Penn State Nittany Lions: Malcolm Willis

Thirty Big Ten players heard their names called during the 2014 NFL draft, but many others received phone calls immediately after the event. The undrafted free-agent carousel is spinning, and players from around the Big Ten are hopping aboard.

Unlike the draft, the UDFA list is somewhat fluid, and other players could get picked up later today or in the coming days. To reiterate: This is not the final list.

Here's what we know right now from various announcements and media reports:

ILLINOIS
  • LB Jonathan Brown, Arizona Cardinals
  • WR Ryan Lankford, Miami Dolphins
  • TE Evan Wilson, Dallas Cowboys
  • WR Steve Hull, New Orleans Saints
  • WR Spencer Harris, New Orleans Saints
Notes: Illini OT Corey Lewis, who battled knee injuries throughout his career, told Steve Greenberg that several teams are interested in him if he's cleared by doctors.

INDIANA
  • WR Kofi Hughes, Washington Redskins
  • RB Stephen Houston, New England Patriots
Notes: S Greg Heban and K Mitch Ewald have tryouts with the Chicago Bears.

IOWA
  • LB James Morris, New England Patriots
  • OT Brett Van Sloten, Baltimore Ravens
  • G Conor Boffeli, Minnesota Vikings
  • WR Don Shumpert, Chicago Bears
  • LS Casey Kreiter, Dallas Cowboys
MARYLAND
  • LB Marcus Whitfield, Jacksonville Jaguars
  • CB Isaac Goins, Miami Dolphins
MICHIGAN
  • LB Cam Gordon, New England Patriots
  • S Thomas Gordon, New York Giants
Notes: RB Fitzgerald Toussaint (Baltimore), DT Jibreel Black (Pittsburgh), LS Jareth Glanda (New Orleans) and DT Quinton Washington (Oakland) will have tryouts.


MICHIGAN STATE
  • LB Denicos Allen, Carolina Panthers
  • S Isaiah Lewis, Cincinnati Bengals
  • T/G Dan France, Cincinnati Bengals
  • WR Bennie Fowler, Denver Broncos
  • LB Max Bullough, Houston Texans
  • DT Tyler Hoover, Indianapolis Colts
  • DT Micajah Reynolds, New Orleans Saints
  • OL Fou Fonoti, San Francisco 49ers
Notes: LB Kyler Elsworth has a tryout scheduled with Washington.

MINNESOTA
  • LB Aaron Hill, St. Louis Rams
NEBRASKA
  • QB Taylor Martinez, Philadelphia Eagles
  • OT Brent Qvale, New York Jets
  • CB Mohammed Seisay, Detroit Lions
  • DE Jason Ankrah, Houston Texans
  • C Cole Pensick, Kansas City Chiefs
  • OT Jeremiah Sirles, San Diego Chargers
Notes: CB Ciante Evans has yet to sign but will do so soon. DB Andrew Green has a tryout with the Miami Dolphins.

NORTHWESTERN
  • WR Kain Colter, Minnesota Vikings
  • K Jeff Budzien, Jacksonville Jaguars
  • WR Rashad Lawrence, Washington Redskins
  • DE Tyler Scott, Minnesota Vikings
OHIO STATE
  • S C.J. Barnett, New York Giants
  • K Drew Basil, Atlanta Falcons
  • WR Corey Brown, Carolina Panthers
  • G Andrew Norwell, Carolina Panthers
  • G Marcus Hall, Indianapolis Colts
  • WR Chris Fields, Washington Redskins
PENN STATE
  • OT Garry Gilliam, Seattle Seahawks
  • LB Glenn Carson, Arizona Cardinals
  • S Malcolm Willis, San Diego Chargers
Notes: OT Adam Gress will have a tryout with the Pittsburgh Steelers.

PURDUE
  • DE Greg Latta, Denver Broncos
  • S Rob Henry, Oakland Raiders
  • G Devin Smith, San Diego Chargers
  • DT Bruce Gaston Jr., Arizona Cardinals
Notes: P Cody Webster will have a tryout with Pittsburgh.

RUTGERS
  • WR Brandon Coleman, New Orleans Saints
  • WR Quron Pratt, Philadelphia Eagles
  • LB Jamal Merrell, Tennessee Titans
  • DE Marcus Thompson, Miami Dolphins
  • S Jeremy Deering, New England Patriots
Notes: According to Dan Duggan, DE Jamil Merrell (Bears) and G Antwan Lowery (Baltimore) will have tryouts.

WISCONSIN
  • G/T Ryan Groy, Chicago Bears
  • TE Jacob Pedersen Atlanta Falcons
  • TE Brian Wozniak, Atlanta Falcons
  • DE Ethan Hemer, Pittsburgh Steelers
Quick thoughts: Martinez's future as an NFL quarterback has been heavily scrutinized, but Chip Kelly's Eagles are a fascinating destination for him. Whether he plays quarterback or another position like safety, Kelly will explore ways to use Martinez's speed. ... The large Michigan State contingent is still a bit startling. The Spartans dominated the Big Ten, beat Stanford in the Rose Bowl, use pro-style systems on both sides of the ball and had just one player drafted. Bullough, Allen and Lewis all were multiple All-Big Ten selections but will have to continue their careers through the UDFA route. ... Colter certainly looked like a draft pick during Senior Bowl practices in January, but that was before his ankle surgery and his role in leading the unionization push at Northwestern. I tend to think the injury impacted his status more, but NFL teams have been known to shy away from so-called locker-room lawyers. ... Other Big Ten standouts like Jonathan Brown, Morris and Pedersen were surprisingly not drafted. Morris should be a great fit in New England. ... Coleman's decision to leave Rutgers early looks questionable now that he didn't get drafted.
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- We’ve finally reached the end of this week’s countdown, which involves five predictions for the spring.

Up today is a look at who’s going to step up into a leadership role …

[+] EnlargeJordan Lucas
Zuma Press/Icon SMIThe evolution of Jordan Lucas' game at Penn State has been evident.
CB Jordan Lucas emerges as the defense’s vocal leader

Jordan Lucas lacked confidence as a freshman. His friend and teammate, Stephon Morris, knew it. His father knew it. And he knew it.

But when Morris graduated, Lucas stepped up as a sophomore and put together the strongest season out of the defensive backs. (Sorry, Adrian Amos fans, those games at safety didn’t help.) Lucas is a charismatic person, not unlike his head coach, and his evolution has been pretty evident.

If there was any doubt about his work ethic or his confidence, that was put to rest in the last month. Not only did Bill Belton name Lucas as one of the team’s hardest workers last October, but strength coach Dwight Galt also praised the corner about a week ago for being a gym rat.

As for that confidence? Fans were treated to a glimpse of that during a memorable exchange at coach James Franklin’s signing day pep rally. Lucas was handed the microphone and skipped the usual “Thanks-for-coming” cliché by turning to PSU great LaVar Arrington and asking the crowd, “LaVar said it’s What-U?”

“LBU,” Arrington responded.

“You guys like that, LBU?” Lucas asked. “What about LBU and DBU?”

Lucas carried himself well, while Arrington and Franklin joked about the light-hearted exchange. “Jordan likes the microphone,” Franklin said. Added Arrington: “Jordan came out with his muscles and his tattoos, and he lost his mind.”

Safety Malcolm Willis was regarded as the secondary’s leader last season, and middle linebacker Glenn Carson stepped into a team leadership role. With those two gone, a new leader has to emerge -- and Lucas certainly seems ready for the role. Both Amos and Ryan Keiser aren’t very vocal, so the secondary needs someone in that department. And, as the defense searches for someone new to help lead, Lucas isn’t one to shy away from the task.

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
No. 2: Tarow Barney and De'Andre Thompkins make immediate impact

Penn State positions to improve: No. 1

February, 14, 2014
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STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- The end of this week's countdown is finally here. And if you're surprised by this top choice, then you just haven't been watching the past two seasons ...

No. 1: Safeties

[+] EnlargeRyan Keiser, Malcolm Willis
Evan Habeeb/USA TODAY SportsPenn State defensive back Ryan Keiser (23) has experience at safety, but he must improve to get on the field in 2014.
The players: Adrian Amos (50 tackles, six pass deflections), Ryan Keiser (38 tackles, 11 pass deflections), Jesse Della Valle (21 tackles), Malik Golden (eight tackles), Koa Farmer (incoming freshman), Marcus Allen (incoming freshman), Christian Campbell (incoming freshman)

Last season: This group has been the Nittany Lions' Achilles' heel for the past two seasons. Amos started 2013 as a safety while Trevor Williams tried his hand at cornerback. Neither fared well, however, and that experiment was abandoned midseason with Keiser taking over. Keiser didn't fare any better, and the safeties found themselves constantly out of position. A third-and-long play was no guarantee for a punt the next down, and better quarterbacks -- like Blake Bortles and Braxton Miller -- absolutely shredded this secondary.

What's missing: Ability. There's really no other way to put it. You could go with speed or athleticism or awareness, but all adjectives point back to that same simple trait: talent. Malcolm Willis was a really hit-or-miss player last season, but he was at least a team leader who knew the signals well enough to become the "quarterback of the defense." With his graduation, that won't be easily replaced either. Amos is a great corner, too, but he wasn't such a great safety.

Moving forward: It's not an easy exercise to even decipher who might be a safety next season. Amos didn't fare well, but the newest roster update still puts him at the position. Even Jordan Lucas could technically play the position. Those two are clearly the best cornerbacks, but the concern is obviously how much of a liability safety is with the team's top two DBs both at corner. Last season, PSU fared better with both at corner. This season -- who knows? One of the incoming freshmen could become a Day 1 starter, or maybe Golden takes over after a strong spring. Whatever happens, though, the most surprising move might be having two of the more experienced safeties -- Keiser and Della Valle -- both starting alongside one another. Both came to Penn State without scholarships and have impressed in that regard, but they're simply not a good season-long solution to PSU's issues at safety.

On the bright side, though, could Penn State's safety play really be any worse than it was the last two seasons?

Big Ten Wednesday mailbag

January, 22, 2014
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Winter stinks. Warm me up with some of your emails:

Darren from Spring Hill, Fla., writes: I'd appreciate your thoughts on Indiana's coordinator situation. I've also thought the pecking order in the BCS era is 1. SEC, 2. (3-way tie depending on year) Pac-12/Big 12/Big Ten; 3. ACC 4. Varies. So why would a coordinator leave IU for the same position at UNC (Littrell) ... is the ACC and, say, the Mountain West more appealing than a low-tier Big Ten school? Thanks.

Brian Bennett: While it's somewhat unusual to see a Big Ten coordinator leave for the same job at what is at best a mid-tier program in the ACC, we have to remember Indiana is not exactly a football power. The Hoosiers have been to one bowl game since 1993 and often play in front of a bunch of empty seats, and the program has not historically provided much of a springboard for coaches' careers. So if Seth Littrell wanted to move on after two very successful years, that becomes more understandable.

We also don't yet know the money situation here. Early reports said Littrell would also be named assistant head coach at North Carolina, which suggests a pay raise. Indiana has made a much bigger commitment to football in recent years but still isn't among the top-paying Big Ten schools when it comes to coaches' salaries. Perhaps the most interesting aspect here is that Littrell -- a former Oklahoma player with deep Sooners ties -- is leaving former Oklahoma coordinator Kevin Wilson's staff to join that of former Oklahoma State play-caller Larry Fedora.


Lachlan from Winterpeg writes: Hey BB, with the hiring of the new assistants at PSU, I see two that stand out to me. The defensive coordinator and the receivers coach. The defense last year had many ups and downs (mostly downs) and bringing in a guy that fielded a top-25 defense last year in the SEC brings in hope. On the other end, a receivers coach that has produced a couple of All-American receivers takes on the task of taking the remaining WR group for PSU that was lackluster last year, and trying to turn them into a threat in the passing game seems challenging. Which of these two do you expect to have a better handle on things being as both have issues to work with, depth with the defense and a group of unproven receivers on the other?

[+] EnlargeBob Shoop
Sean Meyers/Icon SMINew Penn State defensive coordinator Bob Shoop takes over a defense that loses just three starters and he should have plenty of talent to work with this season.
Brian Bennett: Just in terms of talent and experience to work with, new defensive coordinator Bob Shoop should have an easier go of things right away. Shoop -- whose brother, John, is Purdue's offensive coordinator, giving us a Big Ten Shoop-Shoop -- led a Vanderbilt defense that really was the backbone of that team during its nine-win seasons each of the past two years. While Penn State's defense had its struggles in 2013, the unit loses only three starters (DaQuan Jones, Glenn Carson and Malcolm Willis). Shoop will need to develop leaders on that side of the ball and improve the secondary, but there is talent in place.

Receivers coach Josh Gattis has a tougher assignment. No player outside of Allen Robinson really produced a whole lot at wideout for the Nittany Lions last year, and Brandon Felder is gone, too. Geno Lewis has solid potential but still needs polishing. Gattis will likely have to quickly coach up some incoming freshmen such as De'Andre Thompkins and Chris Godwin. The receiver group will have to make a lot of progress this offseason to give Christian Hackenberg some help. Remember, too, that head coach James Franklin has coached receivers in the past, and Penn State has also reportedly hired former Temple receivers coach Terry Smith for an unspecified role. So that position should get a lot of attention.


John from Minneapolis writes: Hey, Brian. In Monday's chat you answered a question about Philip Nelson and stated, " Nelson himself didn't light it up as a passer, but he might not want to run it as much as Minnesota seems to want from its QB. If that's the case, I have no problem with him transferring somewhere else." I understand what you're saying, but whatever happened to sticking with a commitment? It smells like weak character to me. That same attitude is why the divorce rate is 50 percent. That's it, thanks.

Brian Bennett: The problem is that commitment and loyalty too often is a one-way street in college sports. A player such as Nelson is supposed to fulfill his four years to the school, yet coaches can leave at any time and his scholarship is up for renewal every season? And Nelson will have to sit out a year unless he transfers to a lower level. The reality is that college sports is a business, and players have to look out for themselves. If Nelson believes his future will be better served by playing in a different system, more power to him.


Craig from Braintree, Mass., writes: The Gophers certainly are not in the top half of the B1G as far as budget, but they bought not only a quality head coach but a whole staff that will not be easily influenced by a few extra bucks. You have any thoughts about whether Jerry Kill and his staff deserve raises?

Brian Bennett: Kill made a reported $1.2 million last year, which is hardly chump change but still ranked as the lowest in the Big Ten. Minnesota officials said they would work on bumping up Kill's pay this offseason, and Kill would like raises for his assistants, too. After an eight-win season, that staff is definitely in line for some salary increases. The price of keeping a high-quality head coach in the Big Ten is escalating rapidly. The good news for the Gophers is I don't think Kill is looking to leave anytime soon.


Dave from Millstone, N.J., writes: So, Brian. We're BaAAaack. ... When is the date when you'll start covering Rutgers in the blog? We missed you since you bolted the Big East for the B1G -- now we're following you, haunting you, filling your dreams. We're coming; you can't stop it now. Oh, sure, you can change assignments and head to the ACC, where Andrea abandoned us to last year. But we will find you, no matter what. Now write one of you famous opinions on how RU will never be great. Go ahead, make my day! Seriously, looking forward to getting picked on by the big boys of the B1G for a few seasons before we take over. So when's the warm welcome start on the blog?

Brian Bennett: You made me laugh, Dave, so good job. I'm looking forward to reuniting with Rutgers and visiting Piscataway again. Maybe I should start increasing my workouts now in anticipation of hitting a grease truck. We typically incorporate new schools right after signing day. So look for coverage of the Scarlet Knights -- and Maryland -- in the Big Ten blog in just a couple more weeks.

Looking to the past & future: DBs

December, 30, 2013
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It's never too late -- or too early -- to see what we learned from this past season and also look ahead to next season. So, we've started breaking down each position on the Nittany Lions.

Up today: Defensive backs.

REWIND

[+] EnlargeAdrian Amos
Matthew O'Haren/USA TODAY SportsAfter switching from cornerback to safety and back to cornerback, Penn State's Adrian Amos could have a breakout season in 2014.
Expectations entering the 2013 season: The season before was such an awful one that many believed PSU had already hit rock bottom and that it couldn't possibly get any worse.

With Adrian Amos' move to safety, many took that as a sign that defensive coordinator John Butler was confident with the new cornerbacks (Jordan Lucas and Trevor Williams) and that this group wouldn't be the liability it was in 2012. Penn State was forced to play more zone coverage than it wanted to in 2012, but 2013 appeared as if the secondary could at least earn the status of "average." It wouldn't be a defensive strength, but it wouldn't be a complete disaster either.

How they fared: Maybe it wasn't a total disaster ... but it was close. Amos' position switch to safety was a total bust, and he was moved back to cornerback later in the season. The safeties were once again the Achilles' heel on the team and, despite returning both starters from 2012 (Malcolm Willis and safety-turned-linebacker Stephen Obeng-Agyapong), the position of safety somehow managed to take a step back.

Ryan Keiser caught the ire of fans quite a few times, and it wasn't unusual for a defensive back to be completely out of position. PSU didn't press often, the corners gave opposing receivers plenty of room and third-and-long wasn't an automatic prelude to a punt. This was the worst unit on the team -- by far. Again.

What we learned: Butler doesn't have a lot to work with here. CB Da'Quan Davis saw time early in 2012 but hasn't played much since. Wideout-turned-cornerback Williams was looked upon as the better option and, well, you know how Williams fared. He was pulled about six games into the season. Nearly all of the prime options in the secondary are underclassmen. Outside of Willis, PSU had to resort to former walk-ons at safety.

Grading the position: D. If this unit was average, Penn State might've been at least 9-3. But even teams like run-first Minnesota were able to pass on the Nittany Lions. Lucas was a nice surprise, but one nice surprise couldn't overcome missed expectations everywhere else. Amos admittedly didn't live up to expectations, the safeties were a mess, and there really wasn't a whole lot of good to say here.

FAST FORWARD

Key losses: Willis. He wasn't a great player, but he still helped other players in the secondary adjust. He was the quarterback of the defense and a vocal leader who helped the underclassmen. PSU probably will be able to replace his production, however. Can Keiser or Jesse Della Valle really be that much worse?

Position stock watch: Trending upward. Penn State had to hit rock-bottom in 2013; it had to. It really has nowhere to go but up. The cornerbacks should actually be above-average in 2014, and this could finally be the breakout season everyone was waiting for from Amos. Safety is obviously a huge concern but, once again, it really can't get that much worse.

Key to next season: Getting average play from the safeties. They don't have to be great, or even all that good. Simply being average would be a big step up. That being said, it might be difficult for this unit to improve that much. Malik Golden could be the answer, as he saw some significant time toward the end of the season. And it's always possible that a freshman could contribute here. Lucas can also play safety ... but that'd likely cause some head-scratching after the failed experiment with Amos.

Week 13 helmet stickers

November, 24, 2013
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Recognizing the best and brightest from the Nittany Lions in Week 13:

Tailback Zach Zwinak. When the Penn State offense started moving, it was usually because of Zwinak. He carried 35 times for 149 yards -- and he was never once tackled behind the line of scrimmage. His longest carry was only 11 yards -- and he still averaged 4.3 yards per carry -- so he was certainly consistent. He routinely carried a Nebraska defender or two. He has had quite the last three games. His rushing totals? 150, 149, 149. Give the man a helmet sticker.

Wideout Allen Robinson. Seriously, can we just move on with A-Rob's helmet sticker? He's Penn State's best player, so it's pretty self-explanatory what he's doing on this list. He came up with eight of Christian Hackenberg's 16 completions, and he wound up with a game-high 106 yards. He's good, really good, and if his inclusion on this list surprises you then, well, maybe you should just go back to watching soccer.

Tight end Jesse James. He makes this list mainly because of one dazzling play in which he turned a short pass into a 46-yard touchdown. He stiff-armed a Nebraska player, managed to stay in-bounds, and flashed some uncanny speed for a 6-foot-7 receiving target. Outside of Robinson, James had the most receptions (three) and receiving yards (56) on Penn State.

Penn State front-seven. OK, this is kind of cheating by including so many players, but it's deserved. The Nittany Lions got intense pressure on Tommy Armstrong Jr. and Ron Kellogg III all day and really helped to throw off their timing. Plus, when it was third-and-4 (or shorter) the defense really stepped up. The Cornhuskers were faced with third-and-short on five occasions and converted zero -- zero! -- of those attempts, including a trio of third-and-1 attempts. It made a huge goal-line stand on third-and-goal at the 5 to force overtime, and this was one of its best games of the season, especially when considering the opponent. It allowed quite a few yards and bent quite a bit, but it never really broke. It surrendered just one touchdown and three field goals. (Special teams allowed the other TD.)

Safety Malcolm Willis. It was Senior Day for the safety, and he came up with the first forced fumble of his career. He stripped the ball from Ameer Abdullah near the goal line, and Jesse Della Valle fell on it for the touchback. If not for that play, it could've been a completely different game. Willis also wound up with nine tackles and, although that's something you usually don't want to see from a DB, only one of his stops came on a pass. He was the last line of defense for a lot of Nebraska's runs.

Planning for success: Penn State

November, 21, 2013
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STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Senior center Ty Howle can feel his time in Happy Valley winding down.

He knows Saturday will be his final game inside Beaver Stadium. It'll be his last opportunity to ring the victory bell, the last time he runs out of that tunnel in a blue jersey and the last time he hears a fiery Bill O'Brien address the team from his own locker room.

He knows all that. But he just doesn't want to think about it.

[+] EnlargeNebraska
Rick Osentoski/USA TODAY SportsIf Penn State's seniors want to have a successful senior day, they'll have to slow down Nebraska RB Ameer Abdullah.
"It's bittersweet," he said. "We're looking forward to the opportunity to play Nebraska and play in front of Beaver Stadium again. But it's going to be tough knowing this is our last opportunity."

If Howle wants to end his final collegiate season with a winning record, it sure seems as if Saturday is the Nittany Lions' best opportunity. PSU has just two games left -- Nebraska this Saturday, Wisconsin next -- and the Badgers will be heavily favored.

So, this is the game PSU will have to win to clinch a winning season. Two losses put them at .500.

"I came here to win," Howle said. "That's one of the reasons I came to Penn State because, at Penn State, you're going to win. It means a lot."

The main player standing in the seniors' way for a positive sendoff is the Cornhuskers' Ameer Abdullah, a shifty 5-foot-9 tailback who's amassed 1,336 rushing yards (6.5 ypc) and is making his case as the Big Ten's offensive player of the year. Nebraska boasts a mediocre passing game and an OK defense -- but Abdullah?

He's basically Nebraska's answer to Penn State spark-plug Allen Robinson.

"A player of his caliber, it's really hard to stop a player that is as explosive as he is," safety Malcolm Willis said. "We just have to try to contain him. We have to make sure we're a very good tackling team come Saturday."

Willis, also a senior, is another one of the 17 players who will be honored Saturday afternoon. It'll also be his final time inside Beaver Stadium. And, like Howle, Willis reflected on his career and said time has flown by in Happy Valley.

He wants to go out a winner -- but there's that whole issue of first getting past Nebraska, whom these seniors have yet to beat.

"I don't think it's hit us yet that it's our last game at Beaver Stadium," Willis said. "But I'm sure all of us will be really, really emotional come Saturday."

Video: Penn State safety Malcolm Willis

November, 19, 2013
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Josh Moyer talks with Penn State safety Malcolm Willis about Saturday's game against Nebraska and his final game at Beaver Stadium as a senior.

Five things: Illinois at Penn State

November, 2, 2013
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The best way to move past a 63-14 loss is a win. It's as simple and as difficult as that.

The good news for Penn State is that Illinois has surrendered 137 points in the last three games, and the Nittany Lions remain the double-digit favorite. But, still, there's still a question of whether Penn State can move past last Saturday's loss.

A win here shows Penn State is down but not out. A loss? Well, that anonymous criticism Bill O'Brien hates so much certainly isn't going to get any quieter. Here are five things to keep an eye on:

1. How will this defense rebound? Last week's 63-14 embarrassment at Ohio State is likely still in the back of this defense's collective mind. They missed tackles, missed assignments and missed any chance of keeping that game close. There's not just one thing to watch on the defense Saturday afternoon -- it's the entire squad that will be under the microscope. O'Brien said the defense will simplify things against Illinois and, though he was short on details, linebacker Mike Hull believed they'd use fewer checks at the line. Said O'Brien: "I think we just need to let them go play."

2. New-look backfield: Bill Belton is now the starting running back; that much is certain. But what is Zach Zwinak's role with the team now? He fumbled twice on his last 11 carries, and O'Brien admitted those issues are a bit mental now. Does that mean Akeel Lynch will be used more? Well, it's anyone's guess at this point ... but it certainly doesn't seem as if Zwinak will play a big role. This is another chance for Belton to distance himself, and it might also be a bigger opportunity for Lynch.

[+] EnlargeJosh Ferguson
Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY SportsJosh Ferguson is Illinois' top running back and top receiver.
3. Impact of Illinois RB Josh Ferguson: He's averaging a team-best 5.5 yards a carry and has 361 rushing yards. He's also the Fighting Illini's top receiving threat with 361 receiving yards. Nathan Scheelhaase likes to spread the ball around, but Ferguson has a team-high 25 catches, three more than his No. 2 target. For Illinois to win, Ferguson will almost certainly need a huge game. Penn State's defense will have to be prepared for him.

4. Adrian Amos back at CB: This move is a long time coming. Wideout-turned-cornerback Trevor Williams was the weak link on a weak defense, and he's now been benched. Amos will move from safety back to Williams' spot, which means that the starting safeties this week will likely be Malcolm Willis and Jesse Della Valle. Ryan Keiser underwent surgery on his arm, so he's been practicing with a red jersey. Keiser will still play, but that injury is likely the main reason that Della Valle earned the start over him. Amos has been a bit of a disappointment at safety, so this game will help determine whether it's just the new position that handicapped Amos -- or whether he's taken a step back, a la Deion Barnes this season.

5. Christian Hackenberg putting mistakes behind him. He never recovered after last week's interception on the first drive, and he's coming off his worst performance of the season. It should be markedly easier this afternoon, as Illinois has the No. 74 passing defense, but he can't get down on himself if he struggles early. Illinois likes to blitz a lot, and Hackenberg needs to remain poised -- something that seemed to be sorely missing last week. We'll be able to tell a lot about Hackenberg's mindset based on the first few drives. He's done pretty well for a true freshman overall, but Penn State needs more out of him.

Penn State arrives at critical juncture

October, 11, 2013
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STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- The Nittany Lions have found themselves at a crossroads early on this season.

Expectations last year were low. Students walked around campus with "We Still Are ..." plastered on their T-shirts and in their minds. The team, held together by shoestrings and their dimple-chinned coach, came out of nowhere to capture the admiration of Big Ten coaches and the respect of many who sat in front of their couches on Saturday afternoons and watched the Nittany Lions pummel teams that many thought they'd get pounded by.

[+] EnlargeBill O'Brien
Abby Drey/Centre Daily Times via Getty ImagesBill O'Brien has seen more growing pains with his young team this season.
That's changed this season. Eight to 10 wins were expected. Christian Hackenberg was heralded as a savior before he moved in to a dorm. The group of tight ends smiled and referred to themselves as "TEU." The sanctions were wrongly thought to be behind them. And PSU has come out wheezing like a short-distance runner asked to run a marathon.

The defense, without Gerald Hodges and Michael Mauti, isn't the same. The tremendous story of a determined Matt McGloin has given way to a talented true freshman trying to find his footing. The lack of scholarships, whether or not O'Brien wants to keep discussing them, has impacted the team.

The narrative has clearly shifted. And it sure seems as if O'Brien and the rest of these Lions are aware of that.

Last October, on the Tuesday before the Ohio State game, O'Brien took the dais like he has every week and discussed the upcoming opponent. He was asked about the importance of the home game, just as he's always been. And this was his response on Oct. 27, 2012: "I think every game we play is a very important game here at Penn State. I would say that for every team. ... And this year we only get the chance to lay it on the line 12 times; 12 Saturdays. So every game for us is a very, very big game."

Contrast that with what a feisty O'Brien said on Tuesday before this weekend's contest against Michigan. A reporter asked if he needed to emphasize to this team not to buy into the hype, that this is just another game.

"No," O'Brien said. "We tell them, 'Look, this is an exciting opportunity. Penn State-Michigan. ESPN. 5 o'clock. 108,000 [fans]. You got Nittanyville going crazy over there.'

"It'd be crazy to think this is just another game."'

It would be crazy. This isn't just another game because this isn't last season. Fans' memories are shorter than coaching tenures nowadays and some of same ones who wait around at Damon's every Thursday in hopes for O'Brien's autograph after his radio show have logged onto message boards and spit venom about how Joe Paterno never would've lost to Indiana. And how defensive coordinator John Butler should be fired.

Penn State is 3-2 right now. That has to be stated because, by the looks of the record alone, it seems as if it might be premature to inch closer to the proverbial panic button. Well, it's not.

Stephen Obeng-Agyapong said after the UCF loss that the defense's performance was just a one-time mistake, a bad day. It wouldn't happen again. Then Indiana happened. And Eugene Lewis said on Twitter, "We going to be better promise that."

You can only believe so many times that it's going to get better. And that's why Saturday's contest against Michigan is paramount to the Nittany Lions. Win; and all the concern, all the message-board fodder, all the doubt -- that can be looked back upon and labeled an overreaction. Lose, and those generalizations and critiques seem about right, especially with a tougher Ohio State team up next.

O'Brien likes to say he's not a genie. He also said Tuesday he's no psychologist or psychiatrist. Well, he's no magician either. Different reporters, fans and analysts have their own ideas about why Penn State has struggled. It's the lack of leadership or the lack of talent or maybe a play-calling problem. Maybe it's a combination of the three.

But, whatever the exact issues are, the only panacea is winning. And O'Brien isn't the only one who knows that.

"Penn State vs. Michigan has always been a big-time game," safety Malcolm Willis said. "And I'd be lying to you to tell you it wasn't."

Planning for success: Penn State

October, 10, 2013
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STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Linebacker Glenn Carson wants redemption.

First he endured a loss to UCF where his defense gave up 507 yards. Then came Indiana, where the Hoosiers racked up 486 yards and 44 points. Penn State was favored in both games.

So Carson said earlier this week, from inside Beaver Stadium, that his teammates have been eagerly awaiting this matchup against Michigan. Nothing helps ease the sting of a loss quite like a victory against an undefeated team.

"We're hungry for a win," he said. "No one on our team likes the feeling after a loss. After the game, it's really tough for us to swallow."

Michigan is the first top-25 that Penn State has faced this season. The Wolverines have played about as inconsistently as the Nittany Lions, but they remain undefeated. They've made plays when they've had to; the same cannot be said of PSU.

Carson didn't believe those defensive struggles, those lack of big plays, could be traced to just one issue. But, to reverse his team's fortunes, he did emphasize another important aspect.

"I would just put it down to execution," he said. "Sometimes we're not just functioning as an entire whole. One person might miss an assignment here or there, and we're just not really going out and executing. We just need to play all 11 at once."

That's critical this week with Michigan quarterback Devin Gardner strolling into Happy Valley. A missed assignment in one place could lead to a touchdown in another. Gardner doesn't have the speed of a Denard Robinson, but Robinson didn't have the arm of Gardner.

Gardner is a true dual threat who -- when he's on top of his game -- is difficult to stop. He runs once for about every two times he passes, and he's sprinted for at least one touchdown in every game this season. And his QBR, in three out of five games, has hovered between 87.9 and 94.2.

"I think the thing you've got to try to do is really try to keep him in the pocket," coach Bill O'Brien said. "When he gets out of the pocket, he's very dangerous. Very dangerous."

Neither O'Brien nor Carson would offer details into just how PSU's preparing -- "I appreciate that question, but do you really think I'm going to tell you?" O'Brien said -- but Penn State's hoping the end result of this preparation winds up better than the UCF and Indiana games.

"Overall," safety Malcolm Willis said of the defense, "we feel like we can do better than we have."

Planning for success: Penn State

September, 12, 2013
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STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- DaQuan Jones has become accustomed to chasing down dual-threat quarterbacks in the Big Ten. There's been Braxton Miller and Taylor Martinez, Kain Colter and now Devin Gardner.

But the 318-pound defensive tackle has never started against a 3,000-yard pocket-passer in the BCS. Not until this coming Saturday against Central Florida.

Blake Bortles has thrown 217 passes without an interception. He tossed for 3,059 yards and 25 touchdowns last season. He's the best Central Florida signal-caller since Daunte Culpepper. Put simply, he's good. Really good. And Jones had to think when asked whether he was the best pocket passer his defense would face this year.

"I'm not really sure," Jones said. "I know he's a heck of a quarterback and he looks solid. … They're a very good offense. It'll be a challenge."

Whether Bortles is at the very top of the list is irrelevant. The fact is Bortles is the toughest test yet for this Penn State defense and, as Jones said, he'll be a challenge. Look at the stats, look at the film, look at the scouting reports -- and there really shouldn't be a question of that.

Even Bill O'Brien didn't try to downplay the kind of competitor his defense was up against.

"One thing you have to understand about their offense is that they have a really good quarterback," the head coach said. "It's hard to totally stop a guy like that, but you've got to try to contain him. He's very, very good. He's a pro prospect, Blake Bortles."

This isn't a Syracuse team littered with question marks, and it's not a powder-puff Eastern Michigan squad. It's a team that lost three of four games by six points or less last season. (It lost to Ohio State by 15; PSU lost to the Buckeyes by 12.) And it's a team that boasts a quarterback who currently holds a QBR of 90.6 -- nearly a full four points more than Johnny Football.

Safety Malcolm Willis knows this will test a still-young secondary. First-year starters Jordan Lucas and Trevor Williams have played well so far at cornerback, but they haven't faced an above-average quarterback yet. The safeties remain experienced, but coming away with a turnover in the passing game is far from a sure thing.

"From our film study so far, we got to be ready for anything," Willis said. "We got to make sure we're on the top of our game come Saturday."

Willis said the team's hope rests on searching for tendencies on film -- so it can contain Bortles, stop the passing game and come away with a win. In UCF's four losses last season, there definitely seemed to be a trend. Outside of the loss to the Buckeyes, when Bortles tossed a season-high three picks, the winning squad tended to get pressure on the quarterback.

Those three winning opponents combined for 10 sacks and a dozen quarterback hurries. And, against two of those teams, Bortles completed less than half his passes -- the only time last season he didn't reach at least 57 percent.

Either Jones or Willis will likely need to have a big game for PSU to win. They're leaders on this defense and if PSU's planning on celebrating Sunday morning, it'll have to stop Bortles Saturday night.

Video: Penn State DB Malcolm Willis

September, 11, 2013
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Josh Moyer talks with Penn State safety Malcolm Willis about the Central Florida offense and the secondary's expectations this season.
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Mike Hull didn't have any expectations when he strolled into his linebacker coach's office on a warm spring day, but he would leave with words that played on his mind for months.

[+] EnlargeHull
Rich Barnes/USA TODAY SportsMike Hull hopes his hard work and offseason dedication pays off this fall.
The redshirt junior, whose father and uncle both played for Penn State, would routinely reflect on past greats at Linebacker U every time he'd step inside his position coach's workplace. It was difficult not to. Ron Vanderlinden's office was littered with photos and blue-and-white jerseys of the past greats he tutored -- NFL players such as Sean Lee, Paul Posluszny and Michael Mauti.

Vanderlinden's decorating spoke louder than any résumé or award. Hull knew that. So, about a week before finals, when the seasoned coached leaned in and reflected on the past greats himself, Hull listened intently. And the linebacker coach shared a tidbit that Hull said, deep down, he already knew, but Vanderlinden forced it to sink in: You're next. Your jersey or photo will be in this office soon enough.

"It just hit me then," Hull told ESPN. "I've been playing since my redshirt freshman year, but I was never really 'the guy.' And he just made it clear it's my time to step up."

That feeling, that understanding, never left last season's No. 4 linebacker. After the graduation of PSU's two Butkus Award semifinalists in Mauti and Gerald Hodges, he's "the guy" now -- and he'll be depended on more than ever these next two seasons with a corps short on experience and shorter on depth.

Hull isn't a big talker. He won't regale the media with stories about big hits and future goals. He'll wear a slight smile and speak mostly in short, punctuated sentences. To Hull, actions speak louder than words. So he showed over the summer what those words from Vanderlinden meant.

After intense, two to two-and-a-half hour workouts, players would happily head back to their dorms or apartments. Their legs would ache, pools of sweat would slide down their backs, and they didn't feel much like doing anything except, fellow linebacker Glenn Carson said, maybe take a nap. "Usually, you just want to go home," Carson added.

But Hull would linger after those workouts and head right back to the field. He'd bend over the football sled and pile on five or six plates -- about 300 pounds -- before dragging it across the gridiron. Thirty yards, then 25 yards, then 20 yards to work on his burst. He'd do that for 15-30 minutes.

His teammates would furrow their brows and contort their faces upon seeing Hull stack the sled up with twice as much weight as they were used to. Hull got a kick out of it all.

"They'd look at me like I was a little bit crazy," Hull said with a laugh. "That's what it takes if you want to be good, I guess."

Added coach Bill O'Brien: "Yeah, Mike Hull is one of the best football players on our team. ... He's a guy that means a lot to this football team."

Pick a randon player from Penn State's roster and ask him who had the best offseason. Chances are good that he'll say Hull. The outside linebacker, along with offensive guard John Urschel, received the most nods in a random sampling of eight players. Urschel said Hull was poised for a breakout season, Carson praised his strength, and Malcolm Willis mentioned Hull as a "guy who works his butt off."

It's not difficult to see why. Former defensive coordinator Tom Bradley once tried him out at safety after he ran a laser-timed 4.6, and Hull out-lifted the likes of DT DaQuan Jones on the bench-press last year at 405 pounds. "Strength" and "speed" have become buzzwords in the college football lexicon, but Hull remains unique. After all, there aren't many linebackers who run like safeties and bench like defensive tackles.

"Mike Hull has made some big strides, and I think he's ready to be a big-time player in this conference," Urschel said. "I mean, you guys have seen some big things from him, and we know he's a very, very talented player. And I think you're going to see a breakout year from him."

Hull wouldn't say exactly what his expectations were for this season, nor would he list his goals. Maybe he doesn't have a certain number of turnovers he wants to force or triple-digit tackles he wants to make.

The Penn State linebacker kept it simple when asked, then, why he worked so hard and why those words from Vanderlinden stuck with him so much.

"I just don't want to accept failure," he said. "I don't want to leave anything out on the field."

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.

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