Penn State Nittany Lions: Matt Lehman

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

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

No. 4 position battle: Tight ends

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

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

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

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

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

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

More position battles to watch:

No. 5: Kicker

Looking to the past & future: TEs

December, 23, 2013
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It's never too late -- or too early -- to see what we learned from this season and also look ahead to next season. So, we've started breaking down each position on the Nittany Lions.

Up today: Tight ends.

REWIND

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

FAST FORWARD

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

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

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

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

Injury impact: Big Ten

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

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

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


3. Nebraska: The Huskers' injury problems haven't adversely affected them -- at least not yet. Still, it's never easy when you lose your four-year starting quarterback, and Taylor Martinez hasn't played since Week 3 versus UCLA because of turf toe. He could be back this week, but All-American guard Spencer Long was lost for the season in the last game against Purdue with a knee injury. He'll be tough to replace.
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Bill O'Brien isn't sure whether the NCAA will grant injured tight end Matt Lehman a sixth year of eligibility, but it's something he said Lehman and Penn State are pursuing.

"Obviously, we're looking into it, and we'd love for that to work out for the guy," O'Brien said Tuesday afternoon. "If it doesn't work out, I really believe he has a chance to play at the next level. 6-foot-7, 260-pound guy. He's tough, he can catch. So, some way or another, I think he'll be playing football somewhere."

Lehman suffered a season-ending knee injury in the first quarter of the season opener against Syracuse. He fell to the turf on a 10-yard out when he was breaking out of a cut on his left foot.

"As far as a sixth year goes, it's hard for me to comment on that because it's such a complicated deal what you have to basically prove to the NCAA," O'Brien said. "It has to do with personal background, injury background, transfer -- because he was at Shippensburg and then he came here -- and we'd be here all day if I was having to describe that to you."

Lehman can apply for a medical hardship waiver after the season. If it's granted, he would be one of six returning tight ends for the 2014 season.

The Pennsylvania native had one catch for 2 yards this year before suffering the injury. He finished fourth on the team last season with 24 receptions, with 21 coming during the conference season.

He currently has 298 career receiving yards and three touchdowns.

"It's tough," O'Brien added. "He was playing really well. Really well."

Lehman out for season; Carter day-to-day

September, 3, 2013
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STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Senior Matt Lehman is out for the season and fellow tight end Kyle Carter remains day to day, according to Penn State coach Bill O'Brien.

Tight end was among the Nittany Lions' deepest positions just last month. But Brent Wilkerson suffered a serious back injury, and Lehman and Carter players suffered injuries Saturday against Syracuse.

O'Brien said he wasn't certain if Carter could play Saturday versus Eastern Michigan. If he can't, that means redshirt freshman Jesse James would be the top option, with true freshman Adam Breneman as the No. 2. The only other tight end listed on the roster is true freshman walk-on Tom Pancoast.

"Certainly, any time you have a player of the caliber as Matt Lehman go down, it's not a good thing," O'Brien said. "It definitely falls into the category of 'next man up.' "

O'Brien didn't disclose the exact injuries of Lehman or Carter. But with Lehman, he referred back to Michael Mauti's knee injury. O'Brien believed Lehman still had a future in football. Carter also remained on the sideline Saturday with his arm wrapped up.

As a result of those injuries, O'Brien said he might utilize another position a bit more -- such as fullback Pat Zerbe or another wideout -- to make up for the loss.

"You have to have a contigency plan," O'Brien added.

Lehman was fourth on the team in receiving last season with 24 catches for 296 yards and three touchdowns. He had two catches for 17 yards against Syracuse.

PSU position preview: Tight ends

August, 26, 2013
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Kyle CarterPatrick Smith/Getty ImagesPenn State tight end Kyle Carter aims to improve on his 36-catch season.

As part of an ongoing series, NittanyNation will preview a different position leading up to the season opener against Syracuse on Saturday. Up today: Tight ends.

Projected starters: Kyle Carter (2012 stats: 36 catches, 453 yards, two touchdowns) and Jesse James (15 catches, 276 yards, five touchdowns)

Key losses: None

Next in line: Walk-on-turned-scholarship TE Matt Lehman started three games and played in all of them last season, and he'll be the next man up for now if there's any kind of injury. That being said, he'll still see plenty of time in Bill O'Brien's rotation at the position -- and he could be pushed for playing time by the true freshman behind him.

Adam Breneman missed his senior season of high school with a torn ACL in his right knee, but he's made great strides and has impressed the staff with his recovery. He's from the same high school as former PSU great Kyle Brady, and big things are expected out of the nation's top tight end of the 2013 class. By the end of the season, he could be TE No. 3. Brent Wilkerson is nursing a back injury, and O'Brien hasn't mentioned when he could return -- although he did acknowledge the injury was serious.

Wilkerson could see time down the line if he's healthy. If he's not, the only other TE listed on the roster is run-on Tom Pancoast, who was initially recruited as a safety.

What to expect: If this isn't the best group -- group -- of tight ends in the country, it's pretty darn close. This is the most unique part about Penn State's offense, as defenses will have to anticipate four tight end sets at some point.

The tight ends here have taken to calling themselves "TEU," and that's not too far from the truth. Maybe that's a bit premature, but PSU targets tight ends in a big way. Bigger than nearly every other school. PSU could go five consecutive seasons with someone on the Mackey Award watch list, and Breneman is aiming to win the award before he graduates. (It's already typed in his smartphone.)

There's really nothing bad to say about this group. Teammates have raved about the 6-foot-7 James, who should provide a nice red-zone target for the new quarterback. Carter might have the best hands on the team. Penn State's fourth-best tight end could start on most Big Ten teams.

Recruiting trail: Clearly, the Nittany Lions don't need any more tight ends -- but O'Brien's a fan of the "best player available" philosophy. Three-star prospect Mike Gesicki (Manahawkin, N.J./Southern Regional) is the only tight end who could wind up at Penn State in the 2014 class, and PSU is on his short list. Ohio State and Wisconsin are Penn State's biggest competition. Gesicki visited PSU earlier this month.

Best-case scenario: Carter not only picks up where he left off last year but becomes to tight ends what Allen Robinson was to wideouts last season. Carter is named the Big Ten tight end of the year, earns All-America honors and is in the conversation for the Mackey Award. James becomes a touchdown machine, while Breneman sees solid time later in the season and sets a foundation.

Worst-case scenario: Carter starts off slow after missing time over the offseason because of a wrist injury. He's just fine later on, but PSU finds itself relying more on the run to offset a struggling starting QB -- so the tight ends are unable to flash their ability that much. This group is improved, but it's not easy to tell because they're not seeing as many targets.

Top position question: Can Carter, or any tight end here, win the Mackey at some point his career? Absolutely. We averaged the stats of the last 10 Mackey winners, and future Penn State tight ends should come very close to the numbers.

Here's the average: 58 catches, 708 yards, six touchdowns. (And two of the winners had fewer than 50 catches and 600 yards.) If you average Carter's numbers out last year as if he had played every game, he would've finished with 48 catches for 604 yards and three TDs. So he's not that far off.

Breneman's goal of winning the Mackey in the future is very reachable. If Carter can improve his numbers from last year -- and the young QBs do appear to be targeting the tight ends more as security blankets -- then PSU should at least have a semifinalist in the mix.

5 lessons learned: PSU's media day

August, 9, 2013
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STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Penn State's media day might be over, but there's still plenty to reflect on.

Here's a look at five lessons learned from a day spent talking to coaches and players:

1. Tyler Ferguson currently boasts the early edge at quarterback. That wasn't a huge surprise, considering Christian Hackenberg enrolled over the summer while Ferguson started school in January. But Hackenberg has picked up things quickly, and there's no telling where the race might be in another week or two.

But, as luck would have it, that's exactly when Bill O'Brien hopes -- hopes -- to name the starter. The head coach isn't a fan of waiting until the night before the season opener because he wants the starter to get more reps with the first team. At this juncture, most of the media believes Hackenberg will start ... but O'Brien said that Ferguson holds the slight lead right now.

2. Linebacker is the biggest concern when it comes to depth. Penn State might be known as Linebacker U, but it's not very big on quantity this season. When asked about depth on defense -- since the DTs don't have the greatest numbers either -- O'Brien didn't hesitate in expressing his concern over the linebacker unit.

Nyeem Wartman will start as a redshirt freshman and the top backup, Ben Kline, is still coming off a shoulder injury and didn't participate in Thursday's practice. One more injury at this spot could spell doom for this defense. Safeties such as Adrian Amos and Stephen Obeng-Agyapong could come in relief of Wartman on passing downs, but there's only so many tweaks this staff can make to shore up the depth here.

3. Special teams are a point of focus. The Nittany Lions finished among the bottom of the country in just about every special teams category last season -- No. 103 in net punting, No. 90 in punt returns, No. 112 in kick returns, etc. O'Brien said the team is working hard on improving those numbers.

Sam Ficken remains the starting kicker, but he should be pushed by preferred walk-on Chris Gulla. That true freshman has also practiced punting a lot, so he should also compete with Alex Butterworth. And, as far as kick returners, those duties remain between eight candidates -- including Richy Anderson, Alex Kenney, Bill Belton, Trevor Williams, Akeel Lynch and Eugene Lewis.

4. Newest injuries don't affect depth that much. True freshman wideout DaeSean Hamilton, a four-star wideout from Virginia, is out for the season with a wrist injury suffered from high school. But Hamilton was a redshirt candidate before the announcement, and the corps there is pretty deep. PSU shouldn't miss a beat at wideout.

Redshirt freshman Brent Wilkerson also suffered a back injury and is "out for a while," although O'Brien declined to elaborate. Regardless, tight end is the deepest position on the roster -- and there are at least four other tight ends who could see time here. Kyle Carter and Jesse James remain the starters, but Matt Lehman is a solid backup and Adam Breneman could see time as a true freshman.

5. WR Allen Robinson is just getting started. Robinson broke the longstanding school-record for receptions last season, but assistant coach Stan Hixon said Robinson has just scratched the surface of his potential. The All-Big Ten wideout improved his strength, speed and hounded teammates over the summer for some extra 7-on-7 drills.

Robinson acknowledged he might not top last year's numbers -- 77 catches, 1,013 yards, 11 TDs -- but that doesn't mean he's not a better wideout. He has been timed at 4.6 seconds in the 40-yard dash, and he has worked hard on winning more one-on-one battles this offseason. He's a good basketball player with a strong vertical leap, and he could be the big-play threat this offense desperately needs. He's the best player on this offense -- and he has gotten better. Much better.

Penn State spring wrap

May, 3, 2013
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2012 record: 8-4
2012 conference record: 6-2 (second, Leaders Division)
Returning starters: Offense: 8; defense: 6, kicker/punter: 2

Top returners

RB Zach Zwinak, WR Allen Robinson, TE Kyle Carter, OG John Urschel, OT Donovan Smith, DE Deion Barnes, LB Glenn Carson, CB Adrian Amos

Key losses

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)

Spring answers

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.

Fall questions
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.

Notebook: QB race remains murky

April, 20, 2013
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Steven Bench and Tyler FergusonAP Photo, USA Today SportsThe quarterback battle at Penn State between Steven Bench and Tyler Ferguson will continue, and they'll be joined by top recruit Christian Hackenberg this summer.

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Bill O'Brien crossed his arms and furiously chewed a piece of gum when the inevitable question was asked Saturday: Was the Penn State coach any closer to naming a starting quarterback?

He had to know the question was coming. That was the storyline of the Blue-White Game, the main topic fans discussed in the stands, and a topic that reporters have peppered him about every time O'Brien has made himself available.

"No, I'm not any closer," he said. "But I enjoy coaching both guys and, eventually, we'll have to make a decision. But I'm not ready to make that right now."

Inconsistency appeared to be theme of the day for junior college newcomer Tyler Ferguson and returning sophomore Steven Bench. O'Brien didn't use that term, but he might as well have. He said the pair obviously would've liked to have some plays back but also made some nice throws.

(Read full post)

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Saturday's annual scrimmage, known as the Blue-White Game, will offer fans a nice reprieve as they wait more than 20 weeks for the college season to kick off.

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.

QUARTERBACK RACE

[+] EnlargeTyler Ferguson
Tom Hauck for ESPNTyler Ferguson and Steven Bench are side by side in Penn State's quarterback competition this spring.
Let's get the obvious out of the way. Steven Bench threw just eight passes last season, and the media has seen little of Tyler Ferguson. Both quarterbacks have been lauded for their ability to scramble -- Stephon Morris said he probably wouldn't even label Bench as a pocket passer -- but both are basically a mystery. Can Bench guide this offense? Will Ferguson outshine him? Saturday's scrimmage is far from the be-all, end-all, but it is a start to answering some of those questions.

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.

Spring primer: QBs, injuries & more

March, 18, 2013
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STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- While Bill O'Brien's voice carried over the field Monday afternoon, quarterbacks coach Charlie Fisher directed his players in a calmer manner.

[+] EnlargeTyler Ferguson
Tom Hauck for ESPNTyler Ferguson showed off his big arm at practice Monday.
During position drills at Penn State's first spring practice, Fisher stood about five yards in front of his four quarterbacks as they took turns taking three- and five-step drops. The quartet of red jerseys would look at Fisher, quickly scan the field and then throw to a stationary receiver.

"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."

(Read full post)

Penn State's Garry Gilliam has been granted an extra year of eligibility by the NCAA, giving him two seasons left.

Gilliam suffered a torn ACL in his left knee during the Big Ten opener against Iowa in 2010. He missed the remainder of that season and all of the 2011 campaign after an infection delayed his surgery and rehabilitation. Gilliam has played tight end for Penn State but moved to offensive tackle following the 2012 season, an understandable move as Penn State boasts tremendous depth at tight end with Kyle Carter, Jesse James and Matt Lehman.

The 6-foot-6, 262-pound Gilliam started eight games at tight end in 2012 and had eight receptions for 65 yards. Penn State loses one starting offensive tackle in Mike Farrell, so Gilliam will have a chance to compete for significant playing time this spring.

He'll be eligible to play in both the 2013 and 2014 seasons.

Looking ahead: Tight ends

January, 8, 2013
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Adam BrenemanScott Fink/ESPNHSEarly enrollee Adam Breneman is likely to redshirt, as he's recovering from a torn ACL. Regardless, Penn State has outstanding depth at tight end.
In the next week, NittanyNation will be taking a glance at different positions and their outlook for next season.

TIGHT ENDS

  • Who: Some players have taken to referring to Penn State as "Tight End U," and after one season, that's not much of an exaggeration. Kyle Carter received Mackey Award consideration and this group of tight ends was among the most utilized in the nation. Jesse James became more effective as the year wore on and Matt Lehman also evolved into a solid target. Early enrollee Adam Breneman is a versatile guy with the ability to block, and he should be recovered from a torn ACL in time for the season. (He's still likely to redshirt, however.) As long as he does redshirt, rising redshirt freshman Brent Wilkerson could get playing time. Garry Gilliam is also the best blocker here, and it would surprise no one to see him lined up in goal-line sets.

  • Strengths: Carter has the best hands on this team -- and he's actually the smallest target at tight end. James stands an impressive 6-foot-7, and Lehman and Gilliam are both 6-6. This group created a lot of matchup problems with their height and hands, and the tight end was Matt McGloin's No. 2 target behind record-breaker Allen Robinson. Carter finished second on the team in receptions, while Lehman finished No. 4. This is a great group to have in the red zone -- James had five TDs on 15 catches -- and it will be depended upon again in the upcoming season.

  • Weaknesses: Gilliam's great at blocking, but PSU needs to improve overall a bit in this department. Carter's a great receiving tight end, but he needs to work on consistently being able to block well. The main concern here, though, is Carter's health. Bill O'Brien said he's not sure if Carter, whose arm remains in a cast, will be back in time for spring practice. Carter was a breakout player, and PSU needs him to rebound from this injury for it to boast an effective passing attack again. His progress in the spring will be closely watched.

  • Surprise player: Wilkerson. He's the wild card of this group, the tight end who will make his first appearance to PSU fans at the Blue-White Game. He's a tough player who was projected at defensive end when he committed to PSU last season, but he's already left his mark on this coaching staff. "Brent Wilkerson really impressed us on the practice field," O'Brien said Monday.

  • Overall: If Carter wasn't injured, it would be easy to say that this group would be ready to take a giant step with everyone returning. James was a force in the last few games, and Lehman really came out of nowhere to earn playing time. But the success of this group will likely come down to just how well Carter rebounds from his injury. He's this offense's best receiving threat outside of Robinson, and his freshman season could just be a warmup for what's in store. He could still make spring practice and, even if he misses it, he'll still be able to practice in the preseason and train during the offseason. Carter will likely be fine in the end -- but injuries like this are always a concern.

Big Ten's best assistants in 2012

December, 12, 2012
12/12/12
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Head coaches are like quarterbacks. They get too much credit and too much blame.

Assistant coaches are like nose tackles. They don't get nearly enough credit despite playing vital roles.

Today, we'll change it up and give some recognition to Big Ten assistant coaches who did exemplary jobs with their position groups or, in some cases, units in 2012. Each of these coaches fostered improvement this season. Some took units in bad shape and made them better. Others took units in decent shape and made them very good. Some entered the season with skeptics and quieted them.

We came up with 13 assistants who deserve recognition. Yes, we realize we're leaving out some quality folks, but we had to cap it somewhere and wanted to spread the love around to the different teams.

Here's the rundown in alphabetical order:

Chris Ash, Wisconsin, defensive coordinator/secondary: All the attention on the offense's turbulent season took the spotlight away from the good things happening on the defensive side. Wisconsin finished in the top 25 nationally in total defense, scoring defense, rushing defense and pass efficiency defense. The Badgers held nine opponents to 21 points or fewer and gave an inconsistent offense chances to win every time out. Ash will be missed as he joins ex-Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema at Arkansas.

[+] EnlargeTim Beck, Bo Pelini
AP Photo/Nati Harnik, FileTim Beck, right, coordinated Nebraska's Big Ten-leading offense for head coach Bo Pelini.
Tim Beck, Nebraska, offensive coordinator/quarterbacks: The second-year play caller oversaw the Big Ten's top offense, which averaged 462.2 yards per game (24th nationally) and 35.1 points per game (28th nationally). Junior quarterback Taylor Martinez made significant strides under Beck's watch, and Nebraska survived the loss of star running back Rex Burkhead for most of the season thanks to contributions from Ameer Abdullah and others.

Tracy Claeys, Minnesota, defensive coordinator: An improved defense sparked Minnesota to a 4-0 start and eventually to bowl eligibility for the first time since the 2009 season. The Gophers pass rush showed life for the first time in years as senior end D.L. Wilhite and others put pressure on opposing quarterbacks. Minnesota was especially good against the pass, ranking 11th nationally and 20th in pass defense efficiency. Although the offense remains a work in progress, Minnesota should be pleased with the direction on defense under Claeys.

Adam Cushing, Northwestern, offensive line: Cushing's recruiting ability always has stood out, but his coaching skills had been questioned as Northwestern struggled to convert promising line prospects into powerful blockers. The Wildcats went from a finesse offense to a power offense this season, blasting off of the line to the tune of 230.9 rush yards per game. Red zone offense went from a weakness to a strength as Northwestern tied for 17th nationally. Cushing's line paved the way for star running back Venric Mark.

Rich Fisher, Nebraska, wide receivers: Nebraska isn't known for its wide receiver play, but things are changing under Fisher's watch. Led by standout sophomore Kenny Bell, the Huskers' top three receivers combined for 1,657 yards and 11 touchdowns on 115 receptions. Just as important, the receiving corps helped Nebraska's bread-and-butter run game with effective blocking throughout the season. Fisher's hiring after the 2010 season raised some eyebrows, as he had taken a break from college coaching, returned to the high school ranks and also served as a golf instructor in Massachusetts. But he definitely looks like a great addition to Bo Pelini's staff.

Patrick Higgins, Purdue, wide receivers: Higgins played a significant role in Purdue's late-season surge, as he took over the offensive play-calling duties after coordinator Gary Nord suffered a severe back injury. Purdue won its final three games with Higgins and head coach Danny Hope handling the play calls. Higgins also did a nice job with Purdue's wide receiving corps, despite the fluctuating quarterback situation. Three veteran Boilers receivers eclipsed 40 catches and 300 receiving yards, and redshirt freshman Dolapo Macarthy showed promise.

Seth Littrell, Indiana, offensive coordinator/tight ends/fullbacks: Head coach Kevin Wilson brought in Littrell to boost Indiana's passing attack, and Littrell delivered despite losing starting quarterback Tre Roberson in Week 2. Indiana went from 80th nationally in pass offense to 19th, leading the Big Ten with 311.2 yards per game. With help from assistant offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach Kevin Johns, Littrell managed the quarterback situation pretty well as both Cameron Coffman and Nate Sudfeld had success. Littrell will go largely unnoticed because of Indiana's low profile and 4-8 record, but he was one of the Big Ten's best coaching additions for 2012.

Curt Mallory, Michigan, secondary: Michigan's defensive line dominates the spotlight because that's where coordinator Greg Mattison and head coach Brady Hoke put their primary focus, but Mallory has done a really nice job with a secondary that struggled mightily under the previous regime. Despite losing promising cornerback Blake Countess to a torn ACL in the season opener, Michigan still finished second nationally (behind Nebraska) in pass defense (155.2 ypg allowed). Safety Jordan Kovacs has blossomed under Mallory's watch, and while the depth in the secondary isn't where it will be eventually, Mallory has managed things well.

[+] EnlargeBart MIller
Jeff Hanisch/USA TODAY SportsBart Miller went from grad assistant to coach of a Wisconsin O-line that pummeled its way to Pasadena.
Bart Miller, Wisconsin, offensive line: Miller began the season as a graduate assistant and moved into one of the team's top assistant roles in Week 3 after the surprising dismissal of veteran line coach Mike Markuson. Although Wisconsin's line didn't have its typical dominant performances every time out, Miller fostered obvious improvement and cohesion during the course of the season. The finished product showed up in the Big Ten championship game against Nebraska, as Wisconsin bullied the Huskers to the tune of 70 points, 539 rushing yards and eight rushing touchdowns.

Reese Morgan, Iowa, defensive line: Iowa didn't have much to cheer about in 2012, and some of the staff changes Kirk Ferentz made led to some growing pains. Morgan faced a significant challenge in moving from offensive line to defensive line, which returned only a handful of players who had logged field time in 2011. Given the youth and inexperience along the Hawkeyes' defensive front, Morgan did a nice job in Year 1. Joe Gaglione had a nice senior season (9 tackles for loss, 5 sacks, 2 forced fumbles) and young players like Louis Trinca-Pasat showed promise. The line held its own in the first half of the season before struggling late.

Pat Narduzzi, Michigan State, defensive coordinator: Many of these assistants took questionable units and improved them. Narduzzi led an elite defense that entered the season with high expectations and met them. Make no mistake: Michigan State's defense is the only reason the team found itself in every game this season. The Spartans had a few standouts, namely linebacker Max Bullough, but their overall team defense and stinginess stood out. Narduzzi is one of the nation's premier coordinators and should land a head-coaching job in the near future.

John Strollo, Penn State, tight ends: Although O'Brien's offense is a tight end's dream, Strollo did a terrific job of developing young and unproven players this season. Redshirt freshman Kyle Carter emerged into one of the Nittany Lions' top passing threats, and junior Matt Lehman and true freshman Jesse James also stepped up at times. Of Penn State's top five receiving-yards leaders this season, three players are tight ends (Carter, Lehman and James).

Ed Warinner, Ohio State, offensive line/co-offensive coordinator: Warinner took an underachieving Buckeyes offensive line with serious depth questions and turned it into quite possibly the best line in the league. The Buckeyes' front five turned a corner in Big Ten play and created lanes for Braxton Miller, Carlos Hyde and the Big Ten's top scoring offense. Warinner was the Big Ten's best assistant hire of the last offseason and earns our vote as the league's top assistant in 2012.

Position review: Complete overview 

December, 5, 2012
12/05/12
10:00
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Penn StateAP Photo/Gene J. PuskarPenn State rebounded from an 0-2 start to finish 8-4 in 2012.

During the last two weeks, NittanyNation has reviewed each of Penn State's positions -- complete with summaries, grades, highlights and weaknesses.

For the final review, NittanyNation gives a quick-hitting overview of each position, along with each unit's unsung hero:

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