Penn State Nittany Lions: D.L. Wilhite

Every day this week, NittanyNation will continue taking a closer look at a different game this season and how the matchup stacks up for PSU. Up today: Minnesota.

With Jerry Kill at the helm, the Golden Gophers are poised to become bowl regulars -- and could become one of the bigger surprises in the Big Ten this season.

Minnesota was 3-9 in 2010 before Kill took over. Then the former Northern Illinois coach equaled that record in 2011 before doubling the win total in 2012. It's Year 3 for Kill now, and this third year is the one in which Minnesota could take off.

Kill loves to run the ball, but his hopes are inextricably linked with sophomore quarterback phenom Philip Nelson, Minnesota's Mr. Football in 2011 who received recruiting interest from the likes of Nebraska and Wisconsin. Nelson experienced a rough rookie campaign, but Minnesota's hopes for a breakout season are tied to just how much he can improve this season.

Minnesota isn't a lock on the Nittany Lions' schedule. Not anymore. It's a wild card, and it's one PSU can't take for granted.


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Big Ten's best assistants in 2012

December, 12, 2012
12/12/12
9:00
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Head coaches are like quarterbacks. They get too much credit and too much blame.

Assistant coaches are like nose tackles. They don't get nearly enough credit despite playing vital roles.

Today, we'll change it up and give some recognition to Big Ten assistant coaches who did exemplary jobs with their position groups or, in some cases, units in 2012. Each of these coaches fostered improvement this season. Some took units in bad shape and made them better. Others took units in decent shape and made them very good. Some entered the season with skeptics and quieted them.

We came up with 13 assistants who deserve recognition. Yes, we realize we're leaving out some quality folks, but we had to cap it somewhere and wanted to spread the love around to the different teams.

Here's the rundown in alphabetical order:

Chris Ash, Wisconsin, defensive coordinator/secondary: All the attention on the offense's turbulent season took the spotlight away from the good things happening on the defensive side. Wisconsin finished in the top 25 nationally in total defense, scoring defense, rushing defense and pass efficiency defense. The Badgers held nine opponents to 21 points or fewer and gave an inconsistent offense chances to win every time out. Ash will be missed as he joins ex-Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema at Arkansas.

[+] EnlargeTim Beck, Bo Pelini
AP Photo/Nati Harnik, FileTim Beck, right, coordinated Nebraska's Big Ten-leading offense for head coach Bo Pelini.
Tim Beck, Nebraska, offensive coordinator/quarterbacks: The second-year play caller oversaw the Big Ten's top offense, which averaged 462.2 yards per game (24th nationally) and 35.1 points per game (28th nationally). Junior quarterback Taylor Martinez made significant strides under Beck's watch, and Nebraska survived the loss of star running back Rex Burkhead for most of the season thanks to contributions from Ameer Abdullah and others.

Tracy Claeys, Minnesota, defensive coordinator: An improved defense sparked Minnesota to a 4-0 start and eventually to bowl eligibility for the first time since the 2009 season. The Gophers pass rush showed life for the first time in years as senior end D.L. Wilhite and others put pressure on opposing quarterbacks. Minnesota was especially good against the pass, ranking 11th nationally and 20th in pass defense efficiency. Although the offense remains a work in progress, Minnesota should be pleased with the direction on defense under Claeys.

Adam Cushing, Northwestern, offensive line: Cushing's recruiting ability always has stood out, but his coaching skills had been questioned as Northwestern struggled to convert promising line prospects into powerful blockers. The Wildcats went from a finesse offense to a power offense this season, blasting off of the line to the tune of 230.9 rush yards per game. Red zone offense went from a weakness to a strength as Northwestern tied for 17th nationally. Cushing's line paved the way for star running back Venric Mark.

Rich Fisher, Nebraska, wide receivers: Nebraska isn't known for its wide receiver play, but things are changing under Fisher's watch. Led by standout sophomore Kenny Bell, the Huskers' top three receivers combined for 1,657 yards and 11 touchdowns on 115 receptions. Just as important, the receiving corps helped Nebraska's bread-and-butter run game with effective blocking throughout the season. Fisher's hiring after the 2010 season raised some eyebrows, as he had taken a break from college coaching, returned to the high school ranks and also served as a golf instructor in Massachusetts. But he definitely looks like a great addition to Bo Pelini's staff.

Patrick Higgins, Purdue, wide receivers: Higgins played a significant role in Purdue's late-season surge, as he took over the offensive play-calling duties after coordinator Gary Nord suffered a severe back injury. Purdue won its final three games with Higgins and head coach Danny Hope handling the play calls. Higgins also did a nice job with Purdue's wide receiving corps, despite the fluctuating quarterback situation. Three veteran Boilers receivers eclipsed 40 catches and 300 receiving yards, and redshirt freshman Dolapo Macarthy showed promise.

Seth Littrell, Indiana, offensive coordinator/tight ends/fullbacks: Head coach Kevin Wilson brought in Littrell to boost Indiana's passing attack, and Littrell delivered despite losing starting quarterback Tre Roberson in Week 2. Indiana went from 80th nationally in pass offense to 19th, leading the Big Ten with 311.2 yards per game. With help from assistant offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach Kevin Johns, Littrell managed the quarterback situation pretty well as both Cameron Coffman and Nate Sudfeld had success. Littrell will go largely unnoticed because of Indiana's low profile and 4-8 record, but he was one of the Big Ten's best coaching additions for 2012.

Curt Mallory, Michigan, secondary: Michigan's defensive line dominates the spotlight because that's where coordinator Greg Mattison and head coach Brady Hoke put their primary focus, but Mallory has done a really nice job with a secondary that struggled mightily under the previous regime. Despite losing promising cornerback Blake Countess to a torn ACL in the season opener, Michigan still finished second nationally (behind Nebraska) in pass defense (155.2 ypg allowed). Safety Jordan Kovacs has blossomed under Mallory's watch, and while the depth in the secondary isn't where it will be eventually, Mallory has managed things well.

[+] EnlargeBart MIller
Jeff Hanisch/USA TODAY SportsBart Miller went from grad assistant to coach of a Wisconsin O-line that pummeled its way to Pasadena.
Bart Miller, Wisconsin, offensive line: Miller began the season as a graduate assistant and moved into one of the team's top assistant roles in Week 3 after the surprising dismissal of veteran line coach Mike Markuson. Although Wisconsin's line didn't have its typical dominant performances every time out, Miller fostered obvious improvement and cohesion during the course of the season. The finished product showed up in the Big Ten championship game against Nebraska, as Wisconsin bullied the Huskers to the tune of 70 points, 539 rushing yards and eight rushing touchdowns.

Reese Morgan, Iowa, defensive line: Iowa didn't have much to cheer about in 2012, and some of the staff changes Kirk Ferentz made led to some growing pains. Morgan faced a significant challenge in moving from offensive line to defensive line, which returned only a handful of players who had logged field time in 2011. Given the youth and inexperience along the Hawkeyes' defensive front, Morgan did a nice job in Year 1. Joe Gaglione had a nice senior season (9 tackles for loss, 5 sacks, 2 forced fumbles) and young players like Louis Trinca-Pasat showed promise. The line held its own in the first half of the season before struggling late.

Pat Narduzzi, Michigan State, defensive coordinator: Many of these assistants took questionable units and improved them. Narduzzi led an elite defense that entered the season with high expectations and met them. Make no mistake: Michigan State's defense is the only reason the team found itself in every game this season. The Spartans had a few standouts, namely linebacker Max Bullough, but their overall team defense and stinginess stood out. Narduzzi is one of the nation's premier coordinators and should land a head-coaching job in the near future.

John Strollo, Penn State, tight ends: Although O'Brien's offense is a tight end's dream, Strollo did a terrific job of developing young and unproven players this season. Redshirt freshman Kyle Carter emerged into one of the Nittany Lions' top passing threats, and junior Matt Lehman and true freshman Jesse James also stepped up at times. Of Penn State's top five receiving-yards leaders this season, three players are tight ends (Carter, Lehman and James).

Ed Warinner, Ohio State, offensive line/co-offensive coordinator: Warinner took an underachieving Buckeyes offensive line with serious depth questions and turned it into quite possibly the best line in the league. The Buckeyes' front five turned a corner in Big Ten play and created lanes for Braxton Miller, Carlos Hyde and the Big Ten's top scoring offense. Warinner was the Big Ten's best assistant hire of the last offseason and earns our vote as the league's top assistant in 2012.

Big Ten awards race tracker: Week 6

October, 4, 2012
10/04/12
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Through five weeks of the season, which players have established themselves as the top candidates for individual Big Ten awards? Glad you asked.

Graham-George Offensive Player of the Year

1. Braxton Miller, QB, Ohio State: The leader in the clubhouse after September, Miller continues to be the main reason why the Buckeyes are undefeated. He's averaging 115 rushing yards and 186 passing yards per game, though he'll have to cut down on both his turnovers and the big hits he's taken.

2. Taylor Martinez, QB, Nebraska: If Miller hadn't been so valuable the first five weeks, Martinez would be the clear choice so far. He's leading the league in pass efficiency, has an 11-to-1 touchdown-to-interception ratio, and is the engine that drives the Big Ten's top offense.

3. Matt McGloin, QB, Penn State: McGloin still leads the Big Ten in passing yards, and his 10 passing touchdowns are second to only Martinez. He's also added four rushing scores. He has had a hand in all but two of Penn State's 16 touchdowns this season.

4. Le'Veon Bell, RB, Michigan State: Bell continues to lead the conference in rushing, but two supbar games in losses to Notre Dame and Ohio State hurt his cause in this race. He can still pile up the stats in the next couple of months, however.

5. Mark Weisman, RB, Iowa: The Hawkeyes' walk-on has an incredible story and has been playing incredibly the past three games, racking up 507 rushing yards and seven touchdowns. Not playing much the first two games put him behind the leaders for individual honors, but if he can keep this up he'll catch them in the end.

Nagurski-Woodson Defensive Player of the Year

1. Michael Mauti, LB, Penn State: There might not be a better linebacker in the country right now than Mauti, who is the heart and soul of the Nittany Lions' defense. His two-interception performance against Illinois sealed his status as the Big Ten defensive MVP of September.

2. Kawann Short, DT, Purdue: The senior had another sack against Marshall, giving him four this season. But the Boilers' overall defensive effort wasn't very good last week. Purdue will need Short to stand tall against Michigan this week. The next three weeks will be make-or-break time for his candidacy and his team's season.

3. Chris Borland, LB, Wisconsin: Borland was all over the place against Nebraska last week, and is having an outstanding season (43 tackles, three sacks, four pass breakups, one forced fumble).

4. D.L. Wilhite, DE, Minnesota: Wilhite paced the Big Ten in sacks (4.5), but the Gophers' poor overall defensive showing against Iowa last week dented his chances.

5. Will Compton, LB, Nebraska: Compton might have played his best game as a Husker in leading his team's second-half comeback against Wisconsin. He leads Nebraska in tackles (44) and has three sacks, along with two quarterback hurries.

Richter–Howard Receiver of the Year

1. Allen Robinson, Penn State: Robinson has more receiving yards (439) than anyone in the league and is tied for tops in the Big Ten in catches (32) and touchdowns (five). He might also be the league's most improved player after catching three balls as a freshman.

2. Antavian Edison, Purdue: The Boilermakers have a lot of weapons, but Edison is their clear go-to guy in the passing game. He has as many touchdown catches as Robinson in one less game.

3. Jared Abbrederis, Wisconsin: Abbrederis' value to the Badgers' offense is immense. He's leading the league in receiving yards per game (99.8) and might be ahead of Robinson had he not missed a game and a half with a chest injury/concussion.

4. Devin Smith, Ohio State: No receiver in the league has more highlights than Smith, who has caught game-winning bombs against Cal and Michigan State. Urban Meyer said after the Michigan State game that Smith is blossoming into a great player right before our eyes.
The Big Ten's collective struggle in September has been the main storyline so far this season, but the league has produced its share of bright spots -- surprise stars, in fact. Here's your chance to select the league's most surprising player through the first five weeks.

Raise your hand if you expected Iowa's Mark Weisman to a) lead the Big Ten in touchdown runs and rank fourth in rushing yards, b) become Iowa's featured back, c) see the field at all for the Hawkeyes. Hadn't heard of Weisman before Sept. 15? You're not alone. The Hawkeyes' battering ram of a fullback has gone from anonymous to local cult hero in a matter of weeks, racking up 515 yards and seven touchdowns on 74 rushes.

SportsNation

Who has been the Big Ten's surprise player through the first five weeks?

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    9%
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    19%
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    6%
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    63%
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    3%

Discuss (Total votes: 11,446)

Matt McGloin didn't need to introduce himself to the Big Ten like Weisman did, but he had a reputation to repair. Most Penn State fans were less then thrilled when first-year coach Bill O'Brien named McGloin the team's starting quarterback late this spring. McGloin hadn't exactly torn apart opposing defenses the past two years. But Nittany Nation has a different view of the senior signal caller these days, as McGloin leads the league in passing (243.4) and completions (101) with 10 touchdown strikes and only two interceptions in a league-high 170 attempts.

Like McGloin, Minnesota defensive end D.L. Wilhite entered his fifth year with a less-than impressive résumé. He had appeared in 35 career games, starting 16, but had just 34 total tackles with seven sacks and two forced fumbles. He played for a Gophers defensive line that has been among the nation's least effective for the past three seasons. But Wilhite and the front four have surged this season. Wilhite leads the Big Ten with 4.5 sacks, and ranks fourth with 5.5 tackles for loss. He also has a forced fumble.

You might have caught a glimpse of Northwestern's Venric Mark before this season as he sprinted downfield on a punt or kickoff return. That's all Mark really was, a gifted return specialist, as he couldn't crack the lineup as a wide receiver and briefly was a candidate to play in the secondary. But he has found a home at running back and energized a position that has been dormant in Evanston in recent years. Mark ranks fourth in the league and tied for 17th nationally in rushing average (107.6 ypg). He has five rushing touchdowns and seven total touchdowns.

Penn State fans knew about McGloin, but they had major concerns about who he'd be throwing passes to this fall after top returning receiver Justin Brown transferred to Oklahoma. O'Brien talked up Allen Robinson in preseason camp, but Robinson had just three catches as a true freshman in 2011. Robinson has backed up his coach -- and his quarterback -- in a big way through the first five games, ranking second in the Big Ten in both receptions (6.4 rpg) and receiving yards (87.8 ypg), and tying for the league lead in touchdown catches (5).

All five players are surprises, to varying degrees. And there are others. It's your turn to pick the most surprising player. Time to vote.

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