Penn State Nittany Lions: DaeSean Hamilton
Linebacker Mike Hull: With Nyeem Wartman injured, even more was expected out of Hull this game. And he stepped up. It wasn’t a pretty contest in the fourth quarter, but that certainly wasn’t on the senior linebacker. Hull finished with a game-high 16 tackles and a stop in the backfield. He had at least twice as many stops as every other player on Saturday, Northwestern included.
Wide receiver DaeSean Hamilton: Another game, another 100-yard effort for Hamilton. This is his third such game this season, as he finished with six catches for exactly 100 yards. Hamilton showed consistency, something redshirt sophomore Geno Lewis lacked on Saturday with one or two key drops. Hamilton was the lone bright spot of this offense. No running back gained more than 25 yards, and no other receiver gained more than 35 yards.
Punt returner Jesse Della Valle: He likely won’t win Big Ten special-teams player of the week anytime soon, but Saturday was his best game as a returner. He put this offense in good position with a career-best 41-yard punt return. And, by not calling a fair catch on one play, he helped draw a flag when one Wildcats player ran into him right before receiving the ball. That moved PSU ahead another 15 yards. On a day when few shined, Della Valle stood out.
Penn State’s quarterback had just transformed Saturday night from a potentially historic one for Rutgers -- what could have been its first win in its first-ever Big Ten game -- into a footnote of his own, by leading his fourth career game-winning drive in a 13-10 win. His teammates couldn’t hide their relief or delight, either: Defensive end Deion Barnes turned to the crowd and waved good-bye, wideout DaeSean Hamilton flung his gloves into the front row, and linebacker Brandon Bell leaped around with a grin.
"I just felt they didn’t respect us," Bell, a New Jersey native, said matter-of-factly.
Added PSU tailback Bill Belton, also from New Jersey: "They asked for a big-time game, and they got one."
This was Rutgers’ chance at respect, for showing up that team from Pennsylvania and proving wrong the opposing fans who sneered at their (lack of) tradition. The importance of this game can’t be minimized; Rutgers wideout Leonte Carroo told the Asbury Park Press a win could "change New Jersey and Rutgers football forever."
Instead, the contest sold out in record time, but question marks are now swirling around whether quarterback Gary Nova should remain the starter after throwing five interceptions. Instead, the crowd set the school’s attendance record, but lingering Rutgers fans were forced to hear "We Are … Penn State!" chants after the final whistle. Instead of putting Rutgers atop the Big Ten East and halfway to bowl-eligibility, it’s more of the same for a team that boasts the hardest schedule in the conference.
"This hurts. It should hurt," Rutgers coach Kyle Flood said. "But I will not allow them to be defined by their losses."
Bass from the loudspeakers thumped so hard you couldn’t feel your own heartbeat, and the pageantry surrounding High Point Solutions Stadium served as the tinsel to what could have been an unprecedented Rutgers victory. One large, stenciled sign read, "Enemies of the State" and listed all the New Jersey natives on Penn State’s roster. (Bell said word of the sign made its way around the locker room before the game.) And Penn State coach James Franklin added that Rutgers fans greeted the Nittany Lions’ buses by waving their middle fingers.
There were plenty of similar ingredients here for a future rivalry -- disrespect, a close game, proximity -- but both teams walked off the field with completely different mindsets. Flood referred to this loss as "devastating," and Franklin summed everything up by saying he felt "really, really proud."
This could have been a dream start for Rutgers but, instead, it’s a dream one for Penn State. Several thousand PSU fans spilled into the street last Monday, some crowd-surfing on mattresses, after the NCAA announced this team was once again postseason-eligible. Now it’s nearly on the cusp of a bowl berth.
The Nittany Lions are playing for more than just dignity now, and Hackenberg and these Lions now stand -- improbably -- atop the Big Ten East. They are the only undefeated team in their division and just one of two undefeated teams left in the conference (Nebraska). If it wasn’t for that final touchdown against Rutgers, all that could have been flipped upside down. And Hackenberg and these Lions knew it.
Hackenberg seemed to exorcise all that emotion and those "what-ifs" with that one, long yell on the field. Once he reached the postgame media room, his demeanor had already reverted back to its normal, calm self. He spoke as if the game had ended days before; he didn't even so much as grin while recounting his game-winning drive that came about 30 minutes prior.
You ever take time to enjoy these wins, Christian? It seems like you always just talk about how you guys have a long way to go.
"It’s just one of those things, man. We do," he said, stone-faced. "Looking at that film after a win feels a lot better than looking back on that film after a loss. ...
"This is huge because a win’s a win’s a win. We’re 3-0 right now, and we’re confident. We haven’t played our best ball yet."
1. The new, aggressive defense is a winner: This wasn’t a terrible Akron offense, and the defense came up big time and time again. First quarter? Held the Zips to a (missed) field-goal attempt after Akron reached the 7-yard line. Second quarter? Made the Zips punt after they reached the PSU 34. Third quarter? Well, you get the idea. Whether it was a huge stop on fourth-down (Brandon Bell) or a touchdown-saving tackle (Ryan Keiser), this defense was the epitome of bend-don’t-break. And it barely bent at all in the second half. At this point, it seems safe to say: This Bob Shoop defense is a big upgrade over John Butler’s.
2. Christian Hackenberg is forcing the ball, in part, because the running game is non-existent: There is a lot of pressure on Hackenberg in this offense. If he struggles, the entire offense struggles because the offensive line simply can’t open up holes for the backs. Through three quarters Saturday, Penn State averaged just 2.3 yards per carry. Hackenberg has to get smarter on some of his throws -- several were truly head-scratchers -- but, if he can’t get the job done, it seems like no one else on this offense can. This is Penn State’s top concern going forward. Hackenberg has to play smarter, but this offensive line also has to jell quicker.
3. The Wildcat isn’t going anywhere: This is what coach James Franklin said after the game: "I know people seem to hate the Wildcat. I love it." The WildZach didn’t make an appearance this week -- thankfully -- but Bill Belton and Akeel Lynch both saw some time in the formation. It especially makes sense for Belton since he played quarterback in high school. He is versatile and can really open up the playbook when taking the direct snap. PSU needs this running game to work somehow, and it found quite a bit of success with the Wildcat on Saturday. Expect to see more of it going forward.
4. DaeSean Hamilton-Geno Lewis might be the top receiving tandem in the B1G: There, I said it. It’s difficult to find a team with two other solid options. Maybe Nebraska’s Kenny Bell and Jordan Westerkamp? Or Maryland’s Stefon Diggs and Deon Long? But PSU certainly belongs in the conversation. Lewis has the ability to catch the deep ball, and Hamilton has a knack for turning those short passes into longer gains. Both guys complement each other well, and it’s a unique development compared to last season’s "Just throw the ball to A-Rob" offense. Fearless prediction: Lewis makes at least two "SportsCenter top 10" plays this season. He might not have the team’s best hands, but he’s one heck of an athlete.
5. Special teams have definitely improved: Sam Ficken was a perfect 4-of-4 last week, and punter Chris Gulla broke a freshman record Saturday with an average of 48.8 yards per punt. Gulla was incredibly consistent; he punted five times and kicked three within the 20. There weren’t many complaints about the kick coverage teams, either, and Von Walker had a nice return. So you can definitely see the extra practice hours paying off here. Then again, after last season's awful special teams, there was really no place to go but up.
As seniors, Zach Zwinak and Bill Belton are among the Nittany Lions' most experienced players. Zwinak has led the team in rushing the past two seasons, but Belton was widely regarded as the team's most improved player last fall. He finished his junior campaign with 803 rushing yards and edged Zwinak with 5.1 yards per carry.
Belton has earned a reputation as one of Penn State's hardest workers and, if you don't know his name yet, he's hoping you will by the end of this season. ESPN.com checked in with him earlier this week.
Bill Belton: I'm doing a lot of the same things, but I'm going two times harder than I did last season, just to improve on some things and take my game to the next level. I'm getting in the weight room, building more strength because, oftentimes, you hear things like, 'He's too small. He can't play all three downs.' So I've just been trying to build up my strength and conditioning at all times to help my team win and put my team in the best position.
You told me last season you save online articles where you receive criticism, that it gives you motivation. Is that where you got the "he's too small" stuff from?
BB: Yeah. I mean, I read stuff to see what people are saying. I see some crazy stuff out there, but it doesn't affect me whatsoever. Basically, I'm just coming to get the respect I deserve, be the best player I can, push myself and hold myself to a high standard -- and become one of those players that people talk about.
How is 2014 Bill Belton different from the 2013 or 2012 version?
BB: A better teammate, a more vocal person. Just being not only a good player but a great player that helps his teammates when they need it. Not just standing off and allowing things to happen but stepping up in situations and making sure everyone's on the same page and, basically, just being a model teammate and giving the younger guys someone to come to when they need advice.
So you're finding yourself talking to or mentoring younger running backs, like Akeel Lynch, a bit more this offseason?
BB: Not just him. A kid that I really see a lot of potential in is [wideout] DaeSean Hamilton. We've been doing two-a-days, running in the morning and working out later on with the team in the afternoon and doing work. So it's not only just the running backs, but it's the receivers and DBs and whoever needs help and wants to work to get better.
It's no secret there are some concerns with the offensive line since it basically returns one starter. It seems fair to say that your job will be a little harder. Has that changed your approach at all?
BB: All we got to do is keep working and we'll be just fine ... And, no, you just got to continue to prepare the way you were before. Like I said before, I've been working my behind off to be known throughout the Big Ten and throughout the country. That doesn't really change anything; it's going to work. We're happy; none of us are upset with what's going on. That's the hand we were dealt, and we want to continue to work and we're going to be good come Aug. 31.
Let's talk a little bit about your head coach, James Franklin. What are your impressions of him, and how does he compare to Bill O'Brien?
BB: Every guy is different; every head guy who comes here is different. They have ways they do things. Franklin came in, and he was a fiery guy. He instilled that competitive spirit throughout our team so, whatever we're doing, we're competing and trying to get better and take this team to where it has been before and just return it to that prominence in the Big Ten. O'Brien and Franklin, they have a relationship, so things they do are pretty similar.
Including interim guys, you've had five head coaches over your college career. That's unprecedented at Penn State. What kind of adjustment has that been, and is there any good that comes from having that many coaches?
BB: The good coming from it is, if you think about all the guys from our team, everyone wants to take the step to the next level. And we learned a lot of systems, and the systems we learned can help us at the next level. And with the coaching situation, it's just something we have to deal with. It's not something we asked for, but we had a chance to play under a few different guys and every time it was different. There was nothing, like, terrible to come out of it. It was just a learning experience.
One player who's been alongside you for the entire ride is Zwinak. What's your relationship like off the field, and what's it been like splitting carries with one another? Last season, you had 36 carries against Illinois and then seven the week after.
BB: We have a good relationship off the field. It's basically the same thing -- we're total opposites, but sometimes opposites get along. And that's what it's been like. We have fun with each other, and we compete with each other. But, at the end of the day, we both know we're going to need each other. I'm going to feed off him, and he's going to feed off me.
When one guy gets going, we support. It's not something like, 'I'm against you and you're against me.' At the end of the day, we're on the same team and we're all trying to accomplish the same thing.
Final question. Franklin likes the Wildcat. You were an all-state high school quarterback. So, I'm curious -- any chance we see you throwing the ball a little, or at least lining up at quarterback for a few plays?
BB: I don't know, I don't know. Maybe. I don't know. We'll just have to wait and see. [Laughs]
Up next is a class you should be very familiar with ...
No. 2 most impactful class: Class of 2013
Biggest surprise: Bell. He made a lot of strides as a freshman and even made a start toward the end of the season. Bill O’Brien plugged him in for nine games in 2013, and Bell played a lot in the last three. He made 15 tackles in his final three contests -- 24 total on the year -- and even forced a fumble against Nebraska. He should end up starting the next three seasons.
Impact player: Hackenberg. Does this choice really need to be explained? He was the Big Ten Freshman of the Year, one of the better quarterbacks in the conference, and he took off running after enrolling over the summer. Penn State doesn’t often start true freshmen in season openers, but Hackenberg surpassed Tyler Ferguson pretty quickly with a calm demeanor and a penchant for learning a lot in a short time. Hackenberg could end up being Penn State’s best quarterback since Kerry Collins.
Why this class is important: This countdown isn’t just a list of the classes with the best prospects; it’s the most impactful. And when sanctions hit and the nation wondered whether Penn State would suffer a fate worse than death, top prospects such as Hackenberg and Breneman took center stage and showed that the university still could reel in the best of the best -- instead of simply settling for MAC-level recruits, as some predicted.
This class might not produce as many All-Big Ten players as the 2006 group. It might not even end up with an All-American. But this class is so important, and impactful, because of what it symbolized at the time. Happy Valley was still a destination, in part, because of the big names in this class. They offered fans hope. And they helped keep Penn State together while having a profound, ancillary effect in other areas.
You think Penn State reels in arguably the best 2014 class of receivers without Hackenberg? No chance. You can measure impact different ways, and this recruiting class is undoubtedly one of the most important in Penn State history.
More impactful recruiting classes:
No. 5: Class of 2011
No. 4: Class of 2004
No. 3: Class of 2006
No. 3: Wide receivers
Last season: Allen Robinson finished with the best statistical receiving year in Penn State history. He broke the school's single-season records for both receptions (97) and receiving yards (1,432) on his way to earning his second straight honor as Big Ten receiver of the year. He accounted for about 46 percent of the passing offense -- the most a single PSU receiver's been relied on in more than 25 years -- while Brandon Felder, a senior in 2013, finished second with 28 catches for 312 yards. Robinson was among the best receivers in the nation, but Christian Hackenberg had few reliable targets outside of him who weren't listed at tight end.
What's missing: A-Rob and experience. One quick look at the returning players is all it takes to understand what Penn State's going up against. Four of the nine scholarship wideouts are true freshmen, and only one -- Zanellato -- is an upperclassman. Lewis is the closest thing to a proven commodity, and he needs to improve his route-running for PSU to experience any hint of success here. The future looks bright with one of the nation's top classes of incoming freshmen, but without Robinson there's obviously going to be a drop-off at this position.
Moving forward: Lewis is the only returning wideout who played in every game last year, so he certainly appears to be the No. 1 -- unless a true freshman can usurp him. James Franklin is going to need those true freshmen to do a lot of heavy lifting this season because there's really no alternative. Zanellato and Anderson will play, but neither is the gamebreaker that Thompkins, Godwin or Blacknall have the potential to be. Thompkins played more tailback than receiver in high school -- catching just 44 balls in the last three seasons -- so he could become the early No. 2 if he learns quickly in the spring. A breakout spring for him would go a long way in putting this staff's minds at ease.
I love my 2014 class of PSU ....we have that brothers connection and we didn't even enroll to PSU yet— Marcus Allen (@Chico_Ehhh) January 2, 2014
If it wasn't for Coach OB I probably wouldn't be playing football anymore, I wish him the best in the NFL.— Devin Pryor #16 (@D_Pryor16) January 1, 2014
We all we got! No reason to panic or jump ship! Doesn't matter the system nor the coach...players win games period— Bill Belton (@W3BII) January 1, 2014
No matter what happens football games will be played and won by the Nittany Lions love all my brothers we will stick together #WeAre— Hunter Crafford (@Craf_FordTough) January 1, 2014
Never worry about the things you can't control— Malik Golden (@_goldenboy6) January 1, 2014
A man's gotta do what a man has GOT TO DO. It's life baby !— Stephen Obeng-Agy... (@BigBENGTheory7) January 1, 2014
New Year, New Head Coach I suppose— DaeSean Hamilton (@SkeeterMills__) January 1, 2014
Bout to be the best year for me yet and bout to be the best year for Penn State #WeAre— carter Henderson (@hendydo_42) January 1, 2014
I hope I have another chance to play under Coach O'B. I love the guy, I appreciate everything he's done for me. I couldn't be more thankful.— Jesse James (@JJames18_) January 1, 2014
Good luck to Coach O'Brien and his family. Made a tremendous impact on my life and many others during his time at Penn State.— Ty Howle (@THowle60) January 1, 2014
Best of luck to the O'Brien family and to the lucky man that gets to coach this prestige organization... I can't wait to meet you— Troy Stivason (@teejaystives) January 1, 2014
To all of the Penn State family: Penn State is and will always be about more than any one man. WE ARE everything we have always been— Derek Dowrey (@doubleDowrey) January 1, 2014
Coach O'Brien was a great mentor, coach and father figure but every coach has the aspirations to coach in the NFL. glad coach can chase his.— Brian Gaia (@that_gaia) January 1, 2014
Gotta keep on movin forward people that's all we can do #yafeelme— Austin Johnson (@AJohn15) January 1, 2014
One thing OB taught me is that this is a business, and u should do what's best for you.Texans are getting a good coach, I wish him the best— Deion Barnes (@DBarnes_18) January 1, 2014
Coach O'brien is a great coach and great person! Proud to have called him my coach. It was his dream to coach in the NFL, best of luck. #PSU— Mike Hull (@m_hull4943) January 1, 2014
I'll love Coach Obrien forever. He will always be apart of Penn State. One of the greatest men I've ever known. #PennStateForever— Miles Dieffenbach (@Curiousjorge65) January 1, 2014
Fight on. We still are and forever will be.— Garrett Sickels (@Sickels_90) January 1, 2014
Time to move on Penn State! We will find the right man for the job. BOB did plenty for us. Time for a true Blue and White bleeder! #WeAre— OJ McDuffie (@ojmcduffie81) January 1, 2014
Here's a look at five lessons learned from a day spent talking to coaches and players:
1. Tyler Ferguson currently boasts the early edge at quarterback. That wasn't a huge surprise, considering Christian Hackenberg enrolled over the summer while Ferguson started school in January. But Hackenberg has picked up things quickly, and there's no telling where the race might be in another week or two.
But, as luck would have it, that's exactly when Bill O'Brien hopes -- hopes -- to name the starter. The head coach isn't a fan of waiting until the night before the season opener because he wants the starter to get more reps with the first team. At this juncture, most of the media believes Hackenberg will start ... but O'Brien said that Ferguson holds the slight lead right now.
2. Linebacker is the biggest concern when it comes to depth. Penn State might be known as Linebacker U, but it's not very big on quantity this season. When asked about depth on defense -- since the DTs don't have the greatest numbers either -- O'Brien didn't hesitate in expressing his concern over the linebacker unit.
Nyeem Wartman will start as a redshirt freshman and the top backup, Ben Kline, is still coming off a shoulder injury and didn't participate in Thursday's practice. One more injury at this spot could spell doom for this defense. Safeties such as Adrian Amos and Stephen Obeng-Agyapong could come in relief of Wartman on passing downs, but there's only so many tweaks this staff can make to shore up the depth here.
3. Special teams are a point of focus. The Nittany Lions finished among the bottom of the country in just about every special teams category last season -- No. 103 in net punting, No. 90 in punt returns, No. 112 in kick returns, etc. O'Brien said the team is working hard on improving those numbers.
Sam Ficken remains the starting kicker, but he should be pushed by preferred walk-on Chris Gulla. That true freshman has also practiced punting a lot, so he should also compete with Alex Butterworth. And, as far as kick returners, those duties remain between eight candidates -- including Richy Anderson, Alex Kenney, Bill Belton, Trevor Williams, Akeel Lynch and Eugene Lewis.
4. Newest injuries don't affect depth that much. True freshman wideout DaeSean Hamilton, a four-star wideout from Virginia, is out for the season with a wrist injury suffered from high school. But Hamilton was a redshirt candidate before the announcement, and the corps there is pretty deep. PSU shouldn't miss a beat at wideout.
Redshirt freshman Brent Wilkerson also suffered a back injury and is "out for a while," although O'Brien declined to elaborate. Regardless, tight end is the deepest position on the roster -- and there are at least four other tight ends who could see time here. Kyle Carter and Jesse James remain the starters, but Matt Lehman is a solid backup and Adam Breneman could see time as a true freshman.
5. WR Allen Robinson is just getting started. Robinson broke the longstanding school-record for receptions last season, but assistant coach Stan Hixon said Robinson has just scratched the surface of his potential. The All-Big Ten wideout improved his strength, speed and hounded teammates over the summer for some extra 7-on-7 drills.
Robinson acknowledged he might not top last year's numbers -- 77 catches, 1,013 yards, 11 TDs -- but that doesn't mean he's not a better wideout. He has been timed at 4.6 seconds in the 40-yard dash, and he has worked hard on winning more one-on-one battles this offseason. He's a good basketball player with a strong vertical leap, and he could be the big-play threat this offense desperately needs. He's the best player on this offense -- and he has gotten better. Much better.
Penn State coach Bill O'Brien wouldn't elaborate on the severity of Wilkerson’s injury, but he confirmed both both players’ statuses at Thursday's press conference inside Beaver Stadium.
Wilkerson redshirted last year, but he was expected to see more time this season as a backup. O'Brien hadn't ruled out four tight end sets, and Wilkerson was poised to offer the starters a breather.
"Brent Wilkerson will be out for a while, and I'll leave it at that," O'Brien said.
Hamilton arrived in camp with a wrist injury suffered in high school, but he was a redshirt candidate prior to the announcement of his injury. His injury shouldn't impact the Nittany Lions in the short term, with Allen Robinson and Brandon Moseby-Felder penciled in as the starting wideouts. Matt Zanellato and Eugene Lewis will be their backups on the outside.
Both injuries happened at fairly deep positions, so PSU should be just fine here. Still, any injuries aren't good news during the scholarship limitations.
In the latest ESPN rankings, Penn State boasts the No. 17 recruiting class -- second-best in the Big Ten -- with a trio of ESPN 300 prospects in WR De'Andre Thompkins (No. 54), QB Michael O'Connor (No. 125) and WR Chris Godwin (No. 153). And if that surprises you, then you just haven't been paying attention.
Forget the bowl ban. Forget the reduced scholarships -- because PSU's commits sure have. Thompkins, still ranked as the No. 54 overall prospect, picked the Lions over schools in the SEC, ACC and Big 12. (And let's not forget Notre Dame, too.)
And that success is only going to continue because, as Thompkins put it, the main reason for these commitments isn't going to change.
- Defensive end Deion Barnes hates missing sacks. He can still recall each of the four he missed last season, and the humble redshirt sophomore is intent on improving upon that this season. His mother, father, high school coach and teammates talk about what makes him tick in this in-depth feature.
- The coach of 2014 PSU commit Mark Allen talks about what makes his player special and how he knew from Allen's Pop Warner days that he'd find success.
- Three-star LB Zayd Issah faces felony charges after police say he tried to pass off counterfeit $20 bills at a McDonald's.
- Who's impressed or surprised the most so far this spring? NittanyNation polled the players to find out.
- PSU signee DaeSean Hamilton talks about taking up yoga and preparing for life at PSU in this week's edition of "5 Questions."
- ESPN Watch List QB Michael O'Connor didn't come away from PSU with a scholarship offer , but he did hear other really good news during his unofficial visit.
- News, notes and observations from parts of Thursday's open practice.
- As part of an ongoing series, NittanyNation takes a closer look at 2014 prospects with PSU offers -- including best highlights, stats, other offers and more. Up this past week: WR De'Andre Thompkins and CB Jabrill Peppers .
- Adam Rittenberg writes that linebacker Mike Hull is set up for a breakout season.
- OL Quenton Nelson is aiming to trim his list after more visits and will see PSU for the Blue-White Game.
- 2015 CB Jordan Whitehead talks about the Nittany Lions and his recruitment in this in-depth Q&A.
- Interest is picking up for linebacker Tyler Burke, but PSU seems to have backed off .
- NCAA president Mark Emmert said on "Mike & Mike" that Penn State's sanctions will likely remain.
- David Njoku, a 6-foot-4 wideout, said his interest in PSU 'skyrocketed' after his unofficial visit.
This week's subject is DaeSean Hamilton, a four-star wideout out of Stafford (Va.) Mountain View who committed in December and signed in February. He'll arrive on campus in June.
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NittanyNation posed the same question to everyone: How do you think -- or hope -- your class will be remembered in four or five years?
Here's what they had to say:
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ESPN.com caught up with O'Brien on Wednesday to discuss the class.