Penn State Nittany Lions: Jacob Fagnano

Looking ahead: Safeties

January, 11, 2013
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Over the past week, NittanyNation has taken a glance at different positions and their outlook for next season.
[+] EnlargeBraxton Miller, Stephen Obeng-Agyapong, Mike Hull
Rich Barnes/US PresswireMuch will be expected of Stephen Obeng-Agyapong in his senior season for the Lions.

  • Who: Stephen Obeng-Agyapong and Malcolm Willis both return as starters and rising redshirt seniors. Willis was known as the quarterback of the secondary, while teammates called Obeng-Agyapong the most improved player since Week 1. Ryan Keiser is a solid special teams player and might be next in line if someone goes down. Then again, there's certainly enough young players here to push for time as backups. Jake Kiley and Jordan Lucas (listed as a CB but could also play S) appear to be the furthest ahead, while incoming freshman Neiko Robinson should be a solid addition to the scout team for now. Kasey Gaines is almost guaranteed to redshirt.

  • Strengths: These starters are experienced, and they made some nice improvements in the second half of the season. Willis added a lot to the communication of the defense, and it was pretty evident when he was out of the lineup. Obeng-Agyapong made longer strides than anyone else on defense, and there's a lot of potential here in a quartet consisting of incoming freshmen and redshirt freshmen.

  • Weaknesses: Although the safeties made great strides last season, they were still the Achilles' heel of this defense. PSU had to resort to more zone coverage because they seemed to lack awareness and were a liability on third downs. Neither safety recorded an interception, and they need to shore up the middle of the field better than in 2012.

  • Surprise player: Kiley. Bill O'Brien mentioned him by name on Monday, and he's also been a player who's received quite a bit of praise since preseason camp. He likely won't see much time this season, but he could still end up being a three-year starter. This year will go a long way in determining his development and future role. Somebody needs to replace Willis and Obeng-Agyapong in 2014.

  • Overall: This will obviously be an improved group from last season because both starters return and finally have more experience under their belts. The graduation of Jake Fagnano doesn't hurt that much, and fans can expect to see above-average production out of the safeties. This isn't a strength of the defense -- not by any means -- but it should no longer be a liability. Obeng-Agyapong especially has a lot of potential, and these two starters will be looked upon as leaders in the secondary.

Position review: Complete overview 

December, 5, 2012
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Penn StateAP Photo/Gene J. PuskarPenn State rebounded from an 0-2 start to finish 8-4 in 2012.

During the last two weeks, NittanyNation has reviewed each of Penn State's positions -- complete with summaries, grades, highlights and weaknesses.

For the final review, NittanyNation gives a quick-hitting overview of each position, along with each unit's unsung hero:

Position review: Secondary 

December, 3, 2012
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Every day for two weeks, NittanyNation is taking a closer look at each position and how Penn State fared over the course of the season.

Today: Secondary

John Butler tried to motivate his defensive backs by rattling off snippets from the media before this season started. There was plenty of motivation -- using an array of adjectives, this secondary was labeled inexperienced, shallow and weak.

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Penn State 10: Week 13 rankings 

November, 26, 2012
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Zach ZwinakAP Photo/Gene J. PuskarZach Zwinak had a career-high 36 carries for 179 yards against Wisconsin.
This is Week 13 of NittanyNation's power rankings, a top-10 list of Penn State players who surpassed expectations and proved most valuable in a given week.

After an overtime win against Wisconsin, several new players were added to the rankings. Some defensive contributors moved up slightly, and a few made big leaps on the list. Whose performance left the biggest impression, and whose contributions were the most surprising? This week's top 10:

1. DT Jordan Hill

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3 Up, 3 Down: PSU 24, Wisconsin 21 OT 

November, 25, 2012
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The good and the bad from Penn State's 24-21 overtime win against Wisconsin on Saturday:

THREE UP

1. Zach Zwinak controlled the offensive tempo. The redshirt sophomore set career bests in carries (36) and yards (179). He wasn't once tackled in the backfield and averaged five yards a carry. He wore down Wisconsin's defense and was a big reason Penn State trailed only by a touchdown at halftime. He showed Saturday he could be the bell-cow next season if that's what Bill O'Brien needs.

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Five most improved players since Week 1 

November, 13, 2012
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Zach Zwinak, Daimion StaffordBruce Thorson/US PRESSWIREZach Zwinak was buried on Penn State's depth chart this summer, and now he's the Nittany Lions' best running back.

NittanyNation asked several players for their opinions and also looked at the tape to find Penn State's five most improved players since Week 1:

1. RB Zach Zwinak
He entered Week 1 as a player vying to become the fourth option at tailback: Bill Belton, Derek Day and Michael Zordich were on pace to get more playing time. But as injuries piled up, Zwinak made the most of his limited opportunities and quickly became Penn State's top tailback. He's rushed for at least 90 yards in five of the last seven contests. And in the last two games, he topped 130 yards. He's almost never tackled in the backfield and he even flashed some surprising speed against the Cornhuskers. Zwinak didn't just rise to become the top tailback on this offense. He's one of the team's best players.

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3 Up, 3 Down: PSU 34, Purdue 9 

November, 4, 2012
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Matthew McGloinAP Photo/Darron CummingsMatthew McGloin is looking for depth at the wide receiver spots.

The good and the bad from Penn State's 34-9 win over Purdue on Saturday:

THREE UP

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Mike Hull isn't surfing the internet or asking his coaches about the status of Iowa tailback Mark Weisman. He'd rather be surprised Saturday.

The bruising runner is listed as doubtful, but Hull didn't seem to care if he had a 1 percent chance or 100 percent chance of playing. Hull and the defense planned to treat this game the same way no matter what.

"We're preparing as if he's going to play just because he's been a big part of their offense," Hull said Wednesday. "He's made some big plays for them. He's tough, he's a big guy, and we're going to have to stop him for us to be successful."

But wouldn't the game at least be a bit easier without the 225-pound fullback-turned-tailback bursting through Penn State's defensive line?

"Well," Hull said, "their other backs have had success. He's just been a spark for them recently."

[+] EnlargeMark Weisman
AP Photo/Charlie NeibergallIowa Hawkeyes fullback Mark Weisman has rushed 100 times for 631 yards and eight touchdowns in six games this season.
That's an understatement. In the last four games, Iowa's former walk-on has basically been the offense by averaging 25 carries for 156 yards and a pair of touchdowns. Without Weisman, it's unknown whether Penn State's backup linebacker could even name the next running back in line. Iowa apparently even had trouble with it -- the Hawkeyes misspelled de facto starter Greg Garmon's name on the depth chart: "Garman."

That just speaks to Iowa's lack of depth at the position. Just like Penn State earlier this season, the Hawkeyes have been forced to get creative with their depth chart.

Damon Bullock remains foggy after a Sept. 15 concussion and won't play Saturday. That means the true freshman with the tricky last name will get the start -- with Jordan Canzeri backing him up. Canzeri hasn't played yet this season after undergoing ACL surgery in the spring.

But Penn State's players didn't want to hear all that.

"We realize right now he's not on the depth chart," safety Jake Fagnano said. "But we're preparing as if he's going to be playing every down. Obviously, he's a big part of their offense."

Matt McGloin took that preparation talk one step further. Forget that injury uncertainty, he wanted to see Iowa's version of Zach Zwinak in the backfield Saturday night.

"It would be great to have him in the game and see him do his job," McGloin said Wednesday afternoon. "It's definitely good to see another kid have success who started out as a walk-on."

Penn State's quarterback could regret those words if Weisman somehow defies the odds to return. In the last two games -- both wins -- Weisman has accounted for more than 49 percent of Iowa's entire offense. His 6.3 yard-per-carry average this season is surpassed by only two tailbacks in the country who also have at least 100 carries.

McGloin complimented Iowa signal-caller James Vandenberg. But it's clear this is Weisman's offense -- and, without him, the Hawkeyes could struggle against the Nittany Lions' front seven.

"We are going through our preparations as if he's going to play," Pete Massaro said in a familiar refrain. "He's got a lot of ability between the tackles, but that doesn't change the fact they have a big and aggressive line."

Ranking Penn State's five top backups 

October, 15, 2012
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Mike HullJoe Robbins/Getty ImagesLinebacker Mike Hull is playing a lot on passing downs and is one of the Nittany Lions' five best backups.

Everyone knows about starters like Michael Mauti and Matt McGloin, but what about the players behind the scenes, the backups who sometimes have just as big an impact on the game?

NittanyNation decided to look at each game and come up with Penn State's top five backups. If a player started at least once (sorry, C.J. Olaniyan) or garnered enough playing time to be considered a starter (so long, Zach Zwinak), then he wasn't considered for this list.

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Analysis: Looking forward 

September, 9, 2012
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Penn State tried some new things this week -- more runs, more fourth-down gambles, more shots at the QB -- but still wound up with the same result.

The defense needs to find a solution against the pass, and the offense must find a tailback who can consistently gain 4 yards a carry. Both will be tall orders on this patchwork team.

NittanyNation takes a closer look at what to expect this season:

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Practice notebook: Belton not taking part 

September, 5, 2012
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STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Injured tailback Bill Belton was nowhere to be seen at Wednesday afternoon's open practice, while Derek Day took snaps with the first team.

Twenty minutes before practice officially started, Belton tweeted: "I trust and believe that everything happens for a reason."

Belton was believed to be in the training room while the media watched practice for 30 minutes. He sprained his left ankle Saturday against Ohio, late in the third quarter, and coach Bill O'Brien said Tuesday he remains day-to-day. If Belton doesn't practice by Friday, O'Brien said Day will get the starting nod.

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Halftime Analysis: Penn State 14, Ohio 3

September, 1, 2012
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Stat of the half: 2:1. That's the ratio of pass plays to run plays. In a complete reversal, Penn State is now passing the ball twice as much as it runs. Last season, Penn State passed the ball about 42 percent of the time. In the first half against Ohio, passing plays have accounted for 66 percent of the offense.

Player of the half: Matt McGloin. His quick decisions and quick passes caused some early frustration the Bobcats’ defense. He's 16-of-26 for 178 yards and two touchdowns. He had a pair of ugly throws, but he's still moving this offense pretty efficiently.

What's working for Penn State: Multiple-personnel packages. Penn State's staying fresh by showing a lot of new faces. Ohio simply doesn't know who to key in on.

On offense, Allen Robinson caught six balls in the first quarter, and then Bill O'Brien pulled him for a drive and Kyle Carter became the star. On defense, at least four players have been rotating in, including Deion Barnes with Pete Massaro and Stephen Obeng-Agyapong with Jacob Fagnano.

What's not working for Penn State: Limiting mistakes. O'Brien said Tuesday he wanted to focus on limiting turnovers and mental mistakes. Two first-half drives ended, however, to those types of errors (Bill Belton fumble in red zone, Evan Lewis drop at midfield on 3rd-and-5). And Ohio scored its only points after Gerald Hodges mishandled a punt return on the 13-yard line.

Play of the half: Nyeem Wartman, a true freshman, blocked a punt with less than three minutes left in the half. The block set up Penn State's second touchdown.

Tuesdays with O'Brien

August, 28, 2012
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STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Bill O'Brien crossed his arms and smiled during Tuesday's news conference. Yes, he admitted, he had some butterflies.

"I'd be crazy to tell you otherwise," he said."This is my first football game as a head coach."

It's a wonder those butterflies weren't flapping more. The Nittany Lions face a dual-threat in Ohio quarterback Tyler Tettleton, and O'Brien still isn't sure about his own offense's identity. This game will set the tone for the season, which might be the most important in Penn State's history.

But O'Brien didn't sound like a man carrying the hopes of 110,000 fans on his shoulders on Tuesday. He spoke calmly, but forcefully, about this season.

"There is a lot of this that's a little bit about more than football," O'Brien said. "But as we head into this game, it's all about football. It's about going out there and playing as well as we can."

O'Brien didn't offer a list of predictions or projected stats. He said Penn State would see what works in the beginning and adjust. He laughed when asked if he scripted the first play. (He hadn't.) He smiled when asked if he would relax Friday night. (Are you kidding?) And he shook his head when asked for an estimate of the pass-to-run ratio. ("No.")

"If we have to throw it 60 times, we'll throw it 60 times," he said. "If we have to run it 60 times, we'll run it 60 times. We'll do whatever we have to to win the football game."

Injury update: Defensive end Pete Massaro will play Saturday. Shawney Kersey attended practice Monday, and Malcolm Willis is doing just fine. Jake Fagnano should also finally be back on the field.

No (backup) QB controversy: Paul Jones is the No. 2 right now, O'Brien said. Steven Bench is playing well, but he's still clearly behind Jones.

Quotables: On what he'll do Friday night, whether he'll relax:

"Yeah, I thought I'd relax and go play nine holes over at Toftrees [laughs]. No, I'd go to the hotel, we'll have meetings at the hotel, we'll have special teams meetings. We'll offer a couple religious services over there, and we'll have a snack and we'll go to bed. Then we'll wake up, have more meetings and, right up until gametime, there will be no shortage of going over the game plan."

Special teams: Secondary coach John Butler will manage special teams on Saturday, but O'Brien said each unit (punt, punt return, kickoff, kick return) is overseen by a different assistant during practice.

Alex Butterworth has grown a little more consistent, but O'Brien said he's still not sure about a returner. Alex Kenney is in the mix, however.

Position breakdown: Secondary 

August, 28, 2012
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Adrian AmosCal Sport Media via AP ImagesAdrian Amos saw action in every game last season and could be a breakout player in 2012.

Each day over the last week, NittanyNation has taken a look at a different position and broken it down. Today it's the secondary.

Undoubtedly, this is the defense's Achilles' heel. Not only did four starters graduate, but there's no Curtis Drake, no Derrick Thomas, no Tim Buckley and an injured Jacob Fagnano.

CB Adrian Amos is a talent, but he's seeing time at safety and cornerback -- because the team is not sure if he'll have to slide over. Stephon Morris is a speedy 5-foot-8 corner and the most experienced here with 13 career starts.

Safety Malcolm Willis was a key reserve who saw about 34 plays a game last year, while Fagnano mainly played special teams. This is a unit that's short on experience and on depth.

Freshmen, such as Jordan Lucas and Da'Quan Davis, could be called upon early.

Positives:

  • Amos is one of the better athletes on this defense and could surprise.

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Six PSU starting spots still up for grabs 

August, 27, 2012
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Penn State released its Week 1 depth chart Monday, and six starting spots remain up for grabs.

A closer look at each battle:

Right tackle: Mike Farrell vs. Adam Gress

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