Penn State Nittany Lions: Kyle Carter

Big Ten Tuesday mailblog

June, 3, 2014
Jun 3
5:00
PM ET
Coming at you from an undisclosed Big Ten campus. Can you guess which one?

Twitter!

A lot of good responses to what you would do to improve college football.

To the inbox ...

Jeff from Chicago writes: What would I like to see in college football: A Big Ten-SEC Challenge every season, the first weekend of October. Just like the B1G-ACC Challenge in basketball, you make the pairings by perceived quality, play half the games in each conference's stadiums. Alabama-Ohio State. Texas A&M-Michigan. Michigan State-Auburn. Florida-Penn State. Wisconsin-Georgia. All on the same day. Would that be compelling TV or what? (And yes, I know it's not going to happen!)

Adam Rittenberg: It would be extremely compelling TV and, unfortunately, it will never happen. Although SEC teams will have more nonleague games to schedule than their Big Ten counterparts, I could never see that league getting on board with a scheduling agreement like this one. There are other nonleague rivalries (Florida-Florida State, Georgia-Georgia Tech) that would take priority, and I just can't see too many SEC teams leaving the comforts of the South to play Big Ten opponents on the road. Maybe the playoff and its purported emphasis on schedule strength changes things.


Bill from Indianapolis writes: While it would never happen, the big improvement would be to take the 4 nonconference games and reduce it to two. Then take those two games and have them played after the conference championships. Each team would get one home game and one road game against a team from another conference that finished in a similar place in the standings. Thus when the playoff teams are picked there are more quality games to choose well and it, in a way, expands the playoff by two extra weeks. A full write up on this idea can be found here ...

Adam Rittenberg: Interesting proposal, Bill. It could provide a more comprehensive gauge on which teams truly deserve to be part of the playoff. I actually like having nonleague games sprinkled in later in the season as some teams improve gradually. Some early season nonleague contests are really misleading. If logistics didn't matter, maybe this plan could work. I wish there was more flexibility to do short-notice scheduling in college football, but when you have big stadiums and big money on the line, it's difficult, if not impossible.


Rob from Morristown, N.J., writes: Adam, you can mark this down for a "bold prediction" but I seriously (homer alert) think you are missing any one of the PSU tight ends in your mystery man option for B1G 1,000-yard receivers. My pick, C-Hack's best friend on the team Adam Breneman. All three PSU tight ends have shown they are more than capable of being reliable pass catchers, Kyle Carter in 2012, Jesse James and Breneman in 2013. With the lack of a true No. 2 receiver to compliment Geno Lewis, and an inexperienced O-Line that may cause a lot of dump off passes to a tight end, this could be a year that multiple tight ends push the receiving yards race.

Adam Rittenberg: Rob, I certainly considered the possibility of a Penn State tight end breaking out this season, although 1,000 yards is a very lofty mark. Ultimately, Breneman would really have to separate himself to have a chance to catch so many passes from his buddy Christian Hackenberg. Breneman was hurt when I watched PSU practice this spring, and James looked like the best receiving option on the field. He's a beast at 6-foot-7 and 257 pounds -- a matchup nightmare. So while Breneman could become a superstar, I don't know how Penn State ignores James. And then there's Carter, who has 54 receptions in his first two seasons. I expect all the tight ends to play and likely limit one from producing way more than the others.


Joe from Ames, Iowa, writes: As a Big Ten (Minnesota) alum, here are a few ideas on how to improve college football:

1. Ban oversigning. Eat it, Team SEC.
2. Create an early signing period.
3. Quit tinkering with rules just for the sake of tinkering. Touchback placement comes to mind. "Safety" has become the catch-all justification for every bit of tomfoolery the rules committee wants to try.
4. Expand playoff to 8 teams.
5. No polls until after Week 4.
6. USC, Texas, Nebraska, PSU, Miami, etc. return to normal and help beat some humility back into the University of SEC. A thousand years of darkness for Michigan. Reversion to pre-1993 historical means for Wisconsin and Minnesota.
7. Honestly wouldn't mind Boston College in the B1G, albeit for selfish hockey reasons.

Adam Rittenberg: Wow, a lot of thoughts here, Joe. I'll tackle a few of them. I agree on the early signing period, but as I'll write later this week, moving up official visits to a prospect's junior year is even more important, especially for Big Ten schools. I can't agree more with pushing back any sort of poll or getting rid of them entirely. They have way too much significance in shaping the way teams and leagues are viewed. Looking at your list for No. 6, it's amazing how college football's power structure has shifted. You likely won't see any of those teams mentioned as likely playoff contenders this season. Times have changed.


Isaac from Stevens Point, Wis., writes: I’d just like to throw in my two cents regarding receiving threats for the Badgers for the upcoming year. Many people are worried, and for good reason. I feel like many people have failed to notice one man: Sam Arneson. I have never seen the guy drop a ball and his touchdown catch against Ohio State last year was incredible. The guy has size and athleticism in an offense that features pass-catching tight ends. I wouldn't be surprised if he led the Big Ten in receiving for tight ends. What are your thoughts?

Adam Rittenberg: Bold statement, Isaac. I like Arneson, too, and he could have a much bigger role in the offense this season. I don't know if Wisconsin will pass the ball enough for any player to eclipse 1,000 receiving yards, but the uncertainty at wide receiver creates opportunity for players like Arneson, who has only 10 career receptions, four for touchdowns. I'd be surprised if he has more yards than Michigan's Devin Funchess (still technically a tight end), Rutgers' Tyler Kroft, Ohio State's Jeff Heuerman and possibly several others, but his numbers will go up.

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- The young and curious are approaching Christian Hackenberg more often these days, peppering the Penn State quarterback with questions about game speed and other topics.

It will slow down, Hackenberg tells his teammates. Just keep working. Everything's going to be alright.

Hackenberg is the reigning Big Ten Freshman of the Year. He's in the spring semester of his freshman year. He celebrated his 19th birthday on Valentine's Day.

He's also a graybeard at Penn State, as crazy as it sounds.

"The guys look at me as one of the older guys, especially the early enrollees," Hackenberg told ESPN.com on Wednesday. "'I still look at myself as the just-turned-19-year-old freshman."

[+] EnlargeChristian Hackenberg
Dan Sanger/Icon SMIEven though he's merely a rising sophomore, Christian Hackenberg has become a player that his younger Penn State teammates look up to.
That a Penn State quarterback going through his first spring practice -- remember, Hackenberg was in high school at this time last year -- could be labeled an old guy seemed laughable not long ago. In 2010, Rob Bolden became the first true freshman quarterback at Penn State to start the season opener since Shorty Miller in 1910. Future Nittany Lions coach Rip Engle was four years old at the time. Joe Paterno wouldn't be born for another 16 years.

Now the Lions have had two freshman opening-game starters in four seasons. Hackenberg's accelerated ascent isn't a huge surprise given the hype that surrounded him in high school. Anyone who watched him last season, especially in his final performance in an upset win at Wisconsin on the Badgers' senior day (339 pass yards, 4 TDs, 0 INTs), knew he was no ordinary freshman.

But after starting all 12 games for the Lions in 2013, Hackenberg has both the credentials and the credibility to claim a larger leadership role in an offense facing significant depth challenges along the line and at wide receiver.

"It's tough to try and claim that as a sophomore, but I'm one of the most experienced guys returning on this offense," said Hackenberg, who passed for 2,955 yards with 20 touchdowns and 10 interceptions last fall. "What I went through last year has prepared me to be able to step into that role more than if I would not have played or just played a little bit.

"I'm trying to be a leader through my actions."

His actions this spring include absorbing a new offense described as personnel-driven, pro-style. There are similarities to the system Hackenberg operated under former coach Bill O'Brien, especially the protections and some terminology.

But there's also a lot to learn.

"Some games we may come out in heavy tight end sets, some games we might come out in empty sets," Hackenberg said. "It's more multiple."

Hackenberg boasts the strongest arm in the Big Ten and is lauded for being able to make just about any throw. But it's the simple throws -- the underneath routes, which he "babied" at times last season, or the comeback routes -- where he wants greater consistency.

The 6-foot-4, 220-pound sophomore-to-be has formed a quick connection with new Lions offensive coordinator John Donovan, whose approach reminds him of O'Brien's. Hackenberg also has been in touch with quarterback guru George Whitfield Jr., with whom he worked at the Elite 11 high school camp. Whitfield has tutored other Big Ten quarterbacks such as Michigan State's Connor Cook and Ohio State's Braxton Miller in the offseason.

Nothing is set yet, but if Hackenberg seeks outside assistance, he'd pick Whitfield.

"He's worked with the best of the best the past couple years coming out," Hackenberg said, "so being able to get comparisons to that and see what they did to prepare, that would be good."

Hackenberg also must vary his targets in 2014. Wide receiver Allen Robinson, who had more than three times as many receptions (97) as any other Penn State player last season, is preparing for the NFL draft. There are capable options like tight end Jesse James, who shined during Wednesday's practice, as well as tight ends Kyle Carter and Adam Breneman and wideout Geno Lewis, but none likely can come close to Robinson's production.

"Allen was a guy I really leaned on because I honestly didn't know what to expect a lot of the times last year," Hackenberg said. "I was seeing things for the first time -- going to the Horseshoe for the first time, going against Ohio State’s defense for the first time, seeing Michigan here in a whiteout for the first time. So when you're in those situations, you tend to lean on guys you’ve worked with, and Allen and I worked really hard in the summer together.

"Now I look at myself as filling in Allen's shoes because we have a lot of guys coming in. I just want to be a guy who can help put those guys in situations to succeed. I really want to spread the ball around this year."

New PSU coach James Franklin sees Hackenberg as a smart, demanding player who brings more athleticism to the field that many believe. Hackenberg clocked a 4.7 in the 40-yard dash during Penn State's recent testing.

Franklin and his staff face plenty of challenges on offense, primarily a line with glaring experience and depth issues. But the Lions undoubtedly have their centerpiece.

"He's got a chance to be a special player," Franklin said of Hackenberg. "We're just going to have to keep developing him here over the next three years."

Phase 2 begins this fall.
The best offenses can threaten defenses at the quarterback, running back and wide receiver positions. Brian Bennett on Tuesday examined the triple-threat combinations from the Big Ten's new West Division.

Now let's turn our attention to the East Division and rank the triple-threat combinations. The division is strong at quarterback but lacking elite wide receivers.

1. Indiana

QB Nate Sudfeld, RB Tevin Coleman, WR Shane Wynn

The Hoosiers featured the league's No. 2 offense in 2013 and top this list even though top receiver Cody Latimer bolted for the NFL draft. They have two options at quarterback, but Sudfeld, who had nearly 1,400 more passing yards than teammate Tre Roberson, gets the nod here. Coleman brings explosiveness to the backfield after rushing for 958 yards and 12 touchdowns in only nine games. Wynn finished near the top of the league in receiving touchdowns (11) and had 46 receptions for 633 yards.

2. Ohio State

QB Braxton Miller, RB Ezekiel Elliott, WR Devin Smith

You would think a team with the back-to-back Big Ten offensive player of the year at quarterback would be rated higher, but the Buckeyes lose a huge piece at running back in Carlos Hyde, as well as top receiver Corey Brown. Elliott, who had 262 rushing yards last season, is competing for the starting position this spring. Smith has been Miller's big-play target throughout his career and had eight touchdown catches and averaged 15 yards per reception last fall. Tight end Jeff Heuerman provides another weapon in the pass game.

3. Michigan State

QB Connor Cook, RB Jeremy Langford, WR Tony Lippett

The skinny: A year ago, Michigan State's offense looked like a mess. Cook began the season as the backup but emerged to lead the Spartans to nine Big Ten wins, all by double digits, and a Rose Bowl championship. Langford answered Michigan State's running back questions with 1,422 yards and 18 touchdowns. There's no true No. 1 receiver on the roster, and while Macgarrett Kings (513 receiving yards in 2013) could claim the role, Lippett gets the nod after leading the team in receptions (44) and finishing second in receiving yards (613) last year.
4. Penn State

QB Christian Hackenberg, RB Zach Zwinak, TE Jesse James

The Lions have the Big Ten's top pocket passer in Hackenberg, the league's freshman of the year in 2013. But Hackenberg loses his favorite target in Allen Robinson, and wide receiver is a major question entering the fall. The tight end position looks much stronger with James, Kyle Carter and Adam Breneman. Penn State also has options at running back, but Zwinak has led the team in rushing in each of the past two years, finishing with 989 yards and 12 touchdowns last fall.

5. Maryland

QB C.J. Brown, RB Brandon Ross, WR Stefon Diggs

Don't be surprised if Maryland finishes higher on the postseason triple-threats list as long as their top players stay healthy, which is hardly a guarantee after the past two seasons. Brown is a veteran dual-threat player who had 2,242 passing yards and 13 touchdowns last year. Ross leads a potentially deep group of running backs after leading the team with 776 rushing yards. Although Levern Jacobs led Maryland in receiving last year and returns, Diggs is the team's top threat after averaging 17.3 yards per catch before a season-ending injury in October.

6. Michigan

QB Devin Gardner, RB Derrick Green, TE/WR Devin Funchess

Gardner is capable of putting up some big numbers, as he showed last year, but he loses top target Jeremy Gallon. The run game is a major question mark for new coordinator Doug Nussmeier, although hopes are high for Green, a heralded recruit who had 270 rushing yards as a freshman. At 6-5 and 230 pounds, Funchess is a tight end who plays like a wide receiver. He finished second on the team in receptions (49), receiving yards (748) and touchdowns (6).

7. Rutgers

QB Gary Nova, RB Paul James, TE Tyler Kroft

New coordinator Ralph Friedgen tries to spark an offense that finished 77th nationally in scoring and 95th in yards last season. Nova is competing this spring to retain the starting job, which he has held since the middle of the 2011 season. James averaged 5.6 yards per carry last season and can be very effective when healthy. Rutgers is scrambling at bit at the wide receiver position but returns a solid option at tight end in Kroft, who led the team in both receptions (43) and receiving yards (573) last fall.

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. – We’ve reached Day 2 of this week’s countdown, which is centered on the top position battles to keep an eye on this spring.

Up today is a position battle that’s actually a positive for the Nittany Lions …

No. 4 position battle: Tight ends

[+] EnlargeAdam Breneman
David Dermer/Diamond Images/Getty ImagesPenn State's Adam Breneman is battling with older players for playing time at tight end.
Departures: Matt Lehman (2 catches, 17 yards; injured in Week 1)

Returning players: Adam Breneman (15 catches, 183 yards), Kyle Carter (18 catches, 222 yards), Jesse James (25 catches, 333 yards), Brent Wilkerson (missed season with injury), Mike Gesicki (incoming freshman)

Breaking it down: This is not a position of concern. Quite the contrary, actually. Tight end is the deepest position on the offensive side of the ball, and the Nittany Lions have three solid players here in Breneman, Carter and James. But who’ll finish the season with the most catches? Who’ll wind up as Christian Hackenberg’s top threat?

Each of those three players will be battling this spring to become that No. 1. Two seasons ago, Carter seemed like he was on pace to be the Big Ten tight end of the year before an injury derailed his hopes. He boasted the best hands on the team, but his wrist was still taped up during a Monday weightlifting session. Last season, James was the top option -- and he provides an excellent red-zone target with his height of 6-foot-7. And then there’s Breneman, the up-and-coming tight end who’s a great friend of Hackenberg’s and who might have boasted the best chemistry with the young QB. They all have their own strong points, and this should definitely be an interesting position battle.

When you take Allen Robinson out of the equation, tight ends caught 41.6 percent of passes last season and 42.5 percent of throws the year before that. This group should make a big splash, but it’s still unknown who’ll lead them.

Pre-camp edge: James. He was the top target last season, so it’s fair to say he has the edge right now. He has a great blend of size and speed, and this could be his breakout year now that Robinson is headed to the NFL. Breneman still has work to do -- namely improving his blocking -- to become an every-down tight end, so this spring race seems like it would be between Carter and James. Carter has the potential, but there’s no telling whether the terrific 2012 version will show up. As a result, right now, James has to be considered the leader.

More position battles to watch:

No. 5: Kicker
We're taking snapshots of each position group with each Big Ten team entering the spring. The wide receivers and tight ends are up next.

Illinois: The Illini are looking for more from this group after losing top target Steve Hull, who exploded late in the season to finish just shy of 1,000 receiving yards. While running back Josh Ferguson (50 catches in 2013) will continue to contribute, Illinois could use a boost from Martize Barr, who arrived with high expectations but only had 26 receptions last fall. Another junior-college transfer, Geronimo Allison, could make an impact beginning this spring, but there's some mystery at wideout. Illinois looks more solid at tight end with seniors Jon Davis and Matt LaCosse.

Indiana: Despite the somewhat surprising early departure of All-Big Ten selection Cody Latimer, Indiana should be fine here. Shane Wynn is the veteran of the group after recording 633 receiving yards on 46 catches last season. Kofi Hughes and Duwyce Wilson also depart, so Indiana will be leaning more on Nick Stoner and Isaiah Roundtree. The Hoosiers have high hopes for early enrollee Dominique Booth, a decorated recruit who could fill Latimer's spot on the outside. Productive tight end Ted Bolser departs and several players will compete, including early enrollee Jordan Fuchs.

Iowa: Almost all the wide receivers are back from a group in which none eclipsed more than 400 receiving yards in 2013. Balance is nice, but separation could be nicer for the Hawkeyes this spring. Kevonte Martin-Manley is the most experienced wideout and has 122 career receptions. Tevaun Smith also returns, and Iowa fans are excited about big-play threat Damond Powell, who averaged 24.2 yards on only 12 receptions last season. Iowa loses its top red-zone target in tight end C.J. Fiedorowicz and will need Jake Duzey to deliver more Ohio State-like performances.

Maryland: When the Terrapins get healthy, they might have the Big Ten's best wide receiving corps. Stefon Diggs and Deon Long, both of whom sustained broken legs against Wake Forest last season, have the ability to stretch the field as both averaged more than 15 yards per reception before the injuries struck. Leading receiver Levern Jacobs also returns, alongside junior Nigel King and sophomore Amba Etta-Tawo, who averaged more than 16 yards per catch in 2013. Marcus Leak, who started seven games in 2012, rejoins the team after a year away. The Terps are unproven at tight end after losing Dave Stinebaugh.

Michigan: There's a reason why some Michigan fans want Devin Gardner to return to wide receiver for his final season. The Wolverines are thin on the perimeter after losing Jeremy Gallon and Drew Dileo. Redshirt sophomores Jehu Chesson and Amara Darboh are both candidates to start, and Dennis Norfleet could be the answer in the slot. But there's plenty of opportunity for younger players like Drake Harris, an early enrollee. Michigan's best pass-catching option, Devin Funchess, is listed as a tight end but plays more like a receiver. The Wolverines will be without their second-string tight end, Jake Butt, who suffered an ACL tear in winter conditioning.

Michigan State: Remember all the justified angst about this group a year ago? It has pretty much gone away as the Spartans wideouts rebounded nicely in 2013. Bennie Fowler departs, but MSU brings back its top two receivers in Tony Lippett and Macgarrett Kings, who showed explosiveness down the stretch last fall. Aaron Burbridge had a bit of a sophomore slump but provides another option alongside veteran Keith Mumphery, who averaged 16.6 yards per catch in 2013. Josiah Price leads the tight end group after a solid freshman season.

Minnesota: Here's a group to watch during spring practice, particularly the wide receivers. Minnesota has proven it can run the ball and defend under Jerry Kill, but the passing game was putrid in 2013, ranking last in the Big Ten and 115th nationally. Youth is partly to blame, and while the Gophers still lack experience, they can expect more from promising players like Drew Wolitarsky and Donovahn Jones. Senior Isaac Fruechte provides a veteran presence. Minnesota looks solid at tight end with sophomore Maxx Williams, the team's receiving yards leader (417) in 2013.

Nebraska: The Huskers lose a significant piece in Quincy Enunwa, who led the team in receiving yards (753) and had three times as many receiving touchdowns (12) as anyone else in 2013. Kenny Bell is set to recapture the No. 1 receiver role, which he had in 2012, and comes off of a 52-catch season as a junior. Nebraska must build around Bell this spring with players like the mustachioed Jordan Westerkamp, who had 20 catches as a freshman, including a rather memorable one to beat Northwestern. Will Jamal Turner turn the corner this offseason? Juniors Sam Burtch and Taariq Allen also return. Cethan Carter started six games at tight end last fall and should take over the top spot there as Jake Long departs.

Northwestern: The passing game fell short of expectations in 2013, but there's reason for optimism as Northwestern returns its top three pass-catchers in Tony Jones, Christian Jones and Dan Vitale. The two Joneses (no relation), who combined for 109 catches in 2013, lead the receiving corps along with junior Cameron Dickerson. Speedy Rutgers transfer Miles Shuler provides a playmaking spark, possibly at slot receiver. Vitale, who had a somewhat disappointing sophomore season, has All-Big Ten potential at the superback (tight end) spot. Although Northwestern rarely plays true freshmen, superback Garrett Dickerson, Cameron's brother, could see the field right away.

Ohio State: A group that drew heavy criticism from coach Urban Meyer two springs ago is stockpiling talent. Devin Smith is the familiar name, a big-play senior who has started each of the past two seasons and boasts 18 career touchdowns. Ohio State must replace top wideout Corey Brown and will look for more from Evan Spencer. Michael Thomas has stood out in practices but must translate his performance to games. This could be a breakout year for H-back Dontre Wilson, who averaged nine yards per touch as a freshman. Buckeyes fans are eager to see redshirt freshmen Jalin Marshall and James Clark, and incoming players like Johnnie Dixon could make a splash right away. Ohio State returns an elite tight end in Jeff Heuerman.

Penn State: The Lions have very different depth situations at receiver and tight end. They're looking for contributors on the perimeter after losing Allen Robinson, the Big Ten's top wide receiver the past two seasons, who accounted for 46 percent of the team's receiving production in 2013. Brandon Felder also departs, leaving Geno Lewis as the likeliest candidate to move into a featured role. Richy Anderson also returns, but there will be plenty of competition/opportunity at receiver, a position new coach James Franklin targeted in recruiting with players like Chris Godwin and Saeed Blacknall. Things are much more stable at tight end as the Lions return three talented players in Jesse James, Kyle Carter and Adam Breneman.

Purdue: If you're looking for hope at Purdue, these spots aren't bad places to start. There are several promising young players like receiver DeAngelo Yancey, who recorded a team-leading 546 receiving yards as a freshman. Cameron Posey also had a decent freshman year (26 catches, 297 yards), and Danny Anthrop averaged 18.4 yards as a sophomore. A full offseason with quarterbacks Danny Etling and Austin Appleby should help the group. Tight end also should be a strength as Justin Sinz, who led Purdue with 41 catches last season, is back along with Gabe Holmes, who returns after missing most of 2013 with a wrist injury.

Rutgers: The good news is tight end Tyler Kroft returns after leading Rutgers in both receptions (43) and receiving yards (573) last season. Kroft will immediately contend for All-Big Ten honors. Things are murkier at wide receiver, where top contributors Brandon Coleman and Quron Pratt both depart. Leonte Carroo took a nice step as a sophomore, averaging 17.1 yards per catch and enters the spring as the frontrunner to become the team's No. 1 wideout. Ruhann Peele is another promising young receiver for the Scarlet Knights, who boast size with Carlton Agudosi (6-foot-6) and Andre Patton (6-4).

Wisconsin: The quarterback competition will gain more attention this spring, but Wisconsin's receiver/tight end situation could be more critical. The Badgers lose Jared Abbrederis, their only major threat at receiver the past two seasons, as well as top tight end Jacob Pedersen. Players like Jordan Fredrick and Kenzel Doe must translate their experience into greater production, and Wisconsin will look for more from young receivers like Alex Erickson and Robert Wheelwright. Help is on the way as Wisconsin signed five receivers in the 2014 class, but wideout definitely is a position of concern right now. Sam Arneson is the logical candidate to step in for Pedersen, but there should be competition as the Badgers lose a lot at the position.
Tags:

Nebraska Cornhuskers, Ohio State Buckeyes, Penn State Nittany Lions, Wisconsin Badgers, Big Ten Conference, Illinois Fighting Illini, Iowa Hawkeyes, Michigan State Spartans, Michigan Wolverines, Football Recruiting, Indiana Hoosiers, Maryland Terrapins, Rutgers Scarlet Knights, Minnesota Golden Gophers, Northwestern Wildcats, Purdue Boilermakers, Adam Breneman, Allen Robinson, Kyle Carter, Jesse James, C.J. Fiedorowicz, Jacob Pedersen, Jared Abbrederis, Josh Ferguson, Kenny Bell, Devin Funchess, Devin Smith, Kenzel Doe, Ted Bolser, Aaron Burbridge, Cody Latimer, Kofi Hughes, Corey Brown, Shane Wynn, Richy Anderson, Chris Godwin, Jamal Turner, Jeremy Gallon, Jalin Marshall, Dan Vitale, Garrett Dickerson, Saeed Blacknall, Danny Etling, Dontre Wilson, James Clark, Austin Appleby, Drake Harris, Drew Dileo, Isaac Fruechte, Gabe Holmes, Quincy Enunwa, Jordan Fredrick, Danny Anthrop, Johnnie Dixon, Cameron Dickerson, Alex Erickson, Martize Barr, Amara Darboh, Geronimo Allison, Kevonte Martin-Manley, Geno Lewis, Tony Jones, Christian Jones, Justin Sinz, Nick Stoner, Steve Hull, MacGarrett Kings, Brandon Felder, Jake Duzey, Maxx Williams, Jordan Westerkamp, Donovahn Jones, Sam Burtch, Dominique Booth, DeAngelo Yancey, Josiah Price, Damond Powell, Brandon Coleman, Michael Thomas, Stefon Diggs, B1G spring positions 14, Amba Etta-Tawo, Andre Patton, Cameron Posey, Carlton Agudosi, Cethan Carter, Dave Stinebaugh, Drew Wolitarsky, Duwyce Wilson, Evan Spencer, Isaiah Roundtree, Jehu Chesson, Jordan Fuchs, Keith Mumphery, Leonte Carroo, Levern Jacobs, Marcus Leak, Matt LaCosse, Miles Shuler, Nigel King, Quron Pratt, Robert Wheelwright, Ruhann Peele, Sam Arneson, Taariq Allen, Tevaun Smith, Tony Lippett, Tyler Kroft

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Spring practice is still several weeks away, so we're bringing you a different countdown every week to try to make that time tick a little faster.

This week's countdown involves a look back at the past decade of recruiting classes, from 2004 on, and figuring out the five most impactful groups. Up today is a more recent class, so the names here will definitely ring a bell ...

No. 5 most impactful class: Class of 2011

Top prospects: DB Adrian Amos, DE Deion Barnes, RB Bill Belton, TE Kyle Carter, LB Ben Kline, OG Angelo Mangiro, WR Allen Robinson, OT Donovan Smith, DL Anthony Zettel

[+] EnlargeAllen Robinson
AP Photo/John BealeAllen Robinson came to Penn State as a two-star prospect. He left as one of the greatest wide receivers in school history.
Biggest surprise: Robinson. He came in as a two-star prospect with the second-lowest grade of the class, behind only OL Anthony Alosi. Three years later, he's leaving Penn State early as one of its greatest wide receivers ever. He set the single-season school records for both catches (97) and yards (1,432), and accounted for more than 46 percent of the Nittany Lions' passing offense in 2013. He was the team's best player this past season and the offense's top threat in 2012.

Impact player: Besides Robinson? Amos. There's some good variety to choose from here -- hence why this class is No. 5 -- and, although Amos struggled some as a sophomore, he's still the team's most athletic defensive back. He's going to finish his career as a four-year starter and, if he sticks with cornerback or starts off hot at safety, he should bounce back from that sophomore "slump." He's got a high ceiling and has the ability to to be an All-Big Ten player.

Why the class is important: Depth was not a strength for PSU in 2012 or 2013, and this class hit just where it needed to when it needed to. Take a look at who's currently behind some of the key players from this class. Imagine a 2013 receiving corps without Robinson or a 2013 offensive line that was forced to start Adam Gress and Garry Gilliam every game. How about a 2012 secondary led by Stephon Morris and ... Da'Quan Davis? Or a defensive line without Barnes and Zettel? If this class was a bust like 2010, the Nittany Lions would not have bounced back quite so strongly after the sanctions.

This was the class of the "Supa Six," and although that nickname's now gone along with A-Rob, there are plenty of players who'll turn out to be three- or four-year starters. Amos, Barnes, Carter and Smith are among them. This wasn't a flashy class when it signed -- only two ESPN 150 prospects were included -- but it's more than made up for that with its production and potential.

Looking to the past & future: TEs

December, 23, 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: Tight ends.

REWIND

Expectations entering the 2013 season: With five players set to contribute, this group was expected to be the deepest and one of the most talented on the team. It dubbed itself "TEU," after all. Kyle Carter was coming off a serious wrist injury, but Bill O'Brien tried to downplay that and -- if Carter was fully recovered -- many believed he would compete for the Big Ten's tight end of the year award. He barely missed the honor in 2012.

[+] EnlargeJesse James
MCT via Getty ImagesJesse James led Penn State tight ends in receptions, but for a group that labeled itself "TEU" it was somewhat of a disappointing season.
Many analysts pegged Jesse James as primed for a breakout season. Matt Lehman was looked upon as a solid contributor, Adam Breneman was seen as a bright prospect, and Brent Wilkerson was expected to contribute before a season-ending injury in the preseason.

How they fared: This group isn't calling itself "TEU" anymore. It's not that it played poorly -- because it didn't. But the tight ends just weren't utilized as much as expected.

Carter played in just nine games in 2012 but had a position-leading 36 catches and 453 yards. In 2013, Jesse James led all TEs with 25 catches for 333 yards. James did well, but his performance fell short of the kind of breakout season that was predicted. And Carter, overall, was a disappointment after a stunning 2012 campaign.

Breneman looked good toward the end of the season; Lehman missed 10 games with a season-ending injury.

What we learned: Just because a position's deep doesn't necessarily mean PSU will utilize it. There was talk of four tight end sets in the preseason but, with the injuries to Lehman and Wilkerson, that never materialized. PSU still had two solid TEs (and an up-and-comer in Breneman), but the offense almost entirely leaned on Allen Robinson. Brandon Felder still finished as the No. 2 target despite not seeing a lot of time toward the end of the season.

Grading the position: B. Yes, this group fell short of expectations. But match it up against any other group in the Big Ten, and it'd be difficult to find a deeper or more talented corps. It graded higher last season, but it still had an above-average performance in 2013.

FAST FORWARD

Key losses: Lehman. There's been no official word yet on whether Lehman will be granted a sixth year, but the odds are against it. Still, PSU will return a healthy Brent Wilkerson and add incoming freshman Mike Gesicki (Manahawkin, N.J./Southern Regional).

Position stock watch: Trending very upward. Outside of quarterback, there's no position where the stock should be higher. James is one of the better tight ends in the Big Ten, and Breneman is fast becoming an important target for Christian Hackenberg. If Breneman can improve upon his blocking, he could be an every-down threat.

And, of course, we haven't even mentioned Carter yet. He's a bit of a wild card this offseason. In 2012, he looked as if he would become one of PSU's best tight ends of the 2000s. The potential is there, but 2013 was clearly a step back. If can return to his 2012 form, it wouldn't be a surprise if we end up seeing those four TE sets in 2014.

Key to next season: Getting the ball to the TEs more. That's obviously not on the tight ends; it's on the play-calls by O'Brien and the decision-making by Hackenberg. The tight ends are more talented than most of the receivers so, it stands to reason, they should get the ball more. There's nothing this position needs to focus on as a group -- like the RBs need to focus on not fumbling -- but Carter needs to get his groove back, Breneman needs to block better and James needs to find more consistency. Overall, though, this group's in great shape.

What we learned: Week 13

November, 24, 2013
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Lessons learned from Penn State's 23-20 overtime loss to Nebraska in Week 13:

1. Running-back-by-committee is nice -- but not required. Bill Belton missed the game with an undisclosed illness and stood on the sideline in street clothes, so it was the "Zach Zwinak Show" on Saturday -- and he came through just fine. Zwinak carried the ball 35 times for 149 yards. But it wasn't the first time a Penn State tailback has been asked to carry the full load. Belton had 36 carries against Illinois while Zwinak was in the midst of his fumbling phase (at least we think it was a phase). So it's clear these tailbacks are conditioned enough to handle a heavy load. Obviously, neither guy can do this every game over a full season. But if one guy is injured for a week or two? Definitely not time to hit the panic button. Having two guys who can run like that definitely has to make the staff feel better about its depth at the position.

2. Special teams needs more than just coaching to improve. Bill O'Brien said last Saturday, following the win against Purdue, that maybe he needed to find hungrier players to put on the kick-coverage team. On Tuesday, he changed his mind and said he just needed to coach better. Well, Bo Pelini said the players were coached just fine, but PSU's special-teams units still had their worst combined performance of the season. Kenny Bell ran back a kick 99 yards for a TD, a punt return was fumbled, a punt was blocked, and an extra point was missed. It was a day to forget for the special teams and, clearly, something has to give there. Maybe O'Brien and Co. need to coach better, but maybe they also need to find more athletic run-ons for special teams, too.

3. Tight ends could be the answer next season. Senior Brandon Felder and redshirt freshman Eugene Lewis had games to forget for Penn State as wideouts. But, outside of Allen Robinson, the tight ends really showed up to play. Six-foot-7 TE Jesse James flashed some speed on a swing pass that turned into a 46-yard touchdown. TE Adam Breneman caught a nice touchdown pass. And Kyle Carter looked good at times, as well. If Robinson doesn't return next season -- and that's looking more and more like an inevitability -- then these tight ends might just be the future. Saturday's game could've been a glimpse of that.

4. There could be some hope for this defense after all. It's not time to break open the champagne or anything, but true freshman linebacker Brandon Bell played well. And the secondary didn't look completely lost against a receiving corps that Jordan Lucas called the best it would face all season. The defense surrendered just one touchdown -- special teams allowed the other -- and, if it can string together more bend-don't-break games like that, then fewer fans are sure to call for the head of defensive coordinator John Butler. It was a positive step. The defensive line got great pressure on Nebraska, and that seemed to be key.

Week 10 helmet stickers

November, 3, 2013
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Recognizing the best and the brightest from the Nittany Lions in Week 10:

RB Bill Belton: Yes, he fumbled 2 yards short of the end zone late in the fourth. But, if it wasn't for Belton, there's no way Penn State would have won this game. He carried the ball a career-high 36 times Saturday and rushed for a career-high 201 yards. He averaged 5.6 yards a carry, caught two balls for 8 yards and was the biggest threat on this offense -- and, yes, even over A-Rob. He's the most improved player on this offense, and that was on display Saturday. Decisions don't come much easier than this one: Belton gets a helmet sticker.

WR Allen Robinson: Another game, another 100-yard day. Robinson hauled in 11 catches for 165 yards, which means he accounted for 55 percent of Hackenberg's completions and 69 percent of his passing yards. He turned one bubble screen into a 47-yard gain, and he's done a remarkable job coming down with jump balls this season. Robinson is nearly a lock to get a helmet sticker every week, and the Illinois game was no exception.

QB Christian Hackenberg and TE Kyle Carter: Hackenberg calmly led his team downfield -- twice -- in the final five minutes of regulation to tie the game. Carter? Well, he stepped up when it counted most. Hackenberg delivered a perfect ball to Carter on third-and-11 from the 15 for the game-winning score in overtime. Carter found the soft spot of the defense, ran a great route and held on. Hackenberg delivered a ball that, Bill O'Brien said, might've been an interception had it been six inches off. That's how accurate Hackenberg was on that pass. Some standout plays earn players helmet stickers, and that was one.

Safety Ryan Keiser: So, um, about those standout plays. Keiser is still recovering from hand surgery -- but he made the game-sealing interception in overtime. PSU's defense didn't play great ... but how can you not give Keiser some credit for that? Adrian Amos tipped the ball, and Keiser showed enough awareness to bring it down. It was a memorable play, one that made sure the game wasn't going past one overtime.

Win shows PSU gutsy, not yet great

November, 2, 2013
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STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Offensive guard Miles Dieffenbach watched the referees walk back the go-ahead touchdown in overtime. He watched the points disappear off the scoreboard.

He couldn't have been blamed for harvesting a few doubts at that point. Blame the inevitable loss on dumb luck, a holding call, or take solace in an eventual field goal. But Dieffenbach said this team's been through some hard times -- through players leaving, unprecedented sanctions, a 63-14 thumping against OSU -- so playing against the odds in a simple overtime game? He didn't dwell.

For Penn State, it was just more of the same old, same old.

Dieffenbach turned to his freshman quarterback in the huddle, on third-and-11 from the 15, and told him he was moments from throwing the game-winning TD. Other offensive linemen patted his helmet and told him similarly. Dieffenbach just remembered Christian Hackenberg smiling back -- seconds before finding tight end Kyle Carter on a 15-yard touchdown strike, minutes before an interception would seal another Penn State comeback win.

[+] EnlargeKyle Carter
Matthew O'Haren/USA TODAY SportsPSU tight end Kyle Carter hauls in a 15-yard touchdown catch in overtime.
"Hell of a ride, know what I mean?" Dieffenbach said, shaking his head. "There are some crazy games we've had in the past. I have all the trust in Christian; I tell him that all the time. I wouldn't expect anything less. I expect us to win those games."

This win didn't say Penn State's a great team. It didn't even say that PSU's a good team. Bill O'Brien took the dais after the game, shook off any notion of this being a fortunate win -- "You're fortunate to win the lottery," he countered -- and said he still thinks Penn State has a chance to be a good football team.

Carter, who admittedly made the play of his career, agreed. Penn State is not a great team. Not yet. But it's getting there.

"We're not there yet. We haven't proved yet that we're a great team," he added. "Great teams beat other great teams. And we just got to definitely keep doing what we're doing."

But that's not say this win meant nothing, that it should be filed away and not celebrated. The Nittany Lions did prove one fact beyond a reasonable doubt on Saturday afternoon, in front of fans bundled up in winter jackets and praying the rain would hold off: You can never count Penn State out.

Trailing by a field goal, with about five minutes left, O'Brien's squad drove 69 yards before a fumble on the 2-yard line halted the drive. For most teams, that would've spelled game over. For Penn State, it just meant a win would take a little longer. Hackenberg spent time on the sideline calmly talking with Richy Anderson and Bill Belton; he told the media, at that point, he knew the game wasn't over.

"We got scrappers," he said.

PSU's struggling defense held Illinois to a three-and-out. And, then, PSU got the ball back at midfield with no timeouts and 1:44 left. Just like two games ago against Michigan, PSU knotted the game up at the end of regulation. And just like two games ago, the Lions sprinted on the field in ecstasy at the end of overtime -- but not in disbelief.

Dieffenbach said he expected this. He put his arm around the smiling freshman quarterback and told him he loved him. Right tackle Garry Gilliam patted Hackenberg on the shoulder and bobbed his head before sprinting toward the railing to high-five the student fans. Adam Breneman and Brian Gaia embraced.

Illinois had a bowl bid on the line. Penn State, on paper, had nothing really. Except pride. But like the scrappy, hard-headed boxer who gets beaten down time and time again, Penn State bounced right back up.

The defense took a beating at times. The offense struggled in the red zone. But, just when the bout seemed lost, when these Lions were down for the count, they delivered a knockout blow and grabbed the unlikely win.

This isn't a great team, but it sure is a gutsy team. The win doesn't say it's good either, but it does say -- with a large, bolded exclamation mark -- that it is something else.

"It does say we're resilent," Carter said. "We're a resilient bunch of guys."

Injury impact: Big Ten

October, 24, 2013
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Injuries are an unfortunate part of the game. Every team must deal with them, but some teams get hurt harder than others. Today, we're taking a look at the teams that have been impacted the most this season. Here's our ranking of the top three:

1. Northwestern: Injuries have played a major role in the Wildcats' 0-3 start in Big Ten play. All-American kick returner and star tailback Venric Mark has been healthy enough to play exactly one full game -- against Ohio State. Quarterback Kain Colter has been banged up just about all season as well. Both were reinjured at Wisconsin and missed all of last week's loss to Minnesota. In addition, top defensive tackle Sean McEvilly has played in only three games, while starting cornerback Daniel Jones suffered a season-ending knee injury in the opener at Cal.

2. Penn State: The Nittany Lions had major depth issues to begin with because of NCAA sanctions. It hasn't helped that they have also dealt with a series of injuries. Tight ends Matt Lehman and Brent Wilkerson and defensive end Brad Bars were lost for the season. Linebacker Mike Hull was hurt for most of the first two months, as was tight end Kyle Carter. Wide receiver Brandon Felder missed the Indiana loss with an ankle problem. Linebacker Ben Kline has been limited after offseason shoulder surgery. Safety Ryan Keiser has been dealing with a hand injury since the Kent State game. This team can't afford many more injuries as it approaches the homestretch of the season.


3. Nebraska: The Huskers' injury problems haven't adversely affected them -- at least not yet. Still, it's never easy when you lose your four-year starting quarterback, and Taylor Martinez hasn't played since Week 3 versus UCLA because of turf toe. He could be back this week, but All-American guard Spencer Long was lost for the season in the last game against Purdue with a knee injury. He'll be tough to replace.

Penn State picks up commitment No. 13 

October, 17, 2013
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Penn State doesn’t play Ohio State on the field for another week.

Off the field, the Nittany Lions scored a big win over the Buckeyes with commit No. 13 in the 2014 class.

Why Penn State, OSU fit for Gesicki 

October, 15, 2013
10/15/13
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One question has been making the rounds in Columbus, Ohio, and State College, Pa., this week, and it has gathered steam since Penn State’s improbable 43-40 quadruple overtime win over Michigan.

It’s a question many are asking and one that has the interest of the Big Ten.

What will tight end Mike Gesicki (Manahawkin, N.J./Southern Regional) do on Friday when he announces between Ohio State and Penn State?

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What we learned: Week 6

October, 6, 2013
10/06/13
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Lesson learned (the hard way) from Penn State's 44-24 loss at Indiana in Week 6:

1. The issues with the pass defense are real and worrisome: Penn State players didn't want to relive their loss to UCF this week when talking about Indiana. But the defense went out and basically repeated the same performance against the pass. The Hoosiers have a legitimately powerful aerial attack and possibly the best overall receiving corps in the Big Ten. Still, the Nittany Lions -- outside of an Adrian Amos interception off a tipped ball -- were mostly unable to make stops, harass the quarterback or deflect balls in the air. Indiana threw for 336 yards -- or 48 more yards than UCF managed in its win at Beaver Stadium -- and scored 31 points in the second half. There just aren't enough playmakers on the entire defense, as Deion Barnes has been held in check, and linebacker Mike Hull is battling through injury.

2. Allen Robinson needs some help: Robinson was nearly Superman against Indiana, catching 12 passes for 173 yards and two touchdowns. But he can't do it all alone. The Nittany Lions' second-leading receiver, Brandon Moseby-Felder, did not play Saturday because of an ankle injury, putting more pressure on the other receivers and tight ends to deliver. It was good to see Kyle Carter healthy and adding six catches for 79 yards, but no one else had more than 35 yards receiving. Penn State's vaunted tight end corps has dealt with injuries and hasn't been the weapon we expected in the preseason. Head coach Bill O'Brien also was too quick to go away from the running game against an Indiana team that was last in the Big Ten in rush defense. When Christian Hackenberg is throwing 55 passes and completing only 18 of them to people not named Allen Robinson, that's a problem.

3. It's not going to be easy: O'Brien has done such a great job of managing the sanctions so far that it was easy to think Penn State could avoid being crippled by them. But a 20-point loss to Indiana -- in a game the Nittany Lions trailed 42-17 with 10 minutes left -- was the worst loss of the O'Brien era and pointed to troubling depth and personnel issues. O'Brien mentioned in his postgame news conference that his team is competing with 61 scholarship players and 40 walk-ons, and when guys like Felder and Hull get hurt or aren't 100 percent, that makes matters even worse. With Michigan and Ohio State up next and Nebraska and Wisconsin closing out the schedule in back-to-back weeks, Penn State could be in for some more pain before this season is over.

Bye week to-do list: Penn State

September, 27, 2013
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At 3-1, Penn State is feeling relatively good during the bye week. Sure, its record could be better -- but the Nittany Lions lost to a good UCF team and already are ahead of where they were last season.

This is the perfect time to shore up some weak spots, heal up and regroup before the Big Ten season begins. Here are a few things Penn State needs to work on to take a step forward:

[+] EnlargeChristian Hackenberg
Matthew O'Haren/USA TODAY SportsFreshman quarterback Christian Hackenberg needs more pass catchers to step up.
1. Find a solid No. 2 receiving target. Allen Robinson is the most dangerous receiver in the Big Ten, but the Nittany Lions' passing attack can't rely just on him. When Kent State shut him down in the final three quarters, Christian Hackenberg went just 6-of-25 with an interception. And Big Ten opponents undoubtedly will focus on the receiver come passing downs. That means someone else -- anyone else -- needs to step up. Brandon Moseby-Felder had six catches in each of the first two weeks but had 39 yards combined in the last two weeks. Only one other target has caught more than three balls in a game, and that's true freshman Adam Breneman -- who has just five catches total this season but had four for 22 yards vs. UCF. Penn State has to hope Kyle Carter returns to his old self in a hurry, Eugene Lewis takes a giant step forward or Moseby-Felder can form more consistency. A-Rob can't do it all.

2. Tighten up the secondary. OK, sure, PSU shut out Kent State and limited Colin Reardon to a QBR of 9.4. But PSU's next opponent, Indiana, has a high-powered passing attack that more closely resembles UCF -- and the Lions did not fare well against the Knights. Wideout-turned-cornerback Trevor Williams was targeted repeatedly early in that game, as UCF threw short when he played off receivers and threw longer when he played tight. Defensive coordinator John Butler eventually benched Williams and slid safety Adrian Amos to his spot, and Butler again will have to gameplan around another good offense in Indiana. Williams isn't the only issue here -- the young corner certainly has had bright spots this season -- but the secondary as a whole has issues that need to be ironed out during the bye.

3. Continue to improve on third downs. For the first three weeks of the season, no team in college football was worse on third down than Penn State. The Lions converted just four of 34 third downs, and nothing they did seemed to work. Bill O'Brien played it conservative by mostly calling run plays in Week 1, and the third downs didn't go well. Then he passed on eight straight third downs in Week 2, and it didn't go well. And then he mixed it up in Week 3, and it still didn't go well. PSU did better against Kent State by converting 7-of-18 ... but the opponent was Kent State. Penn State still ranks 120 out of 123 teams in the third-down department, and it can't expect to live off big offensive plays in the conference season.

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