Penn State Nittany Lions: Ty Howle

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- We’re inching closer to the top spot of this week’s countdown involving the top spring position battles at Penn State.

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

No. 2 position battle: Offensive guard/center

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

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

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

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

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

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

More position battles to watch:

No. 5: Kicker
No. 4: Tight end
No. 3: Defensive tackle
Here's a compilation of Twitter reaction from current players, former players and recruits regarding Bill O'Brien's decision to coach the Houston Texans:


Looking to the past & future: OL

December, 24, 2013
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It's never too late -- or too early -- to see what we learned from this season and also look ahead to next season. So, we've started breaking down each position on the Nittany Lions.

Up today: Offensive line.

REWIND

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

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

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

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

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

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

FAST FORWARD

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

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

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

Few surprises for PSU on B1G teams

December, 2, 2013
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STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- As expected, Allen Robinson was once again the big Penn State winner when it came to the Big Ten's All-Conference Selection Show on Monday night.

He was the Big Ten's lone semifinalist for the national Biletnikoff Award so it wasn't much of a surprise when he was named a unanimous All-Big Ten first-team selection and earned the conference's Richter-Howard Receiver of the Year Award for the second straight season. He finished his junior campaign with a PSU-record 97 catches and 1,432 yards.

There weren't many surprises for Penn State, and there was just one pick that could've been perceived as a snub. Here's a closer look at how it all played out for Penn State (all players are first-team selections unless otherwise noted):

COACHES' TEAM

WR Robinson
OG John Urschel
DT DaQuan Jones

Honorable mention: DB Adrian Amos, LB Glenn Carson, QB Christian Hackenberg, C Ty Howle, CB Jordan Lucas, DE C.J. Olaniyan, LT Donovan Smith

MEDIA'S TEAM

WR Robinson
OG Urschel
DT Jones (second-team)

Honorable mention: LB Carson, K Sam Ficken, QB Hackenberg, C Howle, TE Jesse James, CB Lucas, DE Olaniyan, LT Smith

Really, the only perceived snub could be on Jones making the second-team on the media's list. Ohio State DL Noah Spence earned the spot over him, but it was a pretty tight race. Jones had more overall tackles (33 solo, 56 total) than Spence (20 solo, 46 total) and helped stop the run and clog up the middle.

Spence rushed the passer and finished with 13.5 tackles-for-loss, eight sacks and four quarterback hurries. Jones had 11.5 tackles-for-loss, three sacks and no hurries. Spence also had his hand in more turnovers.

Outside of that, there didn't appear to be anyone who was really left off the list. If anything, the list of honorable mentions might've raised a few eyebrows for opposite reasons.

Amos played relatively well at corner, but most of his season was spent playing not-so-well at safety. He earned a nod from coaches but not from the media. It's clear this season was a step down from 2012.

The biggest surprise came from the media's list, however, with the inclusion of Ficken. That pick would've made sense had this season ended around Week 6, but he struggled in the second half. He finished the season by making 15-of-23 (65 percent) field goals and by missing an extra point. In the last five games, he made just half of his kicks -- and he was just 1-of-5 on field goals longer than 30 yards during that stretch.

The Big Ten will continue with the major awards being named Tuesday night. But there shouldn't be too many surprises there, either. Expect Penn State to pick up its second straight freshman-of-the-year honor.

Planning for success: Penn State

November, 21, 2013
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STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Senior center Ty Howle can feel his time in Happy Valley winding down.

He knows Saturday will be his final game inside Beaver Stadium. It'll be his last opportunity to ring the victory bell, the last time he runs out of that tunnel in a blue jersey and the last time he hears a fiery Bill O'Brien address the team from his own locker room.

He knows all that. But he just doesn't want to think about it.

[+] EnlargeNebraska
Rick Osentoski/USA TODAY SportsIf Penn State's seniors want to have a successful senior day, they'll have to slow down Nebraska RB Ameer Abdullah.
"It's bittersweet," he said. "We're looking forward to the opportunity to play Nebraska and play in front of Beaver Stadium again. But it's going to be tough knowing this is our last opportunity."

If Howle wants to end his final collegiate season with a winning record, it sure seems as if Saturday is the Nittany Lions' best opportunity. PSU has just two games left -- Nebraska this Saturday, Wisconsin next -- and the Badgers will be heavily favored.

So, this is the game PSU will have to win to clinch a winning season. Two losses put them at .500.

"I came here to win," Howle said. "That's one of the reasons I came to Penn State because, at Penn State, you're going to win. It means a lot."

The main player standing in the seniors' way for a positive sendoff is the Cornhuskers' Ameer Abdullah, a shifty 5-foot-9 tailback who's amassed 1,336 rushing yards (6.5 ypc) and is making his case as the Big Ten's offensive player of the year. Nebraska boasts a mediocre passing game and an OK defense -- but Abdullah?

He's basically Nebraska's answer to Penn State spark-plug Allen Robinson.

"A player of his caliber, it's really hard to stop a player that is as explosive as he is," safety Malcolm Willis said. "We just have to try to contain him. We have to make sure we're a very good tackling team come Saturday."

Willis, also a senior, is another one of the 17 players who will be honored Saturday afternoon. It'll also be his final time inside Beaver Stadium. And, like Howle, Willis reflected on his career and said time has flown by in Happy Valley.

He wants to go out a winner -- but there's that whole issue of first getting past Nebraska, whom these seniors have yet to beat.

"I don't think it's hit us yet that it's our last game at Beaver Stadium," Willis said. "But I'm sure all of us will be really, really emotional come Saturday."

Friday Q&A: Penn State's John Urschel

October, 25, 2013
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John Urschel is a senior offensive guard who might have more accomplishments off the field than on. He was an All-Big Ten lineman last season and also co-authored a paper in the journal, "Celestial Mechanics and Dynamical Astronomy" that sought to prove how asteroids move in an unstable manner.

He carries a 4.0 GPA, is working on his second master's degree, taught a Penn State math class -- and he's also one of the leaders on Penn State's offense. I recently caught up with Urschel to talk about life on and off the football field for this week's Friday Q&A:

[+] EnlargeJohn Urschel
Randy Litzinger/ Icon SMIPenn State senior lineman John Urschel is accomplished on and off the field.
Right after Bill O'Brien's news conference this week, you joked that your head coach didn't ask you -- the math genius -- whether you should've gone for two at the end of the Michigan game. Well, tell me, what does math say you should've done?

John Urschel: I don't know what math says, but the offensive lineman in me says you go for two and you run the ball. [Laughs]

By now, everyone knows you're pretty good at math. (It's been documented here, here and here.) What's one thing you're good at that people don't know about?

JU: I'm a pretty good chess player. I do not have a ranking; I haven't played in any official matches or tournaments. But I figure once I get done with football, I might get into that and play competitively. I've only been into it for the past two years, but I've been pretty serious about it.

How are you serious about it?

JU: Whether it's practicing certain end games, different openings, just training my tactical vision. I do that in my free time -- not so much in the fall because I just don't have time, though.

You don't really come across as a person who does things halfway. It seems like once you do something ...

JU: Yeah, I try to do it well. I don't do things halfway. Another interesting thing -- Connect Four, have you ever played?

Oh, yeah. I can still tell you that '90s commercial jingle.

JU: When I move first, I am unbeaten. Unbeaten. And I dare someone to beat me. Bring this Connect Four game. I challenge someone to beat me, me moving first.

Is it because, mathematically, the person who goes first can always win? I'm onto you John ...

JU: [Laughs] Mathematically, you're always going to win if you play perfectly -- which not everyone can do. But playing perfectly, you will always win. Last time I played? Three or four days ago. I think I played someone on the team. I won.

Can I test your math ability a bit? If I just give you a series of double-digits, can you multiply them all together like a human calculator?

JU: Here's the thing. I get this question a lot. I have to warm myself up. This is something people don't get. So you're playing football -- you warm up before you play. Suppose you're doing some heavy computations -- you're doing a lot of math and a lot of heavy thinking. You don't do your best work when you just start, sit down and start doing it. You have to warm yourself up; it takes time. So if I'm completely not doing something math-related and somebody bothers me with that, I have to warm myself up. It's different.

OK, fine -- we'll skip the math pop quiz for now. Let's talk about football a little bit. How do you feel about your performance so far this season?

JU: I'd say, honestly, I had a slow start this year. But I'm really becoming more happy with my play as the season goes on. I'm really hoping to continue that strong performance throughout the Big Ten season.

What about two of your teammates on the line, Ty Howle and Donovan Smith? You had a lot of praise for Smith over the offseason.

JU: Ty's played really well. You know Ty's my boy; we're real tight. I love that guy to death. We've been playing together for -- this is our fifth season. He's played really well. He's taken that starting center spot and run with it. He's a big-time player. Donovan is a physical talent; he has as much talent as anyone on this offensive line. End of story. Footwork, good size, good job running through blocks. The list goes on.

You mentioned before you can go to Stanford or MIT after football's over. So you want to test the -- I mean, play in the NFL and then kind of move on?

JU: No, no. No testing the waters.

[Laughs] I tried to take that back.

JU: No testing. All in. I have every hope and aspiration to play in the NFL and I'm going to try to do everything I can to make it until they don't want me anymore. And when they say, 'John, stop trying,' that's when I'll go and get my PhD in math.

Do you think you're better at football or math?

JU: I think I've been given more gifts in one than another. More gifts in math. I've grown up to be 6-3 -- good size, good frame. But I'm no Donovan Smith. I'm not 6-7 or 6-6, or you know. It took work to get big and strong and become a good football player. Math has always been there; I've known that since I can remember.

Known since you were beating all the school kids at Connect Four?

JU: [Laughs] Yeah. That must have been it.

Hackenberg continuing to evolve at PSU

September, 18, 2013
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STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Bill O'Brien isn't one to shower praise upon his players. The Penn State head coach is more likely to punt on fourth-and-inches than to lob compliments at a standout performer.

He tends to diffuse praise throughout the team, reiterating that wins don't come from individuals. But that exercise has become a bit trickier lately with his true freshman quarterback, whom he's been asked about at every opportunity.

[+] EnlargeChristian Hackenberg
Nabil K. Mark/Centre Daily Times/Getty ImagesFreshman quarterback Christian Hackenberg has already started to become a leader for the Nittany Lions.
Is he surprised Christian Hackenberg is completing 71 percent of his passes? "I expect him to complete every pass," O'Brien said flippantly. What about a performance that's seen him win two Big Ten freshman of the week awards and rank third in the conference with 851 passing yards? "I'd give 'em a 'B,'" O'Brien said.

One wonders what it might take for an "A" on the O'Brien grading scale. But the coach is just trying to keep the aw-shucks kid from Virginia humble. Fans had anointed Hackenberg the quarterback of the future, the savior of the offense, before he could attend a senior prom. He was a household name in the Keystone State a year before he ever slid on his No. 14 jersey.

And he has still met lofty expectations and become a staple of the O'Brien press conference by coming a long way in just three short weeks. Against Syracuse in the season opener, O'Brien called run plays on third-and-long and steered his quarterback into short, high-percentage passes. In Week 2, against Eastern Michigan, Hackenberg aired out the ball more following his first quarter fumble that was returned for a touchdown. O'Brien chose to pass on eight straight third downs.

And, in Week 3, against Central Florida? Hackenberg ran the NASCAR no-huddle offense, checked down on some plays, didn't commit a turnover and nearly led a comeback in PSU's 34-31 loss. He finished with a QBR of 82.9; a perfect score is 100.

"There's definitely not as much anxiety," Hackenberg said Wednesday afternoon. "I've experienced pretty much everything that I could on the field at this level so, really, it just comes down to preparation and continuing to get better each week."

Ask Hackenberg's teammates about his evolution, and a theme will clearly emerge. His offensive linemen, Ty Howle and Adam Gress, used the term "confident" repeatedly, more often than they used the term "freshman." Hackenberg's leadership is even apparent on the other side of the ball.

"He's starting to help other guys come along and become a leader," linebacker Glenn Carson said. "He was getting fired up on the sideline and getting guys going. That was comforting to see from a quarterback, especially a young quarterback."

Hackenberg shared Wednesday that his teammates' respect wasn't handed to him just because he's the kid under center. When he enrolled in June, he knew he had something to prove in the weight room. When he stepped outside, alongside his receivers, he knew had something to prove during drills.

But he tried to build off every experience. As the respect started to come, he became more vocal. As he became more vocal, more teammates started to look upon him as a leader. After Zach Zwinak's fourth-quarter fumble Saturday, for example, Hackenberg turned to him and told the redshirt junior to keep his head up and that they'll keep fighting.

And when talking about Allen Robinson, the Big Ten receiver of the year and a man two years his senior, the 18-year-old quarterback referred to him as "kid." As in, "Kid's got a 38-inch vert, so I just gave him a shot."

Hackenberg is a calm and poised quarterback -- "which is great for me," O'Brien added, "because I'm not a calm guy" -- and has used each week as another step toward success.

O'Brien seems to dangle perfection in front of Hackenberg like a carrot on a stick. He's played well but, O'Brien's sure to add, he's making about six or seven key mistakes every game. The true freshman insists he knows what he's doing wrong and, behind the respect of his team, he's hoping there's nowhere to go but up.

Who knows? At this pace, maybe -- by the end of the year -- O'Brien might even give him an A.

Calm Hackenberg embracing starting role

September, 4, 2013
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Christian Hackenberg walked into the media room Saturday with sunburned cheeks and wet, tasseled hair so it looked as if he had just finished a pickup game of football on the beach. He smiled, his voice remained steady, and he kept constant eye contact.

[+] EnlargeChristian Hackenberg
Nabil K. Mark/Centre Daily Times/Getty ImagesChristian Hackenberg made plays in his college debut, but more importantly, understood his mistakes.
This wasn't the look of relief. It wasn't the look of a quarterback who, after that final whistle, felt the heavy pressure of a fan base's hope slide off his shoulders. This was the look of someone who didn't feel that burden to begin with.

"It's funny. He just has this calming demeanor about him," said his father, Erick. "I don't think it's parenting. I just think it's who he is."

Fifth-year center Ty Howle could just tell by the way the 18-year-old quarterback talked and moved. He punctuated his sentences and didn't glance down during the huddle. And when he did make a mistake, he thought back to the advice he had long ago received from Super Bowl-winning quarterback Trent Dilfer: You have to have a short memory; you can't let that build into who you are.

Hackenberg's shoulders didn't slump after his second interception. He simply walked to the sideline and simply exchanged knowing glances with Bill O'Brien.

"He didn't really say much," Hackenberg said of the exchange with the Penn State head coach. "He understands that I understood what I did wrong.

"I sort of came off ... and he was just like, 'Yep,' and we kept going."

For more than a year now, Hackenberg has been called the future of the Nittany Lions. He's the most heralded PSU signal-caller to ever fax in a letter of intent, and he boasted more Twitter followers as a high school senior than nearly all of his future college teammates.

This -- the cameras, the crowds, the white No. 14 jersey -- is all new to the baby-faced quarterback. But, in a way, he's been here before. In a way, circumstances have molded him into becoming this calm-and-collected QB, one who forced his head coach to caution with a smile Tuesday, "We're not ready to waltz him in the College Football Hall of Fame." Not after his first game, anyway.

The spotlight found Hackenberg before his high school junior season and intensified with every 50-yard completion and camp he attended. During the Elite 11, which fell on the week leading up to the announcement of Penn State's sanctions, Hackenberg remained stone-faced while the university to which he was committed found itself mired in unprecedented controversy.

He withstood the incessant questions about his pledge and never wavered. His father still remembers when the PA announcer would echo Hackenberg's committed school as "Penn State." His son felt proud. And, by extension, so did his father. And his high school coach.

If he could stay calm through that, what's a few extra people watching on Saturday going to change?

"What a lot of people have forgotten is that, as a 17-year-old kid, he stood up in front of the world and said, 'I'm going to Penn State' and never wavered," Fork Union (Va.) Military Academy coach Micky Sullivan said. "Think about the character it took for a 17-year-old to do that. And everyone's worried about an 18-year-old starting a football game?"

Added Erick Hackenberg: "It was kind of right there when I knew he was all right. He showed maturity there and, as a father, you were like, 'Hes going to be OK. He's going to get through this.' I think him having to learn to manage all that, I think it was helpful for him."

And then there's the age difference. It looks as if the only mustache Hackenberg can grow comes after drinking a tall glass of milk. Some of his Penn State teammates are grown men, players who sport full beards and are able to enjoy a few beers during the offseason.

You couldn't blame Hackenberg if he was a bit intimidated about ordering around players four years his senior -- especially considering he's been on campus less than four months. Hackenberg was still in middle school when his starting center was practicing with the Nittany Lions.

But, again, he's prepared. Call it luck, or call it fate. But he's been there before -- as a high school sophomore.

"I just remember we were in a dogfight, and Christian was in the huddle with a bunch of guys who wanted to win and were older than he was," Sullivan recalled. "And somebody -- I think it was Larry Mazyck who started in New Mexico. He was 6-7, 300-pounds, and he said something.

"I'm not sure about the entire conversation. It was very quick, and Christian was in his face by the end. Larry knew he needed to shut up and listen to the play. From then on, everyone listened."

Hackenberg's father reminded his son of that in the days leading up to the Syracuse game. Sure, the environment has changed now. Only a few hundred fans would sit in the Fork Union bleachers for Friday afternoon games; now, Hackenberg sees those same numbers from just the media. A MetLife Stadium official said more than 200 reporters and photographers were credentialed.

Sure, the football is faster now -- but it's still the same game. It's the same theme. He’ll embrace and challenge teammates. He’ll sway to the alma mater and remain calm facing increasing challenges. The same person, but a better quarterback.

"At the end of the day," Christian Hackenberg said, "it's just football."
As part of an ongoing series, NittanyNation will preview a different position leading up to the season opener against Syracuse on Saturday. Up today: Offensive linemen.

Projected starters: Adam Gress (6-foot-6, 320 pounds), John Urschel (6-3, 301), Ty Howle (6-0, 293), Miles Dieffenbach (6-3, 295) and Donovan Smith (6-5, 322)

Key losses: RT Mike Farrell and C Matt Stankiewitch

Next in line: The Nittany Lions will use a rotation again this season, with Angelo Mangiro as the next man up when it comes to the interior. At tackle, Eric Shrive and Garry Gilliam will compete for time. (Shrive is also versatile enough to play inside.)

Those three should see the most time besides the starters. Others who could contribute include Anthony Alosi, Wendy Laurent and true freshman Andrew Nelson.

What to expect: With another season under OL coach Mac McWhorter and strength coach Craig Fitzgerald, this line should take another step forward. Sure, the loss of Stankiewitch and Farrell hurt -- but Howle isn't that much of a downgrade and Smith is healthy for a change.

If the right tackle (Gress or Gilliam) can get off to a good start, this line will be better than last season. Smith could be the next great lineman at Penn State, and the interior is very strong. As a result, Zach Zwinak should see plenty of holes inside and the running game should improve.

This group isn't entirely bigger weight-wise -- Gress, Howle and Dieffenbach lost weight from last season -- but don't let that fool you. This group is stronger, literally, from last season and should push around opposing defensive linemen a bit more.

Recruiting trail: In-state product Noah Beh (Scranton, Pa./Scranton Prep) is the lone offensive lineman of the 2014 class right now, and he won't make an instant impact at Penn State. He's no more than 260 pounds, so he'll need some time to fill out.

On the plus side, he can also play on the defensive line. And he has a lot of upside. Next season, however, could be the "Year of the Offensive Lineman" for Penn State.

PSU could take about three prospects there, and it's already extended offers to more than a half-dozen players -- including the likes of ESPN Junior 300 prospects Sterling Jenkins (Pittsburgh, Pa./Baldwin), Tristen Hoge (Pocatello, Idaho/Highland), Ryan Bates (Warminster, Pa./Archbishop Wood) and Richie Petitbon (Washington, D.C./Gonzaga).

Best-case scenario: At least three linemen earn All-Big Ten honors, as Smith breaks out and earns a reputation as Levi Brown's heir apparent. The line takes great strides, further increasing the legend of the crazy-in-a-good-way strength coach. (He wears shorts in 20-degree temperatures, does the worm before some games and once licked the gym floor to fire up his players.) Fans can breathe easy in future years knowing the linemen are in the hands of Fitzgerald and McWhorter.

Worst-case scenario: The right tackle is a big letdown and creates havoc along the line, while Smith shows himself to be injury prone. The interior is still good, but the tackles struggle without Smith and don't give the quarterback much time to throw.

Top position question: How does Donovan Smith compare to Levi Brown? Well, the last staff sure thought they were similar -- because that was one of the Nittany Lions' big recruiting pitches.

Former PSU coach Bill Kenney playfully pulled aside Smith's seat during a recruiting trip in 2010, telling him it was Brown's seat. The two were both initially recruited to play the defensive line, and Kenney showed Smith some clips of the 2007 first-round NFL draft pick.

Brown, 29, is currently listed at 6-6 and 324 pounds. Smith is 6-5, 322. And Urschel previously hinted that Smith held more potential than second-round pick Stefen Wisniewski. So Smith certainly has the potential to follow in Brown's footsteps.

Polling PSU: Who's next to break out?

August, 15, 2013
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STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Every season, someone new steps up to have a breakout season. But which Penn State player is poised to do so in 2013?

We recently polled eight players to get their takes on who's had the best offseason and who seems ready to take their game to the next level. Here's what they had to say:

OG John Urschel: "Of course, Ty Howle would be my favorite answer -- but I'm going to try to think of someone else. ... I'd say Mike Hull has made some big strides, and I think he's ready to be a big-time player in this conference. I mean, you guys have already seen some big things from him, and we know he's a very, very talented football player. And I think you're going to see a breakout year from him."

S Stephen Obeng-Agyapong: "I think Da'Quan Davis. He's one of the guys that really stood out, especially these last couple practices. He's been going really hard at practice and giving these receivers everything they can handle."

TE Jesse James: "The best offseason, hmmm, that's tough. It's hard to say, but Urschel's just been getting so much stronger. He's improved a lot, and he's really taken on a leadership role. So I'd have to say him."

WR Eugene Lewis: "One guy that I definitely see doing well is Akeel Lynch. He goes out there and works hard every day. He's a dog; he's a beast in the weight room. He's doing really well."

MLB Glenn Carson: "I'm really high on Hull right now. He's really put in the extra effort. He's really gone above and beyond, and he's always been a hard worker -- but I feel as though he took it up a notch this offseason. His strength is phenomenal and, for his size, he's one of the strongest on the team -- definitely one of the strongest pound for pound."

DT DaQuan Jones: "Urschel. He's really been working hard this offseason. He's been doing great stuff, and he's just dominated. He does got me on the bench max -- but it's close."

S Malcolm Willis: "Trevor Williams, DaQuan Jones, Jordan Lucas. Those are three guys who have stepped up their game and have gotten a lot better."

WR Allen Robinson: "I would say all our receivers. We've really come a long way as a group, just with those guys improving every day. It's really hard to say that someone's particularly stuck out in the offseason. All our guys really worked their butts off, so that's a really tough question."

Notebook: QB race remains murky

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

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

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

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

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

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O'Brien, players talk about PSU QBs

April, 11, 2013
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STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- It's no surprise that the quarterback situation is the story of this offseason.

The Nittany Lions' season will likely only be as good as their signal-caller. So NittanyNation spoke to several players on the field about the two current QBs -- Steven Bench and Tyler Ferguson -- and listened in during teleconferences Wednesday.

[+] EnlargeTyler Ferguson
Tom Hauck for ESPNTyler Ferguson and Steven Bench are side by side in Penn State's quarterback competition this spring.
Here's what Penn State coach Bill O'Brien and those players had to say:

Offensive guard Miles Dieffenbach: "They both are doing a tremendous job at quarterback. They're both getting their fair share of reps, and both have really good velocity on the ball. And both are great leaders.

"O'Brien's throwing a lot at them in the offense, so they're taking it in well, giving good leadership, getting everyone aligned, making the calls right. They're both good quarterbacks."

O'Brien: "I can't say that one guy has really stood out over the other guy. They both had their moments. I've been very impressed with how hard each guy has worked. You think about these guys -- they're both young, they're both 18, 19 years old. Many of the guys they're playing with have been in the system longer than them.

"So it's a little bit different than last year where everybody was new. So these guys have had to catch up to these veteran guys, and I think they've done a good job. Both guys have had some good moments. We're just looking for it to be more consistent over the next five, six practices."

Linebacker Mike Hull: "They're both working hard, and they're both doing really well. I don't really pay much attention to the offensive side of the ball, but they're both doing a good job."

When asked if going against one QB is any different than the other

"Nah, not really. It's just our offense. Same stuff every day."

Center Ty Howle: "Our quarterbacks are playing well right now. They're all picking up the offense very well. They're progressing, and they're really doing a great job as far as leading the team, as far as being in the huddle, commanding them. I feel they're all doing a great job."

When asked if they have different styles

"Being in front of them, not really."

Tight end Kyle Carter: "I mean, I'm not really going to get into their strengths and weaknesses. They're both taking control of the huddle, and they're both getting us in the right formations."
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Every spring, a few players step up and offer the first glimpses of an upcoming breakout season. Often, the media can only guess and project since they're not at every practice, weightlifting session and team meeting.

The players, however, are there and can see who might be the next Deion Barnes or Allen Robinson. So, NittanyNation polled several players inside the Lasch Football Building on Wednesday and also took information from Wednesday teleconferences.

The question: Who's made the biggest impact this spring or who's been the biggest surprise? Here's what Penn State's veterans had to say:

Linebacker Glenn Carson: "I'm really impressed with Jesse James. He's had a great winter. That kid's just an animal. I'm really excited to watch him play this year. I think he's a freak athlete. I think he can do amazing things. And if you haven't been impressed by him yet, I think you're going to be even more impressed by him next year."

Offensive guard John Urschel: "Ty Howle is a great center and a great football player. I'd say he's one of the most underrated football players on our team. You don't hear about him enough. I don't think you guys talk about him enough. I don't think we're going to have any problems with him playing at center."

[+] EnlargeGaia
Davide De Pas for ESPN.comCould defensive lineman Brian Gaia break out for the Nittany Lions in 2013?
Defensive tackle DaQuan Jones: "I really think Austin Johnson, Derek Dowrey and Brian Gaia. They're young, but they're showing a lot of ability. They're going to be great down the road. I'm happy seeing their competitiveness in spring ball."

Safety Malcolm Willis: "It's a number of guys. If I had to pick one, it'd probably be John Urschel. He comes in every day early and gets his workout in early. And pound for pound, he's probably one of the strongest guys on the team. Mike Hull, he's another guy who works his butt off. Adrian Amos. Zach Zwinak -- I work out with him in the weight room every day, and the amount of weight he can put up, it's crazy. Those are a couple of the guys who have really impressed me so far."

Offensive tackle Adam Gress: "I'd have to say a lot of the defensive linemen are coming along. All of the younger guys are really working hard, and the guys I was playing against on the scout team last year, now those guys are players. They're people we compete with. So that group's made a lot of progress. ... Austin Johnson's definitely made a lot of progress."

Linebacker Mike Hull: "Nyeem [Wartman] has looked good so far. He's doing a great job filling in. I think he's going to be a great player for us. We just need to all come together as a unit. He's looking good so far, so we just have to see how he progresses."

Defensive end Deion Barnes: "I think it would be Kyle Baublitz. I think he's doing a great job right now. Whoever's been talking to him has done a great job because he's come out of his shell. I've never seen him like this before."

Spring primer: QBs, injuries & more

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

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

"Eyes here," Fisher told sophomore Steven Bench in a conversational tone, pointing to his his right. "Work through it, work through it."

Bench or Tyler Ferguson could wind up as the starting quarterback come Aug. 31, and Monday offered a glimpse of the two signal-callers. Media were invited to attend 20 minutes of open practice, and O'Brien began by calling together a competition: A defensive back would line up against a wideout or tight end in press coverage, while Bench and Ferguson would alternate snaps.

The first team -- offense or defense -- to win three battles would be declared the winner. The losers would be forced to perform five hit-its. It was more for honor than anything and only four passes were thrown while the quarterbacks tried to shake off the rust.

Bench began by just overthrowing Allen Robinson on a roughly 35-yard pass, and Ferguson then hit Jesse James in stride downfield on an over-the-shoulder grab. Bench followed that up by throwing behind his target on cross route, and Ferguson barely overthrew Matt Lehman for two straight incompletions.

The offense, along with Ferguson and Bench, then hit the turf for their hit-its while the defense cheered.

"They're both athletic, they both can throw the football," O'Brien said during a Monday news conference. "Now it's going to depend on how well they make decisions and how accurately they throw the ball.

"They sit in the front row, they pay attention, they take a lot of notes. It's a fun group to be around."

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Spring drills: 5 position battles to watch 

February, 28, 2013
2/28/13
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STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- With spring drills just a few weeks away, NittanyNation decided to break down several of the brewing position battles.

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