Penn State Nittany Lions: Malik Golden
1. How the offensive line performs. This unit will go a long way in determining Penn State's success this season. There's enough talent at the skill positions that the Nittany Lions could surprise again this year, but only if this battered line can hold up and hold its own. Neither guard Miles Dieffenbach, who's reportedly out for the season with a knee injury, nor tackle Andrew Nelson is expected to play on Saturday. Guard Anthony Alosi isn't listed on the roster, as he's facing criminal charges. And the status of center Angelo Mangiro is unknown.
2. Christian Hackenberg's ability to make any throw. Some analysts have already started wondering aloud if Hackenberg might be the No. 1 overall pick if/when he declares early for the NFL draft. Maybe that happens; maybe it doesn't. But the fact that's even being discussed now should give you an idea of his talent level.
He was one of the Big Ten's best passers last season, despite moving into Happy Valley just a few short months before the opener. His progress was pretty notable from Week 1 to the finale against Wisconsin. Bill O'Brien called running plays on third-and-long against Syracuse in the opener so he wouldn't put Hackenberg in a tight spot. Against 24-point favorite Wisconsin? Hackenberg was nearly perfect -- 21-of-30, 339 yards, 4 TDs, 0 INTs, 89.4 QBR -- and led the Lions to an upset.
Expectations were incredibly high for Hackenberg last season and he still managed to surpass them. After another few months on campus, he's bound to impress yet again. And it would be even more surprising if James Franklin didn't give fans something to cheer for by having Hackenberg lob a few deep balls in the Blue-White Game.
3. An improved secondary. This has been the Lions' Achilles heel the past two seasons, but it shouldn't be anymore. There will be an influx of talented freshmen this summer but, even before then, this secondary's stock is on the rise. Adrian Amos is much more comfortable at safety this season, and cornerback Jordan Lucas has been putting in a lot of work this offseason. Young players last year -- such as Malik Golden and Jordan Smith -- are evolving into good backups who could challenge for playing time. Trevor Williams and Ryan Keiser are really the questions here, but they have one more year of experience under their belts.
Amos has All-Big Ten ability, and his transition back to safety will be crucial to the defense. If he can read Hackenberg or catch up to a speedster like De'Andre Thompkins on Saturday, that can only mean good things for Penn State.
4. WR Thompkins and DT Anthony Zettel. You've seen the running backs and wideout Geno Lewis before. You know what Mike Hull and Jesse James are capable of. But this could be a coming-out party for both Thompkins and Zettel. Zettel has impressed the last two seasons, but he mostly played as a defensive end -- and now he's gained weight and moved inside. Zettel could be the surprise on the defense this season, as his speed certainly sets him apart. And, with a beaten-up offensive line in the Blue-White Game, he could have a field day. As far as Thompkins, he has been on campus three months but he's already the fastest player on the team. He needs to improve his hands and his route-running but, when he gets the ball, he's electrifying.
Every year, coach James Franklin said there are at least one or two surprise players who jump into the spotlight. So here’s a look at five current backups who could make an impact:
1. RB Akeel Lynch
2013 stats: 9 games played, 60 carries, 358 yards, 1 TD
Currently behind: Zach Zwinak, Bill Belton
Running backs coach Charles Huff said in January that a good system needs three good options on the ground. So Lynch will see an increased workload, and Franklin will have the ability to discover whether he has the talent to be the primary ball-carrier in 2015.
2. DE Brad Bars
2013 stats: Missed season due to injury
Currently behind: C.J. Olaniyan, Deion Barnes
Synopsis: Bars stood inside the Lasch Building last February and told the media that he felt 2013 would be a breakout year for him. He felt he could start or, at the very least, contribute heavily. But in July, Bars ruptured his Achilles’ tendon and was forced to miss the season. Franklin has repeatedly declined to address such injuries, but Bars’ initial rehabilitation plan was expected to end -- at the latest -- sometime in January. And the senior seemed fine on Monday when he sprinted during drills and took direction from the staff.
Bars won’t end up as a starter in 2014, but he could still see considerable playing time. Defensive line coach Sean Spencer likes to utilize a lot of different looks and rotations, and Franklin once again alluded to a scheme that would sometimes feature four defensive ends. With Anthony Zettel moving inside on a permanent basis, the Nittany Lions need some quality depth -- and Bars could be that answer. It might turn out that his prediction was just a year off.
3. S Malik Golden
2013 stats: 12 games played, 8 tackles, 1 pass breakup
Currently behind: Adrian Amos, Ryan Keiser
Synopsis: There are two ways this could go for Golden, and either way is significant. The redshirt sophomore could challenge Keiser for playing time this season -- or he could lose out. But, even if he doesn’t start, this season is no less important for his future. Both Amos and Keiser are seniors, so Penn State will need someone to step up in 2015.
There are plenty of freshman safeties enrolling over the summer, but Golden will obviously be the most experienced of that crew. He’s in a somewhat similar situation as Lynch, in that his play this season will determine whether he’s a future starter or just a career backup. He appears to be the next man up at safety, though, so he will see the field in 2014 -- it’s just a matter of how much and whether he can challenge Keiser.
4. CB Jordan Smith
2013 stats: 12 games played, 5 tackles
Currently behind: Jordan Lucas, Trevor Williams
Synopsis: Williams may be the projected starter at cornerback for now, but this position battle is far from decided. Lucas has taken Smith under his wing, not unlike Stephon Morris did for him, and Smith isn’t afraid to work. When he battled with insomnia in high school, he often did a couple hundred push-ups to pass the time. Also, it didn’t hurt that he trained with former NFL great Troy Vincent, either.
He wasn’t ready for a big role as a true freshman last season, but he’s definitely a player to watch as a sophomore. And he has the potential to follow in Lucas’ footsteps. As a sophomore, Lucas beat out a more-experienced player (Da’Quan Davis) for the starting job. Now, as a sophomore himself, Smith is hoping for the same.
5. OT Albert Hall
2013 stats: 5 games played
Currently behind: Donovan Smith, Andrew Nelson
Synopsis: Hall isn't just on this list because he’ll see a lot of playing time this season, or even in the future. There's more to him. He’s a converted tight end and a walk-on and is one of just four offensive tackles currently on the roster, and Franklin offered him a lot of praise on Monday.
“That guy is going to find a role on this team somehow,” Franklin said. "I’ve called him out in front of the team a number of times because I’ve been so impressed with him: His approach, his demeanor, his attitude.”
Hall should, at the very least, be an important member of the scout team -- and will likely see plenty of time on special teams. It’s not necessarily Hall's play that’s going to be important to this team. It’s the intangibles. There are a lot of walk-ons on this team, and Franklin only singled out Hall. So he’s definitely worth a second look.
Illinois: The secondary returns mostly intact from 2013, as Illinois returns starters at both cornerback spots (V'Angelo Bentley and Eaton Spence), as well as Zane Petty, who started the final seven games at free safety. Taylor Barton, who opened last season as a starting free safety, also is back. Building safety depth is important this spring as Illinois must replace Earnest Thomas III. Barton will compete with Jevaris Little and others for playing time. The depth is much better at corner as Darius Mosely and Jaylen Dunlap both saw significant action as freshmen last fall.
Indiana: Like Illinois, Indiana returns a lot in the defensive backfield but must improve after struggling to stop opponents in 2013. The Hoosiers also lose only one starter in safety Greg Heban, a mainstay during the past four seasons. There's a lot of experience at cornerback with returning starters Tim Bennett (senior) and Michael Hunter (junior), along with reserve Kenny Mullen (senior). Decorated recruit Rashard Fant, who redshirted in 2013, will compete for significant playing time. Senior safety Mark Murphy will lead the secondary, and sophomore Antonio Allen could fill the other safety spot when he returns from an ACL tear. Building depth here always is a priority at IU.
Iowa: The situation isn't as dramatic as the linebacker spot, but Iowa still must replace two productive players in cornerback B.J. Lowery and safety Tanner Miller, who combined for six interceptions in 2013. Lowery is the more significant loss, as he had 19 passes defended and three forced fumbles. The good news is Desmond King looks like a budding star and he will move into the featured role Lowery occupied. Jordan Lomax, Sean Draper and others will compete to start opposite King. Strong safety John Lowdermilk returns after a solid junior season. Lomax also could play free safety and will compete there with Anthony Gair and Nico Law, who both appeared in all 13 games last fall as reserves.
Maryland: The back four aims for better results on the injury front and on the field in 2013. Maryland returns both starters at safety in Sean Davis, the team's leading tackler with 102 last fall, and Anthony Nixon, but there should be competition behind them with A.J. Hendy and Zach Dancel. The cornerback position is worth watching this spring as Dexter McDougle departs and Jeremiah Johnson remains limited by a toe injury. Will Likely has opened the spring as a starter, and Alvin Hill could rise up after recording 24 tackles last season.
Michigan: The secondary took a step back in 2013 and all jobs are open even though Michigan returns two veteran cornerbacks -- Blake Countess and Raymon Taylor -- and some experience at safety. Jabrill Peppers, the nation's No. 2 overall recruit according to ESPN Recruiting Nation, will play a major role for the Wolverines this fall, whether it's at corner, safety or nickel. Junior Jarrod Wilson started the first seven games of last season at free safety, and Dymonte Thomas is a good candidate to start at one of the safety spots. Michigan should expect more from this group in 2014.
Michigan State: Will opposing offenses invade the No Fly Zone in 2014? Not if Michigan State can fill several spots, none bigger than Darqueze Dennard's at cornerback. Dennard, a unanimous All-American and the Jim Thorpe Award winner, departs to the NFL, and junior Trae Waynes slides into the featured corner role after a promising sophomore season. The competition opposite Waynes heats up this spring as Ezra Robinson, Darian Hicks, Jermaine Edmondson and Arjen Colquhoun compete. Free safety Kurtis Drummond boasts 21 career starts and enters 2014 as one of the league's top safeties. RJ Williamson likely will fill Isaiah Lewis' spot at strong safety, and Demetrious Cox provides depth.
Minnesota: Like the Gophers' defensive line, the secondary loses a huge piece in Brock Vereen, who played both safety and cornerback last season. But there might be enough returning pieces to fill the void. Cornerback Eric Murray had a very solid first season as a starter, and Minnesota also brings back Derrick Wells and Briean Boddy-Calhoun, both of whom have starting experience. Leading tackler Cedric Thompson and Antonio Johnson finished last season as the starting safeties, and both are back. Senior Grayson Levine provides some experience in a reserve safety role.
Nebraska: An important spring awaits new defensive backs coach Charlton Warren, who must identify new starters at cornerback, safety and nickel. The Huskers are replacing Ciante Evans and Stanley Jean-Baptiste, who combined for eight interceptions, 18 passes defended and 15 tackles for loss in 2013. Safety Andrew Green, who made 10 starts in 2013, also leaves. The good news is cornerback Josh Mitchell had an excellent bowl game and will fill a starting spot. Leading tackler Corey Cooper also returns at safety. There's not much experience at corner other than Mitchell, and Daniel Davie, Auburn transfer Jonathan Rose and others will compete. Nebraska brings back more at safety with Harvey Jackson, who made three starts in 2013, and junior Charles Jackson.
Northwestern: That the Wildcats' secondary could be one of the team's biggest strengths seemed laughable three years ago, but it could be true this fall. All four starters return, led by safety Ibraheim Campbell, one of the Big Ten's most productive defenders (262 career tackles). The depth at cornerback looks strong as starters Nick VanHoose and Matt Harris return, along with Dwight White and Daniel Jones, who opened 2013 as a starter and is coming back from an ACL tear. Traveon Henry should start alongside Campbell, and there are some promising young safeties like Godwin Igwebuike.
Ohio State: Pass defense proved to be Ohio State's downfall in 2013, and the Buckeyes' secondary will be under the microscope this spring as new assistant Chris Ash steps in. Ohio State loses All-Big Ten cornerback Bradley Roby and will lean more on Doran Grant, who started opposite Roby in 2013. Ash also expects big things from Tyvis Powell, who will start at one of the safety spots. Safety Vonn Bell finally logged significant playing time in the Orange Bowl and could become a permanent starter as a sophomore. Veteran Ron Tanner and Cam Burrows also are in the mix at safety. There should be good competition to start opposite Grant, as Armani Reeves tries to hold off redshirt freshmen Gareon Conley and Eli Apple.
Penn State: After a season of moving parts and inconsistent plays, Penn State hopes for a more settled secondary. Adrian Amos, who alternated between cornerback and safety last season, will lead the group and brings plenty of experience. Jordan Lucas likely will start opposite Amos at cornerback after making strides toward the end of his sophomore season. PSU loses some leadership at safety with Malcolm Willis and Stephen Obeng-Agyapong departing and will lean on Ryan Keiser and Jesse Della Valle, both of whom have starting experience. Converted wideouts Trevor Williams and Malik Golden provide depth at cornerback and safety, respectively.
Purdue: The rotation from 2013 returns almost completely intact, but Purdue loses a very big piece in cornerback Ricardo Allen, a four-year starter. Cornerback Frankie Williams enters his third year as a starter and will slide into Allen's featured role, while the competition for the other top corner spot will feature Antoine Lewis and Leroy Clark, among others. Purdue has plenty of experience at safety with Taylor Richards, who started every game in 2013, and Anthony Brown, who replaced the injured Landon Feichter and had 69 tackles. Feichter also is back from a broken leg.
Rutgers: This group is anxious to turn the page after a season filled with personnel issues and poor performance (Rutgers finished 120th nationally in pass defense). Senior safety Lorenzo Waters leads the group after recording 62 tackles and two forced fumbles in 2013. Johnathan Aiken will try to start opposite Waters at free safety, although he'll be pushed by Delon Stephenson and Tejay Johnson, who started three games last fall. Gareef Glashen started six games last season and seems likely to retain one of the top cornerback spots. There will be competition at the other between Anthony Cioffi and Nadir Barnwell, both of whom started games as true freshmen in 2013. The most intriguing player to watch is cornerback Ian Thomas, who returns to the team after quitting midway through last season, one that he began as a starter.
Wisconsin: The Badgers are relatively young at both secondary positions but boast far more experience at cornerback than safety. Junior Darius Hillary and sophomore Sojourn Shelton started all 13 games at cornerback last season. Peniel Jean adds even more experience at the position. Safety is much less settled as Dezmen Southward graduates, Michael Caputo shifts to linebacker and Tanner McEvoy returns to quarterback. Nate Hammon and Leo Musso both played in all 13 games last fall as reserves. Newcomers like Serge Trezy and Austin Hudson could compete for time when they arrive this summer.
We’ll have a different countdown every week until spring practice starts to help time tick by a little faster. And, this week, we decided to take a look at the five players you should watch the closest this spring.
Up first is a defensive back who's trying to live up to big expectations …
No. 5 spring player to watch: DB Adrian Amos
Why spring is so important: Amos is undoubtedly a talented player, but he was not a great safety last season. Defensive coordinator Bob Shoop believed Amos would "probably" still begin the spring at safety, but it's still no guarantee that's where he'll finish. Right now, he's a better cornerback -- he's the best corner on the team -- but this spring will help determine whether Amos can put together a solid season at safety. He appears to be needed there more because the position is such a liability.
Best-case scenario: Amos said he felt like a freshman all over again last season because he was basically learning a new position (safety). Well, this year, he returns to old form and has the best season out of any of the other defensive backs. Safety is no longer the weakness of this defense, and Amos leads the team in interceptions on his way to All-Big Ten honors. Talk of his NFL potential once again picks up around the defense's playmaker.
Worst-case scenario: Amos continues to struggle at safety and, instead of being a great cornerback, is forced to settle for being a mediocre safety. The secondary is once again a punching bag for opposing offenses, and Amos finds himself out of position on several big plays that draw the ire of fans. He's better than 2013, but his performance still leaves fans wondering "what-could-have-been" because of all the potential he showed as a freshman. At some point, he's moved back to cornerback -- but his confidence is shaken.
No. 1: Safeties
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?
I love my 2014 class of PSU ....we have that brothers connection and we didn't even enroll to PSU yet— Marcus Allen (@Chico_Ehhh) January 2, 2014
If it wasn't for Coach OB I probably wouldn't be playing football anymore, I wish him the best in the NFL.— Devin Pryor #16 (@D_Pryor16) January 1, 2014
We all we got! No reason to panic or jump ship! Doesn't matter the system nor the coach...players win games period— Bill Belton (@W3BII) January 1, 2014
No matter what happens football games will be played and won by the Nittany Lions love all my brothers we will stick together #WeAre— Hunter Crafford (@Craf_FordTough) January 1, 2014
Never worry about the things you can't control— Malik Golden (@_goldenboy6) January 1, 2014
A man's gotta do what a man has GOT TO DO. It's life baby !— Stephen Obeng-Agy... (@BigBENGTheory7) January 1, 2014
New Year, New Head Coach I suppose— DaeSean Hamilton (@SkeeterMills__) January 1, 2014
Bout to be the best year for me yet and bout to be the best year for Penn State #WeAre— carter Henderson (@hendydo_42) January 1, 2014
I hope I have another chance to play under Coach O'B. I love the guy, I appreciate everything he's done for me. I couldn't be more thankful.— Jesse James (@JJames18_) January 1, 2014
Good luck to Coach O'Brien and his family. Made a tremendous impact on my life and many others during his time at Penn State.— Ty Howle (@THowle60) January 1, 2014
Best of luck to the O'Brien family and to the lucky man that gets to coach this prestige organization... I can't wait to meet you— Troy Stivason (@teejaystives) January 1, 2014
To all of the Penn State family: Penn State is and will always be about more than any one man. WE ARE everything we have always been— Derek Dowrey (@doubleDowrey) January 1, 2014
Coach O'Brien was a great mentor, coach and father figure but every coach has the aspirations to coach in the NFL. glad coach can chase his.— Brian Gaia (@that_gaia) January 1, 2014
Gotta keep on movin forward people that's all we can do #yafeelme— Austin Johnson (@AJohn15) January 1, 2014
One thing OB taught me is that this is a business, and u should do what's best for you.Texans are getting a good coach, I wish him the best— Deion Barnes (@DBarnes_18) January 1, 2014
Coach O'brien is a great coach and great person! Proud to have called him my coach. It was his dream to coach in the NFL, best of luck. #PSU— Mike Hull (@m_hull4943) January 1, 2014
I'll love Coach Obrien forever. He will always be apart of Penn State. One of the greatest men I've ever known. #PennStateForever— Miles Dieffenbach (@Curiousjorge65) January 1, 2014
Fight on. We still are and forever will be.— Garrett Sickels (@Sickels_90) January 1, 2014
Time to move on Penn State! We will find the right man for the job. BOB did plenty for us. Time for a true Blue and White bleeder! #WeAre— OJ McDuffie (@ojmcduffie81) January 1, 2014
Up today: Defensive backs.
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.
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.
1. Don't underestimate Penn State. You think we would've learned that by now. But after seeing the Buckeyes absolutely dominate Penn State, 63-14, it seemed as if PSU would be in for another flogging. Everyone counted them out -- Vegas put the line at 24 points -- but the Nittany Lions seem to do best when everyone else thinks they have no chance. They came out of absolutely nowhere to not just slip past the Badgers, but to totally outplay them. Penn State's defense stopped one of the nation's best rushing attacks, and freshman quarterback Christian Hackenberg picked on the Wisconsin secondary. If there's one thing we should learn from this game, it's that we should never count these Nittany Lions out.
2. The future looks bright. Next season should have its share of question marks, but even look past that. Hackenberg is playing beyond his years, freshman LB Brandon Bell garnered his first start (and grabbed six tackles), and PSU dressed 23 total freshmen. Adam Breneman and Eugene Lewis still have three years left and had terrific performances on Saturday. And then there are other freshmen such as Akeel Lynch, Richy Anderson, Nyeem Wartman, Austin Johnson and Malik Golden who have seen quite a bit of time this season.
3. Sam Ficken's struggles aren't behind him, after all. Ficken had a miserable stretch last season before he seemingly turned it all around -- but those issues are most certainly back. He has made just seven of his last 13 field goals (54 percent) and also missed a PAT last week. He went 1-of-3 against Wisconsin, missing a 31-yarder and 34-yarder, and he'll need to find more answers over the offseason. He's bounced back once already, but he'll need to find a way to do it again. Otherwise, freshman Chris Gulla could push him for time.
4. The offensive line needs to be more disciplined, as far as penalties. Either it wasn't prepared for Wisconsin's defensive linemen moving around or it wasn't focused. Whatever the reason, it was one of the odder sights during Saturday afternoon's game. Penn State was called for at least eight motion penalties, with left tackle Donovan Smith responsible for four of those. Offensive line coach Mac McWhorter was clearly frustrated on the sideline and, although the line played well overall, it certainly needs to concentrate more on the snap count and less on what the opposition is doing. Those mistakes nearly lost PSU the game.
5. Secondary, bad; front seven, good. Joel Stave had difficulty locating quite a few open targets, and that came as a big break for Penn State. The secondary still struggled, but it came up with key interceptions off Stave mistakes to somewhat atone. It's still clearly the weak link of this defense, but the front-seven -- especially the defensive line -- played very well yet again Saturday. They finished with five quarterback hurries and three sacks, and the line really limited the Badgers' rushing attack. Wisconsin was held to its second-lowest rushing total of the season (120 yards), and defensive coordinator John Butler deserves a lot of the credit. That should bode well moving forward.
Projected starters: Adrian Amos (2012 stats, as CB: 44 tackles, 2.5 tackles-for-loss, two interceptions) and Malcolm Willis (45 tackles, one fumble recovery, two pass breakups)
Key losses: None
Walk-on-turned-scholarship-player Ryan Keiser is also listed as one of the primary backups, and he played in every game last season -- mostly on special teams. Keiser is a solid situational player who gives this position added depth. Jesse Della Valle is likely safety No. 5, so he won't see much time at the position, but he'll contribute on special teams.
And, of course, we can't forget about the younger players. There are some talented guys here who could make an impact well down the line ... just not this season. Think redshirt freshman Malik Golden or true freshman Neiko Robinson.
What to expect: This might be the most improved group from last season. The safeties were the weakness of the defense, but Amos instantly solidifies this group. And it would surprise no one if he earned first-team All-Big Ten honors at his natural position in 2013.
With depth and experience -- two characteristics this position didn't have last season -- offenses should no longer be able to target this group downfield. Those long, third-down conversions should be a thing of the past, as long as the corners can hold up their end of the deal.
This was an average group on a good defense last season. Now the safeties are good, and Amos could be one of the best. This is his chance to break out, and it's Willis' secondary to lead. Big things should be expected at this position.
Recruiting trail: Three-star 2014 safety Marcus Allen (Upper Marlboro, Md./Wise) already committed in May, and he's a big body who could see early playing time once he arrives on campus. The 6-foot-2 safety used to play linebacker in high school, and he has earned a reputation as a hard-hitting player. He can definitely offer some good run support.
PSU also still is pursuing a few defensive backs, notably ESPN 300 safety Montae Nicholson (Monroeville, Pa./Gateway). Nicholson is taking his recruitment slowly, but PSU is on his short list. He would be a huge boon to the Nittany Lions' 2014 recruiting class.
Best-case scenario: Amos earns a spot on the All-Big Ten first team, and there's even some chatter about All-America honors. He cements the fact he boasts an NFL future, as Willis exceeds expectations and helps the young corners along with his calls and adjustments.
Worst-case scenario: Amos is forced to move back to cornerback, and the combination of Willis and Obeng-Agyapong struggles a bit. There's some progress from last season, but not much, and this group turns in an average performance over the course of the season.
Top position question: What does Amos' move to safety mean for Penn State? It means a couple things. For one, now that there's actually some depth here, Amos can play the position he's best at -- and, as we previously mentioned, it also means defensive coordinator John Butler has enough faith in the two new cornerbacks.
Amos was a good cornerback and earned an honorable mention on the All-Big Ten team last year. But he's an even better safety. He could be the secondary equivalent of Allen Robinson, and his versatility gives this defense an incredible boost. Forget Mike Hull or Deion Barnes; Amos is the most valuable player on this defense for that very reason.
Expect Butler to utilize Amos in a lot of different ways -- and expect Amos to shine. By the end of his career, he could be mentioned with the likes of Kim Herring and Darren Perry. The cornerback-turned-safety is poised for a breakout season, and by extension, that means nothing but good things for the Penn State defense.
The Lions' secondary had to replace all four starters and Malcolm Willis and Stephon Morris reminded everyone of the gloomy forecast many had for the back four. "We're supposedly the worst unit on the team," Willis told his teammates after practices. "Everybody is doubting us, everybody is doubting our ability."
There are fewer doubts heading into the 2013 season. In fact, the secondary could be branded a potential strength for a defense that loses All-Big Ten performers up front (DT Jordan Hill) and at linebacker (Michael Mauti, Gerald Hodges).
Penn State returns both starters at safety from 2012 in Willis and Stephen Obeng-Agyapong, as well as Adrian Amos, who started at cornerback last fall but moved to safety in the spring and is listed as a starter on the team's latest depth chart. The safety group also includes Ryan Keiser, a reserve in 2012 who head coach Bill O'Brien labels a potential unit leader this season.
"We feel like we have better depth there than we had last year, and we've got a good amount of returning experience," O'Brien recently told ESPN.com. "And they're very well coached. That position has to be very well coached."
O'Brien credits defensive coordinator John Butler, the team's secondary coach in 2012, for pushing the right buttons with the personnel in the back four. This spring, the coaches moved Trevor Williams and Malik Golden from wide receiver to cornerback and safety, respectively. Williams emerged from the spring as a starter.
The Lions are undoubtedly younger at cornerback than at safety -- all players listed on the summer two-deep are freshmen or sophomores -- but they have flexibility with Amos, who had 44 tackles, two interceptions and three pass breakups last season.
"He's got to be ready to play a lot of different roles for us," O'Brien said. "He's a very valuable member of our team."
2012 conference record: 6-2 (second, Leaders Division)
Returning starters: Offense: 8; defense: 6, kicker/punter: 2
RB Zach Zwinak, WR Allen Robinson, TE Kyle Carter, OG John Urschel, OT Donovan Smith, DE Deion Barnes, LB Glenn Carson, CB Adrian Amos
QB Matt McGloin, FB Michael Zordich, C Matt Stankiewitch, DT Jordan Hill, LB Michael Mauti, LB Gerald Hodges, CB Stephon Morris
2012 statistical leaders (*returners)
Rushing: Zach Zwinak* (1,000 yards)
Receiving: Allen Robinson* (1,013 yards)
Tackles: Gerald Hodges (109)
Sacks: Deion Barnes* (6)
Interceptions: Michael Mauti (3)
1. "Tight End U." If there's one position the Nittany Lions don't have to worry about, it's this one -- and that's probably why some PSU players have taken to dubbing the university "TEU." Kyle Carter's injured wrist should be just fine once the season rolls around, and there's plenty of depth here. Teammates have pointed to the offseason work of 6-foot-7 target Jesse James, who really came on strong in the second half of last season. He was also the receiving star in the annual spring scrimmage with five catches and 77 yards. Couple him with Matt Lehman, Brent Wilkerson and Adam Breneman, and it wouldn't be a surprise to see quite a few formations with multiple tight ends on the field.
2. Versatility at a premium. Bill O'Brien doesn't mind moving players around. Wideouts Malik Golden and Trevor Williams switched over to the secondary, and Williams has especially picked up the position quickly. But those two aren't the only to play at different positions. Adrian Amos can play safety or cornerback, and a lot of Penn State's younger DBs have the ability to slide between those two. Penn State's trying to combat a lack of depth with versatile players here, so players who can play at multiple spots are especially valuable.
3. Young standouts. Several true and redshirt freshmen could contribute heavily this season, and O'Brien has praised multiple first-year players for picking things up quickly. On defense, DT Austin Johnson looks to be a starter after a redshirt season, and LB Nyeem Wartman has a leg up on an injured Ben Kline. On offense, WR Eugene Lewis made a one-handed grab in the spring scrimmage to show he can make the tough catches, and RB Akeel Lynch has also made a strong case for playing time. PSU doesn't historically have many four-year starters, but this year could change that.
1. Quarterback question marks. Neither option, early enrollee Tyler Ferguson nor incoming freshman Christian Hackenberg, has ever thrown a pass in the FBS -- and one of those two players will be the Penn State starter. Inexperience is a big concern, and the QB will have to learn a complicated offense in a short period of time. Hackenberg has a lot of potential and Ferguson showed glimpses, however inconsistent, in the spring game. But the offense's strength last season was the quick no-huddle offense -- and it remains to be seen whether either of these signal callers can pull the fast playing style off.
2. Withstanding lack of depth. O'Brien has gotten this team down to about 67 scholarships in preparation for 2014 when the 65-scholarship limit kicks in, so depth is a real concern this season. If a quarterback or linebacker becomes injured, PSU could be in trouble. The Lions need to remain healthy to have a shot at repeating last year's success. And one injury could really have a ripple effect on this team. Health is one question, one uncertainty, that can't be answered anytime soon.
3. Kicking game. Sam Ficken was just 14-of-21 on field goals last season and didn't make a single kick over 39 yards. He did wind up converting his last 10 attempts, but his inconsistency carried over in the spring game when he missed a 37-yard field goal and an extra point. O'Brien was known for leaving the special-teams unit on the sideline a lot on fourth downs last season and, if Ficken struggles again, that would put even more pressure on the young quarterbacks. Or force O'Brien to use incoming walk-on kicker Chris Gulla.
Saturday will be the first time most of last season's freshmen will play in front of a crowd, the first time fans can size up the quarterback race and the first time the media can see the progress this team has made over the spring.
The Blue-White weekend has taken on a carnival-type atmosphere these past few years, and there's plenty to see. But on the field, NittanyNation takes a closer look on what fans should keep an especially close eye on.
Bill O'Brien said in the past no quarterback separated himself yet. Maybe, just maybe, someone will gain an edge Saturday.
BRING ON THE MAN COVERAGE
Defensive coordinator John Butler acknowledged last season that PSU couldn't play be as aggressive in the secondary because of the depth. But that is improved this season. Jordan Smith and Anthony Smith enrolled early, while wideouts Malik Golden and Trevor Williams switched to defensive back.
PSU began practicing the nickel this spring, and fans can expect finally to see that package this season. There's no telling who might start alongside Adrian Amos come August -- Jordan Lucas is currently practicing with the first team -- and fans should keep an eye on the young corners here.
PROJECTED (RS) FRESHMAN STARTERS
DT Austin Johnson and LB Nyeem Wartman are just redshirt freshmen, but it already looks as if they'll crack the starting lineup this season. Both very well could wind up as the rare four-year PSU starter, and expectations are high for these two.
Johnson already is up to 302 pounds, and O'Brien has praised his ability since he was asked about his top freshmen last season. And the hard-hitting Wartman, whom PSU fans already are familiar with, blocked a punt in his PSU debut before an injury in Week 2 that sidelined him for the season (and allowed him to pick up a medical redshirt). With the departures of Mike Mauti and Gerald Hodges, Wartman will have to play well right off the bat for PSU to remain strong here. One recruit said he was especially impressed watching No. 5, because he was all over the field during one practice. Let's see what they can do in a scrimmage.
(Also, Akeel Lynch and Eugene Lewis might not be starters ... but is there anyone who doesn't plan to keep a close eye on them?)
HOW MUCH BETTER HAVE THE BEST GOTTEN?
Practice observers and teammates have pointed constantly to Allen Robinson when asked who has impressed so far this spring. He broke the single-season school record for receptions last season, and he has gained needed weight while maintaining his speed. Robinson was the best in the Big Ten last year, and now he's even better. That's hard to picture on the field.
Mike Hull, Deion Barnes, Zach Zwinak, Amos, etc. all have earned a lot of praise this spring. Zwinak has improved his strength, Barnes is shoring up his run-stopping, Hull is embracing a starting role ... and Amos? Well, he's probably PSU's most versatile player. Returner, safety, cornerback -- he can do everything. And it'll be interesting to see just how much he does Saturday.
TIGHT END U?
It's pretty incredible just how much this position has evolved in about 15 months. Kyle Carter won't play in the Blue-White Game, but fans still will be able to look at Matt Lehman, Jesse James and Brent Wilkerson.
MLB Glenn Carson mentioned James as the player who has impressed him the most overall. He broke out during Carter's absence late in the year, and he boasts good speed for a 6-foot-7 target. James has "red-zone target" written all over him, and it'll be interesting to see how this young corps does in the scrimmage. It'll be an even bigger bonus if Adam Breneman is able to play.
No, the assistant coach who was hired Feb. 14 instead used words Tuesday like "easy" and "blessing" when talking about the transition to Penn State. He complimented the leadership of veteran safeties Malcolm Willis and Stephen Obeng-Agyapong, thanked defensive coordinator John Butler for helping him along and emphasized just how happy he was to be at "one of the storied programs in the country."
The former Virginia Tech standout, a three-year starting cornerback under Frank Beamer, initially left Georgia State for Marshall this offseason. But, about a week-and-a-half after taking that Conference USA gig, Bill O'Brien called him to gauge his interest in the Nittany Lions' opening.
Midget said the opportunity was just too good to pass up. He could stay with the Thundering Herd or head north to a school that averaged about 70,000 more fans a game. It wasn't a hard decision -- with or without sanctions.
"I was really surprised," Midget said. "And I guess Coach O'Brien had a mutual friend that recommended me. It was an opportunity. He called me and asked if there was interest, and I said yes."
The young coach with the thin goatee has become a fixture inside Holuba Hall and the football building since his hire. He directs a core group of about eight safeties and sometimes switches off with Butler, teaching the cornerbacks some fundamentals or fine-tuning their technique.
They'll coach their groups separately, but they'll watch film and hold meetings together to increase their communication. Midget called himself a fiery, energetic coach -- not unlike Butler -- and said he knows he demands a lot from his players. But, after practices, he tries to soften up some.
"When we walk off that field, our doors are open, and we can have fun together and do what we need to do," he said. "It's that relationship that you're building with the guys, and they understand us being fiery and demanding."
His old boss, former Georgia State coach Bill Curry, said shorty after his hire that's been Midget's personality since he first hired him five years ago. The young coach tries to separate his on-field and off-field demeanor.
"Off the field, he is outgoing, and he's humorous when it's the right time to be humorous," Curry told ESPN in a Q&A. "But he can be serious. He's tough as nails. So when he gets on the field, the humor's gone. He coaches football with great intensity; he expects everything out of everyone on every drill."
Despite that hard-nosed approach, the safeties coach pinpointed a number of defensive backs who have impressed him so far. He praised Ryan Keiser's offseason work, admired Adrian Amos' versatility as a cornerback, safety and nickelback -- and believed wideout-turned-safety Malik Golden had a bright future.
"He's picked up on it as far from a physical standpoint," Midget said. "He just has some natural abilities that I think's going to help us in the future. He's still learning throughout the spring, but I'm encouraged physically from what he's shown in the time of the short practices we've had."
Like Golden, this spring has been a time of transition for Midget. And both seem to be moving along pretty well.
The pace of the assistant coach's transition likely has quickened because his responsibilities are more focused. During his previous stint at Georgia State, Midget carried the burden of following recruiting and also taking charge as the secondary coach, defensive coordinator and special teams coach -- something Curry said he would have preferred to avoid.
Now, the focus is primarily on the safeties and on recruiting in the South Florida and Cleveland areas. And Midget seemed pretty thankful Tuesday for that.
"To be able to focus on just one position, it's been great," Midget said. "I think the game has changed so much; I think it's a benefit to have two secondary coaches."
"Eyes here," Fisher told sophomore Steven Bench in a conversational tone, pointing to his his right. "Work through it, work through it."
Bench or Tyler Ferguson could wind up as the starting quarterback come Aug. 31, and Monday offered a glimpse of the two signal-callers. Media were invited to attend 20 minutes of open practice, and O'Brien began by calling together a competition: A defensive back would line up against a wideout or tight end in press coverage, while Bench and Ferguson would alternate snaps.
The first team -- offense or defense -- to win three battles would be declared the winner. The losers would be forced to perform five hit-its. It was more for honor than anything and only four passes were thrown while the quarterbacks tried to shake off the rust.
Bench began by just overthrowing Allen Robinson on a roughly 35-yard pass, and Ferguson then hit Jesse James in stride downfield on an over-the-shoulder grab. Bench followed that up by throwing behind his target on cross route, and Ferguson barely overthrew Matt Lehman for two straight incompletions.
The offense, along with Ferguson and Bench, then hit the turf for their hit-its while the defense cheered.
"They're both athletic, they both can throw the football," O'Brien said during a Monday news conference. "Now it's going to depend on how well they make decisions and how accurately they throw the ball.
"They sit in the front row, they pay attention, they take a lot of notes. It's a fun group to be around."
Four true freshmen are listed on the depth chart but haven't seen any time on the field. Six freshmen have already burned their redshirts. And three are still in limbo.
NittanyNation takes a closer look at the impact the true freshmen have had so far and what to expect going forward:
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Penn State 2015 Class Debuts At No. 3
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