Big Ten: Deion Barnes

The list of invitees to the 2015 NFL scouting combine is now official. Players and personnel evaluators descend on Indianapolis from Feb. 17-23, and 38 Big Ten players will make the trip.

Here's a position-by-position look:

Quarterbacks (0)

Running backs (5): Ameer Abdullah, Nebraska; David Cobb, Minnesota; Tevin Coleman, Indiana; Melvin Gordon, Wisconsin; Jeremy Langford, Michigan State

Fullbacks (1): Michael Burton, Rutgers

Wide receivers (6): Kenny Bell, Nebraska; Stefon Diggs, Maryland; Devin Funchess, Michigan; Tony Lippett, Michigan State; Deon Long, Maryland; Keith Mumphery, Michigan State; Devin Smith, Ohio State

Tight ends (4): Jeff Heuerman, Ohio State; Jesse James, Penn State; Tyler Kroft, Rutgers; Maxx Williams, Minnesota

Offensive line (4): Andrew Donnal, Iowa; Rob Havenstein, Wisconsin; Brandon Scherff, Iowa; Donovan Smith, Penn State

Defensive line (7): Michael Bennett, Ohio State; Frank Clark, Michigan; Carl Davis, Iowa; Randy Gregory, Nebraska; Bobby Richardson, Indiana; Ryan Russell, Purdue; Louis Trinca-Pasat, Iowa

Linebacker (5): Yannik Cudjoe-Virgil, Maryland; Mike Hull, Penn State; Taiwan Jones, Michigan State; Jake Ryan, Michigan; Damien Wilson, Minnesota

Cornerback (2): Doran Grant, Ohio State; Trae Waynes, Michigan State

Safety (3): Adrian Amos, Penn State; Ibraheim Campbell, Northwestern; Kurtis Drummond, Michigan State

Specialists (1): Sam Ficken, Penn State

A few notes and thoughts ...
  • Michigan State leads all Big Ten teams with six players going to the combine, followed by Penn State with five and both Iowa and Ohio State with four. Illinois is the only Big Ten team not represented at the combine, a departure from the Ron Zook era when the Illini produced more NFL prospects than any Big Ten squad.
  • Penn State defensive end Deion Barnes didn't receive an invite despite skipping his senior season to enter the draft, a decision that surprised many at the time.
  • Some players I expected to see on the list but aren't include: Michigan State defensive end Marcus Rush, Michigan wide receiver Devin Gardner, Wisconsin guard Kyle Costigan, Michigan State punter Mike Sadler and Wisconsin defensive tackle Warren Herring.
  • Defensive line continues to be the Big Ten's strongest position group. Gregory, a potential top-5 pick, headlines the list of combine invitees. Clark will face a rigorous interview process after his domestic violence arrest in November. Clark has a pretrial hearing scheduled for Feb. 20, right in the middle of the combine.
  • Some will point to no quarterback invitations as a continued stain on the Big Ten, which hasn't had a quarterback drafted in the first round since Kerry Collins in 1995. But the league would have had multiple selections if Michigan State's Connor Cook and Ohio State's Cardale Jones had opted to leave school. The Big Ten should have several quarterback draft prospects in 2016.
  • It's a good sign to see so many Big Ten wide receivers -- and four tight ends -- heading to Indianapolis. Wide receiver in particular had been a huge weakness around the league not long ago.

Offseason to-do list: Penn State

January, 22, 2015
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We speed along in our look around the Big Ten at three items each program must address in the months ahead. Up next is the Penn State Nittany Lions:

Get the man some protection: We all know Christian Hackenberg can throw the football. Despite the struggles of the Penn State offense in 2014, he still accumulated 2,977 passing yards, a sophomore record at PSU, and enjoyed several nice late-game moments. But Hackenberg could not operate consistently with defenders in his face. He was sacked 44 times -- more than every FBS quarterback but Wake Forest’s John Wolford. Hackenberg's QBR of 35.4 ranked last in the Big Ten. Penn State loses left tackle Donovan Smith, who declared early for the NFL, and left guard Miles Dieffenbach, not to mention talented tight end Jesse James. Others on the line are back, led by Angelo Mangiro, Brian Gaia, and Andrew Nelson, plus a group of talented redshirts, juco transfer Paris Palmer, and touted early-enrolling, 6-foot-8 freshman Sterling Jenkins. Somewhere in that group, Penn State needs to find a five-man unit to protect Hackenberg. It also must likely refine the offense to help Hackenberg deliver the ball more quickly to his playmakers.

Replace Mike Hull: Hull, who led the Big Ten with 140 tackles, was more than a physical presence on the top-rated defense in the league. He was the emotional leader as a veteran player who endured the worst of the NCAA-imposed sanctions, two coaching changes, and the return to postseason eligibility in 2014. The Nittany Lions must also replace Deion Barnes up front, but Anthony Zettel looks equipped to take on an even larger role after breaking out as a junior on the interior. With seven starters back, including the likes of tackle Austin Johnson, linebacker Brandon Bell, and a secondary that looks like one of the best in the Big Ten, talent on defense is not a problem. Depth is also returning. But the absence of Hull’s leadership cannot be underestimated. The offseason marks an important time to find candidates ready to fill his shoes.

Restore the swagger: The specter of the NCAA is largely gone. The adjustment period for coach James Franklin and his staff is over. Penn State is ready to brush aside distractions and focus on its return to prominence -- and not a moment too soon, as the East Division looks ready to take a major step forward in the wake of Ohio State's national title and the hiring at Michigan of Jim Harbaugh. Franklin is a star in the recruiting arena. His staff, led by defensive coordinator Bob Shoop and his glitzy, new contract, is highly regarded. Young stars like DaeSean Hamilton appear ready to help carry Penn State to the next level. Where that is -- and how soon it gets there -- we will begin to learn in 2015.
Eleven players from nine different Big Ten schools decided to leave a year of college eligibility on the table and enter the NFL draft this spring. There were also some notable decisions accompanied by news conferences and surprise announcements to stay put for at least one more season.

With the window for underclassmen to declare for the NFL draft officially closed (those that did decide to make the jump can still change their minds over the weekend), it’s time to sort through which teams lost the most and which teams can declare victory.

Winners
1. Ohio State
Many of the players who led the Buckeyes to a national title this season are too young to consider NFL riches this year. Ohio State didn’t have a single player with college eligibility remaining declare for the draft this year. The three players that passed up a safe bet to be drafted are Taylor Decker, the cornerstone of a much improved offensive line; defensive lineman Adolphus Washington; and, of course, quarterback Cardale Jones, who held a news conference Thursday afternoon to announce that he would be coming back to finish his degree in Columbus.

The return of that trio ensures that Ohio State will once again be intimidating in the trenches and equipped with unprecedented depth at the quarterback position. Jones will battle with J.T. Barrett and Braxton Miller, who was also eligible to enter the draft, for a starting spot in the fall. Urban Meyer will have a hard time duplicating this retention rate in the next couple of years, but having zero early draft entrants on a national championship team bodes well for the Buckeyes’ immediate future.

2. Michigan State
Before Jones declared his intentions to return, Michigan State was in the running for the best in-house recruiting job of the year. Top players on both sides of the ball, quarterback Connor Cook and defensive end Shilique Calhoun, return to give the Spartans a legitimate shot at a third straight top-5 finish.

Cook can bring consistency to an offense that loses its top rusher and its top receiver this season. Calhoun helps to offset the loss of fellow defensive end Marcus Rush. Their production and leadership should give a new crop of players time to get acclimated. Michigan State will have to replace its No. 1 cornerback in Trae Waynes, who opted to jump to the NFL. Waynes may be the first cornerback taken in draft. He leaves the Spartans with a hole to fill in a crucial position on defense.

3. Rutgers
Beyond the top two programs in the conference, the Scarlet Knights were the only team to retain a sure-thing draft pick in wide receiver Leonte Carroo. As a junior, Carroo led the nation with 19.7 yards per catch and led his team with 10 receiving touchdowns. His decision to stay is even more of a coup when considering that quarterback Gary Nova, who has been throwing passes to Carroo since their high school days at Don Bosco Prep, graduated at the end of the 2014 season.

Carroo will be an important security blanket for whoever takes Nova’s place, especially since tight end Tyler Kroft opted to leave school after his junior season. Kroft caught only 24 passes for 269 yards this season, but his 6-foot-6, 240-pound frame will be missed in Piscataway.

Losers
1. Penn State
The Nittany Lions are sending three underclassmen to the draft this year. No other school in the conference has more than one player leaving early. Tight end Jesse James, defensive end Deion Barnes and offensive tackle Donovan Smith all declared for the draft this year.

Barnes, a Big Ten honorable mention pick, made 12.5 tackles for loss and six sacks this season as a leader of one of the conference’s best front-seven units. James (6-foot-7, 254 pounds) has NFL size, but still ranks behind Kroft and Minnesota’s Maxx Williams as a draft prospect. Smith was easily Penn State’s most experienced offensive lineman. Attrition is to be expected during a coaching change, but James Franklin’s team lost more experience in key areas than any other program in the Big Ten this year.

2. Indiana
While not nearly as surprising as some of Penn State’s departures, the loss of Tevin Coleman at Indiana will be hard to weather. Coleman ran for 2,036 yards against defenses that didn’t need to worry about a passing attack for most of the season. Wisconsin’s Melvin Gordon edged Coleman on the postseason award circuit, but few players were more essential to their teams this season than the Hoosiers’ junior running back.

No one else on the roster was a serious candidate to leave for the next level. No one in Bloomington will begrudge Coleman for moving on. Nonetheless, his absence will be felt at Indiana next season.

3. Nebraska
Nebraska defensive end Randy Gregory is expected to be the first Big Ten player off the draft board this season. He's a top-5 pick, according to Mel Kiper's first mock draft this week. While his leap to the NFL appears to be a smart move, he will be missed as a pass-rusher in Lincoln.

Gregory dropped off slightly this season on the stat sheet after winning the Cornhuskers' defensive MVP award as a sophomore. Most of that decline can be attributed to the extra attention he received from opposing offenses all year. He finished the season with seven sacks and 10 tackles for loss. The return of defensive tackle Maliek Collins and defensive end Greg McMullen (both will be juniors in 2015) gives Nebraska experience on the line and helps soften the blow of Gregory's exit.

4. Wisconsin, Michigan, Minnesota, Maryland
All four of these schools will lose their most talented player a year early. Wisconsin has the most production to replace with Gordon, but also is in the best shape to replace him with a sturdy offensive line and experienced backup in Corey Clement. Devin Funchess from Michigan has great size but was underwhelming during a down year for the Wolverines. After catching three touchdown passes in the first half of the season opener, Funchess scored only once more the rest of the season. Minnesota and Maryland lose their best receivers too -- Maxx Williams and Stefon Diggs, respectively -- but neither was tied inextricably to his team’s ability to move the ball like Coleman or Gordon were during the past season.

Big Ten morning links

January, 6, 2015
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The list of surprise contributors on Ohio State’s run to a potential national title just keeps growing.

Does Urban Meyer have any more aces up his sleeve for Oregon in the College Football Playoff National Championship Presented By AT&T?

Steve Miller became the latest stunner after the defensive end returned an interception for a touchdown in the win over Alabama, which came shortly after wide receiver Evan Spencer put his name down under two separate categories with unexpected depth -- “unlikely hero” and “passer with a touchdown.” Given the amount of players the Buckeyes have trusted in big moments and had deliver, maybe it’s time to start giving them more credit for depth than they’ve been receiving.

There has been no questioning the impact Meyer has had as a recruiter, but typically the conversation about Ohio State’s legitimacy as a contender compared to, for example, an SEC program came down to the fact that it wasn’t fully stocked and reloaded at every position. And maybe there’s some truth to that at a position such as linebacker or the second-team offensive line.

But every time the Buckeyes have needed somebody to step up and fill a void this season, it has happened -- and not just at quarterback. There was a seamless transition from Dontre Wilson to Jalin Marshall at H-back in November. Miller and Rashad Frazier had already been serviceable at defensive end in place of Noah Spence before Miller's score in the Allstate Sugar Bowl. After Rod Smith was dismissed, the Buckeyes still had Curtis Samuel ready in reserve.

So who else is ready to make a splash when Ohio State has to have it? One potential option: Freshman linebacker Raekwon McMillan's name was nowhere to be found in the box score against Alabama, and the Buckeyes may need all hands on deck against Oregon’s offense.

More national championship chatter
Leaving the Valley: With another Penn State player bypassing eligibility and jumping to the NFL Draft, it might be time now to wonder just a bit about what exactly is causing Jesse James, Deion Barnes and Donovan Smith to take early exits from the program. Players always have different motivations, and coaches certainly do as well, so perhaps any sort of speculation is unfair and maybe it’s merely a coincidence that the Nittany Lions are losing three players who aren't early round slam dunks -- with neither Barnes nor Smith even have draft grades from ESPN.com at this point. That made it surprising when they made themselves available for selection, though James might make more sense because he's regarded higher as a prospect. But whether or not they become pros next spring, this certainly looks like a negative at this point from the outside looking in at the program, if for no other reason than an already thin roster is losing experienced veterans.

Around the Big Ten
Underclassmen still have until Jan. 15 to decide whether to declare for the NFL draft. But, in the meantime, we decided to take a look at those who already made their decisions public.

Here are the 11 Big Ten players (listed alphabetically) leaving early, their draft rankings and who's in line to replace them:

Penn State DE Deion Barnes, 6-foot-4, 255 pounds

2014 stats: 44 tackles, 12.5 tackles-for-loss, 6 sacks, 3 QB hurries

ESPN.com Draft Overall Rank: N/A

ESPN.com Draft Position Rank: N/A. There are not yet any ESPN grades on him, but he’s not believed to be a top-10 defensive end. One NFL.com contributor said he could go “as early as the second day of the draft” – if he impresses at pro day or the combine.

Who’s taking over: With DE C.J. Olaniyan also entering the draft, Penn State will likely fill one spot with Garrett Sickels. The other? Former walk-on Carl Nassib and freshman Torrence Brown are the most likely candidates at this point.




Indiana RB Tevin Coleman, 6-foot, 210 pounds

2014 stats: 270 carries, 2,036 rushing yards, 7.5 ypc, 15 TDs; 25 catches, 141 yards

ESPN.com Draft Overall Rank: No. 36. “Runs hard and doesn’t shy away from contact along sidelines. … Rarely tackled for loss thanks in large part to burst.”

ESPN.com Draft Position Rank: No. 3.

Who’s taking over: Former UAB running back Jordan Howard recently decided to transfer to Indiana, in part because of Coleman’s decision to declare early. He’ll likely be the starter. He rushed for 1,587 yards as a sophomore in 2014.




Maryland WR Stefon Diggs, 6-foot, 195 pounds

2014 stats: 62 catches, 792 yards, 5 TDs

ESPN.com Draft Overall Rank: No. 78. “Zone buster that locates pockets underneath and uses speed to attack seams downfield. … Good focus and catches ball in stride.”

ESPN.com Draft Position Rank: No. 15.

Who’s taking over: With the graduation of Deon Long, Marcus Leak and Jacquille Veii are in line to be the top-two wideouts. The pair also could be challenged by younger players such as Levern Jacobs, Taivon Jacobs and Juwann Winfree.




Michigan WR Devin Funchess, 6-5, 235 pounds

2014 stats: 62 catches, 733 yards, 4 TDs

ESPN.com Draft Overall Rank: No. 20. “Quick enough to separate from most linebackers and some safeties. ... Can extend and catch away from frame.”

ESPN.com Draft Position Rank: No. 4.

Who’s taking over: Amara Darboh is the obvious candidate here, since his number was most often called in Funchess’ absence. He was second in both catches (36) and yards (473).




Wisconsin RB Melvin Gordon, 6-1, 207 pounds

2014 stats: 343 carries, 2,587 yards, 29 TDs, 7.5 ypc; 19 catches, 153 yards, 3 TDs

ESPN.com Draft Overall Rank: No. 16. “Fearless runner that doesn’t gear down or brace for contact. … Anticipation isn’t outstanding and misses occasional seam, but that is an exception … Violent jump cuts.”

ESPN.com Draft Position Rank: No. 1.

Who’s taking over: Corey Clement saw considerable time the past two seasons, so he’ll be taking over as the main ball-carrier. He finished 2014 with 949 yards and 9 TDs.




Nebraska DE Randy Gregory, 6-6, 245 pounds

2014 stats: 54 tackles, 10 tackles-for-loss, 7 sacks, 16 QB hurries, 2 blocked kicks

ESPN.com Draft Overall Rank: No. 5. “Above average first-step quickness, adequate bend and above average closing speed. … Best fit is 3-4 OLB … Can line up at 4-3 RDE but ideally he would add weight and get stronger first.”

ESPN.com Draft Position Rank: No. 3.

Who’s taking over: Former walk-on Jack Gangwish started when Gregory was injured this season, and he’ll be a senior next year. Gangwish finished with 19 tackles and four tackles-for-loss in 2014.




Rutgers TE Tyler Kroft, 6-6, 240 pounds

2014 stats: 24 catches, 269 yards, 0 TDs

ESPN.com Draft Overall Rank: N/A

ESPN.com Draft Position Rank: N/A. Mel Kiper listed him as the fifth-best tight end prospect in October, but Kroft does not yet have a new draft grade/ranking.

Who’s taking over: Nick Arcidiacono and Matt Flanagan both played behind Kroft in 2014, so they’re next in line. Flanagan played in nine games; Arcidiacono played in 10 (and started one). They finished with just one catch apiece.




Penn State OT Donovan Smith, 6-5, 340 pounds

2014 stats: 11 starts at left tackle

ESPN.com Draft Overall Rank: N/A. No ESPN grades/ranks yet on Smith here, but OurLads.com’s Dan Shonka recently told us Smith would likely be a late third- or fourth-rounder.

ESPN.com Draft Position Rank: N/A.

Who’s taking over: Right tackle Andrew Nelson could move over to left, meaning that junior-college signee Paris Palmer – the nation’s No. 25 overall juco player – would become the new starter on the line.




Ohio State DE Noah Spence, 6-3, 250 pounds

2014 stats: Did not play. He was suspended indefinitely after failing another drug test in September; his appeal was denied in November.

ESPN.com Draft Overall Rank: No. 92. No scouting report is available, but he’s listed as an outside linebacker for the NFL draft.

ESPN.com Draft Position Rank: No. 6 (at outside linebacker).

Who’s taking over: Well, in this case, someone already took over – and that’s senior Steve Miller. So far, he has 33 tackles and 6.5 tackles-for-loss this season. But he’ll be most remembered for a pick-6 against Alabama.




Michigan State CB Trae Waynes, 6-1, 182 pounds

2014 stats: 46 tackles, 2 tackles-for-loss, 3 interceptions, 8 pass breakups, 11 deflections

ESPN.com Draft Overall Rank: No. 22. “Above average field awareness. Shows strong eyes in zone coverage. … Above-average fluidity and balance with movement skills.”

ESPN.com Draft Position Rank: No. 1.

Who’s taking over: Safety Demetrious Cox could move to cornerback, or the position could be filled by Jermaine Edmondson, who backed up Waynes this past season. (Darian Hicks will likely reclaim his old spot at field corner.)




Minnesota TE Maxx Williams, 6-4, 250 pounds

2014 stats: 36 catches, 569 yards, 8 TDs

ESPN.com Draft Overall Rank: N/A. As a redshirt sophomore who recently declared, there are not yet any ESPN grades/rankings on him – but he’s right outside the top-32 overall players on at least one other analyst’s big board.

ESPN.com Draft Position Rank: N/A.

Who’s taking over: With the departure of fellow TE Drew Goodger, mostly a blocker, there’ll be several new faces vying for time. Lincoln Plsek played in every game and saw the most time this season while Duke Anyanwu, who missed the year with a torn ACL, could challenge for a spot. Brandon Lingen, Nick Hart and Nate Wozniak also could factor in.

Big Ten morning links

December, 31, 2014
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Enjoy the links -- and, from the Big Ten blog, enjoy New Year’s Eve!

1. SEC, Big 12 trash-talking the B1G: The conference seems to be getting it from every side this week, from both a Baylor defender and an Auburn running back. Bears defensive end Shawn Oakman told one TV station, “We don’t watch any Big Ten football. Why? It’s not interesting.” That obviously didn’t sit well with Michigan State. Quarterback Connor Cook replied, “He’ll see what Big Ten football is all about come Thursday.”

Auburn running back Cameron Artis-Payne also said he could rush for 2,000 yards in the Big Ten. “I still would’ve (liked to play) Illinois, Northwestern, Purdue, I mean it would’ve been great,” Artis-Payne said. He did face harder defenses than Melvin Gordon did this year, but both teams played LSU -- with Gordon finishing with 16 carries for 140 yards (8.8 ypc), compared to Artis-Payne’s 24 carries and 126 yards (5.3 ypc). The two were friendly at a bowling competition and Gordon didn’t seem bothered by the comments … but I imagine some Big Ten fans aren’t overly enamored. Artis-Payne boasts 1,482 rushing yards this season compared to Gordon's 2,336.

2. Just how badly U-M needed Jim Harbaugh: OK, it's no secret that Michigan needed a change. But the ESPN analytics staff tried to measure just what kind of decline the Wolverines were going through and the numbers -- specifically the strength of record (SOR), which looks at how hard it is to achieve a record given the schedule -- is pretty surprising. Under Brady Hoke, Michigan’s SOR got worse by at least 14 spots every season. It was 14th in 2011, 29th in 2012, 51st in 2013 and 71st in 2014. (This past season, Michigan was ranked 54th in SOR among the 65 Power 5 teams.)

Michigan’s offensive efficiency under Hoke followed a similar nosedive -- from 16th to 27th to 50th to 87th. In other words, the Harbaugh hire couldn’t have come soon enough for Michigan.

3. Declaring early: We already addressed Randy Gregory and his decision to enter the NFL draft. But two more Big Ten players also decided to follow suit Tuesday -- Rutgers tight end Tyler Kroft and Penn State defensive end Deion Barnes.

Kroft is listed as the No. 5 tight end in this draft, by ESPN.com’s Mel Kiper, and is 12 credits shy of graduating. Barnes is not listed as one of the top 10 DEs but graduated earlier this month. Kroft’s production fell this season with the emergence of Leonte Carroo, but he was still definitely valuable -- especially when it came to blocking. Barnes bounced back from a sophomore slump, and his departure hurts a PSU defensive line that now loses both ends.

Now, on to the links ...

East Division
West Division
  • Iowa right tackle Andrew Donnal may be playing under the shadow of left tackle Brandon Scherff, but Donnal could also have a bright NFL future.
  • Minnesota QB Mitch Leidner is his own worst critic, so he’s simply ignored any jabs on social media.
PISCATAWAY, N.J. -- Christian Hackenberg flexed like a prizefighter at midfield, tilted his head back and let out a scream as his sideline erupted into smiles and chest-bumps.

Penn State’s quarterback had just transformed Saturday night from a potentially historic one for Rutgers -- what could have been its first win in its first-ever Big Ten game -- into a footnote of his own, by leading his fourth career game-winning drive in a 13-10 win. His teammates couldn’t hide their relief or delight, either: Defensive end Deion Barnes turned to the crowd and waved good-bye, wideout DaeSean Hamilton flung his gloves into the front row, and linebacker Brandon Bell leaped around with a grin.

[+] EnlargeChristian Hackenberg
Jim O'Connor/USA TODAY SportsChristian Hackenberg led Penn State's late comeback win against Rutgers.
Maybe this is a rivalry; maybe not. But don’t say this wasn’t a big game -- and don’t think players didn’t take some things personally from this past week.

"I just felt they didn’t respect us," Bell, a New Jersey native, said matter-of-factly.

Added PSU tailback Bill Belton, also from New Jersey: "They asked for a big-time game, and they got one."

This was Rutgers’ chance at respect, for showing up that team from Pennsylvania and proving wrong the opposing fans who sneered at their (lack of) tradition. The importance of this game can’t be minimized; Rutgers wideout Leonte Carroo told the Asbury Park Press a win could "change New Jersey and Rutgers football forever."

Instead, the contest sold out in record time, but question marks are now swirling around whether quarterback Gary Nova should remain the starter after throwing five interceptions. Instead, the crowd set the school’s attendance record, but lingering Rutgers fans were forced to hear "We Are … Penn State!" chants after the final whistle. Instead of putting Rutgers atop the Big Ten East and halfway to bowl-eligibility, it’s more of the same for a team that boasts the hardest schedule in the conference.

"This hurts. It should hurt," Rutgers coach Kyle Flood said. "But I will not allow them to be defined by their losses."

Bass from the loudspeakers thumped so hard you couldn’t feel your own heartbeat, and the pageantry surrounding High Point Solutions Stadium served as the tinsel to what could have been an unprecedented Rutgers victory. One large, stenciled sign read, "Enemies of the State" and listed all the New Jersey natives on Penn State’s roster. (Bell said word of the sign made its way around the locker room before the game.) And Penn State coach James Franklin added that Rutgers fans greeted the Nittany Lions’ buses by waving their middle fingers.

There were plenty of similar ingredients here for a future rivalry -- disrespect, a close game, proximity -- but both teams walked off the field with completely different mindsets. Flood referred to this loss as "devastating," and Franklin summed everything up by saying he felt "really, really proud."

This could have been a dream start for Rutgers but, instead, it’s a dream one for Penn State. Several thousand PSU fans spilled into the street last Monday, some crowd-surfing on mattresses, after the NCAA announced this team was once again postseason-eligible. Now it’s nearly on the cusp of a bowl berth.

The Nittany Lions are playing for more than just dignity now, and Hackenberg and these Lions now stand -- improbably -- atop the Big Ten East. They are the only undefeated team in their division and just one of two undefeated teams left in the conference (Nebraska). If it wasn’t for that final touchdown against Rutgers, all that could have been flipped upside down. And Hackenberg and these Lions knew it.

Hackenberg seemed to exorcise all that emotion and those "what-ifs" with that one, long yell on the field. Once he reached the postgame media room, his demeanor had already reverted back to its normal, calm self. He spoke as if the game had ended days before; he didn't even so much as grin while recounting his game-winning drive that came about 30 minutes prior.

You ever take time to enjoy these wins, Christian? It seems like you always just talk about how you guys have a long way to go.

"It’s just one of those things, man. We do," he said, stone-faced. "Looking at that film after a win feels a lot better than looking back on that film after a loss. ...

"This is huge because a win’s a win’s a win. We’re 3-0 right now, and we’re confident. We haven’t played our best ball yet."
 

» More team previews: ACC | Big 12 | Big Ten | Pac-12 | SEC

Previewing the 2014 season for the Penn State Nittany Lions.

2013 overall record: 7-5 (4-4 Big Ten)

Key returnees: Christian Hackenberg, QB; Bill Belton, RB; Zach Zwinak, RB; Donovan Smith, OT; Jesse James, TE; Deion Barnes, DE; C.J. Olaniyan, DE; Mike Hull, LB; Adrian Amos, S; Jordan Lucas, CB

Key losses: Allen Robinson, WR; John Urschel, G; Ty Howle, C; Adam Gress, OT; DaQuan Jones, DT; Glenn Carson, LB; Malcolm Willis, S

Instant impact newcomer: The easy pick is at wide receiver, where Penn State needs help following the departure of Allen Robinson. The team signed several talented receivers in February, and Chris Godwin could be the best of the bunch. The 6-foot-2, 210-pound Godwin has the physical tools to contribute right away for PSU's offense. Also keep an eye on receivers De'Andre Thompkins and Saeed Blacknall.

Projected starters

[+] EnlargeChristian Hackenberg
AP Photo/Gene J PuskarQB Christian Hackenberg became the first sophomore ever to be named a captain at Penn State.
Offense: QB: Christian Hackenberg, Soph., 6-4, 234; RB: Bill Belton, Sr., 5-10, 204; WR: Geno Lewis, Soph., 6-1, 199; WR: DaeSean Hamilton, Fr., 6-1, 203; TE: Jesse James, Jr., 6-7, 254; TE: Kyle Carter, Jr., 6-3, 241; OT: Donovan Smith, Sr., 6-5, 335; OT: Andrew Nelson, Fr., 6-5, 305; G: Derek Dowrey, Soph., 6-3, 323; G: Brian Gaia, Soph., 6-3, 291; C: Angelo Mangiro, Jr., 6-3, 309

Defense: DE: Deion Barnes, Jr., 6-4, 255; DE: C.J. Olaniyan, Sr., 6-3, 252; DT: Austin Johnson, Soph., 6-4, 313; DT: Anthony Zettel, Jr., 6-4, 274; LB: Brandon Bell, Soph., 6-1, 222; LB: Mike Hull, Sr., 6-0, 232; LB: Nyeem Wartman, Soph., 6-1, 236; CB: Jordan Lucas, Jr., 6-0, 198; CB: Trevor Williams, Jr., 6-1, 188; S: Adrian Amos, Sr., 6-0, 209; S: Ryan Keiser, Sr., 6-1, 208

Specialists: K: Sam Ficken, Sr., 6-2, 186; P: Chris Gulla, Fr., 6-0, 193

Biggest question mark: Can assistant coach Herb Hand work his magic with the offensive line? The Lions likely will start two converted defensive linemen, Brian Gaia and Derek Dowrey, at the guard spots and a redshirt freshman (Andrew Nelson) at right tackle. Left tackle Donovan Smith will anchor the group and should contend for All-Big Ten honors, but Penn State is dangerously thin up front and can't afford to put Hackenberg in harm's way.

Most important game: Aug. 30 against UCF in Dublin (not the one in Ohio). There has been a lot of positive energy since James Franklin arrived in January, but the team remains somewhat of a mystery. Penn State could be a pleasant surprise or regress after the latest transition. It's important to start off well and build confidence in a setting where it matters. UCF isn't an easy draw as the Knights come off a Fiesta Bowl championship and bring back nine starters on defense. They were picked second in the American in the preseason media poll. This game really sets the tone for PSU.

Upset special: Nov. 29 against Michigan State. Unless the NCAA changes course on Penn State's ban, this will serve as the Lions' bowl game as they wrap up the season. Penn State has recorded very impressive wins against Wisconsin to finish each of the past two seasons, and Michigan State can expect the Lions' best shot at Beaver Stadium. A lot depends on PSU's health entering the game, but the Lions have a chance here.

Key stat: Penn State's Christian Hackenberg and Florida State's Jameis Winston, the Heisman Trophy winner, were the only FBS freshman to record 14 passes of 40 yards or longer in 2013.

What they're wearing: A smiling Franklin said last month on ESPN, "I've always been a big fan of what Oregon has done, and my time at Maryland, so I think we're going to do something similar to that. We're not going to do anything gradual. We're just going to go right after it." A complete makeover seems unlikely at Penn State, which cherishes its traditional blue-and-white look but put players' names on jerseys in each of the past two seasons.

Stay tuned.

Team's top Twitter follows: No Big Ten coaching staff embraces social media quite like Franklin (@coachjfranklin) and his assistants. Be sure to follow offensive line coach Herb Hand (@CoachHand), running backs coach/special teams coordinator Charles Huff (@CoachHuff), defensive line coach Sean Spencer (@SpenceChaos) and others. Quarterback Christian Hackenberg tweets (@chackenberg1), and other good follows include cornerback Jordan Lucas (@_JLucas9), offensive lineman Miles Dieffenbach (@Curiousjorge65), defensive end Deion Barnes (@DBarnes_18) and running back Akeel Lynch (@ALynch_22). The official team handle (@PennStateFball) tweets some good stuff, and the recruiting staff has an account (@PSURecruits).

They said it: " Right now we have some challenges and issues that we need to overcome. So guys are going to have an opportunity to come in and impact the roster quickly." -- coach James Franklin

Stats & Info projections: 6.85 wins

Wise guys over/under: 7.5 wins

Big Ten blog projection: Eight wins. There are so many unknowns here, such as the team's health/depth and whether the postseason ban will be lifted. A few injuries to the wrong players, and Penn State could be staring at a losing season. But I like the starting 22 and think the defense will be improved under Bob Shoop's direction. The Lions don't play the top teams in the West division, and they get both Michigan State and Ohio State at home.
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.

We usually come up with our own questions to consider, but Tuesday's Take Two topic arrives courtesy of a really interesting reader submission:

Andrew from Chicago writes: This may be a "Take Two" topic, but I was wondering which position looks stronger in the Big Ten for the upcoming season -- running back or defensive end?

[+] EnlargeJeremy Langford
Pat Lovell/USA TODAY SportsJeremy Langford returns after rushing for 1,422 yards and 18 TDs in 2013.
Take 1: Mitch Sherman

The question for me, in tackling this discussion, is this: Are we basing the answer on accomplishments or potential? No doubt, the Big Ten's group of defensive ends is full of promise and future pros. But in comparison to the track record and depth of the running backs in the league, the ends fall short.

Thirteen of the top 15 rushers return from a year ago, headlined by Ameer Abdullah at Nebraska and Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon -- the top two coming back nationally in yardage gained as both topped 1,600 yards last season. Abdullah can cement his place in Husker history as the school's first back to exceed 1,000 yards in three seasons; Gordon, meanwhile, aims to lead the nation in per-carry average for a third straight year.

But the running backs win this argument not on the laurels of their top two. The supporting cast seals the deal. Michigan State's Jeremy Langford gained more yards than all but four returning backs nationally. Tevin Coleman at Indiana averaged better than 100 yards per game, and he barely registers as an all-conference candidate. The list goes on, with Minnesota's David Cobb, who surpassed 1,200 yards a year ago, Penn State's duo of Zach Zwinak and Bill Belton, who combined for nearly 1,800 yards, Iowa's Mark Weisman and Jordan Canzeri, the multi-talented Josh Ferguson at Illinois and the speedy duo of Raheem Mostert and Akeem Hunt at Purdue.

There's also Venric Mark, Northwestern's 1,300-yard rusher from 2012 who returns in September after a two-game suspension. And we've not mentioned the league newcomers. In Paul James and Brandon Ross, Rutgers and Maryland return accomplished backs.

Ohio State and Michigan, interestingly, face some of the Big Ten's biggest questions at running back. Of course, though, they have talent, led by Ezekiel Elliott for the Buckeyes and the Wolverines' De'Veon Smith.

Compared to other leagues' lineups, the Big Ten features an embarrassment of riches at running back, a real rarity in this conference.

[+] EnlargeGregory
AP Photo/Nati HarnikIt took Randy Gregory one season to show NFL scouts he could be a first-round pick.
Take 2: Brian Bennett

The running backs in this league are very impressive indeed. Yet, with very few exceptions, the Big Ten is always stacked at tailback. Meanwhile, I think we could be looking at potentially -- a key word, that -- a historic crop of defensive ends in this league.

Nebraska's Randy Gregory is already being projected as a possible top 10 NFL draft pick next year. He led the league in sacks in his first year in FBS, and he's a physically superior athlete who looks like guys who play on Sundays. Michigan State's Shilique Calhoun already has a Big Ten defensive lineman of the year trophy on his mantle, and he still has plenty of room to grow (while his teammate, Marcus Rush, is about to complete one of the most underappreciated four-year careers around). Ohio State has a tremendous tandem in Joey Bosa, who was so good as a true freshman that the sky seems the limit for him, and Noah Spence, a quick-twitch, pass-rushing force. Minnesota's Theiren Cockran is getting better and better, while Maryland's Andre Monroe could easily finish with double-digit sacks. Michigan's Frank Clark is solid, while we're still waiting for Penn State's Deion Barnes to return to his freshman form. Northwestern has a promising young pass rusher in Ifeadi Odenigbo.

NFL stock doesn't mean everything, but I see at least four potential first-round picks out of this bunch, while I doubt more than one Big Ten running back goes that high. The league running backs are a great bunch, no doubt. But I think the defensive ends have a chance to be even greater.

Big Ten lunch links

July, 25, 2014
7/25/14
12:00
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The Big Ten season unofficially begins Monday with media days. So enjoy the weekend, and then let's get after it.
Last week, we took a look at some notable offensive milestones -- 3,000 yards passing, 1,000 yards rushing and 1,000 yards receiving -- and which players in the Big Ten were most likely to reach them. Now, let's turn to the defensive side of the ball and examine which players might get to another impressive plateau: 10 sacks.

[+] EnlargeJoey Bosa
Andrew Weber/USA TODAY SportsOhio State's Joey Bosa is poised to become one of the Big Ten's fiercest pass rushers.
In light of those quadruple-digit offensive numbers, 10 might seem like a modest goal for sacks. But only one Big Ten player made it there last season -- Nebraska's Randy Gregory, whom we correctly pegged as a possibility last summer -- and none did in 2012. Only 20 players in the FBS finished in double digits in sacks last season. So it's not easy.

But there are a handful of players in the league who have the ability and opportunity to register 10 or more sacks in 2014. They are:

  • Randy Gregory, Nebraska (10.5 sacks in 2013): The physically imposing Huskers defensive end could cause even more damage now that he has a full season of FBS competition under his belt. There's a reason some are projecting him as top-10 NFL draft pick next spring.
  • Joey Bosa, Ohio State (7.5): Bosa burst onto the scene as a true freshman, finishing with 7.5 sacks. His freakish combination of strength and speed could help him achieve true superstar status as a sophomore. Also watch out for Buckeyes teammate Noah Spence, who had eight sacks a year ago but will miss the first two games of the year because of a suspension. It will be extremely difficult for opponents to double-team the two defensive ends once Spence comes back.
  • Andre Monroe, Maryland (9.5): We have to rank the Terps senior this high because he very nearly recorded 10 sacks last season in the ACC. The self-proclaimed fireball aims to burn Big Ten offensive lines this fall.
  • Shilique Calhoun, Michigan State (7.5): The Big Ten's defensive lineman of the year became known for his early season scoring prowess and was a fearsome pass rusher. But despite having a great year over 14 games, he still finished well shy of 10 sacks. Shows you how hard it is to get there.
  • Theiren Cockran, Minnesota (7.5): Somewhat quietly, Cockran was one of the leading sack artists in the league a year ago. He's long and quick off the edge. He won't have Ra'Shede Hageman inside to take away attention, but Cockran has shown that he can do damage by himself.
  • C.J. Olaniyan, Penn State (5): It's hard to block the 6-foot-3, 245-pound Nittany Lions senior, who led the team in quarterback takedowns a year ago. Of course, we also have to mention Deion Barnes, who had six sacks in 2012 en route to Big Ten freshman of the year honors but slipped to just two in a disappointing 2013. Can Barnes bounce back?
  • Frank Clark, Michigan (4.5): Clark didn't quite have the monster breakout year some predicted for him in 2013, but he was very solid with 12 tackles for loss. He's got enough skill and experience to improve those numbers for a Wolverines defense that aims to pressure opposing passers a lot more this year. Perhaps a healthy Jake Ryan, who had 4.5 sacks in 2012 but none in an injury-shortened season last fall, also could make some noise in this category.

 
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- The past few years have brought historic changes at Penn State, from the men occupying the head coach's office to the names occupying the backs of the Nittany Lions' jerseys.

Yet until recently, Penn State's defensive line meeting room resisted renovation. It was one of few elements of the program that, in 2013, looked much like it did in 2005. Larry Johnson coached the group, as he had every season since 2000 (and, in some form, since 1996). And while the Lions' defense struggled for much of last season, the line still produced a first-team All-Big Ten performer, tackle DaQuan Jones, just as it did the previous five years.

[+] EnlargeSean Spencer
MCT via Getty ImagesNew defensive line coach Sean Spencer wants his guys attacking like 'wild dogs.'
But even the PSU defensive line couldn't evade the winds of change forever. After being passed over for Penn State's head-coaching job for the second time, Johnson in January declined a chance to remain with James Franklin's staff. Days later, he latched on at rival Ohio State.

Lions defensive linemen now take direction from a man known as Coach Chaos. You'll be able to hear Sean Spencer's voice from Row 80 of Beaver Stadium -- on game days. Spencer wants his Lions to be wild dogs, explaining, "The wild dog is the most efficient animal in the jungle in terms of hunting in a pack."

The 43-year-old dynamo with the "spastic" personality differs from that of his reserved, buttoned-down Penn State predecessor. But when it comes to standards, Spencer and Johnson are aligned.

"Traditionally, the D-line here has always been one of the elite in the country," Spencer told ESPN.com. "I know no other way but to have them rise to the expectations that I set forth and that they set forth for themselves. There's no excuse.

"I don't care who I've got out there. I expect to be dominant."

Spencer's message resonates with a group that, unlike others on a reduced roster, doesn't face dire depth challenges. The Lions return both starters at end -- Deion Barnes and C.J. Olaniyan -- and veteran reserve Brad Bars, who missed all of last season with a ruptured Achilles' tendon.

Sophomore Austin Johnson moves into the lead tackle position and Anthony Zettel, a converted defensive end, has been a good fit at the 3-technique tackle spot.

"The D-line is probably our strength," Franklin said. "We have the most depth at that position. We've got about four deep at defensive end and probably two-and-a-half deep at D-tackle."

If the depth holds up, it will help Penn State use a larger rotation that Johnson typically used. Defensive coordinator Bob Shoop said the Vanderbilt linemen he and Spencer coached last fall didn't average more than 40 snaps a game.

The coaches want to use five or six defensive ends, as Bars, junior Carl Nassib and redshirt freshman Garrett Sickels also are in the mix. A healthy rotation suits Spencer's wild dogs philosophy.

At Vanderbilt, he commissioned a painting of a Commodores football player blended with a dog, which he displayed in his office at Penn State this spring. He also took a giant dog bone to the field.

"Part of their survival is when they chase their prey down, for three to five miles they take turns biting at him," Spencer said. "One goes to the front, and when he gets tired, the next one comes. It's a really unique strategy in terms of the way they attack things. We rotate a lot of guys, so we just take turns nipping at quarterbacks and making plays in the backfield."

Vanderbilt recorded 28 sacks last season, which tied for fourth in the SEC. Spencer estimates 24 came solely from line pressure. He expects the same production at Penn State.

Defensive tackle has been Penn State's strongest position in recent seasons with players such as Jones, Devon Still, Jordan Hill and Jared Odrick. Although Zettel and Johnson aren't known outside Happy Valley, the coaches think that soon will change.

"Zettel has been been very, very disruptive this spring," Shoop said. "Austin Johnson falls in line of the beast D-tackles Penn State's had in the past. He's over 300 pounds, moves well, he's tough to move at the point of attack, got a big butt and legs."

Olaniyan led Penn State with five sacks last season, his first as a starter. Penn State looks for more from Barnes, the former Big Ten Freshman of the Year whose sacks and tackles for loss totals dropped by more than 50 percent from 2012 to 2013.

"What we're looking at is, how can we get him back to that?" Spencer said.

Spencer is pleased with Barnes' football knowledge and said all the linemen are asking "200- and 300-level questions" in meetings. Life without Johnson undoubtedly caused an adjustment -- "It's always tough to see somebody you call a family member leave," Olaniyan said -- but players quickly connected with Spencer, who lists relationship-building among his strengths.

"I grew up without a dad," said Spencer, whose father played for Michigan State in the 1960s. "Unfortunately, we don't have a relationship right now, and he's still alive. It's one of the things I'm least proud of, but at the same time, it made me who I am today. It made me have the ability to reach out to kids that probably are similar to me. I'm a little younger than Larry so they're not going to look at me as a dad, so to speak. They look at me as a big brother or an uncle.

"I think we've got some similarities in the way we care about our players, but I'm probably a little bit wilder than he is."

A little wilder and a little louder, but just as demanding.

"They both have the same philosophy as far as they want you to do everything perfect," Olaniyan said. "It's easy to embrace the new coaches when they have the same goal. We take pride as the Penn State D-line.

"Each game, we want everybody to see us as one of the best defensive lines out there. We want to be great."

At Penn State, some things never change.
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- There are several ways to combat the unique depth challenges Penn State faces with its reduced roster.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Lions coaches hope with versatile scholarship players and willing, capable walk-ons, they can win the numbers game this fall.

If you live in State College and haven't shaken James Franklin's hand, high-fived the Penn State coach or snapped a picture with the new leading Lion, you're probably a recluse.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Relationships take time."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hand's response? Bring it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But there's an even bigger objective.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wisconsin: Linebacker Chris Borland is the biggest single departure for the Badgers' defense, but the no position group loses more than the line. Wisconsin must replace several mainstays, most notably nose tackle Beau Allen, who performed well in the first year of the 3-4 set under coordinator Dave Aranda. Senior Warren Herring will step in for Allen after three years as a reserve. Konrad Zagzebski is a good bet to fill one of the end spots, but there will be plenty of competition with players such as Jake Keefer, James Adeyanju, Arthur Goldberg and Chikwe Obasih.
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