Penn State Nittany Lions: Mike Hull
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: The Illini lose an All-Big Ten player in Jonathan Brown but still have decent overall depth at linebacker. Mason Monheim started every game at middle linebacker in 2013, and Mike Svetina started all but one game at the star position. Both players return as juniors. Svetina will move into Brown's spot on the weak side, while the other position could be filled by T.J. Neal, who recorded 38 tackles last season. Ralph Cooper has logged significant reps as a reserve, and Eric Finney gives Illinois some flexibility after playing the star position (safety/outside linebacker).
Indiana: This becomes a more significant position under coordinator Brian Knorr, who plans to use a 3-4 alignment. Indiana should have enough depth to make the transition as it returns two full-time starters from 2013 -- David Cooper and T.J. Simmons -- as well as two part-time starters in Forisse Hardin and Clyde Newton, who started the final four games of his freshman season. Like Simmons and Newton, Marcus Oliver played a lot as a freshman and provides some depth. The key here will be converting all the experience into sharper, more consistent play.
Iowa: If you're of the mindset that Iowa always reloads at linebacker, you can rest easy this spring. If not, keep a very close eye on what happens as the Hawkeyes begin replacing one of the more productive linebacker groups in team history: James Morris, Christian Kirksey and Anthony Hitchens. There are high hopes for sophomore Reggie Spearman, who played in 10 games as a freshman last fall. Spearman, junior Travis Perry and senior Quinton Alston enter the spring as the front-runners to take over the top spots. The biggest challenge could be building depth behind them with Cole Fisher and others.
Maryland: The good news is the Terrapins return three productive starters from 2013 in Cole Farrand, L.A. Goree and Matt Robinson, who combined for 233 tackles, including 19 for loss. The bad news is Maryland loses its top playmaker at the position in Marcus Whitfield, who recorded nine sacks and 15.5 tackles for loss last season. But the overall picture is favorable, and the depth should be strong when Alex Twine and Yannik Cudjoe-Virgil return from their injuries. Young players such as Abner Logan (37 tackles in 2013) will push for more time.
Michigan: There are a lot of familiar faces in new positions as Michigan not only has shuffled the roles of its defensive assistant coaches, but also its top linebackers. Standout Jake Ryan moves from strong-side linebacker to the middle, while junior James Ross III moves from the weak side to the strong side and Desmond Morgan shifts from the middle to the weak side. Joe Bolden, who had 54 tackles last season, can play both outside and inside, and players such as Ben Gedeon, Royce Jenkins-Stone and Allen Gant add depth. The talent is there for a big year if the position switches pan out.
Michigan State: It won't be easy to replace the Big Ten's top linebacker tandem in Max Bullough and Denicos Allen, not to mention Rose Bowl hero Kyler Elsworth, but Michigan State has some promising options. Ed Davis appears ready to step in for Allen after recording four sacks as a sophomore. Junior Darien Harris and two redshirt freshmen, Shane Jones and Jon Reschke, will compete at middle linebacker. Returning starter Taiwan Jones is back at the star position, and Mylan Hicks should be in the rotation. Depth is a bit of a question mark here entering the spring.
Minnesota: The Gophers lose key pieces in all three areas of the defense, and linebacker is no exception as two starters (Aaron Hill and James Manuel) depart. Minnesota will lean on Damien Wilson, who started in 12 games at middle linebacker in his first season with the Gophers and recorded 78 tackles. Junior De'Vondre Campbell seems ready to claim a starting spot after backing up Manuel last season. There will be plenty of competition at the strong-side linebacker spot, as Nick Rallis, De'Niro Laster and others are in the mix. Jack Lynn is backing up Wilson at middle linebacker but could work his way into a starting spot on the outside with a good spring.
Nebraska: Optimism is building for the Blackshirts in 2014, thanks in large part to the returning linebackers. The three players who finished last season as the starters -- David Santos, Michael Rose and Zaire Anderson -- all are back, as Rose will lead the way in the middle. Josh Banderas and Nathan Gerry also have starting experience and return for 2014. If younger players such as Marcus Newby develop this spring, Nebraska could have the Big Ten's deepest group of linebackers, a dramatic departure from the Huskers' first few years in the conference. Good things are happening here.
Northwestern: The top two playmakers return here in Chi Chi Ariguzo and Collin Ellis, who combined for seven interceptions and 11.5 tackles for loss in 2014. Northwestern's challenge is replacing the leadership Damien Proby provided in the middle. Ellis has shifted from the strong side to the middle, and Northwestern has moved safety Jimmy Hall from safety to strong-side linebacker. Drew Smith and Hall will compete for the third starting spot throughout the offseason. Sophomores Jaylen Prater and Joseph Jones should provide some depth.
Ohio State: Coach Urban Meyer has made it clear that Ohio State needs more from the linebackers, so it's a huge offseason for this crew, which loses superstar Ryan Shazier. The Buckeyes return starters at the outside spots in Curtis Grant and Joshua Perry, although competition will continue throughout the spring and summer. Redshirt freshman Darron Lee surprisingly opened spring practice Tuesday working with Grant and Perry on the first-team defense. Camren Williams appeared in all 13 games as a reserve and will be part of the rotation, along with Trey Johnson. Meyer said last month that the incoming linebacker recruits won't redshirt, which means an opportunity for mid-year enrollee Raekwon McMillan.
Penn State: Linebacker U is looking for more bodies at the position after struggling with depth issues throughout 2013. The Lions lose leading tackler Glenn Carson but bring back two players, Mike Hull and Nyeem Wartman, who started most of the season. The new coaching staff is counting on Hull to become a star as a senior. Brandon Bell, who appeared in nine games and recorded 24 tackles as a freshman, will compete for a starting spot along with Gary Wooten. Penn State hopes Ben Kline can stay healthy as he provides some experience, and incoming freshman Troy Reeder could enter the rotation right away.
Purdue: Expect plenty of competition here as Purdue loses leading tackler Will Lucas and must get more consistent play from the group. Joe Gilliam started for most of the 2013 season and should occupy a top spot this fall. Sean Robinson also brings experience to the field, and Ryan Russell could fill more of a hybrid linebacker/defensive end role this season. Redshirt freshman Danny Ezechukwu is an intriguing prospect to watch this spring as he aims for a bigger role. Ezechukwu is just one of several younger players, including decorated incoming recruit Gelen Robinson, who have opportunities to make a splash.
Rutgers: The Scarlet Knights return a good deal of production here with Steve Longa and Kevin Snyder, who combined for 219 tackles, including 15 tackles for loss and five sacks. Quentin Gause also is back after racking up 53 tackles (8.5 for loss) in a mostly reserve role last season. Gause likely will claim the starting strong-side linebacker spot as Jamal Merrell departs. The starting spots are seemingly set, so Rutgers will look to build depth with Davon Jacobs, who had 30 tackles as a reserve last season, and L.J. Liston, both sophomores.
Wisconsin: Do-it-all linebacker Chris Borland is gone, along with Ethan Armstrong and Conor O'Neill, so Wisconsin must replace three of its top four tacklers from 2013. Derek Landisch and Joe Schobert can be penciled in as starters, along with Michael Caputo, who played mostly safety last season but should slide into one of the outside spots. Marcus Trotter brings experience to the rotation. The spotlight will be on younger linebackers such as Vince Biegel, who had 25 tackles last season, as well as dynamic sophomore Leon Jacobs and Alec James, a decorated recruit who redshirted in 2013.
So, as part of this week’s countdown, we’re looking at the five players to watch the closest this spring. Up today, at No. 4, is a player who made waves after a punt block as a freshman.
No. 4 spring player to watch: LB Nyeem Wartman
Why spring is so important: Penn State is light on experience at linebacker and, outside of Mike Hull, Wartman is the most seasoned linebacker on the team. So, for this group of linebackers to succeed, Penn State needs Wartman to succeed. Kline is overcoming two surgeries this offseason, one for lingering shoulder issues and another for a torn pec, and both Stephen Obeng-Agyapong and Glenn Carson have graduated -- so there’s really no one else to step in Wartman’s spot. It’s sink or swim, and if he sinks, Penn State sinks. Wartman made a lot of waves as a true freshman in 2012 before an injury led to a medical redshirt, and he needs to step up as a redshirt sophomore. This spring will help determine whether he can do that.
Best-case scenario: Wartman becomes a solid outside linebacker and is the team’s second-best linebacker behind Hull. He takes his run-stuffing ability to the next level, gains a conference-wide reputation for his penchant for the big hit and forces several key turnovers. He finishes the season as an honorable-mention selection on the All-Big Ten team and picks up the slack while the other outside linebacker, likely Bell, finds his footing.
Worst-case scenario: Wartman’s production flatlines, as Bell continues his quick rise and overtakes him. Wartman remains a below-average to mediocre linebacker and adds little to the defense, except the occasional big tackle that makes fans wonder where that intensity is at other times. James Franklin tries playing other linebackers, either Kline once he gets healthy or a freshman, to spark the defense.
More players to watch:
No. 5: DB Adrian Amos
Once again, until spring practice starts, we'll have a different countdown every week. Up next are the positions of concern for Penn State, and this group is one that historically hasn't been an issue for the Nittany Lions.
No. 4: Linebackers
Last season: Depth was a huge concern throughout the season, and PSU tried to overcome that with position switches and different combinations. Safety Stephen Obeng-Agyapong moved to the outside and filled in for Hull when he was injured, while Bell, Wartman and Kline split time as the season progressed. The health of this unit was an ongoing issue, but Glenn Carson turned in a solid season And Hull, when healthy, was also good -- although he failed to meet lofty expectations (in part because of those injuries).
What's missing: Depth. It's the same issue as 2013, except the most solid starter in Carson is now gone. Kline once again has two surgeries to recover from this offseason, and Wooten appears to be more of a special-teams contributor. Outside of those two, there are just five linebackers on scholarship -- and that includes the two incoming freshmen.
Moving forward: Wartman and Bell were both greenhorns last season, so they at least have experience now. And they'll both need to be solid -- and healthy -- for this group to experience success. An injury to Hull or those two could be disastrous. Kline is once again a wild card because he's coming off of serious injuries, so PSU might have to turn to a non-scholarship player or a true freshman to pick up some slack. Incoming freshman Koa Farmer could play safety or linebacker, and Reeder appears more game-ready than Cabinda. For the second straight season, linebacker is once again a concern for Linebacker U.
As they watched in rapt attention, O'Brien paced with a hand in his pocket and asked for the crowd to be "loud and proud" before the 2012 opener. Then he left. The speech clocked in at 64 seconds.
"I'm not the pep rally coach," O'Brien said later.
"The healing process is why I'm here," Franklin said. "It's why we're all here, to bring this great university back together and try to unite the former players, the current players, the alumni, all the people."
Franklin hasn't been the head coach for a full week yet, but he already has garnered a lot of good will in Happy Valley. Some alumni lamented in the moments after Franklin's hire that he wasn't a Penn State guy -- even former QB Todd Blackledge admitted that Miami (Fla.) coach Al Golden was his first choice -- but Franklin quickly won over fans with his high energy and his promises to "dominate the state" and pack the stadium.
Fan sentiment can change in a hurry if winning doesn't follow all the impassioned speeches and promises. But, if this is the first quarter in Franklin's Penn State career, he certainly has seized an early lead.
Franklin embraced the role of ambassador; O'Brien was a throwback coach who wanted nothing more than to lead the football team. He shied away from bold statements -- "Dominate the State" never would've flown as a mantra under O'Brien's staff -- and he certainly never said anything remotely close to accepting every speaking engagement, like Franklin did.
On the contrary, O'Brien once matter-of-factly explained his disdain for "birthdays, weddings, theme parks, and the beach." That was in stark contrast to Franklin's first message.
"People ask us to come speak at social events, we're going to be there," Franklin said. "People ask us to blow up balloons at their kid's birthday party in the backyard, we'll do that as well."
Franklin rotates between hyperbole and truth so often that sometimes it's hard to know where the line is. Sometimes, there isn't one. The Pennsylvania native once called a stranger's boss to get him out of work so he could watch a Vanderbilt game. He has stopped at fraternities to see what he'd need to get them cheering in the Commodores' stands.
O'Brien was a great college coach who commanded respect and loyalty from his Nittany Lions. But that's all he was -- a coach. He dug PSU out of sanctions that some initially labeled as a fate worse than the death penalty, and he left the university in much better shape than he found it. Franklin's mettle hasn't yet been tested in the most important arena of all -- on the field -- but he quickly has surpassed O'Brien in the public relations front. And he certainly has a head-start on winning over Nittany Nation.
"Both of them seem similar as coaches on the field, as far as I've seen," linebacker Mike Hull said Wednesday. "But, off the field, Coach O'Brien, he just liked what his job entailed on the field -- whereas Coach Franklin is really involved in the community and really likes the Penn State spirit and atmosphere."
During O'Brien's first day on the job, a police escort helped whisk him away to the Bryce Jordan Center. During Franklin's, he grabbed an umbrella, walked over a muddy patch of grass and introduced himself to a pair of girls ages 5 and 9 at the airport.
O'Brien won over his team and that, in turn, earned him the fans' support. But, at this early point, Franklin already has earned both.
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: Linebackers.
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.
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.
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.
He knows all about Wisconsin's rushing attack, about the Big Ten's toughest one-two punch in James White (1,281 yards; 6.5 ypc) and Melvin Gordon (1,375 yards; 8.2 ypc). He knows how they like to bounce outside and how any chance at an upset is tied to just how well he and the defense can slow those two down.
"For me personally, I love when we play teams that run the ball because I like to be physical," he said. "So I know it's going to be a physical game. Each play, you got to bring it."
Olaniyan might want to be careful with his wishes. Penn State's last two meetings with top rushing offenses didn't go so smoothly. Nebraska ranks No. 19 nationally in rushing -- and Ameer Abdullah rushed for 147 yards and nearly 6 yards a clip against Olaniyan's defense. Ohio State ranks No. 5 in rushing -- and the Buckeyes rolled to 408 yards and 8 yards a carry.
Wisconsin is No. 8 and, behind a mammoth offensive line, has amassed nearly 300 yards a game on the ground. The average starting Wisconsin lineman weighs in at 321 pounds, or 8 pounds heavier than the average OL starter on the Green Bay Packers.
"Wisconsin's a good team, big line," linebacker Mike Hull said. "I don't think it really helps them or hurts them in any way. Just another Big Ten opponent. We've got to attack it the same way."
Hull said the only way to prepare for the running game is to focus on fundamentals and make sure his Nittany Lions get off blocks. But Olaniyan is taking it one step further this week. Every time he finds some free time -- whether it's after practice, a quick bite or a nap -- he breaks out his iPad or laptop and continues to watch the film.
To beat Wisconsin, a three-touchdown favorite, he didn't hesitate when asked just how much more film he's looking at now.
"Every extra moment that I get," he said.
This is a must-win game for Wisconsin. If the Badgers want to keep their hopes alive for a fourth straight BCS bowl berth, then they can't let up against Penn State. For the Lions, it's a bit more complicated.
On paper, this game means nothing. Penn State won't be heading to a bowl no matter what. But the difference between a win and a loss Saturday is the difference between a winning season and a 6-6 season. And that still means a lot to these Lions.
"Winning is always the standard we strive for," Olaniyan said. "So, of course, we're going to be disappointed if we go .500."
And if Olaniyan and Co. can't stop Wisconsin's running game, it'll almost certainly be in for that disappointment.
1. Fumbling issues aren't behind Zach Zwinak ... or Bill Belton: Zwinak fumbled for the fourth time this season Saturday -- even with the gloves -- while Belton lost his third fumble of the season. The Nittany Lions are among the most fumble-prone teams in the country and, despite constant emphasis on holding onto the ball, it's obvious that still remains an issue. They've both been great for PSU this season -- but with one large asterisk. Fumbles.
2. Changes could be coming on the kickoff team: The Lions surrendered a 100-yard kick return TD, the first time that's happened since Michigan State's Derek Mason pulled it off in 1994. And then it nearly happened again but, luckily for the Lions, Sam Ficken stepped up to take down the returner. As a result, Bill O'Brien said the staff will look into making some changes on that special-teams unit this week. Maybe, he mused, some guys just aren't hungry enough.
3. "Complementary football" isn't out of reach: O'Brien's squad performed the opposite of "complementary football" against Minnesota last week. But against Purdue? PSU forced three turnovers, and the offense converted each of those into a touchdown. When the offense needed the defense to step up, it did -- and vice versa. That's why, even when this game was just a one- or two-score game, it felt so out of reach for Purdue. PSU played a below-average opponent, but it still played relatively well. It should reach at least seven wins this season if it can keep that up.
4. The freshman linebackers still have quite a way to go: Redshirt freshman Nyeem Wartman missed a few tackles -- again -- and he's looked lost at times this season. True freshman Brandon Bell also saw more time than usual against Minnesota, and he's trying to get his feet wet because he could compete for a starting job next season. With Ben Kline's injuries, which require two separate surgeries, only Mike Hull, Wartman and Bell will be the returning linebackers with considerable playing time under their belts. Bell and Wartman are more important than ever now, and they could see more time in the final two games.
RBs Zach Zwinak and Bill Belton: Zwinak rumbled for 26 carries, 149 yards and three touchdowns. Belton started and ran 19 times for 81 yards and a score. Numbers don't always tell the full story ... but does anything else really have to be said after those stats? Penn State ran all over Purdue on Saturday, and those two were the most valuable players on the offense. Belton gained extra yards after eluding defenders on ankle-spraining cuts, and Zwinak routinely carried a defender or two for a few extra yards every attempt.
WR Allen Robinson: It wasn't his best game, but he was still Christian Hackenberg's top target by accounting for half of PSU's 16 completions. He also broke yet another single-season school record by hauling in eight catches for 98 yards. He now has a record 81 catches on the season and is the first Penn State player to ever reach the 80-catch plateau. Then again, he's also the only Penn Stater to reach the 70-catch mark, too.
CBs Adrian Amos and Jordan Lucas: OK, the secondary as a whole didn't play great -- and these two probably aren't going to make the All-Big Ten teams as a result of these performances. But they both made plays when Penn State needed, and they both played a big role in stopping the Purdue offense on several drives. Lucas came up with a key interception -- and nearly came away with two others -- while Amos finished with 1.5 sacks, 2.5 tackles-for-loss and a game-high eight stops.
LB Mike Hull: He forced one fumble and recovered another, and the recovery led to a Nittany Lions' touchdown. He finished with a respectable six tackles, which was the most by a player in the front seven and only one of his tackles came more than three yards upfield. He also added a stop in the backfield
K Sam Ficken: Ficken is stickin' the returners now. The kicker converted six PATs and a 29-yard FG, but the most memorable part Saturday was when he took down Purdue tailback Akeem Hunt during a 37-yard kickoff return. There was enough green ahead for Hunt that he might've had a touchdown, but Ficken dove and took the tailback down. The kicker -- excuse the pun -- of it all? Ficken had a pulled groin and still made the play. Said Bill O'Brien: "He laid his body out for that."
The Boilermakers are surely on O'Brien's mind, but they certainly aren't in the forefront of many fans' or reporters'. Purdue's season has been one long blooper reel, a year loaded with mistakes and miscues that have resulted in losing to all but but one FBS opponent by double digits.
"We don't have any problems focusing on Purdue," O'Brien said. "We respect Purdue. I think Coach [Darrell] Hazell is an excellent football coach. It's just his first year there."
The Boilermakers are one of the worst teams in football right now. Their lone win came against Indiana State, 20-14, in Week 2, and they're currently ranked No. 123 in scoring offense (11.8 ppg) and No. 112 in points allowed (37.2 ppg). Mark Schlabach ranked Purdue at No. 9 in this past week's "Bottom 10."
O'Brien and players have said they need to rebound after a tough loss against Minnesota. It's now or never to turn the season around -- so the Purdue matchup, in which PSU is a three-touchdown favorite, seems to be the perfect time.
"I would definitely say it's one of those moments during the season," linebacker Mike Hull said. "Our backs are against the wall. We need to finish strong these last three games."
The Nittany Lions are a mediocre team right now, but that's a level the Boilermakers are still aching to reach. Their defense has allowed five 200-yard rushing games, and the offense has scored two touchdowns in the last three games.
Hull believed a 6-6 season would be a disappointment -- and Penn State currently stands at five wins. If anything, Saturday's contest seems like a tune-up for a final two-game stretch against Nebraska and Wisconsin.
PSU should get to to six wins on Saturday. Then? It needs at least one more win to reach expectations this season. And O'Brien insisted his team wasn't looking past this week's opponent.
"Our guys are very focused on this game," he said. "With our guys, it's never a matter of focusing on who the opponent is. It has nothing to do with records or anything else. It's about playing the best football we can play and trying to get better from the mistakes that we made last week."
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.
1. Northwestern: Injuries have played a major role in the Wildcats' 0-3 start in Big Ten play. All-American kick returner and star tailback Venric Mark has been healthy enough to play exactly one full game -- against Ohio State. Quarterback Kain Colter has been banged up just about all season as well. Both were reinjured at Wisconsin and missed all of last week's loss to Minnesota. In addition, top defensive tackle Sean McEvilly has played in only three games, while starting cornerback Daniel Jones suffered a season-ending knee injury in the opener at Cal.
2. Penn State: The Nittany Lions had major depth issues to begin with because of NCAA sanctions. It hasn't helped that they have also dealt with a series of injuries. Tight ends Matt Lehman and Brent Wilkerson and defensive end Brad Bars were lost for the season. Linebacker Mike Hull was hurt for most of the first two months, as was tight end Kyle Carter. Wide receiver Brandon Felder missed the Indiana loss with an ankle problem. Linebacker Ben Kline has been limited after offseason shoulder surgery. Safety Ryan Keiser has been dealing with a hand injury since the Kent State game. This team can't afford many more injuries as it approaches the homestretch of the season.
3. Nebraska: The Huskers' injury problems haven't adversely affected them -- at least not yet. Still, it's never easy when you lose your four-year starting quarterback, and Taylor Martinez hasn't played since Week 3 versus UCLA because of turf toe. He could be back this week, but All-American guard Spencer Long was lost for the season in the last game against Purdue with a knee injury. He'll be tough to replace.
Each player was ranked based on his production, performance and importance to the team. Here's the top 10:
1. WR Allen Robinson: Does this one really need to be explained? Without Robinson, there might not be much of a passing attack. He's been incredibly dependable, he can turn short receptions into long passes, and he can make huge catches when the game calls for it. It's debatable whether he's the best overall offensive player in the conference, but it's clear he's the MVP to his team. He might just be the best receiver in school history.
2. DT DaQuan Jones: He entered the season with quite a bit of fanfare, as Gil Brandt named him the nation's best senior defensive tackle. But he's lived up to those expectations -- actually, he might have even surpassed them. He leads the conference in tackles-for-loss (8.5), and he's second on the team in tackles (31.5). And, get this, no one on Penn State -- not even the linebackers -- boasts more solo tackles than his 24. He stepped up after Jordan Hill's departure, and he's a big reason why teams have struggled to run inside.
4. LB Glenn Carson: There hasn't been a lot of consistency on the defense, and that's what makes Carson so important. He's not the flashiest player to ever don the Blue and White, but he gets the job done week in and week out. He leads the team in tackles (34.5), and he's one of the leaders on this defense. He won't end up on the semifinalist list for the Bednarik Award, but he deserves credit for helping shore up the middle of this defense. He's a big reason why PSU has the nation's No. 19 run defense.
5. RB Bill Belton: Let the debate begin. Who's been more valuable to this team -- Belton or ZZ? Belton gets the slight edge right now after a strong game against Michigan, which saw him make a key fourth-and-1 run in addition to the game-winning touchdown. He's made some nice catches this season, has averaged 5.3 yards a carry -- a full yard per carry more than the other guy -- and come up big in clutch situations. Belton looks like the surprise of the offense so far this season.
6. RB Zach Zwinak: OK, OK, let's address the elephant in the room. He did not have a good game against Michigan. At all. But point to another Penn State player who has had six strong games. It's not easy. He's been the workhorse, the player who can pick up short yardage and wear a defense down. He's had eight rushing touchdowns so far this year, and he's played no small role in PSU's No.17-ranked red-zone offense. He still leads the team with 393 rushing yards.
7. LB Stephen Obeng-Agyapong: Think about just how important he's been this season, especially when Mike Hull went down. Maybe he's not the best linebacker in recent memory, but he gets bonus points for switching positions and exceeding expectations. The Nittany Lions could've walked away with a Week 1 loss had Obeng-Agyapong not stepped up, especially considering that Syracuse targeted him constantly that game. He's already run the gamut of football stats -- he has a sack, a pick, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery so far this season. He's obviously good in pass coverage, and he's been a speedy blitzer when called upon. The safety-turned-linebacker has helped hold this thin corps of LBs together.
8. WR Brandon Moseby-Felder: If we were just going off the U-M game, Moseby-Felder might be as high as second or third. But he missed the Indiana game due to injury and went a span of three weeks with four catches for 39 yards. He's clearly important to this team, as evidenced by that game against the Hoosiers, and he made several critical catches against the Wolverines -- including a back-shoulder grab for a touchdown. If he can keep that up, he'll undoubtedly make his way up this list by the end of the season.
9. CB Jordan Lucas: The secondary has not been a strong point for PSU, but Lucas seems to have had the best season so far. He's a first-year starter, but defensive coordinator John Butler has used him in quite a few ways. He's blitzed off the edge a bit, has been decent in run support and has made some nice plays as cornerback. He leads the team with eight pass deflections, seven pass breakups and an interception. Also, believe it or not, he's second on the team with 4.5 stops in the backfield. He hasn't played error-free football, but he's done well.
10. DE C.J. Olaniyan: He obviously had a monster game against Michigan, as he was named the Big Ten defensive player of the week. But even before that, he was doing pretty well. He's first in sacks (3.5), second in tackles for loss (6.5), fifth in tackles (21.5), and he also has a forced fumble and two pass breakups. If Olaniyan can string together more games like that, he'll earn quite a reputation for himself in the Big Ten. For now, though, his stock is on "hold" because he needs to show he can consistently perform like that.
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