to the conference than, say, Texas vs. BYU? Of course it does. Give me one big, huge, giant, winner-takes-all game over 3-4 mediocre scraps any day.

Rittenberg: I tend to agree, Mark. Ohio State took this approach for years and had blockbuster, conference-perception-shaping games against teams like USC and Texas. While I would like to see one other quality opponent on the schedule, the strength of a schedule with Oregon or LSU on it trumps one with good or average teams and no cupcakes. Also, I've noticed teams that step out and truly play a marquee opponent often avoid criticism for the rest of their nonleague schedule.
Last week, we took a look at some notable offensive milestones -- 3,000 yards passing, 1,000 yards rushing and 1,000 yards receiving -- and which players in the Big Ten were most likely to reach them. Now, let's turn to the defensive side of the ball and examine which players might get to another impressive plateau: 10 sacks.

[+] EnlargeJoey Bosa
Andrew Weber/USA TODAY SportsOhio State's Joey Bosa is poised to become one of the Big Ten's fiercest pass rushers.
In light of those quadruple-digit offensive numbers, 10 might seem like a modest goal for sacks. But only one Big Ten player made it there last season -- Nebraska's Randy Gregory, whom we correctly pegged as a possibility last summer -- and none did in 2012. Only 20 players in the FBS finished in double digits in sacks last season. So it's not easy.

But there are a handful of players in the league who have the ability and opportunity to register 10 or more sacks in 2014. They are:

  • Randy Gregory, Nebraska (10.5 sacks in 2013): The physically imposing Huskers defensive end could cause even more damage now that he has a full season of FBS competition under his belt. There's a reason some are projecting him as top-10 NFL draft pick next spring.
  • Joey Bosa, Ohio State (7.5): Bosa burst onto the scene as a true freshman, finishing with 7.5 sacks. His freakish combination of strength and speed could help him achieve true superstar status as a sophomore. Also watch out for Buckeyes teammate Noah Spence, who had eight sacks a year ago but will miss the first two games of the year because of a suspension. It will be extremely difficult for opponents to double-team the two defensive ends once Spence comes back.
  • Andre Monroe, Maryland (9.5): We have to rank the Terps senior this high because he very nearly recorded 10 sacks last season in the ACC. The self-proclaimed fireball aims to burn Big Ten offensive lines this fall.
  • Shilique Calhoun, Michigan State (7.5): The Big Ten's defensive lineman of the year became known for his early season scoring prowess and was a fearsome pass rusher. But despite having a great year over 14 games, he still finished well shy of 10 sacks. Shows you how hard it is to get there.
  • Theiren Cockran, Minnesota (7.5): Somewhat quietly, Cockran was one of the leading sack artists in the league a year ago. He's long and quick off the edge. He won't have Ra'Shede Hageman inside to take away attention, but Cockran has shown that he can do damage by himself.
  • C.J. Olaniyan, Penn State (5): It's hard to block the 6-foot-3, 245-pound Nittany Lions senior, who led the team in quarterback takedowns a year ago. Of course, we also have to mention Deion Barnes, who had six sacks in 2012 en route to Big Ten freshman of the year honors but slipped to just two in a disappointing 2013. Can Barnes bounce back?
  • Frank Clark, Michigan (4.5): Clark didn't quite have the monster breakout year some predicted for him in 2013, but he was very solid with 12 tackles for loss. He's got enough skill and experience to improve those numbers for a Wolverines defense that aims to pressure opposing passers a lot more this year. Perhaps a healthy Jake Ryan, who had 4.5 sacks in 2012 but none in an injury-shortened season last fall, also could make some noise in this category.

 
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- The past few years have brought historic changes at Penn State, from the men occupying the head coach's office to the names occupying the backs of the Nittany Lions' jerseys.

Yet until recently, Penn State's defensive line meeting room resisted renovation. It was one of few elements of the program that, in 2013, looked much like it did in 2005. Larry Johnson coached the group, as he had every season since 2000 (and, in some form, since 1996). And while the Lions' defense struggled for much of last season, the line still produced a first-team All-Big Ten performer, tackle DaQuan Jones, just as it did the previous five years.

[+] EnlargeSean Spencer
MCT via Getty ImagesNew defensive line coach Sean Spencer wants his guys attacking like 'wild dogs.'
But even the PSU defensive line couldn't evade the winds of change forever. After being passed over for Penn State's head-coaching job for the second time, Johnson in January declined a chance to remain with James Franklin's staff. Days later, he latched on at rival Ohio State.

Lions defensive linemen now take direction from a man known as Coach Chaos. You'll be able to hear Sean Spencer's voice from Row 80 of Beaver Stadium -- on game days. Spencer wants his Lions to be wild dogs, explaining, "The wild dog is the most efficient animal in the jungle in terms of hunting in a pack."

The 43-year-old dynamo with the "spastic" personality differs from that of his reserved, buttoned-down Penn State predecessor. But when it comes to standards, Spencer and Johnson are aligned.

"Traditionally, the D-line here has always been one of the elite in the country," Spencer told ESPN.com. "I know no other way but to have them rise to the expectations that I set forth and that they set forth for themselves. There's no excuse.

"I don't care who I've got out there. I expect to be dominant."

Spencer's message resonates with a group that, unlike others on a reduced roster, doesn't face dire depth challenges. The Lions return both starters at end -- Deion Barnes and C.J. Olaniyan -- and veteran reserve Brad Bars, who missed all of last season with a ruptured Achilles' tendon.

Sophomore Austin Johnson moves into the lead tackle position and Anthony Zettel, a converted defensive end, has been a good fit at the 3-technique tackle spot.

"The D-line is probably our strength," Franklin said. "We have the most depth at that position. We've got about four deep at defensive end and probably two-and-a-half deep at D-tackle."

If the depth holds up, it will help Penn State use a larger rotation that Johnson typically used. Defensive coordinator Bob Shoop said the Vanderbilt linemen he and Spencer coached last fall didn't average more than 40 snaps a game.

The coaches want to use five or six defensive ends, as Bars, junior Carl Nassib and redshirt freshman Garrett Sickels also are in the mix. A healthy rotation suits Spencer's wild dogs philosophy.

At Vanderbilt, he commissioned a painting of a Commodores football player blended with a dog, which he displayed in his office at Penn State this spring. He also took a giant dog bone to the field.

"Part of their survival is when they chase their prey down, for three to five miles they take turns biting at him," Spencer said. "One goes to the front, and when he gets tired, the next one comes. It's a really unique strategy in terms of the way they attack things. We rotate a lot of guys, so we just take turns nipping at quarterbacks and making plays in the backfield."

Vanderbilt recorded 28 sacks last season, which tied for fourth in the SEC. Spencer estimates 24 came solely from line pressure. He expects the same production at Penn State.

Defensive tackle has been Penn State's strongest position in recent seasons with players such as Jones, Devon Still, Jordan Hill and Jared Odrick. Although Zettel and Johnson aren't known outside Happy Valley, the coaches think that soon will change.

"Zettel has been been very, very disruptive this spring," Shoop said. "Austin Johnson falls in line of the beast D-tackles Penn State's had in the past. He's over 300 pounds, moves well, he's tough to move at the point of attack, got a big butt and legs."

Olaniyan led Penn State with five sacks last season, his first as a starter. Penn State looks for more from Barnes, the former Big Ten Freshman of the Year whose sacks and tackles for loss totals dropped by more than 50 percent from 2012 to 2013.

"What we're looking at is, how can we get him back to that?" Spencer said.

Spencer is pleased with Barnes' football knowledge and said all the linemen are asking "200- and 300-level questions" in meetings. Life without Johnson undoubtedly caused an adjustment -- "It's always tough to see somebody you call a family member leave," Olaniyan said -- but players quickly connected with Spencer, who lists relationship-building among his strengths.

"I grew up without a dad," said Spencer, whose father played for Michigan State in the 1960s. "Unfortunately, we don't have a relationship right now, and he's still alive. It's one of the things I'm least proud of, but at the same time, it made me who I am today. It made me have the ability to reach out to kids that probably are similar to me. I'm a little younger than Larry so they're not going to look at me as a dad, so to speak. They look at me as a big brother or an uncle.

"I think we've got some similarities in the way we care about our players, but I'm probably a little bit wilder than he is."

A little wilder and a little louder, but just as demanding.

"They both have the same philosophy as far as they want you to do everything perfect," Olaniyan said. "It's easy to embrace the new coaches when they have the same goal. We take pride as the Penn State D-line.

"Each game, we want everybody to see us as one of the best defensive lines out there. We want to be great."

At Penn State, some things never change.
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.

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, Tyler Scott, Evan Panfil, Malik McDowell, Antoine White, Bruce Gaston Jr., Adolphus Washington, Randy Gregory, Ra'Shede Hageman, Tommy Schutt, Tim Kynard, 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, 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, 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

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
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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
11/27/13
8:00
AM ET
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.

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