Penn State Nittany Lions: Nyeem Wartman

Although there’s been plenty of good news on the recruiting trail for James Franklin and the Nittany Lions, injuries and depth issues sure seem to be stacking up for the program this offseason.

According to a report from Lions 247, linebacker Ben Kline is the latest to succumb to a serious injury -- a torn Achilles tendon that should make him miss “significant time,” according to the outlet’s sources.

[+] EnlargePenn State's Ben Kline
Matthew O'Haren/USA TODAY SportsBen Kline's reported injury further depletes a thin group of Penn State linebackers.
The injury comes about seven months after Kline suffered a torn pectoral that required surgery. He also underwent a second shoulder surgery shortly after that. At the time of those surgeries, then-coach Bill O’Brien remained hopeful that Kline would be ready in time for kickoff this season.

Now? Well, with Franklin’s philosophy to not discuss injuries, it’s anyone’s guess as to when -- or whether -- Kline will return for his redshirt junior season.

Regardless of the severity, the injury obviously sets Penn State back. Depth issues along the offensive front have been well-documented, but the corps of linebackers are also extremely thin. Penn State now has just four linebackers who played last season and entered the university on scholarship: Mike Hull, Nyeem Wartman, Brandon Bell and Gary Wooten.

Kline, a team leader who penned an articulate open letter in January about the program, could’ve challenged for a starting job had he been healthy. At the least, he would’ve played a crucial role as a backup. Last season, he battled through injuries but eventually won the starting job later in the season -- before the torn pectoral ended his year.

Kline offered this team a safety blanket of sorts at his position. He was a solid player who would’ve contributed in some manner -- but now that production will have to come from elsewhere, which likely either means a lot more Wooten, time split among non-scholarship players or an immediate impact from the two true freshmen, Jason Cabinda and Troy Reeder.

Linebacker for Penn State just went from a potential issue to a real concern. The rest of these players need to stay healthy -- or Penn State’s defense could end up being in almost as much trouble as the offensive line.
We're taking snapshots of each position group with each Big Ten team entering the spring. Up next: the linebackers.

Illinois: The Illini lose an All-Big Ten player in Jonathan Brown but still have decent overall depth at linebacker. Mason Monheim started every game at middle linebacker in 2013, and Mike Svetina started all but one game at the star position. Both players return as juniors. Svetina will move into Brown's spot on the weak side, while the other position could be filled by T.J. Neal, who recorded 38 tackles last season. Ralph Cooper has logged significant reps as a reserve, and Eric Finney gives Illinois some flexibility after playing the star position (safety/outside linebacker).

Indiana: This becomes a more significant position under coordinator Brian Knorr, who plans to use a 3-4 alignment. Indiana should have enough depth to make the transition as it returns two full-time starters from 2013 -- David Cooper and T.J. Simmons -- as well as two part-time starters in Forisse Hardin and Clyde Newton, who started the final four games of his freshman season. Like Simmons and Newton, Marcus Oliver played a lot as a freshman and provides some depth. The key here will be converting all the experience into sharper, more consistent play.

Iowa: If you're of the mindset that Iowa always reloads at linebacker, you can rest easy this spring. If not, keep a very close eye on what happens as the Hawkeyes begin replacing one of the more productive linebacker groups in team history: James Morris, Christian Kirksey and Anthony Hitchens. There are high hopes for sophomore Reggie Spearman, who played in 10 games as a freshman last fall. Spearman, junior Travis Perry and senior Quinton Alston enter the spring as the front-runners to take over the top spots. The biggest challenge could be building depth behind them with Cole Fisher and others.

Maryland: The good news is the Terrapins return three productive starters from 2013 in Cole Farrand, L.A. Goree and Matt Robinson, who combined for 233 tackles, including 19 for loss. The bad news is Maryland loses its top playmaker at the position in Marcus Whitfield, who recorded nine sacks and 15.5 tackles for loss last season. But the overall picture is favorable, and the depth should be strong when Alex Twine and Yannik Cudjoe-Virgil return from their injuries. Young players such as Abner Logan (37 tackles in 2013) will push for more time.

Michigan: There are a lot of familiar faces in new positions as Michigan not only has shuffled the roles of its defensive assistant coaches, but also its top linebackers. Standout Jake Ryan moves from strong-side linebacker to the middle, while junior James Ross III moves from the weak side to the strong side and Desmond Morgan shifts from the middle to the weak side. Joe Bolden, who had 54 tackles last season, can play both outside and inside, and players such as Ben Gedeon, Royce Jenkins-Stone and Allen Gant add depth. The talent is there for a big year if the position switches pan out.

Michigan State: It won't be easy to replace the Big Ten's top linebacker tandem in Max Bullough and Denicos Allen, not to mention Rose Bowl hero Kyler Elsworth, but Michigan State has some promising options. Ed Davis appears ready to step in for Allen after recording four sacks as a sophomore. Junior Darien Harris and two redshirt freshmen, Shane Jones and Jon Reschke, will compete at middle linebacker. Returning starter Taiwan Jones is back at the star position, and Mylan Hicks should be in the rotation. Depth is a bit of a question mark here entering the spring.

Minnesota: The Gophers lose key pieces in all three areas of the defense, and linebacker is no exception as two starters (Aaron Hill and James Manuel) depart. Minnesota will lean on Damien Wilson, who started in 12 games at middle linebacker in his first season with the Gophers and recorded 78 tackles. Junior De'Vondre Campbell seems ready to claim a starting spot after backing up Manuel last season. There will be plenty of competition at the strong-side linebacker spot, as Nick Rallis, De'Niro Laster and others are in the mix. Jack Lynn is backing up Wilson at middle linebacker but could work his way into a starting spot on the outside with a good spring.

Nebraska: Optimism is building for the Blackshirts in 2014, thanks in large part to the returning linebackers. The three players who finished last season as the starters -- David Santos, Michael Rose and Zaire Anderson -- all are back, as Rose will lead the way in the middle. Josh Banderas and Nathan Gerry also have starting experience and return for 2014. If younger players such as Marcus Newby develop this spring, Nebraska could have the Big Ten's deepest group of linebackers, a dramatic departure from the Huskers' first few years in the conference. Good things are happening here.

Northwestern: The top two playmakers return here in Chi Chi Ariguzo and Collin Ellis, who combined for seven interceptions and 11.5 tackles for loss in 2014. Northwestern's challenge is replacing the leadership Damien Proby provided in the middle. Ellis has shifted from the strong side to the middle, and Northwestern has moved safety Jimmy Hall from safety to strong-side linebacker. Drew Smith and Hall will compete for the third starting spot throughout the offseason. Sophomores Jaylen Prater and Joseph Jones should provide some depth.

Ohio State: Coach Urban Meyer has made it clear that Ohio State needs more from the linebackers, so it's a huge offseason for this crew, which loses superstar Ryan Shazier. The Buckeyes return starters at the outside spots in Curtis Grant and Joshua Perry, although competition will continue throughout the spring and summer. Redshirt freshman Darron Lee surprisingly opened spring practice Tuesday working with Grant and Perry on the first-team defense. Camren Williams appeared in all 13 games as a reserve and will be part of the rotation, along with Trey Johnson. Meyer said last month that the incoming linebacker recruits won't redshirt, which means an opportunity for mid-year enrollee Raekwon McMillan.

Penn State: Linebacker U is looking for more bodies at the position after struggling with depth issues throughout 2013. The Lions lose leading tackler Glenn Carson but bring back two players, Mike Hull and Nyeem Wartman, who started most of the season. The new coaching staff is counting on Hull to become a star as a senior. Brandon Bell, who appeared in nine games and recorded 24 tackles as a freshman, will compete for a starting spot along with Gary Wooten. Penn State hopes Ben Kline can stay healthy as he provides some experience, and incoming freshman Troy Reeder could enter the rotation right away.

Purdue: Expect plenty of competition here as Purdue loses leading tackler Will Lucas and must get more consistent play from the group. Joe Gilliam started for most of the 2013 season and should occupy a top spot this fall. Sean Robinson also brings experience to the field, and Ryan Russell could fill more of a hybrid linebacker/defensive end role this season. Redshirt freshman Danny Ezechukwu is an intriguing prospect to watch this spring as he aims for a bigger role. Ezechukwu is just one of several younger players, including decorated incoming recruit Gelen Robinson, who have opportunities to make a splash.

Rutgers: The Scarlet Knights return a good deal of production here with Steve Longa and Kevin Snyder, who combined for 219 tackles, including 15 tackles for loss and five sacks. Quentin Gause also is back after racking up 53 tackles (8.5 for loss) in a mostly reserve role last season. Gause likely will claim the starting strong-side linebacker spot as Jamal Merrell departs. The starting spots are seemingly set, so Rutgers will look to build depth with Davon Jacobs, who had 30 tackles as a reserve last season, and L.J. Liston, both sophomores.

Wisconsin: Do-it-all linebacker Chris Borland is gone, along with Ethan Armstrong and Conor O'Neill, so Wisconsin must replace three of its top four tacklers from 2013. Derek Landisch and Joe Schobert can be penciled in as starters, along with Michael Caputo, who played mostly safety last season but should slide into one of the outside spots. Marcus Trotter brings experience to the rotation. The spotlight will be on younger linebackers such as Vince Biegel, who had 25 tackles last season, as well as dynamic sophomore Leon Jacobs and Alec James, a decorated recruit who redshirted in 2013.

No. 4 PSU player to watch: LB Wartman

February, 25, 2014
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STATE COLLEGE, Pa. – There will be plenty of Penn State players to keep a close eye on this spring, but a few rise to the top for one reason or another.

So, as part of this week’s countdown, we’re looking at the five players to watch the closest this spring. Up today, at No. 4, is a player who made waves after a punt block as a freshman.

No. 4 spring player to watch: LB Nyeem Wartman

[+] EnlargeNyeem Wartman
Matthew O'Haren/USA TODAY SportsNyeem Wartman started in eight games as a redshirt freshman, but seemed to fade as the season progressed.
2013 review: Wartman entered the season with big expectations because he was in line to be a four-year starter, quite a rarity at Linebacker U. He finished the season by starting eight games and playing in the other four, but he didn’t quite progress as quickly as the staff had hoped. He showed flashes of potential -- making several highlight-worthy tackles and compiling eight stops against Michigan -- but other linebackers had surpassed him toward the end of the season. Ben Kline earned starts over him for two games (Illinois, Minnesota) before another injury sidelined Kline, and freshman Brandon Bell started over Wartman in the season finale. In the last five games, Wartman made just five tackles.

Why spring is so important: Penn State is light on experience at linebacker and, outside of Mike Hull, Wartman is the most seasoned linebacker on the team. So, for this group of linebackers to succeed, Penn State needs Wartman to succeed. Kline is overcoming two surgeries this offseason, one for lingering shoulder issues and another for a torn pec, and both Stephen Obeng-Agyapong and Glenn Carson have graduated -- so there’s really no one else to step in Wartman’s spot. It’s sink or swim, and if he sinks, Penn State sinks. Wartman made a lot of waves as a true freshman in 2012 before an injury led to a medical redshirt, and he needs to step up as a redshirt sophomore. This spring will help determine whether he can do that.

Best-case scenario: Wartman becomes a solid outside linebacker and is the team’s second-best linebacker behind Hull. He takes his run-stuffing ability to the next level, gains a conference-wide reputation for his penchant for the big hit and forces several key turnovers. He finishes the season as an honorable-mention selection on the All-Big Ten team and picks up the slack while the other outside linebacker, likely Bell, finds his footing.

Worst-case scenario: Wartman’s production flatlines, as Bell continues his quick rise and overtakes him. Wartman remains a below-average to mediocre linebacker and adds little to the defense, except the occasional big tackle that makes fans wonder where that intensity is at other times. James Franklin tries playing other linebackers, either Kline once he gets healthy or a freshman, to spark the defense.

More players to watch:

No. 5: DB Adrian Amos

Penn State positions to improve: No. 4

February, 11, 2014
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STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- This week's countdown continues with the No. 4 spot.

Once again, until spring practice starts, we'll have a different countdown every week. Up next are the positions of concern for Penn State, and this group is one that historically hasn't been an issue for the Nittany Lions.

No. 4: Linebackers

[+] EnlargeNyeem Wartman
Matthew O'Haren/USA TODAY SportsKeeping Nyeem Wartman healthy will be a big part of the linebackers' success at Penn State in 2014.
The players: Mike Hull (78 tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss), Nyeem Wartman (32 tackles, 4 pass breakups), Brandon Bell (24 tackles), Ben Kline (18 tackles, 1 sack), Gary Wooten (6 tackles), Troy Reeder (incoming freshman), Jason Cabinda (incoming freshman)

Last season: Depth was a huge concern throughout the season, and PSU tried to overcome that with position switches and different combinations. Safety Stephen Obeng-Agyapong moved to the outside and filled in for Hull when he was injured, while Bell, Wartman and Kline split time as the season progressed. The health of this unit was an ongoing issue, but Glenn Carson turned in a solid season And Hull, when healthy, was also good -- although he failed to meet lofty expectations (in part because of those injuries).

What's missing: Depth. It's the same issue as 2013, except the most solid starter in Carson is now gone. Kline once again has two surgeries to recover from this offseason, and Wooten appears to be more of a special-teams contributor. Outside of those two, there are just five linebackers on scholarship -- and that includes the two incoming freshmen.

Moving forward: Wartman and Bell were both greenhorns last season, so they at least have experience now. And they'll both need to be solid -- and healthy -- for this group to experience success. An injury to Hull or those two could be disastrous. Kline is once again a wild card because he's coming off of serious injuries, so PSU might have to turn to a non-scholarship player or a true freshman to pick up some slack. Incoming freshman Koa Farmer could play safety or linebacker, and Reeder appears more game-ready than Cabinda. For the second straight season, linebacker is once again a concern for Linebacker U.

Looking to the past & future: LBs

December, 27, 2013
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It's never too late -- or too early -- to see what we learned from this past season and also look ahead to next season. So, we've started breaking down each position on the Nittany Lions.

Up today: Linebackers.

REWIND

Expectations entering the 2013 season: This group was clearly going to take a big step back from 2012. Without Michael Mauti and Gerald Hodges, this was probably the group that was going to receive the heftiest downgrade.

[+] EnlargeStephen Obeng-Agyapong
Nabil K. Mark/Centre Daily Times/Getty ImagesFormer safety Stephen Obeng-Agyapong was pressed into duty at linebacker because of injuries.
Still, many pointed to Mike Hull as a candidate for PSU's top breakout player. Hopes were high for Nyeem Wartman, and there wasn't much concern surrounding middle linebacker Glenn Carson. This position was clearly shallow, however, and everyone knew a single injury could derail the group. The best-case scenario was to be a good unit -- because it was never going to be great.

How they fared: Injuries were a concern, and they were felt almost immediately. Hull injured his knee against Syracuse, and it took him weeks before he was back to 100 percent. Safety Stephen Obeng-Agyapong was forced to take over, and he allowed the linebackers to bide some time until Hull returned. He wasn't a factor in the second-half of the season.

Ben Kline, who overcame a serious shoulder injury, did the most with the time he saw once healed -- but then he fell again to another serious injury. Hull didn't meet expectations, and neither did Wartman, but Brandon Bell was a nice surprise toward the end. This group avoided total disaster, but it would be difficult to rank it above-average.

What we learned: Linebacker will take a few years to reload. Penn State grew accustomed to churning out one strong corps of linebackers after another, but 2013 was the exception. If everyone stayed healthy -- and Kline was never injured in the offseason -- it might've been different. But those are a lot of "what ifs." It became clear in 2013 that linebacker wasn't going to be just a one-year or two-year fix. It'll take a few years for Linebacker U to return to glory.

Grading the position: C. Yes, average. This wasn't one of the better groups in the Big Ten, and it wasn't among the worst. Carson was above-average, but he was the only linebacker who earned an honorable mention on the All-Big Ten team. None were named to the first or second team. Tackling was an issue at times, and so was pursuit, but it wouldn't be fair to say the linebackers were a liability, either. Once again, it was an average group ... while most PSU fans are used to great in this department.

FAST FORWARD

Key losses: Carson. Sure, everyone else returns, but Carson was the most solid of the bunch. Hull needs to show he's not as injury-prone as 2013 suggests, and PSU should receive some extra bodies in the form of incoming freshmen Troy Reeder (Wilmington, Del/Salesianum) and Jason Cabinda (Flemington, N.J./Hunterdon Central).

Position stock watch: Trending downward. On one hand, two of PSU's starting spots should improve from last season. On the other, Carson's departure is sure to be felt ... and the other two spots are far from guarantees. Kline has to overcome two surgeries in the offseason, so PSU finds itself in a similar position as last season. One injury could completely derail this group. It needs Hull, Wartman and Bell to be on top of their games -- and stay healthy. If they don't? Well, fans might miss the performance from the 2013 season.

Key to next season: Finding depth ... somewhere. The trio of Hull, Wartman and Bell can't stay on the field all game every game -- so, not only do those three need to take huge steps from last season, but Penn State also needs more players to step up at this position. Redshirt sophomore Gary Wooten hasn't contributed much outside of special teams and -- outside of an injured Kline -- Wooten is next in line. That means Penn State will needs a true freshman or a non-scholarship player to step up. Maybe it can move a backup DB over a la Obeng-Agyapong; maybe not. O'Brien needs to find someone, anyone, who can contribute.
Earlier today, we presented our All-Big Ten team. Now it's time to honor the top freshmen from 2013 with our Big Ten all-freshman team.

Here it is:

OFFENSE
QB: Christian Hackenberg, Penn State (captain)
RB: Corey Clement, Wisconsin
WR: DeAngelo Yancey, Purdue
WR: Jordan Westerkamp, Nebraska*
TE: Maxx Williams, Minnesota*
TE: Jake Butt, Michigan
OL: Dan Voltz, Wisconsin*
OL: Ben Lauer, Minnesota*
OL: Jack Conklin, Michigan State*
OL: Jacob Bailey, Indiana*
OL: Kyle Kalis, Michigan*

DEFENSE
DL: Joey Bosa, Ohio State (captain)
DL: Austin Johnson, Penn State*
DL: Avery Moss, Nebraska*
DL: Willie Henry, Michigan*
LB: Michael Rose, Nebraska*
LB: Nyeem Wartman, Penn State*
LB: T.J. Simmons, Indiana
DB: Sojourn Shelton, Wisconsin
DB: Desmond King, Iowa
DB: Tyvis Powell, Ohio State*
DB: Matthew Harris, Northwestern

SPECIALISTS
K: Michael Geiger, Michigan State
P: Cameron Johnston, Ohio State
All purpose: Dontre Wilson, Ohio State

* -- redshirt freshman

It was a pretty strong year for freshmen in the league, highlighted by Hackenberg and Bosa. Shelton was terrific as well. ... Tight end is a promising position for the future. Penn State's Adam Breneman just missed, but he looks like a future star. And Michigan State's Josiah Price had a big impact in the Big Ten title game. ... Nebraska's young defense could really turn into something special. We also considered defensive lineman Vincent Valentine and linebackers Jared Afalava, Nathan Gerry and Josh Banderas. ... It was also a good year for rookie QBs, as beyond Hackenberg there was Purdue's Danny Etling, Nebraska's Tommy Armstrong and Minnesota's Mitch Leidner. ... Ohio State's Wilson didn't have a true position, but he did a lot of things and was a good return man, so that's why he gets our all-purpose slot. ... Some others we considered included Penn State receiver Geno Lewis and linebacker Brandon Bell, Purdue offensive lineman Jason King and Indiana defensive lineman Ralphael Green.

What we learned: Week 14

December, 1, 2013
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Lessons learned from Penn State's 31-24 upset win over No. 15 Wisconsin in the season finale, its first win over a top-15 team since the Capital One Bowl victory over LSU in 2010:

1. Don't underestimate Penn State. You think we would've learned that by now. But after seeing the Buckeyes absolutely dominate Penn State, 63-14, it seemed as if PSU would be in for another flogging. Everyone counted them out -- Vegas put the line at 24 points -- but the Nittany Lions seem to do best when everyone else thinks they have no chance. They came out of absolutely nowhere to not just slip past the Badgers, but to totally outplay them. Penn State's defense stopped one of the nation's best rushing attacks, and freshman quarterback Christian Hackenberg picked on the Wisconsin secondary. If there's one thing we should learn from this game, it's that we should never count these Nittany Lions out.

2. The future looks bright. Next season should have its share of question marks, but even look past that. Hackenberg is playing beyond his years, freshman LB Brandon Bell garnered his first start (and grabbed six tackles), and PSU dressed 23 total freshmen. Adam Breneman and Eugene Lewis still have three years left and had terrific performances on Saturday. And then there are other freshmen such as Akeel Lynch, Richy Anderson, Nyeem Wartman, Austin Johnson and Malik Golden who have seen quite a bit of time this season.

3. Sam Ficken's struggles aren't behind him, after all. Ficken had a miserable stretch last season before he seemingly turned it all around -- but those issues are most certainly back. He has made just seven of his last 13 field goals (54 percent) and also missed a PAT last week. He went 1-of-3 against Wisconsin, missing a 31-yarder and 34-yarder, and he'll need to find more answers over the offseason. He's bounced back once already, but he'll need to find a way to do it again. Otherwise, freshman Chris Gulla could push him for time.

4. The offensive line needs to be more disciplined, as far as penalties. Either it wasn't prepared for Wisconsin's defensive linemen moving around or it wasn't focused. Whatever the reason, it was one of the odder sights during Saturday afternoon's game. Penn State was called for at least eight motion penalties, with left tackle Donovan Smith responsible for four of those. Offensive line coach Mac McWhorter was clearly frustrated on the sideline and, although the line played well overall, it certainly needs to concentrate more on the snap count and less on what the opposition is doing. Those mistakes nearly lost PSU the game.

5. Secondary, bad; front seven, good. Joel Stave had difficulty locating quite a few open targets, and that came as a big break for Penn State. The secondary still struggled, but it came up with key interceptions off Stave mistakes to somewhat atone. It's still clearly the weak link of this defense, but the front-seven -- especially the defensive line -- played very well yet again Saturday. They finished with five quarterback hurries and three sacks, and the line really limited the Badgers' rushing attack. Wisconsin was held to its second-lowest rushing total of the season (120 yards), and defensive coordinator John Butler deserves a lot of the credit. That should bode well moving forward.

What we learned: Week 12

November, 17, 2013
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Lessons learned from Penn State's 45-21 win against Purdue in Week 12:

1. Fumbling issues aren't behind Zach Zwinak ... or Bill Belton: Zwinak fumbled for the fourth time this season Saturday -- even with the gloves -- while Belton lost his third fumble of the season. The Nittany Lions are among the most fumble-prone teams in the country and, despite constant emphasis on holding onto the ball, it's obvious that still remains an issue. They've both been great for PSU this season -- but with one large asterisk. Fumbles.

2. Changes could be coming on the kickoff team: The Lions surrendered a 100-yard kick return TD, the first time that's happened since Michigan State's Derek Mason pulled it off in 1994. And then it nearly happened again but, luckily for the Lions, Sam Ficken stepped up to take down the returner. As a result, Bill O'Brien said the staff will look into making some changes on that special-teams unit this week. Maybe, he mused, some guys just aren't hungry enough.

3. "Complementary football" isn't out of reach: O'Brien's squad performed the opposite of "complementary football" against Minnesota last week. But against Purdue? PSU forced three turnovers, and the offense converted each of those into a touchdown. When the offense needed the defense to step up, it did -- and vice versa. That's why, even when this game was just a one- or two-score game, it felt so out of reach for Purdue. PSU played a below-average opponent, but it still played relatively well. It should reach at least seven wins this season if it can keep that up.

4. The freshman linebackers still have quite a way to go: Redshirt freshman Nyeem Wartman missed a few tackles -- again -- and he's looked lost at times this season. True freshman Brandon Bell also saw more time than usual against Minnesota, and he's trying to get his feet wet because he could compete for a starting job next season. With Ben Kline's injuries, which require two separate surgeries, only Mike Hull, Wartman and Bell will be the returning linebackers with considerable playing time under their belts. Bell and Wartman are more important than ever now, and they could see more time in the final two games.

Five things: Purdue at Penn State

November, 16, 2013
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Both the Nittany Lions and the Boilermakers are still trying to find their footing late in the season. A win gives Purdue something to build on for next year, while a PSU win would at least get the Lions back on some kind of track before the final two games.

Here are five things to keep an eye on:

1. Two true freshman QBs with lots of potential. OK, you already know plenty about Christian Hackenberg and how he's making a strong case for the Big Ten freshman of the year award. But Purdue's Danny Etling could have a bright future ahead of him, too. The Boilermakers are struggling, but Etling said -- despite the numbers -- he's improving every week. He was a four-star recruit last season, the Boilermakers' highest-rated prospect since ESPN started keeping track, and he's been the starter since Week 6. He has thrown five interceptions to four TDs so far this season, but his best football is ahead of him. Same goes for Hackenberg. Watching these two players Saturday should be like catching a quick glimpse of the B1G future.

2. Allen Robinson nearing another school record ... again. No, this isn't a misprint. He broke Bobby Engram's single-season receiving mark of 1,084 yards last week -- and he could set the single-season receptions record against Purdue. Robinson set that record last year with 77 catches, and he currently boasts 73 receptions. He's the only Penn State receiver to reach the 70-catch mark, and no PSU wideout has ever reached the 80-reception plateau. Expect more of the same from Robinson; he's making history just about every week now.

3. Running wild over Purdue. The Boilermakers have allowed 200-yard rushing games five times so far this season, as they're ranked No. 111 in the country in rush defense. That means big games could be in store for both Bill Belton and Zach Zwinak. It's been difficult to predict lately who'll handle the heavier workload, but both are likely to see plenty of time in the afternoon. Zwinak can run on the inside and blow over defenders for extra yards, while Belton's cutting ability has improved greatly since last season. Both players should be able to pad their stats against Purdue's dismal run defense.

4. Third-down defense. The Lions' defense took a step back last week, as they allowed the opposition to convert on 7-of-10 third downs during the first half of last week's game. They couldn't get off the field, and that was a big reason they were manhandled in the first two quarters -- so it's worth keeping an eye on that same down Saturday. The good news for Penn State is that Purdue is among the worst in the country (notice a trend?) and ranks No. 114 in terms of converting third downs (30.6 percent). So, if PSU can't stop Purdue on third down, then it probably won't be able to stop future opponents Nebraska and Wisconsin.

5. New PSU player roles? LB Ben Kline didn't open the season as the starter, but he started the last two games and seemed to be making a lot of progress. He's out for the season now, so it'll be interesting to see if this corps takes a step back against Purdue. Stephen Obeng-Agyapong and Nyeem Wartman will likely compete for his spot, just as they did before Kline earned the starts, but Bill O'Brien also mentioned that true freshman LB Brandon Bell should see an increased workload. On the offensive side of the ball, O'Brien told reporters to expect to see more of redshirt freshman wideout Eugene Lewis, who made an outstanding 54-yard TD catch in Week 1 ... but has only accounted for 71 yards since. If Robinson leaves early for the NFL, Lewis could be PSU's top wideout next season.

Penn State LB Kline out for season

November, 12, 2013
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STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Penn State linebacker Ben Kline, who overcame offseason shoulder surgery in time for the 2013 season, will miss the rest of the year with a torn pectoral that will require surgery.

The redshirt sophomore will also undergo a second shoulder surgery that will come after the pectoral surgery, Penn State coach Bill O'Brien said.

"I think he can definitely come back from those," O'Brien said Tuesday afternoon. "I brought him in and had this exact conversation with him. I told him, 'We look forward to bringing you back next year.'

"He's still at the meetings. I look at Ben Kline as a tough kid."

Kline tore his pec on the second play of Saturday's game against Minnesota but played the rest of the game. He finished with four tackles.

Depth at linebacker was among O'Brien's chief concerns this season, and Kline played in every game, starting the last two. He finished the season with 18 tackles and one sack.

Redshirt freshman Nyeem Wartman and safety-turned-linebacker Stephen Obeng-Agyapong will likely compete for the starting job in his place.

Kline addressed the media last week and said his shoulder continued to bother him this season. He said he had finally gotten his confidence back and praised the trainers for getting him prepared.

"It's been a little more trying than other seasons," Kline said last week. "But I'm just trying to do what I can to help the team."

Kline has two years of eligibility remaining.

What we learned: Week 11

November, 10, 2013
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Lessons learned from Penn State's 24-10 loss against Minnesota:

1. Complementary football is not a strength of Penn State. The Nittany Lions' offense moved the ball relatively well in the first half, as it scored on two of four drives, while the defense couldn't stop anything in the first half and allowed scores on four straight drives. In the second half? That was completely reversed, as the defense shut out Minnesota ... and then the PSU offense was shut out by Minnesota. Complementary football is something Bill O'Brien has preached, and it's not something Penn State has done particularly well lately. The Indiana loss was one example, but this might have been the most striking example all season. Penn State is just not operating on all cylinders right now; when it fixes one problem, another seems to pop up in its place.

[+] EnlargeZach Zwinak
AP Photo/Ann HeisenfeltZach Zwinak had season highs in carries and yards against Minnesota.
2. Take away Allen Robinson, and there's not much to this passing offense. Minnesota shadowed Robinson with two defenders for most of the afternoon. (Gophers coach Tracy Claeys acknowledged afterward that you could count "on one hand" the number of times Robinson wasn't double-teamed.) The most surprising part of that strategy is that more teams haven't used it. Robinson still accounted for half of Christian Hackenberg's 14 completions, but he finished with just 63 yards -- and no target stepped up in his place. Brandon Felder couldn't haul in at least one big pass, and the alleged No. 2 WR didn't finish with a single catch. Tailback Bill Belton and true freshman TE Adam Breneman were the only other players to register more than one reception. It's Robinson-or-bust for this passing offense.

3. Penn State has a good "problem" at running back. The only problem is answering, "Who should be on the field on this drive?" Belton rushed for 201 yards last week in the best game of his career, while Zach Zwinak rushed for 150 yards Saturday in the best game of his season. O'Brien seems to be relying on the running game more, as Belton hit a career-high for carries last week (36) and Zwinak hit his season-high for carries on Saturday (26). Both players have made their mistakes -- Belton fumbled on the first play against Minnesota -- but both players seem to be on top of their games right now. When Zwinak was in a slump, Belton stepped up and made a name for himself. And, Saturday, Zwinak showed that he's back to his usual self. Who'll see most of the carries from here on out? That's no longer an easy answer -- but that's a good problem to have.

4. There's little to celebrate on defense. The worst part of Penn State's bad defense is the secondary, but that's not the only cause for concern. PSU gave up 165 passing yards by halftime, and then the rush defense couldn't stop David Cobb (24 carries, 139 yards) in the second half. Nyeem Wartman missed a critical tackle at one point, and the linebackers didn't exactly have their best gameon Saturday either. Depth has been a concern all season but, even when this team's healthy, the talent level on defense just isn't high enough to compete with decent Big Ten teams. That issue won't be corrected this season ... and there might be too many problems to fix by next season, too.

RB battle about more than just a start

October, 24, 2013
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STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- The soft-spoken Zach Zwinak didn't take the dais this week. Bill Belton didn't address reporters on teleconference calls, either.

Players deflected questions about the two running backs, but the simple conjunction on the depth chart -- "OR" -- next to their two names said a lot.

It said either tailback could start against Ohio State on Saturday night. It said that maybe, just maybe, Belton is the Nittany Lions' best option at this point. And that there's at least a drizzle of controversy in the Penn State backfield for the first time since last September.

The red-haired, 240-pound Zwinak had been the main ball-carrier in 13 of 14 games up until the Michigan contest. That could change Saturday -- and, that, really is the story.

[+] EnlargeBill Belton
Matthew O'Haren/USA TODAY SportsBill Belton scored the winning touchdown against Michigan and is listed as the co-starter on Penn State's depth chart for its game at Ohio State.
The player who starts against OSU might not see the most carries by the end of the game. So, forget who starts. But Belton is making a push to be the guy, a title Zwinak carried ever since trampling a Temple defense last season and grinding out 94 yards.

And that's what that simple "OR" really signifies.

"We'll continue to rotate guys in at that position," Bill O'Brien said Tuesday, crossing his arms and trying to downplay the change. "And both of those guys will play against Ohio State."

Belton was nothing more than an offensive afterthought last year. But the New Jersey native has burst onto the scene as the Lions' most improved player on offense -- he's averaging 5.3 yards a carry this year, a full yard more than Zwinak -- while his heavier counterpart has struggled with fumbling issues.

Those fumbles aren't so insignificant. Zwinak coughed up the ball to open the second half against Michigan and Frank Clark scooped it up for a touchdown to change the complexion of the game. Offensive guard John Urschel defended Zwinak earlier this week by saying, "To play this game you have to have a short memory, so he learns from it. ... At the end of the day, he's moved on."

But this wasn't an isolated incident. Zwinak has been a positive threat in the red zone but also a threat to turn the ball over. He's fumbled seven times since last season. That means, since he first started, he fumbles once an average of every 42 carries. According to ESPN Stats & Info, the average NCAA tailback fumbles once every 91 carries.

This isn't meant to pile it on Zwinak, who often leaves piles of dazed defenders in his wake. He's undoubtedly a talented tailback. But it's those mistakes that have given the shifty Belton enough room to wiggle his way toward the top of the depth chart.

When Zwinak turned the ball over against Michigan, Belton jogged into the huddle on the next series while the tailback affectionately known as "ZZ" didn't touch the pigskin for the rest of the four-hour, 11-minute classic. If Zwinak showed he was PSU's best tailback last season during the Temple game, then this Michigan contest was Belton's turn.

Zwinak is a good running back with a big asterisk next to his name. Belton is proving to be a good running back. Belton made a patient first down on a critical fourth-and-1 play in the fourth overtime and also ran for the game-winning TD against Michigan. He's blocked well, made a few nice catches -- and he hasn't fumbled for 126 consecutive carries. Statistically, Zwinak would've averaged three fumbles over that same workload.

O'Brien has shown he's not afraid to make changes to the depth chart. Defensive end Anthony Zettel started in place of reigning Big Ten freshman of the year Deion Barnes two weeks ago. Safety-turned-linebacker Stephen Obeng-Agyapong has started in place of Nyeem Wartman. Even walk-on long-snapper Zach Ladonis, who's been on the roster for just a few weeks, is seeing time on the field now.

The Penn State head coach made those changes because he believed they gave his team the best chance to win. And, right now, Belton might just be Penn State's best option -- even if that "OR" doesn't translate into a start.

Five things: Penn State at Indiana

October, 5, 2013
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The Nittany Lions' defense will get another chance at showing UCF was just an aberration in their first real road test of the season. Here's what we'll be watching in Penn State's conference opener against Indiana:

Secondary issues a primary problem? It's difficult to pinpoint the identity of Penn State's defensive backs just yet. On one hand, the passing defense is ranked No. 23 in the nation. On the other hand, those numbers could be a bit misleading -- as UCF carved up the secondary to the tune of 288 yards and three touchdowns. Trevor Williams undoubtedly will be targeted in the early going, and Jordan Lucas will have to play strong for PSU to slow down Indiana's high-powered passing attack. A good game here shows that UCF was just a one-time mistake; a bad game shows PSU will struggle against a lot of their Big Ten opponents' passing games.

[+] EnlargeDaQuan Jones
Rob Christy/USA TODAY SportsDaQuan Jones expects Indiana to be fast. He also should expect to see a lot of action.
Keeping up the tempo: DT DaQuan Jones said this will be the fastest team, tempo-wise, that PSU faces all season. And with that comes quite a few challenges. Bill O'Brien said Thursday he has about 61 true scholarship players, and an up-tempo offense certainly could wear out a thin defense. Safety Ryan Keiser is out for the game, so the defensive backs won't be able to get much of a break. Glenn Carson and Jones also need to see as many snaps as possible, so it'll be an interesting balance to strike later today. O'Brien will adjust the tempo of his offense as needed because he doesn't want to cause a fatigued defense. And, with the way Indiana plays in space, PSU could be in trouble if tired defenders leads to sloppy tackling.

Mike Hull is finally back: The outside linebacker is a critical part to this defense, and he hasn't started a game since suffering an unspecified leg injury in the season opener against Syracuse. He played some against UCF but eventually was pulled; he just didn't seem like the same linebacker. O'Brien rested him against Kent State but said he'll start against Indiana. Hull is a great coverage linebacker who can make sure guys liked TE Ted Bolser don't run all over the defense. And his addition allows Nyeem Wartman and/or Stephen Obeng-Agyapong to grab a breather when needed. He's one of the most important players on this defense, and his health is paramount to Penn State.

Indiana 0-16 vs. PSU: If you haven't yet heard these numbers this week, then you just haven't been paying attention. Since 1993, Indiana has played Penn State a total of 16 times -- and has beaten PSU a grand total of ... zero times. The Hoosiers have come close on six occasions, losing by just one score, but the Lions always have come out on top. If Indiana is going to break the trend in the next five years, this certainly seems its best chance to do it. The Hoosiers returned most of their starters from last season, while PSU is dealing with a shallow roster, first-year starting corners and a true freshman quarterback. Christian Hackenberg will only get better, O'Brien will have more scholarships to work with in future years and, put simply, PSU likely will improve at a faster pace than Indiana. It might be now or never for the Hoosiers.

Running wild: Indiana's strength last season was the interior of its defense. Well, with the graduation of Larry Black and Adam Replogle, that's not the case anymore. The Hoosiers are giving up nearly 250 rushing yards a game, which should provide fertile ground for Penn State's three-headed running attack. Zach Zwinak, Bill Belton and Akeel Lynch have taken steps forward each week -- and this should prove no exception. Belton and Lynch can give PSU a home-run threat, while Zwinak can pound that interior. Indiana's defense could be in for a long day against those three.

Nittany Lions take pride in shutout

September, 21, 2013
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STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Bill O'Brien, the offensive guru who's had to insist on more than one occasion that he's no rock star, took to the dais Saturday evening and cut himself short as he waxed poetic on the Lions' improved rushing attack.

"You guys need to ask me some defensive questions. They're all offensive questions right now," Penn State's head coach said following a 34-0 victory over Kent State. "The defense just pitched a shutout, and you guys were all over them last week and they just pitched a shutout. So, can we get some defensive questions or what? No?"

O'Brien, with a blue cap pulled close to his eyes, waited a moment and then continued on between scattered laughter.

"I thought the defense played a helluva football game. They pitched a shutout, and I think John Butler and that crowd of coaches over there and that crowd of football players over there did a f- …” said O’Brien, pausing to change words in midstream. “… hell of a job."
For a minute there, one reporter told him, it sure sounded like O'Brien was going to say he had a bunch of "fighters."

"You know what?" O'Brien said with a smile. "I do. We have a bunch of fighters and fantastic kids. Anyone that debates me on that -- it's like my mom, she still doesn't believe I said 'fighters.' Do I look like a guy who swears? You're kidding me."

[+] EnlargeRyan Keiser, Malcolm Willis
Evan Habeeb/USA TODAY SportsThe Penn State defense had plenty to celebrate as it notched its first shutout since 2010.
O'Brien's mood told the tale of the day. Last week, after his defense surrendered 34 points and 507 yards, he crossed his arms and countered most questions by saying he'd have to watch the film. He glared, and his anger was evident. This time, he laughed and smiled -- and his players shared that sentiment.

Cornerback Jordan Lucas pumped his fist as he jogged underneath the tunnel. Linebacker Nyeem Wartman embraced DT Tyrone Smith, and the dimple-chinned coach didn't have to stop any players from prematurely jogging into the locker room. They stayed and swayed to the alma mater.

O'Brien even lingered a bit and high-fived students who leaned over the rail. Last week, the players stared at their feet and looked as if they had heard a eulogy just minutes before. This week? It seemed as if the Lions were in the midst of a celebration -- probably because they were.

This marked the first Penn State shutout since Sept. 18, 2010, which also just so happened to come against the Golden Flashes. It was also a statement game, one that said the defense wasn't a pushover liked it seemed last week.

PSU surrendered 15 plays of 10 yards or more last week. It gave up just 190 total yards this week.

"It feels good for our defense. But we can't stop there, man," linebacker Stephen Obeng-Agyapong said. "We got to keep striving because we definitely made mistakes today, and we just have to keep improving."

Of course, comparing UCF's offense to Kent State might just be like comparing Ohio State to Ohio. Some players believed last week didn't seem as bad as the media made it out to be. But, by the same token, this week's shutout likely isn't the watershed moment for the defense either.

It's more of a confidence boost for the defense than an indicator -- even if some defensive players seemed to take offense at that notion.

"I don't think it was the opponent," Wartman said. "I think it was more us."

Defensive players didn't believe there were big changes between last Saturday and this Saturday. Obeng-Agyapong just chalked the loss to UCF up to one of those days when nothing goes right.

This shutout doesn't mean the Nittany Lions will enter the conference season and limit Indiana's high-powered offense to 200 yards. But it does give Penn State something to build on, something for the defensive players to smile about and something for the fans to look forward to.

The shutout was undoubtedly important to this Penn State team, Kent State or not. And, heading into the bye week, it sure makes a 3-1 record easier to swallow.

"When you can shut any team out, it feels good," Obeng-Agyapong said, "because you stop them from scoring the whole game. That's pretty difficult at times, you know?

"You always feel good when you win. When you lose, you feel crappy. It's as simple as that."

O'Brien: LB Mike Hull will play Saturday

September, 10, 2013
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STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Linebacker Mike Hull missed Week 2 with an unspecified injury but he'll practice Tuesday and will play Saturday, Bill O'Brien said during his weekly press conference.

The news was expected but remains a big boon to a Nittany Lions' defense that's short on linebacker depth. Plus, Hull is PSU's best coverage 'backer, and PSU will be facing 2012 3,000-yard passer Blake Bortles this weekend.

"He's a pro prospect," O'Brien added about the UCF quarterback.

Bortles has yet to commit a turnover this season and might be the best pocket-passer that Penn State faces. He's already thrown for 528 yards and four touchdowns -- so Hull's return is a big one.

Hull was injured in the first quarter of Week 1. He returned with a brace on his right knee, played some, but then stood in street clothes in the second half. If he was needed, he could've possibly played against Eastern Michigan. But he's clearly needed more against a high-powered Central Florida offense.

O'Brien said Hull will start alongside Glenn Carson and Nyeem Wartman again. Safety-turned-linebacker Stephen Obeng-Agyapong will also see time, as will Ben Kline.

In other injury news, Penn State's head coach said tailback Bill Belton is probable and will likely practice Wednesday. Safety Ryan Keiser is listed as questionable.

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