Penn State Nittany Lions: Devon Still

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- The past few years have brought historic changes at Penn State, from the men occupying the head coach's office to the names occupying the backs of the Nittany Lions' jerseys.

Yet until recently, Penn State's defensive line meeting room resisted renovation. It was one of few elements of the program that, in 2013, looked much like it did in 2005. Larry Johnson coached the group, as he had every season since 2000 (and, in some form, since 1996). And while the Lions' defense struggled for much of last season, the line still produced a first-team All-Big Ten performer, tackle DaQuan Jones, just as it did the previous five years.

[+] EnlargeSean Spencer
MCT via Getty ImagesNew defensive line coach Sean Spencer wants his guys attacking like 'wild dogs.'
But even the PSU defensive line couldn't evade the winds of change forever. After being passed over for Penn State's head-coaching job for the second time, Johnson in January declined a chance to remain with James Franklin's staff. Days later, he latched on at rival Ohio State.

Lions defensive linemen now take direction from a man known as Coach Chaos. You'll be able to hear Sean Spencer's voice from Row 80 of Beaver Stadium -- on game days. Spencer wants his Lions to be wild dogs, explaining, "The wild dog is the most efficient animal in the jungle in terms of hunting in a pack."

The 43-year-old dynamo with the "spastic" personality differs from that of his reserved, buttoned-down Penn State predecessor. But when it comes to standards, Spencer and Johnson are aligned.

"Traditionally, the D-line here has always been one of the elite in the country," Spencer told ESPN.com. "I know no other way but to have them rise to the expectations that I set forth and that they set forth for themselves. There's no excuse.

"I don't care who I've got out there. I expect to be dominant."

Spencer's message resonates with a group that, unlike others on a reduced roster, doesn't face dire depth challenges. The Lions return both starters at end -- Deion Barnes and C.J. Olaniyan -- and veteran reserve Brad Bars, who missed all of last season with a ruptured Achilles' tendon.

Sophomore Austin Johnson moves into the lead tackle position and Anthony Zettel, a converted defensive end, has been a good fit at the 3-technique tackle spot.

"The D-line is probably our strength," Franklin said. "We have the most depth at that position. We've got about four deep at defensive end and probably two-and-a-half deep at D-tackle."

If the depth holds up, it will help Penn State use a larger rotation that Johnson typically used. Defensive coordinator Bob Shoop said the Vanderbilt linemen he and Spencer coached last fall didn't average more than 40 snaps a game.

The coaches want to use five or six defensive ends, as Bars, junior Carl Nassib and redshirt freshman Garrett Sickels also are in the mix. A healthy rotation suits Spencer's wild dogs philosophy.

At Vanderbilt, he commissioned a painting of a Commodores football player blended with a dog, which he displayed in his office at Penn State this spring. He also took a giant dog bone to the field.

"Part of their survival is when they chase their prey down, for three to five miles they take turns biting at him," Spencer said. "One goes to the front, and when he gets tired, the next one comes. It's a really unique strategy in terms of the way they attack things. We rotate a lot of guys, so we just take turns nipping at quarterbacks and making plays in the backfield."

Vanderbilt recorded 28 sacks last season, which tied for fourth in the SEC. Spencer estimates 24 came solely from line pressure. He expects the same production at Penn State.

Defensive tackle has been Penn State's strongest position in recent seasons with players such as Jones, Devon Still, Jordan Hill and Jared Odrick. Although Zettel and Johnson aren't known outside Happy Valley, the coaches think that soon will change.

"Zettel has been been very, very disruptive this spring," Shoop said. "Austin Johnson falls in line of the beast D-tackles Penn State's had in the past. He's over 300 pounds, moves well, he's tough to move at the point of attack, got a big butt and legs."

Olaniyan led Penn State with five sacks last season, his first as a starter. Penn State looks for more from Barnes, the former Big Ten Freshman of the Year whose sacks and tackles for loss totals dropped by more than 50 percent from 2012 to 2013.

"What we're looking at is, how can we get him back to that?" Spencer said.

Spencer is pleased with Barnes' football knowledge and said all the linemen are asking "200- and 300-level questions" in meetings. Life without Johnson undoubtedly caused an adjustment -- "It's always tough to see somebody you call a family member leave," Olaniyan said -- but players quickly connected with Spencer, who lists relationship-building among his strengths.

"I grew up without a dad," said Spencer, whose father played for Michigan State in the 1960s. "Unfortunately, we don't have a relationship right now, and he's still alive. It's one of the things I'm least proud of, but at the same time, it made me who I am today. It made me have the ability to reach out to kids that probably are similar to me. I'm a little younger than Larry so they're not going to look at me as a dad, so to speak. They look at me as a big brother or an uncle.

"I think we've got some similarities in the way we care about our players, but I'm probably a little bit wilder than he is."

A little wilder and a little louder, but just as demanding.

"They both have the same philosophy as far as they want you to do everything perfect," Olaniyan said. "It's easy to embrace the new coaches when they have the same goal. We take pride as the Penn State D-line.

"Each game, we want everybody to see us as one of the best defensive lines out there. We want to be great."

At Penn State, some things never change.

Big Ten all-BCS-era team

January, 13, 2014
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The BCS is dead. RIP. As we memorialize the BCS era throughout ESPN.com today, we're selecting All-BCS teams from each conference. As a reminder, the BCS era lasted from the 1998 season through the recently completed 2013 season. To narrow our selections a bit, players had to play at least two seasons in the BCS era to be eligible. Nebraska players are part of our list even though the Huskers played in the Big 12 until 2011.

Here's our Big Ten All-BCS team.

Coach: Jim Tressel, Ohio State -- Tressel led Ohio State to the 2002 national title, the Big Ten's only championship in the BCS era, as well as seven Big Ten titles (one vacated).

OFFENSE

QB: Drew Brees, Purdue (1997-2000) -- He led Purdue to the 2000 Big Ten championship and finished his career with league records for passing yards (11,792), touchdown passes (90), total offensive yards (12,693), completions (1,026), and attempts (1,678). Brees won the Maxwell Award in 2000.

RB: Ron Dayne, Wisconsin (1996-99) -- The 1999 Heisman Trophy winner set the NCAA's career rushing record with 6,397 yards (not including bowl games). He won all the major national individual awards in 1999 and became the first player to repeat as Rose Bowl MVP.

[+] EnlargeMontee Ball
Gregory Shamus/Getty ImagesMontee Ball had 39 TDs for Wisconsin in 2011.
RB: Montee Ball, Wisconsin (2009-2012) -- The man nicknamed "MoneyBall" tied Barry Sanders' NCAA single-season touchdowns record with 39 in 2011 and set the mark for career touchdowns with 83. He won the Doak Walker Award as the nation's top running back in 2012.

WR: Braylon Edwards, Michigan (2001-04) -- The Big Ten's most recent Biletnikoff Award winner holds the league record for career touchdown receptions (39) and ranks fourth in career receiving yards (3,541). He's the only Big Ten receiver to record 1,000 yards in three consecutive seasons.

WR: Lee Evans, Wisconsin (2000-03) -- Evans twice led the Big Ten in receiving yards, eclipsing 1,500 yards in 2001 before rebounding from an ACL tear to record 1,213 yards and 13 touchdowns in 2003.

TE: Dallas Clark, Iowa (1999-2002) -- Clark earned the John Mackey Award in 2002 after recording 43 receptions for 742 yards as Iowa went undefeated in the Big Ten.

OL: Greg Eslinger, Minnesota (2002-05) -- One of the more decorated Big Ten linemen in the BCS era, Eslinger won the Outland Trophy in 2005. He was a two-time first-team All-America selection and a three-time first-team All-Big Ten selection for one of the nation's top rushing offenses.

OL: Joe Thomas, Wisconsin (2003-06) -- Another Outland Trophy winner (2006), Thomas earned unanimous consensus All-America honors that year. He earned first-team All-Big Ten honors in each of his final two seasons and was the No. 3 overall pick in the 2007 NFL draft.

OL: Dominic Raiola, Nebraska (1998-2000) -- In 1998, Raiola became the first Nebraska freshman offensive lineman to start a game in seven years. He went on to earn the Rimington Trophy as the nation's top center, first-team All-Big 12 honors in his final two seasons and consensus first-team All-America honors in 2000.

OL: Robert Gallery, Iowa (1999-2003) -- Gallery claimed the Outland Trophy in 2003 as well as first-team All-America honors. He twice earned first-team All-Big Ten honors as the anchor of a nationally elite offensive line.

OL: Jake Long, Michigan (2003-07) -- Although Long didn't win the Outland, he twice earned consensus first-team All-America honors (unanimous selection in 2007) and twice earned Big Ten offensive lineman of the year honors (beating out Thomas in 2006). Long was the No. 1 overall pick in the 2008 NFL draft.

DEFENSE

DE: LaMarr Woodley, Michigan (2003-06) -- Woodley claimed the Rotary Lombardi Award in 2006 as the nation's top lineman. A first-team All-American that season, he finished his career with 10 forced fumbles, tied for seventh on the Big Ten's career list.

DE: Ryan Kerrigan, Purdue (2007-10) -- Unlike most of the men on this list, Kerrigan never played for any BCS bowl teams at Purdue but still had a remarkable career that ended with unanimous consensus first-team All-America honors in 2010. The Big Ten defensive player of the year tied the NCAA record for forced fumbles (14) and recorded 33.5 sacks and 57 tackles for loss.

DT: Ndamukong Suh, Nebraska (2005-09) -- The most dominant defender in recent years finished fourth in Heisman voting in 2009 (should have been higher) and earned several awards, including the Bednarik, Nagurski and Outland. Suh finished his career with 24 sacks, 57 tackles for loss, four interceptions, three forced fumbles and 41 quarterback hurries.

DT: Devon Still, Penn State (2008-11) -- Penn State produced a string of outstanding defensive tackles including Still, the Big Ten's defensive player of the year in 2011. Still earned consensus first-team All-America honors after recording 17 tackles for loss.

LB: James Laurinaitis, Ohio State (2005-08) -- Laurinaitis won major national awards in each of his final three seasons, including the Nagurski Trophy in 2006. The two-time Big Ten defensive player of the year became just the third Ohio State player to earn consensus All-America honors in three seasons.

LB: Paul Posluszny, Penn State (2003-06) -- Posluszny is one of only two players (Pat Fitzgerald) to twice win the Bednarik Award as the nation's top defender. He became the first Penn State linebacker to twice earn AP All-America honors.

LB: LaVar Arrington, Penn State (1997-99) -- A freakishly athletic linebacker at Linebacker U., Arrington twice earned first-team All-Big Ten honors and won the Bednarik and Butkus Awards as a junior in 1999. He was the No. 2 overall pick in the 2000 NFL draft.

CB: Jamar Fletcher, Wisconsin (1998-2000) -- Fletcher claimed the Jim Thorpe Award as the nation's top defensive back in 2000, won Big Ten defensive player of the year honors that year and was a three-time first-team all-conference selection. He's tied for fourth in league history with 21 career interceptions and holds the league record for interception return yards (459).

CB: Darqueze Dennard, Michigan State (2010-13) -- Dennard also claimed the Thorpe Award as he helped Michigan State to its first outright Big Ten title in 26 years and a Rose Bowl victory against Stanford. The two-time first-team All-Big Ten selection recorded 10 career interceptions and led the "No Fly Zone" Spartans secondary.

S: Tyrone Carter, Minnesota (1996-99) -- The only Big Ten safety to win the Thorpe Award, Carter also twice earned first-team All-Big Ten honors and earned unanimous All-America honors in 1999. He set the FBS record for career tackles by a defensive back with 528.

S: Mike Doss, Ohio State (1999-2002) -- A three-time first-team All-Big Ten selection, Doss earned unanimous consensus All-America honors in 2002 as Ohio State won the national title.

SPECIAL TEAMS

K: Mike Nugent, Ohio State (2001-04) -- Nugent won the Lou Groza Award as the nation's top kicker in 2004 and claimed consensus All-America honors in both 2002 and 2004. He holds the Big Ten record for consecutive made field goals with 24.

P: Brandon Fields, Michigan State (2003-06) -- His name is on the Big Ten's punter of the year award for a reason. Fields earned consensus All-America honors in 2004, earned first-team All-Big Ten honors three times and twice led the league in punting, tying for third in career average (45 ypp).

Returns: Ted Ginn, Ohio State (2004-06) and Steve Breaston, Michigan (2003-06) -- Ginn holds the Big Ten single-season records for kick return average (25.6 ypr) and career punt return touchdowns (6), while Breaston claims the league mark for career punt return yards (1,599) and is tied for third in punt return touchdowns (4).

It's tough enough putting together these teams for one season, much less 16 seasons. You can't please everyone, and many exceptional players didn't make the cut.

We decided to go with five offensive linemen rather than a center, two guards and two tackles, in order to recognize the best overall players in the trenches.

There was some debate for a second receiver alongside Michigan's Edwards, as the Big Ten hasn't exactly mass-produced superstars at the position. Several players had great seasons like Michigan State's Charles Rogers in 2002, but we put more stock into overall career output and went with Wisconsin's Evans, who led the league in receiving in 2001 and 2003.

Cornerback created some debate among Fletcher, Dennard and Ohio State's Malcolm Jenkins, also a Jim Thorpe Award winner. We faced another tough decision at safety between Ohio State's Doss and Iowa's Bob Sanders.

Surprisingly, the defensive tackle spot produced few bona-fide superstars. Nebraska's Suh, who played his entire career in the Big 12, was an obvious choice but a second choice proved to be tough.

Arguably the toughest choice came at kicker between Nugent and Iowa's Nate Kaeding. Both won Lou Groza Awards and set numerous records. We gave the nod to Nugent, but not by much.
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Larry Johnson still remembers driving his van through the valleys of central Pennsylvania 18 years ago and sitting down to breakfast with Joe Paterno for a job interview.

[+] EnlargeLarry Johnson Sr.
AP Photo/Gene J. PuskarLarry Johnson is doing his best to hold the Penn State team and recruiting class together.
The former high school coach spent weeks preparing what he might say to the man in the Coke-bottled glasses. And he smiled Friday afternoon when recalling it all and harkening back to that conversation.

"Not one football question," Johnson said. "He talked to me about life. ... I've never forgotten that. Sometimes, with coaches, it's not about the X's and the O's, it's about the people, and Coach Paterno saw that. And I'm grateful."

Johnson is the interim head coach at Penn State now, and his main duty these past few days hasn't revolved around game-planning at all -- but around those people and getting them past the departure of Bill O'Brien. He held a conference call Thursday with half the football team, and he said he'll host another call later on Friday. No player has yet voiced his desire to leave, Johnson said, and some already plan to arrive next week to hit the weight room early.

He's called up recruits -- he said they all have his number, too, if they want to chat one-on-one. At least one top recruit, ESPN 300 wideout De'Andre Thompkins has publicly stated that he remains true to his Penn State commitment.



Johnson has been charged with keeping this team together throughout another head coaching change, and he couldn't be blamed for feeling stressed or overworked.

So it was a little odd to hear him calmly address the media and refer to these last few days as "fun."

"Lost sleep, but it's been fun. It really has," Johnson said. "It's been a great deal of fun to mesh this thing together. My focus is on our players and to make sure there's a smooth transition for whoever gets the job."

Johnson said the top of his desk is an absolute mess, but that's only because the transition and short-term future of this program rests on his shoulders. He shook a few hands with TV reporters following a 12-minute interview, before briskly exiting the hallway door and climbing the stairs to his office. To do more work, undoubtedly.

He's the only coach left from the Paterno era, and he's long been a player favorite. Cincinnati Bengals DT Devon Still changed his Twitter avatar to a photo of Johnson and has spent the last 24 hours retweeting praise for the coach. He's not the only one.

It's clear, no matter what Johnson's role, that he's still incredibly important to this program.

"My reason for staying has been because of my players, I'll tell you that right now," Johnson said. "It has nothing to do with salary, money or title. When I tell a guy I'm going to be there, I believe that -- and I hope they believe that."

Johnson has long been known as the Nittany Lions' top recruiter, and it's been a surprise he hasn't yet wandered off from Happy Valley for a promotion elsewhere. He turned down a coordinator position with Illinois following the 2008 season, which would've basically doubled his salary. And then, in 2011, he declined to put his name in for Maryland's coordinator job.

His reason, according to the Harrisburg Patriot-News? He couldn't accept the gig after telling Penn State commits that he would be the one coaching them the next season.

Johnson said Friday that Penn State hasn't taken a step back -- not yet, anyway -- with O'Brien's departure. And he's right -- the extent of this impact on the Nittany Lions won't be known for weeks, maybe months. But, if PSU can get through this, Johnson will undoubtedly be a big reason for it. Even if he's not the next head coach.

"We got a great university, a great faculty, a great student body" he said. "Who wouldn't want to be a part of that?"

Looking to the past & future: DL

December, 26, 2013
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It's never too late -- or too early -- to see what we learned from this season and also look ahead to next season. So, we've started breaking down each position on the Nittany Lions.

Up today: Defensive line.

REWIND

Expectations entering the 2013 season: Believe it or not, more question marks surrounded the defensive tackles than the defensive ends. Although Gil Brandt named DaQuan Jones the best senior DT in the country, the senior was still an unproven commodity. And the starter alongside him -- Kyle Baublitz or Austin Johnson -- was widely considered a liability.

[+] EnlargeDaQuan Jones
Rob Christy/USA TODAY SportsDT DaQuan Jones lived up to the preseason hype and led the Nittany Lions in stops in the backfield and was fifth on the team in tackles.
Deion Barnes had already garnered NFL hype, and 10 sacks didn't seem out of the realm of possibility for the reigning Big Ten freshman of the year. The line wasn't expected to be as good as 2012, but it was still expected to be in relatively good shape.

How they fared: Jones was the best player on the defense, finishing fifth in tackles (56), first in stops in the backfield (11.5) and making it difficult for any tailback to find room up the middle. The combination of Johnson/Baublitz fared better than most thought, too.

But the defensive ends? Well, Barnes might've been the most disappointing player on the team. He followed up his strong freshman season with just four sacks, and he struggled with his run-defense. Bill O'Brien didn't start him for a game or two to send a message. C.J. Olaniyan played especially well in the second half of the season, although his forte wasn't exactly setting the edge, either. Still, he wound up with 11 tackles-for-loss and a team-high five sacks, four quarterback hurries and three forced fumbles. Anthony Zettel also played well in spots.

What we learned: Barnes isn't the first-round NFL lock we thought he was. At least not yet. He utilized his speed a lot in 2012, but he was just outmuscled in 2013. He needs to add weight and get stronger before his production matches his freshman season. Teams are aware of him now, so he's not taking anyone by surprise. He's going to be a huge factor on this team moving forward, and we learned he needs to add some tangibles before he reaches double-digit sacks.

Grading the position: B. No, this group wasn't as strong as 2012. But it was still the best group on the defense in 2013 and often set the tone. When the defensive ends set the edge, fans knew the team would be in OK shape. When they didn't? Disaster loomed. They were able to pressure quarterbacks in the conference season, and -- outside of the Ohio State game -- the run-defense performed well in the Big Ten.

FAST FORWARD

Key losses: Jones and Baublitz. PSU's top three DEs return, but it loses two of its best three DTs. The interior was a strength in 2013, while the ends were more of an issue. In 2014, that situation's a bit flip-flopped.

Position stock watch: Trending downward. Jared Odrick, Devon Still,Jordan Hill, Jones -- PSU has had a lot of luck finding future NFL DTs to step in one season after another. But that might end in 2014. If Barnes can improve his production from his freshman season and Olaniyan can make some strides, then it won't be all bad news. But when you lose the best player on your line -- and on your defense -- that usually doesn't work in your favor. Couple that in with Baublitz's decision to leave, and depth at defensive tackle will definitely be a concern.

Key to next season: Production of the No. 2 DT. It's as simple and as difficult as that. Johnson will return as a starter, but who will start alongside him? The early favorite is probably Zettel, who could move from DE. But incoming juco Tarow Barney (Bainbridge, Ga./Northwest Mississippi C.C.) or freshman Thomas Holley (Brooklyn, N.Y./Lincoln) playing immediately isn't a total stretch either. If PSU finds a solid replacement, this line is likely in store for another "B" grade next season. If it doesn't? It's going to have to deal with an Achilles' Heel all season. Just ask Trevor Williams how that worked out.

PSU DT Jones exceeding expectations

September, 10, 2013
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STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- DaQuan Jones doesn't blush at all from the praise. He's relaxed after peeling off his helmet, and any compliments seem to slide off his shoulders like sweat from a two-hour workout.

[+] EnlargeDaQuan Jones
Rob Christy/USA TODAY SportsDT DaQuan Jones lived up to the preseason hype and led the Nittany Lions in stops in the backfield and was fifth on the team in tackles.
The praise rolls on and Jones nods, but he's heard most of it before. Yes, he knows Gil Brandt rated him the top senior DT this season -- he found out on social media -- but that's a title he's not yet earned. Yes, he knows he leads the team in sacks (two), but he counters by saying the season's young.

But, every now and then, Jones is thrown off. You know, one reporter tells him, former cornerback Stephon Morris tweeted about how he should be a Heisman contender. Forget about Johnny Football and those billboard-grabbing quarterbacks.

"That's a bit too much," Jones said, shaking his head as if it were an insult. "That's for the skill guys."

Still, while the Heisman race might be a bit out of the humble senior's grasp, other awards like the Lombardi might just be within reach. After two games, he has five stops in the backfield. And, perhaps most impressively, he leads the Nittany Lions in tackles with 18. Only two players in the Big Ten -- Illinois LB Jonathan Brown and Iowa LB Anthony Hitchens -- have more. And Jones still has more solo stops than those two leaders.

"Seriously?" the defensive tackle asked Saturday, turning his head. "Man, that's crazy."

Crazy is right. On the field, Penn State's 318-pound defensive tackle -- who was 330-plus before laying off the local chicken-wing shop -- is focused like a prizefighter. He's friendly and gregarious after the game, like any other college student waiting to meet up with his family for a Saturday dinner, but he's another person on the field.

He talks with a slight lisp, not unlike Mike Tyson. It's a comparison others have drawn, and it's not a reach considering he constantly delivers knockout blows to the opposing line. He's mean, he's strong, and he's not a player the opposition looks forward to crossing.

"I like double teams better," he said matter-of-factly, as if he was asked his favorite ice cream flavor. "I'm a physical guy, and I like the contact. I don't shy away from them."

Added 240-pound tailback Zach Zwinak: "Even in our thud practices [where no one goes to the ground], he's definitely laid a few hits. He's a big boy."

In two games, Penn State has limited rushers to just 1.8 yards a carry and Jones has become the main ingredient in those three-and-outs. Against Syracuse, on three straight rushing plays to end the half, Jones came up with three straight tackles -- even when the Orange tried to avoid Jones by running off to the right on third down. (Jones happened to bring the ball-carrier down in the backfield for a one-yard loss, anyway.)

Trying to stop Jones is about as easy as about as trying to stop a run-away tractor trailer. You can try … but you'll probably get hurt in the process. Still, maybe that shouldn't be so surprising given the school's history at defensive tackle. Jones isn't an exception; he's really part of a trend.

He landed in Happy Valley months after the Miami Dolphins drafted Jared Odrick in the first round. He watched teammate Devon Still become a second-rounder in 2012 and then saw Jordan Hill head to the Seattle Seahawks in the third round this past offseason. Compare him to the past DT greats, say he's better, say he's worse -- but Jones is remaining level-headed.

"I want to be known for who I am," Jones said. "I didn't come here to live in anyone's shadows."

Jones is sincere and soft-spoken. When he says he's playing for fun and not awards, it's easy to believe him. He'll laugh when he talks about his pregame ritual with teammate Deion Barnes and how they'll just slap the back of each other's heads if one doesn't seem loose enough. And he'll narrow his eyebrows and softly glare, as if to say "Seriously?," when someone dishes out some praise. Part of the reason might just be because he doesn't yet believe himself that he's posted up some mind-boggling numbers.

Here's another: Last season, Jones started 11 games and finished the season with eight solo tackles and two tackles-for-loss. In Week 1 of this year, he already had eight solo tackles and three-tackles-for-loss.

"You know, it came up last week that somebody mentioned people were concerned about our interior defensive line play," defensive coordinator John Butler said. "But that's one of our strengths. DaQuan Jones is a great player. … DaQuan is very unselfish. If he keeps playing the way he's playing, he's going to have a long future playing football after Penn State."

Jones is as comfortable on the gridiron as he is off it. This is his final Penn State season and his last year as a college student, so he said he's going to enjoy it. And so far -- much to the chagrin of opposing offenses -- he sure has.
As part of an ongoing series, NittanyNation will preview a different position leading up to the season opener against Syracuse on Aug. 31. Up today: Defensive tackles.

Projected starters: DaQuan Jones (2012 stats: 22 tackles, two tackles-for-loss, one fumble recovery) and Kyle Baublitz (three tackles, one sack).

Key losses: Jordan Hill (64 tackles, 8.5 tackles-for-loss, 4.5 sacks, one interception, one forced fumble, one fumble recovery) and James Terry (13 tackles, one sack).

Next in line: Redshirt freshman Austin Johnson might not be next in line -- he could very well overtake Baublitz as a starter. Bill O'Brien said on his weekly radio show last season that he expected big things out of the younger defensive tackle, and he's already 21 pounds heavier than Baublitz.

[+] EnlargeDaQuan Jones
Vinny Carchietta/Icon SMIHow Penn State's defense performs in 2013 will be dependent on how DaQuan Jones plays at defensive tackle.
Regardless, the top three players at this position should see plenty of time. The big question is just who comes in at No. 4. That would be a logjam, and none of the options are all that exciting just yet.

Derek Dowrey, Brian Gaia and Tyrone Smith will all compete to see who sees situational time a la Baublitz in 2012. True freshman Parker Cothren likely needs a redshirt season to add bulk before he sees any time on the field.

What to expect: Huge expectations are being squarely placed on the shoulders of Jones, and he'll need to match Hill's performance to live up to all the hype. Gil Brandt recently named Jones the top senior DT in the country -- which was a little surprising considering he made just 12 tackles in the last nine games once Hill faced fewer double-teams and stepped up his game. By comparison, Jones made 10 tackles in the first three games.

For this defensive line to find success, Jones will have to become quickly accustomed to those double teams -- because it'd be an even bigger surprise if teams sent just one interior lineman after him. This position is one of the bigger concerns on the team because, even if the 318-pound Jones does succeed, his other starting teammate will likely be overmatched this season.

Baublitz appears to be a band-aid until Johnson is ready to take off. And Johnson undoubtedly boasts a high ceiling -- but it doesn't seem as if this is the season it will all come together. If the staff had that much faith in him, he would've initially been named starter over Baublitz. Expect PSU's 23rd-ranked run defense to drop, at least a little, in the rankings.

Recruiting trail: The Nittany Lions have already picked up one 2014 prospect in Antoine White (Millville, N.J./Millville), a three-star commit whom ESPN scouts label a "tweener" but who also "gives good effort in pursuit and is a solid wrap-up tackler."

He's about 270 pounds right now, so he needs to bulk up. But PSU's staff really liked the explosiveness of his first step and like his attitude. His high school coach said he and a teammate constantly put in extra work, and White was the lone junior captain on his team last season.

PSU also appears intent on grabbing at least one more DT, likely either ESPN 300 prospect Thomas Holley (Brooklyn, N.Y./Lincoln) or a junior college DT such as Joe Keels (Highland, Kan./Highland C.C.).

Best-case scenario: Jones picks up right where Hill left off and becomes an unstoppable run-stuffer who lives up to Brandt's top billing. PSU's No. 23 run defense holds steady, while Johnson breaks out and shows fans that he'll be a four-year starter.

Worst-case scenario: Jones initially struggles with double teams and gets hurt later in the season, leaving an inexperienced Johnson and a limited Baublitz as the starters. Those two struggle, and Big Ten running backs set up their respective offenses by running straight up the middle.

Top position question: If Jones falters, what happens to this defense? Penn State can't withstand mediocre performances at defensive tackle and linebacker. If Jones doesn't live up to expectations, it'll have an ripple effect on the entire defense.

If Jones doesn't play well, that means more work for middle linebacker Glenn Carson -- who's been the beneficiary of some great DTs in NFL draft picks Hill and Devon Still. Jones is crucial to this defense's success in a lot of ways, and it was able to overcome a young secondary last season by limiting opponents to 3.54 yards a carry on the ground. If Jones struggles, those rushing numbers increase.

And if those rushing numbers increase? PSU allowed more than four yards a carry in just two of the last 10 seasons. In 2003, it allowed 4.29 yards a carry and finished with a 3-9 record. In 2010, PSU allowed 4.46 yards a carry and went 7-6. In other words, if Jones falters and the run defense struggles, then it might become tricky to get to eight wins.

NittanyNation mailbag: Sanctions, maybes 

February, 1, 2013
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Tyler BoydAP Photo/Phelan M. EbenhackTyler Boyd likely would have committed to PSU if there were no sanctions.

Welcome to NittanyNation's bi-weekly mailbag! We asked you to tweet or email your questions this week, and we've selected three to answer in-depth.

William Amesbury (@WAmesbury16) writes: Where do you think the 2013 recruiting class would be without the sanctions?

Defensive tackle Jordan Hill might have been frustrated by a slow start, but a strong, 12-tackle performance in the final game has undoubtedly increased his draft stock, according to Scouts Inc.'s Steve Muench.

"He's making a strong case to be taken on Day 2 of the draft," Muench wrote.

Hill opened this season at the one-technique and was greeted in most games by double-teams. He wasn't used to it; he played the three-technique the year before, and Devon Still's ability ensured Hill didn't deal with multiple offensive linemen in 2011.

Through three games, Hill didn't record a single stop in the backfield. But Bill O'Brien decided to move him back to the three-technique, his usual position just outside the guard, and Hill was told to stop trying to take on both linemen during a double-team. He started focusing on just one.

Those simple changes obviously paid dividends. In the last nine games, Hill had 8.5 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks. In the final game, he turned in his most dominating performance and had two sacks and three stops in the backfield.

Some coaches, such as Iowa's Kirk Ferentz, went out of their way to laud the defensive tackle. O'Brien has insisted Hill is one of the best interior linemen in college football. At 6-foot-0, he's not the tallest defensive tackle, but his motor definitely has NFL coaches talking.

For more on Hill, read Muench's Stock Report.

Saturday's player to watch: DT Hill 

November, 23, 2012
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Everyone will closely watch Mike Hull and Matt McGloin, but who else should play a critical role in Saturday's game? NittanyNation ventures outside the box against Wisconsin.

This week's impact player: Jordan Hill, senior defensive tackle

He's still limited in practice with a left knee injury, but he'll try to play through the pain on Saturday -- especially with his backup, James Terry, listed as "day-to-day." Hill is a player to watch because he's faced with a tall order against Wisconsin and the key to the game: Stop Montee Ball.

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DT James Terry relishing increased role

November, 7, 2012
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For five years, defensive tackle James Terry has stood on the sidelines and watched.

[+] EnlargeJordan Hill
MCT/ZUMA Press/Icon SMIWith Jordan Hill (above) out due to injury, James Terry will get an expanded role.
He saw Devon Still wreak havoc in opposing backfields and then become an NFL starter. He looked on as Jared Odrick earned Big Ten Player of the Year honors, and he saw Ollie Ogbu sign with Indianapolis.

In half-a-decade and 38 career games, he's seen six defenders leap ahead of him on the depth chart. And he's competed in just one token start, where he stood on Beaver Stadium's turf for 24 snaps.

But, this week, Terry realizes he could finally get his chance. This weekend, he could be the starter. And, with Jordan Hill's sprained left knee, it won't simply be to see his name first on the depth chart.

"I don't really think I got frustrated at all," he said about his role Wednesday. "I've been waiting for my chance. And whenever my number got called, I was going to be ready to go.

"I don't really think of it as getting a shot. I just think of it as this is my time to step up and do my thing."

Terry often stared across the field the last five years, trying to break down live play as if it were film. He said he'd try to pick up nuances from Hill and Still, adding them to his own repertoire.

He didn't know when his jersey number -- 93 -- might be called. The Delaware native just tried to be ready. And, Saturday, when Hill writhed in pain on the 40-yard line, that time came.

Terry's role instantly evolved from a spectator, a situational player, to an athlete now practicing with the first-team.

"I've gone against him my whole career, and he's kind of always been the backup to Jordan Hill," fifth-year senior Matt Stankiewitch said. "And with Hill going day-to-day, I go against Terry a lot. He's a very strong individual and has a very strong bull-rush."

Terry, a 316-pound grad student, dispelled any notion of nerves. He's been on this team since 2008, when some current freshmen were first graduating from the jayvee team. He said he's never seen more than 45 snaps -- and he seemed more eager Wednesday than fearful.

Come Saturday, he expected to see at least 50 plays. And he can't wait to show what he can do with some extra playing time.

"Getting a more extended role, I think people will see the kind of player I am," he said.

Instead of standing on the sideline Saturday, Terry will have to do most of his watching with one hand in the dirt. He's seen Abe Koroma and DaQuan Jones, along with four other DTs, ahead of him on the depth chart.

But, after five seasons, he's finally through watching as the backup.

Five lessons learned from the Iowa game 

October, 21, 2012
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Bill Belton, Quinn EvansEvan Habeeb/US PRESSWIREBill Belton started slow but is emerging as a threat for Penn State.
Matt McGloin is one of the best pocket-passers in the Big Ten, Michael Mauti is an incredible linebacker, yadda yadda yadda -- we already know all that.

But Penn State's win against Iowa showed a few other things, elements that weren't so evident just two days ago. NittanyNation takes a closer look at the five things learned from the 38-14 victory over the Hawkeyes:

1. The NASCAR no-huddle offense will become an even bigger part of this team's identity. Bill O'Brien implemented this fast-paced offense in the spring, so McGloin & Co. have understandably caught onto this little by little. But, midway through the season, this offense seems to have a firm grasp of the pace, communication and quick reads necessary to execute. O'Brien called for the no-huddle early and often against the Hawkeyes, and cornerback Stephon Morris told reporters this is just the beginning: "That wasn't NASCAR. Our NASCAR, it's up-tempo. It's really fast. It's faster than what y'all have seen."

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Grading the Lions: Midseason report card 

October, 14, 2012
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Bill O'Brien spent the bye week evaluating his talent at midseason, so NittanyNation felt inspired to do the same.

Here's the Nittany Lions' midseason report card:

Quarterbacks: A

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Penn State awards tracker: Week 5

October, 2, 2012
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The awards picture is starting to materialize, and one Penn State player might soon become a favorite to win an award or two.

Every week, NittanyNation will check in and update how some of its best players are faring on the awards lists. Penn State has five players vying for 10 awards this season, and three of those five players are on defense.

Two players watched their stock drop after Saturday's performance, but a few slid up the charts:

LB Michael Mauti (Butkus, Bednarik): If the season ended tomorrow, Mauti would be on the short list for these awards. The Walter Camp Football Foundation believed no defender played better than him Saturday, and it would be difficult to argue otherwise. Mauti finished with two interceptions and half a sack. His forced fumble was not reflected in the stats because it was later ruled the ball was coming out before Mauti's tackle. Regardless, this was the best game from a Penn State linebacker in a long time -- and Mauti shot up every award list this week.

WR Allen Robinson (Biletnikoff): The sophomore's video-game numbers finally ended Saturday, as he came away with just three catches for 35 yards. He'll see more double-teams in this Big Ten season, and the Northwestern game will go a long way in determining whether this last contest was an exception or the new norm. All A-Rob stock is on "hold" right now.

[+] EnlargeGerald Hodges
Kevin Jairaj/US PresswireLinebacker Gerald Hodges hasn't had a breakout season.
LB Gerald Hodges (Bednarik, Butkus, Lombardi, Nagurski): He's a solid linebacker, but he's no longer the best on the team. He can't win awards when Mauti has outshined him every single week. He's having a good season but not one worthy of national discussion. He has 39 tackles but just 11 of those are solo; five PSU players have more solo stops. Couple that with his lack of tackles-for-loss (one for minus-5 yards) and forcing just two turnovers, and he might no longer even be a favorite for the All-Big Ten First Team.

DT Jordan Hill (Lombardi, Outland): The senior admitted last week he was frustrated about his lack of production. Without Devon Still, Hill has faced constant double-teams and hasn't been able to fight through them. His ability is allowing teammates to make plays, but it isn't helping his award prospects. He has just one stop in the backfield this season and recorded just 20 tackles. At this time last season, Hill had five tackles for loss and 25 stops.

C Matt Stankiewitch (Rimington): The center could make a push on this list if all his games were like the last one. Penn State ran up the middle early and often behind Stankiewitch and finished with 173 yards. The Nittany Lions' offense is still ranked just No. 86 in the country, though, and it will have to do a little better for the senior to get noticed. The awards committee almost never hands a trophy to a player whose rushing offense isn't ranked within the top 40.

Notebook: DT Hill adjusting to new role

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Read full post)

Nittany Lions in the NFL: DL and DB

August, 23, 2012
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Cameron WakeScott Boehm/Getty ImagesAfter a tour in the CFL, Cameron Wake has turned into a pass-rushing threat with the Miami Dolphins.
NittanyNation takes a look at every Penn State player currently playing in the NFL -- where they are, what their role is and what their careers have looked like.

NittanyNation will look at defensive linemen and defensive backs this afternoon and already glanced at linebackers and punters this morning.

Justin King, CB, Indianapolis Colts
Height/weight/age: 5-11/197/25
Role: Backup
PSU career: A highly-touted prospect who, like Derrick Williams, contributed solidly but never quite lived up to his elite billing. King declared for the draft after his junior season. King had 49 tackles in his final season with Penn State along with two interceptions.
NFL career: Drafted in the fourth round in 2008. Played 35 games for the St. Louis Rams before signing with Indianapolis. Tore a ligament his rookie season but rebounded by seeing time in eight games in 2010. He started 12 games last season with 58 tackles, one interception and one forced fumble. King had six tackles in Week 1 of the preseason.

(Read full post)

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