Penn State Nittany Lions: Eric Shrive
The top pick will be unveiled Friday. But up today is a group that wouldn't be a bad choice for No. 1 either ...
No. 2: Offensive line
Last season: This group started off slow and struggled picking up the heavy blitz, but it really improved as the season wore on. Tailbacks Zach Zwinak and Bill Belton combined for just two 100-yard rushing performances in the first seven games but finished the last five games with five -- and Penn State even outplayed Wisconsin's mammoth line in the finale. John Urschel was a first-team All-Big Ten selection, while three substitutes -- Garry Gilliam, Eric Shrive and Mangiro -- saw considerable time.
What's missing: Experience and depth. Eight players saw a lot of time last season and five are now gone. PSU has just one returning offensive tackle on scholarship with any kind of game experience, and new coach James Franklin will be forced to plug in two rookies on the starting line. Health is obviously paramount here.
Moving forward: Former coach Bill O'Brien raved about Nelson, who redshirted last season as a freshman, and Nelson will almost certainly take over the starting right tackle position. There's really no one else to consider, outside of incoming freshmen and walk-ons. But the big question comes from the interior. At guard and/or center, Dieffenbach and Mangiro will be a part of some kind of combination, but there's no telling who else fits into Franklin's plans. Laurent could be the center. Or Mangiro could take over that position and Franklin could slide in Mahon at one of the guard positions. Or maybe Franklin decides to move a defensive tackle to the offensive side of the ball. There are a lot of moving pieces right now, and a lot has to go right for this group to start off smoothly. The question marks surrounding this position likely won't be answered by Week 1.
Here's a look at each player, what he has meant to the team and who will be taking his place next season:
DT Kyle Baublitz, 6-foot-5, 281 pounds
Season stats: Started seven out of 10 games. 17 tackles, two sacks, one blocked kick.
Synopsis: Baublitz announced Saturday he decided to move on with his life and will perform student-teaching next year at State College Area High School instead of starting along the PSU interior. He will be missed immensely, as he was expected to start alongside Austin Johnson in 2014 as the clear No. 1. His departure leaves PSU in a very difficult spot with DaQuan Jones graduating. PSU clearly doesn't feel very good at this position because it continues to go after juco defensive tackles -- and it wouldn't be out of the question for a first-year player to make an impact next year either.
Taking over: No returning defensive tackles have a lot of experience (i.e. -- Derek Dowrey and Brian Gaia), so the smart money would be on defensive end Anthony Zettel moving inside. Zettel said several weeks ago he feels confident he can make an impact along the interior, and PSU could certainly use him. PSU likes to use at least three players on a rotation, so expect Zettel-Johnson to start inside with another guy -- possibly a first-year player -- also seeing a good amount of time.
RT Garry Gilliam, 6-6, 303
Seasons stats: Played in nine games and started four. Helped PSU average 4.2 ypc.
Synopsis: Gilliam is easily the most surprising of the bunch. He moved from tight end to offensive tackle in the offseason, and he has done a tremendous job at transitioning. He has battled Adam Gress for the starting spot all season and, if he returned next year, he'd almost certainly be the starter opposite LT Donovan Smith -- especially considering the other competition, Gress and Eric Shrive, are set to graduate. There's not a lot of options at offensive tackle with Gilliam leaving.
Taking over: O'Brien has been high on freshman Andrew Nelson all season, and he could be the heir apparent. There really aren't too many other options. Anthony Alosi can play both guard and tackle -- but he'll be the only other returning player who's listed as a tackle on the roster. PSU needs to replace two inside linemen, too, so moving a guard to the outside will require quite a bit of forward thinking.
WR Alex Kenney, 6-0, 195.
Season stats: Played in six games with zero starts. Has three catches for 25 yards.
Synopsis: He's the least-surprising player to graduate early. He came in to Penn State as a four-star recruit, but he never really made an impact. He always seemed to be a track athlete in a football uniform. He was supplanted this season by freshman Richy Anderson, and he hasn't caught a pass since Week 3. Even with PSU's top-two receivers likely leaving after this season, Kenney still wouldn't have seen time next season.
Taking over: Anderson has already taken over for Kenney, so it's not much of a stretch to think he'll stay at his slot position. Anderson has 11 catches for 95 yards so far.
Projected starters: Adam Gress (6-foot-6, 320 pounds), John Urschel (6-3, 301), Ty Howle (6-0, 293), Miles Dieffenbach (6-3, 295) and Donovan Smith (6-5, 322)
Key losses: RT Mike Farrell and C Matt Stankiewitch
Next in line: The Nittany Lions will use a rotation again this season, with Angelo Mangiro as the next man up when it comes to the interior. At tackle, Eric Shrive and Garry Gilliam will compete for time. (Shrive is also versatile enough to play inside.)
Those three should see the most time besides the starters. Others who could contribute include Anthony Alosi, Wendy Laurent and true freshman Andrew Nelson.
What to expect: With another season under OL coach Mac McWhorter and strength coach Craig Fitzgerald, this line should take another step forward. Sure, the loss of Stankiewitch and Farrell hurt -- but Howle isn't that much of a downgrade and Smith is healthy for a change.
If the right tackle (Gress or Gilliam) can get off to a good start, this line will be better than last season. Smith could be the next great lineman at Penn State, and the interior is very strong. As a result, Zach Zwinak should see plenty of holes inside and the running game should improve.
This group isn't entirely bigger weight-wise -- Gress, Howle and Dieffenbach lost weight from last season -- but don't let that fool you. This group is stronger, literally, from last season and should push around opposing defensive linemen a bit more.
Recruiting trail: In-state product Noah Beh (Scranton, Pa./Scranton Prep) is the lone offensive lineman of the 2014 class right now, and he won't make an instant impact at Penn State. He's no more than 260 pounds, so he'll need some time to fill out.
On the plus side, he can also play on the defensive line. And he has a lot of upside. Next season, however, could be the "Year of the Offensive Lineman" for Penn State.
PSU could take about three prospects there, and it's already extended offers to more than a half-dozen players -- including the likes of ESPN Junior 300 prospects Sterling Jenkins (Pittsburgh, Pa./Baldwin), Tristen Hoge (Pocatello, Idaho/Highland), Ryan Bates (Warminster, Pa./Archbishop Wood) and Richie Petitbon (Washington, D.C./Gonzaga).
Best-case scenario: At least three linemen earn All-Big Ten honors, as Smith breaks out and earns a reputation as Levi Brown's heir apparent. The line takes great strides, further increasing the legend of the crazy-in-a-good-way strength coach. (He wears shorts in 20-degree temperatures, does the worm before some games and once licked the gym floor to fire up his players.) Fans can breathe easy in future years knowing the linemen are in the hands of Fitzgerald and McWhorter.
Worst-case scenario: The right tackle is a big letdown and creates havoc along the line, while Smith shows himself to be injury prone. The interior is still good, but the tackles struggle without Smith and don't give the quarterback much time to throw.
Top position question: How does Donovan Smith compare to Levi Brown? Well, the last staff sure thought they were similar -- because that was one of the Nittany Lions' big recruiting pitches.
Former PSU coach Bill Kenney playfully pulled aside Smith's seat during a recruiting trip in 2010, telling him it was Brown's seat. The two were both initially recruited to play the defensive line, and Kenney showed Smith some clips of the 2007 first-round NFL draft pick.
Brown, 29, is currently listed at 6-6 and 324 pounds. Smith is 6-5, 322. And Urschel previously hinted that Smith held more potential than second-round pick Stefen Wisniewski. So Smith certainly has the potential to follow in Brown's footsteps.
Heading into his redshirt senior season, Shrive has yet to break into the starting lineup, though he will battle for the right tackle job next month in preseason camp.
"I want to be a starter and I'm working toward that every day," he told ESPN.com. "But I'll do anything I can to help the team."
Shrive is president of the school's Uplifting Athletes chapter and will lead Penn State's 11th annual Lift for Life event later today in State College. Earlier this week, Shrive surpassed his goal of raising $100,000 for kidney research during his career. That includes more than $35,000 in pledges he has secured for today's event (full info for the event can be found here).
"Fundraising is kind of my thing," he said. "I found my niche there."
Shrive got into it mostly by happenstance. When he was a freshman, then-Penn State senior Brett Brackett invited him to join Uplifting Athletes. Shrive viewed it mostly as a way to get to know his teammates better. He found himself loving the work the group did to raise money and awareness for rare diseases. Then something really brought those efforts home: his uncle, Marty King, was diagnosed with kidney cancer in 2011. Watching his uncle struggle with the disease -- King is doing well today, Shrive says -- made him focus even more on the charity work.
Shrive served as vice president of Uplifting Athletes for two years before becoming president. He wrote handwritten letters and emails to potential donors. He held his own fundraisers, such as the one he put on in his hometown of Scranton earlier this month. He also coordinated stunts to raise awareness, such as when he and some teammates performed 7,000 pushups at this year's Michigan-Penn State basketball game to symbolize 7,000 rare diseases.
"I've spent a lot of hours on this, but all the time spent has been paid off," he said. "Every year, a different person comes up to you and thanks you, gives you a big hug and tells you that they've been touched by a terrible disease. That's why you do it. You don't do it for recognition; you do it for the people that you may touch, for the lives you are able to hopefully change."
Former Penn State players Scott Shirley, Dave Costlow and Damone Jones founded Uplifting Athletes in 2003, shortly after Shirley's father was diagnosed with kidney cancer (you can read about Shirley's story here). They raised about $13,000 in the first Lift for Life event, and to date the series of weight-lifting competitions has generated more than $700,000 for kidney cancer research.
Shirley said there was only one kidney cancer treatment on the market when his dad, Don, died in 2005. There are now eight new treatments available, and Shirley said the Kidney Cancer Association credits his group's work as the catalyst for that.
Uplifting Athletes now has 21 chapters across the country, all based around Division I football teams. I spoke to Shirley on Thursday as he was about to board a plane to South Carolina, which held the first Lift for Life event in the SEC. Uplifting Athletes also names a Rare Disease Champion each year. That's how Jack Hoffman became famous, as Nebraska's Rex Burkhead was honored for his work with the young cancer patient in 2012. Shrive won the award this year.
Shrive has set a goal of $300,000 raised for today's Penn State Lift for Life. As of Wednesday, he said, the team had gotten about $90,000 in donations, with more expected to roll in closer to the event. Shirley said Shrive is the first student to personally raise $100,000 during his playing career.
"That kind of gets the competitive juices flowing for other guys," Shirley said. "That's the nature of sport. If we can leverage that to help people, that's a good thing.
"I've been around Eric, and I think a lot of his support has come from hometown. Scranton is a blue-collar city that really rallys around each other, and he's done a good job of engaging people from his hometown and helping them understand why this fight is so important and why we need to come together."
Shrive is set to graduate this December with a degree in hotel and restaurant management. Though he said his full focus will be on football this fall, he has thought about starting his own charitable foundation after graduation, using the skills and connections he has gained through Uplifting Athletes.
Even if the former five-star recruit doesn't ever start a game at Penn State, the school got more than it could have imagined from Shrive by bringing him to campus.
But Garry Gilliam, a tight end turned offensive tackle, is up. He tweeted, at 4:39 a.m, "They sleep, we grind. They dream, we shine."
On this Friday, Penn State football players' days have already started. In about 30 minutes, their morning workouts will begin.
Bill O'Brien walks onto the field with a whistle draped around his neck. The players are still inside the building, throwing on their gray T-shirts and blue shorts, and Penn State's dimple-chinned coach awaits them in the 31-degree weather.
Four bright stadium lights for the practice field are flipped on, and snow covers the perimeter of the turf. O'Brien chats with the staff and grad assistants, who constantly shift their weight from one leg to another to stay warm. He's cracking jokes, smiling and seems to be acting as if it's 3 p.m. He's ready.
"We should've had this at 3," he says with a nod.
About five minutes later, players burst from the weight room doors. Some hold their hands in the air, almost as if they're running through the south tunnel of Beaver Stadium. They yell, they chatter, they run.
The nearby stereo starts blaring LMFAO's "Party Rock Anthem," and the drills begin.
Strength and conditioning coach Craig Fitzgerald, an eccentric-but-beloved guy who's been known to lick the weight room floor and do the worm in pregames, is dressed in his trademark shorts, backward hat and T-shirt.
Players break into six groups. Some flip tires, others weave through cones, and others stretch. Fitzgerald guides about a dozen to the northwest corner of the field. If he pumps his arms left, they go left. Right, they go right. Down? Their stomachs kiss the turf.
But O'Brien isn't liking what he's seeing. He cuts the music, and the entire field falls silent like a third-grade classroom that's ticked off the schoolteacher for the last time.
"I don't see the intensity I'm expecting!" O'Brien barks. "Let's do it!"
The pace noticeably picks up.
For every elite prospect who falls short, there's an Allen Robinson -- an under-the-radar, two-star prospect who exceeds all expectations. The only true way to gauge the success of a recruiting class is in hindsight, by simply waiting.
So, as part of a RecruitingNation-wide series, NittanyNation took a closer look at PSU's Class of 2009. Some fifth-year seniors will have one more chance to show what they have on the field next fall. But, at this point, it's pretty safe to judge whether the class was a bust or not.
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For every hit, there's a miss. So, NittanyNation decided to take a look at five big-name recruits -- from the 2006 class and on -- that never were. Here they are:
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Without the specter of the sanctions, this class would be even better. But how does it rank now compared to past Penn State classes? Is this class just as good, or has it noticeably slid a little?
NittanyNation takes a look back at the last four classes and sees how 2013 stacks up.
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"Calm down, James," his coach told him.
The 2014 offensive tackle out of Dunmore (Pa.) couldn't help it. He was told shortly before that practice that Penn State's offensive line coach, Mac McWhorter, would be in the stands for Friday's game -- and McHale wanted to make sure he prepared himself as much as possible.
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NittanyNation brings you some of those memorable tweets:
S Stephen Obeng-Agyapong: The whole nation knows what really happened.....(Link)
WR Matt Zanellato: I'm not an official but I'm pretty sure that ball is over the line. But I mean they didn't review it...Oh wait (Link)
TE Garry Gilliam: Looks like a touchdown to me.. (Link)
CB Stephon Morris: This hurts. Can't let em see my tears. Last time ever wearing the away uniforms. (Link)
OG Eric Shrive: Unbelievable. (Link)
Christian Hackenberg, 2013 commit: Looks like its us against the world! I love it. (Link)
Adam Breneman, 2013 commit: PSU vs. the world. (Link)
Greg Miclisse, 2014 recruit: They cheating PSU! (Link)
Zack Mills, former PSU QB: That was a terrible review (Link)
Adam Taliaferro, former PSU CB and current Board of Trustee: Refs...you win (Link)
Mike Pereira, former VP of Officiating for NFL (no PSU affiliation): It's a close play in PSU/NEB but if it was me I would've reversed it to a touchdown. Seems to have control when the ball broke the plane. (Link)
"Nice weather," said a visitor. "Wish it were Saturday."
"Me too," a grinning Hixon said, before jogging off to coach the receivers.
Hixon later had reason to smile -- his wideouts caught everything in preparation of Saturday's Northwestern game. The assistant head coach stood 12 yards in front of the quarterbacks and didn't raise his voice once during the open session of Wednesday's practice.
He glanced down a few times at a folded piece of paper, directed his players in a soft tone and sometimes pulled a player aside. He'd pump his arms to mimic route-running and send the player off with a pat.
Matt McGloin completed seven straight passes to Hixon's wideouts, mostly on intermediate routes, before a large digital clock showed all zeroes to indicate the drill was over. No wideout dropped a pass, and the only incompletion -- from Steven Bench -- came on a miscommunication with Matt Zanellato.
Trevor Williams caught two balls for 36 yards, Allen Robinson grabbed two receptions for 28 yards, and Brandon Moseby-Felder had two grabs for 21 yards. Alex Kenney also caught a 16-yard pass.
There's no Scantron, no multiple-choice and no true-false softballs inside the Lasch Football Building. Instead, Penn State assistant Mac McWhorter distributes in-depth, open-ended exams to the offensive linemen.
The coach diagrams the opponent's favorite blitzes and depth chart, and the linemen must choose plays that best counter the opposition's look.
"It's not so much a grade, but moreso letting us know where we messed up," Dieffenbach said. "They don't want us to use our notes, and we try to fill it out as best we can and then we give it to the coaches and, the next day, they give it back."
McWhorter's weekly test is as unavoidable as contact during blocking drills. Everyone's required to sit down and take the exam -- starters, backups, even injured players.
There are no exceptions because Bill O'Brien has emphasized maintaining a rotation and fresh line. Backups Angelo Mangiro and Ty Howle will find themselves in at guard at some point, while Eric Shrive and Adam Gress will rotate in at tackle.
"Anytime you can add depth, that's good," O'Brien said. "I think these guys are playing well together."
Penn State's rushing average has slowy risen since Week 2 -- from 2.9 yards a carry to 3.9 to 4.1. And players believe the offensive line's improvement is a big reason for that.
Zach Zwinak initially shrugged Saturday when asked how this team has improved its running offense, especially when it started four different tailbacks in four weeks. Zwinak thought for another moment before settling on the answer.
"The offensive line," he said. "They've been playing really well."
Dieffenbach said he's improved his exam results every week, but he knows the real test -- the tougher test -- comes Saturday. Illinois is the best defensive line they've seen yet, and O'Brien said the unit reminded him a lot of Penn State's.
"I would definitely say this is the best front four," he said. "They're the biggest, strongest, fastest."
McWhorter will have another exam waiting for Dieffenbach and Co. on Thursday. Reporters and fans may not know the test results, but Saturday will likely be a good indicator.
"It's a pretty in-depth kind of exam," Dieffenbach added.
"Bam!" Fisher yelled when the football hit Bill Belton's stomach. "C'mon! Good!"
Bill O'Brien asked the media to leave soon after those positional drills, but NittanyNation still found some highlights to the short-lived open practice:
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College Football Top Plays: Bowl Season
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