Penn State Nittany Lions: Michael O'Connor
#AskLoogs besides OSU and Michigan are there any other Big 10 teams surprisingly well in recruiting ?
— Dale Cary (@Dcary31) December 26, 2013
Despite the sanctions, we believe Penn State has done a phenomenal job. The one thing that has happened that no one saw coming is that the caliber of player they are attracting is much better than anticipated. Two years ago, no one would have guessed that the Nittany Lions would be able to keep Christian Hackenberg, let alone get a commitment from another top QB in Michael O'Connor (Bradenton, Fla./IMG). Anyone think they would get a DT like Thomas Holley (Brooklyn, N.Y./Lincoln)? I doubt it. The numbers may be down, but the talent may not be. If they can snag some quality walk-ons, the rest of the Big Ten needs to be on alert. Wisconsin and Northwestern are showing some prowess and the Badgers are getting faster with this class. The issue with many of the Big Ten programs in recruiting is a lack of a national brand or identity. The conference is top heavy, but others, most notably Michigan State, will always be able to compete because they recruit to develop and do a great job in evaluations.
By indispensable, we don't necessarily mean best. We mean the players who would be hardest to replace between now and the start of the season if they got hurt/suspended/encounter a White Walker, etc. That could be because of their value to the team or because of a lack of depth at their position.
We'll pick two players from each team, usually offense and defense, but not always. We're getting close to the finish line with the series, and one of our final stops hits up the Penn State Nittany Lions.
Well, yeah. If there's any young player more valuable to Penn State's long-term success than Hackenberg, we'd like to meet him. After throwing for nearly 3,000 yards as a true freshman, Hackenberg backed up all his recruiting hype and probably makes James Franklin smile every time he thinks about his quarterback. What makes Hackenberg even more indispensable is the lack of experience behind him. Should something happen to the young star, the Nittany Lions would likely turn to true freshman Michael O'Connor or walk-ons Austin Whipple and D.J. Crook. So keeping Hackenberg healthy is a major priority for Penn State in 2014.
Donovan Smith, OT, Jr.
Hey, remember when we said protecting Hackenberg was a major priority? Well, to say Penn State's offensive line is in flux would be an understatement. With Miles Dieffenbach reportedly out with a knee injury, Smith is the only returning starter on the line. And he just so happens to be the left tackle and guardian of Hackenberg's blind side. Smith provides one of the few anchors Franklin can count on up front right now, and if he were to become unavailable, the scramble really would be on. Redshirt freshman Brendan Mahon could be the guy who steps in for Smith if the need arose. It's safe to say Penn State doesn't want to find out what that would look like.
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. – James Franklin kept many of his skill players off the field for most of Penn State's annual scrimmage, but there were certainly still other aspects to glean from the game.
Christian Hackenberg played in just three series, and Michael O’Connor took over for the rest of the game for the Blue team. Blue, which consisted mostly of starters, ended up with the 37-0 victory -- some players even tugged the victory bell -- as we learned a few more things about the Nittany Lions:
In the game’s longest play, wideout Geno Lewis took a reverse and threw a ball to a wide-open Matt Zanellato, who sprinted in untouched for a 56-yard touchdown. Lewis said they didn’t run the play once in practice. But Franklin didn’t mind calling Lewis’ name out of the blue -- and Lewis didn’t mind much, either.
2. The offensive line could really be in trouble. Penn State implemented a running clock from the second quarter on, but the gray-jerseyed offensive line gave up nine sacks. The running game also had trouble taking off in the beginning, as both the Blue and White teams combined for 21 yards on their first 16 carries. At one point, Penn State had 12 completions to 10 punts. And it was 0-for-12 on the first dozen third-down attempts. They fared better in the second half, but there was obviously still cause for concern.
Center Wendy Laurent went down with an injury in the second quarter and did not re-enter the game. The severity of Laurent’s injury is unknown and, with Franklin’s policy to not discuss injuries, clarity probably won’t be lended to the situation anytime soon. Offensive guard Anthony Alosi, who is facing criminal charges, is also "suspended indefinitely," according to Franklin.
3. Penn State could utilize more nickel this season. Minutes after the game, Franklin said the Nittany Lions could often operate under a “star” defense, which is similar to the nickel. Basically, he wants to use two true linebackers and a “big safety.” It’s something Franklin said he and the staff are going to evaluate over the offseason -- and that might be a reason why Von Walker moved to linebacker this spring. Walker could earn a role there, possibly as a backup, and he made a nice play in the third quarter by tipping a pass and then making a critical block once it was intercepted.
Defensive line coach Sean Spencer previously said the defense could use some four-DE looks this season, so fans could see some unique things on this unit. Overall, the defense appears to be in good shape. Franklin praised the defensive line several times this spring, and he said Saturday that it’s certainly a little ahead of the offense right now.
4. Kicking game still needs some work. Sam Ficken missed an extra point and Chris Gulla averaged just 39.2 yards a punt on a dozen punts. Assistant Charles Huff said the return game has shown a lot of improvement since the spring, but that was one area that wasn’t showcased Saturday. During punts, for example, the entire return team consisted of just one player making a fair catch. Penn State’s special teams should still be improved from last season, as there’s nowhere to really go but up. Huff wasn’t sure what happened on the missed extra point. Regardless, the kicking game obviously needs to show consistency.
When: Saturday, 1:30 p.m. ET
Where: Beaver Stadium, State College, Pa.
Admission: Free; parking is also free and is first-come, first-served
TV: Big Ten Network (will air at 6 p.m.)
Weather forecast: Mostly sunny and mild, with a high near 67 degrees.
What to watch for: After two seasons of a head-scratching scoring system, where sacks and big plays netted points, James Franklin is taking the spring game back to its roots. It'll be structured like a traditional game, so a math whiz like John Urschel won't have to be on hand to tally the score.
Christian Hackenberg is the unquestioned leader of this offense, and he's the player whom all eyes will be on. He capped off his Big Ten freshman of the year campaign with an upset over then-No. 15 Wisconsin, a 24-point favorite, and big things are once again expected of him. He still hasn't been on campus for a full year, but he has said the college game has finally slowed down for him -- and that should be an unnerving thing for opposing defenses to hear.
The big question mark not just on the offense but on the team revolves around the offensive line. Franklin voiced concern about depth before spring practice even started, and it's only gotten worse. The Nittany Lions have reportedly lost their most-experienced lineman, guard Miles Dieffenbach; right tackle Andrew Nelson has missed several practices and was seen limping Tuesday; and backup guard Anthony Alosi is facing criminal charges and his status with the team is uncertain.
As a result, Franklin said Saturday that the offensive line will wear gray jerseys and likely play for both the Blue and White teams. He's still hoping to field two units with the offensive line, but it's not even known whether Penn State will be able to do that much, at least with scholarship players. Its depth is that concerning.
Elsewhere, Penn State will feature several new faces and feature veterans at different positions. Cornerback Adrian Amos is back at safety, OLB Mike Hull is taking over the MLB spot, and defensive end Anthony Zettel has moved inside. On offense, Hackenberg will have to focus on some new targets, notably Geno Lewis and freshman early enrollee De'Andre Thompkins. Thompkins has already turned heads, as he clocked the fastest 40-yard dash time on the team. His ability will be showcased for the first time Saturday, as will that of backup quarterback Michael O'Connor, whom was ranked as the No. 6 QB recruit in the nation.
With national signing day in the books, RecruitingNation is looking at the top position classes. For the full series, click here.
Nationally (and SEC)
The Florida Gators had a major need at quarterback in the Class of 2014, and Will Muschamp and staff more than filled it, signing two of the nation’s top signal-callers. Third-ranked dual-threat prospect Will Grier (Davidson, N.C./Davidson Day School) is already on campus and preparing for spring practice, while No. 7 dual-threat prospect Treon Harris (Miami/Booker T. Washington) was a huge signing-day flip from Florida State. Both prospects are great athletes who are accustomed to operating uptempo offenses. This should also help newly hired offensive coordinator Kurt Roper, who will install a similar scheme in Gainesville.
The Gators had the nation's best QB class; here's which schools had the best in each of the remaining power conferences:
- Purdue athletic director Morgan Burke says unions have no place in the college sports model.
- Canadian-born quarterback and early enrollee Michael O'Connor is adjusting to life at Penn State.
- Ohio State's chase of 2014 prospects, including a one-time Michigan State commit, won't end today. The Buckeyes managed to keep Jamarco Jones in the fold.
- Quarterback Clayton Thorson headlines Northwestern's class.
- Michigan State DT Mark Scarpinato is retiring from football to pursue his dream of becoming a doctor.
- Nebraska's class looks pretty solid, all things considered.
- This should be Minnesota's best class yet under Jerry Kill.
- Iowa has mined its state for recruits in this class. Kirk Ferentz rarely wins on signing day, but he does win on the field.
- Receivers and linemen highlight Gary Andersen's first full recruiting class at Wisconsin.
- Illinois' Stone-Davis twins, who were supposed to be early enrollees, now won't arrive on campus until May.
Senior national recruiting analyst Tom Luginbill and Big Ten recruiting reporter Tom VanHaaren spared time from their busy schedules to answer these questions:
Ohio State and Michigan again lead the way in the Big Ten recruiting rankings. How much late drama do you expect with those two programs?
He will take his decision out to signing day, so there is a battle going on there, but there's still a chance he ends up at Michigan State or Florida State. He has kept everything close to the vest and it's anyone's guess as to where he ends up. Ohio State could have a little drama, but that happens when you land top ranked prospects.
Tom Luginbill: I really just expect to see where McDowell falls.
What other Big Ten programs have impressed you?
TL: Penn State and Wisconsin. Badgers coach Gary Andersen is adding more speed and athleticism to this class, including QB D.J. Gillins (Jacksonville, Fla./Ribault). They would love to close with CB Chris Lammons (Fort Lauderdale, Fla./Plantation).
TVH: Michigan State has put together a good class. I really like ESPN 300 defensive back Montae Nicholson (Monroeville, Pa./Gateway) for the Spartans defense. I think Northwestern has put together a really good class as well with three ESPN 300 commitments. The Wildcats added in-state defensive back Parrker Westphal (Bolingbrook, Ill./Bolingbrook), which was a big get for them. Illinois did a lot to help fill immediate needs as well. The Illini lose four receivers and brought in some junior college prospects to compete right away.
How much impact has James Franklin made on Penn State's recruiting in a short time?
TVH: It seems to be all positive for now. It's not surprising that he has flipped so many Vanderbilt commitments to Penn State, because he was the coach who recruited them. The recruits, however, that have flipped will all tell you that he is the guy they want to play for. There is already some excitement in the 2015 class and in the Pennsylvania area, so I think Penn State fans are going to be very happy with what Franklin and his staff does in the near future.
TL: Significant, but it should be noted that Michael O'Connor (Bradenton, Fla./IMG Academy), De'Andre Thompkins (Swansboro, N.C./Swansboro) and Chris Godwin (Middletown, Del./Middletown) all enrolled early prior to his hire, but after Bill O’Brien departed, which tells you of their commitment to the program. Since his hiring, Penn State has added seven verbal commits, including flipping Rutgers commit WR Saeed Blacknall (Manalapan, N.J./Manalapan) this past week.
How much of an effect, if any, has Michigan State's on-field success had in its recruiting so far?
TL: Minimal. They do what they do. The biggest myth is that they are made up of 2- and 3-star players, which is not true. It has been 4- or 3- star players the past three to four classes The Spartans develop players as well as anyone. They don’t give in to external pressures to recruit anyone and they identify not only good players, but the right players for them.
TVH: It had some impact in the 2014 class, but because that class was already almost over by the time the Spartans won the Rose Bowl, the real affect will likely be on 2015 and 2016 prospects. Michigan State already has one of the top in-state prospects committed with Kyonta Stallworth (St. Clair Shores, Mich./South Lake) and there is a realistic chance the Spartans could land most of the top prospects from the state of Michigan. They have already heard from some prospects that they otherwise would have been out of the running for, so I think 2015 could be where you see some of those affects.
How have Maryland and Rutgers done in recruiting, and are their efforts up to Big Ten standards?
TVH: Rutgers has suffered a lot of decommitments in the 2014 class. It seems like this is a whole new class from what it used to be. The most recent was Blacknall, who flipped to Penn State. Maryland has had a better time recruiting in this class, but is still outside the top 40 in the class rankings. The Terrapins have had a lot of injuries to deal with, so I think once they get healthy and get back on track they will start to see a little more success. Now that they're in the Big Ten they can tell local recruits that they can stay close to home and still play in big stadiums and on national television, which will be a big draw.
TL: Rutgers is crumbling. At one time they had four ESPN 300 prospects and all have decommitted. This is not a good start for the Knights heading into the Big Ten. We very much like the top third of Maryland’s class, and the middle third has upside, but there is a significant drop off in talent in the bottom third, in our opinion.
What teams do you view as disappointing with this class?
TL: Rutgers. The rest have essentially been as expected for the most part.
TVH: Can I cop out and give everyone a trophy? I don't think anyone has a really disappointing class. I imagine Rutgers' coaches aren't thrilled with the way things have gone, but for the Big Ten teams from this season I think most of them have done a really nice job filling needs and getting a few big recruits in the class.
Finally, name a few players who we can expect to have an immediate impact in the 2014 season.
TVH: Jabrill Peppers (Paramus, N.J./Paramus Catholic) is probably the first name that sticks out. He is the No. 2-ranked prospect in the country for a reason and could end being an outstanding college football player once he's done. I expect him to play early in some capacity. Potentially, a guy like Dominique Booth (Indianapolis/Pike) at Indiana at receiver, running back Jeff Jones (Minneapolis/Washburn) if he sticks with Minnesota, Johnnie Dixon (Palm Beach Gardens, Fla./Dwyer) at Ohio State and maybe juco defensive lineman Joe Keels (Kenosha, Wisc./Highland (Kan.) Community College) at Nebraska.
TL: Peppers, (Ohio State LB) Raekwon McMillan (Hinesville, Ga./Liberty County) and Jones, if he sticks.
There have been commitments and decommitments across the board in the Big Ten, which means there has been movement among the class rankings.
As signing day approaches, teams will be looking to fill the final spots in their class. Here is a look at trends and a few items to watch within the conference:
Trending up: No Big Ten teams moved up in the class rankings for this week, but that doesn’t mean schools aren’t improving.
Penn State has been on a tear recently with James Franklin and his staff on board. Despite losing ESPN 300 defensive tackle Thomas Holley (Brooklyn, N.Y./Lincoln) to Florida and defensive back Troy Vincent Jr. (Baltimore/Gilman) to NC State, the Nittany Lions have added some big pieces as well.
The most recent was three-star athlete Trace McSorley (Ashburn, Va./Briar Woods), who flipped his commitment from Vanderbilt to Penn State. McSorley was originally recruited as a defensive back by Franklin at Vanderbilt, but then the offer was switched to quarterback while he was committed to the Commodores.
McSorley will add some depth and competition at the quarterback spot for Penn State, as Christian Hackenberg and early enrollee Michael O’Connor are the only other quarterbacks on the roster.
Indiana has also been on a nice run, picking up five commitments in the past week, from linebacker Tegray Scales (Cincinnati/Colerain), running back Tommy Mister (Chicago/St. Rita), athlete Waynedriko Smith (Orlando, Fla./Orangewood Christian) and defensive backs Zeke Walker (Cayce, S.C./Brookland-Cayce) and Tony Fields (Tallahassee, Fla./Godby).
Trending down: Michigan hasn’t lost any commitments in the 2014 class, but the Wolverines lost ESPN Junior 300 running back Damien Harris (Berea, Ky./Madison Southern) over the weekend.
Harris is the No. 1-ranked running back and No. 17 overall in the 2015 class. Losing Harris and fellow ESPN Junior 300 member George Campbell (Tarpon Springs, Fla./East Lake) is a big blow to the 2015 class.
Add in the fact that Michigan’s main remaining target for the 2014 class, Malik McDowell (Southfield, Mich./Southfield) could end up not picking Michigan and could end up at rival Michigan State or Ohio State, that’s more bad news for Michigan.
The Wolverines haven’t landed a commitment since August and steadily have been moving down the class rankings. If the coaches miss on McDowell, that would mean they missed on three major targets: McDowell, five-star defensive end Da’Shawn Hand (Woodbridge, Va./Woodbridge) to Alabama and in-state defensive end Jhonathon Williams (Berrien Springs, Mich./Berrien Springs) to Notre Dame.
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De'Andre Thompkins, ATH (Swansboro, N.C./Swansboro)
HT: 5-11; WT: 176
Positional Rank: No. 8 ATH
ESPN 300: No. 73
Under Armour All-American
Michael O'Connor, QB-PP (Bradenton, Fla./IMG)
HT: 6-5; WT: 223
Positional Rank: No. 6 QB-PP
ESPN 300: No. 132
Under Armour All-American
Antoine White, DT (Millville, N.J./Millville)
HT: 6-3; WT: 265
Positional Rank: No. 80 DT
Chasz Wright, OT (Woodbridge, Va./Milford Academy)
HT: 6-7; WT: 295
Positional Rank: N/A (post-grad)
ESPN JC 50 defensive tackle Tarow Barney (Bainbridge, Ga./Northwest Mississippi CC) signed in December, according to GoPSUSports.com.
Ohio State has been on a roll on the recruiting trail in the past few weeks. The commitments the Buckeyes have landed, along with a few other happenings in the Big Ten, have impacted the class rankings.
Here is a look at the most recent trends within the Big Ten.
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O’Connor, the No. 5 pocket passer in the ESPN 300, was supposed to be an early enrollee at Penn State but without a head coach in place, his recruitment is up in the air. His former high school coach, Victor Tedondo, said O’Connor isn’t quite sure whether he will still enroll early at Penn State.
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As the calendar year winds down, there is still plenty to talk about within recruiting. Big Ten teams have been on a roll on the recruiting trail as of late, and each program is hoping that continues into signing day.
Here are five things for fans to watch as we head into the holiday season.
Under Armour Game
There are six Big Ten teams represented in the Under Armour All-America game this year with Michigan, Michigan State, Minnesota, Nebraska, Ohio State and Penn State all having commitments scheduled to play in the game.
The game will be played Jan. 2 in St. Petersburg, Fla., but there will be plenty to watch before the big game. The participants will go through tough practices and skill competitions leading up to the event, which always has some interesting storylines.
The practices put the best players in the country against each other, so it’s a good measuring stick of top prospects.
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But that doesn't mean it's too late -- or too early -- to see what we learned from this past season and also look ahead to next season. So, over the next two weeks, we'll break down each position on the Nittany Lions.
Up today: Quarterbacks.
O'Brien slowly brought Hackenberg into his own, sticking to short passes and plenty of runs against Syracuse and then challenging him more as the weeks progressed. Hackenberg was ESPN's top-rated quarterback of the 2012 class so expectations soared for the young QB. He was expected to be one of, if not the, top true freshman in the Big Ten.
How they fared: Hackenberg wasn't perfect, but it's pretty difficult to say he did anything other than exceed expectations. He was the Big Ten freshman-of-the-year and finished with 2,955 yards to go along with 20 TDs and 10 picks.
He helped lead PSU to two comebacks -- against Illinois and Michigan -- and played beyond his years. He's calm, cool, collected ... and he's quickly become a point for pride in Happy Valley.
What we learned: Under Jay Paterno, quarterback was a concern nearly every season. And, if there was any doubt before, it's pretty clear now: Quarterback is not a concern anymore. O'Brien coached up Matt McGloin to the NFL and then helped a rookie quarterback to an efficient season (2:1 TD-to-INT ratio) after he spent about two months on campus before his career debut. This position is now a strength, and there's nothing anemic about this passing attack.
Grading the position: B. For a freshman, he gets an A+ -- but we're not grading on a curve here. O'Brien offered the same grade earlier in the season, although there are likely quite a few A's awaiting this position the next few seasons. Hackenberg overthrew quite a few balls and sometimes targeted Allen Robinson without scanning the field. He's a good QB, but he's not great ... yet.
Key losses: QB Tyler Ferguson. His transfer wasn't a surprise but, as long as Hackenberg stays healthy, there's obviously no reason to panic. ESPN 300 QB Michael O'Connor (Bradenton, Fla./IMG Academy) will join the team in January, and O'Brien is hoping to add another scholarship signal-caller before the 2014 season.
Position stock watch: Trending upward. Other positions might be a bit trickier to figure out, but it would be pretty difficult to find someone who thinks Hackenberg -- and, by extension, the quarterback position -- won't be improved next season. If Hackenberg plays like he did against then-No. 15 Wisconsin (21-of-30, 339 yards, 4 TDs, 0 INTs), the Nittany Lions should be just fine. He's only begun to tap his potential and, if he can improve accuracy on those long balls, PSU's offense could take a giant step forward.
Key to next season: Replacing Robinson. Robinson still hasn't officially declared early for the NFL, but there's a pretty big likelihood that he will. And, if he does, that'll be a huge blow to the offense/passing game -- and the key will be finding someone, or some group, to step up. No one will match Robinson's production, and it doesn't help that the rest of the WR corps is a bit iffy -- so the tight ends could be more important than ever. Eugene Lewis will also be asked to handle a bigger workload, and one of the incoming freshman could wind up playing a big role.
This isn't just the key to the quarterback position. It's the key to the entire offense.
Defensive tackle Thomas Holley (Brooklyn, N.Y./Lincoln) has committed to Penn State according to his head coach. Holley, No. 87 in the ESPN 300, chose the Nittany Lions over Florida on Monday.
Holley, the No. 7 ranked defensive tackle in the class, is a huge addition to Penn State’s 2014 class. At 6-foot-4, 303 pounds, he is third defensive tackle commit for coach Bill O’Brien.
Holley took his official visit to Penn State in October and took a trip out to Florida in late November. He also received in-home visits from both coaching staffs, but ultimately chose the Nittany Lions.
The middle of the line was important to build depth as senior DaQuan Jones is graduating and Kyle Baublitz will not be returning next season. Jones, 6-3 and 318 pounds, was awarded as Penn State’s most outstanding senior player at the annual end of the year banquet.
Holley will eventually help fill that void, as he has similar size and a similar build as Jones.
He also adds to a growing class already ranked No. 26 in the ESPN class rankings. His commitment gives the Nittany Lions eight commitments ranked as four-stars and nine three-star commitments.
Holley joins De'Andre Thompkins (Swansboro, N.C./Swansboro), Michael O'Connor (Bradenton, Fla./IMG Academy) and Chris Godwin (Middletown, Del./Middletown) as the four ESPN 300 commits in this class.