Big Ten: Eric Latimore

Several Big Ten players who didn't hear their names called in New York during the weekend still received some good news about their football futures. As soon as the NFL draft concluded, the undrafted free agent scramble began.

Here's an initial list of Big Ten UFA signings. Every Big Ten squad except Indiana had a player signed through free agency. We'll be sure to post more as they become official.

ILLINOIS
IOWA
MICHIGAN
MICHIGAN STATE
MINNESOTA
NEBRASKA
NORTHWESTERN
OHIO STATE
PENN STATE
PURDUE
WISCONSIN

Several players seem to be in good situations, whether it's playing for their hometown team (Kinnie, Netter) or near a family member (Lynn, whose dad, Anthony, coaches running backs for the Jets). It's still shocking to see Brewster on this list rather than the draft one. I'm also surprised Moye, Wiggs, Linthicum and Dimke didn't get drafted.

Other Big Ten players have tryouts with NFL squads, such as Northwestern quarterback Dan Persa (Tampa Bay), Minnesota wide receiver Da'Jon McKnight (Minnesota Vikings), Indiana offensive lineman Chris McDonald (Miami, Green Bay) and Minnesota safety Kim Royston (Minnesota Vikings).

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- New Penn State coach Bill O’Brien reiterates he has not watched and will not watch one frame of film from the team’s 2011 season.

That's not necessarily good news for Nittany Lions defenders Gerald Hodges and Jordan Hill. Both men could splice together some impressive highlight reels from last fall.

Hodges, an outside linebacker, earned first-team All-Big Ten honors from the coaches in his first full season as a starter, leading Penn State with 106 tackles, including 10 for loss and 4.5 sacks, and adding two forced fumbles and an interception. Hill was somewhat overshadowed by fellow Lions defensive tackle Devon Still, the Big Ten’s defensive player of the year, but he had a fine season in his own right, recording 59 tackles, including eight for loss and 3.5 sacks, to go along with a team-high three fumble recoveries and a forced fumble.

Both men could have bolted for the NFL draft, but both decided fairly early on that they'd return to Penn State and play for a coach who didn't care about what they had done in the past.

"I'm pretty sure [the coaches] heard about my style of play," Hodges told ESPN.com. "But I still feel it's my job to prove myself to them that I can play football, let them know as a man that I can play."

Hodges and Hill both are delivering the right messages this spring to the new coaching staff. O'Brien on Friday called Hodges "what you'd picture in a Penn State linebacker" and said Hodges has had one of the better springs on the squad. O'Brien told ESPN.com last week of Hill: "Excellent player, plays extremely hard and is technically sound."

The two seniors anchor a front defensive front seven that undoubtedly will be the team's strength in the first year of the new regime.

Both men have made position switches this spring that allow them to operate in more space. Hill is playing more at the 3-technique after spending most of last season at the nose (Still played the 3-technique). Rather than lining up over the ball, Hill is looking to shoot gaps between guards and tackles. Hill acknowledges the 3-technique is more of a glamor spot for defensive tackles.

At only 6-1, he’s able to keep his pads low and gain leverage against taller offensive linemen. He's also facing more 1-on-1 blocks, which he welcomes.

"You're playing against these big 6-7 guys, and they can’t reach you sometimes,” Hill said. "It's really an advantage at nose guard, too, because you're playing against 6-5, 6-6 centers and guards. They come at you on a double team, and if you're already at their hips, it's much easier."

Hill has played alongside elite defensive tackles throughout his time at Penn State. As a young player, he studied Jared Odrick, the Big Ten’s co-defensive player of the year in 2009 and a first-round pick in the 2010 draft. He spent last season lined up next to Still, a consensus All-American.

Although Hill is a different type of tackle than Odrick and Still, both of whom stand four inches taller, he took away traits from both. Odrick's motor never stopped, while Still’s drive in his final season made him a different player.

"It's definitely in the back of your head because you want to keep the defensive line moving, that tradition," Hill said. "As a defensive line, we're all one. If individual success comes from it, it’s because of the guys right next to me. Even with Dev's great success, he had an extraordinary year, [but] without Jack [Crawford], Eric [Latimore], me, that's not possible.

"It's the whole defensive line's effort."

[+] EnlargeGerald Hodges
Rob Christy/US PresswireGerald Hodges will move from weakside linebacker to the strong side in 2012.
Hodges, who began his Penn State career as a safety, moves from weakside linebacker to the strong side. Like Hill, Hodges' new position allows him to play more in space, a change he welcomes.

And like Hill, Hodges is aware of the tradition at his position at Linebacker U. He's not the first Penn State standout linebacker to shift to the strong side.

"Navorro [Bowman], Sean [Lee] and Paul [Posluszny], those guys, their last years they finally got to play strong side," Hodges said. "As guys' careers move to the end here, their last year, their last two years, they get moved to the strong side and are able to play out in space.

"It's something I take personally and something I take pride in."

Both Hodges and Hill have stood out this spring as Penn State absorbs a different defense under coordinator Ted Roof. Pass coverage will be a bigger emphasis for Hodges, who nearly picked off a short pass in a recent practice.

"Even though he had a great season last year, he's still hungry," middle linebacker Glenn Carson said. "He still wants to get better. That's the one thing that's going to make him a great football player."

Carson sees similar qualities in Hill.

"I'm seeing things from him on tape that you're just wowed by," Carson said. "He's an unbelievable athlete and just like Gerald, he's a hard worker. He's really hungry, chasing his dreams."

With Hodges and Hill leading the defense, Penn State can dream big in 2012.
We covered all the offensive position groups in our postseason rankings series here, here, here and here. Now it's time to turn our attention to the defensive side of the ball.

Defensive tackle was the strongest position in the league in 2011, so that makes this a competitive situation. There are some major changes from our preseason order as well. Remember this is about overall production, and depth matters along with star power. The top four on this list are really, really strong.

Here we go:

[+] EnlargeWilliam Gholston and Aaron Murray
J. Meric/Getty ImagesWilliam Gholston and the Spartans' defensive line helped key a Michigan State win over Georgia in the Outback Bowl.
1. Michigan State: The Spartans finished with the top total defense in the Big Ten and one of the best in the nation, and it all started with a dominant front. All-American tackle Jerel Worthy commanded extra attention inside and was joined by Kevin Pickelman and Anthony Rashad White as forces inside. William Gholston was brilliant at times, never more so than in the Outback Bowl win over Georgia. And freshman Marcus Rush turned in an outstanding season at the other defensive end spot. The Spartans had no weaknesses at this position in 2011.

2. Michigan: We projected the Wolverines would make a significant leap in '11, but the amount of improvement still surprised us. The combination of head coach Brady Hoke and defensive coordinator Greg Mattison, both defensive line coaches at heart, and valuable seniors Mike Martin and Ryan Van Bergen made this the backbone of Michigan's Sugar Bowl run. The Wolverines were especially tough in short-yardage situations because their defensive front was so stout.

3. Penn State: Big Ten defensive player of the year Devon Still wrecked just about everybody's game plan with a huge senior campaign. Jordan Hill had a solid, underrated year next to him inside. Jack Crawford stayed healthy and contributed 6.5 sacks, while Eric Latimore and Sean Stanley combined for another 7.5 quarterback takedowns.

4. Illinois: Defensive end Whitney Mercilus was a consensus first-team All-American who led the nation in sacks and forced fumbles. Nobody saw that coming. He had good company along the line as well, with guys like Akeem Spence inside and Michael Buchanan at the other end spot. The Illini may have faltered down the stretch as a team, but the D-line stayed strong throughout the year.

5. Wisconsin: The Badgers didn't have many household names on the defensive line, and certainly no one stood out like J.J. Watt the year before. But Bret Bielema relied on a solid group of veterans that helped the team finish third in the league in total defense and fifth in sacks. Patrick Butrym, Louis Nzegwu, Brendan Kelly and Ethan Hemer were part of a group that played better than the sum of its parts.

6. Ohio State: The Buckeyes had one of the best defensive players in the league in John Simon, who had 16 tackles for loss and seven sacks in a breakout season. Tackle Johnathan Hankins emerged as a disrupter at 335 pounds. But Ohio State didn't get its usual production elsewhere on the line, got beat up as the season went along and lacked depth, which is one reason why Urban Meyer went out and signed so many pass rushers in his first recruiting class.

7. Nebraska: The biggest disappointment from the preseason, as the Huskers tumbled from their No. 1 ranking last summer. Jared Crick's season-ending injury hurt the production, but he was not putting up huge numbers before he tore his pectoral muscle. Cameron Meredith, Baker Steinkuhler and Eric Martin had some nice moments, but Nebraska wasn't nearly as fierce up front as we thought it might be.

8. Purdue: Kawann Short turned in his best season, with 17 tackles for loss and 6.5 sacks from his interior spot, while Bruce Gaston and Gerald Gooden provided solid support. But the Boilermakers' pass rush off the edge lacked explosiveness until freshman Ryan Russell started to come on late in the season. Everyone except Gooden returns, and with a new position coach Purdue hopes this unit can go from decent to great in 2012.

9. Iowa: Another disappointing crew, as the Hawkeyes proved it's not easy to replace three draft picks off the defensive line and simply reload. Mike Daniels and Broderick Binns were the senior anchors, but Iowa's pass rush was sluggish until late in the season. And there wasn't a whole lot of depth behind them. This group loses three starters and will be extremely young in 2012.

10. Northwestern: We ranked the Wildcats 10th in the preseason as well, but we still expected better things out of this group. Northwestern generated very little pressure on opposing quarterbacks and ranked last in the Big Ten in sacks. Vince Browne, a projected all-conference pick in the summer, had a subpar season with only 3.5 tackles for loss after putting up 15.5 in 2010. It's clear this group needs to get better for Northwestern to take the next step.

11. Minnesota: The Gophers weren't as terrible on the defensive front as they were in 2010, when they finished last in the nation with only nine sacks. In fact, they more than doubled that total with 19 last season. Still, it was a mostly anonymous crew that gave quarterbacks too much time to carve up the secondary in the passing game. Jerry Kill still needs to find more playmakers at this position.

12. Indiana: The Hoosiers had problems all over the defense, and the line was no exception. Adam Replogle and Larry Black gave the unit some veteran leadership in the middle, but Indiana resorted to playing a lot of kids at the defensive end spots. The results were about what you'd expect.

Depth chart indecision day marches on with the Penn State Nittany Lions, who -- surprise, surprise -- didn't name a starting quarterback on their depth chart for Saturday's season opener against Indiana State.

Sophomore Rob Bolden and junior Matt McGloin are listed as co-starters for the opener. It's not a major shock, but I'm not sure what else the Penn State coaches need to evaluate at this point. Bolden and McGloin competed throughout spring ball and into fall camp. Both have started games. Is there still no clear separation? Hard to believe. Don't be surprised to see Penn State play both men against Indiana State before the Week 2 showdown with Alabama.

Other depth chart nuggets:
  • Sophomore John Urschel and senior Johnnie Troutman are listed as co-starters at right guard. Veteran DeOn'tae Pannell has emerged at left guard -- at least for now -- ahead of Mark Arcidiacono. There are no surprises on the rest of the first-team line.
  • Silas Redd is listed as Penn State's starting running back ahead of Brandon Beachum. Curtis Dukes is the third-stringer, while Stephfon Green, who rejoined the team last week, doesn't appear on the depth chart.
  • Sophomore Shawney Kersey and junior Justin Brown are listed as starting wide receiver alongside All-Big Ten candidate Derek Moye. Devon Smith is the backup to Brown.
  • Sophomore Glenn Carson translated a strong preseason camp into the starting middle linebacker spot ahead of classmate Khairi Fortt. Michael Mauti has shifted to outside linebacker, where both he and Gerald Hodges will start. Former starter Nate Stupar is listed as Mauti's backup. In case it isn't obvious, Penn State is loaded at linebacker.
  • Senior Eric Latimore, who missed most of the 2010 season with a wrist injury, is listed as a starting defensive end opposite Jack Crawford. Promising redshirt freshman Kyle Baublitz will back up Latimore.
  • Senior Chaz Powell has edged junior Stephon Morris for the starting right cornerback spot.
  • Anthony Fera is listed as a backup at punter, kicker and holder, most likely the result of his citation for purchase/possession of alcohol by a minor last month. Junior Evan Lewis is Penn State's top kicker for the opener, while Alex Butterworth will handle the punting duties.
  • Only two redshirt freshmen appear as backups on Penn State's depth chart: Baublitz and outside linebacker Mike Hull.

Fresh Faces: Penn State

August, 8, 2011
8/08/11
2:32
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We're doubling up on fresh faces today as camps open around the league. This series looks at freshmen, redshirt freshmen, transfers or returnees ready to move into much bigger roles this season for each unit on a team.

Let's examine Penn State:

Offense: John Urschel, OG, Soph., 6-3, 284

Urschel emerged as the starting right guard after spring practice and will try to hold onto that this fall while battling DeOn'tae Pannell. Urschel made one start as a redshirt freshman against Indiana. Penn State hopes he can replace Stefen Wisniewski and be part of a more dominant offensive line. As a side note, Urschel is an outstanding student just like Wisniewski. The math major has a 4.0 GPA.

Defense: Kyle Baublitz, DE, Fr., 6-5, 261


Baublitz showed his potential by registering two sacks in the Blue-White spring game. A redshirt freshman who enrolled in January 2010, he could provide depth to a position that is looking for more top-flight contributors. Penn State has seniors Eric Latimore and Jack Crawford at the end spots, but both have had health issues. The Nittany Lions need to develop a more productive pass rush, and Baublitz could push for playing time with a big fall camp.

Special teams: Sam Ficken, K, Fr.

The Nittany Lions need to find a replacement for the departed Collin Wagner at place-kicker. Perhaps Ficken could be that guy. After all, Penn State gave him a scholarship in the 2011 class, which is rare for kickers. Ficken booted a 52-yarder in high school, but he'll have to beat out Anthony Fera and David Soldner this fall.
You could say that Devon Still got an early start to a potentially big 2011.

In the Outback Bowl on New Year's Day, the Penn State defensive tackle had the most productive game of his career. He harassed Florida offensive linemen all day and finished with 3.5 tackles for loss, most by a Nittany Lions player all season.

"That game definitely boosted my confidence," Still said. "It let me know I could go out there and be the dominant player I want to be. I just want to carry over the play I had against Florida into this season."

[+] EnlargeDevon Still
Al Messerschmidt/Getty ImagesDevon Still hopes to build off of his big game in last season's Outback Bowl.
Penn State wants to return to the days of having a dominant defensive line, and Still could be the starting point for that resurgence. A fifth-year senior who battled injury earlier in his career, he has developed into a steadying force and one of the best defensive tackles in a league that's stacked at the position. Still led the Nittany Lions in both sacks (four) and tackles for loss last year (10). And yet, Penn State's sack leader should probably have more than four all season.

Injuries and inconsistent play have hurt the defensive front. But Still thinks things are on the rise. He likes what he sees out of junior Jordan Hill, who is penciled in as the other starting tackle, and sophomore DaQuan Jones. If Jack Crawford and Eric Latimore can return from their injuries, they will add experience to the defensive end spots.

"I had to fight a lot of double teams last year," Still said. "I'm sure in the beginning of the season I'll see the same amount of double teams. But when teams see what type of player Jordan is or DaQuan is or Jack is, they're going to have to focus on all of them and not just one person."

Still has slimmed down a bit this offseason, dropping about five pounds from his listed weight of 305 last year. He's hoping to start this season around 298 or less because he feels he can do more when he's lighter on his feet. That could be bad news for opponents.

"I'm learning how to play full speed and not take off any plays," he said. "I want to be one of the best defensive linemen to ever come out of Penn State."

But team success means more to Still. After all, despite his great game in the Outback Bowl, Penn State did lose to Florida. He and the defense want to keep those results from repeating.

"We want to be a team that competes for a national championship," he said. "We had a fantastic spring. We just need to push forward through training camp and hope we come out of it a dominant defense."
The position rankings move from offense to defense. We'll start with the group that has produced more Big Ten stars than any other position group in recent years.

The Big Ten had five defensive linemen, all from different teams, selected in the first round of April's NFL draft: Wisconsin's J.J. Watt, Illinois' Corey Liuget, Purdue's Ryan Kerrigan, Iowa's Adrian Clayborn and Ohio State's Cameron Heyward. Iowa lost three starting D-linemen to the draft, and almost every Big Ten squad has to replace major contributors.

The personnel losses make the preseason D-line rankings both tricky and fun. The first three groups look very good, while there's not much difference in the middle of the league.

Let's take a look:

[+] EnlargeJared Crick
Brett Davis/US PresswireJared Crick and Nebraska join the Big Ten as the league's top defensive line.
1. Nebraska: The Big Ten's newest member should fit in well with its strong play up front. Star defensive tackle Jared Crick stiff-armed the NFL draft and returned for his final season, giving Nebraska a terrific centerpiece up front. He'll be complemented by veterans Baker Steinkuhler and the mustachioed Cameron Meredith. If converted linebacker Eric Martin builds off of a strong spring, Nebraska should be fine at the end spot.

2. Ohio State: Heyward's leadership and versatility will be missed, but Ohio State always finds ways to fill the gaps up front. Junior John Simon should be primed for a breakout season. Like Heyward, Simon can play both line spots but might see more time on the edge this fall. Nathan Williams adds experience at end, and promising sophomore Johnathan Hankins could wreak havoc on the interior this fall.

3. Michigan State: Like several Big Ten teams, the Spartans build their line around a potential superstar tackle in Jerel Worthy. The junior already is projected as a potential first-round pick in the 2012 draft after recording four sacks last fall. Anthony Rashad White emerged this spring as a nice complement to Worthy. Michigan State needs a better pass rush from the end spots, and hopes are high for William Gholston and Tyler Hoover.

4. Wisconsin: Watt is a huge loss because he contributed in so many ways, but Wisconsin could account for his production with greater depth. Ends Louis Nzegwu and David Gilbert both have played a lot of football, and junior Brendan Kelly came on strong toward the end of spring practice. Senior tackle Patrick Butrym has emerged as one of the leaders on defense. Wisconsin needs young tackles like Jordan Kohout and Beau Allen to help Butrym.

5. Michigan: This is a projection pick, but I think Michigan's defensive front takes a significant step forward this season. Senior tackle Mike Martin is a bona fide NFL prospect and will lead the way, and players like Ryan Van Bergen and Craig Roh should be among the primary beneficiaries of the new defense under coordinator Greg Mattison. Michigan needs to build depth with Jibreel Black, Will Campbell and others, but there's great potential here.

6. Iowa: The Hawkeyes face a tough task in replacing multiyear starters in Clayborn, Christian Ballard and Karl Klug. Senior tackle Mike Daniels is ready to lead the group after recording 11 tackles for loss and four sacks in 2010. The biggest key is getting Broderick Binns back to his 2009 form. Iowa also needs to build depth with Lebron Daniel and others, and avoid major injuries.

7. Purdue: Defensive tackle is a major strength for Purdue as Kawann Short and Bruce Gaston Jr. form one of the league's top tandems. Short quietly turned in an extremely productive season last fall (12.5 TFLs, 6 sacks). The big unknown is how Purdue replaces Kerrigan. The Boilers need veteran Gerald Gooden to stay healthy and others to emerge alongside him.

8. Penn State: Much like Purdue, Penn State looks strong at tackle and has question marks at end. Devon Still could contend for All-Big Ten honors after a terrific performance in the Outback Bowl against Florida. Still and Jordan Hill should lock up the middle, but Penn State needs Jack Crawford and Eric Latimore to get healthy at the end spots. If not, the Lions will turn to unproven players to spark their pass rush.

9. Illinois: Liuget is a significant loss in the middle and Illinois also must replace veteran end Clay Nurse. The Illini will rely on Akeem Spence to step in for Liuget, and Spence showed some good things this spring. There's talent on the edges with Michael Buchanan, Whitney Mercilus and others, but Illinois needs more consistent production.

10. Northwestern: This group took a step back last fall and got manhandled down the stretch as Northwestern hemorrhaged yards and points. Senior end Vince Browne is a playmaker who put up impressive numbers (15.5 TFLs, 7 sacks) in 2010. He'll need help from tackles Jack DiNardo and Niko Mafuli, and Tyler Scott could provide a lift at the other end spot. The Wildcats need their line to regain the edge it displayed in 2008.

11. Indiana: It wouldn't surprise me to see Indiana's front four rise up these rankings during the season. There are some nice pieces back, namely senior end Darius Johnson, who can be a force when healthy. Junior Adam Replogle has been productive at defensive tackle. There's plenty of competition at the other two spots as Indiana tries to turn a page on defense.

12. Minnesota: The Gophers' pass rush was practically invisible in 2010, as they finished last nationally in sacks (9). The good news is new defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys will turn his linemen loose more often, giving players like Brandon Kirksey chances to make plays. We've heard a lot about Minnesota's talent up front but haven't seen nearly enough production on Saturdays.
Being one of the top-rated recruits in the country is a double-edged sword. You get all the attention and hype you'd ever want coming out of high school. But there is also more pressure on you to succeed once you step foot on campus. And there's more pressure on coaches and programs to get the most out of their big-time prospects. As the old saying goes, potential will get you fired.

With that in mind, today we're taking a look back at the top Big Ten recruits from the 2010 class and seeing where they stand. It's not fair to judge these guys until the end of their college careers, and in several cases these players haven't even gotten on the field yet. But it's never too early to take stock.

We're going to use the ESPNU150 list from 2010 as our guide. The Big Ten had 14 players make that elite list. We'll divide the players into three categories: those who've made the biggest impact so far, those who have played but for whom the jury is still out and those who haven't played yet. (One interesting thing to note: None of the 14 made Adam's 2010 Big Ten All-Freshman team):

Away we go ...

Biggest impact

Rob Bolden, QB, Penn State (No. 112 overall, No. 4 position rank)

[+] EnlargeRob Bolden
AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar, FileRob Bolden made a big impact as a freshman, but his future remains up in the air.
You all know the Bolden story. He started the first seven games as a true freshmen and eight games overall, throwing for 1,360 yards, five touchdowns and seven interceptions. Then he lost his job to walk-on Matt McGloin after suffering a concussion against Minnesota, and there was a heated quarterback battle this spring. The last we heard, Bolden hadn't decided whether he'll stay at Penn State or transfer before the 2011 season.

Corey Brown, WR, Ohio State (No. 137 overall, No. 20 position rank)

"Philly," as he's called, played in all 13 games last season and saw time on the kick and punt return teams as well as at receiver. He caught eight balls for 105 yards and a touchdown, which came in the win over Purdue. He won the outstanding first-year player award from the coaching staff. But he also had trouble with drops this spring. With the Buckeyes' lone returning starter at receiver, DeVier Posey, out for the first five games, Brown will need to become a consistent force.

Khairi Fortt, LB, Penn State (No. 66 overall, No. 2 position rank): Will Fortt be one of the next great players at Linebacker U.? He saw action in nine games last year, including a start against Illinois in which he recorded 11 tackles. Penn State is loaded at linebacker, but Fortt saw a lot of time with the first-team defense this spring and will be hard to keep out of the lineup this fall.

William Gholston, DE, Michigan State (No. 42 overall, No. 3 position rank)

The Big Ten's highest-rated recruit in 2010 served as the Spartans' backup left end and played in 10 games before suffering a season-ending shoulder injury against Minnesota. He collected 13 tackles and a half-sack as a true freshman and had five stops and an assisted tackle for loss against Iowa. The 6-foot-7, 265-pounder should slide into a starting role in 2011.

Jury's still out

C.J. Fiedorowicz, TE, Iowa (No. 82 overall, No. 6 position rank)

Fiedorowicz saw action in all 13 games but did not record a catch as a true freshman as he saw most of his time on special teams. The 6-foot-7 sophomore is expected to back up starter Brad Herman this season but could see time when the Hawkeyes use two tight ends.

Devin Gardner, QB, Michigan (No. 128 overall, No. 5 position rank)

Gardner got to play in three games as a true freshman. He threw for 85 yards and a touchdown against Bowling Green and also ran for a score in that game. Then he hurt his back and missed the rest of the season, and Michigan is hoping to get a medical redshirt year for him. Of course, his opportunities were limited anyway and figure to be the same for the foreseeable future because he's stuck behind another pretty good quarterback. Fella named Denard. You might have heard of him.

Andrew Rodriguez, OG, Nebraska (No. 147 overall, No. 7 position rank)

The 6-foot-6 Rodriguez got his feet wet with five appearances in 2010, becoming the first true freshman to play on the offensive line for Nebraska since 2006. With starting guards Ricky Henry and Keith Williams now departed, there's a good chance Rodriguez fills one of those spots in 2011.

Look out for

Darryl Baldwin, DE, Ohio State (No. 131 overall, No. 13 position rank)

Baldwin took a redshirt year in 2010 and should see some snaps this year, albeit most likely in a backup role.

Miles Dieffenbach, C, Penn State (No. 118 overall, No. 1 position rank)

Dieffenbach redshirted in 2010 as senior Doug Klopacz held down the center spot. Dieffenbach is expected to back up junior Matt Stankiewitch in 2011.

Evan Hailes, DT, Penn State (No. 88 overall, No. 9 position rank)

It may be a while before we know anything about Hailes. He redshirted in 2010, and Joe Paterno said after the spring game that Hailes could miss the entire 2011 season with an undisclosed illness.

James Louis, WR, Ohio State (No. 80 overall, No. 12 position rank)

Louis redshirted in 2010 and was inconsistent this spring, like most of the Buckeyes' young receivers. At least the opportunity for playing time is there.

C.J. Olaniyan, DE, Penn State (No. 148 overall, No. 16 position rank)

Olaniyan redshirted last season and got some first-team reps this spring with starters Jack Crawford and Eric Latimore slowed by injuries. Those two will start when they get healthy, but Olaniyan should see time in the rotation along the defensive front.

Dakota Royer, LB, Penn State (No. 70 overall, No. 7 position rank)

A defensive end in high school, Royer is battling for playing time at the crowded linebacker position with the Nittany Lions. He redshirted in 2010 and will have to fight to get on the field behind an experienced crew this season.

Rod Smith, RB, Ohio State (No. 56 overall, No. 7 position rank)

Smith reported late to preseason camp last year while he worked on some academics and ended up redshirting. Now he's part of a group of tailbacks battling for carries while starter Dan Herron is out for the first five games. The 6-3, 230-pound bruiser impressed during bowl practice last year, had seven carries for 36 yards in the spring game and could become the featured back in Herron's absence. But the running back competition figures to continue into fall camp.
The hope and concern series marches on with the Penn State Nittany Lions.

Biggest reason for hope: Linebacker U could be back

Penn State left spring practice excited about its potential at linebacker, and for good reason. Michael Mauti is healthy and primed for a potentially huge season in 2011. Veteran Nathan Stupar also returns following a 73-tackle season. The best news coming out of spring ball was the continued development of Gerald Hodges, who has star potential after appearing in only eight games last fall. "There's always new traffic patterns to learn, and I think the game's slowing down now for him," defensive coordinator Tom Bradley said of Hodges, who came to Penn State as a safety. "He's seeing better, he's understanding it better. Playing the position for a couple years, he's much more comfortable." If players like Hodges and Khairi Fortt continue to make strides, Penn State could have the Big Ten's deepest group of linebackers.

Biggest reason for concern: Question marks on both lines

Penn State's success or mediocrity since it joined the Big Ten can be directly tied to line play. The Lions appear to have enough at the offensive and defensive skill positions to be pretty good this fall. But there are questions along the line of scrimmage. Penn State has very little depth at defensive end and needs Jack Crawford and Eric Latimore to stay healthy this fall. Although the defensive tackle spot boasts a few more bodies, Brandon Ware's departure could hurt. The offensive front boasts some veteran leadership in tackles Quinn Barham and Chima Okoli, but there's some uncertainty at center and the whole group must perform more consistently than it did in 2010.

More Hope and Concern
Brandon Ware's promising yet disappointing Penn State career has come to an end.

The Lions defensive tackle told The (Harrisburg) Patriot-News on Tuesday that he intends to transfer for personal reasons, most likely to a lower-level program. PennState247.com reported that Ware was declared academically ineligible following the spring semester and would have to sit out the 2011 season if he remained at Penn State. Ware endured academic troubles throughout his time at Penn State and spent plenty of time in coach Joe Paterno's dog house.

I was pulling for Ware to make it at Penn State, especially after he had a strong spring. He seemed to finally be getting it, and Lions defensive tackle Devon Still told me in April, "I've seen Brandon play his best football since he's been here. He's just been more focused, and he's starting to learn that his opportunity is coming to an end."

Unfortunately, Ware's opportunity at Penn State appears to be over. The Lions certainly could have used Ware to solidify depth at tackle. They're extremely thin at the end spots and had to move tackle DaQuan Jones to the 5-technique this spring just to get another body on the field.

Still and Jordan Hill form a nice 1-2 punch at tackle, but Penn State's overall line depth is a concern with Ware's departure and the season-ending injury to end Pete Massaro, not to mention lingering injuries to ends Jack Crawford and Eric Latimore.
Whatever it takes.

According to Penn State defensive tackle Devon Still, this is the motto the Nittany Lions defensive line adopted this spring. D-line coach Larry Johnson had the players repeat those three words every time they broke the huddle in practice.

[+] EnlargeDevon Still
Rob Christy/US PresswireThere are "a lot of expectations" for Penn State defensive tackle Devon Still and the rest of the Lions defensive line.
"[Johnson] really wants to get it out there to us that we have to do whatever it takes to win," Still said. "Whether it's getting our grades, pushing one another on the football field or during workouts, just whatever it takes as a group to get it done, we have to do it."

The message hits home for Still and Penn State's other defensive tackles. Given the amount of uncertainty at the defensive end position, Penn State's interior linemen need to do whatever it takes to elevate their play in 2011.

While everyone still wants to know who starts at quarterback for Penn State this season, the more significant question points to the defensive end position. Pete Massaro's season-ending knee injury early in spring ball meant the Lions went through the session without any proven ends. Jack Crawford and Eric Latimore both spent the spring recovering from injuries, and Penn State had to move DaQuan Jones from tackle to the 5-technique end just to get another body on the edge.

Penn State's ideal solution is to have both Crawford and Latimore healthy and playing at a high level throughout the season. The more realistic hope is to have Still and the other defensive tackles pick up the slack.

"There's a lot of expectations," Still said.

Although most Penn State players would prefer to forget the Outback Bowl loss to Florida, Still uses it as a potential springboard. He recorded a career-high 3.5 tackles for loss and tied for second on the team with seven total stops.

"I watched more tape for the game," he said. "I saw how their blocking schemes were different than what I was getting in the Big Ten. In the Big Ten I was really getting double teamed, and nobody was coming off the block, so I didn't have a chance to make plays. With [Florida], they were hitting double teams but somebody was coming off, which gave me a chance.

"It let me know I can be a dominant player."

After missing the 2007 and 2008 seasons with knee injuries, Still has racked up 15.5 tackles for loss in the past two seasons and enters the fall as an All-Big Ten candidate.

"Being injured really took away a lot of my time here at Penn State," he said. "I have to make the best of what I have left."

Penn State also has high hopes for junior Jordan Hill coming out of the spring. Hill played in all 13 games last fall and recorded 36 tackles.

He's expected to slide into the starting spot vacated by Ollie Ogbu.

"Jordan had an outstanding spring," defensive coordinator Tom Bradley said. "Jordan is really going to be a good football player."

The wild card in the group is Brandon Ware. His struggles with both grades and weight are well documented, and he recorded only two tackles last season.

But Ware seems to finally be getting it. He has "slimmed down" to 337 pounds. His talent always has been there, and he showed it in spring ball.

"I've seen Brandon play his best football since he's been here," Still said. "He's just been more focused, and he's starting to learn that his opportunity is coming to an end. That's what I'm going to do, too. I have one more year here, so I know I have to play my hardest."

And do whatever it takes.

Penn State spring wrap

May, 4, 2011
5/04/11
7:00
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Penn State

2010 overall record: 7-6

2010 conference record: 4-4 (T-4th)

Returning starters

Offense: 7; defense: 7; kicker/punter: 1

Top returners

LB Michael Mauti, DT Devon Still, S Nick Sukay, CB D'Anton Lynn, LB Nathan Stupar, QB Matt McGloin, QB Rob Bolden, WR Derek Moye, LT Quinn Barham

Key losses

DT Ollie Ogbu, LB Chris Colasanti, RB Evan Royster, G Stefen Wisniewski, C Doug Klopacz, K Collin Wagner

2010 statistical leaders (*returners)

Rushing: Evan Royster (1,014 yards)

Passing: Matt McGloin* (1,548 yards)

Receiving: Derek Moye* (885 yards)

Tackles: Chris Colasanti (112)

Sacks: Devon Still* (4)

Interceptions: D'Anton Lynn* and Nick Sukay* (3)

Spring answers

1. Still solidifies middle: Penn State needs its defensive line to rebound in 2010, and it has a good piece to build around in tackle Devon Still. After a huge performance in the Outback Bowl (3.5 tackles for loss), Still continued to make strides this spring and drew praise from the coaching staff. The potential always has been there with Still, and after overcoming injuries early in his career, he looks like he's ready for a breakout season.

2. Quarterbacks make progress: The starter remains a mystery, but whoever calls signals for Penn State this fall will have a better grasp of the system. Both Rob Bolden and Matt McGloin drew high marks this spring, not only showing a greater understanding of the offense but greater willingness to lead the unit. When the often pessimistic Joe Paterno says "I think we're in good shape" at quarterback, it's typically a good sign.

3. Linebacker U. returns: Although Penn State brings back a lot of experience in the secondary, the defense should be linebacker-driven in 2011. That's the way it should be at Linebacker U. Veterans Michael Mauti and Nathan Stupar are poised to lead the way, and Gerald Hodges made strides this spring and has star potential for the Nittany Lions. Sophomore Khairi Fortt also impressed this spring and could push Stupar for playing time.

Fall questions

1. The starting quarterback: McGloin and Bolden are clearly the top two candidates, but neither enters the summer as the appointed starter. Bolden's future is the subplot here, as the rising sophomore hasn't closed the door to a potential departure from the program. Bolden felt the competition was fair this spring, and it could heat up again when the team resumes practice in August. The coaches probably don't want to let things drag on too long without naming a No. 1 QB.

2. Defensive end: Penn State has lacked a dynamic pass-rusher since Aaron Maybin in 2008, and there's serious concern about the defensive end spot coming out of the spring. Jack Crawford and Eric Latimore remained sidelined this spring with injuries, and projected starter Pete Massaro suffered a season-ending torn ACL early in the spring session. The Lions really need both Crawford and Latimore to get healthy and elevate their play this fall.

3. Offensive line: Although receiver Curtis Drake's injury this spring is a setback for the offense, Penn State should have enough playmakers to sustain the offense if the line can do its job. Line play is the biggest key to Penn State reclaiming its 2008 form, and the pressure is on a group that boasts experience (Quinn Barham, Chima Okoli, Johnnie Troutman) but must prove it can consistently generate push against top Big Ten competition. Tight end also is a major question mark, making the line's performance even more important.
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- The Penn State Nittany Lions couldn't stay on the attack in 2010.

They would strike for stretches -- the final 31 minutes against Northwestern, the first half against Ohio State, most of the Michigan game -- but every time the Lions appeared to dig in for the long haul, they'd slide back down.

The result was a maddeningly inconsistent season, which fittingly produced a 7-6 final ledger.

"We played Northwestern and Ohio State back to back," Penn State quarterbacks coach Jay Paterno said. "And with a minute to go [in the first half] against Northwestern 'til halftime at Ohio State, we outscored those teams 49-3. The other 59 minutes we got outscored 56-0. That's in a two-week stretch. That shows you, literally, a young team without a lot of leadership. Sometimes they react to negative things very poorly and it snowballs. And sometimes, when things start to get hot, you can play with anybody.

[+] EnlargePenn State's Jay Paterno
AP Photo/Gene J. PuskarAccording to Penn State quarterbacks coach Jay Paterno, above, Joe Paterno "didn't feel we were a very tough football team last year. There are some guys who want to prove how tough they are."
"That was really the microcosm of our year. We were either very, very good or very, very bad. The key for us is to put the 60 minutes together in the same field, same day, and do it week after week. We're heading that way. We're practicing really tough."

Practice has had a different tone this spring at Penn State. Players feel it. Coaches feel it.

The Lions are motivated by how last season turned out. They're motivated by competition at virtually every position. They're motivated by an 84-year-old head coach who still knows how to light a fire under his players.

"Joe really threw down the gauntlet," Jay Paterno said of his father. "He said he didn't feel we were a very tough football team last year. There are some guys who want to prove how tough they are."

Practices have been more than a bit chippy this spring. If Penn State gets through a workout without a scrap or two breaking out, it feels like something's wrong.

"There's a lot of testosterone out there," Lions defensive tackle Devon Still said. "There's been so many fights. I can't tell you when the first one started. I thought it was going to be kind of calm like it usually is during the spring, but for some reason it's been a real dogfight.

"I don't know what's gotten into everybody."

Still normally stays out of the fray, but last Monday he got into it with center Matt Stankiewitch. The two 300-pounders mixed it up for a few moments before the rest of the defense jumped in.

"Stank didn't have a chance," Still said, smiling.

Penn State defensive coordinator Tom Bradley has seen his share of fights in practice over the years. Sometimes, it's personal and coaches have to step in. Other times, the tussles spark out of competitiveness and the coaches can stay away.

The Lions' staff isn't intervening much this spring.

"It's been healthy," Bradley said. "There's been a couple scuffles, but it hasn't continued; it hasn't gone from one series to the next series to the locker room."

His players said Joe Paterno seems to enjoy what he's seeing.

"He loves that type of stuff," Still said.

Paterno will love it more if Penn State's spring spunk translates into victories this fall.

The Lions have no shortage of question marks -- offensive line, defensive line, tight end, kicker -- but they should improve at arguably the two most important leadership positions, quarterback and linebacker.

Rob Bolden and Matt McGloin, who split the starts at quarterback in 2010, have impressed the staff this spring. Although a starter likely won't be named until fall camp and Bolden remains undecided about his future with the program, Penn State will have greater trust and confidence in the man calling signals this season.

"I definitely see a difference," wide receiver Derek Moye said. "Some of the plays they're making, some of the reads they're making, a lot of things they weren't doing last year are second nature to them now."

Linebacker should be a strength, as Penn State returns starters Nate Stupar and Michael Mauti as well as promising younger players such as Gerald Hodges, who has drawn praise from the staff this spring. The depth at linebacker could impact the plan, especially if Penn State's fortune on the health front doesn’t change.

After being hit hard with injuries in 2010, Penn State lost defensive end Pete Massaro to a torn ACL early in spring ball. Ends Jack Crawford and Eric Latimore also are dealing with lingering injuries.

"We are not married to a scheme or married to people," Bradley said. "If coach Paterno walks in and says, 'I want you to play a 3-4,' we'll play a 3-4 or a 3-5 or whatever we've got to do."

Whatever we've got to do. It has been the mantra for Penn State this spring, starting with the head coach.

Joe Paterno has been critical of himself, saying he "didn't want to push some of the younger kids too far" last season. He has had fewer reservations this spring, and his players have noticed a change.

"I've enjoyed this team; I still enjoy coaching," Paterno said. "I can run around a little bit out there and get involved in drills and different things. If it appears to the kids that I am working harder at it, good; I'm glad to hear that. I don’t know whether I’m working any harder at it.

"I hope that I'm doing a better job."

Penn State will reach a potentially critical juncture this fall.

After a Rose Bowl appearance in 2008, the Lions fell short of expectations the next season and took a step back in 2010. The coming season could determine whether the Lions blend with the Big Ten's midsection or get back among the league's elite.

"This isn't a mediocre program; this isn't a 7-6 program," offensive tackle Chima Okoli said. "This is a program built on a lot of pride. We've got to shoot for the top."

Big Ten makeup mailblog

April, 11, 2011
4/11/11
10:00
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Couldn't get to this Friday, but I didn't forget the mail.

The regular mailblog will appear Tuesday, so send in those questions.

Jake from Missouri writes: Since you were just in Happy Valley, I was wondering if you got any hints or ideas on who would be starting at the DE positions for PSU this year due to the injury bug decimating the depth at that position.

Adam Rittenberg: Jake, defensive end is a big mystery at Penn State because of the injury situation. Sophomore DaQuan Jones is getting a ton of reps because of Pete Massaro's season-ending ACL tear and the lingering injuries to both Jack Crawford and Eric Latimore. Jones can really help his cause with a strong spring. Other than Jones, Penn State is looking at several young players at the end spots. As long as Crawford and Latimore get healthy, they'll have a good chance to start with Jones in the mix. It's far from an ideal situation depth-wise, but Penn State should be much stronger at DT with Devon Still, Jordan Hill and Brandon Ware.


Tom from Atlantic City, N.J., writes: Adam, if the Big Ten adds a 9th conference game, do you think it will be a protected rivalry game or just another in the rotation? If it is "protected"... which opponent would be each school's 2nd rival from the opposite division? I'm thinking: Wisconsin-Iowa, Ohio State-Nebraska, Michigan-Penn State, Michigan State-Purdue, Indiana-Illinois, Minnesota-Northwestern.... thoughts?

Adam Rittenberg: Tom, if the Big Ten adds a ninth conference game, it will be to maintain the intimacy of the league and prevent the four-year gaps we're seeing in the 2011-14 scheduling cycle. You could do a second protected crossover and then rotate the other four cross division opponents every two years (two opponents on, two opponents off). It's something that will be discussed at the Big Ten spring meetings next month in Chicago. If we saw a second protected crossover, your proposed lineup certainly could be the answer. The Big Ten will want to maximize marquee games like Nebraska-Ohio State and Michigan-Penn State, while Wisconsin-Iowa maintains another rivalry.


Tony from Hawkeye Nation writes: Hey Adam, you mentioned in your previous blog post here, that Iowa-Nebraska was going to be a Friday-after-Thanksgiving game. Has this changed in the scheduling for 2011-2014? If so, I think that would be a tremendous mistake. I have already requested work off to go to Lincoln. Plus, this is a valid excuse to not shop with my girlfriend and her mom on Black Friday, so huge win-win for me.

Adam Rittenberg: Ha, it's all about you, right, Tony? Iowa-Nebraska will be played on Fridays the next two seasons (2011 and 2012) -- so you're off the hook for shopping -- but the 2013 and 2014 schedules show the teams playing on Saturday. Now this could change, and a lot depends on how the Friday games go the next two seasons. Here's what Iowa athletic director Gary Barta told The (Cedar Rapids) Gazette about the Nebraska game: "We've committed to two years on Friday to see how it goes. My assumption is that it's going to go well. If it does, my guess is that [Nebraska athletics director] Tom Osborne and I will come together and say should we continue to doing it on Friday?" Iowa-Nebraska could become a Black Friday staple in the Big Ten. Stay tuned.


Kevin from Chicago writes: Adam, great blog. What kind of season does Purdue need to have for Danny Hope to keep his job at the end of the year? Do you think there is a chance he may be fired at the end of the season if the Boilers miss a bowl game again?

Adam Rittenberg: Thanks, Kevin. If Purdue stays healthy, it should be in the mix for a bowl game and that should be the expectation for Hope. Getting to a bowl in the Big Ten these days isn't overly challenging -- six wins usually will do it -- and Purdue really can't afford another winter at home. Will Hope get the axe if Purdue misses a bowl? Tough to say, and it depends on the circumstances. He has been a tricky coach to grade so far. Both he and the Boilers struggled in the first half of 2009 before a pretty nice finish (4-4 in Big Ten play). Injuries pretty much torpedoed the 2010 season. So we'll see.


Arnold from Kaohsiung, Taiwan, writes: Seriously lacking on the Michigan Content of late. New Offense, New Coaches, Offensive Player of the Year, yet no real updates on how Spring Ball is going. I understand the Ohio State Scandal is huge, so is Nebraska entering the Big Ten but can you give me something on Big Block M?

Adam Rittenberg: Patience, Arnold. I'll be in Ann Arbor this week checking in with Brady Hoke and the guys. Michigan has done very little with the media this spring so far, so there hasn't been much information trickling out of Schembechler Hall. In case you missed it, colleague Urban Meyer recently spent some time at Michigan practice and filed this interesting report.


Steve from Flint, Mich., writes: Adam, love the blog. How do you think that Kirk Cousins stacks up against other quarterbacks in the nation next year? Also do you think he will be a top 3 round draft pick?

Adam Rittenberg: I know this: Cousins will ace any interview he does with an NFL team. He's an extremely high-character guy who embraces leadership. He still needs to take steps forward on the field this fall to work his way into that elite group of quarterbacks. Cousins has improved every year in a system that translates well to the NFL level. His next step is greater consistency in big games against elite defenses. He'll have some showcase opportunities this fall as Michigan State plays a very tough schedule.


Chris from Winter Park, Fla., writes: Adam,As a Husker fan I would like to say I love your blog a lot! I would like to know why your post on the draft picks of Mel Kiper's picks didn't include Nebraska, as well as Dave Ubben's didn't either.Just confused on this and since I am not insiders I would like to see his picks, and can't now. Thanks

Adam Rittenberg: Thanks, Chris. My apologies for not making it clearer in my post. Cornerback Prince Amukamara is only Nebraska player listed by both Mel Kiper and Todd McShay in their mock drafts for the first three rounds. Both experts have Amukamara going at No. 13 overall to Detroit. I'll be sure and list all Huskers in future posts about the draft.
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- After a very enjoyable two days in Happy Valley, it's time to head home.

I'll have much more on Penn State's spring practice progress Friday, so be sure and check back, but I had some closing thoughts after visiting with players and assistant coaches (sadly, no JoePa on this trip). Penn State is a team trying to regain an edge and an attitude and play with greater grit after a disappointing season. Joe Paterno challenged the team's toughness at the start of spring practice, and players have responded. Practices have been up-tempo and very chippy (more on this Friday), and the number of position competitions has heightened the intensity level.

So much of a team's mood depends on the quarterback spot, and Penn State expects to be much better under center, no matter who wins the starting job. Jay Paterno tells me the quarterbacks are ahead of schedule and improving both with their knowledge of the game and, more important, in the leadership components. Rob Bolden's long-term future with the team is not fully known, but I get the sense he'll be with the Lions going forward.

There are concerns, namely injuries and depth issues. The Curtis Drake injury especially stings because he would have been a big part of the offensive plan in 2011. Pete Massaro's injury also hurts because fellow defensive ends Jack Crawford and Eric Latimore are out. Defensive coordinator Tom Bradley tells me Penn State will be flexible enough on defense to adjust to its best personnel, but the Lions obviously would like more healthy bodies at the end spots.

This will be a pivotal season for Penn State. Ohio State's situation could tighten the Leaders division race, and if Penn State upgrades several areas and stays healthy, it could challenge for a title. But if the inconsistency and, at times, lack of toughness we saw for part of last season resurfaces, Penn State will be heading toward mediocrity, which wouldn't be good for its legendary coach.

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