Penn State Nittany Lions: DeAndre Thompkins
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
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.
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
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:
To continue reading this article you must be an Insider
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.
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.
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.
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 : Is a consistent playmaker with the ball in his hands.
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 : 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 : 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 : 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 : 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 report: 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 : 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 : 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 : 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 : 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 : More of a traditional in-line TE and could very well end up developing into an OL at the college level.
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?
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.
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.
I have officially committed to THE PENNSYLVANIA STATE UNIVERSITY #WeARE....— Saeed RaaShad (@RaaShad_TTG) January 27, 2014
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.
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?
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.
Up next is a team that has had the busiest offseason thus far, the Penn State Nittany Lions.
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:
De'Andre Thompkins, ATH (Swansboro, N.C./Swansboro)
HT: 5-11; WT: 176
Positional Rank: No. 8 ATH
ESPN 300: No. 73
Under Armour All-American
Michael O'Connor, QB-PP (Bradenton, Fla./IMG)
HT: 6-5; WT: 223
Positional Rank: No. 6 QB-PP
ESPN 300: No. 132
Under Armour All-American
Antoine White, DT (Millville, N.J./Millville)
HT: 6-3; WT: 265
Positional Rank: No. 80 DT
Chasz Wright, OT (Woodbridge, Va./Milford Academy)
HT: 6-7; WT: 295
Positional Rank: N/A (post-grad)
ESPN JC 50 defensive tackle Tarow Barney (Bainbridge, Ga./Northwest Mississippi CC) signed in December, according to GoPSUSports.com.
Penn State has hired former Vanderbilt coach James Franklin to take over the vacant head-coaching position in Happy Valley. With a coaching change coming so close to signing da, there are always recruiting implications, and this one seems to be positive for Penn State.
Reactions from the Nittany Lions’ commitments in the 2014 class have been overwhelmingly positive, including comments from some of the commits set to enroll early.
To continue reading this article you must be an Insider
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- ESPN 300 receiver De'Andre Thompkins didn't know whom his Penn State coach would be on Monday night. The Nittany Lions' commit only knew the coach he preferred.
"I really hope [James] Franklin takes it," he told ESPN.com, five days before the hire became official.
He wasn't the only one -- four-star wide receiver Chris Godwin felt similarly -- because Franklin's reputation precedes him. He's the gregarious coach who calls recruits "homeboy" and the tireless recruiter who clips two cell phones to his boxers when he's preparing for a night's rest.
Franklin's impact on the Nittany Lions' future recruiting classes -- and on overall recruiting in the Big Ten -- should be instant and far-reaching. An ACC coach told CBS' Bruce Feldman that, if Franklin wound up at Penn State, "He'd kill it in recruiting around here."
"He's very different because he's so approachable," said Ricky Bowers, a high school coach at The Ensworth School in Nashville, Tenn., whose team won four consecutive state titles. "He's just different. He's friendly, likable and passionate.
"The only way you wouldn't like him is if you were jealous of him."
Franklin drove to Ensworth before the state title game just to wish Bowers luck. And Bowers said Franklin is that rare type of coach with whom he can just shoot the breeze on the occasional lazy day.
Franklin was characterized by others as an energetic recruiter with an infectious personality -- so Bowers wasn't surprised much by all the NFL attention. After all, Nashville-area recruits looked at Franklin as the man who built up the local college program out of the ashes. Lest you think that's an exaggeration, consider this: Before Franklin arrived in the Music City, the Commodores last boasted a nine-win season in 1915, a full decade before Joe Paterno was born. In the past two years, Vanderbilt has recorded back-to-back nine-win seasons.
"Good gracious, he's got everybody fired up about football," said Marty Euverard, the high school coach at Montgomery Bell Academy in Nashville. "He just knows how to build relationships, and I think that's a key component. Some people have a gift; some don't. He's got it."
Penn State's old coaching staff tried to construct new recruiting pipelines. Former defensive coordinator Ted Roof attempted to circle back to his recruiting roads around Georgia and, when he left, safeties coach Anthony Midget focused on his old stomping grounds in Florida. Their spoils? Roof helped reel in two 2013 commits who remain on the roster, defensive back Kasey Gaines and defensive tackle Parker Cothren, from Georgia and Alabama, respectively. Midget didn't grab any in the most recent class.
Compare that untapped territory with Vanderbilt. The Commodores signed three players from California -- and that was just in the last class alone. Vanderbilt's current roster includes players from 21 states. No recruiting area has really been off-limits to the bald coach with the trademark frames.
"He's been able to cast a wide recruiting net at Vanderbilt, one that's broader than any net I've seen cast," Bowers told ESPN.com. "He's honed in on schools that Vanderbilt has not traditionally been in on. When you first see him, he just has this personality, where you like him right away. He's just a nice guy and, yeah, he's a really good recruiter."
Franklin was able to attract top recruits to a cellar-dwelling program and turn it into something special. It's unknown what he can do with a former powerhouse -- whose fans once showed up in the thousands for a 7 a.m. pep rally, and showed up by the handful Wednesday night in snowy, below-freezing temperatures at the airport just to catch a glimpse of Franklin.
Nobody can say for sure the heights that Franklin can take this program, recruiting-wise. But Thompkins and Godwin aren't the only ones who are excited -- and Big Ten newcomers Maryland and Rutgers, two teams in PSU's recruiting footprint, shouldn't be the only ones who are worried.
Ohio State has been on a roll on the recruiting trail in the past few weeks. The commitments the Buckeyes have landed, along with a few other happenings in the Big Ten, have impacted the class rankings.
Here is a look at the most recent trends within the Big Ten.
To continue reading this article you must be an Insider
To continue reading this article you must be an Insider
The Early Offer: March 5
BIG TEN SCOREBOARD
Final Washington State 45 Colorado State 48 Final 20 Fresno State 20 25 USC 45 Final Buffalo 24 San Diego State 49 Final Tulane 21 Louisiana-Lafayette 24
Final Pittsburgh 30 Bowling Green 27 Final Utah State 21 23 Northern Illinois 14
Final Marshall 31 Maryland 20 Final Syracuse 21 Minnesota 17 Final Brigham Young 16 Washington 31
Final Rutgers 16 Notre Dame 29 Final Cincinnati 17 North Carolina 39 Final Miami (FL) 9 18 Louisville 36 Final Michigan 14 Kansas State 31
Final Middle Tennessee 6 Navy 24 Final Ole Miss 25 Georgia Tech 17 Final 10 Oregon 30 Texas 7 Final 14 Arizona State 23 Texas Tech 37
Final Arizona 42 Boston College 19 Final Virginia Tech 12 17 UCLA 42 Final Rice 7 Mississippi State 44 Final 24 Duke 48 21 Texas A&M 52
Final Nebraska 24 22 Georgia 19 Final UNLV 14 North Texas 36 Final Iowa 14 16 LSU 21 Final 19 Wisconsin 24 9 South Carolina 34 Final 5 Stanford 20 4 Michigan State 24 Final 15 UCF 52 6 Baylor 42
Final 13 Oklahoma State 31 8 Missouri 41 Final 12 Clemson 40 7 Ohio State 35