Penn State Nittany Lions: Carl Nassib

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.

Notes on PSU's newest depth chart

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

Still, there were a few notable changes on the depth chart and in the game notes:
  • Adam Gress was nursing an injury last week, and he was not listed as the definite starter at right tackle. He's still battling with TE-turned-OT Garry Gilliam. Bill O'Brien will likely update Gress' progress on Tuesday.
  • Von Walker, a run-on whom O'Brien complimented last week, is listed as competing for the No. 2 kickoff return spot with Akeel Lynch. Walker is an athlete whom PSU hopes to utilize as a slotback. This might be the biggest surprise on the depth chart. You can read more about Walker here.
  • D.J. Crook is listed as the third-string quarterback. He was competing with Austin Whipple and Jack Seymour for the No. 3 spot. He was listed as the third-stringer on the post-spring depth chart as well.
  • Bill Belton is still listed as the No. 2 tailback, ahead of Lynch ... but that likely doesn't mean much. Both will see carries.
  • There's an "OR" listed next to Malcolm Willis' name, signifying he's still competing with Ryan Keiser at safety. Willis is obviously expected to be the starter -- barring injury. O'Brien will undoubtedly be asked about that on Tuesday.
  • Middle linebacker Glenn Carson is still listed as the snapper at punter, despite picking up a run-on whose specialty is snapping and having Howle snapping on field goals.
STATE COLLEGE, Pa -- Three small children, between the ages of 3 and 5, weren't intimidated by Penn State's mammoth football players. A boy in a blue hat, who just reached Kyle Carter's waist, instead actually tried to intimidate the 6-foot-3 tight end.

"Boo!" he yelled, giggling furiously once Carter and two other players -- Carl Nassib and Brian Gaia -- feigned being frightened.


They're fighting for their lives every day and, just being able to see them fight and be happy, it's really inspiring.


-- Penn State DE Brad Bars

"Boo!" his brother joined in. Soon enough, all three siblings were joining in a chorus more fit for Halloween. "Boo!" Laughter. "Boo!" More laughter.

The children were part of the 28 Make-A-Wish families who descended on the Lasch Football Building to hang out with the football players, tour the facilities -- and even try on some pads and uniforms in the locker room. Saturday afternoon's event was part of THON weekend, which is centered around a student dance marathon that helps raise money to fight pediatric cancer. Just last year, THON helped raise $10.68 million.

"Every time, it just gets better," Carter said. "This is definitely the most [players]. I'm not sure if guys are just feeling they really wanted to give back this year; I just feel like the whole team is here today. I can't think of one guy who is not here."

Even true freshman Adam Breneman, who's been enrolled about a month, slowly walked through the building's hallways -- stopping every so often to point out the meaning of plaques or what goes on in certain rooms. Donovan Smith, a 316-pound offensive tackle, couldn't have caused more laughter -- well, maybe with his teammates-- if he had slipped on a purple dinosaur costume. Steven Bench chatted up any adult or kid within earshot.

(Read full post)

Notebook: Who are the 'Supa Six'?

September, 21, 2012
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It started out as a joke and ended with a hashtag.

Early last season, six of Penn State's Class of 2011 recruits began calling their close-knit group the "Supa Six," and the nickname recently caught on. They're now ending their tweets with #supasix, and fans have embraced the nickname.

Three redshirt freshman are part of the group: Deion Barnes, Kyle Carter, Donovan Smith. And three sophomores: Adrian Amos, Bill Belton and Allen Robinson.

[+] EnlargeBill Belton
AP Photo/Keith SrakocicPenn State sophomore RB Bill Belton, who is one of the 'Supa Six,' is also regarded by teammates as one of the team's toughest tailbacks to bring down.
Just don't ask their teammates to embrace it. Even if the six are all starters.

"I don't really care what those guys do," said quarterback Matt McGloin. "As long as they play good Saturday, they can call themselves whatever they want."

Barnes, who leads the team in sacks (3), said the group -- ahem, Supa Six -- worked together in the offseason. He knew the extra work would pay off, "but we didn't know it was going to happen this fast."

Offensive guard John Urschel was also quizzed this week about the Supa Six. He seemed slightly confused and then answered in such a way that his eye-rolls could be heard over the phone.

"I'm not really on top of this Supa Six thing, to be perfectly honest," he said. "I think they have T-shirts or have a sign with their hands. I'm not really up to speed."

With the six already committed to finish their careers at Penn State, expect to hear a lot from them for two more seasons. All of them will likely finish their careers as three-year or four-year starters.

Hardest to tackle? Mike Hull was asked, in practice, to name the tailback who is the toughest to bring down. He thought for a moment but then came up with two -- and it wasn't two of the heavier players.

"Bill Belton's pretty tough because he's so shifty," Hull said. "So, whenever you're in the open field, it's pretty tough. But Derek Day brings an X factor because he can run you over, too. They're surprisingly physical."

Best defense: Temple's defense is ranked No. 45 in yards allowed, one spot ahead of Ohio, but two Penn State players believe this weekend could be the offense's toughest test of the early season.

McGloin and Urschel voiced some concerns with an Owls defense that has the most experienced secondary they've seen so far.

"We have our work cut out for us this week," McGloin said, "and we're trying to watch as much football this week and prepare for, probably, the best defense we've played so far."

Philadelphia connections: Seven Penn State players hail from the Philly area -- Anthony Alosi, Mark Arcidiacono, Joe Baker, Barnes, Pete Massaro, Carl Nassib and Pat Zerbe.

Temple coach Steve Addazio pointed to Barnes as the type of player he needs to recruit.

"You're hoping to get a few of those guys, and that'll happen," Addazio said. "That's part of the growth of where we're at. ... There's so much talent surrounding Philadelphia, and those are things we're trying to get done."

Biggest player surprise: What player has most exceeded expectations this year? According to Urschel, the answer is linebacker Ben Kline.

"I'd say that Ben Kline has been doing a great job for us," he said. "He's been doing a phenomenal job for us on special teams. ... He's been a very good player for us, very physical player. He's been making some plays for us; he's going to be one of our great linebackers in future years."

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