Penn State Nittany Lions: Curtis Dukes

Where they ranked as recruits: Offense 

February, 5, 2013
Allen RobinsonRich Barnes/US PresswireAllen Robinson's production shows that recruiting grades are just projections and it's not just the elite recruits who become elite players.

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- With signing day just a day away, all the focus will be on the four-star talent and the big-name players. But it's not always the elite recruits who contribute most.

After all, where did Penn State's current starters rank when they were recruits?
As everyone knows by now, Penn State coach Bill O'Brien was courted by NFL teams in the past couple of weeks. He admits to have "had conversations" with a couple of those teams.

But O'Brien hasn't gone anywhere, and he said on Monday that he did not use those talks to leverage more money for himself out of Penn State. The (Harrisburg) Patriot-News reported last week that Nittany Lions booster Terry Pegula had donated $1.3 million for an increase in O'Brien's salary. O'Brien denied that.

[+] EnlargeO'Brien
Reese Strickland/US PresswireCoach Bill O'Brien said he's hoping that support areas around the Penn State football program receive an upgrade.
"You can ask anyone that knows me," he said. "In 20 years of coaching, I have never asked for a raise. The last thing I'm about is money. If I was about money, I probably wouldn't be sitting here. I never asked anybody for a raise. It gets my blood boiling when people say this is about money."

O'Brien did say, however, that he is working with athletic director Dave Joyner and president Rodney Erickson on upgrading support areas around the program like recruiting, academics and strength and conditioning. He didn't offer many specifics, but expect some additional staff members in those areas.

The Philadelphia Eagles and Cleveland Browns were two teams that reportedly talked to O'Brien. He said he was never offered a job.

"I'm a coach, it's something that I love, and out of respect for my profession, the NFL is the highest level of my profession," he said. "But I made the decision to stay here, and I'm very proud to be head football coach here."

O'Brien also shot down speculation that he was looking to leave State College because he wasn't told how severe the NCAA penalties would be when he took the job.

"Nobody gave me bad information," he said. "It was just no one really knew. I took a leap of faith, and Penn State took a leap of faith, and I shook their hand to become the next head coach."

O'Brien didn't rule out talking to NFL teams again after next season or coaching at the next level someday. "I'm not a genie," he said when asked about his long-term future. He said he had no intention of coaching at one place into his 80s like his predecessor, Joe Paterno. Fact is, NFL teams will continue to be interested in O'Brien, and he would be foolish not to consider any and all opportunities.

But he'll be coaching Penn State in 2013. And credit him for having this news conference today and at least talking about the situation. Not all coaches would do that in the offseason, and Penn State hasn't always been the most open place.

Some other notes from O'Brien:

  • Tight end Kyle Carter, who injured his wrist late in the season, may not be ready for the start of spring practice.
  • Backup running back Curtis Dukes will not return to Penn State for his
    senior season. Dukes rushed for only 98 yards this season and did not get a carry after the Sept. 29 Illinois game.
  • O'Brien said seven incoming players have enrolled for the spring semester, most notably star tight end recruit Adam Breneman and junior college quarterback transfer Tyler Ferguson.
Running back Curtis Dukes is no longer with the Penn State football team, but his high school coach said Monday afternoon that Dukes is still weighing his options between a transfer and declaring for the NFL draft.

"He's still looking at those options," Indian River (N.Y.) coach Cory Marsell said. "He wanted to get his grades back to see what those were like first, but he didn't specify where he was leaning."

After backing up Silas Redd in 2011, he seemed on pace to take the starting spot following Redd's transfer to USC. But academic problems prevented him from taking part in spring practice, and he failed to gain a good understanding of the playbook.

Bill O'Brien announced Dukes' decision to leave Monday morning during a news conference, but he said academics did not play a role.

Dukes finished the 2012 season with just 26 carries for 98 yards -- one season after rushing for 237 yards on 41 carries. He finished third on the team in rushing in 2011, and he was the team's leading returning rusher.

Dukes complained publicly in October to his local newspaper, the Watertown (N.Y.) Daily Times, about his playing time. That topic was a sore point for Dukes throughout the season, although he remained on the roster through the final game.

"I've been in this game for too long, and I feel I deserve more of a shot, to have more playing time and get more exposure," Dukes told the paper.

Although Dukes is a rising redshirt senior, Penn State's sanctions allow the senior to transfer elsewhere without penalty. He can opt to play for a FBS or FCS team and not sit out a year.

Dukes is the first player to leave since the end of the season, and his departure wasn't much of a surprise. Marsell said Oct. 12 that Dukes was considering leaving after the season -- and, with more competition in the backfield in 2013, he could have again struggled to see considerable playing time.

He leaves Penn State with 69 career carries for 351 yards and a touchdown. He played in 19 games.

Breneman & ESPN's history of top TEs 

December, 6, 2012
Adam BrenemanScott Fink/ESPNHSPenn State commit Adam Breneman hopes to fulfill the expectations that come with being ESPN's No. 1-rated tight end.
Adam Breneman (Camp Hill, Pa./Cedar Cliff) isn't shy about listing his career goals at Penn State.

The four-star prospect (Scouts Grade: 85) not only wants to win the Big Ten Leaders Division, he's aiming for high individual accolades. He's hoping to take home the John Mackey Award, a trophy given annually to the country's best tight end.

But what does history say about his potential for success? Have most of ESPN's No. 1 tight ends come in and dominated? Or have they fallen short of lofty expectations?

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Position review: Running back 

November, 27, 2012
Zach Zwinak, Daimion StaffordBruce Thorson/US PRESSWIREZach Zwinak was a huge surprise at running back, saving the Nittany Lions and producing after more heralded players faltered in the featured role.
Every day over the next two weeks, NittanyNation will take a closer look at each position and how Penn State fared over the course of the season.

Up today: Running back.

If one position symbolized Bill O'Brien's "next man up" philosophy, it would be this one. Bill Belton started the season as the main tailback, a sophomore who was expected to get 20-25 touches a game. Then he went down, and on came an ineffective Derek Day.

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STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Bill O'Brien's face didn't grow red, nor did his mood shift to anger, when asked about two outspoken players -- one of whom publicly complained about his playing time.

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Rob Carr/Getty ImagesCurtis Dukes is still a member of the Penn State team despite telling his hometown paper he was contemplating a transfer.
Penn State tailback Curtis Dukes told his hometown paper, the Watertown (N.Y.) Daily Times, on Friday that he deserved "more of a shot." Dukes' high school coach told ESPN that his former player was thinking of leaving after the season as a result.

O'Brien just shrugged when Dukes' name was brought up at Tuesday's weekly news conference. He talked about the redshirt junior with a steady demeanor, as if he were asked about Bill Belton or Zach Zwinak -- and he dismissed any notion of disciplinary action.

"Nah, it's a free country," O'Brien said matter-of-factly, drawing laughs from the crowd. "I mean, nah, Curtis is working hard and he's a member of the football team, and he'll continue to work hard. And that's all I have to say about that."

A tweet from cornerback Stephon Morris was also broached later in the news conference. On Monday night, the senior wrote, "Pls stop looking ahead to next week. This is a huge game, we hate them they hate us. Were focused on Iowa that's it. One game at a time."

Apparently, the term "hate" offended some. O'Brien turned to a Penn State spokesman, rolled his eyes and then addressed the media about the tweet.

"You know what I hate? I hate Twitter," O'Brien said. "I think these guys are young guys and I think tweet this and spacebook that, whatever, we got to play the game. We don't have any hatred for Iowa, we respect Iowa. ... I think it's just young guys tweeting this, tweeting that. That's how it works, I guess."

Award list controversy: Linebacker Michael Mauti wasn't named to the Lombardi Award watch list last week, and O'Brien spoke up again Tuesday about the snub.

"I'm sure they would tell you we just want to win, but I do think that there's a certain amount of ridiculousness that guys like Michael Mauti or Gerald Hodges or Jordan Hill aren't on the -- I don't even know the awards. ...

"These award lists come out halfway through the season. I'm trying to figure it out. Shouldn't the award lists come out at the end of the season when we have a 12-game season?"

Running backs: Little changed on the depth chart, but leading rusher Zwinak was finally moved to No. 2 on the depth chart in what basically amounted to a formality.

Belton was still listed as the top tailback, and O'Brien said the bye week was invaluable to the sophomore. He deflected a question on whether Belton was yet at 100 percent, but the coach said the tailback, who' still recovering from an ankle sprain, looked good in practice.

"He caught the ball well, he ran well, he stretched well," O'Brien said. "He did some good things, and hopefully he'll play well on Saturday."

Injury report: True freshman linebacker Nyeem Wartman remains out with a knee injury, and O'Brien said he's not certain yet whether he'll return this season. Wartman might earn a medical redshirt.

The only other injury listed on the report was offensive lineman Mark Arcidiacono, who remains out with a foot injury. Defensive end Pete Massaro and left tackle Donovan Smith were not listed on the report.

No break on the bye week: O'Brien smiled when asked about his "bye" week. He spent Monday-Wednesday last week preparing practices, and he was in Fork Union, Va., on Friday to recruit. And that's not too mention constructing midseason evaluations or analyzing Iowa film.

As a result, O'Brien said, he didn't take much time off.

"A lot of people ask me about, how was your bye week and having days off?" O'Brien said. "Well, you never have a day off during football season. It's either getting the team ready to play or recruiting or whatever it may be. But I was able to take my wife out to dinner Saturday night, but that was about it."
Penn State tailback Curtis Dukes will finish out this season, but he's considering leaving afterward because of limited playing time, his high school coach told ESPN.

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Rob Carr/Getty ImagesPenn State running back Curtis Dukes is contemplating a transfer, according to his high school coach.
"We talked just 10 minutes ago, and he's still weighing his options," Indian River (N.Y.) coach Cory Marsell said. "There's a chance he can get his degree soon and then figure out what options he has."

Those options include staying with Penn State, transferring to another college or declaring for the NFL draft. Marsell believed the redshirt junior's size -- 6-foot-1, 245 pounds -- could translate well to the next level.

Dukes, who has just 69 career carries, first told the Watertown (N.Y.) Daily Times he was unhappy with his playing time.

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5 biggest surprises so far this season 

October, 10, 2012
Bill O'BrienChristopher Weddle/Centre Daily Times/MCT/Getty ImagesBill O'Brien has Penn State on a four-game winning streak going into the bye.

No one would have blamed Bill O'Brien if his Penn State team managed to win just two games to this point. No one would have cursed his name if the offense struggled or regressed from last season.

But, somehow, some way, O'Brien and the Nittany Lions have tossed aside low expectations and won four straight heading into this bye week.

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Notebook: DT Hill adjusting to new role

September, 28, 2012
Jordan Hill knew expectations for him were high entering this season. He couldn't forget. A tour bus features his mug, and his name is plastered on two awards lists.

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Justin K. Aller/Getty ImagesJordan Hill's stats have diminished because he's the subject of constant double-teams, but the senior is embracing his new role.
He expected to take over for Devon Still, who was drafted in the second round by the Cincinnati Bengals, and build off last season. He didn't expect this. He didn't know he'd tackle just one ball-carrier in the backfield through four games.

"It's been really different to me, especially the first two games," Hill said. "I was really game-planned around. Teams were running away from me and double-teaming me. ... It's a little different from what I've been used to."

After Ohio, he shifted from the one-technique -- just outside of the center -- to his usual three-technique spot just outside the guard. He has recorded just five solo tackles this season, but he said he's becoming more accustomed to his role.

"I've come a long way, I would say. I'm just getting used to it and accepting it's going to happen," he said, referring to double teams.

Hill said he felt most comfortable this past week, and it showed. He finished second on the team in tackles with seven, forced a fumble and recorded a sack.

The senior DT said he's learned, when two linemen come at him, he just has to focus on one. He can't take on both players at once, and he knows he'll likely face double-teams throughout the season.

"Knowing that someone's game-planning against you is a good thing, I guess," he said. "It has to leave somebody open, whether it's another defensive tackle or a lineman or a linebacker, somebody has to be free. You can't be selfish."

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5 storylines: PSU vs. Illinois 

September, 27, 2012
Every week, NittanyNation takes a look at five storylines that stand out: What should fans keep an eye on? What's the bigger picture? What might be on display Saturday?

Here are NittanyNation's Week 5 storylines:

1. "Poaching" PSU players: When Tim Beckman's staff stepped foot on Penn State's campus after the sanctions, animosity was instantly created between the Fighting Illini and the Nittany Lions. Players tried to deflect any talk of the rivalry this week, but tailback Derek Day admitted the team was offended. Ryan Nowicki was the lone Penn State player to transfer to Champaign, and PSU cornerback Stephon Morris called him a coward at media day.

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Running backs finally healthy for PSU

September, 25, 2012
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Penn State is finally trading in its ball-carrier carousel for a committee approach.

After an injury-riddled month that saw four different tailbacks start four games, Bill O'Brien said everyone finally appears to be healthy -- including starter Bill Belton, who suffered a severe ankle sprain in the opener.

"He practiced yesterday and looked decent, so we would anticipate him being ready to go for the game," O'Brien said Tuesday.

Michael Zordich did not practice Monday but planned to be in pads Tuesday. Derek Day said he's already receiving practice reps, and O'Brien said Saturday that Curtis Dukes' injury was not serious.

All those healthy additions now shift O'Brien's philosophy from "Next man up" to ... well, he's not entirely sure yet.

"It's definitely tough to use all five, but I definitely see us using two or three," he said. "It depends on how they practice during the week."

O'Brien and assistant coach Charles London sat down with the five running backs to inform them playing time will be a reflection of practice. Day shook his head when asked if the competition created animosity, knowing his playing time might be reduced, and said he was pleased because this would ultimately help the team.

"It adds to the competitiveness of our practices and it makes each guy show up every day and try to show the coaches what we have to offer," he said.

Penn State's stable of running backs hasn't been healthy since the second quarter of the Ohio game. Belton grimaced when he fell in the third quarter, and a golf cart shuttled him to the locker room. He hasn't seen the field since, and a domino line of injuries followed.

Penn State struggled running in the first three games and averaged just 3.5 yards a carry. Against Temple, Zordich and Zach Zwinak -- now known as the Killer Z's -- pounded the middle for more than 5 yards with every touch.

And if PSU can run the ball with two fullbacks, some players are wondering just how this offense might look with a speedy Belton, powerful Dukes and balanced Day.

"I'm really curious," linebacker Mike Hull said Tuesday. "The running backs that filled in did a great job, but getting these guys back is really going to make a difference and create some problems this week."

3 Up, 3 Down: Penn State 24, Temple 13 

September, 23, 2012
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- The good and the bad from Penn State's 24-13 win over Temple on Saturday:


1. Passing game: Coming into this game, Matt McGloin believed Temple's defense might be the best his team's faced yet this season. On paper, it sure looked like it. The Owls boasted an experienced secondary, but McGloin responded by having one of the best games in his career. He tossed completions to nine different receivers and threw for 318 yards. He did throw an interception, but it bounced off his intended receiver's hands. McGloin's looked better each week, and he could surprise even more when the conference season begins.

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5 storylines: PSU vs. Temple 

September, 20, 2012
Every week, NittanyNation takes a look at five storylines that stand out: What should fans keep an eye on? What's the bigger picture? What might be on display Saturday?

Here are NittanyNation's Week 4 storylines:

1. Temple hasn't beaten PSU since 1941. The Nittany Lions are 29-0-1 in the last 30 meetings, but the last two contests have been close. Penn State won on the road last season, 14-10, and won at Beaver Stadium the year before, 22-13. Temple's getting better and Penn State started off slow. Can this be the first time in 71 years the Owls get the win?

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Practice notebook: Belton still missing

September, 19, 2012
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Another open practice, another question at tailback.

Bill Belton missed the beginning of Wednesday's open practice, but Derek Day stretched and practiced with the running backs. Day is recovering from a separated shoulder, and he's still questionable for Saturday.

Day's recovery is ahead of Belton's, according to Bill O'Brien, but the coach still couldn't guarantee either would play Saturday. If neither tailback can go, Penn State will likely go with what worked last week: Michael Zordich and Curtis Dukes.

Zordich got the nod Wednesday with the first-team offense near the goal-line, while Dukes watched from the sideline.

"These guys get beat up during the season. They're running backs," O'Brien said Tuesday. "That's the nature of the position, so the next guy has got to be ready to go."

Zordich and Dukes took turns catching short passes from the quarterbacks and practiced a few drills with assistant coach Charles London. Zordich showed good hands and balance, but Dukes and Zach Zwinak struggled staying in-bounds on throws near the sideline.

On one play, Zwinak caught the ball on the run and slipped while he cut -- leaving about a foot-long divot near the sideline.

Open tryouts: While practice was under way, about 70 students gathered inside neighboring Holuba Hall in hopes to make the football team -- likely as part of the scout team.

O'Brien said he hoped to find a few defensive backs or linemen, but it's clear he wouldn't turn down a kicker. With Matt Marcincin's departure last week -- and Sam Ficken's struggles -- Penn State could certainly use another place-kicker.

Strength and conditioning coach Craig Fitzgerald timed some players, while another man told the potential walk-ons the theme of the day was "follow directions."

Injuries: Left tackle Donovan Smith also did not appear during the 30-minute open window of Wednesday practice.

O'Brien said if Smith couldn't practice Tuesday, he likely wouldn't play Saturday. Mike Farrell and Adam Gress took over at the tackle spots in his absence.

True freshman linebacker Nyeem Wartman was not dressed and limped with a large ice pack on his knee. Even O'Brien didn't try to hide the severity of his injury Tuesday.

"I wouldn't expect him back for a while," he said.

Kickin' Ficken: Ficken made his first field goal attempt in practice from about 37 yards but missed his second a hair right. He nailed his third.

"I have belief in Sam," O'Brien said Tuesday.

Kevin DiSanto converted his pair of attempts, although they were about 10 yards shorter than Ficken's tries.

Splitting up: Tight ends Kyle Carter and Paul Jones play at a lot of spots as f-tight ends, but it was interesting to see them both split wide -- together -- on Wednesday.

Jones caught a few good passes Wednesday, although the offense kept it simple while the media was watching. McGloin and Steven Bench didn't attempt a pass over 10 yards, but Jones did manage to haul in an over-the-middle pass that was thrown slightly below his waist.

Penn State 10: Week 3 power rankings 

September, 17, 2012
Michael MautiLee Coleman/Icon SMIMichael Mauti had 12 tackles against Navy and is the backbone of the Nittany Lions' defense.
Welcome to Week 3 of NittanyNation's power rankings, a top-10 list designed to show which Penn State players are surpassing expectations and which to keep an eye on.

After another week of improvement, Penn State finally seems to be on track. Some new players stepped up, some leaders played solidly, and a few made big leaps on the list.

Whose performance left the biggest impression, and whose contributions were the most surprising? This week's top-10 list:

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PSU's 46-Hour Dance Marathon Raises $13 Million
Penn State students participated in a fully student-run dance marathon, raising $13 million for families with kids fighting pediatric cancer, and ESPN's John Buccigross gave a nod to all the effort put forth for his 'Bucci's Star' segment.