Penn State Nittany Lions: Michael Mauti

Looking to the past & future: LBs

December, 27, 2013
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It's never too late -- or too early -- to see what we learned from this past season and also look ahead to next season. So, we've started breaking down each position on the Nittany Lions.

Up today: Linebackers.

REWIND

Expectations entering the 2013 season: This group was clearly going to take a big step back from 2012. Without Michael Mauti and Gerald Hodges, this was probably the group that was going to receive the heftiest downgrade.

[+] EnlargeStephen Obeng-Agyapong
Nabil K. Mark/Centre Daily Times/Getty ImagesFormer safety Stephen Obeng-Agyapong was pressed into duty at linebacker because of injuries.
Still, many pointed to Mike Hull as a candidate for PSU's top breakout player. Hopes were high for Nyeem Wartman, and there wasn't much concern surrounding middle linebacker Glenn Carson. This position was clearly shallow, however, and everyone knew a single injury could derail the group. The best-case scenario was to be a good unit -- because it was never going to be great.

How they fared: Injuries were a concern, and they were felt almost immediately. Hull injured his knee against Syracuse, and it took him weeks before he was back to 100 percent. Safety Stephen Obeng-Agyapong was forced to take over, and he allowed the linebackers to bide some time until Hull returned. He wasn't a factor in the second-half of the season.

Ben Kline, who overcame a serious shoulder injury, did the most with the time he saw once healed -- but then he fell again to another serious injury. Hull didn't meet expectations, and neither did Wartman, but Brandon Bell was a nice surprise toward the end. This group avoided total disaster, but it would be difficult to rank it above-average.

What we learned: Linebacker will take a few years to reload. Penn State grew accustomed to churning out one strong corps of linebackers after another, but 2013 was the exception. If everyone stayed healthy -- and Kline was never injured in the offseason -- it might've been different. But those are a lot of "what ifs." It became clear in 2013 that linebacker wasn't going to be just a one-year or two-year fix. It'll take a few years for Linebacker U to return to glory.

Grading the position: C. Yes, average. This wasn't one of the better groups in the Big Ten, and it wasn't among the worst. Carson was above-average, but he was the only linebacker who earned an honorable mention on the All-Big Ten team. None were named to the first or second team. Tackling was an issue at times, and so was pursuit, but it wouldn't be fair to say the linebackers were a liability, either. Once again, it was an average group ... while most PSU fans are used to great in this department.

FAST FORWARD

Key losses: Carson. Sure, everyone else returns, but Carson was the most solid of the bunch. Hull needs to show he's not as injury-prone as 2013 suggests, and PSU should receive some extra bodies in the form of incoming freshmen Troy Reeder (Wilmington, Del/Salesianum) and Jason Cabinda (Flemington, N.J./Hunterdon Central).

Position stock watch: Trending downward. On one hand, two of PSU's starting spots should improve from last season. On the other, Carson's departure is sure to be felt ... and the other two spots are far from guarantees. Kline has to overcome two surgeries in the offseason, so PSU finds itself in a similar position as last season. One injury could completely derail this group. It needs Hull, Wartman and Bell to be on top of their games -- and stay healthy. If they don't? Well, fans might miss the performance from the 2013 season.

Key to next season: Finding depth ... somewhere. The trio of Hull, Wartman and Bell can't stay on the field all game every game -- so, not only do those three need to take huge steps from last season, but Penn State also needs more players to step up at this position. Redshirt sophomore Gary Wooten hasn't contributed much outside of special teams and -- outside of an injured Kline -- Wooten is next in line. That means Penn State will needs a true freshman or a non-scholarship player to step up. Maybe it can move a backup DB over a la Obeng-Agyapong; maybe not. O'Brien needs to find someone, anyone, who can contribute.

Two PSU assistant coaches leave program

December, 3, 2013
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STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Longtime linebackers coach Ron Vanderlinden and quarterbacks coach Charlie Fisher are no longer with the Penn State football program, according to the school.

The university's official statement said both coaches "have resigned to pursue other opportunities." It wasn't immediately clear what those other opportunities were.

Neither Fisher nor Vanderlinden returned calls from ESPN.com seeking comment.

"I've greatly enjoyed my 13 years at Penn State and all the student-athletes I had an opportunity to work with," Vanderlinden said in a news release. "I wish Coach [Bill] O'Brien and Penn State nothing but the best in the future."

O'Brien will begin a job search immediately and said he will not comment until the positions are filled. Potential candidates are not yet known.

The assistants' departures come just three days after the Nittany Lions clinched their second winning season during unprecedented sanctions. Penn State upset then-No. 15 Wisconsin on Saturday, the first time PSU defeated a top-15 team on the road since 2008, to finish the season at 7-5.

Vanderlinden's departure was considered especially surprising, given his track record. He's been a part of the staff since 2001 and oversaw a program widely known as Linebacker U. He coached several All-Americans such as Michael Mauti, Dan Connor and Paul Posluszny -- in addition to NFL stars NaVorro Bowman and Sean Lee.

He also played an important role in the commitments of at least a half-dozen pledges for the 2014 class, including four-star linebacker Troy Reeder (Wilmington, Del./Salesianum).

"At this point it does not affect my decision," Reeder said earlier in the afternoon. "Coach [Bill] O'Brien and [John] Butler will be coming down to see me today and are going to explain everything in more detail."

Vanderlinden has coached since 1978 and served as Northwestern's defensive coordinator from 1992 to 1996 -- coaching current Wildcats coach Pat Fitzgerald -- and then coached at Maryland from 1997 to 2000 before landing in Happy Valley.

Fisher was one of O'Brien's first hires at Penn State and helped spring former walk-on Matt McGloin to a school-record 3,266 passing yards in 2012. Fisher arrived at the school after spending one season at Miami (Ohio), where he acted as the quarterbacks coach/passing game coordinator. Before that, he was an assistant at Vanderbilt for nine seasons.

"I want to thank Penn State and Coach O’Brien for the opportunity to be a part of the program the past two seasons,” Fisher said in the news release. “It was a great experience and I am very proud of what we accomplished. Now I'm looking forward to the next chapter and making a positive impact on the next group of players I have the privilege of working with."

Tom VanHaaren contributed to this report

O'Brien, Della Valle defend coordinator

October, 29, 2013
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STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Bill O'Brien remained calm and poised for much of Tuesday afternoon, but Penn State's head coach showed some fire when asked about the recent criticism of defensive coordinator John Butler.

The first-year coordinator took some heat over popular Penn State fan boards and on social media after PSU's 63-14 loss to Ohio State. It was the defense's worst performance since 1899, and it was the third straight game the Nittany Lions surrendered 40 or more points.

[+] EnlargeJohn Butler
Matthew O'Haren/USA TODAY SportsDefensive coordinator John Butler has come under fire after the 63-14 loss at Penn State.
"John Butler is our defensive coordinator, works his tail off. The kids respect him. He's doing a hell of a job," O'Brien said, his voice rising. "I don't care what the scoreboard says or what the yardage says. This guy is our defensive coordinator. He's my defensive coordinator. I'm proud to coach with him.

"If anybody should take heat, it's Bill O'Brien -- not John Butler. I don't know where that's coming from but, hopefully, that will get squelched. That's a bunch of crap that he's taking heat."

About 10 minutes after O'Brien stepped off the dais, safety Jesse Della Valle took his place. The first question centered around Butler, and Della Valle echoed his head coach's sentiment.

"Coach Butler is a guy that's always working with us as players to develop us every single week, every single day," Della Valle said. "He's extremely passionate about what he does and his profession. And I think I speak for every player on our team when I say everyone has a lot of respect for him and really respects the work he does for our team."

Butler has been forced to operate a defense this season that's without former All-Big Ten talents Michael Mauti, Gerald Hodges and Jordan Hill. Butler wasn't made available to the media Saturday and isn't scheduled to speak this week, but O'Brien said they plan to simplify the defense in preparation for Illinois.

There have been quite a few changes on defense since last season. Last year's starting safety, Stephen Obeng-Agyapong, is now at linebacker. And Trevor Williams, a wideout last season, has started at cornerback -- although O'Brien said that Adrian Amos will reclaim his old CB position instead of playing safety.

"We have a lot of good players on both sides of the ball, but I think we just need to let them go play," O'Brien said. "That's what I talked to the staff about on Sunday -- just let them go play."

Christian Hackenberg OK: The true freshman missed most of Saturday's second half with a shoulder injury, but O'Brien said he was a full participant in Monday's practice.

"He's good to go, as we sit here today," O'Brien said.

Hackenberg didn't need any extra braces on Monday. PSU's head coach intimated he was just fine and will start again Saturday.

Starting tailback: Bill Belton started on Saturday night, and O'Brien said the shifty runner is now the team's starting running back over Zach Zwinak.

"He's a much improved player, he really is," O'Brien said. "He's more patient in the running game. I think he understands how to watch film better. I think he's a better teammate."

The move came on the heels of Zwinak's renewed fumbling issues. Zwinak has fumbled eight times since last season, including twice in the last two games, on just 11 carries.

"If there's one guy making mistakes, obviously, the other two guys are going to play more," O'Brien added. "Right now, Zach has got a little bit of a fumble issue. I do think it's a little bit mental. I talked to him for a long time yesterday."

Penn State arrives at critical juncture

October, 11, 2013
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STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- The Nittany Lions have found themselves at a crossroads early on this season.

Expectations last year were low. Students walked around campus with "We Still Are ..." plastered on their T-shirts and in their minds. The team, held together by shoestrings and their dimple-chinned coach, came out of nowhere to capture the admiration of Big Ten coaches and the respect of many who sat in front of their couches on Saturday afternoons and watched the Nittany Lions pummel teams that many thought they'd get pounded by.

[+] EnlargeBill O'Brien
Abby Drey/Centre Daily Times via Getty ImagesBill O'Brien has seen more growing pains with his young team this season.
That's changed this season. Eight to 10 wins were expected. Christian Hackenberg was heralded as a savior before he moved in to a dorm. The group of tight ends smiled and referred to themselves as "TEU." The sanctions were wrongly thought to be behind them. And PSU has come out wheezing like a short-distance runner asked to run a marathon.

The defense, without Gerald Hodges and Michael Mauti, isn't the same. The tremendous story of a determined Matt McGloin has given way to a talented true freshman trying to find his footing. The lack of scholarships, whether or not O'Brien wants to keep discussing them, has impacted the team.

The narrative has clearly shifted. And it sure seems as if O'Brien and the rest of these Lions are aware of that.

Last October, on the Tuesday before the Ohio State game, O'Brien took the dais like he has every week and discussed the upcoming opponent. He was asked about the importance of the home game, just as he's always been. And this was his response on Oct. 27, 2012: "I think every game we play is a very important game here at Penn State. I would say that for every team. ... And this year we only get the chance to lay it on the line 12 times; 12 Saturdays. So every game for us is a very, very big game."

Contrast that with what a feisty O'Brien said on Tuesday before this weekend's contest against Michigan. A reporter asked if he needed to emphasize to this team not to buy into the hype, that this is just another game.

"No," O'Brien said. "We tell them, 'Look, this is an exciting opportunity. Penn State-Michigan. ESPN. 5 o'clock. 108,000 [fans]. You got Nittanyville going crazy over there.'

"It'd be crazy to think this is just another game."'

It would be crazy. This isn't just another game because this isn't last season. Fans' memories are shorter than coaching tenures nowadays and some of same ones who wait around at Damon's every Thursday in hopes for O'Brien's autograph after his radio show have logged onto message boards and spit venom about how Joe Paterno never would've lost to Indiana. And how defensive coordinator John Butler should be fired.

Penn State is 3-2 right now. That has to be stated because, by the looks of the record alone, it seems as if it might be premature to inch closer to the proverbial panic button. Well, it's not.

Stephen Obeng-Agyapong said after the UCF loss that the defense's performance was just a one-time mistake, a bad day. It wouldn't happen again. Then Indiana happened. And Eugene Lewis said on Twitter, "We going to be better promise that."

You can only believe so many times that it's going to get better. And that's why Saturday's contest against Michigan is paramount to the Nittany Lions. Win; and all the concern, all the message-board fodder, all the doubt -- that can be looked back upon and labeled an overreaction. Lose, and those generalizations and critiques seem about right, especially with a tougher Ohio State team up next.

O'Brien likes to say he's not a genie. He also said Tuesday he's no psychologist or psychiatrist. Well, he's no magician either. Different reporters, fans and analysts have their own ideas about why Penn State has struggled. It's the lack of leadership or the lack of talent or maybe a play-calling problem. Maybe it's a combination of the three.

But, whatever the exact issues are, the only panacea is winning. And O'Brien isn't the only one who knows that.

"Penn State vs. Michigan has always been a big-time game," safety Malcolm Willis said. "And I'd be lying to you to tell you it wasn't."
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Mike Hull didn't have any expectations when he strolled into his linebacker coach's office on a warm spring day, but he would leave with words that played on his mind for months.

[+] EnlargeHull
Rich Barnes/USA TODAY SportsMike Hull hopes his hard work and offseason dedication pays off this fall.
The redshirt junior, whose father and uncle both played for Penn State, would routinely reflect on past greats at Linebacker U every time he'd step inside his position coach's workplace. It was difficult not to. Ron Vanderlinden's office was littered with photos and blue-and-white jerseys of the past greats he tutored -- NFL players such as Sean Lee, Paul Posluszny and Michael Mauti.

Vanderlinden's decorating spoke louder than any résumé or award. Hull knew that. So, about a week before finals, when the seasoned coached leaned in and reflected on the past greats himself, Hull listened intently. And the linebacker coach shared a tidbit that Hull said, deep down, he already knew, but Vanderlinden forced it to sink in: You're next. Your jersey or photo will be in this office soon enough.

"It just hit me then," Hull told ESPN. "I've been playing since my redshirt freshman year, but I was never really 'the guy.' And he just made it clear it's my time to step up."

That feeling, that understanding, never left last season's No. 4 linebacker. After the graduation of PSU's two Butkus Award semifinalists in Mauti and Gerald Hodges, he's "the guy" now -- and he'll be depended on more than ever these next two seasons with a corps short on experience and shorter on depth.

Hull isn't a big talker. He won't regale the media with stories about big hits and future goals. He'll wear a slight smile and speak mostly in short, punctuated sentences. To Hull, actions speak louder than words. So he showed over the summer what those words from Vanderlinden meant.

After intense, two to two-and-a-half hour workouts, players would happily head back to their dorms or apartments. Their legs would ache, pools of sweat would slide down their backs, and they didn't feel much like doing anything except, fellow linebacker Glenn Carson said, maybe take a nap. "Usually, you just want to go home," Carson added.

But Hull would linger after those workouts and head right back to the field. He'd bend over the football sled and pile on five or six plates -- about 300 pounds -- before dragging it across the gridiron. Thirty yards, then 25 yards, then 20 yards to work on his burst. He'd do that for 15-30 minutes.

His teammates would furrow their brows and contort their faces upon seeing Hull stack the sled up with twice as much weight as they were used to. Hull got a kick out of it all.

"They'd look at me like I was a little bit crazy," Hull said with a laugh. "That's what it takes if you want to be good, I guess."

Added coach Bill O'Brien: "Yeah, Mike Hull is one of the best football players on our team. ... He's a guy that means a lot to this football team."

Pick a randon player from Penn State's roster and ask him who had the best offseason. Chances are good that he'll say Hull. The outside linebacker, along with offensive guard John Urschel, received the most nods in a random sampling of eight players. Urschel said Hull was poised for a breakout season, Carson praised his strength, and Malcolm Willis mentioned Hull as a "guy who works his butt off."

It's not difficult to see why. Former defensive coordinator Tom Bradley once tried him out at safety after he ran a laser-timed 4.6, and Hull out-lifted the likes of DT DaQuan Jones on the bench-press last year at 405 pounds. "Strength" and "speed" have become buzzwords in the college football lexicon, but Hull remains unique. After all, there aren't many linebackers who run like safeties and bench like defensive tackles.

"Mike Hull has made some big strides, and I think he's ready to be a big-time player in this conference," Urschel said. "I mean, you guys have seen some big things from him, and we know he's a very, very talented player. And I think you're going to see a breakout year from him."

Hull wouldn't say exactly what his expectations were for this season, nor would he list his goals. Maybe he doesn't have a certain number of turnovers he wants to force or triple-digit tackles he wants to make.

The Penn State linebacker kept it simple when asked, then, why he worked so hard and why those words from Vanderlinden stuck with him so much.

"I just don't want to accept failure," he said. "I don't want to leave anything out on the field."

PSU position preview: Linebackers

August, 14, 2013
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As part of an ongoing series, NittanyNation will preview a different position leading up to the season opener against Syracuse on Aug. 31. Up today: Linebackers.

Projected starters: Mike Hull (2012 stats: 58 tackles, four sacks, one interception, two fumble recoveries, one blocked kick), Glenn Carson (85 tackles, three tackles-for-loss) and Nyeem Wartman (one tackle, one blocked kick)

[+] EnlargeRex Burkhead
Justin K. Aller/Getty ImagesNittany Lions linebacker Glenn Carson had 85 tackles last season.
Key losses: Michael Mauti (95 tackles, three interceptions, three forced fumbles) and Gerald Hodges (109 tackles, 8.5 tackles-for-loss, two interceptions, nine pass deflections)

Next in line: Ben Kline could've challenged Wartman for the starting job if it weren't for a nagging shoulder injury, but he's missed a lot of time after offseason surgery. (Bill O'Brien said Kline will "hopefully" be ready for the season opener.) He's still clearly the top backup here, but he'll have to shake off rust quickly to be effective.

Outside of Kline, the staff will be forced to turn to a raw Gary Wooten who redshirted last season. And then there's always true freshman Brandon Bell and the run-ons. Safety Stephen Obeng-Agyapong will also be utilized at times this season, likely replacing Wartman on passing downs, and could possibly play more weakside if injuries become a pressing concern.

What to expect: If there's one position that concerns O'Brien, when it comes to depth, it's linebacker.

ESPN's coach of the year has echoed that sentiment throughout the offseason and training camp. There are two solid starters here, in Carson and Hull, but every other linebacker is a question mark. Wartman flashed a lot of potential in two contests last season before a season-ending injury, and he looks to become a four-year starter. But can he be effective with such limited experience?

Even if does play well, the Nittany Lions are one injury away from a disaster at linebacker. Wartman can be good this season, but there's a lot less faith in those backups. Kline missed the spring and the summer, and he might not be ready to go in time for Week 1. If PSU has to rely on Wooten or someone else here, that player immediately becomes the Achilles' heel of this defense.

Recruiting trail: The Nittany Lions seemed to be in a lot better shape earlier in the summer. Sure, they still have four-star MLB Troy Reeder (Wilmington, Del./Salesianum), who is just on the outside of the ESPN 300, but they also basically lost two other linebackers.

Since July, the Lions have parted ways with Class of 2013 LB Zayd Issah (Harrisburg, Pa./Central Dauphin) after another run-in with the law and three-star LB Jared Wangler (Warren, Mich./De La Salle), who decommitted in favor of Michigan. That makes LB a much bigger priority now.

Syracuse commit Jason Cabinda (Flemington, N.J./Hunterdon Central) could be the next in line for an offer. He impressed the staff during a June camp, and PSU badly needs to take another linebacker now.

Best-case scenario: Wartman shows he'll be the next big thing at Linebacker U and earns an honorable mention on the All-Big Ten team. There's only a slight drop-off in production from last season, but the linebacking corps remains one of the team's strengths as Carson and Hull form to become the best duo in the conference.

Worst-case scenario: Carson or Hull go down early and miss the season, while Kline's shoulder continues to bother him throughout the year. Wooten or Bell are then plugged in before they're ready, and the group of linebackers struggles as a whole and brings down the entire defense.

Top position question: What kind of linebacker will Wartman be? He's a run-stuffer, first and foremost, which is why the Lions will likely plug in a safety at his position on passing downs. It'll basically be the 2013 version of the "Roadrunner" package.

But that doesn't mean quickness is a problem for Wartman. He boasts great straight-line speed, and the Florida Gators recruited him heavily for that very reason. He also garnered a reputation in high school as a hard-hitter, and that was clearly well-earned.

During the Blue-White Game, he diagnosed a screen pass and blew up the intended receiver in the hit of the game. (He was a bit disappointed in himself about that hit because, although the receiver crumpled to the turf, he didn't wrap up the target because he "was licking my chops too much.")

It would come as no surprise if Wartman forced a few fumbles. He'll likely end up as a four-year starter for Penn State. This might not be the year where PSU fans start buying No. 5 jerseys en masse -- but it should happen by 2014 or 2015.

Penn State season preview

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

PENN STATE NITTANY LIONS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In short, like last year, PSU is a bit of a wild card. If it receives strong efforts from its quarterback and the front seven, it should surpass last year's record. If it doesn't, it might be fortunate to get to seven wins.
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Bill O'Brien's voice will soon regularly echo across the practice field. Allen Robinson will soon continue cementing his legacy as one of PSU's best. And Deion Barnes will, once again, soon start giving quarterbacks a case of happy feet.

Monday marks the start of training camp and a new season, which comes on the heels of one of the most memorable performances in school history. PSU shocked the nation with a gutsy 8-4 record last season ... but that was last season.

The Nittany Lions are trying to take another step forward in 2013, and it won't be easy. The limited roster has its fair share of question marks, so NittanyNation's outlined a few of the bigger ones:

Who will become the QB, and can he succeed?

[+] EnlargeChristian Hackenberg
Tom Hauck for ESPN.comPenn State freshman Christian Hackenberg was the No. 1 quarterback prospect in the nation last year.
It's a two-man race between Christian Hackenberg and Tyler Ferguson -- and Ferguson, the juco signal-caller, didn't do himself any favors. He missed about a month of voluntary workouts, so he's going to have to get re-acclimated ASAP.

O'Brien tried to downplay Ferguson's absence, but safety Malcolm Willis spoke candidly at the Big Ten media days: "If it was me, I would have trouble picking things back up and just being away from the team."

Few analysts are betting against the fresh-faced rookie, in Hackenberg, to start. He was the top-rated quarterback in his class, the 15th-best prospect in the nation, and he's eyeing immediate playing time. O'Brien insisted starting a true freshman like Hackenberg would not be unusual, and it looks a lot better for Hackenberg than it did a month ago.

It's an open competition, and O'Brien hoped to name a starter midway through camp. But whoever takes over isn't going to have an easy time. Sure, Matt McGloin picked up a complex offense in a short period of time -- but he was used to facing Big Ten defenses and digesting college-level playbooks. His touchdown-interception ratio (24:5) was one of the best in PSU history, and it would be hard for even an experienced quarterback to match those numbers.

Quarterback is really the only question mark on this offense. But it's a big one. If PSU succeeds here, it doesn't just bode well for 2013 -- it gives fans hope for 2014, 2015 and 2016. This is the biggest storyline on the team, and it's one that will be watched closely all season.

Can this front seven match last year's performance?

Michael Mauti and Gerald Hodges formed the best LB tandem in the conference and one of the best in the nation last season. PSU was the lone school to place two linebackers on the semifinalist list for the Butkus Award. And Jordan Hill was an All-Big Ten player who dominated the season finale in a fashion that few defensive tackles have done before.

Those three key players are gone, and it's really not up for debate whether this front seven will be as good as last year. It won't ... but just how good can it be? Players like MLB Glenn Carson and OG John Urschel have pointed to LB Mike Hull as the guy who's impressed them the most this offseason. He's been a staple of any "Players poised to break out" lists, and he'll be carrying a full-time workload this season as opposed to situational playing time.

Hull is a special player, but the young LB lining up on the other side of the field is where the concerns start. Nyeem Wartman made an early mark last season with a big punt block but was lost for the year just one week later. Defensive tackle is also a huge concern without Hill. Big things are expected out of DaQuan Jones, whom Gil Brandt named as the top senior DT in the country, but Kyle Baublitz and Austin Johnson will be taking on a much bigger role this season. Johnson has potential, but it's not yet known if either player will be a force in 2013.

How will PSU counter the depth issues?

Get used to this question because it'll be asked until the sanctions finally end. O'Brien wants to lessen some of the hitting in practice, and he's often said he boasts a "next man up" philosophy. When someone goes down, there's no hesitation -- that next player has to and will be ready.

That's a nice philosophy to have, but there are just key areas on this team that can ill afford injuries of any type -- such as linebacker, quarterback and defensive tackle. (Without Brad Bars, PSU has just one experienced backup DE in Anthony Zettel. Ditto at LB in Ben Kline.) There are some run-ons to choose from and a class of 16 recruits, but it's no secret that the overall quality of this team will suffer with each and every injury at those key places.

O'Brien was able to keep his players fresh in the trenches with a nice rotation last season, and it wouldn't be a big surprise if some players -- such as DT Jones -- sit out in, say, the fourth quarter of the Eastern Michigan contest. Also, there's a good chance fans won't see too many Wisconsin repeats this year -- where Zach Zwinak carries the ball 36 times.

There's only so much O'Brien and Co. can do here, though. Ultimately, a lot of it comes down to preparing the players and then just crossing fingers and hoping everyone stays healthy. A healthy Penn State could become a BCS buster; an unhealthy Penn State could struggle getting past .500.

5 Questions: MLB Glenn Carson

July, 26, 2013
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Every week, NittanyNation will pose five questions to a recruit, player, alum or coach about all things Penn State.

This week's subject is middle linebacker Glenn Carson, a senior and three-year starter who racked up 85 tackles last season. He's the most-experienced player on the defense.

NittanyNation: You label yourself an old-school player. Tell me, why is that? What is it about you that makes you old school?

Glenn Carson: Why do I? I just really feel that I was born in the wrong era, man. I would love to play in the '80s when they're just running the ball every time. That's really what I love, stopping the run, playing the run -- and I just love the old, physical style of play.

In high school, I was kind of in a league where they did run the ball a lot. But, yeah, I just love hitting. I love strapping up and putting my head into someone else's. That's really why I play the game.

NN: You've made a lot of big hits in your time at Penn State. What's one hit that really sticks out in your mind, that really made you feel good afterward?

GC: The only one I can think of is that Temple game. I saw it the other day, like on a highlight thing or whatever. A Temple player was trying to run outside, and he kind of jumped up a little bit and I put my head right into his gut toward the sidelines. I was pretty fired up, yeah. [Editor's note: Carson appears to be talking about the hit at the 1:11 mark of this video.]

NN: You weren't an every-down linebacker last season, since Mike Hull came in on passing downs. What did that feel like, coming off the field at times like that?

GC: It was definitely hard coming out on those third downs, especially when the game was on the line and we were up by a touchdown and the other team's trying to drive the ball down the field and we're in that nickel package. And what's when I want to be on the field, when the game's on the line.

It was definitely painful and nerve-wracking. I just want to be out there. I would play the whole game, and now the game's really on the line, and it's crunch time, and I was on the sidelines. It's really painful, but I'm looking forward to being the guy who never comes off the field this year.

NN: Obviously a big reason you weren't on the field every down was for pass-coverage reasons. What have you done to shore up that aspect of your game? And what specifically do you think kept you off the field?

GC: Just working on individual drills, like look-search drills and practicing getting to the curl and making sure my drop has gotten a little bit better.

Just like little things here and there. Mike Hull is a really quick, fast guy so he was really good on those third downs. And I would say maybe a little speed, and I was a little nicked up, so that could've been a factor as well.

NN: Without Mauti and Gerald Hodges on the team, I imagine you'll be looked up to as more of a leader this season. Have you done anything differently to take on that role, or do you feel any different?

GC: You know, I'm not really doing that much different. I think we got a bunch of guys who love to play football, love to complete and are doing all the right things -- which makes my leadership role easy, because I don't have to drag guys out to 7-on-7s. They want to do it.
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Three seniors will accompany Bill O'Brien to the Big Ten media days on Wednesday and Thursday in Chicago: offensive guard John Urschel, linebacker Glenn Carson and safety Malcolm Willis.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Still, with a first-year quarterback at the helm -- and the departures of Jordan Hill, Michael Zordich, Matt Stankiewitch, Gerald Hodges and Stephon Morris -- just how big of a concern is the leadership? Even O'Brien didn't hide just how special of a player Mauti was, and it's somewhat reminiscent of the 2006 season, when PSU had to find an identity following the graduation of Michael Robinson and company.
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- The all-time Penn State fantasy draft might be over, but the controversy has only just begun.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"If I’d know the level of participation McDuffie and Morris would have I’d have picked them 1 and 2," McClellan said. "Great guys and tremendously patient during the whole process, too."
Last summer, Penn State's defensive backs used outside criticism for motivation.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Spring game: Five lessons learned

April, 22, 2013
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Steven BenchMatthew Holst/Getty ImagesQuarterback Steven Bench was impressive in the first quarter of Penn State's spring game.

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Welcome to Year 2 of the Bill O'Brien era.

Fans saw the first glimpse of what's in store for the Nittany Lions this season during Saturday's annual Blue-White Game. And while many starters saw limited time and others were held out for precautionary reasons, there were still a few encouraging developments.

1. Quarterbacks still trying to separate themselves

In the spring game, it's usually best to ignore the numbers because of the stripped-down version of the offense that's been implemented. Steven Bench and Tyler Ferguson both finished 9-of-15 without any interceptions, but inconsistency plagued the signal callers. In a span of four plays, Ferguson followed up two great passes with a near-pick and then took a sack. Bench opened the first quarter by impressing on-lookers but then was outplayed in the second.

There's obviously potential here. But, at this point in the spring, that's all it is right now. Both have a long way to go before they can approach the efficiency of Matt McGloin's 26 touchdowns-to-five interceptions season. There was a lot of good -- but also quite a bit of bad on Saturday.

(Read full post)

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

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

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

QUARTERBACK RACE

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

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

BRING ON THE MAN COVERAGE

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

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

PROJECTED (RS) FRESHMAN STARTERS

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

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

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

HOW MUCH BETTER HAVE THE BEST GOTTEN?

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

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

TIGHT END U?

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

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

Spring drills: 5 position battles to watch 

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

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