Penn State Nittany Lions: Garry Gilliam

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Go ahead, underestimate Allen Robinson. He doesn’t care; he’s used to it.

Robinson was a consensus two-star prospect in high school. He caught three passes as a college freshman. And, before his sophomore season, the media focused on players such as Alex Kenney and Shawney Kersey as possible stars.

[+] EnlargeAllen Robinson
AP Photo/Doug McSchoolerDespite a highly productive college career, Allen Robinson understands that NFL scouts have their doubts about his speed.
Everyone, outside of Robinson’s close friends and family, overlooked the skinny kid wearing No. 8. No one foresaw two back-to-back B1G receiver of the year awards or Biletnikoff watch lists. And now, exactly a month before the draft, some analysts have taken to saying he’s not one of the elite wideouts in this draft -- that the junior is maybe a third-round talent.

Robinson hears all the chatter; it just doesn’t bother him. He has been here before.

“My whole life has been sitting around waiting,” he said after Penn State’s Tuesday pro day. “So whatever round I go in, it is what it is. But at the same time, when I get to my team, I’m going to grind and earn my spot.”

The Michigan native, who caught high school passes from four-star recruit Rob Bolden, knows some have criticized his breakaway speed, or lack thereof. (NFL.com’s profile of him lists that as his main weakness.) The concern is he’s too slow to be a productive NFL wideout, that he’s a solid college wideout whose NFL stock dropped considerably since running a 4.6-second 40.

That’s not news to Robinson, but he has made a career out of proving doubters wrong. He centered a lot of his training around improving that 40-yard dash in time for Tuesday’s pro day. And, according to Robinson, scouts approached him afterward and told him he clocked a sub-4.5.

He also finished with a 42-inch vertical, a three-cone time of 6.53 seconds and a broad jump of 10 feet, 11 inches. All of those numbers were improvements from the NFL combine numbers.

“I’ve seen a lot of improvement in myself,” Robinson said. “I feel like I made the best decision I could’ve made [declaring early], and I’m comfortable with that.”

Robinson doesn’t know where he’ll go in the draft. Maybe he’ll surprise the analysts and be picked in the second round, or maybe even the first. But, wherever he goes, he said he wouldn’t be disappointed. And wherever he goes, no one is counting him out this time around.

“Everyone’s dream is to go in the first round, but I can’t control that,” he said. “So wherever I end up going, God has blessed me with being picked by a team. All I can do is stay prepared and ready and, once my name is called, show those guys what I can do and earn my spot on the field.”

Not stressing out: Defensive tackle DaQuan Jones might be the first Penn State player taken in next month’s NFL draft, but he’s trying not to think about that.

“You really don’t know until the draft so, right now, I’m not really stressing about it,” said Jones, who has been projected to go as early as the second round. “All I can do now is take care of my body.”

Jones weighed in at 324 pounds, a six-pound gain since the start of last season, and stood at 6-foot-3. He said teams have approached him as both a 3-4 and 4-3 defensive tackle, and he’s fine with either.

“Everyone’s going to multiple defenses,” he said, “so you’re going to play either/or no matter where you go.”

High risk … high reward?: Tight end-turned-offensive tackle Garry Gilliam was present for pro day, and it’s a good thing he was. A lot of NFL scouts didn’t even know he declared.

“They actually said they didn’t know I was coming out,” said Gilliam, who had one year of eligibility remaining and declared late. “So it was huge to come out here.”

Gilliam probably could have benefited from another season at Penn State. He played only one season as an offensive tackle after bulking up last offseason. But, at 23 years old and with two degrees already, Gilliam felt it was time to move on.

He came in Tuesday at 6-6, 306 pounds and ran a sub-5-second 40. But his upper body strength has teams worried, as he did between 19 and 20 reps on the bench press.

“I think they know I’m a raw player and they need to develop me,” he said, “but I think they’ll take a shot to do it.”

Disrespected: Middle linebacker Glenn Carson didn’t receive an invitation to last month’s NFL combine. And he doesn’t plan to forget that snub anytime soon.

“I definitely came in today with a chip on my shoulder,” he said. “I felt as if I should’ve gotten a combine invite, and that’s why I had to go out there and impress people today.

“I felt like I was a little underappreciated, but all you have to do is put your head down and work. And that’s what I did for these past three months.”

Carson could wind up as a priority free agent, but he’s not expected to be drafted. Still, he felt as if he improved his stock on Tuesday and said several scouts complimented his performance and how he played “smooth.”

“It would be awesome to get drafted,” Carson said.
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Spring practice is still several weeks away, so we're bringing you a different countdown every week to try to make that time tick a little faster.

This week's countdown involves a look back at the past decade of recruiting classes, from 2004 on, and figuring out the five most impactful groups. Up today is a more recent class, so the names here will definitely ring a bell ...

No. 5 most impactful class: Class of 2011

Top prospects: DB Adrian Amos, DE Deion Barnes, RB Bill Belton, TE Kyle Carter, LB Ben Kline, OG Angelo Mangiro, WR Allen Robinson, OT Donovan Smith, DL Anthony Zettel

[+] EnlargeAllen Robinson
AP Photo/John BealeAllen Robinson came to Penn State as a two-star prospect. He left as one of the greatest wide receivers in school history.
Biggest surprise: Robinson. He came in as a two-star prospect with the second-lowest grade of the class, behind only OL Anthony Alosi. Three years later, he's leaving Penn State early as one of its greatest wide receivers ever. He set the single-season school records for both catches (97) and yards (1,432), and accounted for more than 46 percent of the Nittany Lions' passing offense in 2013. He was the team's best player this past season and the offense's top threat in 2012.

Impact player: Besides Robinson? Amos. There's some good variety to choose from here -- hence why this class is No. 5 -- and, although Amos struggled some as a sophomore, he's still the team's most athletic defensive back. He's going to finish his career as a four-year starter and, if he sticks with cornerback or starts off hot at safety, he should bounce back from that sophomore "slump." He's got a high ceiling and has the ability to to be an All-Big Ten player.

Why the class is important: Depth was not a strength for PSU in 2012 or 2013, and this class hit just where it needed to when it needed to. Take a look at who's currently behind some of the key players from this class. Imagine a 2013 receiving corps without Robinson or a 2013 offensive line that was forced to start Adam Gress and Garry Gilliam every game. How about a 2012 secondary led by Stephon Morris and ... Da'Quan Davis? Or a defensive line without Barnes and Zettel? If this class was a bust like 2010, the Nittany Lions would not have bounced back quite so strongly after the sanctions.

This was the class of the "Supa Six," and although that nickname's now gone along with A-Rob, there are plenty of players who'll turn out to be three- or four-year starters. Amos, Barnes, Carter and Smith are among them. This wasn't a flashy class when it signed -- only two ESPN 150 prospects were included -- but it's more than made up for that with its production and potential.

Penn State positions to improve: No. 2

February, 13, 2014
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STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- We've arrived at the top two in our countdown of the positions with the biggest question marks for Penn State.

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

[+] EnlargeMiles Dieffenbach
AP Photo/Gene J. PuskarMiles Dieffenbach (65) is one of Penn State's veterans along the O-line.
The players: Donovan Smith (10 starts), Miles Dieffenbach (11 starts), Angelo Mangiro (11 games played), Andrew Nelson (redshirted), Brendan Mahon (redshirted), Wendy Laurent (five games played), Anthony Alosi (six games played), Tanner Hartman (one game played), Chasz Wright (early enrollee), Noah Beh (incoming freshman), Brendan Brosnan (incoming freshman), Chance Sorrell (incoming freshman)

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.

Looking to the past & future: OL

December, 24, 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: Offensive line.

REWIND

Expectations entering the 2013 season: OL coach Mac McWhorter's group was expected to start fast, as it returned three primary starters and several other players who saw significant time in 2012.

[+] EnlargeDonovan Smith
AP Photo/Kevin TanakaOffensive tackle Donovan Smith was expected to be a breakout star, but he didn't quite live up to his potential this season.
LT Donovan Smith was a favorite on projected breakout lists, and John Urschel often said that center Ty Howle was the most underrated lineman on the team. The real question mark surrounded right tackle, and whether Adam Gress or Garry Gilliam could step up. With an extra year under McWhorter and strength coach Craig Fitzgerald, many believed this line would be as good -- or better -- than 2012.

How they fared: They didn't quite get off to the start they wanted -- even Urschel admitted that. Consistency was difficult to come by early in the season, and Smith certainly didn't live up to his potential. Bill O'Brien didn't start him for a game -- and that certainly appeared to send a message -- but this line played its best football at the end of the year.

Zach Zwinak rushed for 563 yards in the last four games. And, overall, PSU allowed 22 sacks on the season -- which isn't too bad considering a rookie was standing in the pocket and sometimes taking too long to throw the ball. This line played as expected in the second half of the season, but it was a different story in the first half.

What we learned: This line is pretty versatile. Left tackle and right tackle were relatively interchangeable, Angelo Mangiro could play anywhere along the interior and Eric Shrive could play anywhere outside of center. We saw this in 2012, but 2013 just reinforced it. When some players found themselves injured or in slumps, this line showed it was pretty flexible and able to adjust.

Grade: B. This a little tricky because the grade in the first six games would've been markedly different than the last six games. Overall, though, this line played above-average. Urschel was an All-Big Ten player who was selected as a third-team All-American by the AP. Gilliam was a pleasant surprise, Smith a disappointment, and everyone else played close to as expected.

FAST FORWARD

Key losses: OG Urschel, C Howle, OT Gress. Gilliam still hasn't made up his mind on whether to stay. First, he was staying, then leaving ... and then he wasn't sure. His decision will have quite an impact on this group, however. If he leaves, PSU has to plug three openings on the line -- and right tackle will be the biggest concern of all since three of PSU's top four tackles would then graduate.

Position stock watch: Trending downward. Even if Gilliam stays, the offensive line is going to have a lot of question marks to overcome. Mangiro will be able to fill one spot along the interior, but who else will start? Wendy Laurent, who played in five games? And just think about that hole at right tackle if Gilliam does leave. It seems as if freshman Andrew Nelson might have to take over out of necessity. Depth is a thing of the past for this group.

Key to next season: Finding key contributors to add depth. For the last two seasons, PSU hasn't had to search long to find players who could give the starters a quick breather. But it's going to be a bit more difficult this offseason. Laurent, Anthony Alosi and Tanner Hartman have to add weight to their frames before they become viable options. (No lineman under 290 pounds saw significant time last season, and those three are all under 290.) And players who look the part -- such as 6-foot-4, 305-pound OG Brendan Mahon or 6-5, 297-pound OT Nelson -- haven't yet played a single snap. PSU is likely going to have to play some linemen who aren't quite ready, so they're ability to overcome the obvious learning curve will be paramount.

3 PSU players to forgo final seasons

November, 19, 2013
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STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Coach Bill O'Brien announced Tuesday that three Penn State players will forgo their final seasons of eligibility and be honored Saturday along with the seniors.

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.

Win shows PSU gutsy, not yet great

November, 2, 2013
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STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Offensive guard Miles Dieffenbach watched the referees walk back the go-ahead touchdown in overtime. He watched the points disappear off the scoreboard.

He couldn't have been blamed for harvesting a few doubts at that point. Blame the inevitable loss on dumb luck, a holding call, or take solace in an eventual field goal. But Dieffenbach said this team's been through some hard times -- through players leaving, unprecedented sanctions, a 63-14 thumping against OSU -- so playing against the odds in a simple overtime game? He didn't dwell.

For Penn State, it was just more of the same old, same old.

Dieffenbach turned to his freshman quarterback in the huddle, on third-and-11 from the 15, and told him he was moments from throwing the game-winning TD. Other offensive linemen patted his helmet and told him similarly. Dieffenbach just remembered Christian Hackenberg smiling back -- seconds before finding tight end Kyle Carter on a 15-yard touchdown strike, minutes before an interception would seal another Penn State comeback win.

[+] EnlargeKyle Carter
Matthew O'Haren/USA TODAY SportsPSU tight end Kyle Carter hauls in a 15-yard touchdown catch in overtime.
"Hell of a ride, know what I mean?" Dieffenbach said, shaking his head. "There are some crazy games we've had in the past. I have all the trust in Christian; I tell him that all the time. I wouldn't expect anything less. I expect us to win those games."

This win didn't say Penn State's a great team. It didn't even say that PSU's a good team. Bill O'Brien took the dais after the game, shook off any notion of this being a fortunate win -- "You're fortunate to win the lottery," he countered -- and said he still thinks Penn State has a chance to be a good football team.

Carter, who admittedly made the play of his career, agreed. Penn State is not a great team. Not yet. But it's getting there.

"We're not there yet. We haven't proved yet that we're a great team," he added. "Great teams beat other great teams. And we just got to definitely keep doing what we're doing."

But that's not say this win meant nothing, that it should be filed away and not celebrated. The Nittany Lions did prove one fact beyond a reasonable doubt on Saturday afternoon, in front of fans bundled up in winter jackets and praying the rain would hold off: You can never count Penn State out.

Trailing by a field goal, with about five minutes left, O'Brien's squad drove 69 yards before a fumble on the 2-yard line halted the drive. For most teams, that would've spelled game over. For Penn State, it just meant a win would take a little longer. Hackenberg spent time on the sideline calmly talking with Richy Anderson and Bill Belton; he told the media, at that point, he knew the game wasn't over.

"We got scrappers," he said.

PSU's struggling defense held Illinois to a three-and-out. And, then, PSU got the ball back at midfield with no timeouts and 1:44 left. Just like two games ago against Michigan, PSU knotted the game up at the end of regulation. And just like two games ago, the Lions sprinted on the field in ecstasy at the end of overtime -- but not in disbelief.

Dieffenbach said he expected this. He put his arm around the smiling freshman quarterback and told him he loved him. Right tackle Garry Gilliam patted Hackenberg on the shoulder and bobbed his head before sprinting toward the railing to high-five the student fans. Adam Breneman and Brian Gaia embraced.

Illinois had a bowl bid on the line. Penn State, on paper, had nothing really. Except pride. But like the scrappy, hard-headed boxer who gets beaten down time and time again, Penn State bounced right back up.

The defense took a beating at times. The offense struggled in the red zone. But, just when the bout seemed lost, when these Lions were down for the count, they delivered a knockout blow and grabbed the unlikely win.

This isn't a great team, but it sure is a gutsy team. The win doesn't say it's good either, but it does say -- with a large, bolded exclamation mark -- that it is something else.

"It does say we're resilent," Carter said. "We're a resilient bunch of guys."

Emotional win comes at key time for PSU

October, 13, 2013
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STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Defensive coordinator John Butler scanned the sideline after the referees signaled touchdown, finally bringing to end an instant classic that'll be talked about five years from now.

He watched as more than 100 Penn State players erupted in ecstasy -- spinning around, hugging, pumping their fists -- as they sprinted to the end zone to join their offensive teammates, who clinched a 43-40 win. In quadruple overtime. Against Michigan.

Two seconds after the game had ended, no one was left on the sideline. Maybe Butler was just looking for an assistant coach to embrace after the season-defining win. But he couldn't find one; they had already started a celebration that's sure to last until morning. He instead looked around, turned to the person closest to him and said one line before jogging off.

"We're going to be fine," he said, with no smile on his face but a sense of conviction in his voice. "Write that -- we're going to be fine."

[+] EnlargeChristian Hackenberg
Abby Drey/Centre Daily Times via Getty ImagesChristian Hackenberg passed for 305 yards and 3 TDs in the upset of Michigan.
Beaver Stadium was filled with a sold-out crowd of more than 108,000 -- but it was also filled with question marks. Had Penn State's magic run out? Could this team really come away with a big win? Would this defense collapse again when it counted? Was there anyone on this offense besides Allen Robinson who could make plays?

The Nittany Lions didn't punctuate each answer with an exclamation mark. But they won. With dozens of lettermen on the sideline for homecoming, the Nittany Lions did to UM what it did to PSU in 2005: put an end to a perfect season.

"You can't really compare this to anything else; it's pretty much indescribable," quarterback Christian Hackenberg said. "It's just one of those things where if you're fortunate enough to be in this type of game and you experience it -- it's something that's going to stick with you for the rest of your life."

Added tailback Bill Belton: "Oh, I'm going to remember this. Ten years from now? Yeah."

This wasn't a game that anyone "deserved" to win. Then again, maybe no one deserved to lose. Michigan quarterback Devin Gardner paced the sideline, with a headset over his ears, as Brendan Gibbons' 40-yard attempt was blocked in the first overtime. Then, in the third overtime, Michigan's players stared at the ground -- tight end Khalid Hill yelled, "Damn!" -- when Gibbons' missed a 33-yarder.

Both teams had plenty of opportunities to win. Michigan came into this game always making plays when it needed to, while Penn State always seemed to watch the ball bounce in a bad direction. The roles were reversed this time around. Call it luck, call it skill, call it whatever -- but, whatever it was, it couldn't have come at a better time for Penn State.

"I would just say that in a lot of situations, God was on our side today," Robinson said. "We were able to make some plays down the stretch to keep this game alive."

Safety Stephen Obeng-Agyapong promised after the UCF loss that a game like that wouldn't happen again. Then Indiana happened. And wideout Eugene Lewis took to Twitter to let everyone know PSU was better than that. If PSU loses this game? Well, at some point, you stop believing it gets better. Those words don't have meaning if the losses pile up.

Bill O'Brien usually heads into every game by taking the dais and telling the media that every game is important. This week, he said he'd be crazy to say this was just another game. It wasn't. Win or lose, this was going to be a turning point for the Lions.

And, for the first time this season, it turned out the right way for Penn State.

"I'm just so jacked-up and so happy because you're putting it out on the line every single play," linebacker Mike Hull said. "This says we're a resilient bunch of guys."

Offensive tackle Garry Gilliam lingered beneath the tunnel and slapped hands with the fans. Linebacker Glenn Carson jumped around as if he were at a track meet. And fans, many of whom wore the same color for a stadium-wide "White Out," didn't move from their seats minutes after the game had ended and the Wolverines had already retired to their locker room.

Penn State had answered the questions by scoring 10 points in the final seven minutes of the fourth quarter to force overtime; then enduring a swing of emotions -- unlike any game either team has played this season -- and coming out with a win.

But, overall, the answers all revolved one simple theme. And it's one these fans can head home through snarled traffic with in mind.

These Nittany Lions are going to be just fine.

Big Ten lunch links

September, 2, 2013
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I labored to put these links together. Get it? Get it? Enjoy the holiday.


EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Before making his college football debut, Penn State true freshman quarterback Christian Hackenberg made a request for teammate Garry Gilliam.

"If I get spaced out or anything, give me a smack," Hackenberg told his right tackle.

Gilliam noted that Hackenberg was grinning when he made the request, so he knew the kid was going to be OK. All things considered, he was a lot better than that.

Freshman Christian Hackenberg had some big mistakes but showed poise in Penn State's win.
Cal Sport Media/AP ImagesFreshman Christian Hackenberg had some big mistakes but showed poise in Penn State's win.
Hackenberg completed 22 of 31 passes for 278 yards and two touchdowns while leading the Nittany Lions to a 23-17 win over Syracuse at MetLife Stadium. He made some crucial mistakes, including a pair of interceptions. But the guy who finished his high school baseball season earlier this summer faced down an ACC defense on an NFL field. He also played the entire first half without Penn State's top receiver, Allen Robinson, who was serving a suspension for undisclosed reasons, and much of the game without injured star tight end Kyle Carter.

That's a lot to ask of any first-time starting quarterback, much less an 18-year old. But Bill O'Brien is all in this season with Hackenberg, handing the keys to the Nittany Lions' season over to the talented rookie.

"We’re Penn State," O'Brien said. "We can’t dip our toe into the water. We’ve got to come out ready to go. We've got to take our shots."

So O'Brien didn't hold back when Penn State stared at third-and-11 on its own 30, nursing a 23-10 lead with under eight minutes to go. Rather than run, punt and turn it over to a defense that smothered Syracuse all day, O'Brien called for Hackenberg to throw the ball. Defensive end Robert Welsh slipped underneath the route and picked off the pass, returning it to the 1-yard line to set up a touchdown and put the Orange right back into the game.

O'Brien blamed himself for the call, but youth also played a part. O'Brien said he doubted that Hackenberg had ever seen that type of coverage from a defensive lineman in high school.

"They threw a lot of blitzes at us today, and I had a little bit of a tough time finding a couple of them and recognizing them," Hackenberg told ESPN.com after the game. "That will definitely be a big emphasis for me this week."

The encouraging part was that Hackenberg kept his cool despite his mistakes, which also included a first-half interception and a near pick-six later in the game. Teammates said they saw no difference in his demeanor throughout the game.

"He's just a confident kid," tight end Jesse James said. "He knows what he’s doing. He's always been the same [in the huddle]."

Hackenberg's father, Erick, who attended the game and talked to his son before kickoff said his son showed the same calm attitude he usually displays.

"It's something I've had to get used to over the years," Erick Hackenberg said. "My emotions change, but he's always so focused."

Hackenberg also showed at times why he was the No. 1 pro-style quarterback recruit in last year's class, especially on his 54-yard touchdown pass to Eugene Lewis in the fourth quarter. O'Brien wanted only to talk about the job Lewis did on his route and how Zach Zwinak picked up the blitz on that play, saying Hackenberg had the easiest job of anyone. But Hackenberg also fired a laser downfield that his predecessor, Matt McGloin, might not have been able to match.

O'Brien walked a fine line in his postgame news conference, predictably dominated by Hackenberg questions. He loves the freshman's potential but doesn't want to heap too much praise on someone with still so much to learn.

"He's a young guy who's got a tremendous future," O'Brien said. "But we're not ready to waltz him into the College Football Hall of Fame."

O'Brien and the Nittany Lions will have to live with some freshman mistakes along with the natural playmaking ability of their quarterback. And as Saturday's game indicated, the team might be in for a bumpy ride all season.

Hardly anyone would call last year a smooth one for Penn State, but at least the program benefited from relative health. The Lions went into the opener with only about 65 scholarship players, and 16 true freshman, including walk-ons, made the trip. Before it was over, starting linebacker Mike Hull and tight ends Carter and Matt Lehman had to leave the game with injuries. That put even more pressure on the team's depth and ability to adapt, the latter of which it handled beautifully.

Stephen Obeng-Agyapong, who started the game at safety, played linebacker for long stretches and came up with an interception and a forced fumble. Cornerback Trevor Williams, who switched from receiver in the middle of spring practice, secured the clinching interception. The 300-pound Gilliam, a converted tight end playing tackle, made a touchdown-saving tackle when he ran down Syracuse cornerback Brandon Reddish following a Robinson fumble.

"It's next guy up," defensive end Deion Barnes said. "We're all willing to do whatever it takes to win."

O'Brien downplayed the depth issues, but it clearly will remain a concern all season long. As will the youth under center. Counting Tyler Ferguson, who played one series, Penn State's quarterbacks committed three turnovers Saturday. Last year's starter, McGloin, had five interceptions all year long.

Expect some dizzying highs and some head-smacking lows with Hackenberg.

"It depends on how he handles it," Gilliam said. "But he's very mature, very poised."

By the looks of things, the kid is going to be OK.


EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- A pair of new starting quarterbacks in an opening game led to a predictably choppy afternoon at MetLife Stadium on Saturday. It was only a 6-3 game at halftime, but both teams made some big plays in the second half and created some fourth quarter excitement.

In the end, Penn State's defense was a little too good, and the Nittany Lions held on in the final minutes for a 23-17 win.

Here's a brief recap:

It was over when: Penn State's Trevor Williams intercepted Syracuse quarterback Drew Allen at his own 28 with 1:53 left. Syracuse had cut the lead to 23-17 with just under seven minutes remaining but couldn't manage any points on its final two possessions as the Nittany Lions defense held.

Game ball goes to: Penn State's Christian Hackenberg. He wasn't perfect, but as an 18-year-old playing in an NFL stadium in his first game out of high school, he was pretty darn impressive. Hackenberg finished 22-of-31 for 273 yards and two touchdowns, though he also threw two interceptions and barely avoided another that could have been returned for a score. He also didn't have his best weapon for the first half, as star receiver Allen Robinson served a two-quarter suspension for undisclosed reasons. His perfect 54-yard strike to Eugene Lewis for a touchdown with 11:39 left gave Penn State a 23-10 lead and showed why he was the No. 1 quarterback recruit in the country a year ago. He fared better than new Syracuse starter and former Oklahoma transfer Drew Allen, who started off strong but completed just 17-of-38 passes for 193 yards and two picks of his own.

Stat of the game: Penn State was just 1-of-16 on third downs and had only 57 rushing yards on 38 attempts. Those aren't normally winning numbers. But the Nittany Lions' defense held Syracuse to just 259 total yards.

Unsung hero of the game: Garry Gilliam. Moved from tight end to offensive line this preseason, Gilliam came up with a massive play from a defensive standpoint. Syracuse's Brandon Reddish had stripped the ball from Penn State receiver Allen Robinson, scooped it up and ran the other way. Gilliam was all that stood between Reddish and a go-ahead touchdown, but Gilliam made the tackle at the Penn State 27. The Orange would go on to miss a field goal.

Best call: In the first half, Penn State was lined up for a 47-yard field goal on fourth-and-two. Though Syracuse probably should have been ready for some trickery, Bill O'Brien pulled it off anyway by calling for holder Ryan Keiser to run the ball. Keiser barreled up the right side for five yards. That eventually resulted in a much more manageable 36-yarder for Sam Ficken, who drilled it. Ficken later made a career-long 46-yarder as one of his three made field goals, so maybe the fake wasn't even necessary. Ficken's improvement is a huge difference for this team over this time a year ago.

What Penn State learned: It has a future star in Hackenberg, but the ride isn't always going to be a smooth one as he will be prone to freshman mistakes. His interception late in the fourth quarter allowed Syracuse to get back into the game. The running game must improve so as not to put too much pressure on the youngster. Having Allen Robinson around for a whole game should help, too.

What Syracuse learned: The Orange miss Ryan Nassib and Doug Marrone as much as feared. While Allen had some moments and showed off a nice arm, the offense as a whole lacked much punch or creativity. They'll likely need some of that next week against Northwestern.
As part of an ongoing series, NittanyNation will preview a different position leading up to the season opener against Syracuse on Saturday. Up today: Offensive linemen.

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.

Notes on PSU's newest depth chart

August, 26, 2013
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Penn State's depth chart was released on Monday and, much to no one's surprise, a starting quarterback was not named. An "OR" appears next to the names of Tyler Ferguson and Christian Hackenberg.

Still, there were a few notable changes on the depth chart and in the game notes:
  • Adam Gress was nursing an injury last week, and he was not listed as the definite starter at right tackle. He's still battling with TE-turned-OT Garry Gilliam. Bill O'Brien will likely update Gress' progress on Tuesday.
  • Von Walker, a run-on whom O'Brien complimented last week, is listed as competing for the No. 2 kickoff return spot with Akeel Lynch. Walker is an athlete whom PSU hopes to utilize as a slotback. This might be the biggest surprise on the depth chart. You can read more about Walker here.
  • D.J. Crook is listed as the third-string quarterback. He was competing with Austin Whipple and Jack Seymour for the No. 3 spot. He was listed as the third-stringer on the post-spring depth chart as well.
  • Bill Belton is still listed as the No. 2 tailback, ahead of Lynch ... but that likely doesn't mean much. Both will see carries.
  • There's an "OR" listed next to Malcolm Willis' name, signifying he's still competing with Ryan Keiser at safety. Willis is obviously expected to be the starter -- barring injury. O'Brien will undoubtedly be asked about that on Tuesday.
  • Middle linebacker Glenn Carson is still listed as the snapper at punter, despite picking up a run-on whose specialty is snapping and having Howle snapping on field goals.

Video: PSU Training Days -- Overcome

August, 19, 2013
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Penn State OT Garry Gilliam is used to overcoming challenges on and off the field. He is helping the Nittany Lions get past NCAA sanctions.
Penn State released an updated depth chart today and, although quarterback remains a question mark, some positions certainly became clearer.

Here's a closer look at some of the notable changes:

1. Lots of movement in the secondary.

Adrian Amos
Cal Sport Media via AP ImagesA starting cornerback last season, Adrian Amos currently tops the depth chart at safety.
Adrian Amos is the top DB for the Nittany Lions, and he shined at cornerback last season. The versatile player practiced a lot at safety this offseason, though, and the depth chart now lists him as a starting safety alongside ... well, apparently, the other starter still isn't a lock.

Stephen Obeng-Agyapong, who started last season, is listed as Amos' backup. The other starter isn't yet decided, as Bill O'Brien put the "OR" next to Malcolm Willis' name, meaning a competition is still under way between him and walk-on-turned-scholarship athlete Ryan Keiser.

At cornerback, which saw Amos and the graduated Stephon Morris as the 2012 starters, there are two new names to watch. Sophomore Jordan Lucas grabbed one starting spot, while wideout-turned-corner Trevor Williams is listed at the other. Da'Quan Davis is Lucas' backup.

2. TE-turned-OT Garry Gilliam is now up to 305 pounds.

That's a huge turnaround in less than a year. He played the role of blocking TE last year and started the season at 262 pounds. So, in about 10 months, he's gained 43 pounds. That says quite a bit about PSU's strength and conditioning program. He's currently listed as Dononvan Smith's backup at left tackle.

3. Kyle Baublitz will start alongside DaQuan Jones at DT.

Redshirt freshman Austin Johnson received a lot of praise over the spring, and he seemed poised to grab the starting spot. But the more-experienced Baublitz is instead part of the first-string lineup.

Baublitz played in six games last year, and the most recent roster puts him at 286 pounds -- 32 pounds lighter than Jones and 11 pounds lighter than Johnson. He had two tackles and one sack last year.

4. The long-snapper is ... MLB Glenn Carson?

At least for now, it is. Sean Corcoran is an incoming run-on who's expected to compete for the starting snapping jobs, so Carson's name there could be short-lived.

5. Bill Belton remains the No. 2 RB, while Brandon Moseby-Felder will still start opposite WR Allen Robinson.

Neither was a big surprise, but there were questions surrounding both players. Akeel Lynch is the no. 3 RB, while Eugene Lewis-Matt Zanellato are the receiving backups. (Lewis should still see a considerable amount of time on the field, obviously.)

Moseby-Felder nursed a leg injury last season, which slowed him down in the early going, and he could be a nice surprise this season. Early enrollee Richy Anderson might have garnered his share of pats on the back, too, but he's listed as a fourth-stringer. A redshirt could be in his future.

6. Charles Idemudia is the non-scholarship LB to watch.

Yes, the starting lineup is still Mike Hull-Carson-Nyeem Wartman ... but that was never really in doubt. With just five scholarship linebackers on the roster -- six once Brandon Bell gets on campus -- a walk-on was poised to see some time.

PSU's players threw around a couple names, such as Adam Cole and Matthew Baney, but Idemudia is the only non-scholarship LB listed on the depth chart.

7. Kick/punt returners listed.

PSU tried a few different players on special teams last season. But as of now Belton and Alex Kenney are listed as the top-two kick returners, with Jesse Della Valle as the top punt returner. Those three had the most kick/punt returns last season, so it's not a huge shock to see those names again. One interesting change, though? Anderson is the No. 2 PR.
Welcome to NittanyNation's mailbag! We asked you to tweet or email your questions, and we've selected three to answer in-depth this week.

Jim Murphy (@JimMurphy13) writes: Jabrill Peppers could have left PSU off his list and only made a top three. That leads me to believe we have a real shot with him. I know Michigan is the front-runner but, with a visit coming up and a decision soon, don't you think PSU can land him?

Josh Moyer: I don't. He's kind of like the reverse of Daquan Worley. Worley was a heavy PSU lean, had PSU and RU as his top two, but figured he might as well check out Georgia Tech since his decision was approaching. The Yellow Jackets had a chance to really impress him but still didn't make an impact in the end, just two weeks before his commitment.

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