Penn State Nittany Lions: Kyle Baublitz

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- James Franklin was prepared to deliver a persuasive talk on why defensive end Anthony Zettel should move inside. He was ready to tell him how valuable he would be; he was ready to sit him down and detail how defensive tackle was his calling.

[+] EnlargeAnthony Zettel
MCT via Getty ImagesAnthony Zettel finished second on the team in sacks with four in 2013.
But Franklin never even had a chance to finish his speech over the offseason.

Before Franklin’s conclusion, as the two discussed a potential move, Zettel told him outright that he already wanted to move to defensive tackle. That was his plan.

“I learned a long time ago,” Franklin said Monday with a smile, “once it’s been sold, stop selling.”

Franklin landed in Happy Valley on Jan. 11 and has tried his best to build up relationships before Monday’s first spring practice. But, if he would have taken over the Nittany Lions in November, he would have realized how this move was a long time coming.

Zettel alternated between end and tackle throughout the 2013 season, giving the defense a critical sparkplug and finishing second on the team with four sacks. He played mostly defensive end since he weighed in at 258 pounds, but he wasn’t shy about his preference for the interior.

Said Zettel in November: “I enjoy moving inside. I think the future for me is inside, maybe. I can play with lower pads, and I don’t have to think as much. I enjoy getting banged around like that.”

Penn State’s new head coach didn’t divulge exactly what was said during that offseason discussion. But Zettel clearly has wanted to move to defensive tackle for quite some time -- and Franklin clearly knew that was best for his team.

And if that wasn’t clear last week, it certainly was during Franklin’s news conference Monday afternoon. Franklin announced that two returning defensive tackles -- redshirt sophomores Brian Gaia and Derek Dowrey -- were moving to offensive guard.

That clears the way for Zettel to start at defensive tackle, alongside returning starter Austin Johnson. Franklin now has just five scholarship defensive tackles, and only Zettel and Johnson have any game experience.

“He’s excited about doing it; he wants to do it,” Franklin said. “He’s really put on great size, tested extremely well -- but really excited about him at the three-technique and what he’s going to be able to do at the position.”

There is cause for some excitement with the move. In limited time last season, Zettel still finished with six tackles for loss and four sacks. And he flashed plenty of ability in 2012 when, during an 11-play span against Navy, he came away with six tackles and two sacks.

Franklin said Zettel, despite his weight nearing 280 pounds, still clocked in one of the fastest 40s on the defensive line. And both he and the staff knew Zettel would be better served at defensive tackle full-time, as opposed to last season when he saw time inside only during passing downs.

Once the staff saw tape of Zettel, it didn’t take long for them to come to the same conclusion as Zettel.

“When you put on the film, that guy’s a player,” defensive coordinator Bob Shoop told ESPN.com. “He brings an intensity to us; he brings athletic ability. And a lot of things we do are movement-oriented, so he fits in really well.”
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. – And then there were two.

We’re nearing the start of Penn State’s spring practice, which means we’re nearing the end of our countdown series. This week’s countdown, involving five predictions for the spring, continues with a look at two early enrollees who should earn playing time in 2014...

Barney and Thompkins make immediate impact

[+] EnlargeDe'Andre Thompkins
Steve Dipaola/NikePenn State early enrollee De'Andre Thompkins, who was ranked No. 73 in the 2014 ESPN 300, could be a starter in 2014.
Defensive tackle Tarow Barney and wide receiver De'Andre Thompkins aren’t just poised for considerable playing time in 2014; they could very well find themselves as starters on the spring depth chart.

Thompkins will battle with sophomore Richy Anderson in the slot, and Thompkins might have a higher ceiling. He’s faster and more athletic, but how quickly he ascends centers on his route-running ability. He finds himself in a similar position as Geno Lewis was in his first season, because Thompkins is transitioning from high school tailback to receiver. Regardless, Thompkins is best when he’s in open space -- and he’s sure to wow with a big play or two during the spring scrimmage.

Even if Thompkins isn’t quite ready to surpass Anderson -- and the prediction here is that he will -- the freshman can still vie for a starting job as a returner. On kickoffs, he posted video game-type numbers as a high school junior (11 returns, 560 yards, 51 yard average). And, on punts as a senior, he returned three for an average of 61 yards. Just take a look at his highlight video.

As for Barney, it’s no secret that the Nittany Lions need some help at defensive tackle. Without DaQuan Jones and Kyle Baublitz, redshirt sophomore Austin Johnson will take over one of the spots. The other one is wide open. The position battle here will likely be between Barney and redshirt sophomore Brian Gaia. (Defensive end Anthony Zettel could also be a factor, but for now it’s difficult to see him in an interior role outside of passing downs.)

Even if Barney doesn’t win out, he’s still going to see plenty of time. Defensive line coach Sean Spencer likes to use a lot of personnel and a lot of combinations, not unlike the philosophy of former offensive line coach Mac McWhorter, so Barney will have every opportunity to make a splash.

Thompkins and Barney both have a lot to learn a lot in a short period of time -- Thompkins is changing positions; Barney’s coming from a junior college and took up football a little more than three years ago -- but both players will be thrown into the mix early out of pure need. In other seasons, the staff might bring them along slowly. But this spring? Expect to see them on the field early -- and expect them to make an immediate impact.

More predictions:

No. 5: A more public, eager-to-please coach
No. 4: Blue-White attendance more than doubles from 2013
No. 3: OL struggles surpass secondary as biggest concern
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Penn State lost quite a few solid starters this offseason, but that should make the spring position battles all the more interesting.

As part of this week’s countdown, which centers on those position battles, we’re taking a closer look today at one such position that lost two experienced players ...

No. 3 position battle: Defensive tackle

Departures: DaQuan Jones (56 tackles; 11.5 tackles for loss), Kyle Baublitz (23 tackles, three sacks)

Returning players: Tarow Barney (early enrollee), Parker Cothren (redshirted), Brian Gaia (5 tackles; 11 games played), Austin Johnson (27 tackles; three tackles for loss), Antoine White (early enrollee)

Breaking it down: Johnson will take up one starting spot, but there’s a big question mark surrounding the other. Derek Dowrey appears to have moved to the offensive line, and there’s still a chance that defensive end Anthony Zettel could slide inside on a permanent basis. But for now it appears as if the main battle will be between Barney and Gaia.

Gaia boasts more experience than Barney, an early enrollee -- but not by much. Barney is a bit bigger at 290 pounds, according to the current online roster, and it should be a good battle. Penn State really needs someone who can stuff the run, since Zettel can always rush the passer inside. So whoever is better in the run-stuffing department should take this spot. Defensive line coach Sean Spencer likes to use a lot of bodies and combinations along the line, too, so even the backup should see quite a bit of playing time this season.

Pre-camp edge: Gaia. He has the edge since he’s spent more time with the team and the strength program. But anything can happen here. Tyler Ferguson had the advantage at quarterback last May, and look what happened there. Barney isn’t as used to this level of competition as Gaia since he’s coming from a community college in Mississippi, so it will take some time to adjust. Make no mistake; Gaia has the advantage right now. But that advantage could be eroded by the time the Blue-White Game swings around April 12. That’s what makes this position battle one of the best ones to watch.

More position battles to watch:

No. 5: Kicker
No. 4: Tight ends

Penn State positions to improve: No. 5

February, 10, 2014
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STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Signing day is over and spring practice is still a few weeks away, so we've designed a few countdowns to keep you busy in the meantime.

This week, we're taking a look at Penn State's top five position groups with room to improve. No. 1 will be unveiled on Friday, so sit back and relax as this countdown kicks off.

Up today: No. 5 -- defensive tackles.

[+] EnlargeAustin Johnson
Matthew O'Haren/USA TODAY SportsAustin Johnson showed promise at defensive tackle in 2013 and will be the foundation of Penn State's defensive line next season.
No. 5: Defensive tackles

The players: Austin Johnson (27 tackles, 1 sack, 1 fumble recovery), Brian Gaia (5 tackles), Derek Dowrey (1 tackle), Parker Cothren (redshirt), Antoine White (early enrollee), Tarow Barney (early enrollee).

Last season: The interior was a strength in 2013, with 318-pound DaQuan Jones anchoring it. Jones earned the team's MVP award by routinely taking on double teams and still leading PSU with 11.5 tackles for loss. He also ensured that neither of Wisconsin's tailbacks reached the 100-yard mark Penn State's upset over the then-No. 15 Badgers. Kyle Baublitz rotated in with Johnson on the other side and put up respectable numbers (3 sacks, 1 blocked kick) before deciding to move on with a teaching career. The line was the defense's strong point last season.

What's missing: Experience. Jones is heading to the NFL, Baublitz is heading to State College Area High, and Johnson is the only returning defensive tackle who saw serious time at the position last season. Put simply, there are a lot of question marks. Former coach Bill O'Brien was set on taking a junior college defensive tackle because he was in such desperate need of finding an immediate contributor, so it wouldn't be surprising to see new coach James Franklin plug in a newcomer right away.

Moving forward: Defensive end Anthony Zettel could move inside and, in a lot of ways, that would help quiet those questions surrounding experience. But he's only 258 pounds right now, so of course there's the question of his weight. Defensive line coach Sean Spencer likes to rotate a lot of players on his line, so we could see more of a lot more combinations this season. Johnson is really the only lock, but he has a bright career ahead of him.

The staff needs to decide quickly what it wants to do with Zettel and, from there, find at least one more DT who can separate himself. Gaia played in 11 games last season and likely holds the slight edge right now, but Dowrey's not that far behind. Barney and Cothren are both darkhorses, and a lot of eyes will be on them in the spring.

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.

Week 14 helmet stickers

December, 1, 2013
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Recognizing the best and the brightest from the Nittany Lions in Week 14's season finale:

QB Christian Hackenberg: This was easily his best game of the season and certainly should provide PSU some hope moving forward. He was 21 of 30 for 339 yards with four TDs and no interceptions. He played especially well in the first half -- throwing just one or two bad balls -- and was the driving force behind the Penn State offense. He was able to spread the field, showed composure when Wisconsin called for a heavy blitz, and was the biggest reason for PSU's huge upset win over the Badgers.

DE C.J. Olaniyan and the PSU defensive line: The average Wisconsin offensive lineman weighs 321 pounds, which is about 8 pounds heavier than the average Green Bay Packers' lineman. But PSU still managed to pressure Joel Stave and limit the rushing attack to only 120 yards. The entire line played well, but Olaniyan deserves special consideration after finishing with three quarterback hurries and returning an interception 33 yards. Anthony Zettel added two stops in the backfield, Kyle Baublitz (1 TFL) and Austin Johnson led all PSU linemen with four tackles apiece, and Deion Barnes deflected a critical third-and-3 pass.

WR Allen Robinson: No explanation is needed here. Seriously. He caught eight passes for 122 yards. You know how good he is by now. He's on this list every week, and he's one of the best receivers in Penn State history. He showed that yet again against Wisconsin.

RB Zach Zwinak: The 240-pound back gets this award mainly because of one play, his 61-yard rush on a draw with less than 4 minutes left in regulation. Had he not picked that up, Wisconsin would've had great field position and plenty of time left to score the tying touchdown. That was a critical play, and Zwinak played especially well in the second half. He carried 22 times for 115 yards, with more than half of his yardage coming off that one play. Wisconsin players vowed revenge earlier this week after Zwinak ran all over them last season -- but he once again quieted the Badgers.

WR Eugene Lewis and TE Adam Breneman: These two freshmen -- Lewis a redshirt; Breneman a true -- will be looked upon a lot in the future, so their performances were good to see for PSU fans. Breneman caught three balls for 78 yards and a touchdown. But his big play came early in the game when he took a short pass, broke a tackle and rumbled 45 more yards for the score. Lewis also finished with three catches but came down with 91 yards and two touchdowns. Every catch he made was a big one. The first was a 29-yard catch that came on third-and-7, the second was a 3-yard TD and the third was a 59-yard TD bomb that acted as a nice bookend to his Week 1 TD catch.

3 PSU players to forgo final seasons

November, 19, 2013
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STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Coach Bill O'Brien announced Tuesday that three Penn State players will forgo their final seasons of eligibility and be honored Saturday along with the seniors.

Here's a look at each player, what he has meant to the team and who will be taking his place next season:

DT Kyle Baublitz, 6-foot-5, 281 pounds

Season stats: Started seven out of 10 games. 17 tackles, two sacks, one blocked kick.

Synopsis: Baublitz announced Saturday he decided to move on with his life and will perform student-teaching next year at State College Area High School instead of starting along the PSU interior. He will be missed immensely, as he was expected to start alongside Austin Johnson in 2014 as the clear No. 1. His departure leaves PSU in a very difficult spot with DaQuan Jones graduating. PSU clearly doesn't feel very good at this position because it continues to go after juco defensive tackles -- and it wouldn't be out of the question for a first-year player to make an impact next year either.

Taking over: No returning defensive tackles have a lot of experience (i.e. -- Derek Dowrey and Brian Gaia), so the smart money would be on defensive end Anthony Zettel moving inside. Zettel said several weeks ago he feels confident he can make an impact along the interior, and PSU could certainly use him. PSU likes to use at least three players on a rotation, so expect Zettel-Johnson to start inside with another guy -- possibly a first-year player -- also seeing a good amount of time.

RT Garry Gilliam, 6-6, 303

Seasons stats: Played in nine games and started four. Helped PSU average 4.2 ypc.

Synopsis: Gilliam is easily the most surprising of the bunch. He moved from tight end to offensive tackle in the offseason, and he has done a tremendous job at transitioning. He has battled Adam Gress for the starting spot all season and, if he returned next year, he'd almost certainly be the starter opposite LT Donovan Smith -- especially considering the other competition, Gress and Eric Shrive, are set to graduate. There's not a lot of options at offensive tackle with Gilliam leaving.

Taking over: O'Brien has been high on freshman Andrew Nelson all season, and he could be the heir apparent. There really aren't too many other options. Anthony Alosi can play both guard and tackle -- but he'll be the only other returning player who's listed as a tackle on the roster. PSU needs to replace two inside linemen, too, so moving a guard to the outside will require quite a bit of forward thinking.

WR Alex Kenney, 6-0, 195.

Season stats: Played in six games with zero starts. Has three catches for 25 yards.

Synopsis: He's the least-surprising player to graduate early. He came in to Penn State as a four-star recruit, but he never really made an impact. He always seemed to be a track athlete in a football uniform. He was supplanted this season by freshman Richy Anderson, and he hasn't caught a pass since Week 3. Even with PSU's top-two receivers likely leaving after this season, Kenney still wouldn't have seen time next season.

Taking over: Anderson has already taken over for Kenney, so it's not much of a stretch to think he'll stay at his slot position. Anderson has 11 catches for 95 yards so far.

What we learned: Week 7

October, 13, 2013
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Lesson learned from Penn State's 43-40 quadruple OT win against Michigan in Week 7:

1. Penn State can make plays when it needs to, after all: Against Central Florida, the defense couldn't make a key stop when it needed. With Indiana, the team imploded when it counted in the fourth quarter. But against the best team it's played so far? It couldn't have asked for much more. Christian Hackenberg led the team on a five-play, 80-yard touchdown drive with 50 seconds left in regulation. And, in overtime, defensive tackle Kyle Baublitz was able to help block a Michigan field goal to keep the game going. Before this contest, the Nittany Lions seemed to fall apart against better competition. They proved this game they're capable of overcoming the odds -- time and time again -- to get the win.

2. Bill Belton is a critical part to this offense: Is he the best running back on the team? That's certainly worth debating now. When Zach Zwinak fumbled, Belton watched his workload increase dramatically -- and he made the most out of it. He showed patience when it was needed, he held onto the ball, and he made an impact on the passing game. He greatly underachieved last season, but there's really no question about it in 2013: He's a valuable member of the offense. And, heading into the next game, it'll be interesting to see how he and Zwinak share carries.

3. Bill O'Brien will stick to those fourth-down attempts no matter what: Penn State's head coach couldn't be blamed if he felt a bit gun-shy after a first-quarter risk that didn't pan out. But in the fourth overtime, when he needed just a short field goal to tie, he decided to once again go for it on 4th-and-1. Belton waited and then found an opening to gain 3 yards and complete the conversion, but it was a gutsy move. "I felt like it was time for someone to win the game," O'Brien matter-of-factly said afterward. If O'Brien thinks he can win a game by not going for a field goal, expect him to go for the first down -- no matter what. We knew before he loved going for it on those fourth downs, but the game against Michigan took that to another level.

4. This defensive line is good, even without Deion Barnes: Anthony Zettel started in Barnes' place, and the line got a tremendous push all night. Barnes has struggled early on this season, and defensive coordinator John Butler wanted to send him a message. It certainly seemed to work. The Wolverines tried to establish a running game, but they only picked up yards when Devin Gardner scrambled. (Michigan's tailbacks combined for 28 yards on 30 carries.) DE C.J. Olaniyan finished with 2.5 sacks and had the best game of his career, while DT DaQuan Jones routinely clogged up the middle. There are plenty of question marks with the secondary and the depleted group of linebackers, but this line is the defense's strength. And it was a big reason for the win.

Planning for success: Penn State

September, 5, 2013
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STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Bill O'Brien was asked nearly three dozen questions by the media this week. Only one directly addressed the Eastern Michigan contest.

That wasn't a big surprise. The position-by-position matchups aren't really in question, and this is a relatively easy game for fans to overlook. After all, the Eagles last earned a conference title in 1987 when O'Brien was still playing high school ball. And PSU is more than a three-touchdown favorite.

But you can bet Penn State's head coach isn't taking EMU for granted.

"We have a lot of respect for Eastern Michigan," he said in response to the single question about the Eagles. "And I have a lot of respect for Coach [Ron] English -- they have guys that coached at the University of Michigan with Ron English and Stan Parrish -- so we have a lot of respect for their team."

College football underdogs seem to be on quite the roll lately, and O'Brien isn't about to let his Nittany Lions grow too cocky. Michigan State thwarted EMU rival Western Michigan thanks to a pair of defensive touchdowns. Illinois survived a scare against an FCS team in Southern Illinois, 42-34. And No. 18 Nebraska came away with a 37-34 victory against Wyoming.

And that's not to mention actual upsets like McNeese State running over South Florida and Northern Iowa edging Iowa State.

If ever there was a season not to grow overconfident with overmatched opponents, it's this one -- even if some Penn State players struggled to come up with specific strengths on Eastern Michigan.

"Ummm," defensive tackle Kyle Baublitz said, pausing. "I would say just, they're -- they're a tough team."

O'Brien believed the Eagles weren't all the different from Syracuse, at least scheme-wise with the offense. The Eagles will mix up defensive coverages, spread the ball around and won't play back on their heels.

It's not exactly a tough test -- at least it shouldn't be -- but this will offer the young roster some added confidence and experience. If O'Brien allows Christian Hackenberg to test his arm more against early-season competition, then this has to be the matchup he was waiting for.

This game might be a better indicator of Hackenberg's future talent than Syracuse. But, oh, it should be boring. If Penn State's going to have a successful season then, by everyone's standards, this game shouldn't be close.

Penn State will prepare the same way. O'Brien wouldn't do any differently. He's not the type to overlook an opponent.

But that's precisely why PSU should run over the Eagles.

Notes on PSU's newest depth chart

August, 26, 2013
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Penn State's depth chart was released on Monday and, much to no one's surprise, a starting quarterback was not named. An "OR" appears next to the names of Tyler Ferguson and Christian Hackenberg.

Still, there were a few notable changes on the depth chart and in the game notes:
  • Adam Gress was nursing an injury last week, and he was not listed as the definite starter at right tackle. He's still battling with TE-turned-OT Garry Gilliam. Bill O'Brien will likely update Gress' progress on Tuesday.
  • Von Walker, a run-on whom O'Brien complimented last week, is listed as competing for the No. 2 kickoff return spot with Akeel Lynch. Walker is an athlete whom PSU hopes to utilize as a slotback. This might be the biggest surprise on the depth chart. You can read more about Walker here.
  • D.J. Crook is listed as the third-string quarterback. He was competing with Austin Whipple and Jack Seymour for the No. 3 spot. He was listed as the third-stringer on the post-spring depth chart as well.
  • Bill Belton is still listed as the No. 2 tailback, ahead of Lynch ... but that likely doesn't mean much. Both will see carries.
  • There's an "OR" listed next to Malcolm Willis' name, signifying he's still competing with Ryan Keiser at safety. Willis is obviously expected to be the starter -- barring injury. O'Brien will undoubtedly be asked about that on Tuesday.
  • Middle linebacker Glenn Carson is still listed as the snapper at punter, despite picking up a run-on whose specialty is snapping and having Howle snapping on field goals.

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.
Penn State released an updated depth chart today and, although quarterback remains a question mark, some positions certainly became clearer.

Here's a closer look at some of the notable changes:

1. Lots of movement in the secondary.

Adrian Amos
Cal Sport Media via AP ImagesA starting cornerback last season, Adrian Amos currently tops the depth chart at safety.
Adrian Amos is the top DB for the Nittany Lions, and he shined at cornerback last season. The versatile player practiced a lot at safety this offseason, though, and the depth chart now lists him as a starting safety alongside ... well, apparently, the other starter still isn't a lock.

Stephen Obeng-Agyapong, who started last season, is listed as Amos' backup. The other starter isn't yet decided, as Bill O'Brien put the "OR" next to Malcolm Willis' name, meaning a competition is still under way between him and walk-on-turned-scholarship athlete Ryan Keiser.

At cornerback, which saw Amos and the graduated Stephon Morris as the 2012 starters, there are two new names to watch. Sophomore Jordan Lucas grabbed one starting spot, while wideout-turned-corner Trevor Williams is listed at the other. Da'Quan Davis is Lucas' backup.

2. TE-turned-OT Garry Gilliam is now up to 305 pounds.

That's a huge turnaround in less than a year. He played the role of blocking TE last year and started the season at 262 pounds. So, in about 10 months, he's gained 43 pounds. That says quite a bit about PSU's strength and conditioning program. He's currently listed as Dononvan Smith's backup at left tackle.

3. Kyle Baublitz will start alongside DaQuan Jones at DT.

Redshirt freshman Austin Johnson received a lot of praise over the spring, and he seemed poised to grab the starting spot. But the more-experienced Baublitz is instead part of the first-string lineup.

Baublitz played in six games last year, and the most recent roster puts him at 286 pounds -- 32 pounds lighter than Jones and 11 pounds lighter than Johnson. He had two tackles and one sack last year.

4. The long-snapper is ... MLB Glenn Carson?

At least for now, it is. Sean Corcoran is an incoming run-on who's expected to compete for the starting snapping jobs, so Carson's name there could be short-lived.

5. Bill Belton remains the No. 2 RB, while Brandon Moseby-Felder will still start opposite WR Allen Robinson.

Neither was a big surprise, but there were questions surrounding both players. Akeel Lynch is the no. 3 RB, while Eugene Lewis-Matt Zanellato are the receiving backups. (Lewis should still see a considerable amount of time on the field, obviously.)

Moseby-Felder nursed a leg injury last season, which slowed him down in the early going, and he could be a nice surprise this season. Early enrollee Richy Anderson might have garnered his share of pats on the back, too, but he's listed as a fourth-stringer. A redshirt could be in his future.

6. Charles Idemudia is the non-scholarship LB to watch.

Yes, the starting lineup is still Mike Hull-Carson-Nyeem Wartman ... but that was never really in doubt. With just five scholarship linebackers on the roster -- six once Brandon Bell gets on campus -- a walk-on was poised to see some time.

PSU's players threw around a couple names, such as Adam Cole and Matthew Baney, but Idemudia is the only non-scholarship LB listed on the depth chart.

7. Kick/punt returners listed.

PSU tried a few different players on special teams last season. But as of now Belton and Alex Kenney are listed as the top-two kick returners, with Jesse Della Valle as the top punt returner. Those three had the most kick/punt returns last season, so it's not a huge shock to see those names again. One interesting change, though? Anderson is the No. 2 PR.
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Every spring, a few players step up and offer the first glimpses of an upcoming breakout season. Often, the media can only guess and project since they're not at every practice, weightlifting session and team meeting.

The players, however, are there and can see who might be the next Deion Barnes or Allen Robinson. So, NittanyNation polled several players inside the Lasch Football Building on Wednesday and also took information from Wednesday teleconferences.

The question: Who's made the biggest impact this spring or who's been the biggest surprise? Here's what Penn State's veterans had to say:

Linebacker Glenn Carson: "I'm really impressed with Jesse James. He's had a great winter. That kid's just an animal. I'm really excited to watch him play this year. I think he's a freak athlete. I think he can do amazing things. And if you haven't been impressed by him yet, I think you're going to be even more impressed by him next year."

Offensive guard John Urschel: "Ty Howle is a great center and a great football player. I'd say he's one of the most underrated football players on our team. You don't hear about him enough. I don't think you guys talk about him enough. I don't think we're going to have any problems with him playing at center."

[+] EnlargeGaia
Davide De Pas for ESPN.comCould defensive lineman Brian Gaia break out for the Nittany Lions in 2013?
Defensive tackle DaQuan Jones: "I really think Austin Johnson, Derek Dowrey and Brian Gaia. They're young, but they're showing a lot of ability. They're going to be great down the road. I'm happy seeing their competitiveness in spring ball."

Safety Malcolm Willis: "It's a number of guys. If I had to pick one, it'd probably be John Urschel. He comes in every day early and gets his workout in early. And pound for pound, he's probably one of the strongest guys on the team. Mike Hull, he's another guy who works his butt off. Adrian Amos. Zach Zwinak -- I work out with him in the weight room every day, and the amount of weight he can put up, it's crazy. Those are a couple of the guys who have really impressed me so far."

Offensive tackle Adam Gress: "I'd have to say a lot of the defensive linemen are coming along. All of the younger guys are really working hard, and the guys I was playing against on the scout team last year, now those guys are players. They're people we compete with. So that group's made a lot of progress. ... Austin Johnson's definitely made a lot of progress."

Linebacker Mike Hull: "Nyeem [Wartman] has looked good so far. He's doing a great job filling in. I think he's going to be a great player for us. We just need to all come together as a unit. He's looking good so far, so we just have to see how he progresses."

Defensive end Deion Barnes: "I think it would be Kyle Baublitz. I think he's doing a great job right now. Whoever's been talking to him has done a great job because he's come out of his shell. I've never seen him like this before."

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