Penn State Nittany Lions: Miles Dieffenbach

Summer is a time in college football where the only news is usually bad news. With that in mind, we're looking at the most indispensable players on each Big Ten team.

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.

[+] EnlargeChristian Hackenberg
Dan Sanger/Icon SMIChristian Hackenberg turned heads as a true freshman, passing for 2,955 yards and 20 TDs.
Christian Hackenberg, QB, Soph.

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.
The NCAA penalties some described as worse than death were supposed to cripple Penn State for years to come, but the Nittany Lions, so far, have survived and, at times, thrived.

Good coaching and good players have buoyed the program in rough waters, and the bountiful recruiting start to the James Franklin era could prevent the drop-off many believed to be inevitable.

But there are spots on the roster where Penn State is struggling with the numbers game. None is more glaring than the offensive line.

[+] EnlargeDonovan Smith
Justin K. Aller/Getty ImagesDonovan Smith should be a rock at tackle for Penn State, but the rest of the Nittany Lions' OL is in a state of flux.
Arguably no position group in the Big Ten has fewer guarantees than the Lions' line. Three starters are gone from last season's squad. One of the two returnees, Miles Dieffenbach, reportedly suffered a serious knee injury this spring. Two days before spring practice began, the coaches moved defensive tackles Brian Gaia and Derek Dowrey to guard. Both immediately entered the starting rotation. Penn State exited the spring with just two healthy players -- tackle Donovan Smith and guard/center Angelo Mangiro -- who had lettered as offensive linemen in 2013.

"We have some talented guys," Penn State offensive line coach Herb Hand told ESPN.com. "We just don't have a wealth of them."

The good news: Hand has been here before. When Hand arrived at Vanderbilt in August 2010 -- Bobby Johnson had retired in July, and interim coach Robbie Caldwell made Hand his first hire -- he inherited 12 offensive linemen, five of whom were true freshmen.

He had just weeks to prepare them for the season. So he went to work.

"That's a challenge, but as those guys grow together, they're like balls of clay," Hand said. "They're guys you can mold and you can form and you can develop into exactly what you want them to be."

Exactly what Hand wanted back then at Vanderbilt, and now at Penn State, are linemen who aren't limited to one position. Centers that can play guard. Swing tackles. Guards who can move outside if need be. Tackles who can line up on either side.

Wesley Johnson started four seasons for Hand at Vanderbilt, finishing his career with the most starts (51) in team history and the longest active streak in the SEC at the time. He earned several awards, including SEC All-Freshman in 2010 and first-team All-SEC in 2013.

But perhaps his biggest achievement was playing all five line positions during his career. Although he started at left tackle throughout his final season, he was also the first option if Vanderbilt needed another center.

Hand needs the same flexibility from Penn State's linemen this season.

"We've always had to develop our depth through guys playing multiple positions," he said. "It’s almost like a basketball team. You've got your starting five and then you've got your sixth man, you've got your seventh man, and so on. That's the way we approach developing our offensive line. Let's get to where we have six guys, seven guys, eight guys who we can count on.

"That way, we can always get our top five on the field at any given time."

Mangiro played four positions during the Blue-White spring game. Brendan Mahon began the spring at left guard and finished it at right tackle. Wendy Laurent took reps at both guard spots and center.

Hand describes Dieffenbach as a "guy who could play all five spots."

"Typically, you'd like to have [6-foot-6] at tackle and 6-3 at guard and 6-3 at center," Franklin said. "Well, we might have 6-3 at tackle and 6-3 at center. It is what it is."

The only lineman likely to be left alone, namely because he protects quarterback Christian Hackenberg's blind side, is Smith. The 6-foot-5, 322-pound junior enters his third season as the starter and, according to Hand, has "got to be our bell cow."

Hand saw Smith improve his communication and work ethic throughout the spring as he learned a new system. Smith enjoys Hand's "Lions of scrimmage" mantra for the group, and the aggressive style the new coaches have brought to the offense.

"Being an older guy, being here for some years, it's definitely a lot of responsibility," Smith said. "It's going to make me better. You get older, people graduate and it's the next guy up. It's the way college football works."

Despite their inexperience on offense, Dowrey and Gaia also welcome the opportunity to be relied upon. Hand saw few players on either side of the ball improve more from the start of the spring until the end.

"I can't even tell that they played defense just last season," Smith said. "Their spring has been amazing. They probably had a better spring that I had in previous springs. I trust them playing next to me.

"If we had to play a game tomorrow, I'd be very comfortable with our offensive line."

Like many of Franklin's assistants, Hand has put an emphasis on building bonds among his group. The chemistry appears strong. The next step is to further absorb the system after the linemen "hit the ground walking" this spring, Hand said.

Hand is still waiting to coach a group with 10 game-ready offensive linemen. He usually has eight. That might be wishful thinking this season at Penn State.

"That's the one spot on the team we need to grow as fast as we can as far as depth," offensive coordinator John Donovan said.

It won't be easy, but if the Lions can win the numbers game on the offensive line, they'll be in better shape to win the ones on the scoreboard.

Penn State spring wrap

April, 28, 2014
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The spring workouts are in the books, and the long offseason has arrived. But before diving into summer and the painful wait for football to return, we’re taking a look back at the developments from March and April and sneaking a peek at what to expect in the fall for Penn State.

Three things we learned in the spring
  • Christian Hackenberg is as good as advertised: Few Penn State quarterbacks have ever had the arm strength or the potential of Hackenberg, and he's only gained more hype this offseason with a strong spring. Whether it was throwing bullets on the run or staying poised in the pocket, he's made a lot of fans excited. Sporting News already wondered if he might be the NFL's top pick in two years.
  • The secondary is looking much better: This was the Achilles' heel of the Nittany Lions the past two seasons, but those days appear to be over. Cornerback Jordan Lucas is an established player who now has taken on a vocal role with the defense, and Adrian Amos is much more comfortable at safety. PSU didn't have that comfort at this point last season, and the Lions have some talented freshmen coming in over the summer.
  • James Franklin is "dominating the region" in recruiting: Since ESPN started keeping track of recruiting in 2006, Penn State never garnered more than five commits before April 10. Well, this year, it already has a dozen -- including six in the ESPN 300. Franklin promised on Day 1 that he would dominate the state and region in recruiting. And it would be hard to argue with his results; Penn State is currently ranked No. 3 nationally with its 2015 class.
Three questions for the fall
  • What will happen on the offensive line?: Between depth and inexperience, assistant coach Herb Hand will have to work some magic in his first season with Penn State. The most experienced returner, Miles Dieffenbach, is reportedly out for the season with an injury while key backup Anthony Alosi is "indefinitely suspended." Even if the rest of this group stays healthy, there's no telling what it might look like when one player needs a breather.
  • Emerging players at wideout: Penn State has to replace two-time B1G receiver of the year Allen Robinson, and it can't rely solely on redshirt sophomore Geno Lewis. As a result, three of the Lions' prized freshman receivers, all of whom made the ESPN 300, could make an immediate impact: De'Andre Thompkins, Chris Godwin and Saeed Blacknall. Only Thompkins is on campus already.
  • New defensive schemes: Franklin recently alluded to a "star" base defense -- basically, the nickel -- which replaces a true linebacker with a "big safety." Franklin and defensive coordinator Bob Shoop admitted at the spring game they're not yet sure whether they're going to go with that or the 4-3, but that eventual decision is going to set a critical tone.
One way-too-early prediction

Defensive tackle Anthony Zettel will have a breakout season for the Nittany Lions. He played a backup role the past two seasons, switching between defensive end and tackle. But now he's starting inside -- and he has the kind of speed that could really frustrate quarterbacks and opposing linemen. Expect to hear his name a lot as the season progresses.

Things to watch in Blue-White Game

April, 11, 2014
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STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- There will be plenty to watch when the Blue-White Game kicks off at 1:30 p.m. Saturday, but here's a look at some of the more interesting storylines:

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.

[+] EnlargeChristian Hackenberg
Dan Sanger/Icon SMIChristian Hackenberg looks poised to build on a sensational freshman season.
There's a lot of uncertainty on this line, and the bigger questions are at guard. Brendan Mahon practiced at right tackle last week, so it's possible that converted defensive tackles Brian Gaia and Derek Dowrey could start inside during the Blue-White Game. At the very least, the two are sure to get considerable playing time on Saturday, and it will be interesting to see how they've progressed since learning of the position changes about a month ago. Left tackle Donovan Smith said Thursday that he has had to slow his pace a little bit as a result of playing alongside an inexperienced teammate.

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.

Spring game preview: Penn State

April, 10, 2014
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STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Saturday features a full slate of Big Ten spring scrimmages, and we're breaking down each one through Friday. Here's a closer look at what to expect from Penn State's Blue-White Game:

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.
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- There are several ways to combat the unique depth challenges Penn State faces with its reduced roster.

1. Upgrade recruiting: If Penn State brings in more players who can make significant contributions early in their careers, it should have fewer gaping holes on the depth chart. Not surprisingly, James Franklin and his assistants are already succeeding here. Penn State signed a top 25 recruiting class in February, less a month after Franklin's hiring. The Nittany Lions already have 11 verbal commitments for the 2015 class, the most in the country, and six ESPN 300 prospects in the fold.

[+] EnlargeMiles Dieffenbach
AP Photo/Gene J. PuskarLosing guard Miles Dieffenbach to a knee injury puts further stress on a Penn State offensive line that was thin to begin with.
2. Pray for good health: Penn State's projected starters could yield good results in the fall. But the Lions can't afford many injuries because at many spots there's a sizable drop off between starter and backup. Although Penn State could get lucky here, veteran guard Miles Dieffenbach reportedly suffered a serious knee injury last week. It's hard to imagine he'll be the only key Lion to go down. Just the nature of the game.

3. Maximize versatility: If a smaller group of players fills a larger number of roles, teams can avoid major trouble spots. It's more of a patchwork solution, but Penn State's sanctions, while originally labeled catastrophic, appear to be a short-term challenge, especially with the way Franklin is recruiting.

As Franklin and his staff evaluate personnel this spring, they're looking for talent, but they're also looking for versatility.

"We as coaches have to be open-minded, and players have to be open-minded," said Charles Huff, PSU's running backs coach and special teams coordinator. "They've got to understand, 'I'm not just a linebacker, I'm not just a running back, I'm not just a wideout. I'm a football player. There may be times, whether it's by play, by game, by unit, that I'm asked to do some things that may not be under the umbrella of my given position.'

"And as coaches, we have to step out of the box with what we're comfortable with and do some things that fit the players better."

No position group at Penn State has greater depth issues than the offensive line. With Dieffenbach out, left tackle Donovan Smith is the only returning starter practicing this spring. Angelo Mangiro is the only other returning letterman who played offensive line in 2013.

There's a need for versatility up front, and Derek Dowrey and Brian Gaia, two converted defensive tackles who shifted to guard only two days before spring practice, both are in the mix for playing time.

"Sometimes it takes months or even a full year to really get it, and those guys for the most part have adapted pretty quickly," offensive coordinator John Donovan said. "It's one thing to learn a new system. It's another thing to learn a new side of the ball plus a new system."

Both Gaia and Dowrey have adjusted so well that Smith can't even tell that they played defense just months earlier.

"They've probably had a better spring than I have," Smith said.

Dowrey and Gaia could help Penn State put a decent starting five on the field this season. But Donovan would like three sets of linemen: the starters, the backups and the redshirts/developmental/emergency group.

Penn State won't have that luxury this season, so the coaches and players must get creative. Franklin recalls how one of his former Vanderbilt players, Wesley Johnson, started at all five offensive line spots during his career.

"We're going to have to have that here," Franklin said. "When you don't have a two-deep of scholarship players, you've got issues. I don't know if there's too many Division I programs that don't have at least a two-deep at every position. We don't. It is what it is. We're going to have to find ways to overcome it.

"It might be a situation almost like an NFL roster where you have your five starters and then your sixth man backs up every position."

Penn State's personnel situation is better on defense, but coordinator Bob Shoop and his staff still look for flexibility. Although Deion Barnes and C.J. Olaniyan have played defensive end throughout their careers, Shoop thinks both could play outside linebacker when the Lions switch from a 4-3 alignment to a 3-4.

Adrian Amos already has started at both safety and cornerback for the Lions. While he’s back at safety, he could help on the perimeter opposite Jordan Lucas if needed. Shoop has shown Amos film of how he used Vanderbilt defenders in multiple roles. They watched film on Wednesday of Mark Barron of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers working at both safety spots and as as linebacker in the dime package.

"He could definitely play corner," Shoop said of Amos. "He could play safety, he could be a nickel, he could be a dime for us. He and Jordan both provide a significant amount of flexibility."

Scholarship players who can play several positions is one way to combat depth issues. Another is the strong walk-on program that Franklin inherits at Penn State.

His PSU predecessor Bill O'Brien repeatedly emphasized the importance of non-scholarship players, whom he called run-ons. Penn State recently had a meeting for potential walk-ons and 160 students attended, according to Franklin.

"We could have given pizzas away at [Vanderbilt] and not had that many people show up," Franklin said. "We had seven guys playing for us who never played high school football. Here, we had really good numbers show up, really good quality."

The Lions coaches hope with versatile scholarship players and willing, capable walk-ons, they can win the numbers game this fall.
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- James Franklin and the Nittany Lions have remained quiet so far this spring, so some questions still don't have answers. Players haven't spoken to the media, and Franklin hasn't held a Penn State news conference since practice first started.

Penn State's coach will address the media on Saturday but, in the meantime, here's a look at three big questions for the Lions this offseason:

Just how good can Christian Hackenberg get?

[+] EnlargeChristian Hackenberg
Dan Sanger/Icon SMIThere seems to be no limit on how good Christian Hackenberg can be as Penn State's quarterback.
Franklin has deflected questions about Hackenberg so far this offseason, saying how the team is more than just one player. That may be true, but the Nittany Lions haven't had a signal-caller this skilled since Kerry Collins. The Sporting News looked ahead to the 2016 draft last month and ran the headline, "Will Christian Hackenberg go No. 1 in 2016?" NFL Draft Scout currently ranks him the second-best QB in the 2017 draft class, and ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper believes he'll garner a lot of NFL interest after his junior season.

In other words, a lot of experts think Hackenberg's potential basically has no ceiling. He operated a complicated Bill O'Brien offense after just two months on campus, he easily cruised to the Big Ten freshman of the year award, and it seems as if he's just getting started. So how good can he get? He could be the best passing quarterback in the Big Ten this season, and he's certainly on pace to be the best quarterback from his respective class. (ESPN ranked him No. 1 coming out of high school for a reason, after all.) It would be a surprise if he didn't pick up Franklin's offense quickly. Hackenberg will undoubtedly be good, but it's unclear of just how good he can really get.

Can DE Deion Barnes and DB Adrian Amos rebound?

Barnes is blessed -- or cursed, depending on how you look at it -- with a terrific memory. He stood in the Lasch Building around this time last year and went through, play by play, the sacks he missed during his impressive freshman campaign. Then, as a sophomore, he was pushed around and saw his sack production drop from a team-leading six to just two. O'Brien didn't start him for two games to send a message. Without a strong presence in the middle, Barnes will be especially important this fall. And there's no forgetting last season.

As for Amos? His struggles at safety were pretty well-documented. He switched back to corner around midseason and fared much better there, but he's back at safety again this spring. Amos said he felt like a freshman all over again in 2013 since he was learning a new position, but the current staff feels as if safety is his natural position. Amos and Barnes have shown before they're talented players, but they're both trying to rebound from disappointing 2013 campaigns. Amos is trying to become accustomed to a new position; Barnes is trying to figure out just what happened in 2013. How they're progressing this spring will go a long way in determining whether last season was just a one-year slump.

Will the offensive line be OK?

This blog labeled the line as the biggest weakness heading into the spring. Assistant coach Herb Hand tweeted this in response: "Obstacle or opportunity? It's all about perception. #ChoosePositivity." Two starters return to this unit -- left tackle Donovan Smith and offensive guard Miles Dieffenbach -- while center Angelo Mangiro has seen plenty of time on the field, too, over the past two seasons.

The real question comes down to the two redshirt freshmen, Andrew Nelson and Brendan Mahon. Nelson has all but locked up his spot at right tackle, and Mahon certainly seems on pace to take over the left guard spot. (Dieffenbach will likely move the right to balance the line out a bit.) One could draw some comparisons to Penn State's 2010 offensive line, which also boasted just two returning starters, and it finished No. 10 nationally in sacks allowed (0.85 sacks a game) while springing the rushing game to 4.1 yards a carry. Then again, 2010's new starters all saw playing time before; Mahon and Nelson have not. Those two players, along with the health of this unit, will dictate just how far this offensive line goes in 2014. And how they fare this spring will have a big say in that.

If you live in State College and haven't shaken James Franklin's hand, high-fived the Penn State coach or snapped a picture with the new leading Lion, you're probably a recluse.

Since his Jan. 11 introduction, Franklin has been a man about town, at least when he's not feverishly recruiting or attending the State of the Union address as a congressman's guest. From speaking to crowds at THON and other Penn State athletic events, to wearing a wig so he could get his (already bald) head shaved at a fundraiser, Franklin is everywhere.

But there's a group of Penn Staters with whom he has yet to connect, at least not nearly as much as he'd like to.

"We've had very little time to interact with the players," Franklin told ESPN.com. "The 20-hour rule and all those things are good rules, but when you're a new staff, it makes it challenging. We've got to build relationships, we've got to build trust, and we've got to get our system installed. That's why we've been successful in the past.

[+] EnlargeJames Franklin
AP Photo/Eric Christian SmithJames Franklin says offensively his system will be similar to that of former coach Bill O'Brien.
"That's what our focus is right now. We've been running since Day 1."

There will be running when Penn State opens spring practice Monday. Blocking and tackling, too. There will be installation in all three phases and position competitions -- all the standard signs of spring ball.

But the most important work will take place away from the field and might have nothing to do with football.

"It starts in the locker room and selling your vision, selling the culture you want to create," offensive line coach Herb Hand said. "You don't know the kids and they don't know you. That's the first challenge coming in, the development of relationships. You're doing that after you've been on the road recruiting for two or three weeks. And then you're in the middle of winter workouts and you're barking and screaming and getting after them and you hardly know them.

"Relationships take time."

The process is under way at Penn State after an intense winter program.

"I haven't had a coaching staff push us this hard as far as conditioning goes, and also as far as competition," senior linebacker Mike Hull said. "You can tell Coach Franklin's real passionate about what he does, and he fires us up.

"[The coaches] talk about building relationships, and that's exactly what they've done."

After the recruiting whirlwind concluded, Hand took the offensive linemen to dinner, wisely selecting a Chinese buffet ("When you walk in with 13 or 14 300-pound people, that'll garner some attention"). Defensive coordinator Bob Shoop, meanwhile, gleaned insight into his new team by spending last weekend reading John Bacon's book, "Fourth and Long: The Fight for the Soul of College Football," which chronicled Penn State's transition and tumult in 2012.

"These guys have been through a lot," Shoop said. "They've have had four [defensive] coordinators in four years. They've seen the good and bad of the profession. I'm just amazed with their approach and their maturity."

The second challenge for Franklin and his staff isn't a new one during the sanctions era. Scholarship reductions had a larger impact on the Lions' depth in Year 2 than Year 1, and as Franklin recently noted, "The longer you're in it, the more effect it has."

There are some potential trouble spots such as the offensive line, which enters the spring with only three scholarship tackles (Donovan Smith, Andrew Nelson and mid-year enrollee Chasz Wright). Franklin admits PSU has "major depth issues" up front.

Hand's response? Bring it.

"I could sit there and say this is going to be an obstacle for us and we'e going to struggle," he said. "You know what's going to happen? We're probably going to struggle because of our depth. But you go back to Core Value No. 1: have a positive attitude. Let's dwell on the opportunity."

When Shoop watched tape of PSU's defense last year, he saw the same linemen remaining on the field and few personnel combinations. Shoop's Vanderbilt defense used 20-22 players, while Penn State rarely played more than 15.

The hope is this year's defense will have more bodies, although Penn State is thin at tackle and cornerback. Shoop likes the foundation at defensive end with C.J. Olaniyan and Deion Barnes, and at safety, the position he directly coaches, as Adrian Amos returns alongside Ryan Keiser.

Linebacker depth surfaced in 2013, but Shoop is willing to get creative. One possibility: a 4-2-5 alignment with a hybrid safety/linebacker.

Amos, who has played both cornerback and safety but will start off at strong safety, provides a building block.

"So big, so strong, so fast," Shoop said. "He can contend for first-team All-Big Ten and be a guy who receivers national recognition if he pushes himself to the next level."

PSU returns an excellent centerpiece on offense in quarterback Christian Hackenberg, who will operate a system that, according to Franklin, won't differ dramatically from Bill O'Brien's. Franklin lived on the same street as O'Brien when the two worked at Maryland and is philosophically aligned with his predecessor.

Shoop will pressure more than the Lions did in the past, but the structure of the defense shouldn't change much, either.

"Very, very similar concepts," Franklin said. "The terminology is just a little bit different."

According to Shoop, the players are taking a businesslike approach to their latest transition. Hull came to a program that had been the model for stability in college football. It has been anything but in his time there.

"The first time was real hard," Hull said. "We didn't really know what to expect at all. This time, it’s been a lot easier. Whenever a new staff comes in, they want to get in all their policies and values. Some people it frustrates, but it's good to have myself, Miles Dieffenbach, some of the older guys tell them it will get better, it just takes time."

Penn State must maximize its time this spring. Installation, development and evaluation are the staff's top three goals, according to Hand.

But there's an even bigger objective.

"How do you prove trust?" Hand said. "Studying them, finding out where's their hometown, what's their family situation like, what's their major.

"Once you win the locker room, everything else will take care of itself."
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- We’re inching closer to the top spot of this week’s countdown involving the top spring position battles at Penn State.

Up today is a spot that will be forced to plug in a new starter ...

No. 2 position battle: Offensive guard/center

Departures: Ty Howle (12 starts), John Urschel (12 starts), Tanner Hartman (one game; transferring at end of semester)

Returning players: Miles Dieffenbach (12 starts), Angelo Mangiro (11 games played), Wendy Laurent (five games played), Brendan Mahon (redshirted)

Breaking it down: There are a few other players who could also compete inside such as Anthony Alosi, but this position battle should really come down to two names: Mahon and Laurent.

Dieffenbach is the only returning starter on the interior, so he’ll reclaim his spot at left guard with ease. Mangiro, a strong sub the past two seasons, is also nearly a lock to start. But where he plays -- guard or center -- will be dependent upon Mahon and Laurent. If Laurent excels, then he’ll start at center, Mangiro will move to right guard, and Mahon will be a sub. But if Laurent falters, then Mangiro will likely move to center and Mahon will start at right guard.

Those are the two most likely scenarios right now. The chemistry of the line will be greatly increased if one of those two players can quickly separate himself. The incoming freshmen are all projected to be tackles since there are only two returning players on scholarship there, so this position battle could really be decided in the next two months.

Pre-camp edge: Laurent. He’s a redshirt sophomore who gained just six pounds, from 278 to 284, between the 2012 and 2013 seasons. He has experience, so he has the slight edge on Mahon right now -- but there’s no doubt that 305-pound Mahon has the higher ceiling. As a result, this is somewhat akin to the Brandon Felder-Geno Lewis dilemma at receiver last season. Mahon appears to be the long-term answer, but it’s not yet certain if he’s ready. If he’s not, Laurent will take over -- it's his job to lose.

More position battles to watch:

No. 5: Kicker
No. 4: Tight end
No. 3: Defensive tackle

B1G spring position breakdown: OL

February, 28, 2014
Feb 28
2:30
PM ET
We're taking snapshots of each position group with each Big Ten team entering the spring. Up next: the big uglies.

Illinois: This is another group that appears to be in significantly better shape now than at the start of coach Tim Beckman's tenure. The Illini lose only one full-time starter in tackle Corey Lewis, as four other linemen who started at least eight games in 2013 return. Senior tandem Michael Heitz and Simon Cvijanovic are two of the Big Ten's most experienced linemen, and guards Ted Karras also has logged plenty of starts. Right tackle appears to be the only vacancy entering the spring, as Austin Schmidt and others will compete.

Indiana: The Hoosiers have somewhat quietly put together one of the Big Ten's best offensive lines, and the same should hold true in 2014. Everybody is back, and because of injuries before and during the 2013 season, Indiana boasts a large group with significant starting experience. Jason Spriggs should contend for first-team All-Big Ten honors as he enters his third season at left tackle. Senior Collin Rahrig solidifies the middle, and Indiana regains the services of guard Dan Feeney, who was sidelined all of 2013 by a foot injury.

Iowa: The return of left tackle Brandon Scherff anchors an Iowa line that could be a team strength this fall. Scherff will enter the fall as a leading candidate for Big Ten offensive lineman of the year. Iowa must replace two starters in right tackle Brett Van Sloten and left guard Conor Boffeli. Andrew Donnal could be the answer in Van Sloten's spot despite playing guard in 2013, while several players will compete at guard, including Tommy Gaul and Eric Simmons. Junior Austin Blythe returns at center.

Maryland: Line play will go a long way toward determining how Maryland fares in the Big Ten, and the Terrapins will make the transition with an experienced group. Four starters are back, led by center Sal Conaboy, who has started games in each of his first three seasons. Tackles Ryan Doyle and Michael Dunn bring versatility to the group, and Maryland should have plenty of options once heralded recruit Damian Prince and junior-college transfer Larry Mazyck arrive this summer. Prince is the top Big Ten offensive line recruit in the 2014 class, according to ESPN RecruitingNation. New line coach Greg Studwara brings a lot of experience to the group.

Michigan: The Wolverines' line is under the microscope this spring after a disappointing 2013 season. Michigan loses both starting tackles, including Taylor Lewan, the Big Ten's offensive lineman of the year and a projected first-round draft choice. The interior line was in flux for much of 2013, and Michigan needs development from a large group of rising sophomores and juniors, including Kyle Kalis, Kyle Bosch, Jack Miller, Graham Glasgow, and Patrick Kugler. Both starting tackle spots are open, although Ben Braden seems likely to slide in on the left side. Erik Magnuson is out for spring practice following shoulder surgery, freeing up opportunities for redshirt freshman David Dawson and others.

Michigan State: The line took a significant step forward in 2013 but loses three starters, including left guard Blake Treadwell, a co-captain. Michigan State used an eight-man rotation in 2013 and will look for development from top reserves such as Travis Jackson (Yes! Yes!) and Connor Kruse. Kodi Kieler backed up Treadwell last season and could contend for a starting job as well. Coach Mark Dantonio said this week that converted defensive linemen James Bodanis, Devyn Salmon and Noah Jones will get a chance to prove themselves this spring. It's important for MSU to show it can reload up front, and the large rotation used in 2013 should help.

Minnesota: For the first time since the Glen Mason era, Minnesota truly established the line of scrimmage and showcased the power run game in 2013. The Gophers return starters at four positions and regain Jon Christenson, the team's top center before suffering a season-ending leg injury in November. Right tackle Josh Campion and left guard Zac Epping are mainstays in the starting lineup, and players such as Tommy Olson and Ben Lauer gained some valuable experience last fall. There should be good leadership with Epping, Olson, Marek Lenkiewicz and Caleb Bak.

Nebraska: Graduation hit the line hard as five seniors depart, including 2012 All-American Spencer Long at guard and Jeremiah Sirles at tackle. Nebraska will lean on guard Jake Cotton, its only returning starter, and experienced players such as Mark Pelini, who steps into the center spot. Senior Mike Moudy is the top candidate at the other guard spot, but there should be plenty of competition at the tackle spots, where Zach Sterup, Matt Finnin and others are in the mix. Definitely a group to watch this spring.

Northwestern: Offensive line struggles undoubtedly contributed to Northwestern's disappointing 2013 season. All five starters are back along with several key reserves, and coach Pat Fitzgerald already has seen a dramatic difference in the position competitions this spring as opposed to last, when many linemen were sidelined following surgeries. Center Brandon Vitabile is the only returning starter who shouldn't have to worry about his job. Paul Jorgensen and Eric Olson opened the spring as the top tackles, and Jack Konopka, who has started at both tackle spots, will have to regain his position.

Ohio State: Like Nebraska, Ohio State enters the spring with a lot to replace up front as four starters depart from the Big Ten's best line. Taylor Decker is the only holdover and will move from right tackle to left tackle. Fifth-year senior Darryl Baldwin could step in at the other tackle spot, while Pat Elflein, who filled in for the suspended Marcus Hall late last season, is a good bet to start at guard. Jacoby Boren and Billy Price will compete at center and Joel Hale, a defensive lineman, will work at guard this spring. Ohio State has recruited well up front, and it will be interesting to see how young players such as Evan Lisle and Kyle Dodson develop.

Penn State: New coach James Franklin admits he's concerned about the depth up front despite the return of veterans Miles Dieffenbach and Donovan Smith on the left side. Guard Angelo Mangiro is the other lineman who logged significant experience in 2013, and guard/center Wendy Laurent and guard Anthony Alosi played a bit. But filling out the second string could be a challenge for Penn State, which could start a redshirt freshman (Andrew Nelson) at right tackle. The Lions have to develop some depth on the edges behind Nelson and Smith.

Purdue: The Boilers reset up front after a miserable season in which they finished 122nd out of 123 FBS teams in rushing offense (67.1 ypg). Three starters return on the interior, led by junior center Robert Kugler, and there's some continuity at guard with Jordan Roos and Justin King, both of whom started as redshirt freshmen. It's a different story on the edges as Purdue loses both starting tackles. Thursday's addition of junior-college tackle David Hedelin could be big, if Hedelin avoids a potential NCAA suspension for playing for a club team. Cameron Cermin and J.J. Prince also are among those in the mix at tackle.

Rutgers: Continuity should be a strength for Rutgers, which returns its entire starting line from 2013. But production has to be better after the Scarlet Knights finished 100th nationally in rushing and tied for 102nd in sacks allowed. Guard Kaleb Johnson considered entering the NFL draft but instead will return for his fourth season as a starter. Rutgers also brings back Betim Bujari, who can play either center or guard, as well as Keith Lumpkin, the likely starter at left tackle. It will be interesting to see if new line coach Mitch Browning stirs up the competition this spring, as younger players Dorian Miller and J.J. Denman could get a longer look.

Wisconsin: There are a lot of familiar names up front for the Badgers, who lose only one starter in guard Ryan Groy. The tackle spots look very solid with Tyler Marz (left) and Rob Havenstein (right), and Kyle Costigan started the final 11 games at right guard. There should be some competition at center, as both Dan Voltz and Dallas Lewallen have battled injuries. Coach Gary Andersen mentioned on national signing day that early enrollee Michael Deiter will enter the mix immediately at center. Another early enrollee, decorated recruit Jaden Gault, should be part of the rotation at tackle. If certain young players develop quickly this spring, Wisconsin should have no depth issues when the season rolls around.
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Nebraska Cornhuskers, Ohio State Buckeyes, Penn State Nittany Lions, Wisconsin Badgers, Big Ten Conference, Illinois Fighting Illini, Iowa Hawkeyes, Michigan State Spartans, Michigan Wolverines, Indiana Hoosiers, Maryland Terrapins, Rutgers Scarlet Knights, Minnesota Golden Gophers, Northwestern Wildcats, Purdue Boilermakers, Donovan Smith, Angelo Mangiro, Justin King, Miles Dieffenbach, Spencer Long, Pat Fitzgerald, Andrew Nelson, Andrew Donnal, Brandon Scherff, Patrick Kugler, Zac Epping, Gary Andersen, Michael Heitz, Ted Karras, damian prince, Josh Campion, Taylor Decker, Jon Christenson, Jordan Roos, Rob Havenstein, Jaden Gault, Paul Jorgensen, Blake Treadwell, Dan Feeney, Michael Deiter, Graham Glasgow, Jack Miller, Kyle Kalis, James Franklin, Brett Van Sloten, David Hedelin, Tommy Olson, Jeremiah Sirles, Zach Sterup, Erik Magnuson, Darryl Baldwin, B1G spring positions 14, Austin Blythe, Austin Schmidt, Betim Bujari, Brandon Vitabile, Cameron Cermin, Collin Rahrig, Connor Kruse, Conor Boffelli, Corey Lewis, Dallas Lewallen, Devyn Salmon, Dorian Miller, Eric Olson, Eric Simmons, Evan Lisle, Greg Studrawa, J.J. Denman, J.J. Prince, Jack Konopka, Jake Cotton, James Bodanis, Jason Spriggs, Kaleb Johnson, Keith Lumpkin, Kodi Kieler, Kyle Bosch, Kyle Costigan, Kyle Dodson, Larry Mazyck, Marek Lenkiewicz, Mark Pelini, Matt Finnin, Michael Dunn, Mike Moudy, Mitch Browning, Noah Jones, Pat Elflein, Robert Kugler, Ryan Doyle, Sal Conaboy, Simon Cvijanovic, Tommy Gaul, Travis Jackson

Penn State positions to improve: No. 2

February, 13, 2014
Feb 13
9:00
AM ET
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- We've arrived at the top two in our countdown of the positions with the biggest question marks for Penn State.

The top pick will be unveiled Friday. But up today is a group that wouldn't be a bad choice for No. 1 either ...

No. 2: Offensive line

[+] EnlargeMiles Dieffenbach
AP Photo/Gene J. PuskarMiles Dieffenbach (65) is one of Penn State's veterans along the O-line.
The players: Donovan Smith (10 starts), Miles Dieffenbach (11 starts), Angelo Mangiro (11 games played), Andrew Nelson (redshirted), Brendan Mahon (redshirted), Wendy Laurent (five games played), Anthony Alosi (six games played), Tanner Hartman (one game played), Chasz Wright (early enrollee), Noah Beh (incoming freshman), Brendan Brosnan (incoming freshman), Chance Sorrell (incoming freshman)

Last season: This group started off slow and struggled picking up the heavy blitz, but it really improved as the season wore on. Tailbacks Zach Zwinak and Bill Belton combined for just two 100-yard rushing performances in the first seven games but finished the last five games with five -- and Penn State even outplayed Wisconsin's mammoth line in the finale. John Urschel was a first-team All-Big Ten selection, while three substitutes -- Garry Gilliam, Eric Shrive and Mangiro -- saw considerable time.

What's missing: Experience and depth. Eight players saw a lot of time last season and five are now gone. PSU has just one returning offensive tackle on scholarship with any kind of game experience, and new coach James Franklin will be forced to plug in two rookies on the starting line. Health is obviously paramount here.

Moving forward: Former coach Bill O'Brien raved about Nelson, who redshirted last season as a freshman, and Nelson will almost certainly take over the starting right tackle position. There's really no one else to consider, outside of incoming freshmen and walk-ons. But the big question comes from the interior. At guard and/or center, Dieffenbach and Mangiro will be a part of some kind of combination, but there's no telling who else fits into Franklin's plans. Laurent could be the center. Or Mangiro could take over that position and Franklin could slide in Mahon at one of the guard positions. Or maybe Franklin decides to move a defensive tackle to the offensive side of the ball. There are a lot of moving pieces right now, and a lot has to go right for this group to start off smoothly. The question marks surrounding this position likely won't be answered by Week 1.
National signing day is less than 48 hours away, and Big Ten fan bases are preparing to officially welcome the 2014 class. My interest in recruiting has increased during the years, but I likely will never reach the mania of many fans.

[+] EnlargeWilliam Gholston
Zuma Press/Icon SMIWilliam Gholston played three seasons for Michigan State, recording 142 tackles and 10 sacks.
The reason: There have been so many examples of supposed top recruits who go bust, and under-the-radar guys who become stars, especially in a largely developmental league like the Big Ten. Recruiting evaluation is an inexact science.

As we prepare for the faxes to roll in, especially from the Big Ten prospects in the ESPN 300, it's always interesting to take a look back at how the top Big Ten recruits from four years ago performed. There wasn't an ESPN 300 back in 2010, just an ESPN 150, which included 15 Big Ten players. Some became stars, some never got started and others haven't closed the book on their college careers.

Let's take a closer look (positions listed according to ESPN recruiting profiles):

Top 50

  • No. 12: Demar Dorsey, S, Michigan -- Although Dorsey signed with Michigan, he was denied admission to the school. He had a checkered past but reportedly was given no specific reason for the denial. Dorsey appeared headed to Louisville but never made it and played for Grand Rapids Community College in 2011. He planned to transfer to Hawaii in 2012 but never played for the Warriors.
  • No. 42: William Gholston, DE, Michigan State -- Gholston played three seasons for the Spartans, recording 142 tackles, including 30 for loss and 10 sacks. He started 24 games and stood out in bowl wins against Georgia and TCU. After a big performance in the 2012 Outback Bowl, Gholston appeared on several preseason watch lists but underachieved at times during the 2012 campaign. He skipped his final season and was a fourth-round pick in the 2013 NFL draft.
Nos. 51-100

  • No. 56: Rod Smith, RB, Ohio State -- Smith redshirted the 2010 season and has been in a reserve role the past three seasons, playing briefly at linebacker in 2012. He has 83 career rushes for 448 yards and four touchdowns. Smith once again will compete for the starting job this fall.
  • No. 66: Khairi Fortt, LB, Penn State -- He played two years for Penn State, recording 50 tackles, including 6.5 tackles for loss and 2.5 sacks, before transferring to Cal in 2012 when the NCAA imposed sanctions on PSU. Fortt sat out the 2012 season because of injury and had 64 tackles (3.5 for loss) in nine games last season before suffering an arm injury. He declared for the NFL draft last month.
  • No. 70: Dakota Royer, DE, Penn State -- Royer didn't play at linebacker in his first two seasons, moved to tight end after spring ball in 2012 and moved back to linebacker early in camp. He then decided to walk away from football, remained on scholarship and graduated in May.
  • No. 80: James Louis, WR, Ohio State -- Louis redshirted the 2010 season and then opted to transfer from Ohio State to Florida International. He never played for FIU and is no longer listed on the roster.
  • No. 82: C.J. Fiedorowicz, TE, Iowa -- He appeared in every game during the past four years and started the past two-and-a-half seasons, earning first-team All-Big Ten honors from the coaches as a senior in 2013. Fiedorowicz had 91 career receptions for 899 yards and 10 touchdowns, including six this past season.
  • No. 88: Evan Hailes, DT, Penn State -- Hailes redshirted in 2010 and played two games in 2011, recording two tackles. A series of blood clots, which first surfaced in the spring of 2011, ended his career in 2012. He remained with the team in a coaching role.
[+] EnlargeDevin Gardner
AP Photo/Charlie NeibergallThe reviews have been mixed for Devin Gardner, who passed for 2,960 yards and 21 touchdowns in 2013.
Nos. 101-150

  • No. 112: Rob Bolden, QB, Penn State -- Bolden in 2010 became the first freshman quarterback in 100 years to start a season opener at Penn State. He made 16 starts in two years at Penn State but transferred to LSU after the NCAA imposed sanctions on the program in 2012. Bolden has yet to play for the Tigers and has one season left.
  • No. 118: Miles Dieffenbach, C, Penn State -- Dieffenbach redshirted in 2010 and didn't play in 2011 before starting 23 games the past two seasons at left guard. He'll likely enter the 2014 campaign in the same spot.
  • No. 128: Devin Gardner, QB, Michigan -- Gardner appeared in 12 games as a reserve quarterback in his first two seasons before alternating between wide receiver and quarterback in 2012, starting the final four games under center. He started 12 games at quarterback in 2013 and passed for 2,960 yards and 21 touchdowns, delivering several huge performances and also some duds. Gardner, who received a medical redshirt for the 2010 season, returns for his final year this fall.
  • No. 131: Darryl Baldwin, DE, Ohio State -- Baldwin worked as a reserve defensive lineman in 2011 before moving to offense in the spring of 2012. He played mostly special teams in 2012 and backed up left tackle Jack Mewhort the past two years. Baldwin could move into a starting role in his final season.
  • No. 137: Corey Brown, WR, Ohio State -- After recording just 22 receptions in his first two seasons, Brown emerged as the Buckeyes' top option in the passing game as a junior and senior. He combined to record 123 catches for 1,440 yards and 13 touchdowns and earned second-team All-Big Ten honors in 2013 from the coaches.
  • No. 147: Andrew Rodriguez, G, Nebraska -- Rodriguez played mostly in a reserve role for his first three seasons and then started every game as a senior in 2013, alternating between right tackle and right guard for an injury-plagued Husker line. He earned honorable mention All-Big Ten honors from both the coaches and the media.
  • No. 148: C.J. Olaniyan, DE, Penn State -- After redshirting in 2010, Olaniyan recorded 18 tackles and a sack during his first two seasons. He started every game last fall at defensive end and led Penn State in both sacks (5) and forced fumbles (3), recording 11 tackles for loss, an interception and a fumble recovery. He'll enter his final season projected as a starter.

More misses than hits in the group, although several players still could finish their college careers as stars.

Looking to the past & future: OL

December, 24, 2013
12/24/13
1:00
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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: Offensive line.

REWIND

Expectations entering the 2013 season: OL coach Mac McWhorter's group was expected to start fast, as it returned three primary starters and several other players who saw significant time in 2012.

[+] EnlargeDonovan Smith
AP Photo/Kevin TanakaOffensive tackle Donovan Smith was expected to be a breakout star, but he didn't quite live up to his potential this season.
LT Donovan Smith was a favorite on projected breakout lists, and John Urschel often said that center Ty Howle was the most underrated lineman on the team. The real question mark surrounded right tackle, and whether Adam Gress or Garry Gilliam could step up. With an extra year under McWhorter and strength coach Craig Fitzgerald, many believed this line would be as good -- or better -- than 2012.

How they fared: They didn't quite get off to the start they wanted -- even Urschel admitted that. Consistency was difficult to come by early in the season, and Smith certainly didn't live up to his potential. Bill O'Brien didn't start him for a game -- and that certainly appeared to send a message -- but this line played its best football at the end of the year.

Zach Zwinak rushed for 563 yards in the last four games. And, overall, PSU allowed 22 sacks on the season -- which isn't too bad considering a rookie was standing in the pocket and sometimes taking too long to throw the ball. This line played as expected in the second half of the season, but it was a different story in the first half.

What we learned: This line is pretty versatile. Left tackle and right tackle were relatively interchangeable, Angelo Mangiro could play anywhere along the interior and Eric Shrive could play anywhere outside of center. We saw this in 2012, but 2013 just reinforced it. When some players found themselves injured or in slumps, this line showed it was pretty flexible and able to adjust.

Grade: B. This a little tricky because the grade in the first six games would've been markedly different than the last six games. Overall, though, this line played above-average. Urschel was an All-Big Ten player who was selected as a third-team All-American by the AP. Gilliam was a pleasant surprise, Smith a disappointment, and everyone else played close to as expected.

FAST FORWARD

Key losses: OG Urschel, C Howle, OT Gress. Gilliam still hasn't made up his mind on whether to stay. First, he was staying, then leaving ... and then he wasn't sure. His decision will have quite an impact on this group, however. If he leaves, PSU has to plug three openings on the line -- and right tackle will be the biggest concern of all since three of PSU's top four tackles would then graduate.

Position stock watch: Trending downward. Even if Gilliam stays, the offensive line is going to have a lot of question marks to overcome. Mangiro will be able to fill one spot along the interior, but who else will start? Wendy Laurent, who played in five games? And just think about that hole at right tackle if Gilliam does leave. It seems as if freshman Andrew Nelson might have to take over out of necessity. Depth is a thing of the past for this group.

Key to next season: Finding key contributors to add depth. For the last two seasons, PSU hasn't had to search long to find players who could give the starters a quick breather. But it's going to be a bit more difficult this offseason. Laurent, Anthony Alosi and Tanner Hartman have to add weight to their frames before they become viable options. (No lineman under 290 pounds saw significant time last season, and those three are all under 290.) And players who look the part -- such as 6-foot-4, 305-pound OG Brendan Mahon or 6-5, 297-pound OT Nelson -- haven't yet played a single snap. PSU is likely going to have to play some linemen who aren't quite ready, so they're ability to overcome the obvious learning curve will be paramount.
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Bill Belton didn't smile on Saturday as the media surrounded him with bright lights and tape recorders.

[+] EnlargeBill Belton
Randy Litzinger/Icon SMIBill Belton rushed for a career-high 201 yards in the overtime win over Illinois.
He became the first Penn State player to rush for 200 yards in a game since 2002, back when Larry Johnson crossed the 2,000-yard plateau and made a push for Heisman consideration. Belton celebrated his ninth birthday the last time the milestone was reached.

But Belton, as even-tempered as they come, spoke Saturday as if he rushed for 21 yards instead of 201. There was no sense of achievement in his voice, even after the emotional overtime win against Illinois. He barely grinned and spoke in a monotone voice, as if he were delivering a history report to a handful of disinterested students.

"Like I said before, the offensive line did a great job out there," he said. "All the credit goes to them."

You can take some credit, though. Can't you?

"A little bit. But I just want to, like, give it all to the linemen because they did a great job."

The junior tailback, who was relegated to backup just a month ago, let his play do most of the talking against Illinois -- and it was plenty loud. He had a career-high 36 carries and a career-high 201 rushing yards. He was never tackled in the backfield, accounted for nine first downs and 123 of his yards (5.85 ypc) came on first down alone.

He outgained Illinois' two backs by nearly a 4-to-1 margin and, with quite a few cut-backs and jukes, he made sure at least a few Illini defenders would be nursing sore ankles the next day.

"When he has a game like that it's not really surprising because you see it all year long," offensive guard Miles Dieffenbach said. "You're just waiting for him to have a breakout game like that."

During part of the locker room celebration, a video of which was posted online, the team erupted -- "All right, Billy!" -- in applause and cheers when Bill O'Brien mentioned Belton's 201-yard performance. Defensive backs Adrian Amos and Ryan Keiser smiled, waving their arms and recreating the game-ending interception. Belton, speaking with a large grass stain on his left shoulder pad, spoke in a whisper and deflected praise elsewhere.

The mild-mannered tailback, who prefers talking about his linemen instead of his career bests, has come a long way since last season, when he switched from wideout and struggled. O'Brien expected him to carry the ball about 25 times a game; he finished the season with 60 carries.

He looked lost at times. In the preseason, he admitted he just wasn't ready last year; he just wasn't a running back. But, this season, when fumbles forced Zach Zwinak to the bench against Michigan, Belton took over -- and looked just like the back O'Brien had envisioned. He rushed for 85, 98 and 201 yards in the past three games, and his 98 yards against Ohio State remains the most the Buckeyes have given up all season.

Belton glanced down Saturday afternoon and politely declined to address last season's "issues," of unfulfilled expectations and academic problems. But he didn't hesitate when asked just where this improvement came from.

"All of it is coaching," he said. "Instincts got me where I was last year; coaching got me where I am today."

Belton walked off the field Saturday and surveyed the chanting crowd. He swore he wasn't tired -- although he was probably just fine with a single overtime this time around -- and appeared to just take the entire experience in.

The closest he came to praising himself was retweeting a few congratulations over social media. It was a career-day for him, but he acted as if he'd been there before -- and, at this pace -- it sure looks like he'll be there again.

Win shows PSU gutsy, not yet great

November, 2, 2013
11/02/13
6:15
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STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Offensive guard Miles Dieffenbach watched the referees walk back the go-ahead touchdown in overtime. He watched the points disappear off the scoreboard.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"We got scrappers," he said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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