Big Ten: Malik Golden
There was a time when even the loyalist Penn State fan discounted Sam Ficken. There was a time when even the wisest sports pundit believed the Nittany Lions wouldn’t survive past 2014.
In the midst of unprecedented sanctions, the Nittany Lions (7-6) clinched their third straight winning season with a 31-30 overtime victory against Boston College in the New Era Pinstripe Bowl. After a poor kicking start in 2012 -- so bad it led to death threats -- Ficken became all-conference and ended his career with a game-winning kick. The moral of the story? Don’t underestimate Penn State or its players.
This game was a microcosm of the past three seasons all rolled into one. Penn State wasn’t supposed to win; it trailed 21-7 late in the third quarter. It wasn’t supposed to rally; PSU didn’t score 20 points in regulation all season against a Power 5 team.
But just as fans might have wanted to turn away, just as the hope of something good clung to its last thread, this team bounced back. Christian Hackenberg -- the struggling player whom some PSU fans labeled a bust -- rallied the Lions offense with one of the best games of his career. He threw for 371 yards, four TDs and no interceptions. He marched PSU downfield with two minutes in regulation to tie the game. Then he led PSU to a touchdown in overtime.
This game seemed lost, but Penn State won. The program seemed on the verge of death two years ago, but Penn State survived.
“There’s a lot of similarities in this game, compared to our whole careers,” senior linebacker Mike Hull said. “It’s only fitting we get a win in Yankee Stadium in overtime after the roller-coaster career we had. It’s pretty crazy how that works. It just goes to show we’re never going to give up. That’s what this program is all about.”
On Sept. 8, 2012, Ficken missed 4-of-5 field goals and a PAT against Virginia in a 17-16 loss. On Saturday night, he knotted the game at 24 in the closing seconds with a 45-yard field goal -- then he nailed the game-winning extra point after the Boston College kicker missed his.
“It’s a storybook ending, really,” Ficken said. “I couldn’t have written a better way to go. This team has worked so hard and fought so hard. And to say we went to a bowl, first of all, and then won that bowl. It’s just really incredible.”
The Nittany Lions didn’t expect to have great moments during the past three seasons, not when the sanctions were initially handed down. Some of those players, such as Hull and Ficken, still remember the eerie silence in the players’ lounge while awaiting the sanctions announcement of NCAA President Mark Emmert. Hull nearly transferred to Pittsburgh -- he informed Bill O’Brien he was moving on before reconsidering -- and most believed Ficken never deserved a scholarship in the first place.
They endured five different head coaches -- two interim, three full-time -- during their careers. They never thought they’d see the postseason, as Penn State was set to miss four years worth of bowls before the ban was rescinded three months ago.
This team lingered on the field after the game, and it seemed as if most fans clad in blue and white didn’t budge from their seats. Franklin took the microphone, thanked the seniors and boomed that this was Penn State culture. Fans’ screams drowned out the Frank Sinatra tune played through the PA system.
This wasn’t just a bowl win for Penn State. It rang in the end of the worst of the sanctions. PSU was the second-youngest team in the FBS this season and had just 64 recruited scholarship players on the roster. It had seven seniors compared to 31 freshmen.
Safety Malik Golden tweeted from the locker room, “Right back like we never left #NewEra.” Running back Akeel Lynch told reporters, “The sanction era is definitely over.”
Penn State was never supposed to make it to this point. It was never supposed to win this game, and it was never supposed to boast three winning seasons and a bowl victory this early. But Penn State has made it a habit these past three years of proving the prognosticators wrong. Saturday night was just them getting the last word.
“You can’t take us away,” Lynch said. “They tried to. They tried to talk about culture. But this is Penn State, man. This is what we do."
Illinois: The secondary returns mostly intact from 2013, as Illinois returns starters at both cornerback spots (V'Angelo Bentley and Eaton Spence), as well as Zane Petty, who started the final seven games at free safety. Taylor Barton, who opened last season as a starting free safety, also is back. Building safety depth is important this spring as Illinois must replace Earnest Thomas III. Barton will compete with Jevaris Little and others for playing time. The depth is much better at corner as Darius Mosely and Jaylen Dunlap both saw significant action as freshmen last fall.
Indiana: Like Illinois, Indiana returns a lot in the defensive backfield but must improve after struggling to stop opponents in 2013. The Hoosiers also lose only one starter in safety Greg Heban, a mainstay during the past four seasons. There's a lot of experience at cornerback with returning starters Tim Bennett (senior) and Michael Hunter (junior), along with reserve Kenny Mullen (senior). Decorated recruit Rashard Fant, who redshirted in 2013, will compete for significant playing time. Senior safety Mark Murphy will lead the secondary, and sophomore Antonio Allen could fill the other safety spot when he returns from an ACL tear. Building depth here always is a priority at IU.
Iowa: The situation isn't as dramatic as the linebacker spot, but Iowa still must replace two productive players in cornerback B.J. Lowery and safety Tanner Miller, who combined for six interceptions in 2013. Lowery is the more significant loss, as he had 19 passes defended and three forced fumbles. The good news is Desmond King looks like a budding star and he will move into the featured role Lowery occupied. Jordan Lomax, Sean Draper and others will compete to start opposite King. Strong safety John Lowdermilk returns after a solid junior season. Lomax also could play free safety and will compete there with Anthony Gair and Nico Law, who both appeared in all 13 games last fall as reserves.
Maryland: The back four aims for better results on the injury front and on the field in 2013. Maryland returns both starters at safety in Sean Davis, the team's leading tackler with 102 last fall, and Anthony Nixon, but there should be competition behind them with A.J. Hendy and Zach Dancel. The cornerback position is worth watching this spring as Dexter McDougle departs and Jeremiah Johnson remains limited by a toe injury. Will Likely has opened the spring as a starter, and Alvin Hill could rise up after recording 24 tackles last season.
Michigan: The secondary took a step back in 2013 and all jobs are open even though Michigan returns two veteran cornerbacks -- Blake Countess and Raymon Taylor -- and some experience at safety. Jabrill Peppers, the nation's No. 2 overall recruit according to ESPN Recruiting Nation, will play a major role for the Wolverines this fall, whether it's at corner, safety or nickel. Junior Jarrod Wilson started the first seven games of last season at free safety, and Dymonte Thomas is a good candidate to start at one of the safety spots. Michigan should expect more from this group in 2014.
Michigan State: Will opposing offenses invade the No Fly Zone in 2014? Not if Michigan State can fill several spots, none bigger than Darqueze Dennard's at cornerback. Dennard, a unanimous All-American and the Jim Thorpe Award winner, departs to the NFL, and junior Trae Waynes slides into the featured corner role after a promising sophomore season. The competition opposite Waynes heats up this spring as Ezra Robinson, Darian Hicks, Jermaine Edmondson and Arjen Colquhoun compete. Free safety Kurtis Drummond boasts 21 career starts and enters 2014 as one of the league's top safeties. RJ Williamson likely will fill Isaiah Lewis' spot at strong safety, and Demetrious Cox provides depth.
Minnesota: Like the Gophers' defensive line, the secondary loses a huge piece in Brock Vereen, who played both safety and cornerback last season. But there might be enough returning pieces to fill the void. Cornerback Eric Murray had a very solid first season as a starter, and Minnesota also brings back Derrick Wells and Briean Boddy-Calhoun, both of whom have starting experience. Leading tackler Cedric Thompson and Antonio Johnson finished last season as the starting safeties, and both are back. Senior Grayson Levine provides some experience in a reserve safety role.
Nebraska: An important spring awaits new defensive backs coach Charlton Warren, who must identify new starters at cornerback, safety and nickel. The Huskers are replacing Ciante Evans and Stanley Jean-Baptiste, who combined for eight interceptions, 18 passes defended and 15 tackles for loss in 2013. Safety Andrew Green, who made 10 starts in 2013, also leaves. The good news is cornerback Josh Mitchell had an excellent bowl game and will fill a starting spot. Leading tackler Corey Cooper also returns at safety. There's not much experience at corner other than Mitchell, and Daniel Davie, Auburn transfer Jonathan Rose and others will compete. Nebraska brings back more at safety with Harvey Jackson, who made three starts in 2013, and junior Charles Jackson.
Northwestern: That the Wildcats' secondary could be one of the team's biggest strengths seemed laughable three years ago, but it could be true this fall. All four starters return, led by safety Ibraheim Campbell, one of the Big Ten's most productive defenders (262 career tackles). The depth at cornerback looks strong as starters Nick VanHoose and Matt Harris return, along with Dwight White and Daniel Jones, who opened 2013 as a starter and is coming back from an ACL tear. Traveon Henry should start alongside Campbell, and there are some promising young safeties like Godwin Igwebuike.
Ohio State: Pass defense proved to be Ohio State's downfall in 2013, and the Buckeyes' secondary will be under the microscope this spring as new assistant Chris Ash steps in. Ohio State loses All-Big Ten cornerback Bradley Roby and will lean more on Doran Grant, who started opposite Roby in 2013. Ash also expects big things from Tyvis Powell, who will start at one of the safety spots. Safety Vonn Bell finally logged significant playing time in the Orange Bowl and could become a permanent starter as a sophomore. Veteran Ron Tanner and Cam Burrows also are in the mix at safety. There should be good competition to start opposite Grant, as Armani Reeves tries to hold off redshirt freshmen Gareon Conley and Eli Apple.
Penn State: After a season of moving parts and inconsistent plays, Penn State hopes for a more settled secondary. Adrian Amos, who alternated between cornerback and safety last season, will lead the group and brings plenty of experience. Jordan Lucas likely will start opposite Amos at cornerback after making strides toward the end of his sophomore season. PSU loses some leadership at safety with Malcolm Willis and Stephen Obeng-Agyapong departing and will lean on Ryan Keiser and Jesse Della Valle, both of whom have starting experience. Converted wideouts Trevor Williams and Malik Golden provide depth at cornerback and safety, respectively.
Purdue: The rotation from 2013 returns almost completely intact, but Purdue loses a very big piece in cornerback Ricardo Allen, a four-year starter. Cornerback Frankie Williams enters his third year as a starter and will slide into Allen's featured role, while the competition for the other top corner spot will feature Antoine Lewis and Leroy Clark, among others. Purdue has plenty of experience at safety with Taylor Richards, who started every game in 2013, and Anthony Brown, who replaced the injured Landon Feichter and had 69 tackles. Feichter also is back from a broken leg.
Rutgers: This group is anxious to turn the page after a season filled with personnel issues and poor performance (Rutgers finished 120th nationally in pass defense). Senior safety Lorenzo Waters leads the group after recording 62 tackles and two forced fumbles in 2013. Johnathan Aiken will try to start opposite Waters at free safety, although he'll be pushed by Delon Stephenson and Tejay Johnson, who started three games last fall. Gareef Glashen started six games last season and seems likely to retain one of the top cornerback spots. There will be competition at the other between Anthony Cioffi and Nadir Barnwell, both of whom started games as true freshmen in 2013. The most intriguing player to watch is cornerback Ian Thomas, who returns to the team after quitting midway through last season, one that he began as a starter.
Wisconsin: The Badgers are relatively young at both secondary positions but boast far more experience at cornerback than safety. Junior Darius Hillary and sophomore Sojourn Shelton started all 13 games at cornerback last season. Peniel Jean adds even more experience at the position. Safety is much less settled as Dezmen Southward graduates, Michael Caputo shifts to linebacker and Tanner McEvoy returns to quarterback. Nate Hammon and Leo Musso both played in all 13 games last fall as reserves. Newcomers like Serge Trezy and Austin Hudson could compete for time when they arrive this summer.
I love my 2014 class of PSU ....we have that brothers connection and we didn't even enroll to PSU yet— Marcus Allen (@Chico_Ehhh) January 2, 2014
If it wasn't for Coach OB I probably wouldn't be playing football anymore, I wish him the best in the NFL.— Devin Pryor #16 (@D_Pryor16) January 1, 2014
We all we got! No reason to panic or jump ship! Doesn't matter the system nor the coach...players win games period— Bill Belton (@W3BII) January 1, 2014
No matter what happens football games will be played and won by the Nittany Lions love all my brothers we will stick together #WeAre— Hunter Crafford (@Craf_FordTough) January 1, 2014
Never worry about the things you can't control— Malik Golden (@_goldenboy6) January 1, 2014
A man's gotta do what a man has GOT TO DO. It's life baby !— Stephen Obeng-Agy... (@BigBENGTheory7) January 1, 2014
New Year, New Head Coach I suppose— DaeSean Hamilton (@SkeeterMills__) January 1, 2014
Bout to be the best year for me yet and bout to be the best year for Penn State #WeAre— carter Henderson (@hendydo_42) January 1, 2014
I hope I have another chance to play under Coach O'B. I love the guy, I appreciate everything he's done for me. I couldn't be more thankful.— Jesse James (@JJames18_) January 1, 2014
Good luck to Coach O'Brien and his family. Made a tremendous impact on my life and many others during his time at Penn State.— Ty Howle (@THowle60) January 1, 2014
Best of luck to the O'Brien family and to the lucky man that gets to coach this prestige organization... I can't wait to meet you— Troy Stivason (@teejaystives) January 1, 2014
To all of the Penn State family: Penn State is and will always be about more than any one man. WE ARE everything we have always been— Derek Dowrey (@doubleDowrey) January 1, 2014
Coach O'Brien was a great mentor, coach and father figure but every coach has the aspirations to coach in the NFL. glad coach can chase his.— Brian Gaia (@that_gaia) January 1, 2014
Gotta keep on movin forward people that's all we can do #yafeelme— Austin Johnson (@AJohn15) January 1, 2014
One thing OB taught me is that this is a business, and u should do what's best for you.Texans are getting a good coach, I wish him the best— Deion Barnes (@DBarnes_18) January 1, 2014
Coach O'brien is a great coach and great person! Proud to have called him my coach. It was his dream to coach in the NFL, best of luck. #PSU— Mike Hull (@m_hull4943) January 1, 2014
I'll love Coach Obrien forever. He will always be apart of Penn State. One of the greatest men I've ever known. #PennStateForever— Miles Dieffenbach (@Curiousjorge65) January 1, 2014
Fight on. We still are and forever will be.— Garrett Sickels (@Sickels_90) January 1, 2014
Time to move on Penn State! We will find the right man for the job. BOB did plenty for us. Time for a true Blue and White bleeder! #WeAre— OJ McDuffie (@ojmcduffie81) January 1, 2014
The Lions' secondary had to replace all four starters and Malcolm Willis and Stephon Morris reminded everyone of the gloomy forecast many had for the back four. "We're supposedly the worst unit on the team," Willis told his teammates after practices. "Everybody is doubting us, everybody is doubting our ability."
There are fewer doubts heading into the 2013 season. In fact, the secondary could be branded a potential strength for a defense that loses All-Big Ten performers up front (DT Jordan Hill) and at linebacker (Michael Mauti, Gerald Hodges).
Penn State returns both starters at safety from 2012 in Willis and Stephen Obeng-Agyapong, as well as Adrian Amos, who started at cornerback last fall but moved to safety in the spring and is listed as a starter on the team's latest depth chart. The safety group also includes Ryan Keiser, a reserve in 2012 who head coach Bill O'Brien labels a potential unit leader this season.
"We feel like we have better depth there than we had last year, and we've got a good amount of returning experience," O'Brien recently told ESPN.com. "And they're very well coached. That position has to be very well coached."
O'Brien credits defensive coordinator John Butler, the team's secondary coach in 2012, for pushing the right buttons with the personnel in the back four. This spring, the coaches moved Trevor Williams and Malik Golden from wide receiver to cornerback and safety, respectively. Williams emerged from the spring as a starter.
The Lions are undoubtedly younger at cornerback than at safety -- all players listed on the summer two-deep are freshmen or sophomores -- but they have flexibility with Amos, who had 44 tackles, two interceptions and three pass breakups last season.
"He's got to be ready to play a lot of different roles for us," O'Brien said. "He's a very valuable member of our team."
2012 conference record: 6-2 (second, Leaders Division)
Returning starters: Offense: 8; defense: 6, kicker/punter: 2
RB Zach Zwinak, WR Allen Robinson, TE Kyle Carter, OG John Urschel, OT Donovan Smith, DE Deion Barnes, LB Glenn Carson, CB Adrian Amos
QB Matt McGloin, FB Michael Zordich, C Matt Stankiewitch, DT Jordan Hill, LB Michael Mauti, LB Gerald Hodges, CB Stephon Morris
2012 statistical leaders (*returners)
Rushing: Zach Zwinak* (1,000 yards)
Receiving: Allen Robinson* (1,018 yards)
Tackles: Gerald Hodges (109)
Sacks: Deion Barnes* (6)
Interceptions: Michael Mauti (3)
1. "Tight End U." If there's one position the Nittany Lions don't have to worry about, it's this one -- and that's probably why some PSU players have taken to dubbing the university "TEU." Kyle Carter's injured wrist should be just fine once the season rolls around, and there's plenty of depth here. Teammates have pointed to the offseason work of 6-foot-7 target Jesse James, who really came on strong in the second half of last season. He was also the receiving star in the annual spring scrimmage with five catches and 77 yards. Couple him with Matt Lehman, Brent Wilkerson and Adam Breneman, and it wouldn't be a surprise to see quite a few formations with multiple tight ends on the field.
2. Versatility at a premium. Bill O'Brien doesn't mind moving players around. Wideouts Malik Golden and Trevor Williams switched over to the secondary, and Williams has especially picked up the position quickly. But those two aren't the only to play at different positions. Adrian Amos can play safety or cornerback, and a lot of Penn State's younger DBs have the ability to slide between those two. Penn State's trying to combat a lack of depth with versatile players here, so players who can play at multiple spots are especially valuable.
3. Young standouts. Several true and redshirt freshmen could contribute heavily this season, and O'Brien has praised multiple first-year players for picking things up quickly. On defense, DT Austin Johnson looks to be a starter after a redshirt season, and LB Nyeem Wartman has a leg up on an injured Ben Kline. On offense, WR Eugene Lewis made a one-handed grab in the spring scrimmage to show he can make the tough catches, and RB Akeel Lynch has also made a strong case for playing time. PSU doesn't historically have many four-year starters, but this year could change that.
1. Quarterback question marks. Neither option, early enrollee Tyler Ferguson nor incoming freshman Christian Hackenberg, has ever thrown a pass in the FBS -- and one of those two players will be the Penn State starter. Inexperience is a big concern, and the QB will have to learn a complicated offense in a short period of time. Hackenberg has a lot of potential and Ferguson showed glimpses, however inconsistent, in the spring game. But the offense's strength last season was the quick no-huddle offense -- and it remains to be seen whether either of these signal callers can pull the fast playing style off.
2. Withstanding lack of depth. O'Brien has gotten this team down to about 67 scholarships in preparation for 2014 when the 65-scholarship limit kicks in, so depth is a real concern this season. If a quarterback or linebacker becomes injured, PSU could be in trouble. The Lions need to remain healthy to have a shot at repeating last year's success. And one injury could really have a ripple effect on this team. Health is one question, one uncertainty, that can't be answered anytime soon.
3. Kicking game. Sam Ficken was just 14-of-21 on field goals last season and didn't make a single kick over 39 yards. He did wind up converting his last 10 attempts, but his inconsistency carried over in the spring game when he missed a 37-yard field goal and an extra point. O'Brien was known for leaving the special-teams unit on the sideline a lot on fourth downs last season and, if Ficken struggles again, that would put even more pressure on the young quarterbacks. Or force O'Brien to use incoming walk-on kicker Chris Gulla.
You can find coverage of Penn State's spring game here and here and here and here.
Star of the game: Redshirt freshman running back Akeel Lynch. He turned in a very impressive performance, rushing for 83 yards and a touchdown on 13 carries, including a 27-yard burst. Lynch showed he's very much in the mix to start for Penn State and capitalized on an opportunity as Bill Belton (toe) missed the game and Zach Zwinak left early with a hand injury.
How it went down: The defense recorded a 67-47 victory in the game, thanks to a modified/confusing scoring system, but the offense garnered more attention at Beaver Stadium. Fans got their first glimpse of quarterback candidates Steven Bench and Tyler Ferguson, who had identical passing lines (9-for-15) and didn't leave much clarity in the race to name a starter.
Ferguson fired two touchdown passes and Bench threw one. Bench also directed a touchdown drive on the opening series capped by Lynch's 1-yard run. Both not surprisingly showed some inconsistency.
"I'm not any closer," head coach Bill O'Brien said of determining a starter. "But I enjoy coaching both guys and, eventually, we'll have to make a decision. But I'm not ready to make that right now."
Incoming recruit Christian Hackenberg, who attended the game, will have a chance to compete for the job when he arrives this summer.
Both quarterbacks connected on long passes to sophomore tight end Jesse James, who had a big day (five receptions, 77 yards, TD). Sophomore receiver Matt Zanellato also performed well with four receptions for 53 yards.
Despite some big plays on offense, Penn State's defensive front seemed to control the line of scrimmage, applying steady pressure on the quarterbacks. Although the sacks total (nine) isn't really relevant because quarterbacks were off limits, linemen like Brad Bars and Deion Barnes consistently beat their men.
The Lions also appear to be stronger and deeper in the secondary. Adrian Amos has moved from cornerback to safety, as Jordan Lucas had a strong spring at corner and converted receivers Trevor Williams (two pass break-ups) and Malik Golden (four tackles) had some plays in the game.
"Everyone on defense is light years ahead of where we were last year at this time just because of the familiarity," new defensive coordinator John Butler said.
O'Brien supplied a highlight by going on the stadium microphone in the third quarter. He encouraged fans to start the wave and jokingly prodding some players.
Several projected starters missed the spring game with injuries, including tight end Kyle Carter (wrist) and defensive tackle DaQuan Jones (back).
ESPN.com caught up with O'Brien late last week to discuss spring ball.
What are some of the main objectives you're looking for when you get on the field again?
Bill O'Brien: The No. 1 objective offensively is to make sure we come out of this spring practice with improvement from the quarterback position. We won't name a starter coming out of the spring, but at least at the end of 15 practices we'll have a good idea of how well these guys are grasping the system, Tyler Ferguson and Steven Bench. So that's a big deal for us offensively.
And defensively, some new guys will be in there, and seeing how those guys do, whether it's Nyeem Wartman at linebacker or Jordan Lucas at corner or some other guys who are going to be playing a little bit more next year, how much they improve. And then we'll work our special teams every single day, so hopefully we'll find some core special-teams players this spring.
What's your message to Steven and Tyler going into the spring? You're not naming the starter, but what do you want to see out of them?
BO'B: [Thursday] I was talking to them, and I said, 'Look, I just want you guys to put your head down and go to work. Don't worry about what everybody else on the outside of the program thinks about your performance, whether it's in scrimmages or the Blue-White Game or whatever it is. Just try to get better every single day.' These are two really, really good kids. They're smart, they work hard at it, they're grasping it pretty well to this point. We're pretty excited about getting started with them. I don't want them to think about anything other than trying to improve and be as good a leader as they can be.
Will you have to change the offense for one or the other? Do they fit in with what you did last year?
BO'B: We'll definitely be different. We'll be different in many ways. Matt [McGloin] had certain strengths we tried to play to, no question about it. Our system is expansive enough that you can have different parts in there to take advantage of the talents of the quarterbacks who are playing. So we'll be a different offense than we were last year.
Anything specific on what might change with these two quarterbacks or areas you can draw out more?
BO'B: I'd rather not get into all of that, but I can tell you these are two guys who are big, they're strong, they're fast, they look to be accurate passers. We're just looking forward to working with them.
It almost certainly looked to be a long-term problem. How would Penn State fare with a reduced roster and a limited number of scholarships to pass out for the 2013 recruiting class?
Early indications suggest the Lions will do just fine. After an 8-4 season under first-year coach Bill O'Brien, Penn State will open spring practice Monday in good shape, both depth-wise and health-wise.
Like every team, the Lions have some holes to fill, most notably quarterback, but they return playmakers on both sides of the ball like wide receiver Allen Robinson, defensive end Deion Barnes, cornerback Adrian Amos and three seasoned tight ends (Kyle Carter, Matt Lehman and Jesse James).
"We feel really good about our depth," O'Brien told ESPN.com on Friday. "Is it exactly the way we would want it? No. We were only able to sign a certain amount of guys, but at the same time, we've got a lot of quality, tough [players]. I really enjoy this football team, being around these kids.
"Obviously, these guys have to go out and play well for us, we have to stay healthy. But we feel like we'll field a very competitive football team in the fall."
Sophomore linebacker Ben Kline is the only key player who will miss spring practice after undergoing offseason shoulder surgery. The Lions are looking for bodies at linebacker after losing Michael Mauti and Gerald Hodges. Glenn Carson and Mike Hull are virtually assured of starting spots, and with Kline out, O'Brien sees Nyeem Wartman opening the spring with the first-team defense. Wartman was limited by injuries as a true freshman in 2012.
"We think he's got a bright, bright future," O'Brien said.
Two quick notes:
- O'Brien reiterated that he won't name a starting quarterback after spring practice. Steven Bench and junior college transfer Tyler Ferguson will compete this spring, and heralded recruit Christian Hackenberg arrives in the summer.
- Penn State made two offseason position changes: tight end Garry Gilliam moves to offensive tackle, where he can play on either side, O'Brien said. Wide receiver Malik Golden moves to defensive back.
First, he was sad to see Brown go, as the two were close friends who had played together at wide receiver during their entire careers. But there was also a positive point in there.
"I thought, this is the opportunity for me to become the player I've always been," Kersey told ESPN.com.
Brown's departure -- along with the graduation of Derek Moye and the dismissal of Devon Smith and Curtis Drake -- leaves the Penn State passing game in very green hands. Kersey, a senior, is now the leading returning receiver. He made all of five catches last year, none after the Big Ten opener against Indiana.
So Penn State has little choice but to rely on some younger, inexperienced players to catch the ball. Kersey wants to be one who benefits from the severe losses at his position.
"I feel like I've got to be the leader and -- not carry us, because other guys have to grow on their own -- but show them that this is how we're going to do it, this is how to get it done," he said. "We've got some really good guys, so we'll be fine."
Kersey pointed to sophomore Allen Robinson, junior Brandon Moseby-Felder, junior Christian Kuntz and redshirt freshman Matt Zanellato as players who could thrive with the increased opportunity. True freshmen Eugene Lewis, Trevor Williams and Malik Golden will also try to make an early impact.
Head coach Bill O'Brien said he's not fretting about the receivers because of the way they've played in practice.
"Nobody sees what we see," O'Brien said. "Specifically with that position, we have Shawney Kersey, Allen Robinson. These guys are 6-foot-3, they both can run, jump, they have great hands. They're good competitors. They're tough ... .
"These guys are going to go out and battle and show up. I've got a pretty good idea they'll make some plays."
On the optimistic side, many of the Penn State receivers were standout players in high school. They might not have been ideally served by the old-fashioned offense of the old regime or the lack of any continuity at the quarterback position.
O'Brien and his staff are expected to field a much more modern passing offense that could allow the skill players to show off more.
"This is a better opportunity, not just because Justin left but because of the way the offense is," Kersey said. "The offense is based more on what you do best, that's where [O'Brien] puts you, instead of maybe just putting you somewhere and trying to make you something you're not."
So there is hope for the Penn State passing game. But that hope only turns into reality if some very inexperienced players make major leaps forward.
"The next person has to step up now and try to do their thing," Kersey said. "We've got to step up faster and we've got to become better quicker."
Johnson, the team's defensive line coach and one of two assistants retained from the previous staff, discussed the recruiting process with ESPN.com on Thursday.
How was this recruiting cycle different from what you've been used to at Penn State?
Larry Johnson: I don't think it was a different cycle, but just the transition from the old staff to the new staff. The only thing different was Coach O'Brien made a decision on every new guy we wanted to offer, just to make sure it was the kind of player he wanted in his system offensively or what we thought defensively. He gave us some parameters and things he was looking for with specific positions. So we had to take those parameters and select players who we wanted to add to the class as we move forward. But the biggest transition was just getting the new staff on board, getting the new staff ready to move forward and really continuing what the old staff had done to that point, moving forward with recruits that we had created relationships with.
When Coach O'Brien came on board, how much of the process was offering new players and how much was trying to keep the committed recruits on board?
LJ: Really, the biggest thing he wanted to do was try to keep the guys who were committed. That was the most important thing, so we had every coach out to see every single recruit who was committed to us. And it was whatever it took, two coaches, three coaches, we did it, and did it by position and did it by areas just to get everybody involved. And then the second weekend in January, it was our biggest recruiting weekend. We had pretty much all those guys on campus, and then Coach O'Brien had a chance to be here and really sat down with each family, each kid for 45 [minutes] to an hour before he left, just to reassure them his commitment to Penn State University and answer questions. That was huge, in the sense of starting out. He was committed to doing it and it worked out well. That was our first priority, hold onto the 14, 15 guys we had and go after more and let them know we're committed. And as we moved along, there were some needs we still had, and we targeted a few kids we could go after and offer and move from there.
Do you think if Coach O'Brien was in place earlier, it would have prevented some recruits from looking elsewhere?
LJ: It's hard to tell. It's hard to really tell if that would have been the factor. The issue is what it was, and parents have a right to make those decisions and what's best for them. Their decision would have been made whether the coach was in place or not in place. The neat thing about it was the guys that stayed with us stayed with us through the whole process. Some kids didn't waver. The focus should really go back to the families and the kids that decided to wait and then stay and then come. It speaks volumes about those people. Some kids say, 'OK, coach, we'll see.' They listened and waited it out and waited for the new coach to be in place. Even though guys took [recruiting] trips during that process, they still came back to one thing. The families realized Penn State is Penn State. You get a great education, and it's a great place to be. Those are the families, and the people we got are very excited about it. Everybody has a choice, and we're just thrilled to death that these guys decided and the families decided to stay with us.
The guys who stayed, did any of that surprise you? Could it have been worse with guys leaving for other programs?
LJ: You never know what's going to happen once the fire starts rolling, one guy changes his mind. Each one of those kids got pressure from the media or their neighbors, 'Why are you still going to Penn State?' We all endured it. It could have been worse, but it wasn't, and I think the biggest key was when Coach O'Brien got named head coach, the first thing he did was call the players, call the parents, talk to them on the phone, and then he was here that first weekend that we had a big official visit. That was huge. They needed to see him, they needed to see his face and they needed to hear his vision of where this program is going. That was a big selling piece. And having all the coaches in place as fast as he did. Normally, it takes a long time to do that, but he had a vision in mind with the staff, and that was in place pretty fast also.
What were your top needs in this class, and how did you do in addressing them?
LJ: We got some really great wideouts. The wideout need we met very well. We needed a running back, and we thought we got a great one in Akeel Lynch. We got some secondary players we wanted, more guys, and we got a couple corners there. We would like to have gotten another corner, but we didn't. Defensive line, I thought we met our needs there. Offensive line is probably one of the only places we came up short in getting the numbers we need to have, but you don't want to take a guy late. You might want to roll it over into next year, and that was our mind-set. When we didn't get the few guys we really wanted to get, we didn't want to move anywhere else. We said, 'Let's wait and see next year, we'll get a couple great guys.' We wanted to get four [offensive linemen] and we got two.
What stands out to you about the wide receivers, guys like Eugene Lewis?
LJ: Coach [Stan] Hixon saw them on videotape and it doesn't take much to figure out what kind of kid [Lewis] is. He's great with the ball in his hands, great, athletic kid, great basketball player, great hands, great competitor. All the things you want in a big wideout, he has. So I think he's a great player. Then you have Trevor Williams, another guy who caught 99 balls last year. Jonathan Warner, he's got great hands, Malik Golden, another very athletic guy also. So I think it's a really outstanding class of wide receivers.
And the defensive linemen, what stands out about them? You'll obviously be working closely with those guys.
LJ: All four of those guys are very athletic, can do a multitude of things. Three of them played basketball, one wrestled, so they're multi-sport guys, great competitors, and they're big and can run. And they're great kids, great students, high-character families. So we're very fortunate to hold onto all those guys. And then we got Evan Schwan, the young D-end, we got him late but he was in our camp for two years, so we knew a little bit about him, but we weren't really sure we were going to take another defensive end. We just felt he was too good of a guy. To not play his junior year and have a great senior year, he's 6-6, you just can't pass up his athletic skills. We were very fortunate to get him late in the process.
How much have you talked the next class and your philosophy going forward with recruiting under Coach O'Brien?
LJ: I think the groundwork has already been laid. He gave us some parameters moving forward with the 2013 class and what we're looking for. That won't take place totally until he gets here next Tuesday, and then we'll really put the groundwork. But he did give us some parameters of where he wanted to go in the next class and the numbers we're looking at. There's some areas we're going to really hone in on. I know one thing is he wants to control the state of Pennsylvania, so we're going to make a lot of effort in-state to really hold these kids in it. And then we're going to attack the surrounding areas as hard as we can on the East Coast and in through Ohio. And then we may jump and recruit some areas we haven't been before, only because it ties to the coaching staff, Georgia, Alabama, Florida a little bit. But our base is going to be Pennsylvania, the D.C. area, the Maryland area, Western Pennsylvania, all the places that we've got a chance to really get some great players from.
So a little more Southeast focused with this staff?
LJ: I think so. We're going to dip down in there. You get one or two guys. The key there is travel, getting here. But we've got some guys on this staff, Coach [Ted] Roof and Coach Mac [McWhorter] have got some expertise in that area, some friendships down in the Alabama, Georgia area. So it makes sense to use their connections and try to get some kids out of there.
How much of your job has been reassuring recruits and their parents about the situation at Penn State and that the program is moving forward?
LJ: Signing this class now, I think we can all move forward. That starts the moving forward for Penn State football, having Coach O'Brien and his staff here, that's been a great starting point. I think now we can really move forward, we really can, and focus on putting together a great class, our kind of people, and ones who want to come to Penn State for all the right things and play at a high level. That's what we're selling right now. And I'd be remiss if I didn't say this: the previous staff, two months prior to this all happening, that's all we sold, Penn State. That's a compliment to those guys. Knowing the situation we were in as coaches, we never stopped selling Penn State. I really think that's why we're here today, because we didn't waver from that and really believe in the system here at Penn State. Now moving forward with this class, people are going to see a difference in what we'll do and how we approach this as we move forward. There are exciting times ahead, I really believe that.
- Defense will hold the key to success for Illinois this season. Safety Supo Sanni used basketball to help his rehab from an Achilles tendon injury.
- Indiana linebacker Chad Sherer might miss the season with a knee injury. Kevin Wilson is feeling upbeat about his team (subscription required).
- Iowa has found lots of talent in its own backyard. The Hawkeyes are getting a new, younger look at linebacker.
- Greg Mattison sees improvement in the Michigan defense, but it's not all the way there yet. Al Borges says the offense will be "gunning" more than any he's overseen in 24 years because of Denard Robinson. Physical play in practice has quite a few Wolverines banged up.
- Kirk Cousins is the face of Michigan State's program. Dan France is trying to clean up his mistakes and hold onto the starting left tackle job.
- Minnesota receiver Da'Jon McKnight puts his former hoops skills to good use on the football field. Linebackers Mike Rallis and Keanon Cooper should be ready to go for the Gophers' opener at USC.
- Nebraska backup quarterback Brion Carnes is waiting for his time to shine. Junior college transfer Joseph Carter is pushing for playing time at defensive end. True freshman Tyler Moore is battling for a starting job on the Huskers' offensive line.
- Former walk-on Jacob Schmidt has risen to the top of the depth chart at running back for Northwestern.
- Former blue-chip recruit Curtis Grant is experiencing some growing pains but wants to avoid a redshirt this year for Ohio State. Luke Fickell acknowledged a poorly-kept secret: Joe Bauserman and Braxton Miller are his top two quarterbacks. Mike Vrabel appears to be making a successful transition to coaching.
- Joe Paterno is still getting it done in recruiting despite not going to high schools in person. Stephfon Green is back on the Nittany Lions -- at least according to him. Recruit Malik Golden is being ticketed for cornerback.
- Purdue quarterback Caleb TerBush is confident despite his lack of experience. Rick Schmeig is the anchor for the Boilers' offensive line.
- Purdue coach Danny Hope describes the latest setback for his hard-luck program. Here are five big questions for Purdue in the wake of QB Rob Henry's ACL injury, Mike Carmin writes in The (Lafayette) Journal and Courier.
- Here's the latest on Northwestern QB Dan Persa from ESPNChicago.com's Scott Powers and yours truly.
- Penn State adds another talented recruit in CB Malik Golden, Sean Fitz writes. Alex Kenney is anxious to contribute for the Lions, Jeff Rice writes in the Centre Daily Times.
- Ohio State is counting on a talented but inexperienced crop of receivers, Doug Lesmerises writes in The (Cleveland) Plain Dealer.
- Michigan State linebacker Steve Gardiner has made a move during camp, Denny Schwarze writes in the Lansing State Journal. Some Spartans special-teams notes from The Detroit News' Matt Charboneau.
- Nebraska expects big things from its return game this season, Brian Christopherson writes in the Lincoln Journal Star. Dirk Chatelain writes that Big Red is moving the needle nationally again.
- Michigan won't be back until the defense returns to form, Bob Wojnowski writes in The Detroit News. Brady Hoke likes to point at things.
- Wisconsin QB Russell Wilson masters the ball fake and handling the ball, Tom Mulhern writes in the Wisconsin State Journal. The Badgers will use a 10-man rotation on the defensive line, Jeff Potrykus writes in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. The doubts about Bret Bielema have disappeared in Madison, Patrick Reusse writes in the Star Tribune.
- The Indianapolis Star's Terry Hutchens breaks down the pros and cons of Indiana's quarterbacks.
- The bar has been set high for Illinois QB Nathan Scheelhaase in 2011, Herb Gould writes in the Chicago Sun-Times.
- Can you guess the Iowa depth chart? Scott Dochterman takes a closer look at Iowa's receivers and tight ends.
- Minnesota is a bit banged-up but might not have any players miss the opener, Phil Miller writes in the Star Tribune.