Penn State Nittany Lions: Deion Barnes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Just how good can Christian Hackenberg get?

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

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

Can DE Deion Barnes and DB Adrian Amos rebound?

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

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

Will the offensive line be OK?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Relationships take time."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hand's response? Bring it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But there's an even bigger objective.

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

"Once you win the locker room, everything else will take care of itself."
We're taking snapshots of each position group with each Big Ten team entering the spring. Up next: the defensive lines.

Illinois: This is a significant concern for the Illini, especially after the recent departure of Houston Bates, who started last season at the Leo (defensive end/outside linebacker) spot. Illinois also loses its other starting defensive end, Tim Kynard. The team will rely heavily on junior-college players such as Jihad Ward and Joe Fotu, but it also needs holdovers like Dawuane Smoot and Paul James III to step up on the perimeter. Illinois returns more experience inside with Austin Teitsma and Teko Powell, but there should be plenty of competition, especially with the juco arrivals, after finishing 116th nationally against the run.

Indiana: The anticipated move to a 3-4 alignment under new coordinator Brian Knorr creates a different dynamic for the line this spring. Indiana must identify options at the all-important nose tackle spot, and possibilities include sophomores Ralphael Green and Darius Latham, both of whom are big bodies. Nick Mangieri had a nice sophomore season and should be in the mix for a starting job on the perimeter (end or outside linebacker), while David Kenney could be a good fit as a 3-4 end. Defensive end Ryan Phillis is the team's most experienced lineman, and Zack Shaw also has some starting experience.

Iowa: This group should be the strength of the defense as Iowa returns three full-time starters -- tackles Carl Davis and Louis Trinca-Pasat, and end Drew Ott -- as well as Mike Hardy, who started the second half of the season opposite Ott. End Dominic Alvis departs, but Iowa brings back almost everyone else from a line that allowed only eight rushing touchdowns in 2013. Junior Darian Cooper could have a bigger role and push for more playing time inside, and Nate Meier provides some depth on the perimeter after recording two sacks in 2013. Iowa is in good shape here.

Maryland: The Terrapins employ a 3-4 scheme and appear to be in good shape up front, as reserve Zeke Riser is the only rotation player to depart. Andre Monroe leads the way at defensive end after an excellent junior season in which he led Maryland in both sacks (9.5) and tackles for loss (17). Quinton Jefferson started at defensive end last season and recorded three sacks. There should be some good competition this spring at nose tackle between Keith Bowers and Darius Kilgo, both of whom had more than 30 tackles last season. The challenge is building greater depth with players such as end Roman Braglio.

Michigan: If the Wolverines intend to make a big step in 2014, they'll need more from the front four, which didn't impact games nearly enough last fall. Michigan's strength appears to be on the edges as veteran Frank Clark returns after starting every game in 2013 and recording a team-high 12 tackles for loss. Brennen Beyer, who started the second half of last season, is back at the other end spot, and Michigan has depth with Mario Ojemudia and Taco Charlton. There are more questions inside as Willie Henry, Chris Wormley and others compete for the starting job. Young tackles such as Henry Poggi and Maurice Hurst Jr. also are in the mix, and Ondre Pipkins should be a factor when he recovers from ACL surgery.

Michigan State: The Spartans return the best defensive end tandem in the league as Shilique Calhoun, a second-team All-American in 2013, returns alongside Marcus Rush, one of the Big Ten's most experienced defenders. Joel Heath, Brandon Clemons and others provide some depth on the perimeter. It's a different story inside as MSU loses both starters (Micajah Reynolds and Tyler Hoover), as well as reserve Mark Scarpinato. Damon Knox, James Kittredge and Lawrence Thomas, who has played on both sides of the ball, are among those who will compete for the starting tackle spots. If Malik McDowell signs with MSU, he could work his way into the rotation.

Minnesota: Defensive tackles like Ra'Shede Hageman don't come around every year, and he leaves a big void in the middle of Minnesota's line. The Gophers will look to several players to replace Hageman's production, including senior Cameron Botticelli, who started opposite Hageman last season. Other options at tackle include Scott Ekpe and Harold Legania, a big body at 308 pounds. Minnesota is in much better shape at end with Theiren Cockran, arguably the Big Ten's most underrated defensive lineman. Cockran and Michael Amaefula both started every game last season, and Alex Keith provides another solid option after recording five tackles for loss in 2013.

Nebraska: Other than MSU's Calhoun, Nebraska returns the most dynamic defensive lineman in the league in Randy Gregory, who earned first-team All-Big Ten honors in his first FBS season. If the Huskers can build around Gregory, they should be very stout up front this fall. Nebraska won't have Avery Moss, suspended for the 2014 season, and players such as Greg McMullen and junior-college transfer Joe Keels will compete to start opposite Gregory. The competition inside should be fascinating as junior Aaron Curry and sophomore Vincent Valentine both have starting experience, but Maliek Collins came on strong at the end of his first season and will push for a top job.

Northwestern: It will be tough to get a clear picture of this group in the spring because of several postseason surgeries, but Northwestern should be fine at defensive end despite the loss of Tyler Scott. Dean Lowry, Ifeadi Odenigbo and Deonte Gibson all have significant experience and the ability to pressure quarterbacks. Odenigbo, who had 5.5 sacks as a redshirt freshman, could become a star. The bigger questions are inside as Northwestern must build depth. Sean McEvilly is a solid option but must stay healthy. Chance Carter and Max Chapman are among those competing for starting jobs at tackle.

Ohio State: A total mystery last spring, the defensive line should be one of Ohio State's strengths in 2014. Noah Spence and Joey Bosa could become the Big Ten's top pass-rushing tandem, and the Buckeyes have depth there with Jamal Marcus, Adolphus Washington and others. Returning starter Michael Bennett is back at defensive tackle, and while Joel Hale might move to offense, there should be enough depth inside with Tommy Schutt, Chris Carter and Washington, who could slide inside. Nose tackle is the only question mark, but new line coach Larry Johnson inherits a lot of talent.

Penn State: Like the rest of the Lions defense, the line struggled at times last season and now much replace its top player in tackle DaQuan Jones. The new coaching staff has some potentially good pieces, namely defensive end Deion Barnes, who won 2012 Big Ten Freshman of the Year honors but slumped as a sophomore. Barnes and C.J. Olaniyan could form a dangerous pass-rushing tandem, but they'll need support on the inside, where there should be plenty of competition. Austin Johnson will be in the mix for a starting tackle spot, and early enrollees Tarow Barney and Antoine White also should push for time. Anthony Zettel provides some depth on the perimeter.

Purdue: The line endured a tough 2013 campaign and loses two full-time starters (tackle Bruce Gaston Jr. and end Greg Latta), and a part-time starter (end Ryan Isaac). Competition should be ramped up at all four spots this spring. Senior end Ryan Russell is the most experienced member of the group must take a step this offseason. Evan Panfil and Jalani Phillips will push for time at the end spots, along with Kentucky transfer Langston Newton. The group at tackle includes Ryan Watson and Michael Rouse III, both of whom started games in 2013.

Rutgers: Keep a close eye on this group in the spring as Rutgers begins the transition to the Big Ten. The Scarlet Knights lose two starters in end Marcus Thompson and tackle Isaac Holmes, as well as contributor Jamil Merrell at tackle. Darius Hamilton provides a building block on the inside after recording 4.5 sacks and 11.5 tackles for loss in 2013, and end Djwany Mera is back after starting throughout last season. David Milewski played tackle last year, but both he and Hamilton likely need to add weight for their new league. Rutgers has some talent in the younger classes and needs players such as Sebastian Joseph, Kemoko Turay and Julian Pinnix-Odrick to emerge.

Wisconsin: Linebacker Chris Borland is the biggest single departure for the Badgers' defense, but the no position group loses more than the line. Wisconsin must replace several mainstays, most notably nose tackle Beau Allen, who performed well in the first year of the 3-4 set under coordinator Dave Aranda. Senior Warren Herring will step in for Allen after three years as a reserve. Konrad Zagzebski is a good bet to fill one of the end spots, but there will be plenty of competition with players such as Jake Keefer, James Adeyanju, Arthur Goldberg and Chikwe Obasih.
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Nebraska Cornhuskers, Ohio State Buckeyes, Penn State Nittany Lions, Wisconsin Badgers, Big Ten Conference, Illinois Fighting Illini, Iowa Hawkeyes, Michigan State Spartans, Michigan Wolverines, Indiana Hoosiers, Maryland Terrapins, Rutgers Scarlet Knights, Minnesota Golden Gophers, Northwestern Wildcats, Purdue Boilermakers, DaQuan Jones, Deion Barnes, Anthony Zettel, Noah Spence, C.J. Olaniyan, Dominic Alvis, Louis Trinca-Pasat, Larry Johnson, Ryan Isaac, Ryan Russell, Darius Latham, joey bosa, Tyler Scott, Evan Panfil, Malik McDowell, Antoine White, Bruce Gaston Jr., Adolphus Washington, Randy Gregory, Joel Hale, Ra'Shede Hageman, Tommy Schutt, Tim Kynard, Joe Keels, Shilique Calhoun, Mark Scarpinato, Aaron Curry, Ifeadi Odenigbo, Michael Rouse III, Carl Davis, Vincent Valentine, Sean McEvilly, Marcus Rush, Dave Aranda, Nick Mangieri, Theiren Cockran, Avery Moss, Beau Allen, Greg McMullen, Teko Powell, Lawrence Thomas, Drew Ott, Tarow Barney, Tyler Hoover, Jihad Ward, David Kenney, Ralphael Green, Langston Newton, B1G spring positions 14, Paul James, Alex Keith, Andre Monroe, Arthur Goldberg, Austin Teitsma, Cameron Botticelli, Chance Carter, Chikwe Obasih, Chris Carter, Damon Knox, Darian Cooper, Darius Kilgo, David Milewski, Dawuane Smoot, Dean Lowry, Deonte Gibson, Djwany Mera, Greg Latta, Harold Legania, Houston Bates, Isaac Holmes, Jake Keefer, Jalani Phillips, Jamal Marcus, James Adeyanju, James Kittredge, Jamil Merrell, Joe Fotu, Julian Pinnix-Odrick, Keith Bowers, Kemoko Turay, Konrad Zagzebski, Maliek Collins, Marcus Thompson, Max Chapman, Micajah Reynolds, Michael Amaefula, Nate Meier, Quinton Jefferson, Roman Braglio, Ryan Phillis, Ryan Watson, Scott Ekpe, Sebastian Joseph, Warren Herring, Zack Shaw

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- We’ve reached the midpoint of this week’s countdown, which is ranking the five players to keep an eye on this spring.

Up next is a versatile defensive lineman who was quite the spark plug last season …

No. 3 spring player to watch: DL Anthony Zettel

[+] EnlargeAnthony Zettel
MCT via Getty ImagesAnthony Zettel proved to be a solid pass-rusher and keeping him on the edge could help the Penn State defense.
2013 review: Zettel played in every game and was a key reserve who came up with four sacks, an interception and six tackles for loss. He didn’t see as much time as those numbers suggest, but he was almost a lock to make his stops in the backfield. He finished with just 16 tackles, and more than one in three ended up going for a loss. He saw more time as the season progressed and was one of the nicer surprises for the defensive line. He played both defensive end and, in passing situations, also played defensive tackle. He was surprisingly effective inside on those situations, despite playing at just 258 pounds.

Why spring is so important: There are a few questions surrounding this line: Can Deion Barnes rebound from his sophomore slump? Can this defensive line improve without DaQuan Jones? Who’ll start alongside Austin Johnson at defensive tackle? All those answers will touch on Zettel one way or another. If Barnes struggles, Zettel could take his spot just as he did twice last season against Michigan and Illinois. Zettel also has the ability to play inside and, if the other defensive tackles start off slow, he could potentially make a permanent move and start alongside Johnson. Zettel finished second in team sacks (4) last season despite starting just two games, and he definitely has the ability to challenge for a starting job or at least earn more considerable playing time.

Best-case scenario: For the team? Barnes returns to old form and either Brian Gaia, Derek Dowrey or Tarow Barney progress quickly enough to be a solid option at defensive tackle. Defensive line coach Sean Spencer doesn’t start Zettel but plays him constantly, and Zettel still finishes near the top when it comes to sacks and tackles for loss. Best-case for Zettel? His talent can no longer be ignored, and he either surpasses Barnes on the depth chart or he gains weight in the offseason and takes up a spot alongside Johnson. He leads the team in at least one stat category and is in the conversation as an All-Big Ten player.

Worst-case scenario: Zettel is forced to spend most of his team inside, and he’s unable to put on significant weight before the season opener. He does fine on passing downs, but Spencer is forced to keep him in on rushing plays -- and that’s where Zettel struggles. The interior becomes a defensive soft spot, and Big Ten teams run all over the Nittany Lions as a result. It’s nearly the opposite of the season before, and Penn State struggles against bigger running backs.

More players to watch:

No. 5: DB Adrian Amos
No. 4: LB Nyeem Wartman
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.

Season wrap: Penn State

January, 15, 2014
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Three overtime games, a huge upset win, a bigger loss, surprise, disappointment: In a lot of ways, the Nittany Lions' 2013 season had it all.

Penn State defied the odds by finishing with a winning, 7-5 season. But the Nittany Lions also fell to Indiana for the first time in school history and watched as the Buckeyes pounded them in a 63-14 decision. Christian Hackenberg lived up to expectations and won the Big Ten freshman of the year award, while last year's winner -- PSU's own DE Deion Barnes -- failed to live up to expectations.

It was a very yin-and-yang year for the Lions. They played a classic, four-OT thriller against Michigan and later watched as special teams errors cost them an overtime win against Nebraska. Overall, though, this season has to be considered a success -- and it certainly reinforced that you can never quite count out these Nittany Lions.

Offensive MVP: WR Allen Robinson. Not only did he break Penn State's single-season records for catches (97) and receiving yards (1,432), but he was the only consistent threat in the passing game. He boasted more receiving yards than Hackenberg's next five targets -- combined -- as he accounted for about 46 percent of the Nittany Lions' yards through the air. He's one of the best wideouts in school history.

Defensive MVP: DT DaQuan Jones. He had big shoes to fill with the graduation of Jordan Hill, but he more than lived up to expectations. He led the team in tackles for loss (11.5) and finished fifth on the team with 56 tackles, more than any other player on the line. The 318-pound DT made sure opposing ball carriers struggled to gain yards up the middle.

Best moment: Hanging on to upset Wisconsin in the finale. Penn State came in as a 24-point underdog. It came in facing the nation's top pair of running backs. But it left Camp Randall with a monumental upset and its first road win over a ranked foe -- Wisconsin was No. 15 at the time -- since beating Ohio State in 2008. Hackenberg paced his team, and the run defense held strong.

Worst moment: A 63-14 loss to Ohio State. That score will be etched in the minds of alumni for a while, as it was the program's worst loss in 114 years. Nothing went right for Penn State. Ohio State averaged 8 yards a carry, built up a 42-7 halftime lead and finished with 408 rushing yards. Imagine a worst-case scenario playing out on the field; that's exactly what happened. Hackenberg finished with a QBR of 12.1.
Penn State interim head coach Larry Johnson wants to remove the "interim" from his title. The school's longtime defensive line coach confirmed Friday that he'll apply for the permanent job following Bill O'Brien's departure to the Houston Texans.

"Why not Larry Johnson? I've been here 18 years," he said on a conference call with reporters. "I know the lay of the land very well."

Johnson also applied for the job in 2011, when it went to O'Brien. He has support from many current and former players such a sophomore defensive end Deion Barnes, who tweeted Thursday, "He's a great leader and will be a great head coach." Johnson said he was "very humbled" by the support.

[+] EnlargeLarry Johnson Sr.
AP Photo/Gene J. PuskarLarry Johnson is interested in replacing Bill O'Brien as the permanent Penn State head coach.
Athletic director Dave Joyner said Thursday that the search committee would interview Johnson if he had interest in the permanent job. Johnson, who joined Penn State's staff for the 1996 season and has been the defensive line coach since 2000, isn't going to put on a glitzy sales pitch.

"I'll let my work stand for itself," he said. "I'm not going to change who I am to get this job."

Whether or not he's the choice, Johnson will continue to oversee the staff and Penn State's recruiting efforts until a permanent head coach is named.

Some notes from Johnson:

  • All of O'Brien's assistants -- other than Charlie Fisher and Ron Vanderlinden, who resigned following the season -- remain in State College, and Johnson expects them to be in the office Monday. O'Brien said earlier Friday that he'll interview the Texans' leftover assistants before making any decisions on his staff.
  • Johnson has been talking with 2014 recruits and planning official visits to campus between Jan. 16-19. He declined to discuss specifics of those conversations.
  • Johnson said O'Brien reached out to every Penn State player after taking the Texans job to explain his reasoning. Johnson also is talking to current players. He made contact with quarterback Christian Hackenberg and Hackenberg's father, and he expects Christian back for the start of classes Jan. 13.
  • Johnson hasn't given much thought to remaining at Penn State if he doesn't get the permanent job. Asked about bringing back Vanderlinden, the school's popular longtime linebackers coach, Johnson said, "That's a great question, but I'm not there yet."
ESPN's Brett McMurphy reports that Vanderbilt coach James Franklin, Miami coach Al Golden and Tennessee Titans coach Mike Munchak are the top candidates for the Penn State job. Both Golden and Munchak played at Penn State, and Franklin is a native of Langhorne, Pa., who played at East Stroudsburg.

All three are sitting head coaches. Johnson's last head-coaching experience came at the high school level in the Washington D.C. area.

Is Johnson a realistic candidate? The committee should listen to what he has to say, but he likely wouldn't be their first choice.
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: DL

December, 26, 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: Defensive line.

REWIND

Expectations entering the 2013 season: Believe it or not, more question marks surrounded the defensive tackles than the defensive ends. Although Gil Brandt named DaQuan Jones the best senior DT in the country, the senior was still an unproven commodity. And the starter alongside him -- Kyle Baublitz or Austin Johnson -- was widely considered a liability.

[+] 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.
Deion Barnes had already garnered NFL hype, and 10 sacks didn't seem out of the realm of possibility for the reigning Big Ten freshman of the year. The line wasn't expected to be as good as 2012, but it was still expected to be in relatively good shape.

How they fared: Jones was the best player on the defense, finishing fifth in tackles (56), first in stops in the backfield (11.5) and making it difficult for any tailback to find room up the middle. The combination of Johnson/Baublitz fared better than most thought, too.

But the defensive ends? Well, Barnes might've been the most disappointing player on the team. He followed up his strong freshman season with just four sacks, and he struggled with his run-defense. Bill O'Brien didn't start him for a game or two to send a message. C.J. Olaniyan played especially well in the second half of the season, although his forte wasn't exactly setting the edge, either. Still, he wound up with 11 tackles-for-loss and a team-high five sacks, four quarterback hurries and three forced fumbles. Anthony Zettel also played well in spots.

What we learned: Barnes isn't the first-round NFL lock we thought he was. At least not yet. He utilized his speed a lot in 2012, but he was just outmuscled in 2013. He needs to add weight and get stronger before his production matches his freshman season. Teams are aware of him now, so he's not taking anyone by surprise. He's going to be a huge factor on this team moving forward, and we learned he needs to add some tangibles before he reaches double-digit sacks.

Grading the position: B. No, this group wasn't as strong as 2012. But it was still the best group on the defense in 2013 and often set the tone. When the defensive ends set the edge, fans knew the team would be in OK shape. When they didn't? Disaster loomed. They were able to pressure quarterbacks in the conference season, and -- outside of the Ohio State game -- the run-defense performed well in the Big Ten.

FAST FORWARD

Key losses: Jones and Baublitz. PSU's top three DEs return, but it loses two of its best three DTs. The interior was a strength in 2013, while the ends were more of an issue. In 2014, that situation's a bit flip-flopped.

Position stock watch: Trending downward. Jared Odrick, Devon Still,Jordan Hill, Jones -- PSU has had a lot of luck finding future NFL DTs to step in one season after another. But that might end in 2014. If Barnes can improve his production from his freshman season and Olaniyan can make some strides, then it won't be all bad news. But when you lose the best player on your line -- and on your defense -- that usually doesn't work in your favor. Couple that in with Baublitz's decision to leave, and depth at defensive tackle will definitely be a concern.

Key to next season: Production of the No. 2 DT. It's as simple and as difficult as that. Johnson will return as a starter, but who will start alongside him? The early favorite is probably Zettel, who could move from DE. But incoming juco Tarow Barney (Bainbridge, Ga./Northwest Mississippi C.C.) or freshman Thomas Holley (Brooklyn, N.Y./Lincoln) playing immediately isn't a total stretch either. If PSU finds a solid replacement, this line is likely in store for another "B" grade next season. If it doesn't? It's going to have to deal with an Achilles' Heel all season. Just ask Trevor Williams how that worked out.

Hackenberg named B1G freshman of year

December, 3, 2013
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STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- There wasn't much anticipation for the Big Ten freshman of the year award because, after the season-long performance by Christian Hackenberg, the choice was pretty clear.

[+] EnlargeChristian Hackenberg
Matthew O'Haren/USA TODAY SportsPenn State signal-caller Christian Hackenberg took home Big Ten freshman of the year honors.
Hackenberg officially won the award Tuesday night -- the second straight freshman-of-the-year award for PSU (Deion Barnes in 2012) -- but fans and media called this weeks ago.

Hackenberg earned five Big Ten freshman of the week awards, the most by a player since Illinois quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase in 2010, and he left little doubt as to the yearly award winner. He made visible progress every week, from the first time he won the freshman of the week award in the season opener to the last time he won that weekly award in the season finale.

Hackenberg finished the season with 2,955 yards and twice as many touchdowns (20) as interceptions (10). He completed 58.9 percent of his passes, rushed for another four scores, and led PSU to key comebacks against Michigan and Illinois.

"One of the things that has struck me about Christian since the day I met him ... is his demeanor," coach Bill O'Brien said during the season. "He's a calm guy. He's got a quiet confidence about him."

The teenager who never strayed from Penn State during unprecedented sanctions was hailed as the savior of this program before he ever set foot on campus. He enrolled over the summer, overtook Tyler Ferguson as the starter, and never looked back on his way to exceeding monstrous expectations and becoming the Big Ten's freshman of the year.

Hackenberg earned the award over Wisconsin cornerback Sojourn Shelton, Ohio State athlete Dontre Wilson and OSU defensive lineman Joey Bosa.

Shelton was likely the runner-up as he accounted for nearly half of his team's interceptions (four of nine) and boasted 31 tackles. He also led the Badgers with seven pass breakups and 11 deflections. Wilson ended the regular season with 869 all-purpose yards (226 rushing, 215 receiving, 428 returning), and Bosa wound up with 10.5 tackles-for-loss and 5.5 sacks.

But none of those three had quite the impact of Hackenberg, who helped PSU clinch a winning season by upsetting then-No. 15 Wisconsin. It was the first time PSU defeated a top-15 team on the road since 2008, when it upset No. 9 Ohio State.

Hackenberg had his best game in the finale, passing for 339 yards, four touchdowns and no picks. That all but cemented his status as the conference's freshman of the year.

 

Week 14 helmet stickers

December, 1, 2013
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Recognizing the best and the brightest from the Nittany Lions in Week 14's season finale:

QB Christian Hackenberg: This was easily his best game of the season and certainly should provide PSU some hope moving forward. He was 21 of 30 for 339 yards with four TDs and no interceptions. He played especially well in the first half -- throwing just one or two bad balls -- and was the driving force behind the Penn State offense. He was able to spread the field, showed composure when Wisconsin called for a heavy blitz, and was the biggest reason for PSU's huge upset win over the Badgers.

DE C.J. Olaniyan and the PSU defensive line: The average Wisconsin offensive lineman weighs 321 pounds, which is about 8 pounds heavier than the average Green Bay Packers' lineman. But PSU still managed to pressure Joel Stave and limit the rushing attack to only 120 yards. The entire line played well, but Olaniyan deserves special consideration after finishing with three quarterback hurries and returning an interception 33 yards. Anthony Zettel added two stops in the backfield, Kyle Baublitz (1 TFL) and Austin Johnson led all PSU linemen with four tackles apiece, and Deion Barnes deflected a critical third-and-3 pass.

WR Allen Robinson: No explanation is needed here. Seriously. He caught eight passes for 122 yards. You know how good he is by now. He's on this list every week, and he's one of the best receivers in Penn State history. He showed that yet again against Wisconsin.

RB Zach Zwinak: The 240-pound back gets this award mainly because of one play, his 61-yard rush on a draw with less than 4 minutes left in regulation. Had he not picked that up, Wisconsin would've had great field position and plenty of time left to score the tying touchdown. That was a critical play, and Zwinak played especially well in the second half. He carried 22 times for 115 yards, with more than half of his yardage coming off that one play. Wisconsin players vowed revenge earlier this week after Zwinak ran all over them last season -- but he once again quieted the Badgers.

WR Eugene Lewis and TE Adam Breneman: These two freshmen -- Lewis a redshirt; Breneman a true -- will be looked upon a lot in the future, so their performances were good to see for PSU fans. Breneman caught three balls for 78 yards and a touchdown. But his big play came early in the game when he took a short pass, broke a tackle and rumbled 45 more yards for the score. Lewis also finished with three catches but came down with 91 yards and two touchdowns. Every catch he made was a big one. The first was a 29-yard catch that came on third-and-7, the second was a 3-yard TD and the third was a 59-yard TD bomb that acted as a nice bookend to his Week 1 TD catch.

Five things: Penn State-Wisconsin

November, 30, 2013
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STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- The Badgers are still trying to keep their hopes for a BCS bowl alive, while the Nittany Lions are trying to finish with a winning season.

Penn State is about a three-touchdown underdog, and it would be a small victory just to keep this game close. Here are five things to watch in PSU's season finale:

1. Two of the best true freshmen in the Big Ten. OK, Penn State fans, the first one's a pretty easy guess -- quarterback Christian Hackenberg. He seems to be the favorite for the Big Ten freshman of the year award, and he's played pretty well considering he only enrolled over the summer. But Wisconsin also boasts one of the best true freshmen in the conference, and it's someone whom Hackenberg's going to have to deal with -- 5-foot-9 cornerback Sojourn Shelton, who leads his team with four interceptions. Shelton will be lined up against Allen Robinson at times, and he's looking forward to the matchup. Here's what he told ESPN.com earlier this week: "It's marked on my calendar; it's a very serious situation. I played pretty good receivers all this season, but this is that one where this is your chance to blow up as a guy. I want to be talked about like Darqueze Dennard and Bradley Roby -- and this is my shot. You can either seize the moment or you can fold." Think he's not fired up? Should be interesting to see a glimpse of the future with these two.

2. Wisconsin running game vs. PSU run defense. The average Badgers' offensive lineman is a little more than eight pounds heavier than the average Green Bay Packers' OL, and Wisconsin's two tailbacks -- James White and Melvin Gordon -- have had no trouble running this season. Wisconsin leads the nation in rushes of 30 yards or longer (21) and 50 yards or longer (9). And it's averaged a BCS-high 9.1 yards per carry on designed runs outside the tackles -- and it just so happens that's a weakness of the Penn State defense. DEs Deion Barnes and C.J. Olaniyan will have to contain and be on top of their games -- or this could get ugly. Fast.

3. One-dimensional pass offenses. Robinson and Jared Abbrederis are basically their teams' only receiving threats. Abbrederis (61 catches, 916 yards) has accounted for more than one in every three Wisconsin completions, and he's accounted for 43 percent of the passing offense. It's even starker for Penn State. Robinson (89 catches, 1,310 yards) has accounted for 40 percent of the offense's completions and 47 percent of the passing offense. When Hackenberg targets Robinson, he's completing 63.6 percent of his passes and has thrown five TDs to one pick. When he targets any receiver not named Robinson? His completion rate drops to 50.4 percent, and he's passed for four TDs and four picks. Basically, if neither wideout can get going, it means neither can the passing games.

4. Repeat performance for Zach Zwinak? The 240-pound back is playing his best football right now, as his last three games have been his three biggest rushing performances of the season (150 yards, 149 yards, 149 yards). And he had quite the game last year against Wisconsin, when he carried the ball 36 times for 179 yards. Don't think Wisconsin forgot. "That is something that stuck with me," senior safety Dezmen Southward told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. The Badgers are out for revenge, and Penn State's offense needs the running game to remain strong for it to have any shot at keeping the game close.

5. Wisconsin on play-action passes. Yes, just the threat of Wisconsin running the ball helps out the offense. It's night and day when Joel Stave attempts a pass off a play-action pass compared to without. Without, he has eight TDs to seven interceptions, averages 6.5 yards through the air and has a dozen completions that have gone for longer than 20 yards. With the play-action, he's almost been a different quarterback. He's passed for nine TDs to two picks, averages 12.1 yards through the air and has 18 completions that have gone for at least 20 yards. So, really, whenever Wisconsin turns toward its tailbacks for a handoff -- even if it's a fake -- that could spell trouble for the Penn State's defense.

Five things: Illinois at Penn State

November, 2, 2013
11/02/13
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The best way to move past a 63-14 loss is a win. It's as simple and as difficult as that.

The good news for Penn State is that Illinois has surrendered 137 points in the last three games, and the Nittany Lions remain the double-digit favorite. But, still, there's still a question of whether Penn State can move past last Saturday's loss.

A win here shows Penn State is down but not out. A loss? Well, that anonymous criticism Bill O'Brien hates so much certainly isn't going to get any quieter. Here are five things to keep an eye on:

1. How will this defense rebound? Last week's 63-14 embarrassment at Ohio State is likely still in the back of this defense's collective mind. They missed tackles, missed assignments and missed any chance of keeping that game close. There's not just one thing to watch on the defense Saturday afternoon -- it's the entire squad that will be under the microscope. O'Brien said the defense will simplify things against Illinois and, though he was short on details, linebacker Mike Hull believed they'd use fewer checks at the line. Said O'Brien: "I think we just need to let them go play."

2. New-look backfield: Bill Belton is now the starting running back; that much is certain. But what is Zach Zwinak's role with the team now? He fumbled twice on his last 11 carries, and O'Brien admitted those issues are a bit mental now. Does that mean Akeel Lynch will be used more? Well, it's anyone's guess at this point ... but it certainly doesn't seem as if Zwinak will play a big role. This is another chance for Belton to distance himself, and it might also be a bigger opportunity for Lynch.

[+] EnlargeJosh Ferguson
Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY SportsJosh Ferguson is Illinois' top running back and top receiver.
3. Impact of Illinois RB Josh Ferguson: He's averaging a team-best 5.5 yards a carry and has 361 rushing yards. He's also the Fighting Illini's top receiving threat with 361 receiving yards. Nathan Scheelhaase likes to spread the ball around, but Ferguson has a team-high 25 catches, three more than his No. 2 target. For Illinois to win, Ferguson will almost certainly need a huge game. Penn State's defense will have to be prepared for him.

4. Adrian Amos back at CB: This move is a long time coming. Wideout-turned-cornerback Trevor Williams was the weak link on a weak defense, and he's now been benched. Amos will move from safety back to Williams' spot, which means that the starting safeties this week will likely be Malcolm Willis and Jesse Della Valle. Ryan Keiser underwent surgery on his arm, so he's been practicing with a red jersey. Keiser will still play, but that injury is likely the main reason that Della Valle earned the start over him. Amos has been a bit of a disappointment at safety, so this game will help determine whether it's just the new position that handicapped Amos -- or whether he's taken a step back, a la Deion Barnes this season.

5. Christian Hackenberg putting mistakes behind him. He never recovered after last week's interception on the first drive, and he's coming off his worst performance of the season. It should be markedly easier this afternoon, as Illinois has the No. 74 passing defense, but he can't get down on himself if he struggles early. Illinois likes to blitz a lot, and Hackenberg needs to remain poised -- something that seemed to be sorely missing last week. We'll be able to tell a lot about Hackenberg's mindset based on the first few drives. He's done pretty well for a true freshman overall, but Penn State needs more out of him.

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Penn State 2015 Class Debuts At No. 3
Craig Haubert discusses recent additions to the Nittany Lions' 2015 class and first-year coach James Franklin's success on the recruiting trail.Tags: Adam McLean, Ryan Bates, Penn State Nittany Lions, James Franklin
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