Penn State Nittany Lions: DeAndre Thompkins

Things to watch in Blue-White Game

April, 11, 2014
Apr 11
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STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- There will be plenty to watch when the Blue-White Game kicks off at 1:30 p.m. Saturday, but here's a look at some of the more interesting storylines:

1. How the offensive line performs. This unit will go a long way in determining Penn State's success this season. There's enough talent at the skill positions that the Nittany Lions could surprise again this year, but only if this battered line can hold up and hold its own. Neither guard Miles Dieffenbach, who's reportedly out for the season with a knee injury, nor tackle Andrew Nelson is expected to play on Saturday. Guard Anthony Alosi isn't listed on the roster, as he's facing criminal charges. And the status of center Angelo Mangiro is unknown.

[+] EnlargeChristian Hackenberg
Dan Sanger/Icon SMIChristian Hackenberg looks poised to build on a sensational freshman season.
There's a lot of uncertainty on this line, and the bigger questions are at guard. Brendan Mahon practiced at right tackle last week, so it's possible that converted defensive tackles Brian Gaia and Derek Dowrey could start inside during the Blue-White Game. At the very least, the two are sure to get considerable playing time on Saturday, and it will be interesting to see how they've progressed since learning of the position changes about a month ago. Left tackle Donovan Smith said Thursday that he has had to slow his pace a little bit as a result of playing alongside an inexperienced teammate.

2. Christian Hackenberg's ability to make any throw. Some analysts have already started wondering aloud if Hackenberg might be the No. 1 overall pick if/when he declares early for the NFL draft. Maybe that happens; maybe it doesn't. But the fact that's even being discussed now should give you an idea of his talent level.

He was one of the Big Ten's best passers last season, despite moving into Happy Valley just a few short months before the opener. His progress was pretty notable from Week 1 to the finale against Wisconsin. Bill O'Brien called running plays on third-and-long against Syracuse in the opener so he wouldn't put Hackenberg in a tight spot. Against 24-point favorite Wisconsin? Hackenberg was nearly perfect -- 21-of-30, 339 yards, 4 TDs, 0 INTs, 89.4 QBR -- and led the Lions to an upset.

Expectations were incredibly high for Hackenberg last season and he still managed to surpass them. After another few months on campus, he's bound to impress yet again. And it would be even more surprising if James Franklin didn't give fans something to cheer for by having Hackenberg lob a few deep balls in the Blue-White Game.

3. An improved secondary. This has been the Lions' Achilles heel the past two seasons, but it shouldn't be anymore. There will be an influx of talented freshmen this summer but, even before then, this secondary's stock is on the rise. Adrian Amos is much more comfortable at safety this season, and cornerback Jordan Lucas has been putting in a lot of work this offseason. Young players last year -- such as Malik Golden and Jordan Smith -- are evolving into good backups who could challenge for playing time. Trevor Williams and Ryan Keiser are really the questions here, but they have one more year of experience under their belts.

Amos has All-Big Ten ability, and his transition back to safety will be crucial to the defense. If he can read Hackenberg or catch up to a speedster like De'Andre Thompkins on Saturday, that can only mean good things for Penn State.

4. WR Thompkins and DT Anthony Zettel. You've seen the running backs and wideout Geno Lewis before. You know what Mike Hull and Jesse James are capable of. But this could be a coming-out party for both Thompkins and Zettel. Zettel has impressed the last two seasons, but he mostly played as a defensive end -- and now he's gained weight and moved inside. Zettel could be the surprise on the defense this season, as his speed certainly sets him apart. And, with a beaten-up offensive line in the Blue-White Game, he could have a field day. As far as Thompkins, he has been on campus three months but he's already the fastest player on the team. He needs to improve his hands and his route-running but, when he gets the ball, he's electrifying.

Spring game preview: Penn State

April, 10, 2014
Apr 10
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STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Saturday features a full slate of Big Ten spring scrimmages, and we're breaking down each one through Friday. Here's a closer look at what to expect from Penn State's Blue-White Game:

When: Saturday, 1:30 p.m. ET
Where: Beaver Stadium, State College, Pa.
Admission: Free; parking is also free and is first-come, first-served
TV: Big Ten Network (will air at 6 p.m.)
Weather forecast: Mostly sunny and mild, with a high near 67 degrees.

What to watch for: After two seasons of a head-scratching scoring system, where sacks and big plays netted points, James Franklin is taking the spring game back to its roots. It'll be structured like a traditional game, so a math whiz like John Urschel won't have to be on hand to tally the score.

Christian Hackenberg is the unquestioned leader of this offense, and he's the player whom all eyes will be on. He capped off his Big Ten freshman of the year campaign with an upset over then-No. 15 Wisconsin, a 24-point favorite, and big things are once again expected of him. He still hasn't been on campus for a full year, but he has said the college game has finally slowed down for him -- and that should be an unnerving thing for opposing defenses to hear.

The big question mark not just on the offense but on the team revolves around the offensive line. Franklin voiced concern about depth before spring practice even started, and it's only gotten worse. The Nittany Lions have reportedly lost their most-experienced lineman, guard Miles Dieffenbach; right tackle Andrew Nelson has missed several practices and was seen limping Tuesday; and backup guard Anthony Alosi is facing criminal charges and his status with the team is uncertain.

As a result, Franklin said Saturday that the offensive line will wear gray jerseys and likely play for both the Blue and White teams. He's still hoping to field two units with the offensive line, but it's not even known whether Penn State will be able to do that much, at least with scholarship players. Its depth is that concerning.

Elsewhere, Penn State will feature several new faces and feature veterans at different positions. Cornerback Adrian Amos is back at safety, OLB Mike Hull is taking over the MLB spot, and defensive end Anthony Zettel has moved inside. On offense, Hackenberg will have to focus on some new targets, notably Geno Lewis and freshman early enrollee De'Andre Thompkins. Thompkins has already turned heads, as he clocked the fastest 40-yard dash time on the team. His ability will be showcased for the first time Saturday, as will that of backup quarterback Michael O'Connor, whom was ranked as the No. 6 QB recruit in the nation.
Enjoy the Final Four. And for you Michigan fans out there, enjoy the spring game at the Big House.

Don't forget: Twitter!

To the inbox ...

Kenny from Cincy writes: I was comparing on-the-field accomplishments of the past two Ohio State QBs and I feel like Terrelle Pryor has had a better career (you know, despite crippling the program the next year but I feel like most in Buckeye land have forgiven him). Pryor: 3 Big Ten championships, a Rose Bowl win, and a Sugar Bowl win over a SEC team in three years (I know the games were vacated, but it did happen). Braxton Miller: 0-2 in bowls and 0 Big Ten championships, but two Silver Footballs and 24 wins in a row are nice. My question is, due to the expectations that QBs like Troy Smith and Pryor elevated, do you think Miller has to win a Big Ten championship or more this year or will the Braxton Miller years be seen as a failure in Buckeyes fans' eyes?

Adam Rittenberg: Kenny, this is a really interesting debate regarding each quarterback's legacy. There's no doubt Miller has accomplished more individually than Pryor. He could be the first Big Ten player to win three offensive player of the year awards. He likely would have won a Big Ten championship in 2012 if Ohio State had been eligible for postseason play, but when you look at macro team accomplishments -- league titles and BCS bowl wins -- Pryor definitely gets the edge. He likely was an ill-timed blitz away from having a third BCS bowl win in the 2009 Fiesta Bowl against Texas. One big difference is Pryor played on teams with much better defenses. Miller had several reasons to return for his senior season, and winning a Big Ten title certainly is one of them.


Joe from Phoenix writes: I don't understand everyone's love for a nine-game conference schedule. I do not believe rematches in college football are a good thing, as it makes the first game irrelevant. With a nine-game schedule, you almost guarantee a rematch in the championship game. Why not schedule one more "quality" nonconference game? That way all Big Ten schools have an opportunity to have one more win on their record, and look better for the bowl committees.

Adam Rittenberg: Joe, I hear you and it definitely increases the likelihood of a rematch in the Big Ten championship, but I also see the league's viewpoint. It wants a greater schedule rotation to enhance your product week after week. It wants players to face every league team at least once in a four-year period. I also think it's tricky to demand another quality nonleague game in place of the ninth Big Ten contest. Some schools would step up, but you need teams from other power conferences to play ball, too, which is no guarantee. I also think some schools would schedule cupcakes. Bowl committees rarely care about strength of schedule.


Joe from South Bend, Ind., writes: Adam, what was maybe one thing you found impressive with your visit to Happy Valley and was your one big takeaway?

Adam Rittenberg: Joe, I'm very impressed with James Franklin's staff. They're very sharp guys who know how to keep the energy level high and relate well to a group of new players. Everyone knows that Franklin operates in fifth gear, but his assistants do, too, and there's tremendous cohesion with the staff. It would have been much harder if the staff lacked familiarity as it tried to get to know the players. My big takeaway: Penn State's defense is much further along than the offense, and the Lions likely will need to win low-scoring games this fall. Coordinator Bob Shoop has a good plan and inherits some good pieces. Quarterback Christian Hackenberg is a once-in-a-generation type quarterback, but he'll face more pressure this year because of the issues with the offensive line.


Kevin from Las Vegas writes: Is history the only thing that qualifies a team for elite status? Wisconsin is seen as a sleeper in the B1G, and two years ago they were "elite." Michigan and Ohio State would never be considered "sleepers," even after down years. Is this simply because of historic achievements (lots of national championships when Teddy Roosevelt was president), branding (our helmets have wings!), or lazy writers (not you guys, of course)? Do teams like Wisconsin, Michigan State or Iowa ever really have a shot of being elite because their legacy doesn't include deep history?

Adam Rittenberg: Kevin, it's a good point to raise, especially because I think Michigan State is being overlooked heading into 2014 just because it hasn't been a traditional power. You hear a lot about Ohio State making a run for the College Football Playoff, but Michigan State dominated the Big Ten last year (nine wins by 10 or more points), won the Rose Bowl and brings back quarterback Connor Cook and defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi, among others. Wisconsin has gained national respect in the past 20-plus years, but the Badgers also recently lost three consecutive Rose Bowls, which hurt their cause. Iowa has had its moments but lacks the consistency of Wisconsin. Michigan State, meanwhile, really has it rolling under Mark Dantonio. At some point, the Spartans need to be viewed as elite for what's happening now, not in the past.


Charlie from Chicago writes: What recruits in the conference are due to have breakout seasons in their freshman year?

Adam Rittenberg: There are potentially quite a few this year, Charlie. Early enrollees have an advantage, so keep an eye on players such as Ohio State LB Raekwon McMillan, Michigan WR Freddy Canteen, Ohio State WR Johnnie Dixon and Penn State WR De'Andre Thompkins. Other potential impact recruits arriving in the summer include Michigan CB Jabrill Peppers (the Big Ten's top-rated recruit in the 2014 class), Illinois DE Jihad Ward (junior college transfer), Minnesota RB Jeff Jones and Michigan State DT Malik McDowell, whom Mark Dantonio gushed about Wednesday after he finally signed.
De'Andre Thompkins strolled through the gym of his old high school in Swansboro, N.C., last week, decked out in blue Penn State sweats, and embraced his coach.

Before the Nittany Lions’ early enrollee could explain how snow still littered the sidewalks up north or the makeup of his new classes, football coach Tim Laspada had a question waiting for his former pupil. He had read -- incorrectly, it turns out -- that another Penn State player had clocked a faster 40-yard-dash time, so he wondered aloud how that could happen.

[+] EnlargeDe'Andre Thompkins
Steve Dipaola/NikeEarly enrollee De'Andre Thompkins already is the fastest player on the Penn State team.
“What’s up with you not being the fastest guy?” Laspada remembered asking.

Thompkins’ eyes widened: “I had the fastest time. By far. 4.4s.”

Laspada shook his head -- but not in disbelief. Thompkins had clocked a 4.38 several times during combines at high school, so the coach actually wanted to know why the Nittany Lions’ fastest time wasn’t any faster.

“Coach,” Thompkins told him. “I gained 10 pounds.”

Laspada laughed while recalling the exchange. That answer seemed to satisfy him and, like a lot of Penn State fans these days, he’s expecting a lot from the 5-foot-11, 171-pound freshman receiver. Penn State coach James Franklin said Monday, hours before Penn State’s first spring practice, that he believed freshmen could contribute immediately at both receiver and cornerback.

That statement wasn’t surprising, considering Big Ten receiver of the year Allen Robinson -- who accounted for 46 percent of last season’s passing offense -- left for the NFL. The Nittany Lions need to make up for that lost production somewhere, and Thompkins is the new face who’s already turning heads.

Thompkins sprinted from one end of the field to the other during Monday afternoon’s first spring practice, and he took turns fielding kicks indoors before focusing on receiver. He didn’t drop a ball, but some catches and returns didn’t hit his hands cleanly.

“Ahh, trust that technique!” assistant coach Charles Huff said, clapping his hands. And later: “Not bad. Getting a lot better.”

Thompkins moved like a Tecmo Bowl character back in high school, posting a 40-yard kick return average as a junior and senior. He’d switch directions so often that defenders would lose him one by one until he’d find that inevitable seam down the sideline.

That speed -- he clocked a laser-timed 4.46 at a Nike camp -- separated him when he donned his blue Pirates helmet in high school. And it’s separating him again.

Laspada remembers accompanying Thompkins on a recruiting visit to Penn State months ago when they stopped by the weight room. Near the back, past painted mantras such as “Iron Lion” and “Hair on Fire,” lay a big board with the team’s top 40 times. Robinson’s name was first, next to a 4.47.

“I remember looking at that board and I said, ‘De’Andre, you can beat all those times right now,’ ” Laspada said. “And I told Coach [Bill] O’Brien, ‘He’s faster than anyone on your team right now.’ ”

Despite Thompkins’ speed, the one thing he can’t race past is a steep learning curve. He focused on playing quarterback and tailback in high school, so the transition to receiver will be fraught with rookie mistakes and new lessons. Route-running is the primary concern, but he received a lot of coaching from Christian Hackenberg and his fellow wideouts to overcome that quickly.

“He’s the fastest guy on the team,” Franklin said. “So being able to get the ball in his hands is going to very, very important. But there is more to the game than just being fast. It’s the mental aspect, it’s the maturity aspect and it’s the physical perspective of it.”

When asked about Thompkins’ specific 40-time, Franklin just smiled: “Fast. Yeah, very fast. Very fast.” He's best in open space, and Laspada believed he could be utilized plenty on jet sweeps and bubble screens. He could be one of the spark plugs this offense is searching for -- but he has a long way to go.

Still, as evidenced by Franklin's stopwatch, he’s certainly off to a fast start.
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. – And then there were two.

We’re nearing the start of Penn State’s spring practice, which means we’re nearing the end of our countdown series. This week’s countdown, involving five predictions for the spring, continues with a look at two early enrollees who should earn playing time in 2014...

Barney and Thompkins make immediate impact

[+] EnlargeDe'Andre Thompkins
Steve Dipaola/NikePenn State early enrollee De'Andre Thompkins, who was ranked No. 73 in the 2014 ESPN 300, could be a starter in 2014.
Defensive tackle Tarow Barney and wide receiver De'Andre Thompkins aren’t just poised for considerable playing time in 2014; they could very well find themselves as starters on the spring depth chart.

Thompkins will battle with sophomore Richy Anderson in the slot, and Thompkins might have a higher ceiling. He’s faster and more athletic, but how quickly he ascends centers on his route-running ability. He finds himself in a similar position as Geno Lewis was in his first season, because Thompkins is transitioning from high school tailback to receiver. Regardless, Thompkins is best when he’s in open space -- and he’s sure to wow with a big play or two during the spring scrimmage.

Even if Thompkins isn’t quite ready to surpass Anderson -- and the prediction here is that he will -- the freshman can still vie for a starting job as a returner. On kickoffs, he posted video game-type numbers as a high school junior (11 returns, 560 yards, 51 yard average). And, on punts as a senior, he returned three for an average of 61 yards. Just take a look at his highlight video.

As for Barney, it’s no secret that the Nittany Lions need some help at defensive tackle. Without DaQuan Jones and Kyle Baublitz, redshirt sophomore Austin Johnson will take over one of the spots. The other one is wide open. The position battle here will likely be between Barney and redshirt sophomore Brian Gaia. (Defensive end Anthony Zettel could also be a factor, but for now it’s difficult to see him in an interior role outside of passing downs.)

Even if Barney doesn’t win out, he’s still going to see plenty of time. Defensive line coach Sean Spencer likes to use a lot of personnel and a lot of combinations, not unlike the philosophy of former offensive line coach Mac McWhorter, so Barney will have every opportunity to make a splash.

Thompkins and Barney both have a lot to learn a lot in a short period of time -- Thompkins is changing positions; Barney’s coming from a junior college and took up football a little more than three years ago -- but both players will be thrown into the mix early out of pure need. In other seasons, the staff might bring them along slowly. But this spring? Expect to see them on the field early -- and expect them to make an immediate impact.

More predictions:

No. 5: A more public, eager-to-please coach
No. 4: Blue-White attendance more than doubles from 2013
No. 3: OL struggles surpass secondary as biggest concern
We're taking snapshots of each position group with every Big Ten team entering the spring. The series wraps up with the specialists.

Illinois:The Illini might not be exceptional in the kicking game, but they're in better shape than they were when coach Tim Beckman arrived. Punter Justin DuVernois returns after a solid junior season, while Taylor Zalewski looks for a bit more consistency in his second full season as the placekicker. Zalewski made 12 of 17 field-goal attempts last fall. The return game is the real plus, as V'Angelo Bentley provides a major threat, especially on punt returns.

Indiana: Like Illinois, Indiana brings back a dynamic returner in Shane Wynn, who averaged 14 yards on punt run-backs despite limited work. Punter Erich Toth also is back for his third season as the starter. Toth placed 18 of 52 attempts inside the opponent's 20-yard line. IU suffers a big loss at kicker as Mitch Ewald, the team's career field goals and field-goal percentage leader, departs. Aaron Del Grosso and Griffin Oakes will compete at kicker, and Jake Shake (shake and bake!) could enter the mix this summer.

Iowa: Here's another Big Ten team that looks very strong on returns, as Iowa boasts the Big Ten's most dynamic tandem in Kevonte Martin-Manley (punts) and Jordan Cotton (kickoffs). Martin-Manley had two punt-return touchdowns in 2013. Punter Connor Kornbrath ranked near the bottom of the Big Ten in average, but placed 27 of 65 attempts inside the opponent's 20. Iowa loses kicker Mike Meyer, a four-year starter. Junior Marshall Koehn seems likely to step up, but could be pushed by incoming freshman Mick Ellis and others.

Maryland: Notice a theme so far? Most Big Ten teams are strong in the return game, and Maryland is no exception. If Stefon Diggs returns at full strength from his leg injury, he'll be a dangerous man with punts and kickoffs in his hands. Will Likely performed extremely well in Diggs' spot, averaging 26 yards on kickoff returns and 12.8 yards on punt returns. Maryland brings back an excellent kicker in Brad Craddock (21-for-25 on field goals last year), and punter Nathan Renfro enters his third season as the starter.

Michigan: Matt Wile has done a bit of everything for Michigan, but could settle into the starting placekicker role this fall. Wile handled kicking duties late last season and also served as Michigan's punter after Will Hagerup was suspended for the season. Hagerup, the Big Ten's punter of the year in 2012, will reclaim the role if he can avoid off-field problems that have surfaced throughout his career. Wile then could focus on kicking, as Kenny Allen is the only other option there. Michigan is still waiting for big things from kick returner Dennis Norfleet and must find someone to handle punts. Top recruit Jabrill Peppers could help.

Michigan State: Special teams once again should be a strength for MSU, which returns All-Big Ten punter Mike Sadler, a Ray Guy award semifinalist who will contend for All-America honors in 2014. Kicker Michael Geiger also is back after connecting on 15 of 16 field-goal attempts as a true freshman. Macgarrett Kings Jr. and Andre Sims Jr. both put up good numbers on punt returns. Michigan State had by far the fewest kick returns (18) in the Big Ten last year and will look for a boost from R.J. Shelton and others.

Minnesota: After an above-average year on special teams in 2013, Minnesota again should be good in the third phase. Punter Peter Mortell didn't get as many accolades as Sadler or Purdue's Cody Webster, but he had an excellent sophomore season, averaging 43.3 yards per attempt with 15 of 50 yards or longer. Marcus Jones is a major threat on returns after bringing back both a kickoff and a punt for touchdowns last fall. Redshirt freshman kickers Ryan Santoso and Andrew Harte will compete as the Gophers lose Chris Hawthorne.

Nebraska: The Huskers are looking for some upgrades on special teams, particularly on punt returns, as Nebraska ranked 123rd in the FBS last fall. Primary returner Jordan Westerkamp is back, but he'll face some competition. Nebraska brings back punter Sam Foltz, who had a solid freshman season, averaging 41.6 yards per boot. Mauro Bondi is set to step in at kicker as Pat Smith departs. If Bondi struggles, incoming freshman Kris Brown could get a look this summer. Kenny Bell, who led the Big Ten in kick return average (26.5 yards per return), is back.

Northwestern: The Wildcats lose a huge piece in Jeff Budzien, named the Big Ten's top kicker in each of his final two seasons. Hunter Niswander can handle both kickoffs and punts but seems likely to slide into Budzien's spot. Northwestern's punting was a mess in 2013, ranking 118th nationally in net average (33.2 ypp). Brandon Williams departs and Chris Gradone or Niswander will take over. The big news is Northwestern brings back Venric Mark , an All-America punt returner in 2012. Primary kick returner Matt Harris is back after a solid freshman season.

Ohio State: Aussie, Aussie, Aussie. Indeed, the Aussie is back at punter as Cameron Johnston returns after an excellent debut season (I refuse to call a 21-year-old a freshman). Ohio State hopes for similar results from another first-year specialist in kicker Sean Nuernberger, an early enrollee expected to step in for the departing Drew Basil. Sophomore Dontre Wilson will continue to have a big role on returns after handling kickoffs last year. Ohio State must replace Corey Brown on punt returns and could look to redshirt freshman Jalin Marshall or true freshmen Curtis Samuel and Johnnie Dixon.

Penn State: The kicking game continues to be an area of concern.Sam Ficken owns the team record for consecutive field goals (15) and started strong last season but ended with just 15 of 23 conversions, including four misses inside 40 yards. Penn State needs a new punter after losing Alex Butterworth, and will turn to Chris Gulla. Jesse Della Valle did a good job on punt returns, but Penn State needs a boost on kickoffs after finishing last in the league (19.1 yards per return). The Lions could stick with Geno Lewis or look for a newcomer such as De'Andre Thompkins to emerge. PSU also must shore up its coverage units.

Purdue: As if the Boilers didn't have enough to address on offense and defense, the kicking game needs attention. Punter Cody Webster finished his spectacular career with All-America honors, and the Boilers finished second nationally in net punting (41.7 yards per punt). Incoming freshman Austin McGehee will take over for Webster. Paul Griggs and Thomas Meadows continue to work at kicker, as Griggs made only 50 percent of his attempts (6 of 12) last season. The kick return game is strong with Akeem Hunt and Raheem Mostert, but Purdue must replace punt returner Ricardo Allen. B.J. Knauf could be a good fit there.

Rutgers: The kicking game historically is a strength for Rutgers, which has a knack for blocking kicks and pulling off fakes. Rutgers loses a productive piece in punter Nick Marsh, who also handled kickoffs. The Scarlet Knights will turn to Joseph Roth as their replacement. Kicker Kyle Federico finished the season well, particularly in the Pinstripe Bowl, and returns for his junior season. Rutgers has a major weapon on returns in Janarion Grant, who brought back both a punt and a kickoff for a touchdown during his freshman season.

Wisconsin: The kicking game has held back Wisconsin in the past, so it's definitely an area to watch during the offseason. Kicker Jack Russell converted 9 of 13 field-goal attempts after taking over for Kyle French. He'll try to hold off incoming freshman Rafael Gaglianone. Andrew Endicott, who handled kickoffs last fall, also returns. Wisconsin is looking for more from punter Drew Meyer, who averaged just 38.6 yards per attempt in 2013. Top returner Kenzel Doe is back and should handle both punts and kickoffs, although Wisconsin could look to others for help, such as newcomers Serge Trezy and Natrell Jamerson.

More position breakdowns
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- There’ll be a lot of players and positions to watch closely this spring, but there’s one name that comes up time and time again when it comes to these watch lists.

So, to finish off this week’s countdown on the five players to watch, we have a player whom the most eyes will be on at Penn State.

[+] EnlargeLewis
Matthew O'Haren/USA TODAY SportsWill this be the season Geno Lewis lives up to his potential?
No. 1 spring player to watch: WR Geno Lewis

2013 review: The middle of the season -- outside of the six-catch Indiana game -- was a statistical desert for Lewis, as he sat behind both Allen Robinson and Brandon Felder in addition to playing second-fiddle behind the tight ends. Still, he showed great potential in the first and last games. In the opener against Syracuse, he made an athletic adjustment to catch an underthrown 54-yard TD pass. And in the finale against Wisconsin, he reeled in an over-the-shoulder 59-yard TD grab. Those two games accounted for all of Lewis’ three TD receptions and 65 percent of his season’s receiving yards (153 of 234 yards). He overtook Felder in the lineup in the final two or three games of the year, but that finale is really what got people talking.

Why spring is so important: This spring, and this season, are boom-or-bust time for Lewis. The Pennsylvania native headlined the 2012 recruiting class, and this will determine whether he’s ready to step up and live up to that potential. With early enrollee De’Andre Thompkins and three talented incoming freshmen on their way, this is Lewis’ time to assert himself. If it doesn’t happen this season, then it’s never going to happen. Someone needs to fill A-Rob’s shoes, and Lewis is the top candidate. Wide receiver is a wild card for the Nittany Lions this season, because they have plenty of talent but not a whole lot of experience. Lewis could play a major role in this offense or he could flounder. There’s really no telling where he might end up right now. So, if there’s one player to watch this spring, it’s him.

Best-case scenario: No, he doesn’t surpass Robinson in terms of talent or numbers. But he establishes himself as one of the Big Ten’s better wideouts and finds a spot on the All-Big Ten’s second-team offense. He finishes with more than 55 catches, and he becomes Christian Hackenberg’s top weapon downfield. He might not lead the team in touchdowns since those 6-foot-7 tight ends are awfully hard to miss once in the red zone, but he’s the big-play threat this offense needs. He leads the team -- by far -- in yards per catch, and at least one of his athletic catches makes an appearance on SportsCenter’s top 10 plays.

Worst-case scenario: He starts in the season opener but, as the freshmen develop, they quickly overtake Lewis. The redshirt sophomore becomes an offensive afterthought, much like Felder did late in the season, and he’s buried on the depth chart behind at least two of the freshmen. Hackenberg relies on the tight ends and the young receivers, while Lewis struggles and finishes with about 25 catches. Because of the new recruits coming in, that ends up being a career high. He never lives up to expectations, and Penn State struggles while the young line and receivers take time to jell.

More players to watch:

No. 5: DB Adrian Amos
No. 4: LB Nyeem Wartman
No. 3: DL Anthony Zettel
No. 2: OT Andrew Nelson

Top position classes: WR 

February, 12, 2014
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video

With national signing day in the books, RecruitingNation is looking at the top position classes. For the full series, click here.

Nationally (and SEC)
While the Baylor Bears had an exceptional wide receiver class, the nod here goes to LSU. Not only did the Tigers sign the nation's No. 1 receiver in Malachi Dupre (River Ridge, La./John Curtis Christian), but also the No. 3 ranked receiver in Trey Quinn (Lake Charles, La./Barbe) and ESPN 300 No. 271 D.J. Chark (Alexandria, La./Alexandria Senior) and No. 283 Tony Upchurch (Pearland, Texas/Dawson). In Dupre, LSU snagged the No. 17 prospect overall on signing day. He has a tall, lengthy frame with a near ideal size-and-speed combination and elite high-point ball skills. Quinn will enter LSU as an advanced route-runner with separation skills and the ability to pluck the ball outside of the framework of his body. Chark brings initial quickness and the vertical speed to take the top off a defense, and Upchurch is a big body who continues to add bulk and could eventually transition to a flex type of position.

The Tigers had the nation’s best wide receiver class; here’s which schools had the best in each of the remaining power conferences:


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Penn State positions to improve: No. 3

February, 12, 2014
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STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- We've made it to the middle of this week's countdown, and this next position shouldn't come as much of a surprise. This group is now without Penn State's MVP.

No. 3: Wide receivers

[+] EnlargeGeno Lewis
Matthew O'Haren/USA TODAY SportsGeno Lewis' 18 catches as a redshirt freshman makes him the leading returning wide receiver for Penn State.
The players: Geno Lewis (18 catches, 234 yards), Richy Anderson (13 catches, 111 yards), Matt Zanellato (4 catches, 53 yards), Jake Kiley (played in one game), DaeSean Hamilton (redshirted), De'Andre Thompkins (early enrollee), Chris Godwin (incoming freshman), Saeed Blacknall (incoming freshman), Troy Apke (incoming freshman)

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.

Penn State recruiting roundtable

February, 6, 2014
Feb 6
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video
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- National signing day is finally in the books, so we decided to take a closer look at the Nittany Lions' 2014 recruiting class.

Big Ten recruiting reporter Tom VanHaaren and I got together to discuss and answer these questions:

What surprised or impressed you the most about this class?

Tom VanHaaren: I know it's not surprising for prospects to follow a coach to the new school when there's a coaching change, but I was somewhat surprised in this case. James Franklin got five former Vanderbilt commits to join him at Penn State, which is significant. One of those commitments, Chance Sorrell, committed to Penn State essentially sight unseen. That says a lot about how these prospects feel about Franklin.

[+] EnlargeDe'Andre Thompkins
Courtesy of IntersportESPN 300 ATH De'Andre Thompkins has major upside, but he might take time to adjust to playing WR.
Josh Moyer: By far, I'm most impressed with the receivers. It's one of the best groups in the nation; Penn State has three wideouts in the ESPN 300 (De'Andre Thompkins, Saeed Blacknall, Chris Godwin) and another prospect (Troy Apke) who's on the cusp of being a four-star prospect. Last January, a lot of recruiting analysts expected PSU to pick up one -- maybe two -- receivers. Nobody quite saw this coming.

Who is Penn State's best commit outside of the ESPN 300?

TVH: I really like four-star running back Johnathan Thomas and tight end Mike Gesicki, a three-star commit. Gesicki was targeted by some big schools, including Ohio State, and should eventually be a contributor on offense. At 6-foot-5, 215 pounds, Gesicki has really good size and should fit in well at Penn State.

JM: Count me in on the Gesicki bandwagon. Former coach Bill O'Brien felt he was the best tight end in the nation, and James Franklin emphasized he wouldn't pigeonhole his personnel. His system will fit the players, not the other way around, and that should be great news to a talent like Gesicki. Linebacker Troy Reeder is also a big-time player and, because of Penn State's depth, could see considerable time by 2015.

Who is most likely to contribute as a true freshman?

TVH: I think it's probably Thompkins or Blacknall. Both are really good receivers, and Thompkins is already enrolled and on campus. With Allen Robinson leaving for the NFL there is opportunity to get some playing time early, so I think those two have a chance.

JM: I think it's definitely going to be a receiver -- but I'm going with Godwin and Blacknall. I think Thompkins is in a similar position that Geno Lewis was in as a true freshman. Both were highly ranked in the ESPN 300, both were athletes playing wideout, and neither played wideout in high school. Lewis needed a redshirt season to get accustomed to the position and, in a similar vein, Thompkins is just not as polished as some of his counterparts right now. Thompkins enrolled early and has a lot of upside, but I think Godwin's a safer bet right now.

Moving forward, how does James Franklin compare to Bill O'Brien as a recruiter?

TVH: It's tough to compare the two because of a few factors. O'Brien was dealing with the sanctions when he was hired and had to overcome those issues. He also held on to Christian Hackenberg and Adam Breneman, which was a big deal looking back on it. Franklin is coming in with a lot more positive vibes and excitement around the program. Franklin has already said, though, that he will focus on keeping the in-state prospects home and dominating the region as well. That was an area where O'Brien struggled, whether it was because of the sanctions or not. Franklin should have more success there.

JM: O'Brien wasn't a salesman. He tried to be straightforward, was a great evaluator of talent and an even better coach. Franklin is a salesman. He's charismatic, confident and isn't afraid to go after players in Florida or California. He's definitely casting a wider net than O'Brien. If both coaches were on a level playing field, with no sanctions, I'm not sure who would come out on top. But, because of the foundation O'Brien built, I have no doubt Franklin will have more success recruiting than his predecessor.

Overview: PSU 2014 offensive signees

February, 5, 2014
Feb 5
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STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- The fax machine in Happy Valley has finally stopped whirring, and the list of signees now appears finalized.

So here's a closer look at the offensive players from Penn State's Class of 2014. PSU's five early enrollees can be found here.

WR Saeed Blacknall (Manalapan, N.J.)

Four stars (Scout grade: 83), ESPN 300, No. 118 overall, No. 14 at position

Committed: Jan. 26, 2014

Top offers: Alabama, Florida State, Rutgers

Synopsis: He's the headliner of the Wednesday signees. (Yes, De'Andre Thompkins is ranked above him, but enrolled early.) Blacknall originally committed to Rutgers, but the Scarlet Knights might have gone a little too long without an offensive coordinator. During his official visit there, one still wasn't in place. He was Rutgers' top commit and is now a notch in Franklin's proverbial recruiting belt.

Scouting report Insider: Is a consistent playmaker with the ball in his hands.

Chris Godwin
Miller Safrit/ESPNChris Godwin is a headliner in Penn State's class at wide receiver.
WR Chris Godwin (Middletown, Del./Middletown)

Four stars (Scout grade: 83), ESPN 300, No. 159 overall, No. 21 at position

Committed: April 23, 2013

Top offers: Ohio State, South Carolina, Stanford

Synopsis: He and Thompkins are close -- and the two wanted to stay together. About a week before Franklin became head coach, Godwin told ESPN.com that Franklin was the coach he was hoping for. He represented Penn State at the Under Armour Game.

Scouting report Insider: Can be a vertical threat due to size and elevation, but might struggle to stretch and separate at next level.

RB Johnathan Thomas (Danvers, Mass./Saint John's Prep)

Four stars (Scout grade: 80), No. 44 at position

Committed: Oct. 20, 2013

Top offers: Arkansas, Boston College, Maryland

Synopsis: He attended the same high school as former coach Bill O'Brien, but was originally committed to Maryland. He flipped once PSU offered, however, as he was also a longtime PSU fan. He even sported a Penn State hat at a workout two summers ago. He's also coming off a torn ACL.

Scouting report Insider: Overall, Thomas is a strong, downhill runner with multi-carry, load-back potential.

WR Troy Apke (Pittsburgh, Pa./Mount Lebanon)

Three stars (Scout grade: 79), No. 70 at position

Committed: April 13, 2013

Top offers: Kentucky, Minnesota, Pitt

Synopsis: Penn State fans learned the term "schadenfreude" when the Pitt target in the Panthers' backyard became Penn State's first wideout to commit. He was off the radar as an underclassman because he was part of a run-first team; that changed in a big way during his junior season. He had 54 catches as a junior and 40 as a senior, averaging more than 18 yards a catch both seasons.

Scouting report Insider: Apke is a savvy, smart and tough player who catches everything thrown in the area code.

QB Trace McSorley (Ashburn, Va./Briar Woods)

Three stars (Scout grade: 79), No. 60 at ATH position

Committed: Jan. 20, 2014

Top offers: Vanderbilt, Virginia Tech, Wake Forest

Synopsis: McSorley has the ability to play a lot of positions, but Franklin still wants him at quarterback. He's a dual-threat who's been reportedly clocked in the 4.5s, and he could add another wrinkle to the Nittany Lions' future passing offense. He's a very different quarterback than ESPN 300 QB Michael O'Connor, who enrolled early.

Scouting report Insider: He is athletic and has a nose for the ball.

TE Mike Gesicki (Manahawkin, N.J./Southern Regional)

Three stars (Scout grade: 78), No. 12 at position

Committed: Oct. 17, 2013

Top offers: Ohio State, Florida State, Wisconsin

Synopsis: O'Brien believed he was the best tight end in the nation ... and O'Brien knew his tight ends. Gesicki greatly improved his Scout grade from his junior to senior season, and he chose PSU over an offer from Urban Meyer. He was hosted by Adam Breneman and Christian Hackenberg during his official visit.

Scouting reportInsider: He is a tweener H/WR who, with time in the weight room, could become a better fit on the inside, which would increase his BCS level value.

OT Noah Beh (Scranton, Pa./Scranton Prep)

Three stars (Scout grade: 77), No. 57 at position

Committed: June 1, 2013

Top offers: Boston College, Maryland, Pitt

Synopsis: Beh was recruited by some schools as defensive end, and O'Brien initially wasn't sold on Beh because of his 245-pound weight. He called Beh into his office once in February of last year and didn't offer, but then called him in a second time -- and told Beh he loved his blue-collar attitude and no longer believed the weight was an issue. He has the frame to add the weight.

Scouting report Insider: We feel he could possess a little greater upside as an O-lineman, but will need time to develop and at least a redshirt will likely be needed to add size and continue to develop technique.

RB Nick Scott (Fairfax, Va./Fairfax)

Three stars (Scout grade: 76), No. 107 at position

Committed: Feb. 23, 2013

Top offers: Boston College

Synopsis: ESPN named him one of the top performers at a Nike Football Training Camp, and he was sold on PSU pretty early. In an earlier interview with ESPN.com, Scott was asked when he knew during his visit that he was going to commit. His answer? Crossing the state line to Pennsylvania.

Scouting report Insider: Scott is a pretty exciting weapon as a pass catching running back with the versatility to split out in the slot and be a factor in the passing game.

OT Brendan Brosnan (Park Ridge, Ill./Maine Township South)

Three stars (Scout grade: 75), No. 98 at position

Committed: Jan. 14, 2014

Top offers: Illinois, Virginia Tech, Vanderbilt

Synopsis: He flipped from Vanderbilt four days after Franklin became head coach. He said Franklin's energy was a big reason for his commitment and believed that Penn State had the higher ceiling when compared to Vanderbilt.

Scouting report Insider: Brosnan moves well for his size.

RB Mark Allen (Hyattsvile, Md./DeMatha)

Three stars (Scout grade: 73), No. 149 at position

Committed: Oct. 16, 2012

Top offers: N/A

Synopsis: He was the first pledge of this class, and he committed as soon as he received an offer. He tore his ACL as a junior but played a big role in keeping this recruiting class together during the transition to another staff. He said he believed he needed to be a leader because he was the first commit, and he lived up to those expectations.

Scouting report Insider: We see very good change of pace/utility back potential.

OT Chance Sorrell (Middletown, Ohio/Middletown)

Three stars (Scout grade: 70), No. 50 at TE-Y position

Committed: Jan. 11, 2014

Top offers: Louisville, Vanderbilt, West Virginia

Synopsis: He injured his ankle during his junior season and then tore his labrum right before his senior season. That turned off quite a few teams, and that's a big reason Sorrell flew under the radar.

Scouting report Insider: More of a traditional in-line TE and could very well end up developing into an OL at the college level.

Big Ten recruiting roundtable

February, 3, 2014
Feb 3
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National signing day is just 48 hours away. To get you ready, we checked in with our ESPN.com recruiting experts for their take on how the Big Ten is faring.

Senior national recruiting analyst Tom Luginbill and Big Ten recruiting reporter Tom VanHaaren spared time from their busy schedules to answer these questions:

Ohio State and Michigan again lead the way in the Big Ten recruiting rankings. How much late drama do you expect with those two programs?

[+] EnlargeMalik McDowell
Tom Hauck for ESPNDE Malik McDowell, No. 60 in the ESPN 300, could come down to a signing day decision between Ohio State and Michigan.
Tom VanHaaren: Probably not much for Michigan as it is really only targeting ESPN 300 defensive lineman Malik McDowell (Southfield, Mich./Southfield). McDowell visited Ohio State Jan. 31 and has hosted every head coach in his top four of Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State and Florida State.

He will take his decision out to signing day, so there is a battle going on there, but there's still a chance he ends up at Michigan State or Florida State. He has kept everything close to the vest and it's anyone's guess as to where he ends up. Ohio State could have a little drama, but that happens when you land top ranked prospects.

Tom Luginbill: I really just expect to see where McDowell falls.

What other Big Ten programs have impressed you?

TL: Penn State and Wisconsin. Badgers coach Gary Andersen is adding more speed and athleticism to this class, including QB D.J. Gillins (Jacksonville, Fla./Ribault). They would love to close with CB Chris Lammons (Fort Lauderdale, Fla./Plantation).

TVH: Michigan State has put together a good class. I really like ESPN 300 defensive back Montae Nicholson (Monroeville, Pa./Gateway) for the Spartans defense. I think Northwestern has put together a really good class as well with three ESPN 300 commitments. The Wildcats added in-state defensive back Parrker Westphal (Bolingbrook, Ill./Bolingbrook), which was a big get for them. Illinois did a lot to help fill immediate needs as well. The Illini lose four receivers and brought in some junior college prospects to compete right away.

How much impact has James Franklin made on Penn State's recruiting in a short time?

TVH: It seems to be all positive for now. It's not surprising that he has flipped so many Vanderbilt commitments to Penn State, because he was the coach who recruited them. The recruits, however, that have flipped will all tell you that he is the guy they want to play for. There is already some excitement in the 2015 class and in the Pennsylvania area, so I think Penn State fans are going to be very happy with what Franklin and his staff does in the near future.

TL: Significant, but it should be noted that Michael O'Connor (Bradenton, Fla./IMG Academy), De'Andre Thompkins (Swansboro, N.C./Swansboro) and Chris Godwin (Middletown, Del./Middletown) all enrolled early prior to his hire, but after Bill O’Brien departed, which tells you of their commitment to the program. Since his hiring, Penn State has added seven verbal commits, including flipping Rutgers commit WR Saeed Blacknall (Manalapan, N.J./Manalapan) this past week.

How much of an effect, if any, has Michigan State's on-field success had in its recruiting so far?

TL: Minimal. They do what they do. The biggest myth is that they are made up of 2- and 3-star players, which is not true. It has been 4- or 3- star players the past three to four classes The Spartans develop players as well as anyone. They don’t give in to external pressures to recruit anyone and they identify not only good players, but the right players for them.

TVH: It had some impact in the 2014 class, but because that class was already almost over by the time the Spartans won the Rose Bowl, the real affect will likely be on 2015 and 2016 prospects. Michigan State already has one of the top in-state prospects committed with Kyonta Stallworth (St. Clair Shores, Mich./South Lake) and there is a realistic chance the Spartans could land most of the top prospects from the state of Michigan. They have already heard from some prospects that they otherwise would have been out of the running for, so I think 2015 could be where you see some of those affects.

How have Maryland and Rutgers done in recruiting, and are their efforts up to Big Ten standards?

TVH: Rutgers has suffered a lot of decommitments in the 2014 class. It seems like this is a whole new class from what it used to be. The most recent was Blacknall, who flipped to Penn State. Maryland has had a better time recruiting in this class, but is still outside the top 40 in the class rankings. The Terrapins have had a lot of injuries to deal with, so I think once they get healthy and get back on track they will start to see a little more success. Now that they're in the Big Ten they can tell local recruits that they can stay close to home and still play in big stadiums and on national television, which will be a big draw.

TL: Rutgers is crumbling. At one time they had four ESPN 300 prospects and all have decommitted. This is not a good start for the Knights heading into the Big Ten. We very much like the top third of Maryland’s class, and the middle third has upside, but there is a significant drop off in talent in the bottom third, in our opinion.

What teams do you view as disappointing with this class?

TL: Rutgers. The rest have essentially been as expected for the most part.

TVH: Can I cop out and give everyone a trophy? I don't think anyone has a really disappointing class. I imagine Rutgers' coaches aren't thrilled with the way things have gone, but for the Big Ten teams from this season I think most of them have done a really nice job filling needs and getting a few big recruits in the class.

Finally, name a few players who we can expect to have an immediate impact in the 2014 season.

TVH: Jabrill Peppers (Paramus, N.J./Paramus Catholic) is probably the first name that sticks out. He is the No. 2-ranked prospect in the country for a reason and could end being an outstanding college football player once he's done. I expect him to play early in some capacity. Potentially, a guy like Dominique Booth (Indianapolis/Pike) at Indiana at receiver, running back Jeff Jones (Minneapolis/Washburn) if he sticks with Minnesota, Johnnie Dixon (Palm Beach Gardens, Fla./Dwyer) at Ohio State and maybe juco defensive lineman Joe Keels (Kenosha, Wisc./Highland (Kan.) Community College) at Nebraska.

TL: Peppers, (Ohio State LB) Raekwon McMillan (Hinesville, Ga./Liberty County) and Jones, if he sticks.
If James Franklin wanted to make a statement on the recruiting trail at Penn State, he has done just that. Franklin and his staff flipped athlete Koa Farmer (Sherman Oaks, Calif./Notre Dame High School) from Cal while on a visit on Saturday, then flipped another prospect to Penn State on Sunday.

ESPN 300 wide receiver Saeed Blacknall (Manapalan, N.J./Manalapan) switched his commitment from Rutgers to Penn State. He gives the Nittany Lions three ESPN 300 receivers in the 2014 class.



The No. 118-ranked prospect took a visit to Penn State on Jan. 17 and had been thinking about making the switch ever since.

At 6-foot-3, 205 pounds, Blacknall will complement De’Andre Thompkins and Chris Godwin, the two other ESPN 300 receiver commitments in this class. Both Godwin and Blacknall are bigger, physical receivers whereas Thompkins is a more athletic player who could even be a wildcat quarterback in certain plays.

Blacknall hails from New Jersey, which is an area Franklin and his staff are going to make a priority. This was a good commitment to start with for the new staff as Blacknall is now the second highest ranked commit in the class.

The ESPN 300 receiver gives the Nittany Lions 23 commitments for 2014 and some outstanding options at receiver going forward.

Big Ten Wednesday mailbag

January, 22, 2014
Jan 22
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Winter stinks. Warm me up with some of your emails:

Darren from Spring Hill, Fla., writes: I'd appreciate your thoughts on Indiana's coordinator situation. I've also thought the pecking order in the BCS era is 1. SEC, 2. (3-way tie depending on year) Pac-12/Big 12/Big Ten; 3. ACC 4. Varies. So why would a coordinator leave IU for the same position at UNC (Littrell) ... is the ACC and, say, the Mountain West more appealing than a low-tier Big Ten school? Thanks.

Brian Bennett: While it's somewhat unusual to see a Big Ten coordinator leave for the same job at what is at best a mid-tier program in the ACC, we have to remember Indiana is not exactly a football power. The Hoosiers have been to one bowl game since 1993 and often play in front of a bunch of empty seats, and the program has not historically provided much of a springboard for coaches' careers. So if Seth Littrell wanted to move on after two very successful years, that becomes more understandable.

We also don't yet know the money situation here. Early reports said Littrell would also be named assistant head coach at North Carolina, which suggests a pay raise. Indiana has made a much bigger commitment to football in recent years but still isn't among the top-paying Big Ten schools when it comes to coaches' salaries. Perhaps the most interesting aspect here is that Littrell -- a former Oklahoma player with deep Sooners ties -- is leaving former Oklahoma coordinator Kevin Wilson's staff to join that of former Oklahoma State play-caller Larry Fedora.


Lachlan from Winterpeg writes: Hey BB, with the hiring of the new assistants at PSU, I see two that stand out to me. The defensive coordinator and the receivers coach. The defense last year had many ups and downs (mostly downs) and bringing in a guy that fielded a top-25 defense last year in the SEC brings in hope. On the other end, a receivers coach that has produced a couple of All-American receivers takes on the task of taking the remaining WR group for PSU that was lackluster last year, and trying to turn them into a threat in the passing game seems challenging. Which of these two do you expect to have a better handle on things being as both have issues to work with, depth with the defense and a group of unproven receivers on the other?

[+] EnlargeBob Shoop
Sean Meyers/Icon SMINew Penn State defensive coordinator Bob Shoop takes over a defense that loses just three starters and he should have plenty of talent to work with this season.
Brian Bennett: Just in terms of talent and experience to work with, new defensive coordinator Bob Shoop should have an easier go of things right away. Shoop -- whose brother, John, is Purdue's offensive coordinator, giving us a Big Ten Shoop-Shoop -- led a Vanderbilt defense that really was the backbone of that team during its nine-win seasons each of the past two years. While Penn State's defense had its struggles in 2013, the unit loses only three starters (DaQuan Jones, Glenn Carson and Malcolm Willis). Shoop will need to develop leaders on that side of the ball and improve the secondary, but there is talent in place.

Receivers coach Josh Gattis has a tougher assignment. No player outside of Allen Robinson really produced a whole lot at wideout for the Nittany Lions last year, and Brandon Felder is gone, too. Geno Lewis has solid potential but still needs polishing. Gattis will likely have to quickly coach up some incoming freshmen such as De'Andre Thompkins and Chris Godwin. The receiver group will have to make a lot of progress this offseason to give Christian Hackenberg some help. Remember, too, that head coach James Franklin has coached receivers in the past, and Penn State has also reportedly hired former Temple receivers coach Terry Smith for an unspecified role. So that position should get a lot of attention.


John from Minneapolis writes: Hey, Brian. In Monday's chat you answered a question about Philip Nelson and stated, " Nelson himself didn't light it up as a passer, but he might not want to run it as much as Minnesota seems to want from its QB. If that's the case, I have no problem with him transferring somewhere else." I understand what you're saying, but whatever happened to sticking with a commitment? It smells like weak character to me. That same attitude is why the divorce rate is 50 percent. That's it, thanks.

Brian Bennett: The problem is that commitment and loyalty too often is a one-way street in college sports. A player such as Nelson is supposed to fulfill his four years to the school, yet coaches can leave at any time and his scholarship is up for renewal every season? And Nelson will have to sit out a year unless he transfers to a lower level. The reality is that college sports is a business, and players have to look out for themselves. If Nelson believes his future will be better served by playing in a different system, more power to him.


Craig from Braintree, Mass., writes: The Gophers certainly are not in the top half of the B1G as far as budget, but they bought not only a quality head coach but a whole staff that will not be easily influenced by a few extra bucks. You have any thoughts about whether Jerry Kill and his staff deserve raises?

Brian Bennett: Kill made a reported $1.2 million last year, which is hardly chump change but still ranked as the lowest in the Big Ten. Minnesota officials said they would work on bumping up Kill's pay this offseason, and Kill would like raises for his assistants, too. After an eight-win season, that staff is definitely in line for some salary increases. The price of keeping a high-quality head coach in the Big Ten is escalating rapidly. The good news for the Gophers is I don't think Kill is looking to leave anytime soon.


Dave from Millstone, N.J., writes: So, Brian. We're BaAAaack. ... When is the date when you'll start covering Rutgers in the blog? We missed you since you bolted the Big East for the B1G -- now we're following you, haunting you, filling your dreams. We're coming; you can't stop it now. Oh, sure, you can change assignments and head to the ACC, where Andrea abandoned us to last year. But we will find you, no matter what. Now write one of you famous opinions on how RU will never be great. Go ahead, make my day! Seriously, looking forward to getting picked on by the big boys of the B1G for a few seasons before we take over. So when's the warm welcome start on the blog?

Brian Bennett: You made me laugh, Dave, so good job. I'm looking forward to reuniting with Rutgers and visiting Piscataway again. Maybe I should start increasing my workouts now in anticipation of hitting a grease truck. We typically incorporate new schools right after signing day. So look for coverage of the Scarlet Knights -- and Maryland -- in the Big Ten blog in just a couple more weeks.

Offseason to-do list: Penn State

January, 22, 2014
Jan 22
10:00
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The college football season may be over, but the offseason has just begun. So we're taking an early look at the months ahead by offering three items each Big Ten team must address before the 2014 season kicks off.

Up next is a team that has had the busiest offseason thus far, the Penn State Nittany Lions.

[+] EnlargeChristian Hackenberg
Nabil K. Mark/Centre Daily Times/Getty ImagesThe sooner Christian Hackenberg can acclimate to the new offense the better off Penn State will be.
1. Learn new schemes/playbooks. Obviously, there are still quite a few unknowns surrounding Penn State's future offense and defense. New coach James Franklin hasn't been on campus two full weeks yet, after all. But the Nittany Lions will certainly need to catch on quickly if they hope to improve upon last season's 7-5 record. Franklin plans to use a multiple pro-style offense, and Christian Hackenberg said he fully expects the verbiage to be completely different. The transition from Bill O'Brien to Franklin likely won't be as jarring as Joe Paterno to O'Brien, but making the necessary adjustments will be the top priority for this team.

2. Find some options at receiver. For as strong as Penn State's corps of tight ends is, its group of wide receivers is pretty weak. Allen Robinson declared early for the NFL, and he leaves a huge hole at the position. Rising redshirt sophomore Geno Lewis is the leading returning wideout, and he averaged just 19.5 yards a game last season. He's athletic, but his route-running needs some work. Penn State at least boasts a trio of talented Class of 2014 receivers -- including two, De'Andre Thompkins (early enrollee) and Chris Godwin, in the ESPN 300 -- but there are a lot of question marks at this position in the short term.

3. Shoring up the secondary and replacing defensive leaders. The Achilles' heel of the Nittany Lions the past two seasons has been the secondary, especially the safeties, and Franklin will certainly have his work cut out for him here. Adrian Amos and Jordan Lucas are both good corners, but Franklin could opt to move Lucas to safety -- and, as last year's Amos experiment showed, mixing and matching sometimes tends to create an unwanted ripple effect. With the departures of DT DaQuan Jones and MLB Glenn Carson, PSU also will have to find leadership elsewhere. Those two were arguably Penn State's top defensive performers in 2013.

More to-do lists:

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Penn State 2015 Class Debuts At No. 3
Craig Haubert discusses recent additions to the Nittany Lions' 2015 class and first-year coach James Franklin's success on the recruiting trail.Tags: Adam McLean, Ryan Bates, Penn State Nittany Lions, James Franklin
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