Big Ten: Donovan Smith

Big Ten Wednesday mailbag

September, 17, 2014
Sep 17
5:00
PM ET
You've got questions, I've got answers. Let's move along to the Big Ten mailbag ...


Josh Moyer: Let's see here. Heisman-worthy candidate? Check. Two solid wideouts? Check. Best defensive player in the conference when healthy? Check. But there are a few things Nebraska needs to tweak, or sustain, to really put together a solid run. Let me give you my three key points. For one, the Huskers need to find ways to gain more turnovers. They have just one so far -- and it was an interception against McNeese State on a Hail Mary to end the game. Nebraska is dead-last in the nation in creating turnovers. So it needs to continue to take care of the ball but find ways to get that ball back, especially when it's on the road. Two, Tommy Armstrong needs to continue to make smart decisions -- but he has to understand he can't rely on the big play as much as before. This team is really living and dying on those big plays, instead of constructing sustained drives, so it'll have to adapt against better defenses. And three, if there's a part of the defense that hast to step up, it's the linebackers. They need to be more active and create more plays. If Nebraska does those things, I think you'll be seeing the Huskers in the B1G title game.

Andy from Brooklyn Center, Minnesota, writes: My biggest concern is that Jake Rudock is one of the leading rushers for Iowa. That's not a good thing! My impression is that he is taking off running on passing plays way too often. Is this a problem of the receivers not getting open or is it Rudock not giving the play enough time to develop?

Josh Moyer: There are all sorts of problems on Iowa's offense, but I don't think quarterback Jake Rudock is even close to being near the top of those concerns. He's completing 68 percent of his passes and has thrown one pick in 117 attempts. The offensive line bears some of the blame, but these issues also have to do with the play-calling. Opponents are loading the box against Iowa and, rather than airing it out or making opponents pay for that, offensive coordinator Greg Davis has opted to stick with a horizontal passing attack. Iowa's offensive gameplan is predictable and conservative, and that seems to be a big reason this offense is so out of whack. Rudock is simply taking off when he sees an opening, and he's done a relatively good job of that. You could argue he's taking off too much, but his unscripted running plays are more effective than the scripted runs: Rudock is averaging 4 yards a carry, more than a yard better than Mark Weisman and Damon Bullock. So you're right, it is concerning that Rudock is one of the leading rushers. But that's more a product of the concerning offense, rather than a concerning Rudock.


Josh Moyer: Realistically, I feel as if the most likely Penn State outcome is still an eight-win regular season, give or take a victory. But you specifically asked about the ceiling -- about the best-case scenario -- so I'll put that at 10. Yes, the Big Ten is down as a whole. And, yes, outside of Michigan State, there are really no "unwinnable" games. But as James Franklin said Saturday, winning tends to minimize issues while losing magnifies them. And Penn State still has quite a few issues -- namely the young offensive line. If you could substitute Wisconsin's offensive line here, I think PSU could realistically go 11-1 or better. But left tackle Donovan Smith appears to be the only above-average lineman, since center Angelo Mangiro really struggled Saturday against Rutgers. Christian Hackenberg has no time in the pocket, and there's virtually no run game of which to speak. I said this before and I'll say it again: Penn State's ceiling is capped by its offensive line. Ohio State should give PSU plenty of problems, and Michigan's defense is much more aggressive compared to last season. PSU fans should approach this conference season with cautious optimism.

Leland Buss rom Burlington, Wisconsin, writes: Why is Wisconsin trending downward? I thought the loss to LSU was a good loss. Am I wrong? The win against Western Illinois was solid if not spectacular, so why are they now being dismissed as contenders in the West?

Josh Moyer: Leland is referring to our Big Ten power rankings, where we dropped Wisconsin to No. 5 this past week. And it's a good question. But the Badgers' move had less to do with Wisconsin and more to do with how the teams above them performed. Nebraska dominated Fresno State, and Penn State turned in another solid defensive effort. Both teams are undefeated, and they deserve credit for that. Michigan State is the easy No. 1 and the Buckeyes ... well, their loss to Virginia Tech looks worse now than before. But Ohio State's passing game gives me a lot less pause than Wisconsin's. No one's discounting Wisconsin as a division contender. Iowa has looked pretty bad so far, and it sure seems as if the race in the West is between Nebraska and Wisconsin. If the Badgers can shore up their passing game, they'll be back near the top in no time.

Big Ten viewer's guide: Week 1

August, 30, 2014
Aug 30
8:00
AM ET
Take a deep breath, Big Ten fans. The wait is over. Our first weekend of Big Ten football is finally here. And though we might be lacking in quality this weekend, at least there's quantity.

8:30 a.m. ET

Penn State vs. Central Florida (Dublin, Ireland), ESPN2: This overseas contest isn't the same without the O'Brien vs. O'Leary headline or the Hackenberg vs. Bortles undercard. But it could still be one of the more interesting games on tap, as it's James Franklin's debut as Penn State's head coach. The Nittany Lions are looking to once again shock the conference, and that will have to start with success from an inexperienced offensive line. The Nittany Lions have talent on offense -- Christian Hackenberg, Jesse James, Donovan Smith, Bill Belton, Zach Zwinak -- but a win won't come easy against a loaded Central Florida defense.

Noon ET

Indiana State at Indiana, ESPNews: If you haven't fallen asleep from waking up early for the Nittany Lions game, this one might cause you to fluff up that pillow. The Hoosiers upended the Sycamores 73-35 the past season and should once again put on an offensive clinic. Will Indiana's new defense be better? We probably won't find out based on this game.

Northern Iowa at Iowa, BTN: Kirk Ferentz's crew hasn't made quick work of its FCS opponents the past two seasons. Last year, Iowa edged out Missouri State 28-14 and the year before beat Northern Iowa 27-16. Northern Iowa is a middle-of-the-road FCS team this season, but those past two FCS games featured teams that finished below .500. It shouldn't be close, but then again, it shouldn't have been in 2012 or 2013 either.

Appalachian State at Michigan, ESPN2: Can history possibly repeat itself here? The 2007 game -- Mountaineers 34, Wolverines 32 -- was one of the greatest upsets in college football history. If you're a Big Ten fan, you should probably remember where you were when Julian Rauch nailed the field goal heard 'round the world to give App State a two-point lead with 26 seconds left in the game. No doubt the Wolverines will be more prepared this time around, but you can bet Appalachian State's confidence is pretty high, too.

Western Michigan at Purdue, ESPNU: Thankfully, it's not our job to tell you why you should watch these games. We're coming up relatively empty on this one. Purdue is just a nine-point favorite, which means this game should technically be closer than most of the others here. But the ratings for this game won't skyrocket based off that fact. Purdue's offense should be better, so if quarterback Danny Etling struggles in this game, it might already be time for Boilermakers fans to worry.

No. 5
Ohio State at Navy, CBS Sports Network:
Can Ohio State move on without Braxton Miller? Will Navy's triple-option fool this defensive line? How will J.T. Barrett fare in his first career start? The Midshipmen aren't a bad team, and plenty of questions are swirling around the Buckeyes' quarterback situation with the season-ending injury to Miller. All eyes will be on Barrett -- and how long a leash Urban Meyer gives him here.

12:05 ET

Youngstown State at Illinois, BTN: Tim Beckman could be on the hot seat this season, and if he loses to a team with a Penguin mascot, that seat will start heating up in no time. Wes Lunt could be in for a big season, but it'll be interesting to see who in the receiving corps can step up. Beckman is also counting on some juco players to plug roster holes, so we'll start to see how that's working out in this opener.

3:30 ET

James Madison at Maryland, BTN: First, Rutgers comes away with a win in its first game as a Big Ten member. Next, the Terrapins should follow suit. We should see offensive fireworks here, especially though the air, now that quarterback C.J. Brown is healthy, along with wideouts Stefon Diggs and Deon Long. James Madison is an average FCS team, though it nearly knocked off Akron the past season in a 35-33 loss.

Cal at Northwestern, ABC/ESPN2: No Venric Mark, no Christian Jones ... no problem? The Golden Bears are lousy, and the reins are now in the hands of Northwestern QB Trevor Siemian. The Wildcats are hoping to rebound from the past season with a bowl berth, and it'll have to get off on the right foot -- with a win over Cal -- to make that happen. Northwestern should start off 3-0 after a disappointing 5-7 finish in 2013.

Florida Atlantic at No. 22 Nebraska, BTN: It won't be the “Battle of the Pelinis” this season, as FAU coach Carl Pelini was fired the past season in the wake of drug allegations against his staff. The move wasn't without its controversy. We'll see if Bo Pelini is out to avenge his brother based on how ugly this game gets. If Ameer Abdullah wants to be a Heisman contender, he has to post crazy numbers in games like this.

9 ET

No. 14 Wisconsin vs. No. 13 LSU (Houston), ESPN: Admit it. You're waiting all day for this Big Ten game. This could give the B1G respect on a national scale -- or, if it turns ugly, could give the rest of the Power 5 more ammunition to point a finger and label the conference weak. Melvin Gordon might be the best running back in the country, and he'll be facing a slightly above-average run defense. Is that enough to give the Badgers the win? LSU might have the advantage everywhere except at tailback and offensive line. This is the game to watch.

Weather

It looks as if the weather is pretty split this week -- nice and sunny in some places with chances of thunderstorms in others. First off, the good news: It'll be nice and clear for Penn State, Indiana, Ohio State, Illinois and Nebraska. Outside of Ireland, where it should be in the 60s, the temperature should vary between the 70s and 80s.

Elsewhere? Teams might not be so lucky. For Maryland and Wisconsin, thunderstorms could strike later in the games. For the other four teams -- Northwestern, Michigan, Purdue, Iowa -- thunderstorms could strike early but could clear up later.

Top Week 1 stories

Season predictions | Weekly predictions | Fearless predictions | Bowl predictions

J.T. Barrett becomes voice of Buckeyes

LSU-Wisconsin primer

Remembering an upset for the ages

Calhoun's dual role: hit 'em, make 'em smile

Terps' Leak, Brown draw from year off

Fast start would mean sunny days for B1G

In playoff era, will Rose stay as sweet?

B1G players in Week 1 spotlight

A B1G youth movement at receiver

Loaded backfields make it B1G's Year of the RB

Twitter: PSU sights & scenes from Ireland

Big Ten morning links

August, 26, 2014
Aug 26
8:00
AM ET
When you're watching Big Ten football on opening weekend, be sure to read between the lines.

Don't ignore new quarterbacks like Wes Lunt and Tanner McEvoy, or newcomer defenders like Jabrill Peppers and Jihad Ward, but the real gauge for some teams will take place in the trenches. There are several revamped lines in the Big Ten that will be under the microscope in Week 1.

Let's take a look:

Wisconsin defensive line versus LSU (in Houston): The Badgers will start three new players up front -- ends Chikwe Obasih and Konrad Zagzebski, and tackle Warren Herring -- against talented Tigers running backs Terrence Magee, Kenny Hilliard and Leonard Fournette, the decorated incoming freshman. Herring and Zabzekbski have five combined career starts, while Obasih, a redshirt freshman, makes his debut on a huge stage.

"I really feel that in the pass rush aspect and in the containing the quarterback aspect, we are a little bit more athletic and we have a little bit more speed," defensive coordinator Dave Aranda told me last week.

Penn State offensive line versus UCF (in Dublin, Ireland): Only one healthy starter (tackle Donovan Smith) returns for PSU's line, which has heard all about its depth issues throughout the offseason. The group will be tested right away by a UCF defense that returns nine starters, including the entire line. You can bet Knights coach George O'Leary will put Penn State's line under duress from the onset.

Ohio State offensive line versus Navy (in Baltimore): Like Penn State, Ohio State brings back just one line starter (tackle Taylor Decker) from last year, and the unit's task became a lot tougher after the season-ending loss of quarterback Braxton Miller. The Buckeyes' new-look front must protect freshman signal caller J.T. Barrett and create some running room against a smaller Navy defensive line.

Northwestern defensive line versus Cal: Both Wildcat lines have question marks entering the season, but the defensive front enters the spotlight after dealing with injuries throughout the offseason. Veteran defensive tackle Sean McEvilly (foot) is out for the season, and tackles Greg Kuhar and C.J. Robbins will get an opportunity to assert themselves against a Cal offense that racked up 549 yards against Northwestern in last year's game.

Purdue offensive line versus Western Michigan: The Boilers simply weren't strong enough up front in 2013 and couldn't move the ball for much of the season. They should be better on the interior with center Robert Kugler leading the way. This is a great chance for Purdue to start strong against a Western Michigan defense that ranked 118th nationally against the run in 2013.

Michigan offensive line versus Appalachian State: This isn't the Appalachian State team that shocked Michigan in 2007, but the Wolverines need to gain cohesion and confidence up front and with their run game. After a lot of line shuffling in camp, Michigan tries to get backs Derrick Green and De'Veon Smith going in the opener before a Week 2 trip to Notre Dame.

To the links ...

West Division
East Division
And, finally ...
 

» 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.
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Penn State left tackle Donovan Smith already knows what this article is going to say.

Clips and columns about Penn State’s offensive line have revolved around a central theme the last five months: This unit likely isn’t going to be any good. Smith can’t escape all that chatter. With every compliment thrown Christian Hackenberg ’s way, there’s another question mark tossed at the offensive line.

Hackenberg can be great … but will he have enough time to pass? Penn State returns two experienced tailbacks … but does that matter if this line can’t generate any push? A lot of the criticism seems deserved, or at least understandable. Only Smith returns as a starter on the line, and two converted defensive tackles might very well start at guard in time for the opener. That’s not exactly cause for a confidence boost.

[+] EnlargeDonovan Smith
AP Photo/Gene J. PuskarDonovan Smith is the only returning starter on the Penn State offensive line, and he's motivated by that.
“A lot of people hear it, but we use it as motivation,” Smith said, adding some of his teammates keep the negative articles taped to their lockers or saved to their phones. “They read them daily or at night, or stuff like that. We’re just going to use it as motivation and push on from there.”

That doesn’t mean players here are scouring ESPN or the local news sites for bulletin-board material. Far from it. But they don’t have to go very far to hear those doubts. It’s on Facebook and Twitter; it’s talked about on campus and in classrooms. It’s been an unwanted storyline that’s hovered since news broke in March that Miles Dieffenbach, the Nittany Lions’ most experienced lineman, suffered what could be a season-ending injury.

Depth is obviously an ongoing issue during these years under scholarship limits because of NCAA sanctions. It's created a huge concern on an offensive line that returns just three scholarship athletes with OL game experience. And no unit is reminded of it more often.

“It’s hard to ignore,” said redshirt junior Angelo Mangiro, who played in every game last season but never started. “It’s sticking in. I don’t go digging my nose in it and looking for it. But it’s hard to avoid, so you definitely remember it.

“It’s sticking with me, and it’s sticking with the rest of the guys. So we have something to come out and prove.”

Offensive line coach Herb Hand stood near his thinned-out unit last week and wore a permanent smile. He didn’t look like a man whose line features just two healthy upperclassmen, four sophomores and 13 freshmen (including redshirts and walk-ons). He insisted he felt no pressure and quoted NFL coaching great Chuck Noll: “Pressure is something you feel when you don’t know what you’re doing.”

Hand, who was a candidate to become Vanderbilt’s head coach, does know – and has been a beacon of positivity for these Lions. Often in the spring, he pulled aside the converted defensive tackles -- Derek Dowrey and Brian Gaia – and offered encouragement and advice on pass protection. Gaia still remembers those first few days, of confusion and sometimes blocking no one during an inevitable sack play. But Gaia caught on in about a week and a half; he was then holding his own against pass-rush specialist Anthony Zettel. Gaia won an award in the spring as the offense’s most improved player.

Players have thrown a lot of praise Hand’s way. But, then again, if there’s one answer to all these question marks, it might come from Hand, since he faced an identical situation in the past. Back in 2007, before his hair shifted to gray, during his first year at Tulsa, Hand’s offensive line had just one regular returning starter. He even moved a defensive tackle over to offense. The result?

“We led the nation in offense that year, in 2007,” he said. “It’s a whole different animal in the Big Ten, obviously, but this is not something new. I’ve done it before. There’s a lot of growth that needs to take place and a lot of learning. But if you have guys that will work hard, that have great attitudes and bring a tremendous work ethic … you can accomplish great things.”

The situation at offensive line was never quite this dire before at Penn State, but there is still some precedent at the school as well. The 2006 squad also returned just one starter, left tackle Levi Brown, but still fared OK and helped the team finish 9-4 with an Outback Bowl victory. Four of the linemen on that team – Brown, Gerald Cadogan, Rich Ohrnberger and A.Q. Shipley – went on to earn All-B1G honors during their careers, and three were drafted into the NFL.

But this is a different line, and the future of this unit remains unknown. There are question marks – big question marks -- and, precedents or not, there will undoubtedly be more columns and stories wondering aloud just how this unit will fare. But Smith, Mangiro and the rest of the current linemen already know what the clips are going to say. And they’re hoping to prove them all wrong starting Aug. 30.

“It is what it is,” Smith said. “They talk about you good, bad – and we’re up for the challenge.”
Summer is a time in college football where the only news is usually bad news. With that in mind, we're looking at the most indispensable players on each Big Ten team.

By indispensable, we don't necessarily mean best. We mean the players who would be hardest to replace between now and the start of the season if they got hurt/suspended/encounter a White Walker, etc. That could be because of their value to the team or because of a lack of depth at their position.

We'll pick two players from each team, usually offense and defense, but not always. We're getting close to the finish line with the series, and one of our final stops hits up the Penn State Nittany Lions.

[+] EnlargeChristian Hackenberg
Dan Sanger/Icon SMIChristian Hackenberg turned heads as a true freshman, passing for 2,955 yards and 20 TDs.
Christian Hackenberg, QB, Soph.

Well, yeah. If there's any young player more valuable to Penn State's long-term success than Hackenberg, we'd like to meet him. After throwing for nearly 3,000 yards as a true freshman, Hackenberg backed up all his recruiting hype and probably makes James Franklin smile every time he thinks about his quarterback. What makes Hackenberg even more indispensable is the lack of experience behind him. Should something happen to the young star, the Nittany Lions would likely turn to true freshman Michael O'Connor or walk-ons Austin Whipple and D.J. Crook. So keeping Hackenberg healthy is a major priority for Penn State in 2014.

Donovan Smith, OT, Jr.

Hey, remember when we said protecting Hackenberg was a major priority? Well, to say Penn State's offensive line is in flux would be an understatement. With Miles Dieffenbach reportedly out with a knee injury, Smith is the only returning starter on the line. And he just so happens to be the left tackle and guardian of Hackenberg's blind side. Smith provides one of the few anchors Franklin can count on up front right now, and if he were to become unavailable, the scramble really would be on. Redshirt freshman Brendan Mahon could be the guy who steps in for Smith if the need arose. It's safe to say Penn State doesn't want to find out what that would look like.

Video: B1G missing piece -- Penn State

June, 4, 2014
Jun 4
2:30
PM ET

Josh Moyer talks about the Nittany Lions' biggest weakness this season and how they're trying to overcome it.
The NCAA penalties some described as worse than death were supposed to cripple Penn State for years to come, but the Nittany Lions, so far, have survived and, at times, thrived.

Good coaching and good players have buoyed the program in rough waters, and the bountiful recruiting start to the James Franklin era could prevent the drop-off many believed to be inevitable.

But there are spots on the roster where Penn State is struggling with the numbers game. None is more glaring than the offensive line.

[+] EnlargeDonovan Smith
Justin K. Aller/Getty ImagesDonovan Smith should be a rock at tackle for Penn State, but the rest of the Nittany Lions' OL is in a state of flux.
Arguably no position group in the Big Ten has fewer guarantees than the Lions' line. Three starters are gone from last season's squad. One of the two returnees, Miles Dieffenbach, reportedly suffered a serious knee injury this spring. Two days before spring practice began, the coaches moved defensive tackles Brian Gaia and Derek Dowrey to guard. Both immediately entered the starting rotation. Penn State exited the spring with just two healthy players -- tackle Donovan Smith and guard/center Angelo Mangiro -- who had lettered as offensive linemen in 2013.

"We have some talented guys," Penn State offensive line coach Herb Hand told ESPN.com. "We just don't have a wealth of them."

The good news: Hand has been here before. When Hand arrived at Vanderbilt in August 2010 -- Bobby Johnson had retired in July, and interim coach Robbie Caldwell made Hand his first hire -- he inherited 12 offensive linemen, five of whom were true freshmen.

He had just weeks to prepare them for the season. So he went to work.

"That's a challenge, but as those guys grow together, they're like balls of clay," Hand said. "They're guys you can mold and you can form and you can develop into exactly what you want them to be."

Exactly what Hand wanted back then at Vanderbilt, and now at Penn State, are linemen who aren't limited to one position. Centers that can play guard. Swing tackles. Guards who can move outside if need be. Tackles who can line up on either side.

Wesley Johnson started four seasons for Hand at Vanderbilt, finishing his career with the most starts (51) in team history and the longest active streak in the SEC at the time. He earned several awards, including SEC All-Freshman in 2010 and first-team All-SEC in 2013.

But perhaps his biggest achievement was playing all five line positions during his career. Although he started at left tackle throughout his final season, he was also the first option if Vanderbilt needed another center.

Hand needs the same flexibility from Penn State's linemen this season.

"We've always had to develop our depth through guys playing multiple positions," he said. "It’s almost like a basketball team. You've got your starting five and then you've got your sixth man, you've got your seventh man, and so on. That's the way we approach developing our offensive line. Let's get to where we have six guys, seven guys, eight guys who we can count on.

"That way, we can always get our top five on the field at any given time."

Mangiro played four positions during the Blue-White spring game. Brendan Mahon began the spring at left guard and finished it at right tackle. Wendy Laurent took reps at both guard spots and center.

Hand describes Dieffenbach as a "guy who could play all five spots."

"Typically, you'd like to have [6-foot-6] at tackle and 6-3 at guard and 6-3 at center," Franklin said. "Well, we might have 6-3 at tackle and 6-3 at center. It is what it is."

The only lineman likely to be left alone, namely because he protects quarterback Christian Hackenberg's blind side, is Smith. The 6-foot-5, 322-pound junior enters his third season as the starter and, according to Hand, has "got to be our bell cow."

Hand saw Smith improve his communication and work ethic throughout the spring as he learned a new system. Smith enjoys Hand's "Lions of scrimmage" mantra for the group, and the aggressive style the new coaches have brought to the offense.

"Being an older guy, being here for some years, it's definitely a lot of responsibility," Smith said. "It's going to make me better. You get older, people graduate and it's the next guy up. It's the way college football works."

Despite their inexperience on offense, Dowrey and Gaia also welcome the opportunity to be relied upon. Hand saw few players on either side of the ball improve more from the start of the spring until the end.

"I can't even tell that they played defense just last season," Smith said. "Their spring has been amazing. They probably had a better spring that I had in previous springs. I trust them playing next to me.

"If we had to play a game tomorrow, I'd be very comfortable with our offensive line."

Like many of Franklin's assistants, Hand has put an emphasis on building bonds among his group. The chemistry appears strong. The next step is to further absorb the system after the linemen "hit the ground walking" this spring, Hand said.

Hand is still waiting to coach a group with 10 game-ready offensive linemen. He usually has eight. That might be wishful thinking this season at Penn State.

"That's the one spot on the team we need to grow as fast as we can as far as depth," offensive coordinator John Donovan said.

It won't be easy, but if the Lions can win the numbers game on the offensive line, they'll be in better shape to win the ones on the scoreboard.

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Last Thursday morning, a barefoot James Franklin exited his office and walked -- Franklin's walk is most people's jog -- through the Penn State football lobby.

Asked about his footwear situation, Franklin explained he had a speaking engagement and needed to change. Moments later, he returned to the lobby and opened a side door filled with shirts and suits.

"That's what happens," Franklin said after selecting his outfit, "when you live in the office."

A lot of football coaches say they live in their offices. It fits the round-the-clock, pedal-down, never-stop-working-'cause-the-other-guy-won't culture of their chosen profession. But at some point, they actually go home, if only for a few hours.

Franklin is actually living in his office at Penn State. He hasn't left for weeks. He recently drove around town simply to get away from the building.

His nights end on couches or on a faulty air mattress. Makes it tougher to do those back handsprings out of bed that Franklin famously begins his days with.

[+] EnlargeJames Franklin
MCT via Getty ImagesEven while sleeping in the office, James Franklin has not lacked for energy in his first few months on the job at Penn State.
"Every night when you leave, you see him pushing couches together," Penn State defensive line coach Sean Spencer said. "You're like, 'You're not staying here again, are you?' And he just shuts his door.

"If he wasn't in here, he'd be in at 5 in the morning and probably leave at 10 or 11 at night anyway. So I guess for the six hours he's going to take a nap, he'll just stay."

There's a somewhat reasonable explanation for Franklin's living situation: His family remains in Nashville, Tenn., and they've yet to secure a new home here. On the other hand, Franklin could easily spring for a hotel room. After signing a contract with Penn State that will pay him $4.25 million annually, he could buy out the entire hotel.

This is more his style. Franklin's corner office is more luxurious than the spare room he lived in while working at Kutztown University, where he earned a $1,200 salary and made ends meet by filling soda machines and tending bar on Sundays. But his approach to coaching -- total immersion, relentless energy -- is the same.

At Franklin's introduction Jan. 11, he delighted Penn State fans with talk of dominating the state in recruiting and unifying the community. He didn't win the news conference. He crushed it.

But his performance left some people wondering two things:

1. Is this guy for real?

2. Is he always like this?

According to Franklin's new players, the answer to both is a resounding yes. Franklin doesn't downshift and neither does his staff. They're propelling Penn State through another potentially treacherous transition -- Franklin is the Lions' fourth coach since November 2011 -- and they aren't slowing down.

"I've never lacked for energy, I've never lacked for enthusiasm," Franklin said. "I'm a realist and see the challenges and issues, but we're going to find ways to overcome 'em."

Penn State faces many challenges in Franklin's first season. The program is only halfway through the four-year period of severe NCAA sanctions.

The scholarship penalties were reduced last year, but the Lions are thin in several spots: offensive line, wide receiver and linebacker. The Lions return an excellent centerpiece in quarterback Christian Hackenberg and other potential All-Big Ten players, but they have to keep them all healthy. Franklin said of the offense: "We're probably going to spend our first two years here solving problems, hiding deficiencies, rather than attacking the defense."

One thing that will never be deficient: Franklin's drive. Penn State players he recruited at past stops see the same full-throttle approach from the coach.

"He's that person all the time," safety Adrian Amos said. "That's very important. It builds a little bit of trust. You know what you're getting."

Added offensive tackle Donovan Smith: "Being a big recruit, coaches would tell you things just because. Coach Franklin always kept it real. Genuine since day one."

Franklin and his assistants, eight of whom he brought to PSU from Vanderbilt, needed to create trust with a team that has endured more recent adversity than any in the country. Although Hackenberg said he's never been on a team so close, players needed to open themselves up to new coaches and schemes.

"Any time there's transition, the players are anxious," defensive coordinator Bob Shoop said. "Sometimes the relationships get tested because you're challenging and pushing them. But [Franklin] always says we can demand a lot as long as we show them how much we care."

During the recruiting rush after Franklin's hiring, Shoop sent late-night text messages to his players, introducing himself and commenting on their play. If he rides a player during practice, he'll send an encouraging text afterward (We're critiquing the performance, not the performer).

Spencer and special teams coordinator Charles Huff use symbolism such as wild dogs and nektonic sea predators to inspire their players. As the team practiced the two-minute drill Wednesday, Franklin called a timeout, clapped his hands in front of kicker Sam Ficken's face and screamed, "I'm icing your ass!" Not only did Ficken make the ensuing field goal, but he drilled a 55-yarder to prevent a team run. Players mobbed Ficken and Franklin.

"I always talk [to players] about matching my intensity," Spencer said. "And as coaches, we have to match the intensity of the head coach, which is hard to do. Ever walk behind that guy? I've never seen anything like it. It's a full-on sprint."

Shoop calls the staff's spirit "our secret sauce," but enthusiasm and hard work don't guarantee wins in the fall.

The Lions have only two healthy offensive linemen (Smith and Angelo Mangiro) who lettered last year. Their leading returning wide receiver, Geno Lewis, had 18 catches in 2013. They lose their only All-Big Ten defender, tackle DaQuan Jones, from a unit that, by Penn State's standards, really struggled. They enter a division featuring Michigan State, Ohio State and Michigan.

PSU needs versatile players, walk-on contributions and good fortune on the injury front.

But after the most turbulent period in team history, the Lions also need consistency. Franklin and his staff intend to provide it.

"The coaches the players see the first week are the same guys they're going to see when they show up here for the 20-year reunion," Franklin said. "It's going to be the same energy and the same personality."
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.
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- You've likely heard about SEC-style recruiting in the Big Ten, first with Urban Meyer at Ohio State and now with James Franklin at Penn State.

Franklin appears to bringing a taste of his former league to the practice field at Penn State. "Aggressive" was the word most often used by Lions players Wednesday when describing the atmosphere this spring with the new coaching staff.

Senior linebacker Mike Hull finds a direct correlation between Franklin's past at Vanderbilt and his present at Penn State.

"Everyone respects the SEC mentality and what those guys did down there," Hull said. "It's been really positive for myself and the rest of the guys."

Penn State players have gone through the Lion's Den, more commonly known as the Oklahoma Drill, in several practices this spring. Although the program is still dealing with limited scholarships, players are going through more contact in workouts than in the past.

"It's a lot more rugged, tough, a lot more demanding as far as hitting goes in practice," Hull said. "I think that's why those guys [in the SEC] play so tough. Definitely we're hitting a lot more."

Hull said Penn State hit during almost every practice period during the early part of spring practice, mainly so the coaches could evaluate what they inherited. Since then, things have been toned down a bit, but the mentality remains.

Offensive line coach Herb Hand wants his group, arguably the thinnest on the roster, to control the "lion of scrimmage."

"We're going to be dominant, impose our will," tackle Donovan Smith said. "Everybody thinks the defensive line has to be aggressive and the offensive line is just whatever. But that's changing."

Cornerback Jordan Lucas also used the a-word when describing the defense being installed this spring under coordinator Bob Shoop. The scheme allows players to "have personality," which suits Lucas.

"It lets me be myself as a player," Lucas said. "I'm going to be doing a lot of different things this year, so my aggression is going to help me out and work well within this defense."

Safety Adrian Amos isn't big on comparing Penn State to other teams or, in this case, another league. But the senior has noticed some changes this spring.

"We do have a competitive mentality, if that's what you're trying to say," he said. "We're competing in everything, just getting after it, how football is intended to be."

Video: Penn State OT Donovan Smith

April, 2, 2014
Apr 2
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Penn State left tackle Donovan Smith talks with ESPN.com Big Ten reporter Adam Rittenberg about the aggressive mindset being instilled this spring and how the group is progressing with the new coaches.

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."

B1G spring position breakdown: OL

February, 28, 2014
Feb 28
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We're taking snapshots of each position group with each Big Ten team entering the spring. Up next: the big uglies.

Illinois: This is another group that appears to be in significantly better shape now than at the start of coach Tim Beckman's tenure. The Illini lose only one full-time starter in tackle Corey Lewis, as four other linemen who started at least eight games in 2013 return. Senior tandem Michael Heitz and Simon Cvijanovic are two of the Big Ten's most experienced linemen, and guards Ted Karras also has logged plenty of starts. Right tackle appears to be the only vacancy entering the spring, as Austin Schmidt and others will compete.

Indiana: The Hoosiers have somewhat quietly put together one of the Big Ten's best offensive lines, and the same should hold true in 2014. Everybody is back, and because of injuries before and during the 2013 season, Indiana boasts a large group with significant starting experience. Jason Spriggs should contend for first-team All-Big Ten honors as he enters his third season at left tackle. Senior Collin Rahrig solidifies the middle, and Indiana regains the services of guard Dan Feeney, who was sidelined all of 2013 by a foot injury.

Iowa: The return of left tackle Brandon Scherff anchors an Iowa line that could be a team strength this fall. Scherff will enter the fall as a leading candidate for Big Ten offensive lineman of the year. Iowa must replace two starters in right tackle Brett Van Sloten and left guard Conor Boffeli. Andrew Donnal could be the answer in Van Sloten's spot despite playing guard in 2013, while several players will compete at guard, including Tommy Gaul and Eric Simmons. Junior Austin Blythe returns at center.

Maryland: Line play will go a long way toward determining how Maryland fares in the Big Ten, and the Terrapins will make the transition with an experienced group. Four starters are back, led by center Sal Conaboy, who has started games in each of his first three seasons. Tackles Ryan Doyle and Michael Dunn bring versatility to the group, and Maryland should have plenty of options once heralded recruit Damian Prince and junior-college transfer Larry Mazyck arrive this summer. Prince is the top Big Ten offensive line recruit in the 2014 class, according to ESPN RecruitingNation. New line coach Greg Studwara brings a lot of experience to the group.

Michigan: The Wolverines' line is under the microscope this spring after a disappointing 2013 season. Michigan loses both starting tackles, including Taylor Lewan, the Big Ten's offensive lineman of the year and a projected first-round draft choice. The interior line was in flux for much of 2013, and Michigan needs development from a large group of rising sophomores and juniors, including Kyle Kalis, Kyle Bosch, Jack Miller, Graham Glasgow, and Patrick Kugler. Both starting tackle spots are open, although Ben Braden seems likely to slide in on the left side. Erik Magnuson is out for spring practice following shoulder surgery, freeing up opportunities for redshirt freshman David Dawson and others.

Michigan State: The line took a significant step forward in 2013 but loses three starters, including left guard Blake Treadwell, a co-captain. Michigan State used an eight-man rotation in 2013 and will look for development from top reserves such as Travis Jackson (Yes! Yes!) and Connor Kruse. Kodi Kieler backed up Treadwell last season and could contend for a starting job as well. Coach Mark Dantonio said this week that converted defensive linemen James Bodanis, Devyn Salmon and Noah Jones will get a chance to prove themselves this spring. It's important for MSU to show it can reload up front, and the large rotation used in 2013 should help.

Minnesota: For the first time since the Glen Mason era, Minnesota truly established the line of scrimmage and showcased the power run game in 2013. The Gophers return starters at four positions and regain Jon Christenson, the team's top center before suffering a season-ending leg injury in November. Right tackle Josh Campion and left guard Zac Epping are mainstays in the starting lineup, and players such as Tommy Olson and Ben Lauer gained some valuable experience last fall. There should be good leadership with Epping, Olson, Marek Lenkiewicz and Caleb Bak.

Nebraska: Graduation hit the line hard as five seniors depart, including 2012 All-American Spencer Long at guard and Jeremiah Sirles at tackle. Nebraska will lean on guard Jake Cotton, its only returning starter, and experienced players such as Mark Pelini, who steps into the center spot. Senior Mike Moudy is the top candidate at the other guard spot, but there should be plenty of competition at the tackle spots, where Zach Sterup, Matt Finnin and others are in the mix. Definitely a group to watch this spring.

Northwestern: Offensive line struggles undoubtedly contributed to Northwestern's disappointing 2013 season. All five starters are back along with several key reserves, and coach Pat Fitzgerald already has seen a dramatic difference in the position competitions this spring as opposed to last, when many linemen were sidelined following surgeries. Center Brandon Vitabile is the only returning starter who shouldn't have to worry about his job. Paul Jorgensen and Eric Olson opened the spring as the top tackles, and Jack Konopka, who has started at both tackle spots, will have to regain his position.

Ohio State: Like Nebraska, Ohio State enters the spring with a lot to replace up front as four starters depart from the Big Ten's best line. Taylor Decker is the only holdover and will move from right tackle to left tackle. Fifth-year senior Darryl Baldwin could step in at the other tackle spot, while Pat Elflein, who filled in for the suspended Marcus Hall late last season, is a good bet to start at guard. Jacoby Boren and Billy Price will compete at center and Joel Hale, a defensive lineman, will work at guard this spring. Ohio State has recruited well up front, and it will be interesting to see how young players such as Evan Lisle and Kyle Dodson develop.

Penn State: New coach James Franklin admits he's concerned about the depth up front despite the return of veterans Miles Dieffenbach and Donovan Smith on the left side. Guard Angelo Mangiro is the other lineman who logged significant experience in 2013, and guard/center Wendy Laurent and guard Anthony Alosi played a bit. But filling out the second string could be a challenge for Penn State, which could start a redshirt freshman (Andrew Nelson) at right tackle. The Lions have to develop some depth on the edges behind Nelson and Smith.

Purdue: The Boilers reset up front after a miserable season in which they finished 122nd out of 123 FBS teams in rushing offense (67.1 ypg). Three starters return on the interior, led by junior center Robert Kugler, and there's some continuity at guard with Jordan Roos and Justin King, both of whom started as redshirt freshmen. It's a different story on the edges as Purdue loses both starting tackles. Thursday's addition of junior-college tackle David Hedelin could be big, if Hedelin avoids a potential NCAA suspension for playing for a club team. Cameron Cermin and J.J. Prince also are among those in the mix at tackle.

Rutgers: Continuity should be a strength for Rutgers, which returns its entire starting line from 2013. But production has to be better after the Scarlet Knights finished 100th nationally in rushing and tied for 102nd in sacks allowed. Guard Kaleb Johnson considered entering the NFL draft but instead will return for his fourth season as a starter. Rutgers also brings back Betim Bujari, who can play either center or guard, as well as Keith Lumpkin, the likely starter at left tackle. It will be interesting to see if new line coach Mitch Browning stirs up the competition this spring, as younger players Dorian Miller and J.J. Denman could get a longer look.

Wisconsin: There are a lot of familiar names up front for the Badgers, who lose only one starter in guard Ryan Groy. The tackle spots look very solid with Tyler Marz (left) and Rob Havenstein (right), and Kyle Costigan started the final 11 games at right guard. There should be some competition at center, as both Dan Voltz and Dallas Lewallen have battled injuries. Coach Gary Andersen mentioned on national signing day that early enrollee Michael Deiter will enter the mix immediately at center. Another early enrollee, decorated recruit Jaden Gault, should be part of the rotation at tackle. If certain young players develop quickly this spring, Wisconsin should have no depth issues when the season rolls around.
Tags:

Purdue Boilermakers, Minnesota Golden Gophers, Penn State Nittany Lions, Big Ten Conference, Michigan State Spartans, Northwestern Wildcats, Indiana Hoosiers, Illinois Fighting Illini, Ohio State Buckeyes, Michigan Wolverines, Wisconsin Badgers, Iowa Hawkeyes, Nebraska Cornhuskers, Rutgers Scarlet Knights, Maryland Terrapins, Corey Lewis, Josh Campion, Brandon Vitabile, Darryl Baldwin, Blake Treadwell, Pat Fitzgerald, Travis Jackson, Miles Dieffenbach, Justin King, Zac Epping, Gary Andersen, Brett Van Sloten, Andrew Donnal, Rob Havenstein, Dallas Lewallen, Brandon Scherff, Paul Jorgensen, Donovan Smith, Austin Blythe, Tommy Olson, Angelo Mangiro, Jack Konopka, Jake Cotton, Jeremiah Sirles, Kyle Kalis, J.J. Denman, Kyle Dodson, Eric Olson, Michael Heitz, Simon Cvijanovic, Spencer Long, Collin Rahrig, Greg Studrawa, Kodi Kieler, Jordan Roos, Cameron Cermin, Taylor Decker, Robert Kugler, Jack Miller, Kyle Bosch, Evan Lisle, Jason Spriggs, Mark Pelini, James Franklin, Patrick Kugler, Kyle Costigan, Andrew Nelson, Ted Karras, Jon Christenson, Dan Feeney, Erik Magnuson, James Bodanis, Jaden Gault, Graham Glasgow, Marek Lenkiewicz, Eric Simmons, Pat Elflein, Matt Finnin, Damian Prince, Michael Deiter, David Hedelin, Mike Moudy, Zach Sterup, Conor Boffelli, B1G spring positions 14, Austin Schmidt, Tommy Gaul, Sal Conaboy, Ryan Doyle, Michael Dunn, Larry Mazyck, Connor Kruse, Devyn Salmon, Noah Jones, J.J. Prince, Kaleb Johnson, Betim Bujari, Keith Lumpkin, Mitch Browning, Dorian Miller

Friday Q&A: Penn State's John Urschel

October, 25, 2013
10/25/13
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John Urschel is a senior offensive guard who might have more accomplishments off the field than on. He was an All-Big Ten lineman last season and also co-authored a paper in the journal, "Celestial Mechanics and Dynamical Astronomy" that sought to prove how asteroids move in an unstable manner.

He carries a 4.0 GPA, is working on his second master's degree, taught a Penn State math class -- and he's also one of the leaders on Penn State's offense. I recently caught up with Urschel to talk about life on and off the football field for this week's Friday Q&A:

[+] EnlargeJohn Urschel
Randy Litzinger/ Icon SMIPenn State senior lineman John Urschel is accomplished on and off the field.
Right after Bill O'Brien's news conference this week, you joked that your head coach didn't ask you -- the math genius -- whether you should've gone for two at the end of the Michigan game. Well, tell me, what does math say you should've done?

John Urschel: I don't know what math says, but the offensive lineman in me says you go for two and you run the ball. [Laughs]

By now, everyone knows you're pretty good at math. (It's been documented here, here and here.) What's one thing you're good at that people don't know about?

JU: I'm a pretty good chess player. I do not have a ranking; I haven't played in any official matches or tournaments. But I figure once I get done with football, I might get into that and play competitively. I've only been into it for the past two years, but I've been pretty serious about it.

How are you serious about it?

JU: Whether it's practicing certain end games, different openings, just training my tactical vision. I do that in my free time -- not so much in the fall because I just don't have time, though.

You don't really come across as a person who does things halfway. It seems like once you do something ...

JU: Yeah, I try to do it well. I don't do things halfway. Another interesting thing -- Connect Four, have you ever played?

Oh, yeah. I can still tell you that '90s commercial jingle.

JU: When I move first, I am unbeaten. Unbeaten. And I dare someone to beat me. Bring this Connect Four game. I challenge someone to beat me, me moving first.

Is it because, mathematically, the person who goes first can always win? I'm onto you John ...

JU: [Laughs] Mathematically, you're always going to win if you play perfectly -- which not everyone can do. But playing perfectly, you will always win. Last time I played? Three or four days ago. I think I played someone on the team. I won.

Can I test your math ability a bit? If I just give you a series of double-digits, can you multiply them all together like a human calculator?

JU: Here's the thing. I get this question a lot. I have to warm myself up. This is something people don't get. So you're playing football -- you warm up before you play. Suppose you're doing some heavy computations -- you're doing a lot of math and a lot of heavy thinking. You don't do your best work when you just start, sit down and start doing it. You have to warm yourself up; it takes time. So if I'm completely not doing something math-related and somebody bothers me with that, I have to warm myself up. It's different.

OK, fine -- we'll skip the math pop quiz for now. Let's talk about football a little bit. How do you feel about your performance so far this season?

JU: I'd say, honestly, I had a slow start this year. But I'm really becoming more happy with my play as the season goes on. I'm really hoping to continue that strong performance throughout the Big Ten season.

What about two of your teammates on the line, Ty Howle and Donovan Smith? You had a lot of praise for Smith over the offseason.

JU: Ty's played really well. You know Ty's my boy; we're real tight. I love that guy to death. We've been playing together for -- this is our fifth season. He's played really well. He's taken that starting center spot and run with it. He's a big-time player. Donovan is a physical talent; he has as much talent as anyone on this offensive line. End of story. Footwork, good size, good job running through blocks. The list goes on.

You mentioned before you can go to Stanford or MIT after football's over. So you want to test the -- I mean, play in the NFL and then kind of move on?

JU: No, no. No testing the waters.

[Laughs] I tried to take that back.

JU: No testing. All in. I have every hope and aspiration to play in the NFL and I'm going to try to do everything I can to make it until they don't want me anymore. And when they say, 'John, stop trying,' that's when I'll go and get my PhD in math.

Do you think you're better at football or math?

JU: I think I've been given more gifts in one than another. More gifts in math. I've grown up to be 6-3 -- good size, good frame. But I'm no Donovan Smith. I'm not 6-7 or 6-6, or you know. It took work to get big and strong and become a good football player. Math has always been there; I've known that since I can remember.

Known since you were beating all the school kids at Connect Four?

JU: [Laughs] Yeah. That must have been it.

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