Penn State Nittany Lions: Gary Wooten
Illinois: The Illini lose an All-Big Ten player in Jonathan Brown but still have decent overall depth at linebacker. Mason Monheim started every game at middle linebacker in 2013, and Mike Svetina started all but one game at the star position. Both players return as juniors. Svetina will move into Brown's spot on the weak side, while the other position could be filled by T.J. Neal, who recorded 38 tackles last season. Ralph Cooper has logged significant reps as a reserve, and Eric Finney gives Illinois some flexibility after playing the star position (safety/outside linebacker).
Indiana: This becomes a more significant position under coordinator Brian Knorr, who plans to use a 3-4 alignment. Indiana should have enough depth to make the transition as it returns two full-time starters from 2013 -- David Cooper and T.J. Simmons -- as well as two part-time starters in Forisse Hardin and Clyde Newton, who started the final four games of his freshman season. Like Simmons and Newton, Marcus Oliver played a lot as a freshman and provides some depth. The key here will be converting all the experience into sharper, more consistent play.
Iowa: If you're of the mindset that Iowa always reloads at linebacker, you can rest easy this spring. If not, keep a very close eye on what happens as the Hawkeyes begin replacing one of the more productive linebacker groups in team history: James Morris, Christian Kirksey and Anthony Hitchens. There are high hopes for sophomore Reggie Spearman, who played in 10 games as a freshman last fall. Spearman, junior Travis Perry and senior Quinton Alston enter the spring as the front-runners to take over the top spots. The biggest challenge could be building depth behind them with Cole Fisher and others.
Maryland: The good news is the Terrapins return three productive starters from 2013 in Cole Farrand, L.A. Goree and Matt Robinson, who combined for 233 tackles, including 19 for loss. The bad news is Maryland loses its top playmaker at the position in Marcus Whitfield, who recorded nine sacks and 15.5 tackles for loss last season. But the overall picture is favorable, and the depth should be strong when Alex Twine and Yannik Cudjoe-Virgil return from their injuries. Young players such as Abner Logan (37 tackles in 2013) will push for more time.
Michigan: There are a lot of familiar faces in new positions as Michigan not only has shuffled the roles of its defensive assistant coaches, but also its top linebackers. Standout Jake Ryan moves from strong-side linebacker to the middle, while junior James Ross III moves from the weak side to the strong side and Desmond Morgan shifts from the middle to the weak side. Joe Bolden, who had 54 tackles last season, can play both outside and inside, and players such as Ben Gedeon, Royce Jenkins-Stone and Allen Gant add depth. The talent is there for a big year if the position switches pan out.
Michigan State: It won't be easy to replace the Big Ten's top linebacker tandem in Max Bullough and Denicos Allen, not to mention Rose Bowl hero Kyler Elsworth, but Michigan State has some promising options. Ed Davis appears ready to step in for Allen after recording four sacks as a sophomore. Junior Darien Harris and two redshirt freshmen, Shane Jones and Jon Reschke, will compete at middle linebacker. Returning starter Taiwan Jones is back at the star position, and Mylan Hicks should be in the rotation. Depth is a bit of a question mark here entering the spring.
Minnesota: The Gophers lose key pieces in all three areas of the defense, and linebacker is no exception as two starters (Aaron Hill and James Manuel) depart. Minnesota will lean on Damien Wilson, who started in 12 games at middle linebacker in his first season with the Gophers and recorded 78 tackles. Junior De'Vondre Campbell seems ready to claim a starting spot after backing up Manuel last season. There will be plenty of competition at the strong-side linebacker spot, as Nick Rallis, De'Niro Laster and others are in the mix. Jack Lynn is backing up Wilson at middle linebacker but could work his way into a starting spot on the outside with a good spring.
Nebraska: Optimism is building for the Blackshirts in 2014, thanks in large part to the returning linebackers. The three players who finished last season as the starters -- David Santos, Michael Rose and Zaire Anderson -- all are back, as Rose will lead the way in the middle. Josh Banderas and Nathan Gerry also have starting experience and return for 2014. If younger players such as Marcus Newby develop this spring, Nebraska could have the Big Ten's deepest group of linebackers, a dramatic departure from the Huskers' first few years in the conference. Good things are happening here.
Northwestern: The top two playmakers return here in Chi Chi Ariguzo and Collin Ellis, who combined for seven interceptions and 11.5 tackles for loss in 2014. Northwestern's challenge is replacing the leadership Damien Proby provided in the middle. Ellis has shifted from the strong side to the middle, and Northwestern has moved safety Jimmy Hall from safety to strong-side linebacker. Drew Smith and Hall will compete for the third starting spot throughout the offseason. Sophomores Jaylen Prater and Joseph Jones should provide some depth.
Ohio State: Coach Urban Meyer has made it clear that Ohio State needs more from the linebackers, so it's a huge offseason for this crew, which loses superstar Ryan Shazier. The Buckeyes return starters at the outside spots in Curtis Grant and Joshua Perry, although competition will continue throughout the spring and summer. Redshirt freshman Darron Lee surprisingly opened spring practice Tuesday working with Grant and Perry on the first-team defense. Camren Williams appeared in all 13 games as a reserve and will be part of the rotation, along with Trey Johnson. Meyer said last month that the incoming linebacker recruits won't redshirt, which means an opportunity for mid-year enrollee Raekwon McMillan.
Penn State: Linebacker U is looking for more bodies at the position after struggling with depth issues throughout 2013. The Lions lose leading tackler Glenn Carson but bring back two players, Mike Hull and Nyeem Wartman, who started most of the season. The new coaching staff is counting on Hull to become a star as a senior. Brandon Bell, who appeared in nine games and recorded 24 tackles as a freshman, will compete for a starting spot along with Gary Wooten. Penn State hopes Ben Kline can stay healthy as he provides some experience, and incoming freshman Troy Reeder could enter the rotation right away.
Purdue: Expect plenty of competition here as Purdue loses leading tackler Will Lucas and must get more consistent play from the group. Joe Gilliam started for most of the 2013 season and should occupy a top spot this fall. Sean Robinson also brings experience to the field, and Ryan Russell could fill more of a hybrid linebacker/defensive end role this season. Redshirt freshman Danny Ezechukwu is an intriguing prospect to watch this spring as he aims for a bigger role. Ezechukwu is just one of several younger players, including decorated incoming recruit Gelen Robinson, who have opportunities to make a splash.
Rutgers: The Scarlet Knights return a good deal of production here with Steve Longa and Kevin Snyder, who combined for 219 tackles, including 15 tackles for loss and five sacks. Quentin Gause also is back after racking up 53 tackles (8.5 for loss) in a mostly reserve role last season. Gause likely will claim the starting strong-side linebacker spot as Jamal Merrell departs. The starting spots are seemingly set, so Rutgers will look to build depth with Davon Jacobs, who had 30 tackles as a reserve last season, and L.J. Liston, both sophomores.
Wisconsin: Do-it-all linebacker Chris Borland is gone, along with Ethan Armstrong and Conor O'Neill, so Wisconsin must replace three of its top four tacklers from 2013. Derek Landisch and Joe Schobert can be penciled in as starters, along with Michael Caputo, who played mostly safety last season but should slide into one of the outside spots. Marcus Trotter brings experience to the rotation. The spotlight will be on younger linebackers such as Vince Biegel, who had 25 tackles last season, as well as dynamic sophomore Leon Jacobs and Alec James, a decorated recruit who redshirted in 2013.
Once again, until spring practice starts, we'll have a different countdown every week. Up next are the positions of concern for Penn State, and this group is one that historically hasn't been an issue for the Nittany Lions.
No. 4: Linebackers
Last season: Depth was a huge concern throughout the season, and PSU tried to overcome that with position switches and different combinations. Safety Stephen Obeng-Agyapong moved to the outside and filled in for Hull when he was injured, while Bell, Wartman and Kline split time as the season progressed. The health of this unit was an ongoing issue, but Glenn Carson turned in a solid season And Hull, when healthy, was also good -- although he failed to meet lofty expectations (in part because of those injuries).
What's missing: Depth. It's the same issue as 2013, except the most solid starter in Carson is now gone. Kline once again has two surgeries to recover from this offseason, and Wooten appears to be more of a special-teams contributor. Outside of those two, there are just five linebackers on scholarship -- and that includes the two incoming freshmen.
Moving forward: Wartman and Bell were both greenhorns last season, so they at least have experience now. And they'll both need to be solid -- and healthy -- for this group to experience success. An injury to Hull or those two could be disastrous. Kline is once again a wild card because he's coming off of serious injuries, so PSU might have to turn to a non-scholarship player or a true freshman to pick up some slack. Incoming freshman Koa Farmer could play safety or linebacker, and Reeder appears more game-ready than Cabinda. For the second straight season, linebacker is once again a concern for Linebacker U.
Up today: Linebackers.
Expectations entering the 2013 season: This group was clearly going to take a big step back from 2012. Without Michael Mauti and Gerald Hodges, this was probably the group that was going to receive the heftiest downgrade.
How they fared: Injuries were a concern, and they were felt almost immediately. Hull injured his knee against Syracuse, and it took him weeks before he was back to 100 percent. Safety Stephen Obeng-Agyapong was forced to take over, and he allowed the linebackers to bide some time until Hull returned. He wasn't a factor in the second-half of the season.
Ben Kline, who overcame a serious shoulder injury, did the most with the time he saw once healed -- but then he fell again to another serious injury. Hull didn't meet expectations, and neither did Wartman, but Brandon Bell was a nice surprise toward the end. This group avoided total disaster, but it would be difficult to rank it above-average.
What we learned: Linebacker will take a few years to reload. Penn State grew accustomed to churning out one strong corps of linebackers after another, but 2013 was the exception. If everyone stayed healthy -- and Kline was never injured in the offseason -- it might've been different. But those are a lot of "what ifs." It became clear in 2013 that linebacker wasn't going to be just a one-year or two-year fix. It'll take a few years for Linebacker U to return to glory.
Grading the position: C. Yes, average. This wasn't one of the better groups in the Big Ten, and it wasn't among the worst. Carson was above-average, but he was the only linebacker who earned an honorable mention on the All-Big Ten team. None were named to the first or second team. Tackling was an issue at times, and so was pursuit, but it wouldn't be fair to say the linebackers were a liability, either. Once again, it was an average group ... while most PSU fans are used to great in this department.
Key losses: Carson. Sure, everyone else returns, but Carson was the most solid of the bunch. Hull needs to show he's not as injury-prone as 2013 suggests, and PSU should receive some extra bodies in the form of incoming freshmen Troy Reeder (Wilmington, Del/Salesianum) and Jason Cabinda (Flemington, N.J./Hunterdon Central).
Position stock watch: Trending downward. On one hand, two of PSU's starting spots should improve from last season. On the other, Carson's departure is sure to be felt ... and the other two spots are far from guarantees. Kline has to overcome two surgeries in the offseason, so PSU finds itself in a similar position as last season. One injury could completely derail this group. It needs Hull, Wartman and Bell to be on top of their games -- and stay healthy. If they don't? Well, fans might miss the performance from the 2013 season.
Key to next season: Finding depth ... somewhere. The trio of Hull, Wartman and Bell can't stay on the field all game every game -- so, not only do those three need to take huge steps from last season, but Penn State also needs more players to step up at this position. Redshirt sophomore Gary Wooten hasn't contributed much outside of special teams and -- outside of an injured Kline -- Wooten is next in line. That means Penn State will needs a true freshman or a non-scholarship player to step up. Maybe it can move a backup DB over a la Obeng-Agyapong; maybe not. O'Brien needs to find someone, anyone, who can contribute.
Maybe he just needed to make sure this was real, that he wasn't trapped in a nightmare. Maybe he couldn't believe how his players missed tackles, moved in slow motion or struggled in coverage. Whatever Butler was thinking, it didn't get any better for a defense that surrendered 34 points and 507 yards.
The game's been over now for nearly three days, but answering the questions has only just begun. Some fans have already, tongue-in-cheek, called for PSU to reinstate former defensive coordinator Tom Bradley. Others are blaming thud practices, in which no player is tackled to the ground.
In a valley that's never happy after a loss, Bill O'Brien did little to ease concerns when he deflected talk Saturday by saying he'd need to watch the film. But Penn State's struggles, to a great extent, don't need to be viewed on a flat-screen to be explained.
Just look at the roster. Look at the numbers.
"We knew what we had to to do to stop them," Butler said. "And, to be honest with you, we couldn't stop what we needed to stop."
O'Brien is ESPN's reigning coach of the year and Butler is considered a rising defensive coordinator, but they're not King Midas. The Nittany Lions have fewer scholarship players than every team they're facing this season, and the Knights peeled back any illusion that PSU would cruise through this schedule unscathed.
Safety-turned-linebacker Stephen Obeng-Agyapong acknowledged he initially feared he was too small for his new role -- but he fared well in the first two weeks. The 5-foot-10 senior was exposed Saturday. Wideout-turned-cornerback Trevor Williams earned praise after stopping an Eastern Michigan passing attack that's about as a high-powered as a water pistol. He was exposed Saturday.
Penn State really doesn't have anywhere else left to turn. It's a Whack-a-Mole of depth problems. Butler can move Adrian Amos back to cornerback, but then he might have to move Obeng-Agyapong back to safety ... and then who takes over at linebacker?
Mike Hull appears to be fighting a lingering injury, Ben Kline has seen limited time after recovering from offseason shoulder surgery and Gary Wooten is ... well ... just not ready for prime time. Butler has MacGyver-ed his way to even fielding a defense, calling upon first-year starters to pick up the slack.
Four defenders made their first career starts this season. Another two had just one career start before the 2013 season. Butler doesn't have a deep defense to choose from. He's not a bad coach; he's a handicapped coordinator -- not unlike Bradley, the same coach some might prefer, earlier in his career.
Bradley, affectionately known as "Scrap," didn't fare too well in Year 2 as coordinator, either. (And, in his first season in 2000, he lost to Toledo.) In 2001, the Johnstown native's defense gave up 443 yards a game. Only 17 teams fared worse that season, as Penn State's defense finished behind the likes of Hawaii, UTEP and New Mexico State.
It was an era when fans were bluer than the Penn State home jerseys. But Scrap just didn't have the players early in his tenure. PSU finished No. 98 in total defense in 2001. Afterward? PSU never finished worse than No. 50 and, during the next 10 seasons, finished within the top 20 a total of seven times.
That's a lot of numbers -- but it goes to show that Bradley was a good coordinator who simply didn't have a lot to work with. Give the best poker player in the world a bad hand and you can't expect them to rake in fistfuls of chips.
So it's a bit early to jump on Butler. Yes, these were the cards that Penn State was dealt -- but that doesn't mean the wrong man's playing the hand.
It's just one game, and PSU could rebound. It did after poor showings last season. But the Big Ten slate is loaded with high-powered offenses, such as Indiana (50 ppg), Michigan (42.7 ppg) and Ohio State (44.7 ppg) -- and those are just Penn State's opponents in October.
It's too early this season for Chicken Littles to proclaim the sky's falling over Beaver Stadium. But it's not too early to remind that this defense is short on depth. It will struggle at times, and Butler will be blamed for it.
But it's not Butler, it's not thud and it's not the game plan. It's primarily the depth -- and it's these sanctions.
Projected starters: Mike Hull (2012 stats: 58 tackles, four sacks, one interception, two fumble recoveries, one blocked kick), Glenn Carson (85 tackles, three tackles-for-loss) and Nyeem Wartman (one tackle, one blocked kick)
Next in line: Ben Kline could've challenged Wartman for the starting job if it weren't for a nagging shoulder injury, but he's missed a lot of time after offseason surgery. (Bill O'Brien said Kline will "hopefully" be ready for the season opener.) He's still clearly the top backup here, but he'll have to shake off rust quickly to be effective.
Outside of Kline, the staff will be forced to turn to a raw Gary Wooten who redshirted last season. And then there's always true freshman Brandon Bell and the run-ons. Safety Stephen Obeng-Agyapong will also be utilized at times this season, likely replacing Wartman on passing downs, and could possibly play more weakside if injuries become a pressing concern.
What to expect: If there's one position that concerns O'Brien, when it comes to depth, it's linebacker.
ESPN's coach of the year has echoed that sentiment throughout the offseason and training camp. There are two solid starters here, in Carson and Hull, but every other linebacker is a question mark. Wartman flashed a lot of potential in two contests last season before a season-ending injury, and he looks to become a four-year starter. But can he be effective with such limited experience?
Even if does play well, the Nittany Lions are one injury away from a disaster at linebacker. Wartman can be good this season, but there's a lot less faith in those backups. Kline missed the spring and the summer, and he might not be ready to go in time for Week 1. If PSU has to rely on Wooten or someone else here, that player immediately becomes the Achilles' heel of this defense.
Recruiting trail: The Nittany Lions seemed to be in a lot better shape earlier in the summer. Sure, they still have four-star MLB Troy Reeder (Wilmington, Del./Salesianum), who is just on the outside of the ESPN 300, but they also basically lost two other linebackers.
Since July, the Lions have parted ways with Class of 2013 LB Zayd Issah (Harrisburg, Pa./Central Dauphin) after another run-in with the law and three-star LB Jared Wangler (Warren, Mich./De La Salle), who decommitted in favor of Michigan. That makes LB a much bigger priority now.
Syracuse commit Jason Cabinda (Flemington, N.J./Hunterdon Central) could be the next in line for an offer. He impressed the staff during a June camp, and PSU badly needs to take another linebacker now.
Best-case scenario: Wartman shows he'll be the next big thing at Linebacker U and earns an honorable mention on the All-Big Ten team. There's only a slight drop-off in production from last season, but the linebacking corps remains one of the team's strengths as Carson and Hull form to become the best duo in the conference.
Worst-case scenario: Carson or Hull go down early and miss the season, while Kline's shoulder continues to bother him throughout the year. Wooten or Bell are then plugged in before they're ready, and the group of linebackers struggles as a whole and brings down the entire defense.
Top position question: What kind of linebacker will Wartman be? He's a run-stuffer, first and foremost, which is why the Lions will likely plug in a safety at his position on passing downs. It'll basically be the 2013 version of the "Roadrunner" package.
But that doesn't mean quickness is a problem for Wartman. He boasts great straight-line speed, and the Florida Gators recruited him heavily for that very reason. He also garnered a reputation in high school as a hard-hitter, and that was clearly well-earned.
During the Blue-White Game, he diagnosed a screen pass and blew up the intended receiver in the hit of the game. (He was a bit disappointed in himself about that hit because, although the receiver crumpled to the turf, he didn't wrap up the target because he "was licking my chops too much.")
It would come as no surprise if Wartman forced a few fumbles. He'll likely end up as a four-year starter for Penn State. This might not be the year where PSU fans start buying No. 5 jerseys en masse -- but it should happen by 2014 or 2015.
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.
Corey Hunter (@realhuntdog23) writes: What REALISTIC expectations should fans have at the Blue-White Game? Isn't Bill O'Brien likely to keep things (plays/personnel) close to the vest?
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"Eyes here," Fisher told sophomore Steven Bench in a conversational tone, pointing to his his right. "Work through it, work through it."
Bench or Tyler Ferguson could wind up as the starting quarterback come Aug. 31, and Monday offered a glimpse of the two signal-callers. Media were invited to attend 20 minutes of open practice, and O'Brien began by calling together a competition: A defensive back would line up against a wideout or tight end in press coverage, while Bench and Ferguson would alternate snaps.
The first team -- offense or defense -- to win three battles would be declared the winner. The losers would be forced to perform five hit-its. It was more for honor than anything and only four passes were thrown while the quarterbacks tried to shake off the rust.
Bench began by just overthrowing Allen Robinson on a roughly 35-yard pass, and Ferguson then hit Jesse James in stride downfield on an over-the-shoulder grab. Bench followed that up by throwing behind his target on cross route, and Ferguson barely overthrew Matt Lehman for two straight incompletions.
The offense, along with Ferguson and Bench, then hit the turf for their hit-its while the defense cheered.
"They're both athletic, they both can throw the football," O'Brien said during a Monday news conference. "Now it's going to depend on how well they make decisions and how accurately they throw the ball.
"They sit in the front row, they pay attention, they take a lot of notes. It's a fun group to be around."
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STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Heading into next season, NittanyNation takes a closer look at holes left by departing Penn State players and the candidates who might fill them.
Who: Michael Mauti and Gerald Hodges were arguably the best tandem in college football. Penn State was the only team to boast two Butkus Award semifinalists in those two, and they helped take this defense to another level. Mauti was all over the field and the unquestioned team leader, while Hodges was asked to help more in pass coverage this season.
By the numbers: Hodges led the team in tackles (109), had 8.5 stops in the backfield, one sack, two interceptions and a team-high nine deflections. He came on especially strong in the second-half of the season. Despite missing one game and three quarters of another, Mauti finished second in tackles (95), had four stops in the backfield, 2.5 sacks, three interceptions and three forced fumbles.
Job description: Where to even begin? These two did everything, and an argument could be made that they were the team's two best overall players. Mauti and Hodges should rank among some of Linebacker U's best tandems to play together, and they're basically irreplaceable. Whomever steps in will attempt to equal either Hodges' speed and coverage ability or Mauti's non-stop motor, quick play diagnosis and solid tackling. In short, there are some big shoes to fill here.
Top candidates: Rising redshirt junior Mike Hull and rising redshirt sophomore Ben Kline. Hull has all but locked up one of the starting jobs; he was the No. 4 'backer and saw a lot of time in the 2012 season. (He was sixth on the team with 58 tackles.) The other opening is more up for grabs, but Kline is the most experienced and could be next in line. He should see a lot of time regardless, but Nyeem Wartman and Gary Wooten also could make a push.
One to watch: Hull. This guy could be special. He's not the prototypical size of a linebacker (6-foot, 228 pounds), but his speed and strength aren't prototypical either -- in a good way. He maxed out at 405 pounds on the bench press during the summer, and he can run in the 4.5s. He was a big-play magnet seeing limited time in 2012, and he could carve out his place in Linebacker U history in 2013.
NittanyNation takes a look at five things that have already come into focus here:
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Four true freshmen are listed on the depth chart but haven't seen any time on the field. Six freshmen have already burned their redshirts. And three are still in limbo.
NittanyNation takes a closer look at the impact the true freshmen have had so far and what to expect going forward:
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Wooten took a year off after falling one class short -- Algebra II -- of graduating on time in 2011. He made up the class but declined to attend prep school or junior college. As a result, he'll have all four years of eligibility.
"I thought he was going to an SEC school," Hialeah coach Marc Berman said Monday morning. "I thought that's where he was going to end up. I don't know what occurred."
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Challenges Facing Franklin at Penn State
BIG TEN SCOREBOARD
Final Washington State 45 Colorado State 48 Final 20 Fresno State 20 25 USC 45 Final Buffalo 24 San Diego State 49 Final Tulane 21 Louisiana-Lafayette 24
Final Pittsburgh 30 Bowling Green 27 Final Utah State 21 23 Northern Illinois 14
Final Marshall 31 Maryland 20 Final Syracuse 21 Minnesota 17 Final Brigham Young 16 Washington 31
Final Rutgers 16 Notre Dame 29 Final Cincinnati 17 North Carolina 39 Final Miami (FL) 9 18 Louisville 36 Final Michigan 14 Kansas State 31
Final Middle Tennessee 6 Navy 24 Final Ole Miss 25 Georgia Tech 17 Final 10 Oregon 30 Texas 7 Final 14 Arizona State 23 Texas Tech 37
Final Arizona 42 Boston College 19 Final Virginia Tech 12 17 UCLA 42 Final Rice 7 Mississippi State 44 Final 24 Duke 48 21 Texas A&M 52
Final Nebraska 24 22 Georgia 19 Final UNLV 14 North Texas 36 Final Iowa 14 16 LSU 21 Final 19 Wisconsin 24 9 South Carolina 34 Final 5 Stanford 20 4 Michigan State 24 Final 15 UCF 52 6 Baylor 42
Final 13 Oklahoma State 31 8 Missouri 41 Final 12 Clemson 40 7 Ohio State 35