Penn State Nittany Lions: Jesse James
1. How the offensive line performs. This unit will go a long way in determining Penn State's success this season. There's enough talent at the skill positions that the Nittany Lions could surprise again this year, but only if this battered line can hold up and hold its own. Neither guard Miles Dieffenbach, who's reportedly out for the season with a knee injury, nor tackle Andrew Nelson is expected to play on Saturday. Guard Anthony Alosi isn't listed on the roster, as he's facing criminal charges. And the status of center Angelo Mangiro is unknown.
2. Christian Hackenberg's ability to make any throw. Some analysts have already started wondering aloud if Hackenberg might be the No. 1 overall pick if/when he declares early for the NFL draft. Maybe that happens; maybe it doesn't. But the fact that's even being discussed now should give you an idea of his talent level.
He was one of the Big Ten's best passers last season, despite moving into Happy Valley just a few short months before the opener. His progress was pretty notable from Week 1 to the finale against Wisconsin. Bill O'Brien called running plays on third-and-long against Syracuse in the opener so he wouldn't put Hackenberg in a tight spot. Against 24-point favorite Wisconsin? Hackenberg was nearly perfect -- 21-of-30, 339 yards, 4 TDs, 0 INTs, 89.4 QBR -- and led the Lions to an upset.
Expectations were incredibly high for Hackenberg last season and he still managed to surpass them. After another few months on campus, he's bound to impress yet again. And it would be even more surprising if James Franklin didn't give fans something to cheer for by having Hackenberg lob a few deep balls in the Blue-White Game.
3. An improved secondary. This has been the Lions' Achilles heel the past two seasons, but it shouldn't be anymore. There will be an influx of talented freshmen this summer but, even before then, this secondary's stock is on the rise. Adrian Amos is much more comfortable at safety this season, and cornerback Jordan Lucas has been putting in a lot of work this offseason. Young players last year -- such as Malik Golden and Jordan Smith -- are evolving into good backups who could challenge for playing time. Trevor Williams and Ryan Keiser are really the questions here, but they have one more year of experience under their belts.
Amos has All-Big Ten ability, and his transition back to safety will be crucial to the defense. If he can read Hackenberg or catch up to a speedster like De'Andre Thompkins on Saturday, that can only mean good things for Penn State.
4. WR Thompkins and DT Anthony Zettel. You've seen the running backs and wideout Geno Lewis before. You know what Mike Hull and Jesse James are capable of. But this could be a coming-out party for both Thompkins and Zettel. Zettel has impressed the last two seasons, but he mostly played as a defensive end -- and now he's gained weight and moved inside. Zettel could be the surprise on the defense this season, as his speed certainly sets him apart. And, with a beaten-up offensive line in the Blue-White Game, he could have a field day. As far as Thompkins, he has been on campus three months but he's already the fastest player on the team. He needs to improve his hands and his route-running but, when he gets the ball, he's electrifying.
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- The young and curious are approaching Christian Hackenberg more often these days, peppering the Penn State quarterback with questions about game speed and other topics.
It will slow down, Hackenberg tells his teammates. Just keep working. Everything's going to be alright.
Hackenberg is the reigning Big Ten Freshman of the Year. He's in the spring semester of his freshman year. He celebrated his 19th birthday on Valentine's Day.
He's also a graybeard at Penn State, as crazy as it sounds.
"The guys look at me as one of the older guys, especially the early enrollees," Hackenberg told ESPN.com on Wednesday. "'I still look at myself as the just-turned-19-year-old freshman."
Now the Lions have had two freshman opening-game starters in four seasons. Hackenberg's accelerated ascent isn't a huge surprise given the hype that surrounded him in high school. Anyone who watched him last season, especially in his final performance in an upset win at Wisconsin on the Badgers' senior day (339 pass yards, 4 TDs, 0 INTs), knew he was no ordinary freshman.
But after starting all 12 games for the Lions in 2013, Hackenberg has both the credentials and the credibility to claim a larger leadership role in an offense facing significant depth challenges along the line and at wide receiver.
"It's tough to try and claim that as a sophomore, but I'm one of the most experienced guys returning on this offense," said Hackenberg, who passed for 2,955 yards with 20 touchdowns and 10 interceptions last fall. "What I went through last year has prepared me to be able to step into that role more than if I would not have played or just played a little bit.
"I'm trying to be a leader through my actions."
His actions this spring include absorbing a new offense described as personnel-driven, pro-style. There are similarities to the system Hackenberg operated under former coach Bill O'Brien, especially the protections and some terminology.
But there's also a lot to learn.
"Some games we may come out in heavy tight end sets, some games we might come out in empty sets," Hackenberg said. "It's more multiple."
Hackenberg boasts the strongest arm in the Big Ten and is lauded for being able to make just about any throw. But it's the simple throws -- the underneath routes, which he "babied" at times last season, or the comeback routes -- where he wants greater consistency.
The 6-foot-4, 220-pound sophomore-to-be has formed a quick connection with new Lions offensive coordinator John Donovan, whose approach reminds him of O'Brien's. Hackenberg also has been in touch with quarterback guru George Whitfield Jr., with whom he worked at the Elite 11 high school camp. Whitfield has tutored other Big Ten quarterbacks such as Michigan State's Connor Cook and Ohio State's Braxton Miller in the offseason.
Nothing is set yet, but if Hackenberg seeks outside assistance, he'd pick Whitfield.
"He's worked with the best of the best the past couple years coming out," Hackenberg said, "so being able to get comparisons to that and see what they did to prepare, that would be good."
Hackenberg also must vary his targets in 2014. Wide receiver Allen Robinson, who had more than three times as many receptions (97) as any other Penn State player last season, is preparing for the NFL draft. There are capable options like tight end Jesse James, who shined during Wednesday's practice, as well as tight ends Kyle Carter and Adam Breneman and wideout Geno Lewis, but none likely can come close to Robinson's production.
"Allen was a guy I really leaned on because I honestly didn't know what to expect a lot of the times last year," Hackenberg said. "I was seeing things for the first time -- going to the Horseshoe for the first time, going against Ohio State’s defense for the first time, seeing Michigan here in a whiteout for the first time. So when you're in those situations, you tend to lean on guys you’ve worked with, and Allen and I worked really hard in the summer together.
"Now I look at myself as filling in Allen's shoes because we have a lot of guys coming in. I just want to be a guy who can help put those guys in situations to succeed. I really want to spread the ball around this year."
New PSU coach James Franklin sees Hackenberg as a smart, demanding player who brings more athleticism to the field that many believe. Hackenberg clocked a 4.7 in the 40-yard dash during Penn State's recent testing.
Franklin and his staff face plenty of challenges on offense, primarily a line with glaring experience and depth issues. But the Lions undoubtedly have their centerpiece.
"He's got a chance to be a special player," Franklin said of Hackenberg. "We're just going to have to keep developing him here over the next three years."
Phase 2 begins this fall.
Now let's turn our attention to the East Division and rank the triple-threat combinations. The division is strong at quarterback but lacking elite wide receivers.
QB Nate Sudfeld, RB Tevin Coleman, WR Shane Wynn
The Hoosiers featured the league's No. 2 offense in 2013 and top this list even though top receiver Cody Latimer bolted for the NFL draft. They have two options at quarterback, but Sudfeld, who had nearly 1,400 more passing yards than teammate Tre Roberson, gets the nod here. Coleman brings explosiveness to the backfield after rushing for 958 yards and 12 touchdowns in only nine games. Wynn finished near the top of the league in receiving touchdowns (11) and had 46 receptions for 633 yards.
2. Ohio State
QB Braxton Miller, RB Ezekiel Elliott, WR Devin Smith
You would think a team with the back-to-back Big Ten offensive player of the year at quarterback would be rated higher, but the Buckeyes lose a huge piece at running back in Carlos Hyde, as well as top receiver Corey Brown. Elliott, who had 262 rushing yards last season, is competing for the starting position this spring. Smith has been Miller's big-play target throughout his career and had eight touchdown catches and averaged 15 yards per reception last fall. Tight end Jeff Heuerman provides another weapon in the pass game.
3. Michigan State
QB Connor Cook, RB Jeremy Langford, WR Tony Lippett
The skinny: A year ago, Michigan State's offense looked like a mess. Cook began the season as the backup but emerged to lead the Spartans to nine Big Ten wins, all by double digits, and a Rose Bowl championship. Langford answered Michigan State's running back questions with 1,422 yards and 18 touchdowns. There's no true No. 1 receiver on the roster, and while Macgarrett Kings (513 receiving yards in 2013) could claim the role, Lippett gets the nod after leading the team in receptions (44) and finishing second in receiving yards (613) last year.
QB Christian Hackenberg, RB Zach Zwinak, TE Jesse James
The Lions have the Big Ten's top pocket passer in Hackenberg, the league's freshman of the year in 2013. But Hackenberg loses his favorite target in Allen Robinson, and wide receiver is a major question entering the fall. The tight end position looks much stronger with James, Kyle Carter and Adam Breneman. Penn State also has options at running back, but Zwinak has led the team in rushing in each of the past two years, finishing with 989 yards and 12 touchdowns last fall.
QB C.J. Brown, RB Brandon Ross, WR Stefon Diggs
Don't be surprised if Maryland finishes higher on the postseason triple-threats list as long as their top players stay healthy, which is hardly a guarantee after the past two seasons. Brown is a veteran dual-threat player who had 2,242 passing yards and 13 touchdowns last year. Ross leads a potentially deep group of running backs after leading the team with 776 rushing yards. Although Levern Jacobs led Maryland in receiving last year and returns, Diggs is the team's top threat after averaging 17.3 yards per catch before a season-ending injury in October.
QB Devin Gardner, RB Derrick Green, TE/WR Devin Funchess
Gardner is capable of putting up some big numbers, as he showed last year, but he loses top target Jeremy Gallon. The run game is a major question mark for new coordinator Doug Nussmeier, although hopes are high for Green, a heralded recruit who had 270 rushing yards as a freshman. At 6-5 and 230 pounds, Funchess is a tight end who plays like a wide receiver. He finished second on the team in receptions (49), receiving yards (748) and touchdowns (6).
QB Gary Nova, RB Paul James, TE Tyler Kroft
New coordinator Ralph Friedgen tries to spark an offense that finished 77th nationally in scoring and 95th in yards last season. Nova is competing this spring to retain the starting job, which he has held since the middle of the 2011 season. James averaged 5.6 yards per carry last season and can be very effective when healthy. Rutgers is scrambling at bit at the wide receiver position but returns a solid option at tight end in Kroft, who led the team in both receptions (43) and receiving yards (573) last fall.
Up today is a position battle that’s actually a positive for the Nittany Lions …
No. 4 position battle: Tight ends
Returning players: Adam Breneman (15 catches, 183 yards), Kyle Carter (18 catches, 222 yards), Jesse James (25 catches, 333 yards), Brent Wilkerson (missed season with injury), Mike Gesicki (incoming freshman)
Breaking it down: This is not a position of concern. Quite the contrary, actually. Tight end is the deepest position on the offensive side of the ball, and the Nittany Lions have three solid players here in Breneman, Carter and James. But who’ll finish the season with the most catches? Who’ll wind up as Christian Hackenberg’s top threat?
Each of those three players will be battling this spring to become that No. 1. Two seasons ago, Carter seemed like he was on pace to be the Big Ten tight end of the year before an injury derailed his hopes. He boasted the best hands on the team, but his wrist was still taped up during a Monday weightlifting session. Last season, James was the top option -- and he provides an excellent red-zone target with his height of 6-foot-7. And then there’s Breneman, the up-and-coming tight end who’s a great friend of Hackenberg’s and who might have boasted the best chemistry with the young QB. They all have their own strong points, and this should definitely be an interesting position battle.
When you take Allen Robinson out of the equation, tight ends caught 41.6 percent of passes last season and 42.5 percent of throws the year before that. This group should make a big splash, but it’s still unknown who’ll lead them.
Pre-camp edge: James. He was the top target last season, so it’s fair to say he has the edge right now. He has a great blend of size and speed, and this could be his breakout year now that Robinson is headed to the NFL. Breneman still has work to do -- namely improving his blocking -- to become an every-down tight end, so this spring race seems like it would be between Carter and James. Carter has the potential, but there’s no telling whether the terrific 2012 version will show up. As a result, right now, James has to be considered the leader.
More position battles to watch:
No. 5: Kicker
Illinois: The Illini are looking for more from this group after losing top target Steve Hull, who exploded late in the season to finish just shy of 1,000 receiving yards. While running back Josh Ferguson (50 catches in 2013) will continue to contribute, Illinois could use a boost from Martize Barr, who arrived with high expectations but only had 26 receptions last fall. Another junior-college transfer, Geronimo Allison, could make an impact beginning this spring, but there's some mystery at wideout. Illinois looks more solid at tight end with seniors Jon Davis and Matt LaCosse.
Indiana: Despite the somewhat surprising early departure of All-Big Ten selection Cody Latimer, Indiana should be fine here. Shane Wynn is the veteran of the group after recording 633 receiving yards on 46 catches last season. Kofi Hughes and Duwyce Wilson also depart, so Indiana will be leaning more on Nick Stoner and Isaiah Roundtree. The Hoosiers have high hopes for early enrollee Dominique Booth, a decorated recruit who could fill Latimer's spot on the outside. Productive tight end Ted Bolser departs and several players will compete, including early enrollee Jordan Fuchs.
Iowa: Almost all the wide receivers are back from a group in which none eclipsed more than 400 receiving yards in 2013. Balance is nice, but separation could be nicer for the Hawkeyes this spring. Kevonte Martin-Manley is the most experienced wideout and has 122 career receptions. Tevaun Smith also returns, and Iowa fans are excited about big-play threat Damond Powell, who averaged 24.2 yards on only 12 receptions last season. Iowa loses its top red-zone target in tight end C.J. Fiedorowicz and will need Jake Duzey to deliver more Ohio State-like performances.
Maryland: When the Terrapins get healthy, they might have the Big Ten's best wide receiving corps. Stefon Diggs and Deon Long, both of whom sustained broken legs against Wake Forest last season, have the ability to stretch the field as both averaged more than 15 yards per reception before the injuries struck. Leading receiver Levern Jacobs also returns, alongside junior Nigel King and sophomore Amba Etta-Tawo, who averaged more than 16 yards per catch in 2013. Marcus Leak, who started seven games in 2012, rejoins the team after a year away. The Terps are unproven at tight end after losing Dave Stinebaugh.
Michigan: There's a reason why some Michigan fans want Devin Gardner to return to wide receiver for his final season. The Wolverines are thin on the perimeter after losing Jeremy Gallon and Drew Dileo. Redshirt sophomores Jehu Chesson and Amara Darboh are both candidates to start, and Dennis Norfleet could be the answer in the slot. But there's plenty of opportunity for younger players like Drake Harris, an early enrollee. Michigan's best pass-catching option, Devin Funchess, is listed as a tight end but plays more like a receiver. The Wolverines will be without their second-string tight end, Jake Butt, who suffered an ACL tear in winter conditioning.
Michigan State: Remember all the justified angst about this group a year ago? It has pretty much gone away as the Spartans wideouts rebounded nicely in 2013. Bennie Fowler departs, but MSU brings back its top two receivers in Tony Lippett and Macgarrett Kings, who showed explosiveness down the stretch last fall. Aaron Burbridge had a bit of a sophomore slump but provides another option alongside veteran Keith Mumphery, who averaged 16.6 yards per catch in 2013. Josiah Price leads the tight end group after a solid freshman season.
Minnesota: Here's a group to watch during spring practice, particularly the wide receivers. Minnesota has proven it can run the ball and defend under Jerry Kill, but the passing game was putrid in 2013, ranking last in the Big Ten and 115th nationally. Youth is partly to blame, and while the Gophers still lack experience, they can expect more from promising players like Drew Wolitarsky and Donovahn Jones. Senior Isaac Fruechte provides a veteran presence. Minnesota looks solid at tight end with sophomore Maxx Williams, the team's receiving yards leader (417) in 2013.
Nebraska: The Huskers lose a significant piece in Quincy Enunwa, who led the team in receiving yards (753) and had three times as many receiving touchdowns (12) as anyone else in 2013. Kenny Bell is set to recapture the No. 1 receiver role, which he had in 2012, and comes off of a 52-catch season as a junior. Nebraska must build around Bell this spring with players like the mustachioed Jordan Westerkamp, who had 20 catches as a freshman, including a rather memorable one to beat Northwestern. Will Jamal Turner turn the corner this offseason? Juniors Sam Burtch and Taariq Allen also return. Cethan Carter started six games at tight end last fall and should take over the top spot there as Jake Long departs.
Northwestern: The passing game fell short of expectations in 2013, but there's reason for optimism as Northwestern returns its top three pass-catchers in Tony Jones, Christian Jones and Dan Vitale. The two Joneses (no relation), who combined for 109 catches in 2013, lead the receiving corps along with junior Cameron Dickerson. Speedy Rutgers transfer Miles Shuler provides a playmaking spark, possibly at slot receiver. Vitale, who had a somewhat disappointing sophomore season, has All-Big Ten potential at the superback (tight end) spot. Although Northwestern rarely plays true freshmen, superback Garrett Dickerson, Cameron's brother, could see the field right away.
Ohio State: A group that drew heavy criticism from coach Urban Meyer two springs ago is stockpiling talent. Devin Smith is the familiar name, a big-play senior who has started each of the past two seasons and boasts 18 career touchdowns. Ohio State must replace top wideout Corey Brown and will look for more from Evan Spencer. Michael Thomas has stood out in practices but must translate his performance to games. This could be a breakout year for H-back Dontre Wilson, who averaged nine yards per touch as a freshman. Buckeyes fans are eager to see redshirt freshmen Jalin Marshall and James Clark, and incoming players like Johnnie Dixon could make a splash right away. Ohio State returns an elite tight end in Jeff Heuerman.
Penn State: The Lions have very different depth situations at receiver and tight end. They're looking for contributors on the perimeter after losing Allen Robinson, the Big Ten's top wide receiver the past two seasons, who accounted for 46 percent of the team's receiving production in 2013. Brandon Felder also departs, leaving Geno Lewis as the likeliest candidate to move into a featured role. Richy Anderson also returns, but there will be plenty of competition/opportunity at receiver, a position new coach James Franklin targeted in recruiting with players like Chris Godwin and Saeed Blacknall. Things are much more stable at tight end as the Lions return three talented players in Jesse James, Kyle Carter and Adam Breneman.
Purdue: If you're looking for hope at Purdue, these spots aren't bad places to start. There are several promising young players like receiver DeAngelo Yancey, who recorded a team-leading 546 receiving yards as a freshman. Cameron Posey also had a decent freshman year (26 catches, 297 yards), and Danny Anthrop averaged 18.4 yards as a sophomore. A full offseason with quarterbacks Danny Etling and Austin Appleby should help the group. Tight end also should be a strength as Justin Sinz, who led Purdue with 41 catches last season, is back along with Gabe Holmes, who returns after missing most of 2013 with a wrist injury.
Rutgers: The good news is tight end Tyler Kroft returns after leading Rutgers in both receptions (43) and receiving yards (573) last season. Kroft will immediately contend for All-Big Ten honors. Things are murkier at wide receiver, where top contributors Brandon Coleman and Quron Pratt both depart. Leonte Carroo took a nice step as a sophomore, averaging 17.1 yards per catch and enters the spring as the frontrunner to become the team's No. 1 wideout. Ruhann Peele is another promising young receiver for the Scarlet Knights, who boast size with Carlton Agudosi (6-foot-6) and Andre Patton (6-4).
Wisconsin: The quarterback competition will gain more attention this spring, but Wisconsin's receiver/tight end situation could be more critical. The Badgers lose Jared Abbrederis, their only major threat at receiver the past two seasons, as well as top tight end Jacob Pedersen. Players like Jordan Fredrick and Kenzel Doe must translate their experience into greater production, and Wisconsin will look for more from young receivers like Alex Erickson and Robert Wheelwright. Help is on the way as Wisconsin signed five receivers in the 2014 class, but wideout definitely is a position of concern right now. Sam Arneson is the logical candidate to step in for Pedersen, but there should be competition as the Badgers lose a lot at the position.
I love my 2014 class of PSU ....we have that brothers connection and we didn't even enroll to PSU yet— Marcus Allen (@Chico_Ehhh) January 2, 2014
If it wasn't for Coach OB I probably wouldn't be playing football anymore, I wish him the best in the NFL.— Devin Pryor #16 (@D_Pryor16) January 1, 2014
We all we got! No reason to panic or jump ship! Doesn't matter the system nor the coach...players win games period— Bill Belton (@W3BII) January 1, 2014
No matter what happens football games will be played and won by the Nittany Lions love all my brothers we will stick together #WeAre— Hunter Crafford (@Craf_FordTough) January 1, 2014
Never worry about the things you can't control— Malik Golden (@_goldenboy6) January 1, 2014
A man's gotta do what a man has GOT TO DO. It's life baby !— Stephen Obeng-Agy... (@BigBENGTheory7) January 1, 2014
New Year, New Head Coach I suppose— DaeSean Hamilton (@SkeeterMills__) January 1, 2014
Bout to be the best year for me yet and bout to be the best year for Penn State #WeAre— carter Henderson (@hendydo_42) January 1, 2014
I hope I have another chance to play under Coach O'B. I love the guy, I appreciate everything he's done for me. I couldn't be more thankful.— Jesse James (@JJames18_) January 1, 2014
Good luck to Coach O'Brien and his family. Made a tremendous impact on my life and many others during his time at Penn State.— Ty Howle (@THowle60) January 1, 2014
Best of luck to the O'Brien family and to the lucky man that gets to coach this prestige organization... I can't wait to meet you— Troy Stivason (@teejaystives) January 1, 2014
To all of the Penn State family: Penn State is and will always be about more than any one man. WE ARE everything we have always been— Derek Dowrey (@doubleDowrey) January 1, 2014
Coach O'Brien was a great mentor, coach and father figure but every coach has the aspirations to coach in the NFL. glad coach can chase his.— Brian Gaia (@that_gaia) January 1, 2014
Gotta keep on movin forward people that's all we can do #yafeelme— Austin Johnson (@AJohn15) January 1, 2014
One thing OB taught me is that this is a business, and u should do what's best for you.Texans are getting a good coach, I wish him the best— Deion Barnes (@DBarnes_18) January 1, 2014
Coach O'brien is a great coach and great person! Proud to have called him my coach. It was his dream to coach in the NFL, best of luck. #PSU— Mike Hull (@m_hull4943) January 1, 2014
I'll love Coach Obrien forever. He will always be apart of Penn State. One of the greatest men I've ever known. #PennStateForever— Miles Dieffenbach (@Curiousjorge65) January 1, 2014
Fight on. We still are and forever will be.— Garrett Sickels (@Sickels_90) January 1, 2014
Time to move on Penn State! We will find the right man for the job. BOB did plenty for us. Time for a true Blue and White bleeder! #WeAre— OJ McDuffie (@ojmcduffie81) January 1, 2014
Up today: Tight ends.
Expectations entering the 2013 season: With five players set to contribute, this group was expected to be the deepest and one of the most talented on the team. It dubbed itself "TEU," after all. Kyle Carter was coming off a serious wrist injury, but Bill O'Brien tried to downplay that and -- if Carter was fully recovered -- many believed he would compete for the Big Ten's tight end of the year award. He barely missed the honor in 2012.
How they fared: This group isn't calling itself "TEU" anymore. It's not that it played poorly -- because it didn't. But the tight ends just weren't utilized as much as expected.
Carter played in just nine games in 2012 but had a position-leading 36 catches and 453 yards. In 2013, Jesse James led all TEs with 25 catches for 333 yards. James did well, but his performance fell short of the kind of breakout season that was predicted. And Carter, overall, was a disappointment after a stunning 2012 campaign.
Breneman looked good toward the end of the season; Lehman missed 10 games with a season-ending injury.
What we learned: Just because a position's deep doesn't necessarily mean PSU will utilize it. There was talk of four tight end sets in the preseason but, with the injuries to Lehman and Wilkerson, that never materialized. PSU still had two solid TEs (and an up-and-comer in Breneman), but the offense almost entirely leaned on Allen Robinson. Brandon Felder still finished as the No. 2 target despite not seeing a lot of time toward the end of the season.
Grading the position: B. Yes, this group fell short of expectations. But match it up against any other group in the Big Ten, and it'd be difficult to find a deeper or more talented corps. It graded higher last season, but it still had an above-average performance in 2013.
Key losses: Lehman. There's been no official word yet on whether Lehman will be granted a sixth year, but the odds are against it. Still, PSU will return a healthy Brent Wilkerson and add incoming freshman Mike Gesicki (Manahawkin, N.J./Southern Regional).
Position stock watch: Trending very upward. Outside of quarterback, there's no position where the stock should be higher. James is one of the better tight ends in the Big Ten, and Breneman is fast becoming an important target for Christian Hackenberg. If Breneman can improve upon his blocking, he could be an every-down threat.
And, of course, we haven't even mentioned Carter yet. He's a bit of a wild card this offseason. In 2012, he looked as if he would become one of PSU's best tight ends of the 2000s. The potential is there, but 2013 was clearly a step back. If can return to his 2012 form, it wouldn't be a surprise if we end up seeing those four TE sets in 2014.
Key to next season: Getting the ball to the TEs more. That's obviously not on the tight ends; it's on the play-calls by O'Brien and the decision-making by Hackenberg. The tight ends are more talented than most of the receivers so, it stands to reason, they should get the ball more. There's nothing this position needs to focus on as a group -- like the RBs need to focus on not fumbling -- but Carter needs to get his groove back, Breneman needs to block better and James needs to find more consistency. Overall, though, this group's in great shape.
He was the Big Ten's lone semifinalist for the national Biletnikoff Award so it wasn't much of a surprise when he was named a unanimous All-Big Ten first-team selection and earned the conference's Richter-Howard Receiver of the Year Award for the second straight season. He finished his junior campaign with a PSU-record 97 catches and 1,432 yards.
There weren't many surprises for Penn State, and there was just one pick that could've been perceived as a snub. Here's a closer look at how it all played out for Penn State (all players are first-team selections unless otherwise noted):
OG John Urschel
DT DaQuan Jones
Honorable mention: DB Adrian Amos, LB Glenn Carson, QB Christian Hackenberg, C Ty Howle, CB Jordan Lucas, DE C.J. Olaniyan, LT Donovan Smith
DT Jones (second-team)
Honorable mention: LB Carson, K Sam Ficken, QB Hackenberg, C Howle, TE Jesse James, CB Lucas, DE Olaniyan, LT Smith
Really, the only perceived snub could be on Jones making the second-team on the media's list. Ohio State DL Noah Spence earned the spot over him, but it was a pretty tight race. Jones had more overall tackles (33 solo, 56 total) than Spence (20 solo, 46 total) and helped stop the run and clog up the middle.
Spence rushed the passer and finished with 13.5 tackles-for-loss, eight sacks and four quarterback hurries. Jones had 11.5 tackles-for-loss, three sacks and no hurries. Spence also had his hand in more turnovers.
Outside of that, there didn't appear to be anyone who was really left off the list. If anything, the list of honorable mentions might've raised a few eyebrows for opposite reasons.
Amos played relatively well at corner, but most of his season was spent playing not-so-well at safety. He earned a nod from coaches but not from the media. It's clear this season was a step down from 2012.
The biggest surprise came from the media's list, however, with the inclusion of Ficken. That pick would've made sense had this season ended around Week 6, but he struggled in the second half. He finished the season by making 15-of-23 (65 percent) field goals and by missing an extra point. In the last five games, he made just half of his kicks -- and he was just 1-of-5 on field goals longer than 30 yards during that stretch.
The Big Ten will continue with the major awards being named Tuesday night. But there shouldn't be too many surprises there, either. Expect Penn State to pick up its second straight freshman-of-the-year honor.
1. Running-back-by-committee is nice -- but not required. Bill Belton missed the game with an undisclosed illness and stood on the sideline in street clothes, so it was the "Zach Zwinak Show" on Saturday -- and he came through just fine. Zwinak carried the ball 35 times for 149 yards. But it wasn't the first time a Penn State tailback has been asked to carry the full load. Belton had 36 carries against Illinois while Zwinak was in the midst of his fumbling phase (at least we think it was a phase). So it's clear these tailbacks are conditioned enough to handle a heavy load. Obviously, neither guy can do this every game over a full season. But if one guy is injured for a week or two? Definitely not time to hit the panic button. Having two guys who can run like that definitely has to make the staff feel better about its depth at the position.
2. Special teams needs more than just coaching to improve. Bill O'Brien said last Saturday, following the win against Purdue, that maybe he needed to find hungrier players to put on the kick-coverage team. On Tuesday, he changed his mind and said he just needed to coach better. Well, Bo Pelini said the players were coached just fine, but PSU's special-teams units still had their worst combined performance of the season. Kenny Bell ran back a kick 99 yards for a TD, a punt return was fumbled, a punt was blocked, and an extra point was missed. It was a day to forget for the special teams and, clearly, something has to give there. Maybe O'Brien and Co. need to coach better, but maybe they also need to find more athletic run-ons for special teams, too.
3. Tight ends could be the answer next season. Senior Brandon Felder and redshirt freshman Eugene Lewis had games to forget for Penn State as wideouts. But, outside of Allen Robinson, the tight ends really showed up to play. Six-foot-7 TE Jesse James flashed some speed on a swing pass that turned into a 46-yard touchdown. TE Adam Breneman caught a nice touchdown pass. And Kyle Carter looked good at times, as well. If Robinson doesn't return next season -- and that's looking more and more like an inevitability -- then these tight ends might just be the future. Saturday's game could've been a glimpse of that.
4. There could be some hope for this defense after all. It's not time to break open the champagne or anything, but true freshman linebacker Brandon Bell played well. And the secondary didn't look completely lost against a receiving corps that Jordan Lucas called the best it would face all season. The defense surrendered just one touchdown -- special teams allowed the other -- and, if it can string together more bend-don't-break games like that, then fewer fans are sure to call for the head of defensive coordinator John Butler. It was a positive step. The defensive line got great pressure on Nebraska, and that seemed to be key.
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.
Off the field, the Nittany Lions scored a big win over the Buckeyes with commit No. 13 in the 2014 class.
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It’s a question many are asking and one that has the interest of the Big Ten.
What will tight end Mike Gesicki (Manahawkin, N.J./Southern Regional) do on Friday when he announces between Ohio State and Penn State?
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Tight end was among the Nittany Lions' deepest positions just last month. But Brent Wilkerson suffered a serious back injury, and Lehman and Carter players suffered injuries Saturday against Syracuse.
O'Brien said he wasn't certain if Carter could play Saturday versus Eastern Michigan. If he can't, that means redshirt freshman Jesse James would be the top option, with true freshman Adam Breneman as the No. 2. The only other tight end listed on the roster is true freshman walk-on Tom Pancoast.
"Certainly, any time you have a player of the caliber as Matt Lehman go down, it's not a good thing," O'Brien said. "It definitely falls into the category of 'next man up.' "
O'Brien didn't disclose the exact injuries of Lehman or Carter. But with Lehman, he referred back to Michael Mauti's knee injury. O'Brien believed Lehman still had a future in football. Carter also remained on the sideline Saturday with his arm wrapped up.
As a result of those injuries, O'Brien said he might utilize another position a bit more -- such as fullback Pat Zerbe or another wideout -- to make up for the loss.
"You have to have a contigency plan," O'Brien added.
Lehman was fourth on the team in receiving last season with 24 catches for 296 yards and three touchdowns. He had two catches for 17 yards against Syracuse.
As part of an ongoing series, NittanyNation will preview a different position leading up to the season opener against Syracuse on Saturday. Up today: Tight ends.
Projected starters: Kyle Carter (2012 stats: 36 catches, 453 yards, two touchdowns) and Jesse James (15 catches, 276 yards, five touchdowns)
Key losses: None
Next in line: Walk-on-turned-scholarship TE Matt Lehman started three games and played in all of them last season, and he'll be the next man up for now if there's any kind of injury. That being said, he'll still see plenty of time in Bill O'Brien's rotation at the position -- and he could be pushed for playing time by the true freshman behind him.
Adam Breneman missed his senior season of high school with a torn ACL in his right knee, but he's made great strides and has impressed the staff with his recovery. He's from the same high school as former PSU great Kyle Brady, and big things are expected out of the nation's top tight end of the 2013 class. By the end of the season, he could be TE No. 3. Brent Wilkerson is nursing a back injury, and O'Brien hasn't mentioned when he could return -- although he did acknowledge the injury was serious.
Wilkerson could see time down the line if he's healthy. If he's not, the only other TE listed on the roster is run-on Tom Pancoast, who was initially recruited as a safety.
What to expect: If this isn't the best group -- group -- of tight ends in the country, it's pretty darn close. This is the most unique part about Penn State's offense, as defenses will have to anticipate four tight end sets at some point.
The tight ends here have taken to calling themselves "TEU," and that's not too far from the truth. Maybe that's a bit premature, but PSU targets tight ends in a big way. Bigger than nearly every other school. PSU could go five consecutive seasons with someone on the Mackey Award watch list, and Breneman is aiming to win the award before he graduates. (It's already typed in his smartphone.)
There's really nothing bad to say about this group. Teammates have raved about the 6-foot-7 James, who should provide a nice red-zone target for the new quarterback. Carter might have the best hands on the team. Penn State's fourth-best tight end could start on most Big Ten teams.
Recruiting trail: Clearly, the Nittany Lions don't need any more tight ends -- but O'Brien's a fan of the "best player available" philosophy. Three-star prospect Mike Gesicki (Manahawkin, N.J./Southern Regional) is the only tight end who could wind up at Penn State in the 2014 class, and PSU is on his short list. Ohio State and Wisconsin are Penn State's biggest competition. Gesicki visited PSU earlier this month.
Best-case scenario: Carter not only picks up where he left off last year but becomes to tight ends what Allen Robinson was to wideouts last season. Carter is named the Big Ten tight end of the year, earns All-America honors and is in the conversation for the Mackey Award. James becomes a touchdown machine, while Breneman sees solid time later in the season and sets a foundation.
Worst-case scenario: Carter starts off slow after missing time over the offseason because of a wrist injury. He's just fine later on, but PSU finds itself relying more on the run to offset a struggling starting QB -- so the tight ends are unable to flash their ability that much. This group is improved, but it's not easy to tell because they're not seeing as many targets.
Top position question: Can Carter, or any tight end here, win the Mackey at some point his career? Absolutely. We averaged the stats of the last 10 Mackey winners, and future Penn State tight ends should come very close to the numbers.
Here's the average: 58 catches, 708 yards, six touchdowns. (And two of the winners had fewer than 50 catches and 600 yards.) If you average Carter's numbers out last year as if he had played every game, he would've finished with 48 catches for 604 yards and three TDs. So he's not that far off.
Breneman's goal of winning the Mackey in the future is very reachable. If Carter can improve his numbers from last year -- and the young QBs do appear to be targeting the tight ends more as security blankets -- then PSU should at least have a semifinalist in the mix.
And if you're not following us on Twitter, get to it. We're going to have a lot of great updates on there throughout the season, especially on game days. More than 86,000 followers can't be wrong.
Now back to the old-school way of communicating -- by email.
Ryan W. from West Michigan writes: With all the talk about the Big Ten's perception, tell me why I should even care? Outside of the new playoff committee starting next year, who cares what other people outside of the B1G think? I mean, if us fans enjoy the product on the field, I couldn't care less what someone in Oregon or Florida thinks about my favorite team and conference.
Brian Bennett: Ryan, if you want to go all Midwest isolationism, have at it. There's something to be said for just following your favorite team and caring primarily about winning the Big Ten. The success of the Big Ten Network validates this. The flip side is, if you want to take that approach, you can't complain about where your team is ranked in the polls, when it is snubbed for a spot in the four-team playoff or when the media incessantly cover the SEC. Perception can also play a large role in recruiting, as some top prospects want to go where they think they have the best chance for a national championship and national exposure. The nature of college football's postseason and the different schedules each team plays has made perception of conferences important in the big picture. But if you like focusing on the small picture, so be it.
Tom from Marion, Iowa, writes: Help me out, fellow Redbird fan. I just don't get it! Well I do get it... the SEC is King. But, in the BCS era, the Big 12 has been in the BCS title game seven times, won two lost five; ACC, Big East, B1G and Pac-12 three times, all with one title; ND o for 1. All I hear is how much the BIG stinks. Where's the hate for the others? Specifically the Big 12; they've lost five out of seven? That's what I don't get.
Brian Bennett: Huge stretch coming up for the birds on the bat. Anyway, I think there are a few things at play here in terms of the Big Ten's reputation. One is the power of the what-have-you-done-for-me-lately mentality. The Big Ten hasn't had a team play for the national title since the 2006 season, and that's an eternity in our Instagram society. Also, the last two times the league played on that stage, Ohio State got blown out in consecutive years by SEC teams, beginning the whole SEC-speed-trumps-Big-Ten-narrative. Another problem is that the Buckeyes are the only conference team to play for a title, whereas leagues such as the Big 12 (Texas and Oklahoma) and Pac-12 have (USC and Oregon) have had more than one team in the BCS championship game and others right on the cusp of it (Oklahoma State, Stanford). Finally, the Big Ten has not performed well in the past couple of years against the SEC in bowl games or in its nonconference games in general, and its Rose Bowl record in the past decade-plus is abysmal.
Other conferences, as you mention, have had their own failures, and you could argue that Oklahoma has fared just as poorly, if not worse, on the big stage as Ohio State. Why they have escaped the vitriol seemingly directed at the Big Ten is not entirely clear, but some moves by the league that have been viewed as pompous -- ahem, Legends and Leaders -- surely played a role.
Darrin from Reedsburg, Wis., writes: It appears Tanner McEvoy is going to be third on the QB depth chart at best. Any chance of seeing him at wide receiver this year?
Brian Bennett: Darrin, McEvoy worked out at receiver during practice this week. Though he was rather adamant about not playing receiver when I asked him about it earlier this month, it makes sense for both him and the team. McEvoy is an excellent athlete who is 6-foot-6, and he played receiver in high school until his senior year. Wisconsin is also very thin at wideout beyond Jared Abbrederis. This could be a situation like Devin Gardner at Michigan, where McEvoy sacrifices for the team for a while before eventually working his way back to quarterback.
Brian from Portland, Ore., writes: Hey Brian -- cool name! Ohio State offensive coordinator Tom Herman said that he has the two best tight ends in the nation in Jeff Heuerman and Nick Vannett. To which, I would respond, "Uh, who?" Who's your pick for the top TE in the B1G this year? My bet is on someone wearing blue and white.
Brian Bennett: As far as tight end groups go, it's hard to beat Penn State. Bill O'Brien seemingly has about a dozen options there, led by Kyle Carter and Jesse James. I'm also excited to see true freshman Adam Breneman -- the nation's No. 1 tight end recruit last year -- in action this season. The Nittany Lions aren't the only ones blessed with outstanding tight ends, however. Jacob Pedersen is a proven weapon for Wisconsin. Devin Funchess could have a huge year at Michigan. Ted Bolser is a big-time receiving threat for Indiana, and Iowa's's C.J. Fiedorowicz has a boatload of ability. I even left out a few really good ones. Tight end should once again be a position of strength in the Big Ten.
Mike from Macungie, Pa., writes: Someone posed a question about Allen Robinson (I think) being in the running for a Heisman. My question isn't that we do/don't have a Heisman contender, but do you think the sanctions would put a contender from Penn State at a disadvantage? Let's say (and this is a HUGE hypothetical) Allen Robinson has as good of a year, or a better year, than last season. If he's in the top three for the Heisman, do you think the voters would take into account the sanctions against Penn State in possibly not voting for him? Matt Barkley came close two years ago, and you could argue similar circumstances.
Brian Bennett: It's an interesting question. I don't think probation necessarily hurts a Penn State player's chances of winning the Heisman. Sure, some voters might hold it against a Nittany Lions star, but think about what a great story it would be if a player had a tremendous year and led the team to a 12-0 regular season. That narrative would carry a lot of weight. And remember, Heisman voting is done before the bowls. A Penn State player would potentially be hurt by the lack of a conference championship game, as his season would end a week earlier than some other candidates. The bigger question is, of course, whether the Lions will have enough depth to go 11-1 or 12-0, which is likely a requirement for one of their players to get in the mix. And no matter how good Robinson is, receivers have almost no chance of winning the Heisman. If this guy couldn't do it in 2003, or this guy in 2007 with those ridiculous numbers, forget about it.
Shifty from O'Fallon, Ill., writes: I've seen plenty of references (to include yours in the mailbag Monday), about what Bill O'Brien can do with Christian Hackenberg based on how he transformed Matt McGloin. I think they'll likely be great together, but I think everyone underplays how important McGloin's B1G experience was to his breakout season. It's not like McGloin was a 18-year-old walk-on. Dont you think we need to pump the brakes a little before we decide the only thing between Hack and Todd Blackledge is four weeks with BO'B?
Brian Bennett: Shifty, huh? Remind me not to enter into a real estate deal with you. Anyway, I agree that they hype is probably getting a little out of control for Hackenberg, since he's only a true freshman. But that's what happens when you're the No. 1 quarterback recruit in the nation. I don't think anyone is suggesting that he will put up McGloin's numbers from last year (3,266 yards, 24 touchdowns) right away. McGloin, as you mentioned, had a lot of experience. But as much as I loved watching McGloin's bust out last year, let's not forget that A) he really struggled at times before O'Brien came along; and B) he never had the biggest arm. Hackenberg simply has better physical tools. Does that mean he'll grasp the system and play with McGloin's moxie this year, or ever during his career? Not necessarily. But when you combine his pure skills, O'Brien's quarterback acumen and an offense loaded with receiving targets, the outlook is pretty bright for Hackenberg.
Enrique from Grand Rapids, Mich., writes: Brian, put yourself in Mark Dantonio's shoes. Damion Terry has performed admirably the first two fall scrimmages. Your other quarterbacks have been lackluster, failing to make big plays. Meanwhile, your exciting true freshman is 14 of 21, for 341 yards in the air, 40 on the ground, with four touchdowns and no interceptions, and much of that has come against the first-team defense. If (yay, hypotheticals!) Terry can continue to perform this well in the fall practices, would you, the head coach, go with the young upstart? You might not get a better chance than this year to make it to the Rose Bowl after a prolonged absence. Or do you redshirt him and prep him for next year?
Brian Bennett: Next question.
Oh, sorry. I got a little too into my Dantonio role-playing. First all, let's acknowledge that Dantonio and his offensive coaches know a heck of a lot more about who's playing well in practice and who understands the system than you and I can glean from some reports and limited practice viewing. And let's not anoint a true freshman based on one glowing scrimmage performance. But I do believe Michigan State should play Terry this season, especially in the first few games, so he could redshirt if he were to get hurt. I'll be surprised if Andrew Maxwell is not the starter vs. Western Michigan next Friday, but I think Dantonio should give Terry snaps in some special packages just to see what the kid can do. He is the future, and the future is now for the Spartans. They have an elite defense and a favorable schedule, so they need to go for it this year. The last thing the team needs is a quarterback who is going to make a bunch of mistakes, and there is a serious risk of that with Terry. But he can likely be very effective in certain situations and in a handful of plays per game, giving Michigan State a much-needed different look on offense.
That's me in Dantonio's shoes, anyway. (So where's the tread?).
Penn State 2015 Class Debuts At No. 3
BIG TEN SCOREBOARD
TBD California Northwestern TBD Indiana State Indiana TBD Jacksonville State Michigan State TBD Appalachian State Michigan TBD Florida Atlantic Nebraska TBD Youngstown State Illinois TBD Northern Iowa Iowa TBD Ohio State Navy TBD Western Michigan Purdue 8:30 AM ET Penn State UCF 9:00 PM ET LSU Wisconsin