Big Ten: Bill O'Brien

Big Ten morning links

November, 6, 2014
Nov 6
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The wait for Nov. 8 is finally almost over. It's becoming increasingly clear that Ohio State and Michigan State have been waiting for this date just as much as everybody else.

Fighting words?: The comments clearly weren't meant as an insult to Braxton Miller, but he certainly took offense to the assessment Taiwan Jones provided in comparing the skills of Ohio State's injured quarterback and current starter J.T. Barrett. Even after clarifying that Miller was the better athlete between the two, the fact that Jones suggested Barrett was the better quarterback and more suited to running the offense for the Buckeyes obviously bothered the two-time Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year. Miller returned fire on Wednesday through his Twitter account by writing that Jones had gone "unnoticed" on the field over the last four years. As far as feuds and bulletin-board material go, this seems pretty mild and unlikely to do much to fire up either side, despite Mark Dantonio's ability to motivate his team through perceived slights. Plus, Miller isn't even going to be playing on Saturday thanks to his season-ending shoulder injury. Based on the success of the Ohio State attack with Barrett at the helm and his better passing numbers, it's hard to even really argue with Jones' point anyway.

West Eliminator, Round II: Iowa survived its first matchup in a month stocked with critical division games in what amounts to a round robin tournament in the West, and its reward is another one on the road this week against rested Minnesota. The Hawkeyes are playing their finest football of the season at just the right time, and it appears to have things figured out offensively after a less-than-impressive start. They seem to be a legitimate contender again in an unpredictable race, but it remains to be seen if the Gophers are going to be a factor past this weekend. Jerry Kill had some extra time to work through some issues on offense that hurt the Gophers in the upset loss at Illinois, and it will be interesting to see how they respond to the loss that knocked them out of first place in the standings. If Minnesota can hit on just a few more throws in the play-action passing game, it can be a real threat down the stretch with Ohio State, Nebraska and Wisconsin all still looming on the schedule. And based on the way Iowa is moving the football, the Gophers had better be able to put up some points this weekend as well if they're going to stick around near the top of West.

Under-the-radar matchup: Neither team is in the hunt for a division title, and there are obviously no national implications with Michigan visiting Northwestern. But a bowl game remains in reach for both programs heading into the weekend, though that probably won't be the case moving forward for the loser on Saturday. The Wolverines and Wildcats have both already lost 5 games, and while they can technically lose twice before being eliminated from postseason consideration, the schedules don't really do them any favors late in the year -- particularly for Brady Hoke's club, which will host Maryland and then close the year on the road at rival Ohio State. Any remaining bowl projections for either Northwestern or Michigan would be contingent on a victory this weekend, which should be a nice motivator and could provide a hard-fought battle worth watching.

East Division
  • Michigan State may have linebacker Mylan Hicks back in action for Saturday's showdown with Ohio State.
  • Finally, officially, the season for freshman cornerback Jabrill Peppers has been confirmed as over by Michigan.
  • Rutgers quarterback Gary Nova didn't practice on Wednesday, but that was by design.
  • After successfully pushing the tempo with its "NASCAR" package under Bill O'Brien, Penn State has tapped the brakes on its offense this season.
  • Already suspended for a game, Maryland wide receiver Stefon Diggs appears to also be dealing with an injury.
  • Kyle Rowland asks: Is Indiana a 3-9 football team?
  • The memory of last year's failed fourth-and-2 against Michigan State doesn't haunt Ohio State offensive coordinator Tom Herman, but short-yardage and red zone plays will be critical again Saturday.
West Division
  • Despite missing a finger, Wisconsin tight end Troy Fumagalli doesn't have any problems catching the football.
  • Without even playing this week, Nebraska may become a top-10 team.
  • The bye week gave Minnesota time to "digest" its loss to Illinois, and it's ready to get back on the field against Iowa.
  • Iowa is preparing for a balanced offense, even if the numbers don't suggest Minnesota has one.
  • Purdue needs a wide receiver to step up. Who will it be?
  • Too many mistakes are dooming Northwestern.
  • The chance to hit the road for some recruiting during the bye week appears to be paying off for Illinois.
For nearly two decades, former Penn State assistant Larry Johnson jogged through the tunnel at Beaver Stadium and turned right -- past the cheering student fans, past the Nittany Lions' mascot -- to the home sideline.

On Saturday night, for the first time in his career, Johnson will be standing across from that sideline.

The 18-year Penn State assistant is now the defensive line coach at Ohio State, and his new team will face his old Saturday night in State College. Urban Meyer scooped Johnson up after he left Happy Valley in January -- making the Buckeyes just the second college team he’s ever coached -- and Johnson said he’s not quite sure what emotions to expect when he returns.

[+] EnlargeLarry Johnson
AP Photo/Jay LaPrete"I had a great time there for 18 years." said ex-Penn State assistant Larry Johnson, now the D-line coach at Ohio State.
“It’ll be different,” Johnson said Monday afternoon. “You spend 18 years in one place for a long time and then you walk back in there on a different sideline. But I’m looking forward to going back, and I’m looking forward to going back with Ohio State University.

“I’m looking forward to going back home and being excited to play in the stadium.”

Johnson’s departure was an emotional one for Penn State fans. He was the final Joe Paterno holdover, the last assistant with a direct connection to the no-name jerseys and the rolled-up khakis. While unprecedented change swept through Happy Valley, Johnson was the lone constant.

He was promoted to co-defensive coordinator when Paterno was fired. Then he was relegated to defensive line coach with Bill O’Brien’s arrival. Two seasons later, when O’Brien left, he kept this team together as the interim head coach. Then, with James Franklin’s hiring, he left.

“I didn’t have any bitterness when I left. It was my decision to leave, it was my time to move on,” he said Monday. “I just felt that Coach Franklin was coming in with a new staff, and I knew he had a guy he really liked a lot. I just felt it was the best thing to do.”

Now, instead of addressing the media behind a blue and white backdrop, he talks to reporters behind a scarlet and gray one. On Monday afternoon, in a dark Ohio State jacket, the even-tempered coach kept a soft tone as if he were in a library while reflecting on his time in State College.

He spoke highly of his past stop throughout the news conference. About how past “White Outs,” where the crowd wears all white, jump-started his players. About the “great friends, great players” he coached. About how blessed he feels with PSU and now OSU on his resume. Though he remained stoic for much of the time, he smiled when asked if -- in his 18 years -- he ever caught a peek of the visitors’ locker room.

“I have not,” he said.

But have you heard about it?

“I have heard about it,” he said with a slight grin. “It’s very small.”

Besides Monday’s location -- and the color of his shirt -- Johnson said not all that much has changed in his life. He still tends to his flowers in the offseason -- “That’s kind of my style,” he added -- he still preaches player development and relationships, and he’s still a top recruiter. He built a new house near Ohio State, and his son, former Penn State wideout Tony Johnson, moved closer to him.

He sold his old house in State College and doesn’t plan to stop by once he returns. He doesn’t plan to swing by the Creamery for some Peachy Paterno ice cream, or see much of anything other than the walls to his hotel and the inside of Beaver Stadium. He said he simply doesn’t have the time.

He remains in touch with his pastor from Penn State, along with some members of the congregation, so he plans to see some familiar faces in the crowd Saturday night. He’ll shake hands with his former players after the game, and it’s sure to be a surreal experience for the coach whom Paterno plucked from the high school ranks back in 1996.

“I had a great time there for 18 years,” Johnson said. “I got to be part of their lives for a long time. It’s a new job, a new place and a new school, so I’m looking forward to coming back.”

PSU dons no-name jerseys vs. Wildcats

September, 27, 2014
Sep 27
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STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- In a nod to its past, Penn State players wore blue no-name jerseys Saturday afternoon -- the first time since the Joe Paterno Era the jerseys have gone without last names.

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The move is significant for fans of the Nittany Lions. For more than 120 years, Penn State wore the same, plain no-name jerseys, and it’s a tradition many purists hold dear. Even first-year head coach James Franklin said the most common question he received this offseason centered around the jerseys.

A Penn State spokesman said the change was in honor of Homecoming, but would not discuss the move further. He said Franklin would address the topic after the noon game at Beaver Stadium.

Former coach Bill O’Brien changed the practice of wearing no-name jerseys in 2012, when he felt players who stayed during the sanctions deserved to be honored. Franklin has said he wants to strike a balance between honoring the past and respecting players’ opinions.
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Penn State football has paid its penance, and the NCAA's executive committee on Monday lifted a bowl ban on the program and will return the full complement of 85 scholarships by 2015-16.

So what does it all mean? Read on.

  • Penn State is relevant again: It's not as if the Lions' accomplishments the past two seasons went unnoticed, but when a team is ineligible to win its league or compete in a bowl game, it naturally falls off the national radar. Penn State is still in the building stages under first-year coach James Franklin, but Lions players now can eye a championship in a league that, as we saw Saturday, looks very vulnerable. Michigan State remains the Big Ten's most complete team, but Penn State hosts both the Spartans and Ohio State. Depth remains a concern but Penn State should get better as the year goes along. A bowl appearance seems extremely likely, and don't be surprised if the Lions are a factor in the East Division race.
  • [+] EnlargeJames Franklin
    AP Photo/Gene J. PuskarBeing able to participate in postseason play will only help James Franklin's recruiting efforts.
    Franklin's recruiting pitch is even stronger: Although there had been rumblings about the bowl ban being lifted as early as last summer, Penn State had to operate as if it would be sidelined for two more postseasons. Franklin doesn't need much help in landing top recruits, but now he can sell the opportunity to reach bowl games and compete for championships right away. That's especially important as Penn State also has opportunities for recruits to contribute immediately.
  • Roster depth isn't a long-term problem: When the sanctions came down in 2012, many pointed to the scholarship penalties as the most damaging, more than the four-year bowl ban. It was hard to argue. But the restoration of the 85 scholarships by 2015-16 should make depth less of a concern going forward. Penn State won't have the truncated roster USC used for years and years. The Lions will be a young team for a while, but they'll have the scholarship players.
  • The Big Ten gets a boost: After a disastrous Saturday that some think removed the league from the College Football Playoff picture, the Big Ten needed some good news. Penn State returning to eligibility both for the league title game and the postseason provides some. The Lions haven't looked like world-beaters the first two weeks, but they're 2-0 and boast a ton of talented young players who will be energized by this news. Plus, they're a flagship program working toward restoring elite status. After Michigan's repeated flops and Nebraska's shakiness, the Big Ten needs Penn State to be Penn State.
  • The PSU community will be more united: Total harmony might not be possible because of the emotion that still surrounds Joe Paterno, whose family will continue to pursue its lawsuit against the NCAA and Penn State. But a larger portion of the Penn State community will be able to move forward. The lingering penalties for players who had nothing to do with the Jerry Sandusky scandal brewed bitterness toward the PSU administration, the NCAA, the former board of trustees and others, but the mood should change a bit in State College.
  • The East Division steals more of the spotlight: The concern when the Big Ten realigned its divisions was that the East would garner most of the attention. Penn State's restoration to bowl eligibility thickens the plot in a division that already includes Michigan State and Ohio State. The West Division has looked relatively weak so far, as Minnesota has been the only team without a scare in its first two games.
  • Franklin's life gets even better: What hasn't gone right for Franklin since he arrived at Penn State in January? Monday's announcement brings even more news for the lead Lion. His contract includes a $200,000 bonus for making a bowl game and bonuses for both making the Big Ten title game ($250,000) and winning it ($350,000). Franklin doesn't need much to get energized about coaching Penn State, but he'll be even peppier now.
  • Bill O'Brien becomes a vital figure in program history: There are some PSU fans still bitter about O'Brien's departure to the NFL after two seasons. Three words: Get. Over. It. Remember the doom-and-gloom predictions for Penn State when the sanctions came down in July 2012? How the program wouldn't be stable until 2020 or beyond? Thank O'Brien for stabilizing things masterfully, and thank an exceptional 2012 senior class that included linebacker Michael Mauti, quarterback Matt McGloin and other standouts.
Christian HackenbergAP Photo/Gene J. PuskarPenn State quarterback Christian Hackenberg isn't fazed by the attention coming his way.
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Defensive end C.J. Olaniyan pivoted toward his right last month and watched as reporters crowded around the Nittany Lions’ star quarterback. It was a scene Olaniyan had grown pretty used to over the past year.

He understood it, of course. Christian Hackenberg was the reigning Big Ten freshman of the year. A potential future No. 1 overall draft pick. A former five-star prospect. But, with his hands on his hips, Olaniyan paused for a moment, smiled and then – half-jokingly – made a statement that underscored the importance of Penn State's sophomore signal-caller.

“He’s got the hopes and dreams of everybody in his hands,” Olaniyan said.

Olaniyan wasn’t stone-faced or wholly serious during his assessment. But the ironic thing is he wasn't wrong. Penn State’s ceiling is only as high as Hackenberg’s ability. And Happy Valley is only happy so long as Hackenberg is launching touchdown passes.

The 19-year-old has taken a lot upon his shoulders in a short period of time. He was hailed as the program’s savior when he still roamed the halls of his military academy, when he kicked up dirt on the baseball diamond and waded into local streams for fly fishing. Now, fans’ hopes are pinned and piled on his young shoulders. ESPN ranked him as the 46th-best college player in the country; another site ranked him even higher.

Hackenberg isn’t deaf to the fan murmurs regarding his importance. But, on Monday, he reclined on a bench, relaxed and looked more like a man catching a tan than one whose every move will be judged and analyzed. Put simply, he knows the stakes – but, he insisted, feels no pressure.

“I mean, I really don’t feel it at all,” he said with a shrug. “I think the people that I look to the most are my teammates, my coaching staff and my family. So as long as I’m not letting those people down and they have confidence in me, then I have confidence in what we can do and what I can do.

“Again, I’m just another piece to a bigger puzzle. I’m just trying to do whatever I can to help this team win.”

There’s a different look about Hackenberg this preseason. He enrolled last summer and spent about four weeks with Bill O’Brien before making his first career start in the opener. He didn’t look lost, but he didn’t look wholly comfortable either. As a rookie, he was forced to listen instead of lead. Now that he knows the offense, that the game has slowed and his on-field I.Q. has increased, he’s prepared for the latter.

“The kid is unbelievable,” strength coach Dwight Galt said. “The kid’s been here 13 months – not only 13 months – and the way he acts, the way he carries himself, the way everybody respects him, you’d think he’s a fourth-year guy.”

Teammates notice that confidence and the way he’s able to deflect that pressure. Instead of them directing him, he’s the one offering up tips and advice. Cornerback Jordan Lucas watches the way Hackenberg “walks, the way he talks, the way he calls plays” and how that swagger has become routine. It’s what Penn State expects now.

That’s why Lucas said nothing Hackenberg does is unbelievable anymore. Nothing is “crazy.” It’s just one of those things.

“There’s just certain times you play perfect coverage and he just fits the ball in there just because he can,” Lucas said. “And a lot of quarterbacks can’t do what he does. It’s not crazy; he just wows me. I just can’t wait to see what he does this season.”

Most Penn State fans can’t wait either, since neither they nor the media have really been able to gauge Hackenberg's progress. James Franklin ushered reporters out of practice Monday before Hackenberg attempted a pass over 10 yards. And he didn’t air it out during the spring game either. So, until the opener, it’s only the players and coaches who can really speak to how far he’s come.

Luckily, they're not shy about praising the sophomore.

“From the time he got here until now, he’s a completely different quarterback,” tight end Jesse James said. “He’s always had a great arm, and he just keeps learning more and more about how defenses change. He just keeps getting better; it’s like his arm gets stronger every day.”

Added tight end Kyle Carter: “He’s a lot more confident. Last year in training camp, he was the new guy and all that. Now you can tell he’s a lot more confident in his game and where he stands with the team.”

Not that Hackenberg really pays mind to the compliments, or all the attention. He’s one of the most recognizable faces around campus – even after tailback and unofficial team barber Bill Belton cut his shaggy blond locks – but he’s trying to take it all in stride. There was the time, during the spring game autograph session, when an elderly woman tried to cross the ropes and plant her lips on the teenager. (PSU officials intervened just in time.) And then there are the countless times when, ball cap or not, students will stop him for a few words or a pat on the back.

But beneath his white visor Monday, Hackenberg smiled and said he felt no pressure. Maybe it was a foreign concept to him since his commitment in spite of 2012 sanctions led to an explosion of media coverage. Maybe, just like the passing ability Lucas alluded to, the “crazy” has simply become routine.

“But does anything make Christian Hackenberg nervous?” one reporter asked.

“I don’t like public speaking,” he said. “I don’t like getting up and talking in front of classes, you know? It’s weird. Like my CAS 100 [Effective Speech] class, getting up and talking. I don’t really like that.”

“But you’re fine with this, talking to the media, and playing in front of 107,000 people?”

“Yeah, I don’t know,” Hackenberg said, nodding. “I can’t diagnose that for you. It’s just one of those things.”
Our crew of Big Ten reporters will occasionally give their takes on a burning question facing the league. They'll have strong opinions, but not necessarily the same view. We'll let you decide which one is right.

Rutgers and Maryland have officially been Big Ten members for a week now, and that brings about an interesting dynamic with Penn State's conference slate. In past years, the Nittany Lions' primary conference rival was Ohio State. So today's Take Two topic: Who exactly is the Nittany Lions' main conference rival right now?

Take 1: Adam Rittenberg

The debate about Penn State's top Big Ten rival isn't a new one and hasn't produced an obvious answer. It goes along with the sentiment of some Nittany Lions fans that the school never has been fully integrated into the Big Ten. The league's expansion with Rutgers and Maryland took place in part because of Penn State, which became vulnerable after the ACC added both Pitt and Syracuse. The additions ensure Penn State is no longer a geographic outlier and provide PSU fans with two convenient road destinations.

But rivalries don't spawn merely out of convenience. They're fueled by competitiveness, too. Unless Maryland and Rutgers move up in class, or Penn State moves down in class, I don't see a true rivalry developing. Penn State is 35-1-1 all-time against Maryland and 22-2 all-time against Rutgers. The Terrapins or Scarlet Knights need to beat Penn State sometime in the next three years for any real rivalry to develop. They will compete a lot on the recruiting trail, especially with James Franklin's ties to Maryland and Washington D.C. Franklin's bluster about dominating the region won't sit well in either neighboring state. Yet again, it comes down to winning games on the field.

I still think Penn State's biggest league rival is Ohio State. Sure, Ohio State always will have Michigan and might not cross paths as much with Penn State on the recruiting trail as Maryland or Rutgers will. But the two teams are on more equal footing and have played many more memorable games in recent years. Penn State is 3-6 against Ohio State since 2005, the best record of any Big Ten team against the Buckeyes during the span and far better than Ohio State's chief rival, Michigan, has fared. The Lions scored wins at Ohio Stadium in both 2008 and 2011 -- the Buckeyes have lost only two other Big Ten home games since the 2004 season.

There might not be a Terrelle Pryor to stir the pot, but Ohio State and Penn State undoubtedly will compete for more elite prospects as long as Franklin and Urban Meyer are coaching the teams. Plus, longtime Lions assistant Larry Johnson moved to the Buckeyes staff in the offseason after being passed over again for the top job at PSU.

Is the PSU-OSU rivalry ideal? No. It might take some time for Penn State to match Ohio State's talent and depth again, but I like the ingredients here more than the likely lopsided series with either Maryland or Rutgers.

Take 2: Josh Moyer

You make some fair points, Adam, especially about the need for competition. Penn State’s last head coach, Bill O’Brien, said as much last October: “In order to have a rivalry, you have to win,” he said. I agree. Of course, you point to the Nittany Lions being competitive with Ohio State -- and that’s where we start to diverge. The Buckeyes have taken four of the last five matchups, including handing Penn State its worst loss in 114 years last season. So, how many Big Ten fans are really expecting the Nittany Lions to win this year? Fewer, I imagine, than in those Rutgers and Maryland contests. I know I’m not the only person who feels that way about OSU. Here’s the rest of that O’Brien quote, one that came days after that 63-14 thumping: “We’ve lost two years in a row to [Ohio State]. They have one rival, Michigan, and that’s the way it goes.”

Staying competitive goes a long way in maintaining a rivalry, but that doesn’t mean it’s the only ingredient in creating one. And that’s why I think Maryland and Rutgers are Penn State’s new main rivals. Franklin threw down the gauntlet two months ago when he talked about dominating New Jersey and Maryland in recruiting and said, in hyperbolic fashion, “They might as well shut them down because they don’t have a chance.” Countered Randy Edsall: “Talk is cheap.” You can bet the Terrapins and the Scarlet Knights aren’t going to forget about that slight. This is the stuff rivalries are made of. How many Penn State fans forgot about that 2012 slight from Illinois, right after Tim Beckman tried to poach players? Schadenfreude was a real thing when PSU beat up on the Fighting Illini that season.

But, even without all that, you still have the geography factor. The campuses of Rutgers and Maryland are actually closer to some Lions fans than Penn State’s actual campus. Live in York, Pa.? UMD is a closer drive by about 30 minutes. Staying in Philadelphia? RU is two hours closer. Ask any Penn State fan whom their top rival is, and I bet most would still say Pittsburgh (Exhibit A). That proximity means something. And I think that sentiment about Pitt shows that meeting recently isn’t a prerequisite to being rivals.

Sure, a lot’s left to be written here. But Maryland-Penn State and Rutgers-Penn State are both budding rivalries. They’re on their way up; Rutgers is already planning to set up an auxiliary press box for PSU’s visit because of the demand. Ohio State-Penn State? Maybe in the longer term, Adam, that can return to something great. But that matchup is on its way down. So let the new rivalries begin.
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Penn State athletic director Dave Joyner announced his plans to retire Tuesday afternoon, a move that should be looked upon as a positive by Nittany Lions fans.

We’ll skip over the past and focus on the future. But let’s just say that Joyner’s approval rating in Happy Valley was so low that, at times, it probably could have struck oil.

But forget all that. James Franklin knew when he took the coaching job that Joyner wouldn’t be around forever; now, stability is right around the corner. Penn State needed someone to pick it up by the bootstraps in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky scandal. Joyner was there, but now the school needs someone to steer the athletic program -- especially football -- to a place Joyner couldn’t take it.

Joyner meant well but had no prior athletic director experience. He’s the lowest-paid AD in the conference, with a salary of $396,000, and oversaw an athletic program that raked in more than $104 million last year. Maybe it shouldn’t have been a surprise that Joyner reportedly promised previous coach Bill O’Brien a raise for his assistant coaches -- and then couldn’t deliver. Joyner simply hadn’t been in that position before. A new athletic director with experience would help with salaries and also with budgets and facility improvements.

As for former Sen. George Mitchell’s annual report, which is due in September, this move is only going to help. Penn State was told to search nationally for candidates to fill positions such as athletic director, and that’s exactly what it’s doing. PSU can check one more box off those 119 Freeh report recommendations. A further reduction of sanctions isn’t out of the question.

Yes, Joyner did make some great hires during his time at Penn State. But no matter what your opinion on his legacy, it’s time for Penn State to move on. It’ll only be better for it.

Big Ten roundtable: Impact freshmen

June, 6, 2014
Jun 6
9:00
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With incoming freshmen set to report to their respective B1G teams later this month, we thought now would be a perfect time to take a closer look at the 2014 class.

Who'll end up as the most memorable player? And who'll see time right away? Adam Rittenberg, Brian Bennett and Josh Moyer joined Big Ten recruiting writer Tom VanHaaren in discussing the big questions surrounding the freshmen.

So let's get started ...

Based on talent, which freshman is too good to leave off the field?

[+] EnlargeJabrill Peppers
Miller Safrit/ESPNJabrill Peppers is the type of physical defensive back that Michigan's defense needs.
Bennett: First, let's start off with the caveat that college is a lot different from high school, and more goes into being successful at this level than pure physical gifts. That said, I have never heard anyone dispute the natural talent and football instincts of Michigan’s Jabrill Peppers. He was ESPN's No. 2 recruit in the Class of 2014 for a reason. The comparisons to Charles Woodson are already being made, and the corner spot is open with Blake Countess playing nickelback. Michigan needs to get more physical in its pass coverage and have more defensive playmakers in general. If Peppers fulfills even 80 percent of his hype, he'll be on the field early and often for Brady Hoke.

VanHaaren: Peppers is the first name that comes to mind. Michigan doesn't really have anyone like him on the roster. His combination of size and speed, which he displayed at a recent track meet by running a 10.52-second 100-meter dash, is something that Michigan needs in the defensive backfield. I just don't see a scenario where a healthy Peppers doesn't see the field in some capacity.

Moyer: Everyone should be familiar with Peppers, so let's forget about him for a minute. Someone whom Buckeyes fans already know -- and whom other B1G fans should familiarize themselves with -- is linebacker Raekwon McMillan, who was rated as the top inside linebacker recruit in the nation. He's already enrolled, he's already impressed Urban Meyer, and he's already a physically imposing athlete. At 240 pounds, he's bigger than all but one of OSU's 10 other linebackers. Almost every scouting report you read on the guy describes him as a "thumper," and Meyer said three months ago that there'll be no redshirt for McMillan. He should make an impact early on.

Based on need, which freshman is a lock to start from Day 1?

Bennett: I'll go with Purdue's Gelen Robinson. He's following in the footsteps, sort of, of his dad -- Boilers basketball legend Glenn "Big Dog" Robinson. The younger Robinson was Purdue's most celebrated recruit in this class, but not just because of that name. He's also an outstanding athlete who should force his way onto the field from Day 1. He'll likely play outside linebacker, which is a position of need for Darrell Hazell's team. Heck, they need players everywhere, but particularly difference-makers on defense. Robinson will get every opportunity.

Rittenberg: It's hard for true freshman offensive linemen to step in immediately, but keep an eye on Maryland's Damian Prince, the nation's No. 26 prospect in the 2014 class. The recent suspension of potential starter Moise Larose creates a need at tackle, and both Prince and Derwin Gray both have a chance to win starting jobs this summer. Wisconsin will play several of its freshman wide receivers, and I could easily see a guy like Dareian Watkins entering the starting lineup. And let's not forget about Michigan State defensive tackle Malik McDowell. The Spartans lost a few pieces on the interior defensive line.

Moyer: Penn State wideout De'Andre Thompkins. In a normal year, he might be a redshirt candidate. He's incredibly athletic -- Bill O'Brien recruited him thinking he could be a two-way player and compete at nickelback -- but he's also a bit raw since he played mostly at running back in high school. He still needs to sharpen his routes but, between the scholarship reduction and the lack of experience at receiver this season, Thompkins will have to step up sooner rather than later. The early enrollee has already proven he's the fastest player on the roster, and he's taken reps as a return man. So he should play on Day 1, in some capacity.

When this freshman class graduates, who will be remembered as the best player?

Bennett: Peppers is the easy and safe choice here. Another possibility is Maryland's Prince. He's a mountain, and given the value of offensive tackles in the NFL, we could be hearing his name early in the 2017 or 2018 draft.

VanHaaren: It could very well be either Peppers or McMillan. It's tough to argue against those two just based off of talent and ability, and I would probably go with Peppers here. I saw him at the Under Armour All-America Game and coach Herm Edwards told me Peppers was the best high school prospect he had coached in the few years he had been coaching at the event. That's high praise for a former defensive back.

[+] EnlargeDamian Prince
Tom Hauck for Student SportsThe massive Damian Prince might be too good to keep out of Maryland's starting lineup.
Rittenberg: McDowell's recruiting melodrama gained a lot of attention, overshadowing how good a player he could be for MSU. Mark Dantonio isn't one to heap praise on freshmen but held a news conference specifically to discuss McDowell, saying, "Malik will be on the field for us, he's too big and fast [not to be], he can play inside or outside." I've been told McDowell's parents are on board with MSU now, and with the distractions behind him, he should become a star for an already elite defense.

What redshirt freshman should fans keep an eye on?

Bennett: I trust the player development program at Michigan State. Guys there just seem to get better and better throughout their careers, especially on the defensive side of the ball. Defensive end Demetrius Cooper turned a lot of heads this spring and forced himself into the rotation, even with standout returning starters Shilique Calhoun and Marcus Rush ahead of him. Cooper was just a three-star recruit, according to ESPN, but the Spartans have made a living turning moderately-rated recruits into true college stars.

VanHaaren: I don't know if this is cheating or not because he's a sophomore, but I'm really interested to see what quarterback Wes Lunt does for Illinois. I put him here because he transferred and had to sit out the last season. I think he could be a big boost to that program if he can get things rolling offensively for the Illini.

Rittenberg: Iowa wide receiver Derrick Willies. Not only did he have a breakout spring for the Hawkeyes, but he's the type of receiver Iowa has lacked for a while: tall, fast and explosive. Iowa wants to ramp up the offensive tempo even more this season, which likely means the ball will be spread around more. Expect some big plays from Willies in his first game action.

Moyer: Minnesota running back Berkley Edwards. If it wasn't for an ankle injury early last season, he probably would've played. As it is, he'll definitely see the field this fall -- and he might see it quite a bit. Jerry Kill was asked earlier this spring if Edwards might get five to seven carries a game. "We'll see," Kill said, chuckling, to the Minneapolis Star Tribune. "He might need more touches." Edwards is an exciting player who has a chance to break it anytime he touches the ball, and he could end up being an important change-of-pace back for the offense. Definitely worth watching.
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Penn State has a new offensive coordinator, a new running backs coach and a new (inexperienced) offensive line. But not everything has changed -- both of its starting running backs return for their final seasons.

As seniors, Zach Zwinak and Bill Belton are among the Nittany Lions' most experienced players. Zwinak has led the team in rushing the past two seasons, but Belton was widely regarded as the team's most improved player last fall. He finished his junior campaign with 803 rushing yards and edged Zwinak with 5.1 yards per carry.

Belton has earned a reputation as one of Penn State's hardest workers and, if you don't know his name yet, he's hoping you will by the end of this season. ESPN.com checked in with him earlier this week.

[+] EnlargeBill Belton
Matthew O'Haren/USA TODAY SportsPenn State RB Bill Belton rushed for 803 yards (5.1 ypc) and 5 TDs last season, and is expecting even more of himself this year.
It's June, so the football season's creeping up. How are you preparing yourself for your senior year, and what's been the focus this offseason?

Bill Belton: I'm doing a lot of the same things, but I'm going two times harder than I did last season, just to improve on some things and take my game to the next level. I'm getting in the weight room, building more strength because, oftentimes, you hear things like, 'He's too small. He can't play all three downs.' So I've just been trying to build up my strength and conditioning at all times to help my team win and put my team in the best position.

You told me last season you save online articles where you receive criticism, that it gives you motivation. Is that where you got the "he's too small" stuff from?

BB: Yeah. I mean, I read stuff to see what people are saying. I see some crazy stuff out there, but it doesn't affect me whatsoever. Basically, I'm just coming to get the respect I deserve, be the best player I can, push myself and hold myself to a high standard -- and become one of those players that people talk about.

How is 2014 Bill Belton different from the 2013 or 2012 version?

BB: A better teammate, a more vocal person. Just being not only a good player but a great player that helps his teammates when they need it. Not just standing off and allowing things to happen but stepping up in situations and making sure everyone's on the same page and, basically, just being a model teammate and giving the younger guys someone to come to when they need advice.

So you're finding yourself talking to or mentoring younger running backs, like Akeel Lynch, a bit more this offseason?

BB: Not just him. A kid that I really see a lot of potential in is [wideout] DaeSean Hamilton. We've been doing two-a-days, running in the morning and working out later on with the team in the afternoon and doing work. So it's not only just the running backs, but it's the receivers and DBs and whoever needs help and wants to work to get better.

It's no secret there are some concerns with the offensive line since it basically returns one starter. It seems fair to say that your job will be a little harder. Has that changed your approach at all?

BB: All we got to do is keep working and we'll be just fine ... And, no, you just got to continue to prepare the way you were before. Like I said before, I've been working my behind off to be known throughout the Big Ten and throughout the country. That doesn't really change anything; it's going to work. We're happy; none of us are upset with what's going on. That's the hand we were dealt, and we want to continue to work and we're going to be good come Aug. 31.

Let's talk a little bit about your head coach, James Franklin. What are your impressions of him, and how does he compare to Bill O'Brien?

BB: Every guy is different; every head guy who comes here is different. They have ways they do things. Franklin came in, and he was a fiery guy. He instilled that competitive spirit throughout our team so, whatever we're doing, we're competing and trying to get better and take this team to where it has been before and just return it to that prominence in the Big Ten. O'Brien and Franklin, they have a relationship, so things they do are pretty similar.

Including interim guys, you've had five head coaches over your college career. That's unprecedented at Penn State. What kind of adjustment has that been, and is there any good that comes from having that many coaches?

BB: The good coming from it is, if you think about all the guys from our team, everyone wants to take the step to the next level. And we learned a lot of systems, and the systems we learned can help us at the next level. And with the coaching situation, it's just something we have to deal with. It's not something we asked for, but we had a chance to play under a few different guys and every time it was different. There was nothing, like, terrible to come out of it. It was just a learning experience.

One player who's been alongside you for the entire ride is Zwinak. What's your relationship like off the field, and what's it been like splitting carries with one another? Last season, you had 36 carries against Illinois and then seven the week after.

BB: We have a good relationship off the field. It's basically the same thing -- we're total opposites, but sometimes opposites get along. And that's what it's been like. We have fun with each other, and we compete with each other. But, at the end of the day, we both know we're going to need each other. I'm going to feed off him, and he's going to feed off me.

When one guy gets going, we support. It's not something like, 'I'm against you and you're against me.' At the end of the day, we're on the same team and we're all trying to accomplish the same thing.

Final question. Franklin likes the Wildcat. You were an all-state high school quarterback. So, I'm curious -- any chance we see you throwing the ball a little, or at least lining up at quarterback for a few plays?

BB: I don't know, I don't know. Maybe. I don't know. We'll just have to wait and see. [Laughs]
Allen Robinson, Chris BorlandAP Photo, Getty ImagesProductions isn't a question when looking at Penn State's Allen Robinson and Wisconsin's Chris Borland.

Big Ten bloggers Adam Rittenberg and Brian Bennett occasionally will give their takes on a burning question facing the league. We'll both have strong opinions, but not necessarily the same view. We'll let you decide which blogger is right.

The 2014 NFL draft is rapidly approaching, and we have some thoughts on the Big Ten's draft class. We each weighed in on the league's top future pro earlier this week. Today's Take Two topic: Who will be the Big Ten's top draft sleeper this year?

Take 1: Adam Rittenberg

It's weird to describe Allen Robinson as a sleeper, as the Penn State product won the Big Ten's Richter-Howard Receiver of the Year award both in 2012 and 2013. But this year's draft is loaded at wideout, and some have questioned Robinson's decision to skip his final college season and turn pro. His speed could be an issue for some NFL teams, and he's projected in the second or third round. If he falls to the third round, he would be a major steal.

I like three things about Robinson:

  • He was extremely productive at Penn State despite working with two different quarterbacks, an unheralded senior in Matt McGloin and a decorated true freshman in Christian Hackenberg. He recorded 174 receptions and 17 touchdowns the last two seasons
  • He excelled in an NFL-style offense with former Penn State coach Bill O'Brien, now with the Houston Texans
  • He's very effective in the red zone and can make tough catches, like this one against Michigan last year. He's not afraid of traffic and can find space to make plays where there isn't much real estate.

Other receivers might have better measurables, but Robinson has gotten it done between the lines. He'll be a good pro receiver.

Take 2: Brian Bennett

I'm going to choose another player who really shouldn't be considered a sleeper: Wisconsin's Chris Borland. Big Ten fans know all about Borland, as he spent a long and productive career making big plays at linebacker for the Badgers, winning league defensive player of the year honors last year.

Many scouts who came through Madison and who have watched his game film say Borland deserves to be a first-rounder. But it's highly unlikely he'll go that high, and I've seen him projected some places in the third round or lower. The problems, for some, begin with the measurables. Borland stands only 5-foot-11. He ran a subpar 4.83 40-second draft at the NFL combine. He has short arms and a shoulder that has gone under the knife twice.

But Borland has never been a conventional-looking player, and you can't measure the size of his passion or understanding of the game. He's an outstanding all-around athlete who shouldn't be judged on the basis of some workout runs but rather what he does on the field. My biggest concern with Borland is that his body won't be able to withstand the rigors of the NFL. But if he can stay healthy, I have no doubt he'll be a terrific pro and a valuable addition to somebody's team -- perhaps at a real bargain price.
The Big Ten is rich and getting richer in the coming years. So how is the investment translating with football programs?

Not surprisingly, recruiting expenses are on the rise throughout the league. The (Cedar Rapids) Gazette's Scott Dochterman recently outlined Big Ten recruiting costs for the last three fiscal years, which shows that the league's 11 publics schools spent $6.47 million in recruiting in FY 2013, up from $4.1 million in FY 2011. Northwestern, a private institution, does not have to publicly report its expenses.

What stands out about these numbers?
  • Nebraska has spent more on recruiting than any Big Ten team in the past two seasons: $818,509 in 2013 and $752,681 in 2012. Bo Pelini's program is trying to boost its presence in Big Ten territory, maintain a presence in Texas and California, and scoop up prospects from the fertile Southeast. That costs money, and Nebraska's geography doesn't help.
  • Illinois is second in recruiting expenses for the second consecutive year, devoting $791,972 in FY 2013. I'll say this for Illinois: It invests enough in football. The program shelled out for former coordinators Paul Petrino and Vic Koenning. Tim Beckman shouldn't complain about his recruiting budget. But the investment needs to start showing returns very soon.
  • If asked which Big Ten school spends the least on recruiting, few folks likely would select Wisconsin. Like Nebraska, Wisconsin faces geographical challenges in recruiting and, under former coach Bret Bielema, ramped up its efforts in Florida for players such as James White and Aaron Henry. But these numbers show Wisconsin spent by far the least on recruiting in FY 2013 ($256,967) and, unlike other Big Ten programs, hasn't had dramatic increases the past two years. Assistant salaries were an issue for Bielema, who lost quite a few top aides in his final two seasons. I wonder how the recruiting budget impacted his decision to leave for Arkansas, and how the investment could change for coach Gary Andersen.
  • Penn State has had the biggest increases in recruiting investment, going from $258,800 in FY 2011 -- the second-lowest total in the league -- to $443,022 in FY 2012 and then to $736,739 in FY 2013, the third-highest total in the league. The program spent much more under Bill O'Brien than it did during the end of the Joe Paterno era, and the investment should continue to increase under James Franklin, one of the more aggressive recruiters in the country.
  • Although Ohio State spent about $200,000 more on recruiting in FY 2013 than FY 2012, the Buckeyes are in the bottom half of the league in expenses. Geography is a big reason, as they don't have to travel nearly as far as other league programs to scout some of the top players in the Big Ten region.
  • It's interesting that Michigan's recruiting costs actually went down from FY 2011 to FY 2012 before going up to $664,492 in FY 2013. The Wolverines signed top-10 recruiting classes in 2012 and 2013.

A lot of interesting numbers here. Recruiting costs will continue to rise around the FBS, and it will be interesting to see which Big Ten teams invest more in non-coaching, recruiting-specific staff. Programs in other leagues -- cough, SEC, cough -- have been on hiring sprees, causing a lot of national discussion about limiting staff size.

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. – James Franklin kept many of his skill players off the field for most of Penn State's annual scrimmage, but there were certainly still other aspects to glean from the game.

Christian Hackenberg played in just three series, and Michael O’Connor took over for the rest of the game for the Blue team. Blue, which consisted mostly of starters, ended up with the 37-0 victory -- some players even tugged the victory bell -- as we learned a few more things about the Nittany Lions:

[+] EnlargeDe'Andre Thompkins
AP Photo/Keith SrakocicPenn State freshman De'Andre Thompkins caught one pass and had a 22-yard rush in the spring game.
1. This is an offense that’s willing to do different things. Bill O’Brien hated the Wildcat. Absolutely loathed it. But fans were treated to quite a bit of it Saturday afternoon. The direct snaps to the tailback actually seemed the most effective, as the longest run in the first quarter -- a 19-yard run by Cole Chiappialle -- came from that formation. Franklin was asked whether he had a new, catchy name for the formation. “Yeah, I think we’re going to go with,” he said, pausing slightly for dramatic effect, “Wildcat.”

In the game’s longest play, wideout Geno Lewis took a reverse and threw a ball to a wide-open Matt Zanellato, who sprinted in untouched for a 56-yard touchdown. Lewis said they didn’t run the play once in practice. But Franklin didn’t mind calling Lewis’ name out of the blue -- and Lewis didn’t mind much, either.

2. The offensive line could really be in trouble. Penn State implemented a running clock from the second quarter on, but the gray-jerseyed offensive line gave up nine sacks. The running game also had trouble taking off in the beginning, as both the Blue and White teams combined for 21 yards on their first 16 carries. At one point, Penn State had 12 completions to 10 punts. And it was 0-for-12 on the first dozen third-down attempts. They fared better in the second half, but there was obviously still cause for concern.

Center Wendy Laurent went down with an injury in the second quarter and did not re-enter the game. The severity of Laurent’s injury is unknown and, with Franklin’s policy to not discuss injuries, clarity probably won’t be lended to the situation anytime soon. Offensive guard Anthony Alosi, who is facing criminal charges, is also "suspended indefinitely," according to Franklin.

3. Penn State could utilize more nickel this season. Minutes after the game, Franklin said the Nittany Lions could often operate under a “star” defense, which is similar to the nickel. Basically, he wants to use two true linebackers and a “big safety.” It’s something Franklin said he and the staff are going to evaluate over the offseason -- and that might be a reason why Von Walker moved to linebacker this spring. Walker could earn a role there, possibly as a backup, and he made a nice play in the third quarter by tipping a pass and then making a critical block once it was intercepted.

Defensive line coach Sean Spencer previously said the defense could use some four-DE looks this season, so fans could see some unique things on this unit. Overall, the defense appears to be in good shape. Franklin praised the defensive line several times this spring, and he said Saturday that it’s certainly a little ahead of the offense right now.

4. Kicking game still needs some work. Sam Ficken missed an extra point and Chris Gulla averaged just 39.2 yards a punt on a dozen punts. Assistant Charles Huff said the return game has shown a lot of improvement since the spring, but that was one area that wasn’t showcased Saturday. During punts, for example, the entire return team consisted of just one player making a fair catch. Penn State’s special teams should still be improved from last season, as there’s nowhere to really go but up. Huff wasn’t sure what happened on the missed extra point. Regardless, the kicking game obviously needs to show consistency.
Head coaches from the Big Ten East Division, along with a player from each team, addressed the media this afternoon on teleconferences. The West Division players and coaches spoke Wednesday.

Here's a closer look at the East:

INDIANA
  • Defense has been a lingering Indiana concern for years, but coach Kevin Wilson believes he's starting to see a change, thanks to new defensive coordinator Brian Knorr. The scheme hasn't changed radically, but the Hoosiers return 10 starters there -- and Wilson's seen a promising spring so far with an added focus on competition and communication: "They've for sure held their own on a daily basis -- and, in some ways, probably even better -- against the offense."
  • Wilson believes teams need to invest scholarships into the kicking game, but he thinks it's also too risky to offer recruits straight out of high school. If you look at the NCAA's top 25 kickers, Wilson estimated at least 15 started out as walk-ons. So he's hoping to find some walk-ons who are willing to work for a scholarship, rather than be granted one right away.
  • At 5-foot-7, Shane Wynn is the Hoosiers' leading returning receiver, and he's transitioning to playing the outside. It's been a little different for Wynn, who said he's had to watch more film as a result. He's reading the corners now, instead of the safeties, as just one example.
MARYLAND
  • Maryland coach Randy Edsall is confident in his offense and believes the Terrapins have enough options so that opponents can't focus on just one person. If defenses lock on to wideout Stefon Diggs, then quarterback C.J. Brown can take off running or receiver Deon Long can pick up some slack. "The No. 1 thing I do like," Edsall said, "is we can spread the field."
  • Maryland's staff has already started looking at film of Big Ten teams, so they know what to expect when the conference season begins. Edsall said he wants to at least get a feel for their personnel and what kind of schemes he'll face. He's also confident the Terps will be ready: "We fully expect to be able to compete when we get into the Big Ten this year."
  • Brown said one of the main reasons he committed to Maryland was the coach who recruited him at the time, former Terps assistant and current Penn State coach James Franklin. He's looking forward to squaring off against Franklin this season, and Edsall said there's no question he would like to develop a rivalry with the Nittany Lions.
MICHIGAN
  • The quarterback derby will continue, and Brady Hoke included all three of his options in the discussion heading into the offseason. The Wolverines coach did acknowledge, though, that Devin Gardner “probably would be” the starter if there was a game on the schedule this weekend. There isn’t, so Shane Morris and Wilton Speight will continue to be in the conversation.
  • The first opponent on the schedule will always stir emotions for Michigan fans, but Hoke didn’t attach any revenge or sentimentality to his reasons for wanting to take on Appalachian State in the opener this fall. “We needed a game,” Hoke said. “I thought it would be a good game.” Defensive end Frank Clark was certainly aware of the history between the programs, even though he was still years away from joining Michigan and getting a shot at making up for the upset loss in 2007 -- which he called “shocking” and “shows how hard those guys play.”
MICHIGAN STATE
  • Michigan State is coming off a Rose Bowl victory, but coach Mark Dantonio and quarterback Connor Cook would prefer not to think about that any longer. Dantonio said they've talked a lot these last four months about not growing complacent, and Cook only echoed his coach. "A lot of people keep bringing up the Rose Bowl," Cook said. "But we're past that. We're focusing on the now."
  • The offensive line has made some big strides since January, at least according to Cook. He felt like he had no time in the pocket last spring and said the pass rush was getting to him every time. This spring? He doesn't feel rushed in the pocket, and he thinks that's pretty indicative of how far this line has come.
  • Jeremy Langford earned a lot of praise from Cook, who said the running back has become a much bigger part of the passing attack. "He's improved a lot with catching the ball," Cook said, complimenting Langford's versatility. "He's done so many different things for us."
OHIO STATE
  • There is still work to be done in addressing the most glaring weakness on the team last season, but Urban Meyer called Ohio State’s pass defense “drastically improved” and will be watching closely for more signs of progress in Saturday’s spring game. The Buckeyes will play a traditional game, but the emphasis will be on throwing the football and assessing the skill players on both offense and defense -- giving Meyer a chance to evaluate backup quarterback Cardale Jones in a live setting in addition to checking out the secondary.
  • Arguably the strongest part of last season's team is undergoing a transition without four senior starters, and the offensive line is somewhat of a concern for Meyer heading into the offseason. With guard Pat Elflein the only other player to have earned a first-team slot to play alongside junior Taylor Decker at this point, that competition is likely to spill over into preseason camp in August. Both tackle Darryl Baldwin and guard Antonio Underwood were praised for their work by defensive tackle Michael Bennett, and Billy Price and Jacoby Boren are dueling at center.
PENN STATE
  • Franklin said he knew exactly what he was getting into at Penn State, in terms of the current depth and sanctions. He and former coach Bill O'Brien worked together at Maryland, and he said the two had a lot of honest conversations about the current state of the Nittany Lions. The two have continued to talk since.
  • Derek Dowrey and Brian Gaia are both making transitions from defensive tackle to offensive guard, and Franklin said he has been pleased with their performances so far: "They're doing a good job for us -- and they have to. We're thin at that position."
  • Franklin said he feels especially comfortable with the talent at running back and defensive line. Middle linebacker Mike Hull was more specific about naming the players who impressed him, pointing to backup linebacker Gary Wooten and cornerback Da'Quan Davis. Hull said Wooten is always around the football and that Davis, who missed part of the spring with a hamstring injury, has come up with several interceptions.
RUTGERS
  • Another open competition at the most critical position on the field -- quarterback -- is still playing out at Rutgers, and coach Kyle Flood isn’t ready to declare a winner in what would seem to be a wide-open battle. Flood indicated that Gary Nova, Mike Bimonte and Chris Laviano are all “really vying for that first-team job.”
  • The change in conference affiliation has been welcomed with open arms by the Scarlet Knights, who can “feel the energy” as theypractice for their first season in the Big Ten. Defensive tackle Darius Hamilton said the team was already buzzing with excitement about the opportunity, and Flood called joining the league a “positive in every way.” The move also presents the opportunity for a rivalry to develop with new divisional neighbor Penn State, with both Flood and Hamilton citing the proximity between the schools as a bonus.

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- The young and curious are approaching Christian Hackenberg more often these days, peppering the Penn State quarterback with questions about game speed and other topics.

It will slow down, Hackenberg tells his teammates. Just keep working. Everything's going to be alright.

Hackenberg is the reigning Big Ten Freshman of the Year. He's in the spring semester of his freshman year. He celebrated his 19th birthday on Valentine's Day.

He's also a graybeard at Penn State, as crazy as it sounds.

"The guys look at me as one of the older guys, especially the early enrollees," Hackenberg told ESPN.com on Wednesday. "'I still look at myself as the just-turned-19-year-old freshman."

[+] EnlargeChristian Hackenberg
Dan Sanger/Icon SMIEven though he's merely a rising sophomore, Christian Hackenberg has become a player that his younger Penn State teammates look up to.
That a Penn State quarterback going through his first spring practice -- remember, Hackenberg was in high school at this time last year -- could be labeled an old guy seemed laughable not long ago. In 2010, Rob Bolden became the first true freshman quarterback at Penn State to start the season opener since Shorty Miller in 1910. Future Nittany Lions coach Rip Engle was four years old at the time. Joe Paterno wouldn't be born for another 16 years.

Now the Lions have had two freshman opening-game starters in four seasons. Hackenberg's accelerated ascent isn't a huge surprise given the hype that surrounded him in high school. Anyone who watched him last season, especially in his final performance in an upset win at Wisconsin on the Badgers' senior day (339 pass yards, 4 TDs, 0 INTs), knew he was no ordinary freshman.

But after starting all 12 games for the Lions in 2013, Hackenberg has both the credentials and the credibility to claim a larger leadership role in an offense facing significant depth challenges along the line and at wide receiver.

"It's tough to try and claim that as a sophomore, but I'm one of the most experienced guys returning on this offense," said Hackenberg, who passed for 2,955 yards with 20 touchdowns and 10 interceptions last fall. "What I went through last year has prepared me to be able to step into that role more than if I would not have played or just played a little bit.

"I'm trying to be a leader through my actions."

His actions this spring include absorbing a new offense described as personnel-driven, pro-style. There are similarities to the system Hackenberg operated under former coach Bill O'Brien, especially the protections and some terminology.

But there's also a lot to learn.

"Some games we may come out in heavy tight end sets, some games we might come out in empty sets," Hackenberg said. "It's more multiple."

Hackenberg boasts the strongest arm in the Big Ten and is lauded for being able to make just about any throw. But it's the simple throws -- the underneath routes, which he "babied" at times last season, or the comeback routes -- where he wants greater consistency.

The 6-foot-4, 220-pound sophomore-to-be has formed a quick connection with new Lions offensive coordinator John Donovan, whose approach reminds him of O'Brien's. Hackenberg also has been in touch with quarterback guru George Whitfield Jr., with whom he worked at the Elite 11 high school camp. Whitfield has tutored other Big Ten quarterbacks such as Michigan State's Connor Cook and Ohio State's Braxton Miller in the offseason.

Nothing is set yet, but if Hackenberg seeks outside assistance, he'd pick Whitfield.

"He's worked with the best of the best the past couple years coming out," Hackenberg said, "so being able to get comparisons to that and see what they did to prepare, that would be good."

Hackenberg also must vary his targets in 2014. Wide receiver Allen Robinson, who had more than three times as many receptions (97) as any other Penn State player last season, is preparing for the NFL draft. There are capable options like tight end Jesse James, who shined during Wednesday's practice, as well as tight ends Kyle Carter and Adam Breneman and wideout Geno Lewis, but none likely can come close to Robinson's production.

"Allen was a guy I really leaned on because I honestly didn't know what to expect a lot of the times last year," Hackenberg said. "I was seeing things for the first time -- going to the Horseshoe for the first time, going against Ohio State’s defense for the first time, seeing Michigan here in a whiteout for the first time. So when you're in those situations, you tend to lean on guys you’ve worked with, and Allen and I worked really hard in the summer together.

"Now I look at myself as filling in Allen's shoes because we have a lot of guys coming in. I just want to be a guy who can help put those guys in situations to succeed. I really want to spread the ball around this year."

New PSU coach James Franklin sees Hackenberg as a smart, demanding player who brings more athleticism to the field that many believe. Hackenberg clocked a 4.7 in the 40-yard dash during Penn State's recent testing.

Franklin and his staff face plenty of challenges on offense, primarily a line with glaring experience and depth issues. But the Lions undoubtedly have their centerpiece.

"He's got a chance to be a special player," Franklin said of Hackenberg. "We're just going to have to keep developing him here over the next three years."

Phase 2 begins this fall.

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