Penn State Nittany Lions: Jordan Hill

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- The past few years have brought historic changes at Penn State, from the men occupying the head coach's office to the names occupying the backs of the Nittany Lions' jerseys.

Yet until recently, Penn State's defensive line meeting room resisted renovation. It was one of few elements of the program that, in 2013, looked much like it did in 2005. Larry Johnson coached the group, as he had every season since 2000 (and, in some form, since 1996). And while the Lions' defense struggled for much of last season, the line still produced a first-team All-Big Ten performer, tackle DaQuan Jones, just as it did the previous five years.

[+] EnlargeSean Spencer
MCT via Getty ImagesNew defensive line coach Sean Spencer wants his guys attacking like 'wild dogs.'
But even the PSU defensive line couldn't evade the winds of change forever. After being passed over for Penn State's head-coaching job for the second time, Johnson in January declined a chance to remain with James Franklin's staff. Days later, he latched on at rival Ohio State.

Lions defensive linemen now take direction from a man known as Coach Chaos. You'll be able to hear Sean Spencer's voice from Row 80 of Beaver Stadium -- on game days. Spencer wants his Lions to be wild dogs, explaining, "The wild dog is the most efficient animal in the jungle in terms of hunting in a pack."

The 43-year-old dynamo with the "spastic" personality differs from that of his reserved, buttoned-down Penn State predecessor. But when it comes to standards, Spencer and Johnson are aligned.

"Traditionally, the D-line here has always been one of the elite in the country," Spencer told ESPN.com. "I know no other way but to have them rise to the expectations that I set forth and that they set forth for themselves. There's no excuse.

"I don't care who I've got out there. I expect to be dominant."

Spencer's message resonates with a group that, unlike others on a reduced roster, doesn't face dire depth challenges. The Lions return both starters at end -- Deion Barnes and C.J. Olaniyan -- and veteran reserve Brad Bars, who missed all of last season with a ruptured Achilles' tendon.

Sophomore Austin Johnson moves into the lead tackle position and Anthony Zettel, a converted defensive end, has been a good fit at the 3-technique tackle spot.

"The D-line is probably our strength," Franklin said. "We have the most depth at that position. We've got about four deep at defensive end and probably two-and-a-half deep at D-tackle."

If the depth holds up, it will help Penn State use a larger rotation that Johnson typically used. Defensive coordinator Bob Shoop said the Vanderbilt linemen he and Spencer coached last fall didn't average more than 40 snaps a game.

The coaches want to use five or six defensive ends, as Bars, junior Carl Nassib and redshirt freshman Garrett Sickels also are in the mix. A healthy rotation suits Spencer's wild dogs philosophy.

At Vanderbilt, he commissioned a painting of a Commodores football player blended with a dog, which he displayed in his office at Penn State this spring. He also took a giant dog bone to the field.

"Part of their survival is when they chase their prey down, for three to five miles they take turns biting at him," Spencer said. "One goes to the front, and when he gets tired, the next one comes. It's a really unique strategy in terms of the way they attack things. We rotate a lot of guys, so we just take turns nipping at quarterbacks and making plays in the backfield."

Vanderbilt recorded 28 sacks last season, which tied for fourth in the SEC. Spencer estimates 24 came solely from line pressure. He expects the same production at Penn State.

Defensive tackle has been Penn State's strongest position in recent seasons with players such as Jones, Devon Still, Jordan Hill and Jared Odrick. Although Zettel and Johnson aren't known outside Happy Valley, the coaches think that soon will change.

"Zettel has been been very, very disruptive this spring," Shoop said. "Austin Johnson falls in line of the beast D-tackles Penn State's had in the past. He's over 300 pounds, moves well, he's tough to move at the point of attack, got a big butt and legs."

Olaniyan led Penn State with five sacks last season, his first as a starter. Penn State looks for more from Barnes, the former Big Ten Freshman of the Year whose sacks and tackles for loss totals dropped by more than 50 percent from 2012 to 2013.

"What we're looking at is, how can we get him back to that?" Spencer said.

Spencer is pleased with Barnes' football knowledge and said all the linemen are asking "200- and 300-level questions" in meetings. Life without Johnson undoubtedly caused an adjustment -- "It's always tough to see somebody you call a family member leave," Olaniyan said -- but players quickly connected with Spencer, who lists relationship-building among his strengths.

"I grew up without a dad," said Spencer, whose father played for Michigan State in the 1960s. "Unfortunately, we don't have a relationship right now, and he's still alive. It's one of the things I'm least proud of, but at the same time, it made me who I am today. It made me have the ability to reach out to kids that probably are similar to me. I'm a little younger than Larry so they're not going to look at me as a dad, so to speak. They look at me as a big brother or an uncle.

"I think we've got some similarities in the way we care about our players, but I'm probably a little bit wilder than he is."

A little wilder and a little louder, but just as demanding.

"They both have the same philosophy as far as they want you to do everything perfect," Olaniyan said. "It's easy to embrace the new coaches when they have the same goal. We take pride as the Penn State D-line.

"Each game, we want everybody to see us as one of the best defensive lines out there. We want to be great."

At Penn State, some things never change.

Season wrap: Penn State

January, 15, 2014
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Three overtime games, a huge upset win, a bigger loss, surprise, disappointment: In a lot of ways, the Nittany Lions' 2013 season had it all.

Penn State defied the odds by finishing with a winning, 7-5 season. But the Nittany Lions also fell to Indiana for the first time in school history and watched as the Buckeyes pounded them in a 63-14 decision. Christian Hackenberg lived up to expectations and won the Big Ten freshman of the year award, while last year's winner -- PSU's own DE Deion Barnes -- failed to live up to expectations.

It was a very yin-and-yang year for the Lions. They played a classic, four-OT thriller against Michigan and later watched as special teams errors cost them an overtime win against Nebraska. Overall, though, this season has to be considered a success -- and it certainly reinforced that you can never quite count out these Nittany Lions.

Offensive MVP: WR Allen Robinson. Not only did he break Penn State's single-season records for catches (97) and receiving yards (1,432), but he was the only consistent threat in the passing game. He boasted more receiving yards than Hackenberg's next five targets -- combined -- as he accounted for about 46 percent of the Nittany Lions' yards through the air. He's one of the best wideouts in school history.

Defensive MVP: DT DaQuan Jones. He had big shoes to fill with the graduation of Jordan Hill, but he more than lived up to expectations. He led the team in tackles for loss (11.5) and finished fifth on the team with 56 tackles, more than any other player on the line. The 318-pound DT made sure opposing ball carriers struggled to gain yards up the middle.

Best moment: Hanging on to upset Wisconsin in the finale. Penn State came in as a 24-point underdog. It came in facing the nation's top pair of running backs. But it left Camp Randall with a monumental upset and its first road win over a ranked foe -- Wisconsin was No. 15 at the time -- since beating Ohio State in 2008. Hackenberg paced his team, and the run defense held strong.

Worst moment: A 63-14 loss to Ohio State. That score will be etched in the minds of alumni for a while, as it was the program's worst loss in 114 years. Nothing went right for Penn State. Ohio State averaged 8 yards a carry, built up a 42-7 halftime lead and finished with 408 rushing yards. Imagine a worst-case scenario playing out on the field; that's exactly what happened. Hackenberg finished with a QBR of 12.1.

Looking to the past & future: DL

December, 26, 2013
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It's never too late -- or too early -- to see what we learned from this season and also look ahead to next season. So, we've started breaking down each position on the Nittany Lions.

Up today: Defensive line.

REWIND

Expectations entering the 2013 season: Believe it or not, more question marks surrounded the defensive tackles than the defensive ends. Although Gil Brandt named DaQuan Jones the best senior DT in the country, the senior was still an unproven commodity. And the starter alongside him -- Kyle Baublitz or Austin Johnson -- was widely considered a liability.

[+] EnlargeDaQuan Jones
Rob Christy/USA TODAY SportsDT DaQuan Jones lived up to the preseason hype and led the Nittany Lions in stops in the backfield and was fifth on the team in tackles.
Deion Barnes had already garnered NFL hype, and 10 sacks didn't seem out of the realm of possibility for the reigning Big Ten freshman of the year. The line wasn't expected to be as good as 2012, but it was still expected to be in relatively good shape.

How they fared: Jones was the best player on the defense, finishing fifth in tackles (56), first in stops in the backfield (11.5) and making it difficult for any tailback to find room up the middle. The combination of Johnson/Baublitz fared better than most thought, too.

But the defensive ends? Well, Barnes might've been the most disappointing player on the team. He followed up his strong freshman season with just four sacks, and he struggled with his run-defense. Bill O'Brien didn't start him for a game or two to send a message. C.J. Olaniyan played especially well in the second half of the season, although his forte wasn't exactly setting the edge, either. Still, he wound up with 11 tackles-for-loss and a team-high five sacks, four quarterback hurries and three forced fumbles. Anthony Zettel also played well in spots.

What we learned: Barnes isn't the first-round NFL lock we thought he was. At least not yet. He utilized his speed a lot in 2012, but he was just outmuscled in 2013. He needs to add weight and get stronger before his production matches his freshman season. Teams are aware of him now, so he's not taking anyone by surprise. He's going to be a huge factor on this team moving forward, and we learned he needs to add some tangibles before he reaches double-digit sacks.

Grading the position: B. No, this group wasn't as strong as 2012. But it was still the best group on the defense in 2013 and often set the tone. When the defensive ends set the edge, fans knew the team would be in OK shape. When they didn't? Disaster loomed. They were able to pressure quarterbacks in the conference season, and -- outside of the Ohio State game -- the run-defense performed well in the Big Ten.

FAST FORWARD

Key losses: Jones and Baublitz. PSU's top three DEs return, but it loses two of its best three DTs. The interior was a strength in 2013, while the ends were more of an issue. In 2014, that situation's a bit flip-flopped.

Position stock watch: Trending downward. Jared Odrick, Devon Still,Jordan Hill, Jones -- PSU has had a lot of luck finding future NFL DTs to step in one season after another. But that might end in 2014. If Barnes can improve his production from his freshman season and Olaniyan can make some strides, then it won't be all bad news. But when you lose the best player on your line -- and on your defense -- that usually doesn't work in your favor. Couple that in with Baublitz's decision to leave, and depth at defensive tackle will definitely be a concern.

Key to next season: Production of the No. 2 DT. It's as simple and as difficult as that. Johnson will return as a starter, but who will start alongside him? The early favorite is probably Zettel, who could move from DE. But incoming juco Tarow Barney (Bainbridge, Ga./Northwest Mississippi C.C.) or freshman Thomas Holley (Brooklyn, N.Y./Lincoln) playing immediately isn't a total stretch either. If PSU finds a solid replacement, this line is likely in store for another "B" grade next season. If it doesn't? It's going to have to deal with an Achilles' Heel all season. Just ask Trevor Williams how that worked out.

O'Brien, Della Valle defend coordinator

October, 29, 2013
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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."

PSU DT Jones exceeding expectations

September, 10, 2013
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STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- DaQuan Jones doesn't blush at all from the praise. He's relaxed after peeling off his helmet, and any compliments seem to slide off his shoulders like sweat from a two-hour workout.

[+] EnlargeDaQuan Jones
Rob Christy/USA TODAY SportsDT DaQuan Jones lived up to the preseason hype and led the Nittany Lions in stops in the backfield and was fifth on the team in tackles.
The praise rolls on and Jones nods, but he's heard most of it before. Yes, he knows Gil Brandt rated him the top senior DT this season -- he found out on social media -- but that's a title he's not yet earned. Yes, he knows he leads the team in sacks (two), but he counters by saying the season's young.

But, every now and then, Jones is thrown off. You know, one reporter tells him, former cornerback Stephon Morris tweeted about how he should be a Heisman contender. Forget about Johnny Football and those billboard-grabbing quarterbacks.

"That's a bit too much," Jones said, shaking his head as if it were an insult. "That's for the skill guys."

Still, while the Heisman race might be a bit out of the humble senior's grasp, other awards like the Lombardi might just be within reach. After two games, he has five stops in the backfield. And, perhaps most impressively, he leads the Nittany Lions in tackles with 18. Only two players in the Big Ten -- Illinois LB Jonathan Brown and Iowa LB Anthony Hitchens -- have more. And Jones still has more solo stops than those two leaders.

"Seriously?" the defensive tackle asked Saturday, turning his head. "Man, that's crazy."

Crazy is right. On the field, Penn State's 318-pound defensive tackle -- who was 330-plus before laying off the local chicken-wing shop -- is focused like a prizefighter. He's friendly and gregarious after the game, like any other college student waiting to meet up with his family for a Saturday dinner, but he's another person on the field.

He talks with a slight lisp, not unlike Mike Tyson. It's a comparison others have drawn, and it's not a reach considering he constantly delivers knockout blows to the opposing line. He's mean, he's strong, and he's not a player the opposition looks forward to crossing.

"I like double teams better," he said matter-of-factly, as if he was asked his favorite ice cream flavor. "I'm a physical guy, and I like the contact. I don't shy away from them."

Added 240-pound tailback Zach Zwinak: "Even in our thud practices [where no one goes to the ground], he's definitely laid a few hits. He's a big boy."

In two games, Penn State has limited rushers to just 1.8 yards a carry and Jones has become the main ingredient in those three-and-outs. Against Syracuse, on three straight rushing plays to end the half, Jones came up with three straight tackles -- even when the Orange tried to avoid Jones by running off to the right on third down. (Jones happened to bring the ball-carrier down in the backfield for a one-yard loss, anyway.)

Trying to stop Jones is about as easy as about as trying to stop a run-away tractor trailer. You can try … but you'll probably get hurt in the process. Still, maybe that shouldn't be so surprising given the school's history at defensive tackle. Jones isn't an exception; he's really part of a trend.

He landed in Happy Valley months after the Miami Dolphins drafted Jared Odrick in the first round. He watched teammate Devon Still become a second-rounder in 2012 and then saw Jordan Hill head to the Seattle Seahawks in the third round this past offseason. Compare him to the past DT greats, say he's better, say he's worse -- but Jones is remaining level-headed.

"I want to be known for who I am," Jones said. "I didn't come here to live in anyone's shadows."

Jones is sincere and soft-spoken. When he says he's playing for fun and not awards, it's easy to believe him. He'll laugh when he talks about his pregame ritual with teammate Deion Barnes and how they'll just slap the back of each other's heads if one doesn't seem loose enough. And he'll narrow his eyebrows and softly glare, as if to say "Seriously?," when someone dishes out some praise. Part of the reason might just be because he doesn't yet believe himself that he's posted up some mind-boggling numbers.

Here's another: Last season, Jones started 11 games and finished the season with eight solo tackles and two tackles-for-loss. In Week 1 of this year, he already had eight solo tackles and three-tackles-for-loss.

"You know, it came up last week that somebody mentioned people were concerned about our interior defensive line play," defensive coordinator John Butler said. "But that's one of our strengths. DaQuan Jones is a great player. … DaQuan is very unselfish. If he keeps playing the way he's playing, he's going to have a long future playing football after Penn State."

Jones is as comfortable on the gridiron as he is off it. This is his final Penn State season and his last year as a college student, so he said he's going to enjoy it. And so far -- much to the chagrin of opposing offenses -- he sure has.

Penn State season preview

August, 9, 2013
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Can the Nittany Lions build off last season and play the role of BCS spoiler? Let's take a closer look at this 2013 Penn State team:

PENN STATE NITTANY LIONS

Coach: Bill O'Brien (8-4 overall, 8-4 at Penn State)

2012 record: 8-4 (6-2 Big Ten)

Key losses: QB Matt McGloin, C Matt Stankiewitch, DT Jordan Hill, LB Michael Mauti, LB Gerald Hodges, CB Stephon Morris

[+] EnlargeAdrian Amos
Keith Srakocic/AP PhotoKeep an eye out for rising star Adrian Amos, who will play more at safety this season for PSU.
Key returnees: RB Zach Zwinak, WR Allen Robinson, G John Urschel, DE Deion Barnes, DT DaQuan Jones, LB Mike Hull, DB Adrian Amos

Newcomer to watch: QB Christian Hackenberg. He was the top-rated quarterback in the 2013 class, and ESPN ranked him as the 15th-best high school prospect in the nation.

Biggest games in 2013: vs. Michigan (Oct. 12), at Ohio State (Oct. 26), vs. Nebraska (Nov. 23), at Wisconsin (Nov. 30)

Biggest question mark heading into 2013: O'Brien turned this passing offense around last season with an up-tempo style and an efficient McGloin, who tossed 24 touchdowns to five interceptions. But he'll have to start a first-year QB this season, as none of PSU's five signal-callers -- three walk-ons, two on scholarship -- were on the roster last season.

The race is between Hackenberg and Tyler Ferguson, a junior college player who missed about a month of voluntary workouts. O'Brien plans to name a starter about midway through camp. Whoever it is, he will have to learn quickly for the Nittany Lions to repeat the success of last season.

Forecast: Penn State overcame some huge question marks last year and went on to have a surprisingly successful season, but it's not going to get any easier in 2013.

The defensive front seven is short on depth and bigger on inexperience. Nyeem Wartman, a redshirt freshman, will take over for a Butkus semifinalist at linebacker. The starting DT opposite Jones -- projected to be Kyle Baublitz -- compiled just three stops last season and weighs in at just 281 pounds. A single injury at either spot would be devastating for the Nittany Lions.

On the bright side, there are clearly some strong leaders who could make up for some early missteps. Barnes was last year's Big Ten Freshman of the Year, and he's already one of the league's most feared pass-rushers. Hull is poised for a breakout season, and teammates recently called his offseason improvement the most impressive.

But out of all the defensive stars, Amos might surprise fans the most. He moved from cornerback to his natural position at safety in the offseason, and last year's 50th-ranked pass defense should be better this time around.

On offense, just about every unit has improved, with one big exception at quarterback. It'll be difficult for any newcomer to match McGloin's performance, but there's a strong supporting cast. Robinson is the top wideout in the Big Ten, Zwinak reached the 1,000-yard plateau last season, and the tight ends will play as large a role in this offense as any other team in the country.

In short, like last year, PSU is a bit of a wild card. If it receives strong efforts from its quarterback and the front seven, it should surpass last year's record. If it doesn't, it might be fortunate to get to seven wins.
As part of an ongoing series, NittanyNation will preview a different position leading up to the season opener against Syracuse on Aug. 31. Up today: Defensive tackles.

Projected starters: DaQuan Jones (2012 stats: 22 tackles, two tackles-for-loss, one fumble recovery) and Kyle Baublitz (three tackles, one sack).

Key losses: Jordan Hill (64 tackles, 8.5 tackles-for-loss, 4.5 sacks, one interception, one forced fumble, one fumble recovery) and James Terry (13 tackles, one sack).

Next in line: Redshirt freshman Austin Johnson might not be next in line -- he could very well overtake Baublitz as a starter. Bill O'Brien said on his weekly radio show last season that he expected big things out of the younger defensive tackle, and he's already 21 pounds heavier than Baublitz.

[+] EnlargeDaQuan Jones
Vinny Carchietta/Icon SMIHow Penn State's defense performs in 2013 will be dependent on how DaQuan Jones plays at defensive tackle.
Regardless, the top three players at this position should see plenty of time. The big question is just who comes in at No. 4. That would be a logjam, and none of the options are all that exciting just yet.

Derek Dowrey, Brian Gaia and Tyrone Smith will all compete to see who sees situational time a la Baublitz in 2012. True freshman Parker Cothren likely needs a redshirt season to add bulk before he sees any time on the field.

What to expect: Huge expectations are being squarely placed on the shoulders of Jones, and he'll need to match Hill's performance to live up to all the hype. Gil Brandt recently named Jones the top senior DT in the country -- which was a little surprising considering he made just 12 tackles in the last nine games once Hill faced fewer double-teams and stepped up his game. By comparison, Jones made 10 tackles in the first three games.

For this defensive line to find success, Jones will have to become quickly accustomed to those double teams -- because it'd be an even bigger surprise if teams sent just one interior lineman after him. This position is one of the bigger concerns on the team because, even if the 318-pound Jones does succeed, his other starting teammate will likely be overmatched this season.

Baublitz appears to be a band-aid until Johnson is ready to take off. And Johnson undoubtedly boasts a high ceiling -- but it doesn't seem as if this is the season it will all come together. If the staff had that much faith in him, he would've initially been named starter over Baublitz. Expect PSU's 23rd-ranked run defense to drop, at least a little, in the rankings.

Recruiting trail: The Nittany Lions have already picked up one 2014 prospect in Antoine White (Millville, N.J./Millville), a three-star commit whom ESPN scouts label a "tweener" but who also "gives good effort in pursuit and is a solid wrap-up tackler."

He's about 270 pounds right now, so he needs to bulk up. But PSU's staff really liked the explosiveness of his first step and like his attitude. His high school coach said he and a teammate constantly put in extra work, and White was the lone junior captain on his team last season.

PSU also appears intent on grabbing at least one more DT, likely either ESPN 300 prospect Thomas Holley (Brooklyn, N.Y./Lincoln) or a junior college DT such as Joe Keels (Highland, Kan./Highland C.C.).

Best-case scenario: Jones picks up right where Hill left off and becomes an unstoppable run-stuffer who lives up to Brandt's top billing. PSU's No. 23 run defense holds steady, while Johnson breaks out and shows fans that he'll be a four-year starter.

Worst-case scenario: Jones initially struggles with double teams and gets hurt later in the season, leaving an inexperienced Johnson and a limited Baublitz as the starters. Those two struggle, and Big Ten running backs set up their respective offenses by running straight up the middle.

Top position question: If Jones falters, what happens to this defense? Penn State can't withstand mediocre performances at defensive tackle and linebacker. If Jones doesn't live up to expectations, it'll have an ripple effect on the entire defense.

If Jones doesn't play well, that means more work for middle linebacker Glenn Carson -- who's been the beneficiary of some great DTs in NFL draft picks Hill and Devon Still. Jones is crucial to this defense's success in a lot of ways, and it was able to overcome a young secondary last season by limiting opponents to 3.54 yards a carry on the ground. If Jones struggles, those rushing numbers increase.

And if those rushing numbers increase? PSU allowed more than four yards a carry in just two of the last 10 seasons. In 2003, it allowed 4.29 yards a carry and finished with a 3-9 record. In 2010, PSU allowed 4.46 yards a carry and went 7-6. In other words, if Jones falters and the run defense struggles, then it might become tricky to get to eight wins.
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Bill O'Brien's voice will soon regularly echo across the practice field. Allen Robinson will soon continue cementing his legacy as one of PSU's best. And Deion Barnes will, once again, soon start giving quarterbacks a case of happy feet.

Monday marks the start of training camp and a new season, which comes on the heels of one of the most memorable performances in school history. PSU shocked the nation with a gutsy 8-4 record last season ... but that was last season.

The Nittany Lions are trying to take another step forward in 2013, and it won't be easy. The limited roster has its fair share of question marks, so NittanyNation's outlined a few of the bigger ones:

Who will become the QB, and can he succeed?

[+] EnlargeChristian Hackenberg
Tom Hauck for ESPN.comPenn State freshman Christian Hackenberg was the No. 1 quarterback prospect in the nation last year.
It's a two-man race between Christian Hackenberg and Tyler Ferguson -- and Ferguson, the juco signal-caller, didn't do himself any favors. He missed about a month of voluntary workouts, so he's going to have to get re-acclimated ASAP.

O'Brien tried to downplay Ferguson's absence, but safety Malcolm Willis spoke candidly at the Big Ten media days: "If it was me, I would have trouble picking things back up and just being away from the team."

Few analysts are betting against the fresh-faced rookie, in Hackenberg, to start. He was the top-rated quarterback in his class, the 15th-best prospect in the nation, and he's eyeing immediate playing time. O'Brien insisted starting a true freshman like Hackenberg would not be unusual, and it looks a lot better for Hackenberg than it did a month ago.

It's an open competition, and O'Brien hoped to name a starter midway through camp. But whoever takes over isn't going to have an easy time. Sure, Matt McGloin picked up a complex offense in a short period of time -- but he was used to facing Big Ten defenses and digesting college-level playbooks. His touchdown-interception ratio (24:5) was one of the best in PSU history, and it would be hard for even an experienced quarterback to match those numbers.

Quarterback is really the only question mark on this offense. But it's a big one. If PSU succeeds here, it doesn't just bode well for 2013 -- it gives fans hope for 2014, 2015 and 2016. This is the biggest storyline on the team, and it's one that will be watched closely all season.

Can this front seven match last year's performance?

Michael Mauti and Gerald Hodges formed the best LB tandem in the conference and one of the best in the nation last season. PSU was the lone school to place two linebackers on the semifinalist list for the Butkus Award. And Jordan Hill was an All-Big Ten player who dominated the season finale in a fashion that few defensive tackles have done before.

Those three key players are gone, and it's really not up for debate whether this front seven will be as good as last year. It won't ... but just how good can it be? Players like MLB Glenn Carson and OG John Urschel have pointed to LB Mike Hull as the guy who's impressed them the most this offseason. He's been a staple of any "Players poised to break out" lists, and he'll be carrying a full-time workload this season as opposed to situational playing time.

Hull is a special player, but the young LB lining up on the other side of the field is where the concerns start. Nyeem Wartman made an early mark last season with a big punt block but was lost for the year just one week later. Defensive tackle is also a huge concern without Hill. Big things are expected out of DaQuan Jones, whom Gil Brandt named as the top senior DT in the country, but Kyle Baublitz and Austin Johnson will be taking on a much bigger role this season. Johnson has potential, but it's not yet known if either player will be a force in 2013.

How will PSU counter the depth issues?

Get used to this question because it'll be asked until the sanctions finally end. O'Brien wants to lessen some of the hitting in practice, and he's often said he boasts a "next man up" philosophy. When someone goes down, there's no hesitation -- that next player has to and will be ready.

That's a nice philosophy to have, but there are just key areas on this team that can ill afford injuries of any type -- such as linebacker, quarterback and defensive tackle. (Without Brad Bars, PSU has just one experienced backup DE in Anthony Zettel. Ditto at LB in Ben Kline.) There are some run-ons to choose from and a class of 16 recruits, but it's no secret that the overall quality of this team will suffer with each and every injury at those key places.

O'Brien was able to keep his players fresh in the trenches with a nice rotation last season, and it wouldn't be a big surprise if some players -- such as DT Jones -- sit out in, say, the fourth quarter of the Eastern Michigan contest. Also, there's a good chance fans won't see too many Wisconsin repeats this year -- where Zach Zwinak carries the ball 36 times.

There's only so much O'Brien and Co. can do here, though. Ultimately, a lot of it comes down to preparing the players and then just crossing fingers and hoping everyone stays healthy. A healthy Penn State could become a BCS buster; an unhealthy Penn State could struggle getting past .500.
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Three seniors will accompany Bill O'Brien to the Big Ten media days on Wednesday and Thursday in Chicago: offensive guard John Urschel, linebacker Glenn Carson and safety Malcolm Willis.

There's plenty of news surrounding these Nittany Lions, so here are five storylines to keep in mind during the two-day event:

1. Asking the NCAA to reduce the sanctions: O'Brien opened this door a little bit Friday, saying he hoped the NCAA would meet him "halfway." And questions will undoubtedly be thrown his way about those statements. Will PSU make a presentation to the NCAA? Will it just hope, wait and keep its fingers crossed?

Reducing the sanctions would have a monumental effect on the program and the university, so it would be no surprise if that turned into one of the main focuses at the B1G media days. Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith recently said in an interview that he believed the penalties were "overly harsh."

2. Quarterback "controversy": It's not just Tyler Ferguson vs. Christian Hackenberg that creates an interesting dynamic here. Ferguson hadn't returned to campus as of last Friday and is currently missing summer workouts. Granted, they're voluntary -- but players in the midst of position battles usually don't miss them. O'Brien tried to downplay Ferguson's absence on Friday, saying the media "made a mountain out of a mole hill."

[+] EnlargeJohn Urschel
Randy Litzinger/ Icon SMISenior lineman John Urschel will be the keynote speaker at the final luncheon during the Big Ten media days.
Some things are more important than football -- and Ferguson's mother is sick -- but the questions will continue: Does Hackenberg lead now? When does O'Brien plan to announce the starter? And has Ferguson decided when he'll return to campus? The overall picture will remain blurry for a while, but hopefully part of it comes into focus this week.

3. DE Brad Bars' season-ending injury and depth concerns: Until the end of the sanctions, this will be a continuing theme -- and it seems especially newsworthy now because of Bars missing the season. There isn't much depth at defensive tackle and linebacker, and O'Brien should elaborate more on how he's trying to create, or make up for, depth at those positions.

4. Urschel to be a featured speaker at Thursday luncheon: He might just be the smartest football player in the Big Ten, and it will be interesting to hear what he has to say. All eyes will be on the All-Big Ten lineman, and he'll be representing B1G players as the keynote speaker.

Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson was the speaker last season, and he recounted his difficult upbringing and how his 5-year-old brother died when Denard was just 10 years old. That's a tough act to follow.

5. What kind of leadership will PSU have this season? With the departures of fiery quarterback Matt McGloin and the soul of the team in Michael Mauti, leadership on this team has obviously taken a hit. Maybe, then, it's no surprise that O'Brien is bringing along what could be considered the team's top three leaders. Teammates have referred to Willis as the "quarterback of the defense," Carson is the most experienced player on defense and Urschel has stepped up and become a vocal leader on offense.

Still, with a first-year quarterback at the helm -- and the departures of Jordan Hill, Michael Zordich, Matt Stankiewitch, Gerald Hodges and Stephon Morris -- just how big of a concern is the leadership? Even O'Brien didn't hide just how special of a player Mauti was, and it's somewhat reminiscent of the 2006 season, when PSU had to find an identity following the graduation of Michael Robinson and company.
Last summer, Penn State's defensive backs used outside criticism for motivation.

The Lions' secondary had to replace all four starters and Malcolm Willis and Stephon Morris reminded everyone of the gloomy forecast many had for the back four. "We're supposedly the worst unit on the team," Willis told his teammates after practices. "Everybody is doubting us, everybody is doubting our ability."

There are fewer doubts heading into the 2013 season. In fact, the secondary could be branded a potential strength for a defense that loses All-Big Ten performers up front (DT Jordan Hill) and at linebacker (Michael Mauti, Gerald Hodges).

Penn State returns both starters at safety from 2012 in Willis and Stephen Obeng-Agyapong, as well as Adrian Amos, who started at cornerback last fall but moved to safety in the spring and is listed as a starter on the team's latest depth chart. The safety group also includes Ryan Keiser, a reserve in 2012 who head coach Bill O'Brien labels a potential unit leader this season.

"We feel like we have better depth there than we had last year, and we've got a good amount of returning experience," O'Brien recently told ESPN.com. "And they're very well coached. That position has to be very well coached."

O'Brien credits defensive coordinator John Butler, the team's secondary coach in 2012, for pushing the right buttons with the personnel in the back four. This spring, the coaches moved Trevor Williams and Malik Golden from wide receiver to cornerback and safety, respectively. Williams emerged from the spring as a starter.

The Lions are undoubtedly younger at cornerback than at safety -- all players listed on the summer two-deep are freshmen or sophomores -- but they have flexibility with Amos, who had 44 tackles, two interceptions and three pass breakups last season.

"He's got to be ready to play a lot of different roles for us," O'Brien said. "He's a very valuable member of our team."

5 Questions: DT Parker Cothren 

June, 21, 2013
6/21/13
12:00
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Every week, NittanyNation will pose five questions to a recruit, player, alum or coach about all things Penn State.

This week's subject is incoming freshman DT Parker Cothren, who'll arrive on campus today. He'll be driving from Hazel Green, Ala., and he remained committed to PSU despite late offers from the likes of Auburn, Tennessee and Vanderbilt. He'll be roommates with defensive end Garrett Sickels.


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DT Ricky Walker (Hampton, Va./Bethel) holds more than a dozen offers and will name his top five shortly after the end of the evaluation period.

He's high on PSU's big board, and the DT recently spoke with NittanyNation about his interest in PSU, his thoughts on the Nittany Lions' DL coach and more.


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STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- NittanyNation asked several Penn State players on Monday about their Pro Day numbers and whether they planned on watching the NFL draft.

Here's what they had to say:

Jordan Hill, defensive tackle, 6-foot-1, 303 pounds

[+] EnlargeJordan Hill
MCT/ZUMA Press/Icon SMIDefensive tackle Jordan Hill improved his numbers at Penn State's Pro Day and is hoping his draft stock climbs as a result.
Combine numbers: 40-yard dash -- 5.23 seconds, Bench press -- 28 reps, Vertical jump -- 22.5 inches, Broad jump -- 103 inches, 3-cone drill -- 7.49 seconds, 20-yard shuttle -- 4.51 seconds.

Pro Day notables: Said his knee probably was still sore at the combine, but he didn't want to shy away from the drills. Felt much better on Monday. Turned in a 4.97-second 40 and increased his broad jump by eight inches.

Watching the draft: "I usually always sit down every year and watch it. It's just something I like. Me being a football player is one thing, but me being a fan is another. And that's what I've always done. I'm a fan of the game, so I know everybody. I know all the players' names and what they did and stuff like that. Especially me being in college, I had to keep up with other big names and stuff like that -- so I'll be seeing where they're going and wanting to know where everybody's at."

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Stephon MorrisJustin K. Aller/Getty ImagesStephon Morris is only 5-foot-8, but his speed is his calling card for NFL scouts.

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Cornerback Stephon Morris couldn't suppress a grin when he stepped outside Holuba Hall right after Penn State's pro day.

With a white business card from the New England Patriots in hand, Morris said he spoke with several teams -- including the Denver Broncos and Houston Texans -- but that wasn't the only reason for the smile. Standing at 5-foot-8, he knew his time at the 40-yard dash would be critical.

"You can't have a slow 5-8 corner," he said. "So I'm just glad I wowed them."

Morris couldn't have been happier with his speed Monday afternoon. He claimed he spoke to two scouts after his 40, one of whom hand-timed him at 4.16 while another clocked him at 4.22 on the first run. His official time was a 4.35.

"A 4.16?" one reporter asked incredulously.

"Yeah," Morris said with a laugh. "I rode into it, though."

Although that unofficial number would be pretty impressive if accurate, the bottom line is that Morris was able to turn in a good time after missing a spot in the NFL combine by a mere two votes. He said he his measurements came in at 5-foot-8, 188 pounds, and he did 18 reps on the bench press.

The media wasn't permitted to watch the workouts, which 25 NFL teams attended, but Morris said he was pleased with the scouts' response to his numbers. When asked again about his speed, Morris pointed toward the Outback Bowl in 2011 when he ran down Florida tailback Chris Rainey, who's been timed as fast as 4.28 seconds.

Regardless of his times, though, Morris is just hoping he might hear his name called in late April.

"There's shockers who get drafted every year," Morris said. "And, hopefully, I'll be one of those shockers."

Early rounds: Linebacker Gerald Hodges and defensive tackle Jordan Hill said they're both hoping to be selected in the second or third rounds.

And if they do happen to drop to the fourth?

"I'll be a little upset," Hill acknowledged. But I'll be ready to go to work. I just need the opportunity; I need to get my foot in the door."

Said Hodges: "I'll be upset, too, if I went down that far, but I'm going to put it all in God's hands. Just as long as I have my chance to play in the NFL, it's a dream come true. No matter how you get there, it's how you perform once you get there."

Hodges said he'll be working out in State College for now and already has some individual workouts scheduled with a few teams. He wouldn't name them, but he did say he had formal interviews at the combine with the Detroit Lions, Oakland Raiders and Baltimore Ravens, among others.

Hill impresses: The defensive tackle said he probably wasn't ready to run the 40-yard dash at the combine because of his lingering knee injury. But he wanted to do everything at the combine; he figured he'd just improve upon those numbers at pro day.

He did just that. He said he turned in a 4.97-second 40 -- 0.26 seconds faster than his combine time -- and increased his broad jump to 9-foot-3.

"I was able to get a full-night sleep; a lot more stress was off," Hill said. "It was my first 40 I ran out there ... and it was one of those things that was brand new to me."

Patience, patience: Now comes the hard part for Rimington Trophy finalist Matt Stankiewitch -- the waiting game.

The center said he felt relaxed after taking part in pro day, but he knew that feeling wouldn't last.

"Of course, you're on edge because you don't know what you're future's going to be like," he said. "I have it in my head that I'm going to get drafted. If I don't, I don't. If I do, I do. In the NFL, it matters where you end -- not where you start."

Stankiewitch took part in field drills and just the broad jump because he didn't want to risk injury and said he believed his numbers would likely be similar those at the NFL combine. He increased his broad jump six inches -- to 8-foot-2 from 7-8.

Package deal?: Fullback Michael Zordich is hoping to land on an NFL team, while his father is hoping for the same -- albeit as a coach -- after the Philadelphia Eagles revamped their staff.

The younger Zordich said the two often joke they're both looking for NFL jobs at the same time. And they're both on the phone trying to find the right place.

"That'd be awesome," he said about the two landing on the same team. "I wouldn't mind playing for Pop."

He said he's not sure whether he'll be drafted, but his focus at this point his just making it to a camp.
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- With spring practice less than two weeks away, NittanyNation takes a look at five players fans should keep an eye on.

5. CB Da'Quan Davis, sophomore

Last year's stat line: Five tackles, one fumble recovery, three pass breakups

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