Penn State Nittany Lions: Jesse Della Valle

Penn State helmet stickers: Week 5

September, 28, 2014
Sep 28
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There weren’t a lot of standout players for Penn State during its 29-6 loss to Northwestern on Saturday, but we’d still like to hand out some helmet stickers:

Linebacker Mike Hull: With Nyeem Wartman injured, even more was expected out of Hull this game. And he stepped up. It wasn’t a pretty contest in the fourth quarter, but that certainly wasn’t on the senior linebacker. Hull finished with a game-high 16 tackles and a stop in the backfield. He had at least twice as many stops as every other player on Saturday, Northwestern included.

Wide receiver DaeSean Hamilton: Another game, another 100-yard effort for Hamilton. This is his third such game this season, as he finished with six catches for exactly 100 yards. Hamilton showed consistency, something redshirt sophomore Geno Lewis lacked on Saturday with one or two key drops. Hamilton was the lone bright spot of this offense. No running back gained more than 25 yards, and no other receiver gained more than 35 yards.

Punt returner Jesse Della Valle: He likely won’t win Big Ten special-teams player of the week anytime soon, but Saturday was his best game as a returner. He put this offense in good position with a career-best 41-yard punt return. And, by not calling a fair catch on one play, he helped draw a flag when one Wildcats player ran into him right before receiving the ball. That moved PSU ahead another 15 yards. On a day when few shined, Della Valle stood out.
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- We’ve finally reached the end of this week’s countdown involving the top position battles to watch this spring.

Up next is a position that caused a lot of head scratching last season ...

[+] EnlargeJordan Lucas
Matthew O'Haren/USA TODAYJordan Lucas seems set at one corner for Penn State, but the other starter is anyone's guess at this point.
No. 1 position battle: Cornerback

Departures: None

Returning players: Jordan Lucas (65 tackles, 16 pass deflections, 3 INTs), Trevor Williams (24 tackles, 2 INTs), Da'Quan Davis (5 tackles), Anthony Smith (1 tackle), Jordan Smith (5 tackles), Kasey Gaines (redshirted), Grant Haley (incoming freshman), Amani Oruwariye (incoming freshman), Daquan Worley (incoming freshman)

Breaking it down: There are other defensive backs who could slide over from safety -- such as Adrian Amos and Jesse Della Valle -- but, right now, it looks as if cornerback is the position with the question marks. Lucas will take up one starting spot. But the other? At this point, you might as well just throw the names in a hat and pick one out.

Back in 2012, Davis started the season as the No. 3 cornerback before fizzling out and seeing less time as the season progressed. He played in 11 games as a true freshman and just six as a sophomore. In 2013, Williams began the season as a starter before fizzling out and watching Amos move from safety to reclaim his spot. It sure seems like it’s time to write Davis off as a starter, but is it too early to write Williams off? If Williams, who switched positions from receiver last season, can’t bounce back, then this position truly gets interesting. It seems as if Jordan Smith would be next in line since he’s quickly earned a reputation as a hard worker.

Then again, Smith’s work could all be for naught. There are several incoming freshmen who could challenge for immediate playing time -- including safety Christian Campbell, who could also play corner -- once they arrive over the summer. This position battle might not be totally decided in the spring, but it should go a long way in answering some of the biggest questions on the defense.

Pre-camp edge: None. That’s right -- no one has an edge right now. That’s a big reason why this battle is the top spot on the countdown. This is one starting spot that’s ripe for the taking. The players who have seen the most time (Davis, Williams) haven’t played well, and there’s really no strong way to gauge the others since they’ve seen so little time. Williams might be in the best shape right now, but Jordan Smith should be right behind him. At this point, it seems as if those two corners might be the ones to keep a close eye on this spring ... but anything can happen at corner.

More position battles to watch:

No. 5: Kicker
No. 4: Tight end
No. 3: Defensive tackle
No. 2: Offensive guard/center
We're taking snapshots of each position group with every Big Ten team entering the spring. Up next: the defensive backs.

Illinois: The secondary returns mostly intact from 2013, as Illinois returns starters at both cornerback spots (V'Angelo Bentley and Eaton Spence), as well as Zane Petty, who started the final seven games at free safety. Taylor Barton, who opened last season as a starting free safety, also is back. Building safety depth is important this spring as Illinois must replace Earnest Thomas III. Barton will compete with Jevaris Little and others for playing time. The depth is much better at corner as Darius Mosely and Jaylen Dunlap both saw significant action as freshmen last fall.

Indiana: Like Illinois, Indiana returns a lot in the defensive backfield but must improve after struggling to stop opponents in 2013. The Hoosiers also lose only one starter in safety Greg Heban, a mainstay during the past four seasons. There's a lot of experience at cornerback with returning starters Tim Bennett (senior) and Michael Hunter (junior), along with reserve Kenny Mullen (senior). Decorated recruit Rashard Fant, who redshirted in 2013, will compete for significant playing time. Senior safety Mark Murphy will lead the secondary, and sophomore Antonio Allen could fill the other safety spot when he returns from an ACL tear. Building depth here always is a priority at IU.

Iowa: The situation isn't as dramatic as the linebacker spot, but Iowa still must replace two productive players in cornerback B.J. Lowery and safety Tanner Miller, who combined for six interceptions in 2013. Lowery is the more significant loss, as he had 19 passes defended and three forced fumbles. The good news is Desmond King looks like a budding star and he will move into the featured role Lowery occupied. Jordan Lomax, Sean Draper and others will compete to start opposite King. Strong safety John Lowdermilk returns after a solid junior season. Lomax also could play free safety and will compete there with Anthony Gair and Nico Law, who both appeared in all 13 games last fall as reserves.

Maryland: The back four aims for better results on the injury front and on the field in 2013. Maryland returns both starters at safety in Sean Davis, the team's leading tackler with 102 last fall, and Anthony Nixon, but there should be competition behind them with A.J. Hendy and Zach Dancel. The cornerback position is worth watching this spring as Dexter McDougle departs and Jeremiah Johnson remains limited by a toe injury. Will Likely has opened the spring as a starter, and Alvin Hill could rise up after recording 24 tackles last season.

Michigan: The secondary took a step back in 2013 and all jobs are open even though Michigan returns two veteran cornerbacks -- Blake Countess and Raymon Taylor -- and some experience at safety. Jabrill Peppers, the nation's No. 2 overall recruit according to ESPN Recruiting Nation, will play a major role for the Wolverines this fall, whether it's at corner, safety or nickel. Junior Jarrod Wilson started the first seven games of last season at free safety, and Dymonte Thomas is a good candidate to start at one of the safety spots. Michigan should expect more from this group in 2014.

Michigan State: Will opposing offenses invade the No Fly Zone in 2014? Not if Michigan State can fill several spots, none bigger than Darqueze Dennard's at cornerback. Dennard, a unanimous All-American and the Jim Thorpe Award winner, departs to the NFL, and junior Trae Waynes slides into the featured corner role after a promising sophomore season. The competition opposite Waynes heats up this spring as Ezra Robinson, Darian Hicks, Jermaine Edmondson and Arjen Colquhoun compete. Free safety Kurtis Drummond boasts 21 career starts and enters 2014 as one of the league's top safeties. RJ Williamson likely will fill Isaiah Lewis' spot at strong safety, and Demetrious Cox provides depth.

Minnesota: Like the Gophers' defensive line, the secondary loses a huge piece in Brock Vereen, who played both safety and cornerback last season. But there might be enough returning pieces to fill the void. Cornerback Eric Murray had a very solid first season as a starter, and Minnesota also brings back Derrick Wells and Briean Boddy-Calhoun, both of whom have starting experience. Leading tackler Cedric Thompson and Antonio Johnson finished last season as the starting safeties, and both are back. Senior Grayson Levine provides some experience in a reserve safety role.

Nebraska: An important spring awaits new defensive backs coach Charlton Warren, who must identify new starters at cornerback, safety and nickel. The Huskers are replacing Ciante Evans and Stanley Jean-Baptiste, who combined for eight interceptions, 18 passes defended and 15 tackles for loss in 2013. Safety Andrew Green, who made 10 starts in 2013, also leaves. The good news is cornerback Josh Mitchell had an excellent bowl game and will fill a starting spot. Leading tackler Corey Cooper also returns at safety. There's not much experience at corner other than Mitchell, and Daniel Davie, Auburn transfer Jonathan Rose and others will compete. Nebraska brings back more at safety with Harvey Jackson, who made three starts in 2013, and junior Charles Jackson.

Northwestern: That the Wildcats' secondary could be one of the team's biggest strengths seemed laughable three years ago, but it could be true this fall. All four starters return, led by safety Ibraheim Campbell, one of the Big Ten's most productive defenders (262 career tackles). The depth at cornerback looks strong as starters Nick VanHoose and Matt Harris return, along with Dwight White and Daniel Jones, who opened 2013 as a starter and is coming back from an ACL tear. Traveon Henry should start alongside Campbell, and there are some promising young safeties like Godwin Igwebuike.

Ohio State: Pass defense proved to be Ohio State's downfall in 2013, and the Buckeyes' secondary will be under the microscope this spring as new assistant Chris Ash steps in. Ohio State loses All-Big Ten cornerback Bradley Roby and will lean more on Doran Grant, who started opposite Roby in 2013. Ash also expects big things from Tyvis Powell, who will start at one of the safety spots. Safety Vonn Bell finally logged significant playing time in the Orange Bowl and could become a permanent starter as a sophomore. Veteran Ron Tanner and Cam Burrows also are in the mix at safety. There should be good competition to start opposite Grant, as Armani Reeves tries to hold off redshirt freshmen Gareon Conley and Eli Apple.

Penn State: After a season of moving parts and inconsistent plays, Penn State hopes for a more settled secondary. Adrian Amos, who alternated between cornerback and safety last season, will lead the group and brings plenty of experience. Jordan Lucas likely will start opposite Amos at cornerback after making strides toward the end of his sophomore season. PSU loses some leadership at safety with Malcolm Willis and Stephen Obeng-Agyapong departing and will lean on Ryan Keiser and Jesse Della Valle, both of whom have starting experience. Converted wideouts Trevor Williams and Malik Golden provide depth at cornerback and safety, respectively.

Purdue: The rotation from 2013 returns almost completely intact, but Purdue loses a very big piece in cornerback Ricardo Allen, a four-year starter. Cornerback Frankie Williams enters his third year as a starter and will slide into Allen's featured role, while the competition for the other top corner spot will feature Antoine Lewis and Leroy Clark, among others. Purdue has plenty of experience at safety with Taylor Richards, who started every game in 2013, and Anthony Brown, who replaced the injured Landon Feichter and had 69 tackles. Feichter also is back from a broken leg.

Rutgers: This group is anxious to turn the page after a season filled with personnel issues and poor performance (Rutgers finished 120th nationally in pass defense). Senior safety Lorenzo Waters leads the group after recording 62 tackles and two forced fumbles in 2013. Johnathan Aiken will try to start opposite Waters at free safety, although he'll be pushed by Delon Stephenson and Tejay Johnson, who started three games last fall. Gareef Glashen started six games last season and seems likely to retain one of the top cornerback spots. There will be competition at the other between Anthony Cioffi and Nadir Barnwell, both of whom started games as true freshmen in 2013. The most intriguing player to watch is cornerback Ian Thomas, who returns to the team after quitting midway through last season, one that he began as a starter.

Wisconsin: The Badgers are relatively young at both secondary positions but boast far more experience at cornerback than safety. Junior Darius Hillary and sophomore Sojourn Shelton started all 13 games at cornerback last season. Peniel Jean adds even more experience at the position. Safety is much less settled as Dezmen Southward graduates, Michael Caputo shifts to linebacker and Tanner McEvoy returns to quarterback. Nate Hammon and Leo Musso both played in all 13 games last fall as reserves. Newcomers like Serge Trezy and Austin Hudson could compete for time when they arrive this summer.
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Nebraska Cornhuskers, Ohio State Buckeyes, Penn State Nittany Lions, Wisconsin Badgers, Big Ten Conference, Illinois Fighting Illini, Iowa Hawkeyes, Michigan State Spartans, Michigan Wolverines, Indiana Hoosiers, Maryland Terrapins, Rutgers Scarlet Knights, Minnesota Golden Gophers, Northwestern Wildcats, Purdue Boilermakers, Malik Golden, Trevor Williams, Adrian Amos, Jesse Della Valle, Ryan Keiser, sojourn shelton, Nick VanHoose, Blake Countess, Gareon Conley, Jabrill Peppers, Cam Burrows, Rashard Fant, Godwin Igwebuike, Darius Hillary, Mark Murphy, Michael Caputo, Peniel Jean, Cedric Thompson, Raymon Taylor, Dezmen Southward, Doran Grant, Daniel Jones, Jarrod Wilson, Dymonte Thomas, Ibraheim Campbell, Kurtis Drummond, V'Angelo Bentley, Dwight White, Briean Boddy-Calhoun, Landon Feichter, Tim Bennett, Matt Harris, Taylor Richards, Antonio Allen, B.J. Lowery, Derrick Wells, Nate Hammon, Austin Hudson, Armani Reeves, Michael Hunter, Trae Waynes, Eaton Spence, Jaylen Dunlap, Darius Mosely, Tyvis Powell, Charlton Warren, B1G spring positions 14, A.J. Hendy, Alvin Hill, Andrew Green, Anthony Cioffi, Anthony Gair, Anthony Nixon, Antoine Lewis, Antonio Johnson, Arjen Colquhoun, Charles Jackson, Corey Cooper, Daniel Davie, Darian Hicks, Delon Stephenson, Demetrious Cox, Dexter McDougle, Eric Murray, Ezra Robinson, Frankie Williams, Gareef Glashen, Grayson Levine, Harvey Jackson, Ian Thomas, Jeremiah Johnson, Jermaine Edmonson, Jevaris Little, John Lowdermilk, Johnathan Aiken, Jonathan Rose, Jordan Lomax, Josh Mitchell, Kenny Mullen, Leroy Clark, Lorenzo Waters, Nadir Barnwell, RJ Williamson, Ron Tanner, Sean Davis, Sean Draper, Serge Trezy, Tanner Miller, Taylor Barton, Tejay Johnson, Traveon Henry, Will Likely, Zach Dancel, Zane Petty

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- It’s Monday so you know what that means: the start of another Penn State countdown.

We’ll have a different countdown every week until spring practice starts to help time tick by a little faster. And, this week, we decided to take a look at the five players you should watch the closest this spring.

Up first is a defensive back who's trying to live up to big expectations …

No. 5 spring player to watch: DB Adrian Amos

[+] EnlargeAdrian Amos
Matthew O'Haren/USA TODAY SportsAdrian Amos is expected to being the spring at safety, but Penn State could need him at cornerback.
2013 review: He was coming off a strong freshman campaign but moved from cornerback to safety out of necessity. He was widely regarded as the team's best defensive back, but he struggled at his new position -- as did his replacement, wideout-turned-cornerback Trevor Williams -- and the experiment was abandoned by midseason. Amos started every game, but it's clear he still didn't meet expectations. He finished with 50 tackles and just one interception and, while he fared much better at his old position of cornerback in the second half of the year, his struggles at safety overshadowed any successes.

Why spring is so important: Amos is undoubtedly a talented player, but he was not a great safety last season. Defensive coordinator Bob Shoop believed Amos would "probably" still begin the spring at safety, but it's still no guarantee that's where he'll finish. Right now, he's a better cornerback -- he's the best corner on the team -- but this spring will help determine whether Amos can put together a solid season at safety. He appears to be needed there more because the position is such a liability.

Best-case scenario: Amos said he felt like a freshman all over again last season because he was basically learning a new position (safety). Well, this year, he returns to old form and has the best season out of any of the other defensive backs. Safety is no longer the weakness of this defense, and Amos leads the team in interceptions on his way to All-Big Ten honors. Talk of his NFL potential once again picks up around the defense's playmaker.

Worst-case scenario: Amos continues to struggle at safety and, instead of being a great cornerback, is forced to settle for being a mediocre safety. The secondary is once again a punching bag for opposing offenses, and Amos finds himself out of position on several big plays that draw the ire of fans. He's better than 2013, but his performance still leaves fans wondering "what-could-have-been" because of all the potential he showed as a freshman. At some point, he's moved back to cornerback -- but his confidence is shaken.

Penn State positions to improve: No. 1

February, 14, 2014
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STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- The end of this week's countdown is finally here. And if you're surprised by this top choice, then you just haven't been watching the past two seasons ...

No. 1: Safeties

[+] EnlargeRyan Keiser, Malcolm Willis
Evan Habeeb/USA TODAY SportsPenn State defensive back Ryan Keiser (23) has experience at safety, but he must improve to get on the field in 2014.
The players: Adrian Amos (50 tackles, six pass deflections), Ryan Keiser (38 tackles, 11 pass deflections), Jesse Della Valle (21 tackles), Malik Golden (eight tackles), Koa Farmer (incoming freshman), Marcus Allen (incoming freshman), Christian Campbell (incoming freshman)

Last season: This group has been the Nittany Lions' Achilles' heel for the past two seasons. Amos started 2013 as a safety while Trevor Williams tried his hand at cornerback. Neither fared well, however, and that experiment was abandoned midseason with Keiser taking over. Keiser didn't fare any better, and the safeties found themselves constantly out of position. A third-and-long play was no guarantee for a punt the next down, and better quarterbacks -- like Blake Bortles and Braxton Miller -- absolutely shredded this secondary.

What's missing: Ability. There's really no other way to put it. You could go with speed or athleticism or awareness, but all adjectives point back to that same simple trait: talent. Malcolm Willis was a really hit-or-miss player last season, but he was at least a team leader who knew the signals well enough to become the "quarterback of the defense." With his graduation, that won't be easily replaced either. Amos is a great corner, too, but he wasn't such a great safety.

Moving forward: It's not an easy exercise to even decipher who might be a safety next season. Amos didn't fare well, but the newest roster update still puts him at the position. Even Jordan Lucas could technically play the position. Those two are clearly the best cornerbacks, but the concern is obviously how much of a liability safety is with the team's top two DBs both at corner. Last season, PSU fared better with both at corner. This season -- who knows? One of the incoming freshmen could become a Day 1 starter, or maybe Golden takes over after a strong spring. Whatever happens, though, the most surprising move might be having two of the more experienced safeties -- Keiser and Della Valle -- both starting alongside one another. Both came to Penn State without scholarships and have impressed in that regard, but they're simply not a good season-long solution to PSU's issues at safety.

On the bright side, though, could Penn State's safety play really be any worse than it was the last two seasons?
It's never too late -- or too early -- to see what we learned from this past season and also look ahead to next season. So, we've started breaking down each position and unit on the Nittany Lions.

Up today: Special teams

REWIND

[+] EnlargeFicken
Justin K. Aller/Getty ImagesPenn State kicker Sam Ficken made 15-of-23 field goals this season.
Expectations entering the 2013 season: Despite kicker Sam Ficken's strong end to the season before, confidence wasn't exactly brimming after the kicker's sub-par performance in the Blue-White Game. Punter Alex Butterworth's limited ceiling didn't exactly inspire excitement, and it was simply hoped Penn State's special teams wouldn't cost the team any games. It wouldn't be good in 2013 ... but it couldn't possibly be worse than 2012, right?

How they fared: Ficken started off hot, broke the school record for consecutive made field goals (15), and then promptly cooled off and returned to his inconsistency from the season before. Butterworth had a marginally better year.

If this unit improved from 2012, it wasn't by much. Poor special teams cost Penn State a win against Nebraska, as Ficken missed a field goal and an extra point and Kenny Bell returned a kickoff for a 99-yard touchdown. PSU lost in overtime, 23-20. It was another season to forget for special teams.

What we learned: Ficken remains inconsistent. After nailing 15 straight field goals, it was pretty easy to jump on the kicker's bandwagon. But he still finished the season by making just 15-of-23 field goals (65 percent). He shortened up his approach, spent a year fine-tuning his new technique, succeeded and then ... well ... it just seemed to fall apart. It'll be difficult for fans or coaches to trust Ficken again, even if he remains the starting kicker.

Grading the position: D-minus. Butterworth downed 17 of 51 punts inside the 20, and Jesse Della Valle averaged a respectable 8.7 yards on punt returns. But there's not a lot of good to say outside of that. PSU finished near the bottom in just about every other special-teams category, such as kick return average (19.14 yards -- 100th in nation). If it wasn't for minor improvements by those two, this position would've easily gotten a failing grade. Heck, the argument could be made that it still probably deserves one.

FAST FORWARD

Key losses: Butterworth. He averaged 39.2 yards a punt, so it's not as if he's irreplaceable. Rising sophomore run-on Chris Gulla looks as if he'll take over punting duties since, well, there's just no one else. Gulla was groomed as Butterworth's replacement.

Position stock watch: On hold. Can special teams really fare much worse? Penn State added a kicker to its 2014 class in Troy Stivason and Gulla is more accustomed to field-goal kicking than punting anyway, so Penn State certainly has options there. It shouldn't be too difficult to match Butterworth's production; it just really comes down to the other areas like kickoff coverage, kickoff returns, etc. PSU will have more scholarships to work with in 2014, so it won't be forced to use players on special teams who just aren't ready -- or at least not as much as before. It's a wait-and-see approach with this unit as there's still plenty of question marks, but there should be some cautious optimism here.

Key to next season: Field-goal kicking. Penn State needs to put points on the scoreboard when it has the ability, so that's clearly the priority on all the special teams. Sure, it'll be breaking in a new punter ... but what's more costly -- a punter who averages 35 yards a kick or a kicker who makes 60 percent of his FGs? If Ficken picks up where he left off, the staff might not have much patience left over. Gulla has a year under his belt, and Stivason might be able to push as well. Ficken needs to improve, or someone else needs to step up.

Looking to the past & future: DBs

December, 30, 2013
12/30/13
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It's never too late -- or too early -- to see what we learned from this past season and also look ahead to next season. So, we've started breaking down each position on the Nittany Lions.

Up today: Defensive backs.

REWIND

[+] EnlargeAdrian Amos
Matthew O'Haren/USA TODAY SportsAfter switching from cornerback to safety and back to cornerback, Penn State's Adrian Amos could have a breakout season in 2014.
Expectations entering the 2013 season: The season before was such an awful one that many believed PSU had already hit rock bottom and that it couldn't possibly get any worse.

With Adrian Amos' move to safety, many took that as a sign that defensive coordinator John Butler was confident with the new cornerbacks (Jordan Lucas and Trevor Williams) and that this group wouldn't be the liability it was in 2012. Penn State was forced to play more zone coverage than it wanted to in 2012, but 2013 appeared as if the secondary could at least earn the status of "average." It wouldn't be a defensive strength, but it wouldn't be a complete disaster either.

How they fared: Maybe it wasn't a total disaster ... but it was close. Amos' position switch to safety was a total bust, and he was moved back to cornerback later in the season. The safeties were once again the Achilles' heel on the team and, despite returning both starters from 2012 (Malcolm Willis and safety-turned-linebacker Stephen Obeng-Agyapong), the position of safety somehow managed to take a step back.

Ryan Keiser caught the ire of fans quite a few times, and it wasn't unusual for a defensive back to be completely out of position. PSU didn't press often, the corners gave opposing receivers plenty of room and third-and-long wasn't an automatic prelude to a punt. This was the worst unit on the team -- by far. Again.

What we learned: Butler doesn't have a lot to work with here. CB Da'Quan Davis saw time early in 2012 but hasn't played much since. Wideout-turned-cornerback Williams was looked upon as the better option and, well, you know how Williams fared. He was pulled about six games into the season. Nearly all of the prime options in the secondary are underclassmen. Outside of Willis, PSU had to resort to former walk-ons at safety.

Grading the position: D. If this unit was average, Penn State might've been at least 9-3. But even teams like run-first Minnesota were able to pass on the Nittany Lions. Lucas was a nice surprise, but one nice surprise couldn't overcome missed expectations everywhere else. Amos admittedly didn't live up to expectations, the safeties were a mess, and there really wasn't a whole lot of good to say here.

FAST FORWARD

Key losses: Willis. He wasn't a great player, but he still helped other players in the secondary adjust. He was the quarterback of the defense and a vocal leader who helped the underclassmen. PSU probably will be able to replace his production, however. Can Keiser or Jesse Della Valle really be that much worse?

Position stock watch: Trending upward. Penn State had to hit rock-bottom in 2013; it had to. It really has nowhere to go but up. The cornerbacks should actually be above-average in 2014, and this could finally be the breakout season everyone was waiting for from Amos. Safety is obviously a huge concern but, once again, it really can't get that much worse.

Key to next season: Getting average play from the safeties. They don't have to be great, or even all that good. Simply being average would be a big step up. That being said, it might be difficult for this unit to improve that much. Malik Golden could be the answer, as he saw some significant time toward the end of the season. And it's always possible that a freshman could contribute here. Lucas can also play safety ... but that'd likely cause some head-scratching after the failed experiment with Amos.

Week 13 helmet stickers

November, 24, 2013
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Recognizing the best and brightest from the Nittany Lions in Week 13:

Tailback Zach Zwinak. When the Penn State offense started moving, it was usually because of Zwinak. He carried 35 times for 149 yards -- and he was never once tackled behind the line of scrimmage. His longest carry was only 11 yards -- and he still averaged 4.3 yards per carry -- so he was certainly consistent. He routinely carried a Nebraska defender or two. He has had quite the last three games. His rushing totals? 150, 149, 149. Give the man a helmet sticker.

Wideout Allen Robinson. Seriously, can we just move on with A-Rob's helmet sticker? He's Penn State's best player, so it's pretty self-explanatory what he's doing on this list. He came up with eight of Christian Hackenberg's 16 completions, and he wound up with a game-high 106 yards. He's good, really good, and if his inclusion on this list surprises you then, well, maybe you should just go back to watching soccer.

Tight end Jesse James. He makes this list mainly because of one dazzling play in which he turned a short pass into a 46-yard touchdown. He stiff-armed a Nebraska player, managed to stay in-bounds, and flashed some uncanny speed for a 6-foot-7 receiving target. Outside of Robinson, James had the most receptions (three) and receiving yards (56) on Penn State.

Penn State front-seven. OK, this is kind of cheating by including so many players, but it's deserved. The Nittany Lions got intense pressure on Tommy Armstrong Jr. and Ron Kellogg III all day and really helped to throw off their timing. Plus, when it was third-and-4 (or shorter) the defense really stepped up. The Cornhuskers were faced with third-and-short on five occasions and converted zero -- zero! -- of those attempts, including a trio of third-and-1 attempts. It made a huge goal-line stand on third-and-goal at the 5 to force overtime, and this was one of its best games of the season, especially when considering the opponent. It allowed quite a few yards and bent quite a bit, but it never really broke. It surrendered just one touchdown and three field goals. (Special teams allowed the other TD.)

Safety Malcolm Willis. It was Senior Day for the safety, and he came up with the first forced fumble of his career. He stripped the ball from Ameer Abdullah near the goal line, and Jesse Della Valle fell on it for the touchback. If not for that play, it could've been a completely different game. Willis also wound up with nine tackles and, although that's something you usually don't want to see from a DB, only one of his stops came on a pass. He was the last line of defense for a lot of Nebraska's runs.

Five things: Illinois at Penn State

November, 2, 2013
11/02/13
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The best way to move past a 63-14 loss is a win. It's as simple and as difficult as that.

The good news for Penn State is that Illinois has surrendered 137 points in the last three games, and the Nittany Lions remain the double-digit favorite. But, still, there's still a question of whether Penn State can move past last Saturday's loss.

A win here shows Penn State is down but not out. A loss? Well, that anonymous criticism Bill O'Brien hates so much certainly isn't going to get any quieter. Here are five things to keep an eye on:

1. How will this defense rebound? Last week's 63-14 embarrassment at Ohio State is likely still in the back of this defense's collective mind. They missed tackles, missed assignments and missed any chance of keeping that game close. There's not just one thing to watch on the defense Saturday afternoon -- it's the entire squad that will be under the microscope. O'Brien said the defense will simplify things against Illinois and, though he was short on details, linebacker Mike Hull believed they'd use fewer checks at the line. Said O'Brien: "I think we just need to let them go play."

2. New-look backfield: Bill Belton is now the starting running back; that much is certain. But what is Zach Zwinak's role with the team now? He fumbled twice on his last 11 carries, and O'Brien admitted those issues are a bit mental now. Does that mean Akeel Lynch will be used more? Well, it's anyone's guess at this point ... but it certainly doesn't seem as if Zwinak will play a big role. This is another chance for Belton to distance himself, and it might also be a bigger opportunity for Lynch.

[+] EnlargeJosh Ferguson
Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY SportsJosh Ferguson is Illinois' top running back and top receiver.
3. Impact of Illinois RB Josh Ferguson: He's averaging a team-best 5.5 yards a carry and has 361 rushing yards. He's also the Fighting Illini's top receiving threat with 361 receiving yards. Nathan Scheelhaase likes to spread the ball around, but Ferguson has a team-high 25 catches, three more than his No. 2 target. For Illinois to win, Ferguson will almost certainly need a huge game. Penn State's defense will have to be prepared for him.

4. Adrian Amos back at CB: This move is a long time coming. Wideout-turned-cornerback Trevor Williams was the weak link on a weak defense, and he's now been benched. Amos will move from safety back to Williams' spot, which means that the starting safeties this week will likely be Malcolm Willis and Jesse Della Valle. Ryan Keiser underwent surgery on his arm, so he's been practicing with a red jersey. Keiser will still play, but that injury is likely the main reason that Della Valle earned the start over him. Amos has been a bit of a disappointment at safety, so this game will help determine whether it's just the new position that handicapped Amos -- or whether he's taken a step back, a la Deion Barnes this season.

5. Christian Hackenberg putting mistakes behind him. He never recovered after last week's interception on the first drive, and he's coming off his worst performance of the season. It should be markedly easier this afternoon, as Illinois has the No. 74 passing defense, but he can't get down on himself if he struggles early. Illinois likes to blitz a lot, and Hackenberg needs to remain poised -- something that seemed to be sorely missing last week. We'll be able to tell a lot about Hackenberg's mindset based on the first few drives. He's done pretty well for a true freshman overall, but Penn State needs more out of him.

Video: PSU safety Jesse Della Valle

October, 31, 2013
10/31/13
1:00
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Josh Moyer talks with Penn State safety Jesse Della Valle about defensive coordinator John Butler and the Nittany Lions defense.

Planning for success: Penn State

October, 31, 2013
10/31/13
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STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- There's been a lot of talk about forgetting Saturday's 63-14 loss to Ohio State. About maybe pretending like the worst defeat in 114 years never happened, that the embarrassment should be shrugged off and discarded like an empty Gatorade bottle.

"You've got to get back to work and forget about the past," offensive guard Miles Dieffenbach offered.

But Dieffenbach altered that statement when pressed. Can you really forget about something like that? Isn't there a difference between forgetting and moving on?

"You can't forget," Dieffenbach admitted, nodding.

[+] EnlargeBill O'Brien
Greg Bartram/USA TODAY SportsBill O'Brien tried to provide his players with some perspective after the loss to Ohio State.
"It's always going to be in the back of your mind. But we know what type of guys we have on the team, and we know what type of coaches we have. And we're not going to let that affect our outcome on the rest of the season."

Those words were remarkably similar to those by players on the 1994 Ohio State team, which lost to Penn State by that same score -- 63-14 -- on the road. Nineteen years later, and those Buckeyes still remember. Former defensive end Matt Finkes won't even wear black socks anymore because he still recalls wearing the color during the October game that's "etched in my memory."

There's no remedy to forgetting a 63-14 game. There's no way to erase it from the record books or pretend like it was never played. But there is a way to move past it -- while still remembering, of course.

"You get another win under your belt," former Ohio State DT Matt Bonhaus said, "and that feeling, that loss, goes away."

Added PSU safety Jesse Della Valle: "That's our goal, obviously, just to rebound and get back on track."

Penn State will get its chance at noon on Saturday against an Illinois team that started off hot and has cooled almost as fast the Lions' defense. The Illini boast a middle-of-the-road offense now, ranking No. 73 in total offense (400.7 ypg) and No. 58 in scoring offense (30.7 ppg).

But those numbers and rankings mean little this week -- and they'll mean even less if John Butler's defense repeats its performance from Saturday. Few questions this week revolved around the ability of Illinois quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase or the style of Illinois' offense. Many, many more revolved around the mindset of Penn State.

Dwell on the last game, and lose the next game. Play like the last game, and lose the next game. Bill O'Brien crossed arms in a gray sweatshirt Tuesday and explained that his staff would simplify the defense this week, maybe make fewer checks at the line, and "just let them go play."

The reigning coach of the year gathered the Nits around 2:45 p.m. Monday and preached focus, about the 63-14 loss not being the worst thing that will happen in their lifetimes. He again emphasized taking it one game at a time -- which sounded a lot like advice from the Ohio State staff back in 1994, long before replays of painful losses were repeatedly streamed online and fans vented on message boards 24/7.

Said Finkes: "The coaching staff just sat us down and said we still have a lot of goals to accomplish -- and let's not lose this whole season just because of one game."

The only way for PSU to move past that game isn't forgetting. Della Valle had it right on Tuesday; it's about focus.

"We have a lot more to play for this season," he said. "So we're going to move on and focus on what we need to do."

Said '94 OSU guard LeShun Daniels: "It's a new week. You need to focus on a new team. You need to get back to what you're doing. You need to move on."

Ohio State rebounded against Wisconsin in 1994, and its defense limited the Badgers to a field goal a week after surrendering nine touchdowns. Penn State is planning for success against Illinois on Saturday, a game in which it's still favored by double digits, by simplifying and focusing.

A win over Illinois digs the Lions out of the past and reinforces that focus on the future. Another big loss?

Then there'll really be no forgetting.

O'Brien, Della Valle defend coordinator

October, 29, 2013
10/29/13
5:30
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STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Bill O'Brien remained calm and poised for much of Tuesday afternoon, but Penn State's head coach showed some fire when asked about the recent criticism of defensive coordinator John Butler.

The first-year coordinator took some heat over popular Penn State fan boards and on social media after PSU's 63-14 loss to Ohio State. It was the defense's worst performance since 1899, and it was the third straight game the Nittany Lions surrendered 40 or more points.

[+] EnlargeJohn Butler
Matthew O'Haren/USA TODAY SportsDefensive coordinator John Butler has come under fire after the 63-14 loss at Penn State.
"John Butler is our defensive coordinator, works his tail off. The kids respect him. He's doing a hell of a job," O'Brien said, his voice rising. "I don't care what the scoreboard says or what the yardage says. This guy is our defensive coordinator. He's my defensive coordinator. I'm proud to coach with him.

"If anybody should take heat, it's Bill O'Brien -- not John Butler. I don't know where that's coming from but, hopefully, that will get squelched. That's a bunch of crap that he's taking heat."

About 10 minutes after O'Brien stepped off the dais, safety Jesse Della Valle took his place. The first question centered around Butler, and Della Valle echoed his head coach's sentiment.

"Coach Butler is a guy that's always working with us as players to develop us every single week, every single day," Della Valle said. "He's extremely passionate about what he does and his profession. And I think I speak for every player on our team when I say everyone has a lot of respect for him and really respects the work he does for our team."

Butler has been forced to operate a defense this season that's without former All-Big Ten talents Michael Mauti, Gerald Hodges and Jordan Hill. Butler wasn't made available to the media Saturday and isn't scheduled to speak this week, but O'Brien said they plan to simplify the defense in preparation for Illinois.

There have been quite a few changes on defense since last season. Last year's starting safety, Stephen Obeng-Agyapong, is now at linebacker. And Trevor Williams, a wideout last season, has started at cornerback -- although O'Brien said that Adrian Amos will reclaim his old CB position instead of playing safety.

"We have a lot of good players on both sides of the ball, but I think we just need to let them go play," O'Brien said. "That's what I talked to the staff about on Sunday -- just let them go play."

Christian Hackenberg OK: The true freshman missed most of Saturday's second half with a shoulder injury, but O'Brien said he was a full participant in Monday's practice.

"He's good to go, as we sit here today," O'Brien said.

Hackenberg didn't need any extra braces on Monday. PSU's head coach intimated he was just fine and will start again Saturday.

Starting tailback: Bill Belton started on Saturday night, and O'Brien said the shifty runner is now the team's starting running back over Zach Zwinak.

"He's a much improved player, he really is," O'Brien said. "He's more patient in the running game. I think he understands how to watch film better. I think he's a better teammate."

The move came on the heels of Zwinak's renewed fumbling issues. Zwinak has fumbled eight times since last season, including twice in the last two games, on just 11 carries.

"If there's one guy making mistakes, obviously, the other two guys are going to play more," O'Brien added. "Right now, Zach has got a little bit of a fumble issue. I do think it's a little bit mental. I talked to him for a long time yesterday."

Big Ten Week 6: Did you know?

October, 4, 2013
10/04/13
10:00
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Some parents play classical music to their children when they’re in utero. You should probably read them Big Ten football facts, too. It’s always good to have a well-rounded child.


  • Braxton Miller is a very good quarterback. Everyone knows that. In 2012, he was one of five players in the country to pass for 2,000 yards and rush for 1,000. But he has also gotten better every year. As a freshman he completed just 53.5 percent of his passes inside the pocket, averaging 6.4 yards per attempt. In 2012 those numbers improved to 59.8 percent and 8.3 yards per attempt. And this season, he’s completing 69.2 percent of his passes inside the pocket and averaging 8.7 yards per attempt. Those improvements come from his training in the offseason, but he has also stayed inside the pocket more this season. Eighty percent of his passes this year have come inside the pocket as opposed to last season when just 67 percent of his passes were thrown from inside the pocket.
  • Northwestern has the only offense in the Big Ten that averages more than 225 yards per game both rushing and passing and a big reason is because of its two-quarterback system. Kain Colter and Trevor Siemian are both talented, but have different skill sets. Colter has been in on 140 snaps this season while Siemian has been in for 141. When Colter is in, the Wildcats will execute a rushing play 75 percent of the time and on those plays, they average 6.5 yards per play. When Siemian is in, Northwestern rushes 50 percent of the time, and on those plays the Wildcats gain 7.1 yards per play on average.
  • When Penn State and Indiana take the field this weekend, history will be on the side of the Nittany Lions. PSU holds a 16-0 record (included NCAA vacated wins) over Indiana since 1993 -- Penn State’s first season in the Big Ten. The closest game between the two teams came on Oct. 28, 2000, when Penn State came away with a three-point victory. The largest margin of victory for the Nittany Lions was on Nov. 15, 2003, when Penn State ran away with a 45-point win (52-7).
  • Indiana has a battle of the classes this season. With just 10 seniors on its roster the Hoosiers account for the fourth fewest seniors on a team in college football. But already eight true freshmen have seen playing time for the Hoosiers.
  • Michigan was given a gift of sorts with a bye week last weekend after lackluster performances against Akron and Connecticut. And it bodes well for the Wolverines, who have come away with wins in nine of their last 10 games following a bye. The lone loss was in 2010 when the Wolverines traveled to State College to face the Nittany Lions after a bye week. Penn State came away with a 41-31 win behind a huge offensive performance from former QB Matt McGloin (250 passing yards, 2-of-2 on fourth downs and 0 turnovers).
  • Last season when Michigan State and Iowa met, the Hawkeyes came away with a three-point victory in double overtime. Unfortunately for the Spartans, they were accustomed to those kinds of tight losses. Excluding Michigan State’s 20-3 loss to Notre Dame in week three of 2012, the Spartans lost their other five games by a combined 13 points (2.6 points per game).
  • Junior wide receiver Kevonte Martin-Manley leads the Big Ten with 25.78 yards per punt return. Those numbers were heavily aided by his two punt returns for touchdowns (83 yards, 63 yards) against Western Michigan. Without those returns, he would average just 12.29 yards per return, which would put him at fifth in the Big Ten behind Ohio State’s Corey Brown (61.1), Illinois’ V’Angelo Bentley (15.8), Minnesota’s Marcus Jones (13.1) and Penn State’s Jesse Della Valle (12.7).
  • Saturday will mark the first time Nebraska and Illinois meet on the field in a Big Ten game. The last time these two teams played was in 1986 (Nebraska won 59-14), which means none of Nebraska’s current players were born yet to see it. Bo Pelini may or may not have seen it. He would’ve been a senior in high school at the time.
  • Minnesota coach Jerry Kill has the most tenured football staff in the nation. Not only is Minnesota one of just 18 schools to retain all assistants from 2012-13, but also his staff (between his nine assistants and strength and conditioning staff) accounts for 124 years served under Kill. Strength coach Eric Klein has been with Kill the longest (20 years), while linebackers coach Bill Miller is the baby on the staff (three years with Kill).

Big Ten lunchtime links

October, 2, 2013
10/02/13
12:00
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We're driving Cadillacs in our dreams.

What we learned from Penn State: Week 1

September, 1, 2013
9/01/13
2:00
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Every Sunday around this time, we'll recap five lessons from the week that was in Penn State football.

And away we go:

1. Bill O'Brien will ease his true freshman quarterback along: He doesn't want to put Christian Hackenberg in bad spots, when he's forced to put the team on his shoulders. O'Brien stuck to short, high-percentage passes to build the quarterback's confidence and avoid mistakes. Three times on third-and-long, PSU found itself deep within its own territory and ran the ball with Zach Zwinak. The bruising tailback didn't make a single first down. This playing style will obviously evolve but, early on, expect more dink-and-dunks and fewer 54-yard touchdown passes.

[+] EnlargeAllen Robinson
Matthew O'Haren/USA TODAY SportsChristian Hackenberg targeted Allen Robinson right away after the receiver was held out of the first half for apparent disciplinary reasons.
2. Allen Robinson is the most valuable player on this offense: Penn State's offense just wasn't the same when he was on the sideline in the first half for apparent disciplinary reasons. Hackenberg threw for 69 yards and no touchdowns in the first two quarters without Robinson. On the first two plays with Robinson? Seventy-six yards and a touchdown. There was not a starker contrast anywhere else in this season opener. Defenses focus on Robinson, allowing other receivers to get open -- and A-Rob still makes plays anyway. Hackenberg acknowledged after the game that he was looking for Robinson as soon as he made his way back into the game.

3. Teams will blitz PSU mercilessly: Outside of quarterback, every other offensive unit has made progress and has improved since last year. (Well, offensive line might be a push, but still ...) So, it makes sense that Syracuse targeted the quarterback and forced Penn State to throw in order to move the football. The Nittany Lions averaged just 1.5 yards per rush, and Zwinak was held to just 2.5 yards per carry. On third-and-short plays, the defense knew exactly what was coming. This will be an issue until Hackenberg and O'Brien are comfortable enough to air it out a bit to combat defenses that tend to stack the box.

4. O'Brien still has some tricks up his sleeve: A punt by Hackenberg? A fake field goal run by Ryan Keiser? Oh, you bet that O'Brien has some interesting plays planned for this season. He has said before that he's not a fan of the Wildcat, but there's no telling what else he'll pull off this season.

5. Special teams is much improved: Let's start with Sam Ficken, who looked like he might have been the nation's worst kicker after three games in 2012. He has made the biggest turnaround. After missing four field goals in Week 2 against Virginia in 2012, he made three field goals -- including a career-long of 46 yards -- against Syracuse. But it wasn't just Ficken who did well Saturday. Jesse Della Valle did a good job returning punts, averaging nearly 15 yards a return with a a nice 31-yard return. Bill Belton averaged 22 yards a kick return, which was in the middle of the pack for the Big Ten's opening week. The only question mark, really, was punter. But improving in three out of those four areas in just the opening week? That's definitely good news for Penn State.

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Penn State Lands ESPN 300 CB Taylor
National recruiting analyst Craig Haubert breaks down what No. 12 cornerback Garrett Taylor - once a Michigan commit - means to James Franklin's defense now that Taylor has committed to the Nittany Lions.
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BIG TEN SCOREBOARD

Saturday, 12/20
Monday, 12/22
Tuesday, 12/23
Wednesday, 12/24
Friday, 12/26
Saturday, 12/27
Monday, 12/29
Tuesday, 12/30
Wednesday, 12/31
Thursday, 1/1
Friday, 1/2
Saturday, 1/3
Sunday, 1/4
Monday, 1/12