Penn State Nittany Lions: Jordan Smith
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.
Every year, coach James Franklin said there are at least one or two surprise players who jump into the spotlight. So here’s a look at five current backups who could make an impact:
1. RB Akeel Lynch
2013 stats: 9 games played, 60 carries, 358 yards, 1 TD
Currently behind: Zach Zwinak, Bill Belton
Running backs coach Charles Huff said in January that a good system needs three good options on the ground. So Lynch will see an increased workload, and Franklin will have the ability to discover whether he has the talent to be the primary ball-carrier in 2015.
2. DE Brad Bars
2013 stats: Missed season due to injury
Currently behind: C.J. Olaniyan, Deion Barnes
Synopsis: Bars stood inside the Lasch Building last February and told the media that he felt 2013 would be a breakout year for him. He felt he could start or, at the very least, contribute heavily. But in July, Bars ruptured his Achilles’ tendon and was forced to miss the season. Franklin has repeatedly declined to address such injuries, but Bars’ initial rehabilitation plan was expected to end -- at the latest -- sometime in January. And the senior seemed fine on Monday when he sprinted during drills and took direction from the staff.
Bars won’t end up as a starter in 2014, but he could still see considerable playing time. Defensive line coach Sean Spencer likes to utilize a lot of different looks and rotations, and Franklin once again alluded to a scheme that would sometimes feature four defensive ends. With Anthony Zettel moving inside on a permanent basis, the Nittany Lions need some quality depth -- and Bars could be that answer. It might turn out that his prediction was just a year off.
3. S Malik Golden
2013 stats: 12 games played, 8 tackles, 1 pass breakup
Currently behind: Adrian Amos, Ryan Keiser
Synopsis: There are two ways this could go for Golden, and either way is significant. The redshirt sophomore could challenge Keiser for playing time this season -- or he could lose out. But, even if he doesn’t start, this season is no less important for his future. Both Amos and Keiser are seniors, so Penn State will need someone to step up in 2015.
There are plenty of freshman safeties enrolling over the summer, but Golden will obviously be the most experienced of that crew. He’s in a somewhat similar situation as Lynch, in that his play this season will determine whether he’s a future starter or just a career backup. He appears to be the next man up at safety, though, so he will see the field in 2014 -- it’s just a matter of how much and whether he can challenge Keiser.
4. CB Jordan Smith
2013 stats: 12 games played, 5 tackles
Currently behind: Jordan Lucas, Trevor Williams
Synopsis: Williams may be the projected starter at cornerback for now, but this position battle is far from decided. Lucas has taken Smith under his wing, not unlike Stephon Morris did for him, and Smith isn’t afraid to work. When he battled with insomnia in high school, he often did a couple hundred push-ups to pass the time. Also, it didn’t hurt that he trained with former NFL great Troy Vincent, either.
He wasn’t ready for a big role as a true freshman last season, but he’s definitely a player to watch as a sophomore. And he has the potential to follow in Lucas’ footsteps. As a sophomore, Lucas beat out a more-experienced player (Da’Quan Davis) for the starting job. Now, as a sophomore himself, Smith is hoping for the same.
5. OT Albert Hall
2013 stats: 5 games played
Currently behind: Donovan Smith, Andrew Nelson
Synopsis: Hall isn't just on this list because he’ll see a lot of playing time this season, or even in the future. There's more to him. He’s a converted tight end and a walk-on and is one of just four offensive tackles currently on the roster, and Franklin offered him a lot of praise on Monday.
“That guy is going to find a role on this team somehow,” Franklin said. "I’ve called him out in front of the team a number of times because I’ve been so impressed with him: His approach, his demeanor, his attitude.”
Hall should, at the very least, be an important member of the scout team -- and will likely see plenty of time on special teams. It’s not necessarily Hall's play that’s going to be important to this team. It’s the intangibles. There are a lot of walk-ons on this team, and Franklin only singled out Hall. So he’s definitely worth a second look.
Up next is a position that caused a lot of head scratching last season ...
Returning players: Jordan Lucas (65 tackles, 16 pass deflections, 3 INTs), Trevor Williams (24 tackles, 2 INTs), Da'Quan Davis (5 tackles), Anthony Smith (1 tackle), Jordan Smith (5 tackles), Kasey Gaines (redshirted), Grant Haley (incoming freshman), Amani Oruwariye (incoming freshman), Daquan Worley (incoming freshman)
Breaking it down: There are other defensive backs who could slide over from safety -- such as Adrian Amos and Jesse Della Valle -- but, right now, it looks as if cornerback is the position with the question marks. Lucas will take up one starting spot. But the other? At this point, you might as well just throw the names in a hat and pick one out.
Back in 2012, Davis started the season as the No. 3 cornerback before fizzling out and seeing less time as the season progressed. He played in 11 games as a true freshman and just six as a sophomore. In 2013, Williams began the season as a starter before fizzling out and watching Amos move from safety to reclaim his spot. It sure seems like it’s time to write Davis off as a starter, but is it too early to write Williams off? If Williams, who switched positions from receiver last season, can’t bounce back, then this position truly gets interesting. It seems as if Jordan Smith would be next in line since he’s quickly earned a reputation as a hard worker.
Then again, Smith’s work could all be for naught. There are several incoming freshmen who could challenge for immediate playing time -- including safety Christian Campbell, who could also play corner -- once they arrive over the summer. This position battle might not be totally decided in the spring, but it should go a long way in answering some of the biggest questions on the defense.
Pre-camp edge: None. That’s right -- no one has an edge right now. That’s a big reason why this battle is the top spot on the countdown. This is one starting spot that’s ripe for the taking. The players who have seen the most time (Davis, Williams) haven’t played well, and there’s really no strong way to gauge the others since they’ve seen so little time. Williams might be in the best shape right now, but Jordan Smith should be right behind him. At this point, it seems as if those two corners might be the ones to keep a close eye on this spring ... but anything can happen at corner.
More position battles to watch:
No. 5: Kicker
No. 4: Tight end
No. 3: Defensive tackle
No. 2: Offensive guard/center
True freshmen are having a bigger and bigger impact throughout college football these days, as coaches are either becoming less afraid to throw their youngsters into the fire or are facing fewer options.
1. Penn State: The Nittany Lions are starting just one true frosh, but he's a guy with a little bit of importance to the team's fortunes: quarterback Christian Hackenberg. The 18-year-old has had some ups and downs but is on pace for a 3,000-yard season. Tight end Adam Breneman and receiver Richy Anderson have also played in every game, with one start each. Von Walker, Brandon Bell and Jordan Smith are among others who have seen time for coach Bill O'Brien, who doesn't have the luxury to redshirt many guys with the Lions' depth issues.
2. Nebraska: The Huskers' defense is young, all right. So young that two true freshmen are starting at linebacker for Bo Pelini in Josh Banderas and Nathan Gerry. They rank fourth and fifth on the team in tackles, and Banderas is handling a leadership position as the middle linebacker.
3. Ohio State: Urban Meyer says Ohio State doesn't redshirt. If you're ready, you play. Technically, the Buckeyes don't start any true freshmen, but Dontre Wilson has already made a big impact as a runner, receiver and kick returner. Several other first-year players dot the two-deep, such as safety Vonn Bell and defensive lineman Joey Bosa, and running back Ezekiel Elliott ran for more than 100 yards and scored two touchdowns last week versus Florida A&M.
4. Indiana: No surprise to see the Hoosiers on this list, since coach Kevin Wilson has played as many true freshmen as any coach in the country the past few years. That means Indiana finally has some veterans, but Wilson is starting T.J. Simmons at linebacker and getting contributions from Darius Latham on the defensive line, Antonio Allen in the secondary and Marcus Oliver and Clyde Newton at linebacker.
5. Wisconsin: The Badgers are mostly an experienced, veteran team. The one exception is in the secondary. Sojourn Shelton is starting at cornerback for the Badgers, while Jakarrie Washington and Nate Hammon are top reserves in the defensive backfield.
Projected starters: Trevor Williams (2012 stats, as WR: 10 receptions, 97 yards; four kick returns, 79 yards) and Jordan Lucas (one tackle).
Key losses: Stephon Morris (60 tackles, five tackles-for-loss, five pass deflections)
Davis gained only three pounds in a year's time and remains undersized at 5-foot-10, 164 pounds. Still, cornerback-turned-safety Adrian Amos could always step back into the position if he's needed. Other players vying for time include true freshmen Anthony Smith and Jordan Smith, who both enrolled early.
What to expect: Neither starter saw any significant time at cornerback last season -- Williams was a wideout, after all -- but the Nittany Lions seem more confident at the position this season. For one, they moved Amos to his natural position of safety, despite returning both starters there ... which they wouldn't have done if defensive coordinator John Butler viewed corner as a weakness.
Williams made tremendous strides over the offseason at cornerback, and the staff has complimented Lucas since he stepped on campus. Replacing Morris' speed will be no easy task, but the new starters at least have size on their side as they're both at least 6-feet tall. (Lucas is 6-0; Williams is 6-1).
Williams' experience at wideout should help him grab interceptions, something this secondary sorely lacked last season. (The secondary, as a whole, finished with only three picks on the season. Linebacker Michael Mauti had three himself.) Lucas, on the other hand, is more polished, and scouts have said he shows a good burst to recover. The two new starters are obviously wildcards, since they really haven't seen B1G competition as cornerbacks, but there's enough potential here to allay fans' concern.
Recruiting trail: Butler was adamant that he wasn't very pleased with the depth he inherited last season, so he spent the 2013 class -- and, now, the 2014 class -- to restock.
The Nittany Lions already grabbed two CB commits in four-star athlete Troy Vincent Jr. (Baltimore/Gilman) and three-star prospect Daquan Worley (Coatesville, Pa./Coatesville). But they're not done just yet.
The Lions continue to go after ESPN 300 athlete Dravon Henry (Aliquippa, Pa./Aliquippa), who's one of their top remaining priorities in this class. PSU has a good shot here, but WVU likely still holds the slight edge right now.
Looking ahead, PSU is hoping to grab ESPN Junior 300 CB Minkah Fitzpatrick (Jersey City, N.J./St. Peter's) in the 2015 class. And fellow 2015 prospect Kareem Ali Jr. (Erial, N.J./Timber Creek Regional) is very high on PSU and could be the first commit of the class.
Best-case scenario: Williams is able add a few interceptions to the secondary this season, and Lucas shows that he'll be a solid three-year starter for PSU. Amos is able to stay at safety because the corners hold their own, and they boast an above-average season that paves the way for a brighter future.
Worst-case scenario: Bill O'Brien said last year that, sometimes, you don't know what you have until you see your team in action -- and the group struggles against Syracuse. Williams shows potential but is caught out of position for long gains and is targeted by the offense. Amos is forced to move back to cornerback at some point, and the secondary shows no progress from last season.
Top position question: Can this group be better than last year? Let's not dance around this question. The answer's yes.
There's enough depth here that Butler can get creative if something happens, and most importantly -- because of the added experience at safety -- PSU should play even more aggressive man coverage this season. Lucas and Williams will be put more in position to succeed, and they should be able to top last year's measly two interceptions by the corners.
The secondary was the big question of the year entering 2012, and it slightly outperformed low expectations after a bumpy start. If the secondary as a whole can stop those long third-down conversions in the opener, it'll go a long way in showing this group can have a successful season.
Saturday will be the first time most of last season's freshmen will play in front of a crowd, the first time fans can size up the quarterback race and the first time the media can see the progress this team has made over the spring.
The Blue-White weekend has taken on a carnival-type atmosphere these past few years, and there's plenty to see. But on the field, NittanyNation takes a closer look on what fans should keep an especially close eye on.
Bill O'Brien said in the past no quarterback separated himself yet. Maybe, just maybe, someone will gain an edge Saturday.
BRING ON THE MAN COVERAGE
Defensive coordinator John Butler acknowledged last season that PSU couldn't play be as aggressive in the secondary because of the depth. But that is improved this season. Jordan Smith and Anthony Smith enrolled early, while wideouts Malik Golden and Trevor Williams switched to defensive back.
PSU began practicing the nickel this spring, and fans can expect finally to see that package this season. There's no telling who might start alongside Adrian Amos come August -- Jordan Lucas is currently practicing with the first team -- and fans should keep an eye on the young corners here.
PROJECTED (RS) FRESHMAN STARTERS
DT Austin Johnson and LB Nyeem Wartman are just redshirt freshmen, but it already looks as if they'll crack the starting lineup this season. Both very well could wind up as the rare four-year PSU starter, and expectations are high for these two.
Johnson already is up to 302 pounds, and O'Brien has praised his ability since he was asked about his top freshmen last season. And the hard-hitting Wartman, whom PSU fans already are familiar with, blocked a punt in his PSU debut before an injury in Week 2 that sidelined him for the season (and allowed him to pick up a medical redshirt). With the departures of Mike Mauti and Gerald Hodges, Wartman will have to play well right off the bat for PSU to remain strong here. One recruit said he was especially impressed watching No. 5, because he was all over the field during one practice. Let's see what they can do in a scrimmage.
(Also, Akeel Lynch and Eugene Lewis might not be starters ... but is there anyone who doesn't plan to keep a close eye on them?)
HOW MUCH BETTER HAVE THE BEST GOTTEN?
Practice observers and teammates have pointed constantly to Allen Robinson when asked who has impressed so far this spring. He broke the single-season school record for receptions last season, and he has gained needed weight while maintaining his speed. Robinson was the best in the Big Ten last year, and now he's even better. That's hard to picture on the field.
Mike Hull, Deion Barnes, Zach Zwinak, Amos, etc. all have earned a lot of praise this spring. Zwinak has improved his strength, Barnes is shoring up his run-stopping, Hull is embracing a starting role ... and Amos? Well, he's probably PSU's most versatile player. Returner, safety, cornerback -- he can do everything. And it'll be interesting to see just how much he does Saturday.
TIGHT END U?
It's pretty incredible just how much this position has evolved in about 15 months. Kyle Carter won't play in the Blue-White Game, but fans still will be able to look at Matt Lehman, Jesse James and Brent Wilkerson.
MLB Glenn Carson mentioned James as the player who has impressed him the most overall. He broke out during Carter's absence late in the year, and he boasts good speed for a 6-foot-7 target. James has "red-zone target" written all over him, and it'll be interesting to see how this young corps does in the scrimmage. It'll be an even bigger bonus if Adam Breneman is able to play.
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Some of the Nittany Lions' top players right now were three-star recruits who flew just under the radar: Deion Barnes, Adrian Amos, Mike Hull, Kyle Carter. And the list goes on.
The Class of 2013 looks to continue that trend. NittanyNation decided to take a closer look at some three-star players in this class whom fans should keep an eye on.
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ESPN.com caught up with O'Brien on Wednesday to discuss the class.
From top players to sleepers, misses and everything in-between, there's a lot going on in this class:
Who they got: Penn State looks as if it will sign 17 players this class, including the five who have already enrolled. The headliners are ESPN's No. 1 QB in Christian Hackenberg and No. 1 TE in Adam Breneman, who have helped bring the same kind of excitement to this class as Derrick Williams and Justin King in 2005. Penn State turned in a quality offensive group, with four-star prospects also at offensive guard (Brendan Mahon), offensive tackle (Andrew Nelson) and wideout (DaeSean Hamilton).
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Team needs: Defensive coordinator John Butler made it clear he wasn't happy with the secondary's depth last season. At cornerback, untested true freshman Da'Quan Davis was the backup, and the safeties opened the year as the team's weakness.
That's not the only concern. With Matt McGloin's departure, Steven Bench is now the most experienced quarterback on the team. And he threw just eight passes last season. Linebacker is also a position that could use a few extra bodies, especially with Michael Mauti and Gerald Hodges making a run at the NFL.
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TE Adam Breneman, Camp Hill (Pa.) Cedar Cliff
Four stars, No. 1 at position
Synopsis: The nation's top TE followed in the footsteps of former Cedar Cliff tight end Kyle Brady, committing to Penn State on March 9 (thanks to Bill O'Brien's philosophy on tight ends) and plans to wear Brady's No. 81. He's set big goals for himself, including a Big Ten title and winning the Mackey Award at some point in his career.
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The three-star cornerback stopped watching the Georgia-Nebraska game and focused on that scrolling bar at the bottom. His eyes remained on that spot for what felt like 5 or 10 minutes until he spotted the news again and fully grasped what was happening:
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BIG TEN SCOREBOARD
TBD Southern Illinois Indiana TBD Illinois State Iowa TBD Richmond Maryland TBD BYU Nebraska TBD Norfolk State Rutgers TBD Penn State Temple TBD Wisconsin Alabama TBD Stanford Northwestern