Penn State Nittany Lions: Deion Barnes
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.
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."
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.
Up next is a versatile defensive lineman who was quite the spark plug last season …
No. 3 spring player to watch: DL Anthony Zettel
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
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
Impact player: Besides Robinson? Amos. There's some good variety to choose from here -- hence why this class is No. 5 -- and, although Amos struggled some as a sophomore, he's still the team's most athletic defensive back. He's going to finish his career as a four-year starter and, if he sticks with cornerback or starts off hot at safety, he should bounce back from that sophomore "slump." He's got a high ceiling and has the ability to to be an All-Big Ten player.
Why the class is important: Depth was not a strength for PSU in 2012 or 2013, and this class hit just where it needed to when it needed to. Take a look at who's currently behind some of the key players from this class. Imagine a 2013 receiving corps without Robinson or a 2013 offensive line that was forced to start Adam Gress and Garry Gilliam every game. How about a 2012 secondary led by Stephon Morris and ... Da'Quan Davis? Or a defensive line without Barnes and Zettel? If this class was a bust like 2010, the Nittany Lions would not have bounced back quite so strongly after the sanctions.
This was the class of the "Supa Six," and although that nickname's now gone along with A-Rob, there are plenty of players who'll turn out to be three- or four-year starters. Amos, Barnes, Carter and Smith are among them. This wasn't a flashy class when it signed -- only two ESPN 150 prospects were included -- but it's more than made up for that with its production and potential.
Penn State 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.
"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.
"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."
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.
I love my 2014 class of PSU ....we have that brothers connection and we didn't even enroll to PSU yet— Marcus Allen (@Chico_Ehhh) January 2, 2014
If it wasn't for Coach OB I probably wouldn't be playing football anymore, I wish him the best in the NFL.— Devin Pryor #16 (@D_Pryor16) January 1, 2014
We all we got! No reason to panic or jump ship! Doesn't matter the system nor the coach...players win games period— Bill Belton (@W3BII) January 1, 2014
No matter what happens football games will be played and won by the Nittany Lions love all my brothers we will stick together #WeAre— Hunter Crafford (@Craf_FordTough) January 1, 2014
Never worry about the things you can't control— Malik Golden (@_goldenboy6) January 1, 2014
A man's gotta do what a man has GOT TO DO. It's life baby !— Stephen Obeng-Agy... (@BigBENGTheory7) January 1, 2014
New Year, New Head Coach I suppose— DaeSean Hamilton (@SkeeterMills__) January 1, 2014
Bout to be the best year for me yet and bout to be the best year for Penn State #WeAre— carter Henderson (@hendydo_42) January 1, 2014
I hope I have another chance to play under Coach O'B. I love the guy, I appreciate everything he's done for me. I couldn't be more thankful.— Jesse James (@JJames18_) January 1, 2014
Good luck to Coach O'Brien and his family. Made a tremendous impact on my life and many others during his time at Penn State.— Ty Howle (@THowle60) January 1, 2014
Best of luck to the O'Brien family and to the lucky man that gets to coach this prestige organization... I can't wait to meet you— Troy Stivason (@teejaystives) January 1, 2014
To all of the Penn State family: Penn State is and will always be about more than any one man. WE ARE everything we have always been— Derek Dowrey (@doubleDowrey) January 1, 2014
Coach O'Brien was a great mentor, coach and father figure but every coach has the aspirations to coach in the NFL. glad coach can chase his.— Brian Gaia (@that_gaia) January 1, 2014
Gotta keep on movin forward people that's all we can do #yafeelme— Austin Johnson (@AJohn15) January 1, 2014
One thing OB taught me is that this is a business, and u should do what's best for you.Texans are getting a good coach, I wish him the best— Deion Barnes (@DBarnes_18) January 1, 2014
Coach O'brien is a great coach and great person! Proud to have called him my coach. It was his dream to coach in the NFL, best of luck. #PSU— Mike Hull (@m_hull4943) January 1, 2014
I'll love Coach Obrien forever. He will always be apart of Penn State. One of the greatest men I've ever known. #PennStateForever— Miles Dieffenbach (@Curiousjorge65) January 1, 2014
Fight on. We still are and forever will be.— Garrett Sickels (@Sickels_90) January 1, 2014
Time to move on Penn State! We will find the right man for the job. BOB did plenty for us. Time for a true Blue and White bleeder! #WeAre— OJ McDuffie (@ojmcduffie81) January 1, 2014
Up today: Defensive line.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Players deflected questions about the two running backs, but the simple conjunction on the depth chart -- "OR" -- next to their two names said a lot.
It said either tailback could start against Ohio State on Saturday night. It said that maybe, just maybe, Belton is the Nittany Lions' best option at this point. And that there's at least a drizzle of controversy in the Penn State backfield for the first time since last September.
The red-haired, 240-pound Zwinak had been the main ball-carrier in 13 of 14 games up until the Michigan contest. That could change Saturday -- and, that, really is the story.
And that's what that simple "OR" really signifies.
"We'll continue to rotate guys in at that position," Bill O'Brien said Tuesday, crossing his arms and trying to downplay the change. "And both of those guys will play against Ohio State."
Belton was nothing more than an offensive afterthought last year. But the New Jersey native has burst onto the scene as the Lions' most improved player on offense -- he's averaging 5.3 yards a carry this year, a full yard more than Zwinak -- while his heavier counterpart has struggled with fumbling issues.
Those fumbles aren't so insignificant. Zwinak coughed up the ball to open the second half against Michigan and Frank Clark scooped it up for a touchdown to change the complexion of the game. Offensive guard John Urschel defended Zwinak earlier this week by saying, "To play this game you have to have a short memory, so he learns from it. ... At the end of the day, he's moved on."
But this wasn't an isolated incident. Zwinak has been a positive threat in the red zone but also a threat to turn the ball over. He's fumbled seven times since last season. That means, since he first started, he fumbles once an average of every 42 carries. According to ESPN Stats & Info, the average NCAA tailback fumbles once every 91 carries.
This isn't meant to pile it on Zwinak, who often leaves piles of dazed defenders in his wake. He's undoubtedly a talented tailback. But it's those mistakes that have given the shifty Belton enough room to wiggle his way toward the top of the depth chart.
When Zwinak turned the ball over against Michigan, Belton jogged into the huddle on the next series while the tailback affectionately known as "ZZ" didn't touch the pigskin for the rest of the four-hour, 11-minute classic. If Zwinak showed he was PSU's best tailback last season during the Temple game, then this Michigan contest was Belton's turn.
Zwinak is a good running back with a big asterisk next to his name. Belton is proving to be a good running back. Belton made a patient first down on a critical fourth-and-1 play in the fourth overtime and also ran for the game-winning TD against Michigan. He's blocked well, made a few nice catches -- and he hasn't fumbled for 126 consecutive carries. Statistically, Zwinak would've averaged three fumbles over that same workload.
O'Brien has shown he's not afraid to make changes to the depth chart. Defensive end Anthony Zettel started in place of reigning Big Ten freshman of the year Deion Barnes two weeks ago. Safety-turned-linebacker Stephen Obeng-Agyapong has started in place of Nyeem Wartman. Even walk-on long-snapper Zach Ladonis, who's been on the roster for just a few weeks, is seeing time on the field now.
The Penn State head coach made those changes because he believed they gave his team the best chance to win. And, right now, Belton might just be Penn State's best option -- even if that "OR" doesn't translate into a start.
1. Penn State can make plays when it needs to, after all: Against Central Florida, the defense couldn't make a key stop when it needed. With Indiana, the team imploded when it counted in the fourth quarter. But against the best team it's played so far? It couldn't have asked for much more. Christian Hackenberg led the team on a five-play, 80-yard touchdown drive with 50 seconds left in regulation. And, in overtime, defensive tackle Kyle Baublitz was able to help block a Michigan field goal to keep the game going. Before this contest, the Nittany Lions seemed to fall apart against better competition. They proved this game they're capable of overcoming the odds -- time and time again -- to get the win.
2. Bill Belton is a critical part to this offense: Is he the best running back on the team? That's certainly worth debating now. When Zach Zwinak fumbled, Belton watched his workload increase dramatically -- and he made the most out of it. He showed patience when it was needed, he held onto the ball, and he made an impact on the passing game. He greatly underachieved last season, but there's really no question about it in 2013: He's a valuable member of the offense. And, heading into the next game, it'll be interesting to see how he and Zwinak share carries.
3. Bill O'Brien will stick to those fourth-down attempts no matter what: Penn State's head coach couldn't be blamed if he felt a bit gun-shy after a first-quarter risk that didn't pan out. But in the fourth overtime, when he needed just a short field goal to tie, he decided to once again go for it on 4th-and-1. Belton waited and then found an opening to gain 3 yards and complete the conversion, but it was a gutsy move. "I felt like it was time for someone to win the game," O'Brien matter-of-factly said afterward. If O'Brien thinks he can win a game by not going for a field goal, expect him to go for the first down -- no matter what. We knew before he loved going for it on those fourth downs, but the game against Michigan took that to another level.
4. This defensive line is good, even without Deion Barnes: Anthony Zettel started in Barnes' place, and the line got a tremendous push all night. Barnes has struggled early on this season, and defensive coordinator John Butler wanted to send him a message. It certainly seemed to work. The Wolverines tried to establish a running game, but they only picked up yards when Devin Gardner scrambled. (Michigan's tailbacks combined for 28 yards on 30 carries.) DE C.J. Olaniyan finished with 2.5 sacks and had the best game of his career, while DT DaQuan Jones routinely clogged up the middle. There are plenty of question marks with the secondary and the depleted group of linebackers, but this line is the defense's strength. And it was a big reason for the win.
Penn State's three-headed running attack: Take your pick -- this trio was unstoppable Saturday. Zach Zwinak played the role of goal-line back and Mr. Consistency. He finished with 65 yards and three touchdowns. Bill Belton was the spark plug in the first half who rushed for 90 yards and walked a tightrope for a 15-yard TD catch. And then there was Akeel Lynch, who played the role of closer by entering the second half with one carry and then going off. "Big Maple" Lynch peeled off one big run after another and compiled a game-high 123 rushing yards -- 116 of which came in just the final two quarters. Picking just one player here for a helmet sticker is like picking your favorite parent or child. They all played big roles at different times, so they all get that coveted sticker.
Safety Ryan Keiser: He entered Penn State as a preferred walk-on, but he earned a scholarship after last season -- and he showed just why he deserved one against Kent State. The Selinsgrove (Pa.) product came up with a sack and an interception, but that was just the effort that showed up on the stat sheet. He nearly came up with another pick and had three pass breakups on the day. He always seemed to be around the football, and PSU didn't skip a beat when it rotated him in for Adrian Amos. Keiser came up big, and he can likely expect a bigger portion of playing time after that.
Linebacker Glenn Carson: There may be questions marks at outside linebacker right now, but there's an exclamation mark who lines up in the middle. Carson isn't a flashy linebacker, but he's consistently played well each week. He came up with seven tackles -- two in the backfield -- against Kent State, and he helped limit the Kent State running game. The Flashes averaged just 2.3 yards a carry.
Defensive end Deion Barnes: He received some criticism for not getting a sack through the first three weeks and for compiling just five tackles, but he reversed that trend Saturday. The redshirt sophomore finished second on the team with six tackles, set the edge and also came up with a half-sack that was aided by Jordan Lucas. He twice assisted on tackles in the backfield, and this might've been his strongest game of the season. Barnes said he was pushing too hard for those sacks when he just has to let them come to him. He did that -- and, as a result, a helmet sticker is also coming his way.
Kicker Sam Ficken: Another appearance on the helmet sticker list? You bet. With the way Ficken's been playing, he might end up with more helmet stickers than the rest of his teammates by season's end. He nailed a career-long 54-yard field goal Saturday, which was the longest field made by a Nittany Lion since 1979. And it was the longest field goal ever made by a Nittany Lion in Beaver Stadium. Raise your hand if you thought Ficken would be breaking those kinds of records at this point last season. And, if you did just raise your hand, smack yourself for lying to a blog. He might've made the biggest one-year turnaround in the country, and he's missed just one field goal so far this season -- a 57-yard attempt that fell just short.
Challenges Facing Franklin at Penn State
BIG TEN SCOREBOARD
Final Washington State 45 Colorado State 48 Final 20 Fresno State 20 25 USC 45 Final Buffalo 24 San Diego State 49 Final Tulane 21 Louisiana-Lafayette 24
Final Pittsburgh 30 Bowling Green 27 Final Utah State 21 23 Northern Illinois 14
Final Marshall 31 Maryland 20 Final Syracuse 21 Minnesota 17 Final Brigham Young 16 Washington 31
Final Rutgers 16 Notre Dame 29 Final Cincinnati 17 North Carolina 39 Final Miami (FL) 9 18 Louisville 36 Final Michigan 14 Kansas State 31
Final Middle Tennessee 6 Navy 24 Final Ole Miss 25 Georgia Tech 17 Final 10 Oregon 30 Texas 7 Final 14 Arizona State 23 Texas Tech 37
Final Arizona 42 Boston College 19 Final Virginia Tech 12 17 UCLA 42 Final Rice 7 Mississippi State 44 Final 24 Duke 48 21 Texas A&M 52
Final Nebraska 24 22 Georgia 19 Final UNLV 14 North Texas 36 Final Iowa 14 16 LSU 21 Final 19 Wisconsin 24 9 South Carolina 34 Final 5 Stanford 20 4 Michigan State 24 Final 15 UCF 52 6 Baylor 42
Final 13 Oklahoma State 31 8 Missouri 41 Final 12 Clemson 40 7 Ohio State 35