Penn State Nittany Lions: Stephon Morris

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- The first week of Penn State’s spring practice is underway so a lot of eyes will be on different position battles and rising starters. But what about those under-the-radar players?

Every year, coach James Franklin said there are at least one or two surprise players who jump into the spotlight. So here’s a look at five current backups who could make an impact:

1. RB Akeel Lynch
2013 stats: 9 games played, 60 carries, 358 yards, 1 TD
Currently behind: Zach Zwinak, Bill Belton

[+] EnlargeAkeel Lynch
Randy Litzinger/Icon SMIAkeel Lynch is primed to have a breakout season for Penn State.
Synopsis: He’s on quite a few reporters’ breakout lists this fall -- and for good reason. He has made an impression every time he has received a sizable workload. He was the star of the spring scrimmage in 2013, rushing 13 times for 83 yards, and he twice surpassed the 100-yard mark during the nonconference season. He’s a speedy runner who clocked a 4.48-second 40 last spring, and he could evolve into a nice spark plug. He needs to become more well-rounded, as he saw limited time last season due to blocking and similar concerns. However, he’s clearly excellent at carrying the ball.

Running backs coach Charles Huff said in January that a good system needs three good options on the ground. So Lynch will see an increased workload, and Franklin will have the ability to discover whether he has the talent to be the primary ball-carrier in 2015.

2. DE Brad Bars
2013 stats: Missed season due to injury
Currently behind: C.J. Olaniyan, Deion Barnes

Synopsis: Bars stood inside the Lasch Building last February and told the media that he felt 2013 would be a breakout year for him. He felt he could start or, at the very least, contribute heavily. But in July, Bars ruptured his Achilles’ tendon and was forced to miss the season. Franklin has repeatedly declined to address such injuries, but Bars’ initial rehabilitation plan was expected to end -- at the latest -- sometime in January. And the senior seemed fine on Monday when he sprinted during drills and took direction from the staff.

Bars won’t end up as a starter in 2014, but he could still see considerable playing time. Defensive line coach Sean Spencer likes to utilize a lot of different looks and rotations, and Franklin once again alluded to a scheme that would sometimes feature four defensive ends. With Anthony Zettel moving inside on a permanent basis, the Nittany Lions need some quality depth -- and Bars could be that answer. It might turn out that his prediction was just a year off.

3. S Malik Golden
2013 stats: 12 games played, 8 tackles, 1 pass breakup
Currently behind: Adrian Amos, Ryan Keiser

Synopsis: There are two ways this could go for Golden, and either way is significant. The redshirt sophomore could challenge Keiser for playing time this season -- or he could lose out. But, even if he doesn’t start, this season is no less important for his future. Both Amos and Keiser are seniors, so Penn State will need someone to step up in 2015.

There are plenty of freshman safeties enrolling over the summer, but Golden will obviously be the most experienced of that crew. He’s in a somewhat similar situation as Lynch, in that his play this season will determine whether he’s a future starter or just a career backup. He appears to be the next man up at safety, though, so he will see the field in 2014 -- it’s just a matter of how much and whether he can challenge Keiser.

4. CB Jordan Smith
2013 stats: 12 games played, 5 tackles
Currently behind: Jordan Lucas, Trevor Williams

Synopsis: Williams may be the projected starter at cornerback for now, but this position battle is far from decided. Lucas has taken Smith under his wing, not unlike Stephon Morris did for him, and Smith isn’t afraid to work. When he battled with insomnia in high school, he often did a couple hundred push-ups to pass the time. Also, it didn’t hurt that he trained with former NFL great Troy Vincent, either.

He wasn’t ready for a big role as a true freshman last season, but he’s definitely a player to watch as a sophomore. And he has the potential to follow in Lucas’ footsteps. As a sophomore, Lucas beat out a more-experienced player (Da’Quan Davis) for the starting job. Now, as a sophomore himself, Smith is hoping for the same.

5. OT Albert Hall
2013 stats: 5 games played
Currently behind: Donovan Smith, Andrew Nelson

Synopsis: Hall isn't just on this list because he’ll see a lot of playing time this season, or even in the future. There's more to him. He’s a converted tight end and a walk-on and is one of just four offensive tackles currently on the roster, and Franklin offered him a lot of praise on Monday.

“That guy is going to find a role on this team somehow,” Franklin said. "I’ve called him out in front of the team a number of times because I’ve been so impressed with him: His approach, his demeanor, his attitude.”

Hall should, at the very least, be an important member of the scout team -- and will likely see plenty of time on special teams. It’s not necessarily Hall's play that’s going to be important to this team. It’s the intangibles. There are a lot of walk-ons on this team, and Franklin only singled out Hall. So he’s definitely worth a second look.
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- We’ve finally reached the end of this week’s countdown, which involves five predictions for the spring.

Up today is a look at who’s going to step up into a leadership role …

[+] EnlargeJordan Lucas
Zuma Press/Icon SMIThe evolution of Jordan Lucas' game at Penn State has been evident.
CB Jordan Lucas emerges as the defense’s vocal leader

Jordan Lucas lacked confidence as a freshman. His friend and teammate, Stephon Morris, knew it. His father knew it. And he knew it.

But when Morris graduated, Lucas stepped up as a sophomore and put together the strongest season out of the defensive backs. (Sorry, Adrian Amos fans, those games at safety didn’t help.) Lucas is a charismatic person, not unlike his head coach, and his evolution has been pretty evident.

If there was any doubt about his work ethic or his confidence, that was put to rest in the last month. Not only did Bill Belton name Lucas as one of the team’s hardest workers last October, but strength coach Dwight Galt also praised the corner about a week ago for being a gym rat.

As for that confidence? Fans were treated to a glimpse of that during a memorable exchange at coach James Franklin’s signing day pep rally. Lucas was handed the microphone and skipped the usual “Thanks-for-coming” cliché by turning to PSU great LaVar Arrington and asking the crowd, “LaVar said it’s What-U?”

“LBU,” Arrington responded.

“You guys like that, LBU?” Lucas asked. “What about LBU and DBU?”

Lucas carried himself well, while Arrington and Franklin joked about the light-hearted exchange. “Jordan likes the microphone,” Franklin said. Added Arrington: “Jordan came out with his muscles and his tattoos, and he lost his mind.”

Safety Malcolm Willis was regarded as the secondary’s leader last season, and middle linebacker Glenn Carson stepped into a team leadership role. With those two gone, a new leader has to emerge -- and Lucas certainly seems ready for the role. Both Amos and Ryan Keiser aren’t very vocal, so the secondary needs someone in that department. And, as the defense searches for someone new to help lead, Lucas isn’t one to shy away from the task.

More predictions:

No. 5: A more public, eager-to-please coach
No. 4: Blue-White attendance more than doubles from 2013
No. 3: OL struggles surpass secondary as biggest concern
No. 2: Tarow Barney and De'Andre Thompkins make immediate impact
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Spring practice is still several weeks away, so we're bringing you a different countdown every week to try to make that time tick a little faster.

This week's countdown involves a look back at the past decade of recruiting classes, from 2004 on, and figuring out the five most impactful groups. Up today is a more recent class, so the names here will definitely ring a bell ...

No. 5 most impactful class: Class of 2011

Top prospects: DB Adrian Amos, DE Deion Barnes, RB Bill Belton, TE Kyle Carter, LB Ben Kline, OG Angelo Mangiro, WR Allen Robinson, OT Donovan Smith, DL Anthony Zettel

[+] EnlargeAllen Robinson
AP Photo/John BealeAllen Robinson came to Penn State as a two-star prospect. He left as one of the greatest wide receivers in school history.
Biggest surprise: Robinson. He came in as a two-star prospect with the second-lowest grade of the class, behind only OL Anthony Alosi. Three years later, he's leaving Penn State early as one of its greatest wide receivers ever. He set the single-season school records for both catches (97) and yards (1,432), and accounted for more than 46 percent of the Nittany Lions' passing offense in 2013. He was the team's best player this past season and the offense's top threat in 2012.

Impact player: Besides Robinson? Amos. There's some good variety to choose from here -- hence why this class is No. 5 -- and, although Amos struggled some as a sophomore, he's still the team's most athletic defensive back. He's going to finish his career as a four-year starter and, if he sticks with cornerback or starts off hot at safety, he should bounce back from that sophomore "slump." He's got a high ceiling and has the ability to to be an All-Big Ten player.

Why the class is important: Depth was not a strength for PSU in 2012 or 2013, and this class hit just where it needed to when it needed to. Take a look at who's currently behind some of the key players from this class. Imagine a 2013 receiving corps without Robinson or a 2013 offensive line that was forced to start Adam Gress and Garry Gilliam every game. How about a 2012 secondary led by Stephon Morris and ... Da'Quan Davis? Or a defensive line without Barnes and Zettel? If this class was a bust like 2010, the Nittany Lions would not have bounced back quite so strongly after the sanctions.

This was the class of the "Supa Six," and although that nickname's now gone along with A-Rob, there are plenty of players who'll turn out to be three- or four-year starters. Amos, Barnes, Carter and Smith are among them. This wasn't a flashy class when it signed -- only two ESPN 150 prospects were included -- but it's more than made up for that with its production and potential.

Penn State CB Lucas finding 'swagger'

November, 11, 2013
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Jordan Lucas' father and friends huddled around the basement television and leaned forward as if they were drawn to a warming campfire.

One man pointed at the No. 9 on TV, cackling while the Penn State sophomore walked to the sideline. "Oh God," a Corona-sipping man said to Lucas' father, Vincent, pointing and laughing away like old friends are wont to do. "There goes that Lucas swagger! Look -- he's walking with that bounce you walk with!"

[+] EnlargeJordan Lucas
Matthew O'Haren/USA TODAY SportsSophomore Jordan Lucas has emerged as a leader in the Penn State secondary.
Vincent Lucas, 60, smiled and offered a hearty laugh. He knew that walk, that swagger, the way Jordan bobbed his head and seemed to glide while the defensive linemen plodded. He hadn't seen that walk all last season, but it was so obvious this time -- during PSU's 24-17 overtime victory against Illinois -- that even his friends picked up on it.

"Yeah," Vincent told him. "There he goes. He's in a zone right now; I can tell by the way he walks."

That walk was different last season, back when the cornerback mainly played special teams. Fans knew him only as the kid from prep school, if they knew him at all. But everyone knows Jordan Lucas and that swagger now.

He's a vocal leader on the secondary, the kid who'd toss on a winter jacket in high school and run on the sidewalks in December, even when flurries hit the streets of New Rochelle, N.Y. He's the defensive back who leads the team in interceptions (two), forced fumbles (two) and boasts 4.5 tackles for loss. He's one of the lone bright spots on an otherwise struggling defense, one of the first players to sprint out of the Beaver Stadium tunnel every home game.

"Jordan Lucas is one of the better football players on our team," Bill O'Brien said. "He brings a competitive toughness to our football team that I really like."

O'Brien leaned against the railing last year and overlooked the weight room on some days, as Lucas and former cornerback Stephon Morris took turns lifting barbells while most of their teammates slept. Morris awoke stiff on some mornings, tempted to pull the sheets over his head or hit "snooze," but he'd always receive a text or call from Jordan: "What're we doing today, Steph?"

"He just wouldn't stay away," Morris said with a laugh. "And I couldn't say no to him; I had to set an example. And he never missed a workout -- never. That's rare."

Jordan added to his work ethic, one he borrowed from a father who grew up on a North Carolina farm and fed the family pigs two hours before the school bell sounded. He evolved into one of the Nittany Lions' gym rats, a player who has still never missed a single optional workout. But teammate Stephen Obeng-Agyapong, who grew up 5 minutes from Lucas in the Bronx, knew something was amiss last year. So did Morris.

"I'm not going to lie," Morris said. "He didn't have any confidence."

Jordan saw time at cornerback on the final game of the year last season. Morris remembers his big eyes while Jordan can still recall standing on the sideline, growing more overwhelmed with every shoulder pat and motivating word his teammates would utter: "Get ready!" "You ready for this?" "C'mon, it's your turn!"

On a recent fall afternoon, when red and yellow leaves littered the pavement in front of the football building, Jordan at first insisted he didn't feel lost last season. After all, he was the talkative guy now. He was the player that true freshman Jordan Smith looked up to like a big brother; he was a big reason Penn State's defense wasn't in total disarray.

But, a few minutes later, he relented. With a varsity jacket zipped up near his chin, he admitted -- despite how far along he is today -- that he was overwhelmed at times last year. He had lost that swagger, misplaced somewhere between the transition of college and watching his work ethic exceed his production.

"I've always been the same dude but, freshman year, it just didn't feel like I was playing high school football again. It actually felt like college football," Lucas said. "Now? The college game has slowed down a bit. It feels closer to the high school game again. I didn't feel like that same Jordan last year; I do now."

Added Vincent: "He was a little bit intimidated about the whole thing [last year], more than he let on."

[+] EnlargeJordan Lucas
Matthew O'Haren/USA TODAYJordan Lucas has two interceptions and 4.5 tackles for loss in 2013.
But there was a bridge between the Lucas of today and the Lucas of last year, and it was built on a heartfelt talk with his father on a nippy January morning. At Jordan's request, Vincent had awoken while the moon still hung in the sky and drove four hours to The Waffle Shop, a Penn State staple with salmon-trimmed tables and fliers taped in columns over the windows.

Between bites of pancakes, bacon and homefries, Jordan told his father he just didn't feel the same. He did what he always did -- running in the snow, training on the field over the offseason, reclining in his usual film-room seat -- but he was no longer the strongest or fastest or most athletic. Vincent leaned in and whispered that his only enemies were time and experience, not skill or talent. With Morris' departure, now was the time to step up. Now was the time to to put that mindset behind him, work even harder and let his talent catch up with his work ethic.

"You may not be the best, but you can always be the hardest worker," Jordan told ESPN.com. "That's what Coach [John] Butler -- and my dad -- always tell me."

By June, Jordan had become the unquestioned starter at cornerback. By October, that swagger had strolled on back to Jordan's step; he had become one of the defense's top players. He has recorded interceptions in two of the last four games, and Morris still calls him every week to remind him he's the team's top defensive back right now -- and to keep acting like it.

Just like Vincent and his friends, Morris notices that swagger to his step now. And now that the walk, that confidence, has returned, Jordan is looking forward. When asked about what's next, Jordan looked directly ahead and spoke with the conviction of a man who already has seen his future.

"I'm not going to stop. I look at it like this, there's no ceiling for me," he said. "I want to keep going and, hey, maybe one day there will be a ceiling. But, even then, I'm never going to tell myself that. Each day I'm going to get better. Each day I'm going to give my best."

Happy Valley not placated by reduction

September, 25, 2013
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STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- The afterglow of reduced sanctions has faded here in Happy Valley.

Tuesday afternoon classes filled with chatter about the restoration of Penn State scholarships, but the wave of surprise and satisfaction has died down.

Former players, fans and alumni are pleased with the NCAA's most recent move. That much is obvious. But an overwhelming number of people labeled it as simply not good enough. It's cause to smile but not to celebrate.

[+] EnlargeMatt McGloin
AP Photo/Gene J. PuskarFormer Penn State QB Matt McGloin is pleased with the NCAA's decision, but he wants more.
"I was really excited for Coach [Bill] O'Brien and the program, but I was kind of still pissed off because I feel like the NCAA is just taking baby steps toward things," said Stephon Morris, who played cornerback for Penn State last season. "They know they're wrong -- we all know they're wrong -- so why not give us everything we deserve? I feel like they could do more than what they're doing."

The town's opinion of the NCAA hasn't changed. Some students still strolled downtown, backpacks slung over their shoulders, with blue T-shirts that depict the letters "NCAA" with the "C" angled into a hammer and sickle. "National Communist Athletic Association," the shirts read.

Stop a Penn State student, ask about the reduction in sanctions, and you're almost begging to first hear a soliloquy on everything that's wrong with the NCAA and its president, Mark Emmert. Students and fans are quick to say they don't mean to diminish the atrocities of former defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky -- but they add he doesn't reflect the university and didn't offer a competitive advantage.

They say the NCAA overstepped into a criminal matter. And a reduction in sanctions is simply a door-prize for being wronged themselves.

"With the scholarships, yeah, I'm happy about it. I'm happy we give out money for kids to play football," said Penn State senior Tyler Bodnar, a meteorology major. "But it seems like they're kind of like, 'Oh we screwed up. We didn't mean to come down that hard.'

"We feel like we're still getting punished for something we had no hand in -- and neither did the players, neither did the coaches, neither did the community."

In the HUB-Robeson Center -- a popular glass-and-brick building where students can dine quickly on cheap pizza, grab a latte and leach off free WiFi -- students read books quietly on the second floor Tuesday evening and again Wednesday afternoon. Some studied on the bustling first floor, while overheard conversations centered on a criminal justice class and dorm-room drama.

The theme of student discussion did not revolve around the NCAA's most recent move, of allowing PSU 75 scholarships next season, as opposed to the original cap of 65, and putting PSU at the full allotment of 85 scholarships by 2016. Four of 10 interviewed students Tuesday evening hadn't even heard of the reduction.

Three thousand miles away, in the confines of Oakland, Calif., Oakland Raiders quarterback Matt McGloin was well-aware of the move. McGloin, the former walk-on and O'Brien protege, sat in the Penn State players' lounge last July 23, when Emmert strolled up to the podium on TV and recited the crushing sanctions.

Emmert glanced up from his notes every few moments, without a change in facial expression. At Penn State some players, mostly the freshmen and sophomores with their entire college careers in front of them, just cried. The upperclassmen, McGloin remembered, just seethed with anger and frustration.

"To watch him on TV, you could see it in his face -- how it meant nothing to him to hand all this out. It meant nothing to him," McGloin said Tuesday night. "That's what got guys so frustrated."

The reduction doesn't make up for that day, McGloin continued, but the news of extra scholarships was still something he was pleased with -- even if he wasn't so sure about the NCAA's motive.

"I'm optimistic about the situation and want to say it's the first step toward something great. At least they're doing something about it," he said. "But, at the same time, I'm starting to think that maybe the direction they're heading is, 'Hey, let's give them something small just to shut everybody up and shut these people up so it makes it look like we're doing something.' That's my only concern with it."

Penn State senior Allen Sheffield, president of the group of student campers known as "Nittanyville," understands where McGloin's coming from. Sheffield still remembers mowing the grass, washing laundry and taking out the trash before reclining on his couch last July 23 to watch the sanctions beside his father.

The shock, anger and potpourri of emotions didn't wane because of a recent NCAA announcement. One student felt it was as if a company cheated them out of $1 million and then tossed them a $100,000 settlement. Of course they're still angry. Of course they think that's not enough.

Nittany Nation took to social media to express their surprise and contentment over the restoration of scholarships. But that happiness had about the same shelf life as milk left out in the sun.

"Twitter tells everything," Sheffield said Wednesday afternoon. "My timeline from the first couple hours was just like boom-boom-boom. And then, later on, no one's really talking about it."

Some fans are still organizing and calling for the Board of Trustees to resign. Cars are still cruising through the downtown with "409" bumper stickers -- a nod to Joe Paterno's 409 wins, 111 of which were vacated as part of the sanctions. And message board posters are still questioning the validity of points made in the Freeh Report.

Happy Valley lived up to its namesake for a few hours Tuesday. But now it's as if the reduction never happened. The community isn't happy -- and might not be until Emmert can say there's no culture problem or the sanctions are erased.

"What they've given us is great and all," McGloin said. "But I guess I'd have to agree with Steph [Stephon Morris]. It's just not enough yet."

PSU DT Jones exceeding expectations

September, 10, 2013
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STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- DaQuan Jones doesn't blush at all from the praise. He's relaxed after peeling off his helmet, and any compliments seem to slide off his shoulders like sweat from a two-hour workout.

[+] EnlargeDaQuan Jones
Rob Christy/USA TODAY SportsDT DaQuan Jones lived up to the preseason hype and led the Nittany Lions in stops in the backfield and was fifth on the team in tackles.
The praise rolls on and Jones nods, but he's heard most of it before. Yes, he knows Gil Brandt rated him the top senior DT this season -- he found out on social media -- but that's a title he's not yet earned. Yes, he knows he leads the team in sacks (two), but he counters by saying the season's young.

But, every now and then, Jones is thrown off. You know, one reporter tells him, former cornerback Stephon Morris tweeted about how he should be a Heisman contender. Forget about Johnny Football and those billboard-grabbing quarterbacks.

"That's a bit too much," Jones said, shaking his head as if it were an insult. "That's for the skill guys."

Still, while the Heisman race might be a bit out of the humble senior's grasp, other awards like the Lombardi might just be within reach. After two games, he has five stops in the backfield. And, perhaps most impressively, he leads the Nittany Lions in tackles with 18. Only two players in the Big Ten -- Illinois LB Jonathan Brown and Iowa LB Anthony Hitchens -- have more. And Jones still has more solo stops than those two leaders.

"Seriously?" the defensive tackle asked Saturday, turning his head. "Man, that's crazy."

Crazy is right. On the field, Penn State's 318-pound defensive tackle -- who was 330-plus before laying off the local chicken-wing shop -- is focused like a prizefighter. He's friendly and gregarious after the game, like any other college student waiting to meet up with his family for a Saturday dinner, but he's another person on the field.

He talks with a slight lisp, not unlike Mike Tyson. It's a comparison others have drawn, and it's not a reach considering he constantly delivers knockout blows to the opposing line. He's mean, he's strong, and he's not a player the opposition looks forward to crossing.

"I like double teams better," he said matter-of-factly, as if he was asked his favorite ice cream flavor. "I'm a physical guy, and I like the contact. I don't shy away from them."

Added 240-pound tailback Zach Zwinak: "Even in our thud practices [where no one goes to the ground], he's definitely laid a few hits. He's a big boy."

In two games, Penn State has limited rushers to just 1.8 yards a carry and Jones has become the main ingredient in those three-and-outs. Against Syracuse, on three straight rushing plays to end the half, Jones came up with three straight tackles -- even when the Orange tried to avoid Jones by running off to the right on third down. (Jones happened to bring the ball-carrier down in the backfield for a one-yard loss, anyway.)

Trying to stop Jones is about as easy as about as trying to stop a run-away tractor trailer. You can try … but you'll probably get hurt in the process. Still, maybe that shouldn't be so surprising given the school's history at defensive tackle. Jones isn't an exception; he's really part of a trend.

He landed in Happy Valley months after the Miami Dolphins drafted Jared Odrick in the first round. He watched teammate Devon Still become a second-rounder in 2012 and then saw Jordan Hill head to the Seattle Seahawks in the third round this past offseason. Compare him to the past DT greats, say he's better, say he's worse -- but Jones is remaining level-headed.

"I want to be known for who I am," Jones said. "I didn't come here to live in anyone's shadows."

Jones is sincere and soft-spoken. When he says he's playing for fun and not awards, it's easy to believe him. He'll laugh when he talks about his pregame ritual with teammate Deion Barnes and how they'll just slap the back of each other's heads if one doesn't seem loose enough. And he'll narrow his eyebrows and softly glare, as if to say "Seriously?," when someone dishes out some praise. Part of the reason might just be because he doesn't yet believe himself that he's posted up some mind-boggling numbers.

Here's another: Last season, Jones started 11 games and finished the season with eight solo tackles and two tackles-for-loss. In Week 1 of this year, he already had eight solo tackles and three-tackles-for-loss.

"You know, it came up last week that somebody mentioned people were concerned about our interior defensive line play," defensive coordinator John Butler said. "But that's one of our strengths. DaQuan Jones is a great player. … DaQuan is very unselfish. If he keeps playing the way he's playing, he's going to have a long future playing football after Penn State."

Jones is as comfortable on the gridiron as he is off it. This is his final Penn State season and his last year as a college student, so he said he's going to enjoy it. And so far -- much to the chagrin of opposing offenses -- he sure has.

PSU position preview: Cornerbacks

August, 16, 2013
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As part of an ongoing series, NittanyNation will preview a different position leading up to the season opener against Syracuse on Aug. 31. Up today: Cornerbacks.

Projected starters: Trevor Williams (2012 stats, as WR: 10 receptions, 97 yards; four kick returns, 79 yards) and Jordan Lucas (one tackle).

Key losses: Stephon Morris (60 tackles, five tackles-for-loss, five pass deflections)

[+] EnlargeDa'Quan Davis
Vinny Carchietta/Icon SMIDa'Quan Davis is still a bit undersized, but he has experience and is currently the No. 3 corner.
Next in line: Sophomore Da'Quan Davis played in 11 games last year but saw limited time as a cornerback. Still, he stepped up when Morris suffered an injury -- and he likely will be called upon more in 2013. He's the No. 3 corner right now.

Davis gained only three pounds in a year's time and remains undersized at 5-foot-10, 164 pounds. Still, cornerback-turned-safety Adrian Amos could always step back into the position if he's needed. Other players vying for time include true freshmen Anthony Smith and Jordan Smith, who both enrolled early.

What to expect: Neither starter saw any significant time at cornerback last season -- Williams was a wideout, after all -- but the Nittany Lions seem more confident at the position this season. For one, they moved Amos to his natural position of safety, despite returning both starters there ... which they wouldn't have done if defensive coordinator John Butler viewed corner as a weakness.

Williams made tremendous strides over the offseason at cornerback, and the staff has complimented Lucas since he stepped on campus. Replacing Morris' speed will be no easy task, but the new starters at least have size on their side as they're both at least 6-feet tall. (Lucas is 6-0; Williams is 6-1).

Williams' experience at wideout should help him grab interceptions, something this secondary sorely lacked last season. (The secondary, as a whole, finished with only three picks on the season. Linebacker Michael Mauti had three himself.) Lucas, on the other hand, is more polished, and scouts have said he shows a good burst to recover. The two new starters are obviously wildcards, since they really haven't seen B1G competition as cornerbacks, but there's enough potential here to allay fans' concern.

Recruiting trail: Butler was adamant that he wasn't very pleased with the depth he inherited last season, so he spent the 2013 class -- and, now, the 2014 class -- to restock.

The Nittany Lions already grabbed two CB commits in four-star athlete Troy Vincent Jr. (Baltimore/Gilman) and three-star prospect Daquan Worley (Coatesville, Pa./Coatesville). But they're not done just yet.

The Lions continue to go after ESPN 300 athlete Dravon Henry (Aliquippa, Pa./Aliquippa), who's one of their top remaining priorities in this class. PSU has a good shot here, but WVU likely still holds the slight edge right now.

Looking ahead, PSU is hoping to grab ESPN Junior 300 CB Minkah Fitzpatrick (Jersey City, N.J./St. Peter's) in the 2015 class. And fellow 2015 prospect Kareem Ali Jr. (Erial, N.J./Timber Creek Regional) is very high on PSU and could be the first commit of the class.

Best-case scenario: Williams is able add a few interceptions to the secondary this season, and Lucas shows that he'll be a solid three-year starter for PSU. Amos is able to stay at safety because the corners hold their own, and they boast an above-average season that paves the way for a brighter future.

Worst-case scenario: Bill O'Brien said last year that, sometimes, you don't know what you have until you see your team in action -- and the group struggles against Syracuse. Williams shows potential but is caught out of position for long gains and is targeted by the offense. Amos is forced to move back to cornerback at some point, and the secondary shows no progress from last season.

Top position question: Can this group be better than last year? Let's not dance around this question. The answer's yes.

There's enough depth here that Butler can get creative if something happens, and most importantly -- because of the added experience at safety -- PSU should play even more aggressive man coverage this season. Lucas and Williams will be put more in position to succeed, and they should be able to top last year's measly two interceptions by the corners.

The secondary was the big question of the year entering 2012, and it slightly outperformed low expectations after a bumpy start. If the secondary as a whole can stop those long third-down conversions in the opener, it'll go a long way in showing this group can have a successful season.

Penn State season preview

August, 9, 2013
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Can the Nittany Lions build off last season and play the role of BCS spoiler? Let's take a closer look at this 2013 Penn State team:

PENN STATE NITTANY LIONS

Coach: Bill O'Brien (8-4 overall, 8-4 at Penn State)

2012 record: 8-4 (6-2 Big Ten)

Key losses: QB Matt McGloin, C Matt Stankiewitch, DT Jordan Hill, LB Michael Mauti, LB Gerald Hodges, CB Stephon Morris

[+] EnlargeAdrian Amos
Keith Srakocic/AP PhotoKeep an eye out for rising star Adrian Amos, who will play more at safety this season for PSU.
Key returnees: RB Zach Zwinak, WR Allen Robinson, G John Urschel, DE Deion Barnes, DT DaQuan Jones, LB Mike Hull, DB Adrian Amos

Newcomer to watch: QB Christian Hackenberg. He was the top-rated quarterback in the 2013 class, and ESPN ranked him as the 15th-best high school prospect in the nation.

Biggest games in 2013: vs. Michigan (Oct. 12), at Ohio State (Oct. 26), vs. Nebraska (Nov. 23), at Wisconsin (Nov. 30)

Biggest question mark heading into 2013: O'Brien turned this passing offense around last season with an up-tempo style and an efficient McGloin, who tossed 24 touchdowns to five interceptions. But he'll have to start a first-year QB this season, as none of PSU's five signal-callers -- three walk-ons, two on scholarship -- were on the roster last season.

The race is between Hackenberg and Tyler Ferguson, a junior college player who missed about a month of voluntary workouts. O'Brien plans to name a starter about midway through camp. Whoever it is, he will have to learn quickly for the Nittany Lions to repeat the success of last season.

Forecast: Penn State overcame some huge question marks last year and went on to have a surprisingly successful season, but it's not going to get any easier in 2013.

The defensive front seven is short on depth and bigger on inexperience. Nyeem Wartman, a redshirt freshman, will take over for a Butkus semifinalist at linebacker. The starting DT opposite Jones -- projected to be Kyle Baublitz -- compiled just three stops last season and weighs in at just 281 pounds. A single injury at either spot would be devastating for the Nittany Lions.

On the bright side, there are clearly some strong leaders who could make up for some early missteps. Barnes was last year's Big Ten Freshman of the Year, and he's already one of the league's most feared pass-rushers. Hull is poised for a breakout season, and teammates recently called his offseason improvement the most impressive.

But out of all the defensive stars, Amos might surprise fans the most. He moved from cornerback to his natural position at safety in the offseason, and last year's 50th-ranked pass defense should be better this time around.

On offense, just about every unit has improved, with one big exception at quarterback. It'll be difficult for any newcomer to match McGloin's performance, but there's a strong supporting cast. Robinson is the top wideout in the Big Ten, Zwinak reached the 1,000-yard plateau last season, and the tight ends will play as large a role in this offense as any other team in the country.

In short, like last year, PSU is a bit of a wild card. If it receives strong efforts from its quarterback and the front seven, it should surpass last year's record. If it doesn't, it might be fortunate to get to seven wins.
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Three seniors will accompany Bill O'Brien to the Big Ten media days on Wednesday and Thursday in Chicago: offensive guard John Urschel, linebacker Glenn Carson and safety Malcolm Willis.

There's plenty of news surrounding these Nittany Lions, so here are five storylines to keep in mind during the two-day event:

1. Asking the NCAA to reduce the sanctions: O'Brien opened this door a little bit Friday, saying he hoped the NCAA would meet him "halfway." And questions will undoubtedly be thrown his way about those statements. Will PSU make a presentation to the NCAA? Will it just hope, wait and keep its fingers crossed?

Reducing the sanctions would have a monumental effect on the program and the university, so it would be no surprise if that turned into one of the main focuses at the B1G media days. Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith recently said in an interview that he believed the penalties were "overly harsh."

2. Quarterback "controversy": It's not just Tyler Ferguson vs. Christian Hackenberg that creates an interesting dynamic here. Ferguson hadn't returned to campus as of last Friday and is currently missing summer workouts. Granted, they're voluntary -- but players in the midst of position battles usually don't miss them. O'Brien tried to downplay Ferguson's absence on Friday, saying the media "made a mountain out of a mole hill."

[+] EnlargeJohn Urschel
Randy Litzinger/ Icon SMISenior lineman John Urschel will be the keynote speaker at the final luncheon during the Big Ten media days.
Some things are more important than football -- and Ferguson's mother is sick -- but the questions will continue: Does Hackenberg lead now? When does O'Brien plan to announce the starter? And has Ferguson decided when he'll return to campus? The overall picture will remain blurry for a while, but hopefully part of it comes into focus this week.

3. DE Brad Bars' season-ending injury and depth concerns: Until the end of the sanctions, this will be a continuing theme -- and it seems especially newsworthy now because of Bars missing the season. There isn't much depth at defensive tackle and linebacker, and O'Brien should elaborate more on how he's trying to create, or make up for, depth at those positions.

4. Urschel to be a featured speaker at Thursday luncheon: He might just be the smartest football player in the Big Ten, and it will be interesting to hear what he has to say. All eyes will be on the All-Big Ten lineman, and he'll be representing B1G players as the keynote speaker.

Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson was the speaker last season, and he recounted his difficult upbringing and how his 5-year-old brother died when Denard was just 10 years old. That's a tough act to follow.

5. What kind of leadership will PSU have this season? With the departures of fiery quarterback Matt McGloin and the soul of the team in Michael Mauti, leadership on this team has obviously taken a hit. Maybe, then, it's no surprise that O'Brien is bringing along what could be considered the team's top three leaders. Teammates have referred to Willis as the "quarterback of the defense," Carson is the most experienced player on defense and Urschel has stepped up and become a vocal leader on offense.

Still, with a first-year quarterback at the helm -- and the departures of Jordan Hill, Michael Zordich, Matt Stankiewitch, Gerald Hodges and Stephon Morris -- just how big of a concern is the leadership? Even O'Brien didn't hide just how special of a player Mauti was, and it's somewhat reminiscent of the 2006 season, when PSU had to find an identity following the graduation of Michael Robinson and company.
So, what teams had the best and worst all-time PSU fantasy drafts on Tuesday?

There's a lot of opinion out there, but NittanyNation tried to find two knowledgable judges to offer their takes on each team's draft. Both Steve Jones and Mike Poorman agreed to grade each team and include a brief analysis.

Jones is the play-by-play voice of Penn State football and hosts a daily radio show that can be heard on ESPN 1450 in State College. Poorman is a columnist and senior lecturer at Penn State who taught the class, "Joe Paterno, Communications & The Media." Both are PSU graduates.

Here's what they had to say:

Team Lou Prato
(Top five picks: RB Lenny Moore, LB Jack Ham, DT Mike Reid, DE Courtney Brown, C Glenn Ressler)

Jones says: A. Outstanding defense, especially at linebacker, and a solid kicking game. Offensively, Moore could do it all, and people forget Chuck Fusina was a Heisman trophy runner-up who actually had more first-place votes than Billy Sims.

Poorman says: A. I graded the No. 1 pick at each position, and Lou was tops with eight such selections. His LB combo of Jack Ham and Shane Conlan, PSU’s best two ever, and secondary pair of Harry Wilson and Michael Zordich exemplified a depth of knowledge -- and, hence, roster -- that was unmatched, top to bottom. Memo to Bob McClellan: 25 years after you had him in class, Lou is still cantankerous.

Team Bob McClellan
(Top five picks: CB Brian Miller, RB Curt Warner, OT Keith Dorney, OG Mike Munchak, DE Michael Haynes)

Jones says: A-. Great running game and offensive line, along with the best rushers. This group has underrated receivers and an underrated quarterback who was Big Ten player of the year.

Poorman says: A-. Seven of Bob’s picks were best at their position. His OL spanned four decades and was the strongest group by far. All-time pick leader Neal Smith and punter Ralph Giacamarro showed McClellan’s surprising and seasoned savvy against a field of Penn Staters. Flex selection Lydell Mitchell was inspired.

Team Stephon Morris
(Top five picks: LB Sean Lee, LB LaVar Arrington, WR Bobby Engram, DT Matt Millen, RB John Cappelletti)

Jones says: A-. He mixes the school's only Heisman winner in Cappy with the quarterback who won the first national title. Defensively, the athletes at linebacker are impressive, and Millen is outstanding up front

Poorman says: Pass. No way I could fail Stephon. A likeable and gutsy player, he was a media favorite with his candor. With his draft picks, he displayed confidence -- he picked Stephon Morris at CB -- and smarts, by snagging four of the giants of Penn State football: John Cappelletti, LaVar Arrington, Matt Millen and Todd Blackledge. But his O-line was of the “oh, my goodness” variety, and his biggest downfall.

Team Josh Moyer
(Top five picks: QB Kerry Collins, S Mark Robinson, OT Levi Brown, OG Sean Farrell, TE Ted Kwalick)

Jones says: A-. Get ready for the ball to fly. Great quarterback and receivers. Everyone has quality tight ends, but Kwalick was special. Strong secondary behind that defensive line.

Poorman says: B+. Josh has the best pitch-and-catch triad of Kerry Collins, Kenny Jackson and Ted Kwalick, with Stefen Wisniewski snapping the ball. That’s four of his five position-best picks. He showed a healthy respect for -- and use of -- the past (W.T. Dunn, Joe Bedenk) that gets high marks, but his pair of kickers and one corner selection ranked a Z.

Team O.J. McDuffie
(Top five picks: RB Ki-Jana Carter, RB Larry Johnson, OG Steve Wisniewski, OG Jeff Hartings, S Darren Perry)

Jones says: B+. Great running game along with speed at wide receiver. The defense is solid across the board.

Poorman says: C. O.J. was in trouble as soon as did not pick O.J. McDuffie. His one old-school pick, Matt Bahr, was the best kicker selected. But O.J. relied almost totally on Nittany Lions from the past three decades and regrettably didn’t include one player from the first 88 years of Penn State football. Not OK, O.J.
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- The all-time Penn State fantasy draft might be over, but the controversy has only just begun.

NittanyNation thought it'd take an extra day to reflect on the process, offer some analysis, give some opinions and then move on from a memorable three-hour, 24-round draft.

Steve Jones and Mike Poorman will grade each team later today, but NittanyNation wanted to give its own rundown of the draft and offer a behind-the-scenes look at a few picks.

The best PSU player? In a casual Twitter poll Monday night, linebacker Jack Ham received the most mentions for best overall Penn State player. Team Prato took him in the second round, with everyone except the softspoken McDuffie playfully calling Lou Prato a jerk. (Everyone wanted Ham.)

It was an interesting, nonscientific poll because it took about a dozen votes for a single name to be repeated. LaVar Arrington and John Cappelletti also received multiple mentions.

Prato voted for Lenny Moore by drafting him with his No. 1 overall pick.

[+] EnlargeO.J. McDuffie
USA TODAY SportsO.J. McDuffie wasn't happy when Team Moyer drafted him -- immediately before McDuffie planned to draft himself.
Most memorable part of the draft: Definitely the end of the seventh round. Only one receiver had been drafted until that point (Bobby Engram), and Team Moyer needed a wideout.

So, right before Team McDuffie had back-to-back picks, Team Moyer selected O.J. McDuffie for his own fantasy team.

Team Moyer: "Sorry to do this to you, OJ, but I got to. I'm taking O.J. McDuffie. Need Collins to throw to someone."

Team McDuffie: "Damn, Josh. I was just about take myself."

That's when four receivers -- McDuffie, Bryant Johnson, Deon Butler, Kenny Jackson -- were taken consecutively and caused headaches for the other three participants. That was a key part to the draft. And, five days later, O.J. still wasn't happy about the move.

"I still can't believe you did that," McDuffie said, laughing. "Right before me."

Biggest head-scratchers: Cornerback Brian Miller as the No. 2 overall pick? C'mon, Team McClellan. Cornerback was the slimmest position in the draft, so corners had added value -- that was McClellan's reasoning for taking him so high -- but one could've held off on Miller until at least the fourth or fifth round.

Team McClellan passed up Ki-Jana Carter and Kerry Collins for Miller. Team Morris also received some ribbing for making Sean Lee the No. 1 LB, but Stephon Morris wanted to draft someone in the first round with whom he had played. So that was understandable.

But when Morris took kicker Chris Bahr in the 10th round? Definite head-scratcher -- although he did explain that move here. McDuffie also surprised just about everyone when he drafted Larry Johnson over the likes of Curt Warner and Cappelletti.

Best undrafted players: Where to even begin? There were plenty; you could make up a great team on just left-overs from the draft.

QB Tony Sacca, FB Franco Harris, RB Blair Thomas, WR Derek Moye, OT Chris Conlin, and C Matt Stankiewitch are among the best remaining picks on offense. As far as the defense: DT Jimmy Kennedy, DE Bruce Bannon, LB Michael Mauti, CB Derek Bochna and S Harry Hamilton were also undrafted.

Best sleepers (or best-value picks): OK, we'll throw Team McClellan a bone here. Grabbing two-time All-American and College Football Hall-of-Famer Dennis Onkotz in the 16th round was probably the steal of the draft.

That greatly boosted Team McClellan's LB corps. And he grabbed another great-value pick with Lydell Mitchell in the 20th round. Team Morris definitely got great value in QB Todd Blackledge in the 19th round, and Team Moyer's best-value picks appeared to be LB Greg Buttle in the 18th round and Kenny Jackson in the eighth.

Morris means business: A lot of participants hit the books before the draft, but Morris' preparation was a little different. As a player, he had a bit of a leg up, because he didn't just stop at reading up on all the players -- he went straight to the source.

Morris called up several former players -- including Lee, Chafie Fields, NaVorro Bowman, Derrick Williams and Arrington -- to talk about whom they thought deserved to be drafted.

"Once you told me about it, I had contacts with guys who I played with and guys like Chafie Fields, who I was thinking about signing with, so I just did my research," Morris said Tuesday night. "I asked them about some guys, who I should choose and pretty much went from there."

Morris' research seemed to pay off. Prato was pleasantly surprised at Morris' Penn State knowledge, and his defense is among the best.

Can we get a mulligan? When you're picking players without a fancy draft board and you're racing against the clock, sometimes panic and confusion set in -- and it basically happened to all of us.

Prato regretted not taking Gregg Garrity; Morris likely would've taken Brandon Noble over Devon Still if he had another chance; McDuffie would've drafted himself sooner. And Team Moyer? Why, oh why, couldn't Lydell Mitchell hold out for one more round? Michael Mauti also likely would've replaced Ed O'Neil upon closer inspection.

Looking back on the draft: The most difficult part wasn't necessarily creating your own "cheat sheet" and ranking the best players at each position. It was trying to weigh whether someone like Michael Robinson had more value than someone like Engram.

There was no blueprint to this, since it had never really been done before. We all knew what players we wanted -- but we weren't so sure just who we could wait for and who we needed to grab right away.

Morris agreed that you kind of had to adopt a reactive strategy with the draft. With no mock drafts, it was definitely unique. But, looking ahead, at least future drafters will have some idea of what to expect.

It was definitely a lot of fun. The NittanyNation staff will probably continue trash-talking about this throughout the season. And McDuffie, Morris and Prato were all great sports.

"If I’d know the level of participation McDuffie and Morris would have I’d have picked them 1 and 2," McClellan said. "Great guys and tremendously patient during the whole process, too."
Imagine creating a team consisting solely of Penn State greats. Which All-American tailback would you choose? Which defensive tackle? Better yet, what about those linebackers?

These aren't easy questions to answer -- but you won't have to imagine for much longer. NittanyNation organized a 24-round Nittany Lions fantasy draft to see whom five experts would choose head to head. We'll publish the results and analysis on Tuesday.

The mission: Draft players forming a 4-3 defense, take a starting offensive lineup -- including one RB, two wideouts, a tight end and a "flex" position -- along with a kicker and punter. NittanyNation's Josh Moyer organized the draft and participated, along with:
  • O.J. McDuffie. If this name doesn't ring a bell, your Penn State fan card is revoked. McDuffie is one of PSU's greatest wideouts and sits fifth in the school record books for career receptions (125). He and Bobby Engram also held the single-season receptions record (63) until Allen Robinson broke it last season. McDuffie was a first-round NFL draft pick who hauled in 415 catches over eight seasons with the Miami Dolphins.
  • Lou Prato. He literally wrote the encyclopedia on Penn State football, and one would be hard-pressed to find a person who knows more about the Nittany Lions than him. He's the director of the Penn State All-Sports Museum and is a noted author and historian.
  • Stephon Morris. The speedy cornerback was the most experienced player in the secondary last season and is currently a DB for the New England Patriots. He was one of PSU's senior leaders who helped keep the team together during the sanctions and, boy, did Morris take this draft seriously. He called up several former players, pored over player bios, consulted with his father, etc. His competitive nature on the field carried over to the fantasy draft.
  • Bob McClellan. He is te editor of ESPN.com's NittanyNation, BuckeyeNation and WolverineNation and a Big Ten grad. Bob has been a sports editor and sports writer in newspapers and online for 25-plus years. Prato was a professor of his in graduate school at Northwestern.

This isn't supposed to be the be-all, end-all of the greatest PSU players. But it's definitely a great starting point to the conversation. Each participant came in with a different strategy -- somewhat unsurprisingly, for example, Morris focused on defense early to control field position -- and each drafter brought something new to the table.

The best players weren't always picked first -- especially if drafters thought they could get away with waiting to snag the better, possibly lesser-known players later on. (Who's better: Greg Buttle or 1906 captain W.T. Dunn?) That didn't always work out and led to some lighthearted name-calling during the draft, along with some continued ribbing a few days later.

Every participant left the draft feeling as if he had pieced together the best team. Would you have done anything differently? Did one of us drop the ball? Were more recent players overvalued?

Take a look on Tuesday, and let us know. We'll roll out the full team results, the position-by-position breakdown and an analysis from every participant. We can't exactly offer a sneak peek just yet, but here was our draft order (and, yes, it followed a snake draft where the last to draft in the first round was the first to draft in the next):

1. Prato
2. McClellan
3. Morris
4. Moyer
5. McDuffie

Which PSU player went No. 1 overall? Which 15 linebackers were taken, and in what order? See you on Tuesday.
Last summer, Penn State's defensive backs used outside criticism for motivation.

The Lions' secondary had to replace all four starters and Malcolm Willis and Stephon Morris reminded everyone of the gloomy forecast many had for the back four. "We're supposedly the worst unit on the team," Willis told his teammates after practices. "Everybody is doubting us, everybody is doubting our ability."

There are fewer doubts heading into the 2013 season. In fact, the secondary could be branded a potential strength for a defense that loses All-Big Ten performers up front (DT Jordan Hill) and at linebacker (Michael Mauti, Gerald Hodges).

Penn State returns both starters at safety from 2012 in Willis and Stephen Obeng-Agyapong, as well as Adrian Amos, who started at cornerback last fall but moved to safety in the spring and is listed as a starter on the team's latest depth chart. The safety group also includes Ryan Keiser, a reserve in 2012 who head coach Bill O'Brien labels a potential unit leader this season.

"We feel like we have better depth there than we had last year, and we've got a good amount of returning experience," O'Brien recently told ESPN.com. "And they're very well coached. That position has to be very well coached."

O'Brien credits defensive coordinator John Butler, the team's secondary coach in 2012, for pushing the right buttons with the personnel in the back four. This spring, the coaches moved Trevor Williams and Malik Golden from wide receiver to cornerback and safety, respectively. Williams emerged from the spring as a starter.

The Lions are undoubtedly younger at cornerback than at safety -- all players listed on the summer two-deep are freshmen or sophomores -- but they have flexibility with Amos, who had 44 tackles, two interceptions and three pass breakups last season.

"He's got to be ready to play a lot of different roles for us," O'Brien said. "He's a very valuable member of our team."

5 Questions: CB Stephon Morris

April, 19, 2013
4/19/13
11:00
AM ET
Stephon MorrisJustin K. Aller/Getty Images

Every week, NittanyNation will pose five questions to a recruit, player, alum or coach about all things Penn State.

This week's subject is cornerback Stephon Morris, an All-Big Ten honorable mention who is hoping to be drafted next week.

NittanyNation: You ran an official 4.35 on your pro day. Just how much has that helped you with getting NFL teams' attention, and how confident are you about being drafted now?

Stephon Morris: It helped me a lot. My draft stock has been tremendously high, just talking to my agents, and a lot of teams are interested, and a lot of teams are big on me. But I feel like I got four years worth of film and started 26 games -- so the only thing I really needed to prove to the scouts, especially coming up to Penn State, was that I wasn't a typical stiff, slow corner because that's how I feel they judge us.

But when I ran that, I think my stock really went higher. I don't know my draft grade right now -- some say between the fourth and seventh, so who knows? But whether I get drafted or not, I just want a chance to prove I can play at this level.

NN: You said teams approached you after pro day and commented how they wished they would've seen more of you in man coverage. Where do you think you'd be now if you had played in this defense for all four seasons?

SM: I feel that I would've been one of the top corners in the country. I started my freshman career off in the nickel, and we had guys like NaVorro [Bowman] and Sean [Lee] and everybody, so it made everything easier. So, some games, I wasn't starting and I ended up getting on the freshman All-Big Ten team and I was kind of free. I would play man then. But then -- my sophomore, junior year -- we weren't really a blitzing team, so I played more of a Cover-3 and jumping routes. I didn't really play much man between junior and sophomore year. But coach [Ted] Roof, you know he's going to blitz you.

I feel like if I would've played in Roof's scheme or someone's like Ohio State or Virginia Tech, I would've been one of the top corners in the country, hands down.

NN: Mr. Irrelevant signed a contract last year for $400,000 with a $45K signing bonus. And practice squad players can make upwards of six figures. So, if everything goes as planned, what's the first thing you plan to buy?

(Read full post)

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

Saturday will be the first time most of last season's freshmen will play in front of a crowd, the first time fans can size up the quarterback race and the first time the media can see the progress this team has made over the spring.

The Blue-White weekend has taken on a carnival-type atmosphere these past few years, and there's plenty to see. But on the field, NittanyNation takes a closer look on what fans should keep an especially close eye on.

QUARTERBACK RACE

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

Bill O'Brien said in the past no quarterback separated himself yet. Maybe, just maybe, someone will gain an edge Saturday.

BRING ON THE MAN COVERAGE

Defensive coordinator John Butler acknowledged last season that PSU couldn't play be as aggressive in the secondary because of the depth. But that is improved this season. Jordan Smith and Anthony Smith enrolled early, while wideouts Malik Golden and Trevor Williams switched to defensive back.

PSU began practicing the nickel this spring, and fans can expect finally to see that package this season. There's no telling who might start alongside Adrian Amos come August -- Jordan Lucas is currently practicing with the first team -- and fans should keep an eye on the young corners here.

PROJECTED (RS) FRESHMAN STARTERS

DT Austin Johnson and LB Nyeem Wartman are just redshirt freshmen, but it already looks as if they'll crack the starting lineup this season. Both very well could wind up as the rare four-year PSU starter, and expectations are high for these two.

Johnson already is up to 302 pounds, and O'Brien has praised his ability since he was asked about his top freshmen last season. And the hard-hitting Wartman, whom PSU fans already are familiar with, blocked a punt in his PSU debut before an injury in Week 2 that sidelined him for the season (and allowed him to pick up a medical redshirt). With the departures of Mike Mauti and Gerald Hodges, Wartman will have to play well right off the bat for PSU to remain strong here. One recruit said he was especially impressed watching No. 5, because he was all over the field during one practice. Let's see what they can do in a scrimmage.

(Also, Akeel Lynch and Eugene Lewis might not be starters ... but is there anyone who doesn't plan to keep a close eye on them?)

HOW MUCH BETTER HAVE THE BEST GOTTEN?

Practice observers and teammates have pointed constantly to Allen Robinson when asked who has impressed so far this spring. He broke the single-season school record for receptions last season, and he has gained needed weight while maintaining his speed. Robinson was the best in the Big Ten last year, and now he's even better. That's hard to picture on the field.

Mike Hull, Deion Barnes, Zach Zwinak, Amos, etc. all have earned a lot of praise this spring. Zwinak has improved his strength, Barnes is shoring up his run-stopping, Hull is embracing a starting role ... and Amos? Well, he's probably PSU's most versatile player. Returner, safety, cornerback -- he can do everything. And it'll be interesting to see just how much he does Saturday.

TIGHT END U?

It's pretty incredible just how much this position has evolved in about 15 months. Kyle Carter won't play in the Blue-White Game, but fans still will be able to look at Matt Lehman, Jesse James and Brent Wilkerson.

MLB Glenn Carson mentioned James as the player who has impressed him the most overall. He broke out during Carter's absence late in the year, and he boasts good speed for a 6-foot-7 target. James has "red-zone target" written all over him, and it'll be interesting to see how this young corps does in the scrimmage. It'll be an even bigger bonus if Adam Breneman is able to play.

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