Big Ten: Herb Hand

 

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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.

Scenes from B1G training camps

August, 14, 2014
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Teams around the Big Ten are practicing hard in preparation for the season. They're also having a little fun at times.

Thanks to social media and some behind-the-scenes access provided by the schools, we can keep an eye on what those teams are doing this month.

Here's Maryland lightening things up at the end of today's practice by having the offensive and defensive lines go against one another in a punt-fielding competition. If you ever wanted to see big uglies try to catch punts scored to Vanilla Ice, well, you're in luck:
This one is just serious football, as Ohio State provided some video from Wednesday's practice. Much of it is also in slow-mo, so check out the Scarrrrleettt and Graaaaaay: Michigan State players cooled off after practice on Wednesday as they took over the school's outdoor pool. A diving competition broke out, and defensive back Demetrious Cox let us in on some of it with this video: Earlier this week, Wisconsin closed practice with some Bucket Hat Golf: Illinois coaches got in a dunking booth and allowed their players to take their best shot this week at Camp Rantoul. Watch Tim Beckman go down: 



Finally, get an inside look at the Penn State offensive line and its interesting position coach, Herb Hand:

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.”

Big Ten lunch links

August, 7, 2014
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This is real, apparently, and lots of people hate Michigan, including people in Michigan. And come on, Idaho, really?
  • Aaron Bailey, part of the three-man quarterback race at Illinois, finds newfound comfort in Bill Cubit’s offensive system.
  • Northern Iowa checks in at No. 10 on the Cedar Rapids Gazette’s ranking of opponents on the Iowa schedule. Receiver Tevaun Smith loves him some Iowa.
  • The Indiana defense learns to play in attack mode.
  • Quarterback C.J. Brown performs well as Maryland finishes its first practice in pads of the preseason.
  • Touted freshman defensive back Jabrill Peppers will continue to work at nickel, according to Michigan coach Brady Hoke, after an injury to safety Delano Hill.
  • Michigan State features an intriguing group of receivers, writes Graham Couch.
  • Minnesota defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys says the Gophers should continue to improve on defense, despite the loss of some important pieces.
  • Backup quarterback Ryker Fyfe is not about to sit down quietly behind Tommy Armstrong Jr. at Nebraska.
  • Braxton Miller will not wear out his arm during preseason practices at Ohio State. Competition heats up on the Buckeyes’ offensive line.
  • What’s the key to success for the Penn State O-line? Trust and chemistry, says assistant coach Herb Hand.
  • Purdue offensive tackle David Hedelin, suspended by the NCAA for the first three games this year, expects big things after a positive opening of practice.
  • Gary Nova is the man again for Rutgers at quarterback. More on Nova.
  • Wisconsin running back Corey Clement has high hopes for his sophomore season as a running mate to Melvin Gordon.

No Big Ten coaching staff has a larger social media presence than Penn State's, particularly on Twitter. Nittany Lions head coach James Franklin (@coachjfranklin) requires his assistants to have Twitter accounts -- it's not optional.

Some Lions aides, such as offensive line coach Herb Hand (@CoachHand), wide receivers coach Josh Gattis (@Coach_Gattis) and defensive line coach Sean "Coach Chaos" Spencer (@SpenceChaos), are very active on Twitter, while others dabble in it.

The biggest reason for the push is obvious: recruiting.

"The target market is the 15- to 17-, 18-year-old kid, and that's how guys communicate," Hand told ESPN.com earlier this summer. "They're going to communicate through Twitter, through Facebook, through the direct message avenues on those two sites. So you've got to bring it to them. You can't sit there and say, 'Hey, you come to me.'

"You've got to meet them where they're at."

But reaching recruits isn't the only reason Hand uses Twitter. If you follow him -- he has more than 19,000 followers -- you've probably seen the word "branding" pop up a lot on his timeline.

Hand considers Twitter and other social media outlets as branding tools. Those who use them correctly can build their brands; those who don't can destroy them.

"There’s an opportunity in social media that's very powerful to connect with people," Hand said. "It's important for people to understand that before they get involved with it because you also can shoot yourself in the foot real quick. That's one of the problems with a lot of the young guys on there, players we're recruiting. They don't think before they post stuff. They don't realize that this is your brand.

"You're telling the world who you are."

I thought about this Wednesday morning when Hand tweeted that Penn State was no longer pursuing a prospect because of the prospect's social media presence, which, in Hand's view, revealed who the player really is.



He then followed up with this:

"We owe it to our players to educate them on how to use it responsibly," Hand told me in June. "Social media is a huge part of our society. It’s a global thing. If you're really about educating guys, let's educate people on it and make sure they're not using it to destroy themselves, either, because that can happen in a heartbeat."

Franklin actually found out about the recruiting about-face through Twitter on Wednesday while attending ESPN's "Car Wash" in Bristol, Connecticut. He told ESPN's "Numbers Never Lie" that one questionable tweet won't discourage coaches from recruiting a player, but a pattern of them will.

"It's no different than transcripts, it’s no different than game film," Franklin said. "It's another piece of information."

Hopefully, recruits are listening. Hand, a 46-year-old father of three, might not look like a social-media expert, but he knows his stuff. His social media introduction came in 2001 when he was West Virginia's tight ends coach and recruiting coordinator. He used to use Reddit's "Ask Me Anything" tool to interact with fans on message boards.

Hand quickly saw where the trend was heading and built his own brand as he moved to Tulsa, Vanderbilt and now Penn State. He has fun with it, as you can see here and here and here, but also has a serious tone when tweeting about his work with Our Kids, an organization that helps children and families affected by child sexual abuse.

"I want to be sincere," he said. "What you see is what you get. It's who I am. I'm not trying to just be a robot on there."

The social media boom with Penn State football seems unusual, as former coach Joe Paterno obviously didn't tweet and former coach Bill O'Brien once referred to "Spacebook" and "Tweeter." But the current coaches are not only encouraging players to use Twitter, but to do so responsibly.

"I know they're going to have some people out there watching us, especially on social media," linebacker Mike Hull said. "So I try to refrain from saying anything too bad."

2014 Big Ten media days roundtable

July, 29, 2014
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CHICAGO -- Big Ten media days are in the books and the countdown to the 2014 season can officially begin. It was a mostly uneventful session at the Hilton Chicago, despite the presence of stars such as Braxton Miller, Melvin Gordon, Ameer Abdullah and Shilique Calhoun.

Our Big Ten reporting crew weighs in on some of the topics from the past two days.

What was the biggest surprise at Big Ten media days?

Austin Ward: The lack of major headlines coming from the league was a bit of a shock considering some of the star power in Chicago, the storylines around college football right now and the amount of trash talk between leagues that has popped up this month. Not even Ohio State coach Urban Meyer or Penn State coach James Franklin were able to stir the pot much nationally, and typically they are always good for a viral sound bite or hot topic in late July. There's nothing wrong with avoiding controversy, but the Big Ten didn't do much to draw attention to itself over two days.

Mitch Sherman: Other than the bright-red pants worn by Maryland quarterback C.J. Brown on Tuesday to go with his dark jacket and tie, I was surprised most by the lack of bravado we saw out of Michigan State. I know the Spartans are a blue-collar bunch and that this spot atop the Big Ten is new to them. But after a 13-1 season and set to play arguably the most significant nonconference game nationally on Sept. 6 at Oregon, I thought Michigan State would come to Chicago with a little more swagger. If coach Mark Dantonio hadn't worn his giant championship ring, I’m not sure I would have remembered that MSU beat Ohio State in December, then Stanford in the Rose Bowl. This is not to suggest it's a bad thing; simply that the Spartans -- even flamboyant defensive end Shilique Calhoun -- are not resting on their accomplishments of 2013.

Josh Moyer: OK, let's say you pulled aside the top three offensive players in the Big Ten -- Braxton Miller, Melvin Gordon and Ameer Abdullah -- and asked them, in separate interviews, about the most exciting offensive player in the conference. Who do you think they would say? Well, their answer was my biggest surprise this week; they all said the same guy -- Indiana wideout Shane Wynn. Maybe they just wanted to put the spotlight on an underrated player, but it was still a shock to hear Wynn's name so often. Heck, I told Wynn about that -- and even he was surprised. It's fun to watch a short guy like Wynn, who is 5-foot-7, run circles around defenders. So while I thought Wynn would be in for a good season, I can't say I would've mentioned him in the same breath as those three.

[+] EnlargeJim Delany
Jerry Lai/USA TODAY SportsCommissioner Jim Delany was "content to lay low" during his address at the 2014 Big Ten media days.
Adam Rittenberg: In keeping with the understated theme, I was surprised Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany didn't make a bigger splash with his annual media days address Monday. Mike Slive quoted Churchill and Mandela, Bob Bowlsby talked doomsday and Larry Scott spread warm fuzzies at Pac-12 media days. But Delany didn't rock the boat at all. A year after outlining a four-point proposal to reform college football, he seems content to lay low and let the process play out. Delany always seems to be a step ahead, and he has never been one to hold back on his opinions. But I wonder if he felt a need to keep relatively quiet after the Ed O'Bannon-NCAA trial and with the vote on NCAA autonomy coming up next week.



Who had the most memorable interview?

Moyer: I have to go with Purdue tailback Raheem Mostert. He's the fastest player in the Big Ten, and he might just be the most charismatic. You couldn't blame Purdue if it came out a little quiet at this media day after the season the Boilermakers had, but Mostert didn't shy away from making some bold statements. He said his offense was capable of scoring 30-some points a game and, while I still think there’s zero chance of that happening, it takes some guts to make that statement. Plus, he was hilarious in talking about how far along Danny Etling’s come. He couldn't say enough good things about Etling now, but said last season he looked like a guy who just lost his dog every time he threw a pick. So my "Most Optimistic" and "Most Well-Spoken" awards go to Mostert.

Sherman: Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald was on fire Tuesday during the group session. Fitzgerald, always an eloquent speaker, had plenty to get off his chest in the wake of an offseason like no other in Evanston, Illinois. He waxed on about problems with the current model of college athletics, in particular criticizing some of the outdated rules that govern recruiting. "I don't want to be basketball," Fitzgerald said in the midst of his monologue. "We're going there." He harped on the disingenuous ways that some college coaches try to attract prospects. All of this after his players voted recently on whether to unionize. The issues of unionization and inequity within the sport are inseparable. Still, Fitzgerald managed keep his own players and former players largely out of the discussion. And the coach made a lot of sense.

Rittenberg: Well, my favorite moment was Michigan State's Connor Cook, midway through an answer Tuesday about how Dantonio had loosened up over time, stared blankly and said, "Sorry, my brain, I just blacked out right there." Must have been a fun Monday night in Chicago. ... I really enjoy Franklin's energy, especially in a league of mostly decaffeinated coaches. Franklin on Tuesday excitedly recalled the night the Penn State staff watched assistant Herb Hand appear on "Chopped" while riding a bus between their guest-coaching camp stops in the South. "It was awesome, we were driving and Herb comes walking out [on the show] and the whole bus explodes: 'Herbie! Herbie!'" Franklin said, clapping his hands. "The other guys come out and the whole bus is booing them, 'Boo! Boo!' So Herbie wins the first round and the bus goes crazy, 'That's our boy!' He loses the next round and that bus turned on him in an instant. Everybody's bashing him. His flavors were good but the presentation was awful." Again, something different and refreshing.

Ward: Calhoun had little interest in a standard question-and-answer interview, instead turning his podium session on Monday into an interactive experience that livened up the event while the Michigan State star was in the spotlight. He spent his 30 minutes joking, laughing and telling reporters how much he enjoyed watching them talk over each other to ask questions and then yelling across the room at Cook to clarify comments the quarterback had supposedly made about him earlier. In one brief session, Calhoun made the kind of memorable impact on the media he’s been known to make on opposing quarterbacks.

What's one new thing you learned?

Rittenberg: Big Ten teams aren't shying away from the playoff talk. Players, coaches and the commissioner all acknowledged that if you don't make the playoff, you're basically irrelevant in college football. And that's the right position for this league to take. The perception is that Big Ten players and coaches only care about the Rose Bowl and don't aim higher. Perhaps some of that is true, but most of the folks I encountered this week seemed to embrace the significance of the new system. I loved what Ohio State defensive lineman Michael Bennett said: Anything short of a national title would be disappointing. That's how the Big Ten needs to think.

Moyer: Nebraska's Kenny Bell has a killer Afro? Michigan State's Kurtis Drummond has great fashion sense? Penn State's Sam Ficken will never escape questions about the 2012 Virginia game? There were certainly a lot of tidbits. But I was impressed with how even-keeled Maryland coach Randy Edsall was. At one point, during podium interviews, an irate cameraman kept yelling at reporters to move out of his shot. It went on for a few minutes, but Edsall never paused or broke from his calm demeanor. Other coaches might have yelled for some quiet; Edsall just pretended like nothing was wrong. It was an interesting juxtaposition.

Ward: The Spartans have some really nice bling. Both Cook and Dantonio flashed their championship rings on Monday, and the huge, sparkling accessories were hard to miss. At one point Cook took his off to allow the media a closer look at the prize he helped earn with breakout passing outings against Ohio State in the conference title game and Stanford in the Rose Bowl, but he might have really just needed a break from lugging around the heavy jewelry on his hand.

Sherman: Even in the age of the College Football Playoff, with more potential for sweeping change in the sport, old habits die hard in the Big Ten. From Michigan coach Brady Hoke's lamenting about the elimination of tradition at the Rose Bowl when Pasadena serves as a semifinal site to Iowa's Kirk Ferentz preaching the values of old-school football, the more things change nationally, the more they stay the same in the Big Ten. This is comforting and disturbing all at once. I heard Nebraska's Bell speak of unity among the league and Ohio State's Miller project confidence that the Buckeyes can make another run at a perfect season. But the league needs a larger dose of more progressive thinking.
We've already covered the conference's potential villains, so it's only natural that we move on to the good guys.

You won't find them in comic books or out in the Big Ten footprint fighting crime. But even opposing fans won't find it all that difficult to root for this cast of characters. Some overcame injuries or other obstacles, some have been wronged, and others just seem like genuinely good people.

There are certainly plenty of other athletes and coaches whom this could apply to, so it wasn't easy just picking a handful. But true heroes don't expect media attention for their good deeds … plus, we had to cut this list off somewhere.

So, in alphabetical order, here are the unmasked Big Ten heroes:

[+] EnlargeNebraska
Rick Osentoski/USA TODAY SportsAmeer Abdullah, left, decided to put the NFL off for another year and return for his senior season at Nebraska.
Ameer Abdullah, running back, Nebraska: About 100 juniors declared early for this year's NFL draft, and no one would've blamed Abdullah if he decided to join the herd. Instead, he decided to stay -- and he's said all the right things. As the youngest of nine children, the other eight of whom have earned college degrees, Abdullah stressed the importance of his education and finishing that degree. When a lot of other players are chasing dollar signs instead of diplomas, that's a refreshing viewpoint. Added Bo Pelini: “He's an All-American on the field. He's an All-American off the field.”

Adam Breneman, tight end, Penn State: Forget the fact he remained loyal and committed to the university throughout the sanctions, when he could've bolted to the likes of Florida State or Notre Dame. He's also used his football celebrity to champion a few charitable causes, something more common for coaches than players. In high school he started “Catch the Cure,” which helped raise more than $200,000 to fight Lou Gehrig's Disease. During his Under Armour jersey presentation two years ago, he even helped man a booth outside the auditorium to seek donations. Currently, he's the secretary of Penn State's nonprofit chapter of “Uplifting Athletes,” which raises money for the Kidney Cancer Association. You don't have to like the Nittany Lions, but you have to like what Breneman's doing.

Ralph Friedgen, offensive coordinator, Rutgers: Underappreciated. Underestimated. Underdog. That's why Friedgen is under two other heroes on this list. It's easy to root for someone who appeared to be unfairly punished – and is now seeking out justice on the gridiron. Friedgen is just about the only head coach to win conference coach of the year and then be fired that same season. It happened with Maryland in 2010; now, he's helping oversee a Rutgers offense that people aren't expecting a lot from. He's in the same division as the Terps -- heck, they're on the schedule this year -- and Friedgen has a chance to show Maryland it made a mistake. He certainly could've handled the dismissal better, but it's hard to blame him and easy to wish him well. As long as you're not a Terps fan, that is.

Jerry Kill, head coach, Minnesota: Stop me if you've heard this before. “I'm rooting against them when they play us, but I'm wishing all the best to ________ the rest of the season.” Chances are Kill's filled in quite a few of those sentences the past few years. He has refused to let epilepsy get the best of him, and his longevity's been a testament to his toughness. He's been a coach since 1985, and he just led the Gophers to back-to-back bowls. Plus, he recently started a new epilepsy foundation for young patients, and he put $100,000 of his own money toward that. How can you not root for this guy?

Jake Ryan, linebacker, Michigan: Torn anterior cruciate ligaments are usually big setbacks, something that means missed seasons or at least gradual returns. Not for Ryan. The Michigan linebacker, a team captain last season, was on crutches last spring and returned in time for the Oct. 12 game against Penn State. Said defensive coordinator Greg Mattison: “If he ever truly logged the hours of extra treatment and extra rehab that he has done since the day that happened, I think it would floor you.” Nothing has really been handed to Ryan, as he wasn't a highly sought-after recruit. But he's worked hard and now finds himself on the preseason watch lists for the Bednarik and Nagurski awards. It's his final season at Michigan, and big things are expected from him.

Heroes on deck: Tracy Claeys, Stefon Diggs, Herb Hand, Jeremy Langford, Venric Mark

Big Ten Wednesday mailbag

July, 2, 2014
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You know it, you love it, you can't live without it. It's Wednesday mailbag time.

@GeoffreyMarshal via Twitter writes: What do Wednesday's commitments say, if anything, about B1G recruiting? Is B1G recruiting too top-heavy?

Brian Bennett: Ohio State's additions of a pair of top 20 players in linebacker Justin Hilliard and defensive end Jashon Cornell is huge news for the Buckeyes, but not all that surprising. Urban Meyer and his staff have killed it on the recruiting front since they arrived in Columbus. We also know that James Franklin is going bonkers at Penn State, with ESPN's No. 4 nationally ranked class right now. And don't forget about Brady Hoke. While Michigan hasn't wrapped up as many commitments this summer as it has in years past, the Wolverines are still sitting on a top 25 class with room to improve.

But did we learn anything? Those three schools have long been at the forefront of recruiting in the Big Ten. If anything, the aggressive tactics of Meyer and Franklin might pull the rest of the league forward, because they risk getting left behind if not.

Then again, look at the last three Big Ten champions: Michigan State and Wisconsin (twice -- one impacted, of course, by Ohio State's probation). Neither of those programs usually finds itself among the elite in the recruiting rankings but instead both do a great job of scouting and developing talent. So just collecting star prospects guarantees nothing, though it is a nice place to start.

 




 

@hicksoldier via Twitter writes: What in your opinion is the reason that MSU keeps missing out on top recruits, especially on defense? And what can they change?

Brian Bennett: It's a stretch to say the Spartans keep missing out. Remember Malik McDowell, a top defensive tackle recruit Michigan State landed earlier this year after much drama? But I see your point. Michigan State made Cornell's final top five, but he ended up choosing Columbus. One would think, given Mark Dantonio's success in developing players -- especially on defense -- coupled with the team's rise toward the national elite would help the Spartans land a few more studs. But a school like Ohio State is always going to have some advantages in recruiting. The good news is Dantonio's staff does a tremendous job figuring out which players will fit the team's system and then polishing them into stars. And if Michigan State can continue to win big on the field and churn out pros, higher-caliber recruits should look toward East Lansing.

 




 

Glenn from Siesta Key, Fla., writes: Brian, why is it that during this offseason you constantly are mentioning the PSU OL as a weakness and question mark, while it seems OSU is pretty much in the same boat? Yet, all you talk about is how OSU will win its division and could be a playoff contender. Won't Braxton Miller have the same challenge as Christian Hackenberg if his OL doesn't show up?

Brian Bennett: For starters, I haven't said Ohio State will win the East Division. I'm not ready to predict that yet. You make a decent point, as both the Buckeyes and the Nittany Lions likely will be replacing four starters on the offensive line. I have written that the offensive line is a question mark for Ohio State. But the two teams also are coming from different starting points. Ohio State's offensive line was the best in the league the past two years, and the recruiting at that position has been solid. Ed Warriner is one of the best position coaches in the nation.

Penn State's offensive line wasn't as dominant last year as the Buckeyes', and depth is a concern given the scholarship limitations. But I do really like Herb Hand and think he very well could have a Warriner-like impact for the Nittany Lions. We'll see. If Ohio State's line doesn't come together quickly, the Buckeyes could have problems early on against Virginia Tech.

 




 

Chris from Princeton, N.J., writes: I know you guys don't see Rutgers as a bowl team this year but let's say they do manage to get six wins. Where do you see those potential wins coming from?

Brian Bennett: It's not out of the realm of possibility that Rutgers makes a bowl, but the Scarlet Knights will have to win all of their toss-up games for it to become likely, given the schedule. They figure to be heavy underdogs against Michigan and Wisconsin at home and versus Ohio State, Nebraska and Michigan State on the road. Going across the country for the opener against Washington State in Seattle looks very difficult as well.

That leaves very little margin for error. You can pencil in wins over Howard and Tulane at home. Beating Navy in Annapolis, while not an easy task, is doable and probably crucial. Conference games against Indiana at home and Maryland on the road could go either way. The Big Ten opener against Penn State should be played in front of a raucous atmosphere, and the Lions were often vulnerable on the road last season. So Rutgers is basically going to have to sweep all of its 50-50 games or pull off a big upset anywhere. Good luck with all that.

 




 

Craig from Braintree, Mass., writes: Brian, do you recall the days of Marion Barber and Laurence Maroney? Could the mix of guys the Gophers have produce two 1,000-yard rushers?

Brian Bennett: I sure do, Craig. Those two guys were loads of fun to watch. I'm not sure which is harder to believe, in retrospect, about the 2004 Gophers: that they finished only 7-5 with that pair in the backfield, or that they beat Alabama in a bowl game. But going back to your question, Minnesota has an awful lot of talent at running back this season. David Cobb somewhat quietly ran for 1,202 yards last season, 12th most in school history. Donnell Kirkwood came close to 1,000 yards in 2012, and Rodrick Williams Jr. is a 247-pound beast who's almost impossible to bring down on first contact. Add in redshirt freshman Berkley Edwards, who might be more talented than all of the, and quarterback Mitch Leidner, who's got great wheels as well. And that's not even considering top 2014 recruit Jeff Jones, who might not be academically eligible.

Can two Gophers get to 1,000 yards? Minnesota almost certainly will be a rush-first team again this year. The hope is that the passing game improves enough so the offense isn't rush-first, rush-second and rush-third as well. I'm not sure there will be enough carries for two players to get to 1,000 yards, and the offense has to stay on the field longer to provide more opportunities. There may not be a Maroney or a Barber in this group, but it still should be fun to watch.
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Penn State assistant Herb Hand has beaten himself up over past decisions, but none was probably as public as Tuesday night’s second-guessing: Why, oh why, didn’t the father of three toss his rice noodles with that Thai peanut sauce?

“I learned there are a lot of armchair chefs out there,” Hand told ESPN.com with a laugh.

Not a lot of football coaches find fans questioning their sauce-making capabilities. But not a lot of coaches have appeared on Food Network’s nationally televised “Chopped” show, either. Hand taped the four-person, three-round elimination competition last October -- which explained his gold Vanderbilt shirt -- and the show aired late Tuesday night.

In “Chopped,” four chefs scramble for 30 minutes to transform a mystery basket of ingredients into a dish judged on creativity, presentation and taste. They’ll do that with an appetizer, entrée and dessert -- with one chef eliminated after each round.

“When we actually walked out on set when they were filming, that’s when I was like, ‘What are you doing, man? You’re about to cook on national television,’” Hand said, laughing. “But it’s just like anything else. When the clock started and it was time to compete, I just wanted to do my best.”

The offensive line coach cruised past the first round with his winning combination of potato chip-crusted sole with bacon and garlic red Russian kale -- a sentence that will likely never again appear on ESPN.com. And Hand also won over cooking fans by sharing an ingredient with a competitor and asking the timeless question, “Who am I to hog another man’s bacon?” But the offensive line coach slipped up in the entrée round when the judges criticized the presentation of his lamb with Thai peanut sauce.

Hand was “chopped,” or eliminated, in the second round.

Hand watched the show Tuesday night alongside his fellow Penn State coaches, who were crammed in a bus on their way to help with a satellite camp in Florida. The coaches laughed and read aloud some of their favorite tweets, while playfully yelling at the TV as if it were the NBA Finals … which was airing simultaneously, but could always wait. After all, that series happens once a year. How often does a coach take over Twitter with "DominatetheKitchen" hashtags?

Penn State head coach James Franklin shook his head right before Hand’s televised elimination, as the judges told a sullen Hand that his lamb was beautifully cooked -- but the sauce lacked depth and the presentation wasn’t pretty.

“It always comes down to execution, Herb!” Hand remembered Franklin yelling.

Hand, who was playing for "Curing Kids Cancer" in honor of Wilson Holloway, said it took a day or two for him to fully recover from the Thai peanut sauce fiasco. And, once the football season ended, he started questioning himself again. If he could do it all over again -- something countless Penn State foodies have undoubtedly wondered … probably -- Hand said he would’ve tossed the sauce with the noodles, added some green onion and cilantro, and maybe mixed in some carrots for crunch.

He searched the Food Network pantry for some crushed peanuts for the dish but, regrettably, couldn’t find them and had to settle for sesame seeds.

“When the clock is running, man, you just want to get it done. You just want to get it done,” Hand repeated. “When they say to open the baskets and your time starts now, your time starts now. There are no redos or stopping the clock. It’s go time.”

To prepare for the competition, Hand treated it almost like football. He literally looked for tendencies in the judges -- scouting report on judge Scott Conant? Steer clear of pastas -- and basically broke down film with his wife. They would relax on the sofa, flip on some “Chopped,” and his wife would pause the TV during a mystery basket to ask him what he would make.

No, Hand didn’t come away as the winner on Tuesday night. But his talent for food is already well-known in Happy Valley. On the morning of signing day, during an event that was open to media and some fans, he briefly took over a chef station and flipped some omelets for fun. He also started a Penn State “pizza crawl” and, for charity, he has auctioned off a few home-cooked dinners, where he’ll travel to the winner’s home with ingredients in tow.

So, despite the outcome, don’t expect Hand to stop cooking anytime soon.

“I just love doing it,” he said. “When you can make a great meal for people you love, it’s really an expression of love. And I enjoy that -- whether it’s my wife and kids or my friends or my players. It’s just something I enjoy doing.”
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.

Big Ten's lunch links

May, 7, 2014
May 7
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Spring, is that you at last? Feel free to stick around a while.

Big Ten lunch links

April, 29, 2014
Apr 29
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The links are slimming up for the summer.
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."

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."

Big Ten lunchtime links

February, 26, 2014
Feb 26
12:00
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So I tied an onion to my belt, which was the style at the time. Now, to take the ferry cost a nickel, and in those days, nickels had pictures of bumblebees on 'em. Gimme five bees for a quarter, you'd say. Now where was I ... oh, yeah. The important thing was that I had an onion tied to my belt, which was the style at the time.

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