Big Ten: Nyeem Wartman

We're taking snapshots of each position group with each Big Ten team entering the spring. Up next: the linebackers.

Illinois: The Illini lose an All-Big Ten player in Jonathan Brown but still have decent overall depth at linebacker. Mason Monheim started every game at middle linebacker in 2013, and Mike Svetina started all but one game at the star position. Both players return as juniors. Svetina will move into Brown's spot on the weak side, while the other position could be filled by T.J. Neal, who recorded 38 tackles last season. Ralph Cooper has logged significant reps as a reserve, and Eric Finney gives Illinois some flexibility after playing the star position (safety/outside linebacker).

Indiana: This becomes a more significant position under coordinator Brian Knorr, who plans to use a 3-4 alignment. Indiana should have enough depth to make the transition as it returns two full-time starters from 2013 -- David Cooper and T.J. Simmons -- as well as two part-time starters in Forisse Hardin and Clyde Newton, who started the final four games of his freshman season. Like Simmons and Newton, Marcus Oliver played a lot as a freshman and provides some depth. The key here will be converting all the experience into sharper, more consistent play.

Iowa: If you're of the mindset that Iowa always reloads at linebacker, you can rest easy this spring. If not, keep a very close eye on what happens as the Hawkeyes begin replacing one of the more productive linebacker groups in team history: James Morris, Christian Kirksey and Anthony Hitchens. There are high hopes for sophomore Reggie Spearman, who played in 10 games as a freshman last fall. Spearman, junior Travis Perry and senior Quinton Alston enter the spring as the front-runners to take over the top spots. The biggest challenge could be building depth behind them with Cole Fisher and others.

Maryland: The good news is the Terrapins return three productive starters from 2013 in Cole Farrand, L.A. Goree and Matt Robinson, who combined for 233 tackles, including 19 for loss. The bad news is Maryland loses its top playmaker at the position in Marcus Whitfield, who recorded nine sacks and 15.5 tackles for loss last season. But the overall picture is favorable, and the depth should be strong when Alex Twine and Yannik Cudjoe-Virgil return from their injuries. Young players such as Abner Logan (37 tackles in 2013) will push for more time.

Michigan: There are a lot of familiar faces in new positions as Michigan not only has shuffled the roles of its defensive assistant coaches, but also its top linebackers. Standout Jake Ryan moves from strong-side linebacker to the middle, while junior James Ross III moves from the weak side to the strong side and Desmond Morgan shifts from the middle to the weak side. Joe Bolden, who had 54 tackles last season, can play both outside and inside, and players such as Ben Gedeon, Royce Jenkins-Stone and Allen Gant add depth. The talent is there for a big year if the position switches pan out.

Michigan State: It won't be easy to replace the Big Ten's top linebacker tandem in Max Bullough and Denicos Allen, not to mention Rose Bowl hero Kyler Elsworth, but Michigan State has some promising options. Ed Davis appears ready to step in for Allen after recording four sacks as a sophomore. Junior Darien Harris and two redshirt freshmen, Shane Jones and Jon Reschke, will compete at middle linebacker. Returning starter Taiwan Jones is back at the star position, and Mylan Hicks should be in the rotation. Depth is a bit of a question mark here entering the spring.

Minnesota: The Gophers lose key pieces in all three areas of the defense, and linebacker is no exception as two starters (Aaron Hill and James Manuel) depart. Minnesota will lean on Damien Wilson, who started in 12 games at middle linebacker in his first season with the Gophers and recorded 78 tackles. Junior De'Vondre Campbell seems ready to claim a starting spot after backing up Manuel last season. There will be plenty of competition at the strong-side linebacker spot, as Nick Rallis, De'Niro Laster and others are in the mix. Jack Lynn is backing up Wilson at middle linebacker but could work his way into a starting spot on the outside with a good spring.

Nebraska: Optimism is building for the Blackshirts in 2014, thanks in large part to the returning linebackers. The three players who finished last season as the starters -- David Santos, Michael Rose and Zaire Anderson -- all are back, as Rose will lead the way in the middle. Josh Banderas and Nathan Gerry also have starting experience and return for 2014. If younger players such as Marcus Newby develop this spring, Nebraska could have the Big Ten's deepest group of linebackers, a dramatic departure from the Huskers' first few years in the conference. Good things are happening here.

Northwestern: The top two playmakers return here in Chi Chi Ariguzo and Collin Ellis, who combined for seven interceptions and 11.5 tackles for loss in 2014. Northwestern's challenge is replacing the leadership Damien Proby provided in the middle. Ellis has shifted from the strong side to the middle, and Northwestern has moved safety Jimmy Hall from safety to strong-side linebacker. Drew Smith and Hall will compete for the third starting spot throughout the offseason. Sophomores Jaylen Prater and Joseph Jones should provide some depth.

Ohio State: Coach Urban Meyer has made it clear that Ohio State needs more from the linebackers, so it's a huge offseason for this crew, which loses superstar Ryan Shazier. The Buckeyes return starters at the outside spots in Curtis Grant and Joshua Perry, although competition will continue throughout the spring and summer. Redshirt freshman Darron Lee surprisingly opened spring practice Tuesday working with Grant and Perry on the first-team defense. Camren Williams appeared in all 13 games as a reserve and will be part of the rotation, along with Trey Johnson. Meyer said last month that the incoming linebacker recruits won't redshirt, which means an opportunity for mid-year enrollee Raekwon McMillan.

Penn State: Linebacker U is looking for more bodies at the position after struggling with depth issues throughout 2013. The Lions lose leading tackler Glenn Carson but bring back two players, Mike Hull and Nyeem Wartman, who started most of the season. The new coaching staff is counting on Hull to become a star as a senior. Brandon Bell, who appeared in nine games and recorded 24 tackles as a freshman, will compete for a starting spot along with Gary Wooten. Penn State hopes Ben Kline can stay healthy as he provides some experience, and incoming freshman Troy Reeder could enter the rotation right away.

Purdue: Expect plenty of competition here as Purdue loses leading tackler Will Lucas and must get more consistent play from the group. Joe Gilliam started for most of the 2013 season and should occupy a top spot this fall. Sean Robinson also brings experience to the field, and Ryan Russell could fill more of a hybrid linebacker/defensive end role this season. Redshirt freshman Danny Ezechukwu is an intriguing prospect to watch this spring as he aims for a bigger role. Ezechukwu is just one of several younger players, including decorated incoming recruit Gelen Robinson, who have opportunities to make a splash.

Rutgers: The Scarlet Knights return a good deal of production here with Steve Longa and Kevin Snyder, who combined for 219 tackles, including 15 tackles for loss and five sacks. Quentin Gause also is back after racking up 53 tackles (8.5 for loss) in a mostly reserve role last season. Gause likely will claim the starting strong-side linebacker spot as Jamal Merrell departs. The starting spots are seemingly set, so Rutgers will look to build depth with Davon Jacobs, who had 30 tackles as a reserve last season, and L.J. Liston, both sophomores.

Wisconsin: Do-it-all linebacker Chris Borland is gone, along with Ethan Armstrong and Conor O'Neill, so Wisconsin must replace three of its top four tacklers from 2013. Derek Landisch and Joe Schobert can be penciled in as starters, along with Michael Caputo, who played mostly safety last season but should slide into one of the outside spots. Marcus Trotter brings experience to the rotation. The spotlight will be on younger linebackers such as Vince Biegel, who had 25 tackles last season, as well as dynamic sophomore Leon Jacobs and Alec James, a decorated recruit who redshirted in 2013.
Tags:

Purdue Boilermakers, Minnesota Golden Gophers, Penn State Nittany Lions, Big Ten Conference, Michigan State Spartans, Northwestern Wildcats, Indiana Hoosiers, Illinois Fighting Illini, Ohio State Buckeyes, Michigan Wolverines, Wisconsin Badgers, Iowa Hawkeyes, Big Ten, Nebraska Cornhuskers, Rutgers Scarlet Knights, Maryland Terrapins, Damien Proby, Collin Ellis, Michael Trotter, Max Bullough, Jonathan Brown, Chi Chi Ariguzo, Mylan Hicks, Mike Hull, Jake Ryan, Ryan Russell, Joshua Perry, Derek Landisch, Jimmy Hall, Denicos Allen, Ralph Cooper, Curtis Grant, Darien Harris, Quinton Alston, Marcus Trotter, Joe Bolden, Royce Jenkins-Stone, Michael Rose, Joseph Jones, Camren Williams, Vince Biegel, Cole Fisher, Jack Lynn, Nyeem Wartman, Allen Gant, T.J. Neal, David Santos, Zaire Anderson, Joe Gilliam, David Cooper, Jon Reschke, Taiwan Jones, Ben Gedeon, Shane Jones, Brandon Bell, Nathan Gerry, Marcus Newby, Forisse Hardin, Mason Monheim, Mike Svetina, Eric Finney, Trey Johnson, Leon Jacobs, Reggie Spearman, Alec James, De'Vondre Campbell, De'Niro Laster, Damien Wilson, Josh Banderas, T.J. Simmons, Clyde Newton, Marcus Oliver, Ben Kline, Drew Smith, Nick Rallis, Troy Reeder, James Ross III, Joe Schobert, Raekwon McMillan, Gelen Robinson, Gary Wooten, Ed Davis, Travis Perry, Brian Knorr, Cole Farrand, Matt Robinson, Marcus Whitfield, Jaylen Prater, B1G spring positions 14, Darron Lee, L.A. Goree, Alex Twine, Yannik Cudjoe-Virgil, Abner Logan, Danny Ezechukwu, Steve Longa, Kevin Snyder, Quentin Gause, Jamal Merrell, Davon Jacobs, L.J. Liston

Earlier today, we presented our All-Big Ten team. Now it's time to honor the top freshmen from 2013 with our Big Ten all-freshman team.

Here it is:

OFFENSE
QB: Christian Hackenberg, Penn State (captain)
RB: Corey Clement, Wisconsin
WR: DeAngelo Yancey, Purdue
WR: Jordan Westerkamp, Nebraska*
TE: Maxx Williams, Minnesota*
TE: Jake Butt, Michigan
OL: Dan Voltz, Wisconsin*
OL: Ben Lauer, Minnesota*
OL: Jack Conklin, Michigan State*
OL: Jacob Bailey, Indiana*
OL: Kyle Kalis, Michigan*

DEFENSE
DL: Joey Bosa, Ohio State (captain)
DL: Austin Johnson, Penn State*
DL: Avery Moss, Nebraska*
DL: Willie Henry, Michigan*
LB: Michael Rose, Nebraska*
LB: Nyeem Wartman, Penn State*
LB: T.J. Simmons, Indiana
DB: Sojourn Shelton, Wisconsin
DB: Desmond King, Iowa
DB: Tyvis Powell, Ohio State*
DB: Matthew Harris, Northwestern

SPECIALISTS
K: Michael Geiger, Michigan State
P: Cameron Johnston, Ohio State
All purpose: Dontre Wilson, Ohio State

* -- redshirt freshman

It was a pretty strong year for freshmen in the league, highlighted by Hackenberg and Bosa. Shelton was terrific as well. ... Tight end is a promising position for the future. Penn State's Adam Breneman just missed, but he looks like a future star. And Michigan State's Josiah Price had a big impact in the Big Ten title game. ... Nebraska's young defense could really turn into something special. We also considered defensive lineman Vincent Valentine and linebackers Jared Afalava, Nathan Gerry and Josh Banderas. ... It was also a good year for rookie QBs, as beyond Hackenberg there was Purdue's Danny Etling, Nebraska's Tommy Armstrong and Minnesota's Mitch Leidner. ... Ohio State's Wilson didn't have a true position, but he did a lot of things and was a good return man, so that's why he gets our all-purpose slot. ... Some others we considered included Penn State receiver Geno Lewis and linebacker Brandon Bell, Purdue offensive lineman Jason King and Indiana defensive lineman Ralphael Green.

Penn State LB Kline out for season

November, 12, 2013
11/12/13
1:45
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STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Penn State linebacker Ben Kline, who overcame offseason shoulder surgery in time for the 2013 season, will miss the rest of the year with a torn pectoral that will require surgery.

The redshirt sophomore will also undergo a second shoulder surgery that will come after the pectoral surgery, Penn State coach Bill O'Brien said.

"I think he can definitely come back from those," O'Brien said Tuesday afternoon. "I brought him in and had this exact conversation with him. I told him, 'We look forward to bringing you back next year.'

"He's still at the meetings. I look at Ben Kline as a tough kid."

Kline tore his pec on the second play of Saturday's game against Minnesota but played the rest of the game. He finished with four tackles.

Depth at linebacker was among O'Brien's chief concerns this season, and Kline played in every game, starting the last two. He finished the season with 18 tackles and one sack.

Redshirt freshman Nyeem Wartman and safety-turned-linebacker Stephen Obeng-Agyapong will likely compete for the starting job in his place.

Kline addressed the media last week and said his shoulder continued to bother him this season. He said he had finally gotten his confidence back and praised the trainers for getting him prepared.

"It's been a little more trying than other seasons," Kline said last week. "But I'm just trying to do what I can to help the team."

Kline has two years of eligibility remaining.

Nittany Lions take pride in shutout

September, 21, 2013
9/21/13
9:05
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STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Bill O'Brien, the offensive guru who's had to insist on more than one occasion that he's no rock star, took to the dais Saturday evening and cut himself short as he waxed poetic on the Lions' improved rushing attack.

"You guys need to ask me some defensive questions. They're all offensive questions right now," Penn State's head coach said following a 34-0 victory over Kent State. "The defense just pitched a shutout, and you guys were all over them last week and they just pitched a shutout. So, can we get some defensive questions or what? No?"

O'Brien, with a blue cap pulled close to his eyes, waited a moment and then continued on between scattered laughter.

"I thought the defense played a helluva football game. They pitched a shutout, and I think John Butler and that crowd of coaches over there and that crowd of football players over there did a f- …” said O’Brien, pausing to change words in midstream. “… hell of a job."
For a minute there, one reporter told him, it sure sounded like O'Brien was going to say he had a bunch of "fighters."

"You know what?" O'Brien said with a smile. "I do. We have a bunch of fighters and fantastic kids. Anyone that debates me on that -- it's like my mom, she still doesn't believe I said 'fighters.' Do I look like a guy who swears? You're kidding me."

[+] EnlargeRyan Keiser, Malcolm Willis
Evan Habeeb/USA TODAY SportsThe Penn State defense had plenty to celebrate as it notched its first shutout since 2010.
O'Brien's mood told the tale of the day. Last week, after his defense surrendered 34 points and 507 yards, he crossed his arms and countered most questions by saying he'd have to watch the film. He glared, and his anger was evident. This time, he laughed and smiled -- and his players shared that sentiment.

Cornerback Jordan Lucas pumped his fist as he jogged underneath the tunnel. Linebacker Nyeem Wartman embraced DT Tyrone Smith, and the dimple-chinned coach didn't have to stop any players from prematurely jogging into the locker room. They stayed and swayed to the alma mater.

O'Brien even lingered a bit and high-fived students who leaned over the rail. Last week, the players stared at their feet and looked as if they had heard a eulogy just minutes before. This week? It seemed as if the Lions were in the midst of a celebration -- probably because they were.

This marked the first Penn State shutout since Sept. 18, 2010, which also just so happened to come against the Golden Flashes. It was also a statement game, one that said the defense wasn't a pushover liked it seemed last week.

PSU surrendered 15 plays of 10 yards or more last week. It gave up just 190 total yards this week.

"It feels good for our defense. But we can't stop there, man," linebacker Stephen Obeng-Agyapong said. "We got to keep striving because we definitely made mistakes today, and we just have to keep improving."

Of course, comparing UCF's offense to Kent State might just be like comparing Ohio State to Ohio. Some players believed last week didn't seem as bad as the media made it out to be. But, by the same token, this week's shutout likely isn't the watershed moment for the defense either.

It's more of a confidence boost for the defense than an indicator -- even if some defensive players seemed to take offense at that notion.

"I don't think it was the opponent," Wartman said. "I think it was more us."

Defensive players didn't believe there were big changes between last Saturday and this Saturday. Obeng-Agyapong just chalked the loss to UCF up to one of those days when nothing goes right.

This shutout doesn't mean the Nittany Lions will enter the conference season and limit Indiana's high-powered offense to 200 yards. But it does give Penn State something to build on, something for the defensive players to smile about and something for the fans to look forward to.

The shutout was undoubtedly important to this Penn State team, Kent State or not. And, heading into the bye week, it sure makes a 3-1 record easier to swallow.

"When you can shut any team out, it feels good," Obeng-Agyapong said, "because you stop them from scoring the whole game. That's pretty difficult at times, you know?

"You always feel good when you win. When you lose, you feel crappy. It's as simple as that."

Transition no longer a problem for Obeng

September, 6, 2013
9/06/13
9:00
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STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Stephen Obeng-Agyapong told the media in early August that his transition to linebacker wouldn't be that difficult. It's just going from the third level to the second level, last year's starting safety said. It's not a big change, he insisted. It won't be a problem.

Turns out the Penn State senior didn't exactly believe his own words back then.

He admitted this week he practiced the new position with hesitation. He worried he was too short, too light and wouldn't be a good matchup against the bigger blockers. But he kept those concerns to himself and his teammates. He didn't need the opposition knowing he wasn't comfortable.

[+] EnlargeStephen Obeng-Agyapong
Nabil K. Mark/Centre Daily Times/Getty ImagesFormer safety Stephen Obeng-Agyapong surprised even himself with his play at linebacker in the opening victory over Syracuse.
"I'm not the biggest linebacker, you know?" said Obeng-Agyapong, who stands 5-foot-10 and 205 pounds. "I wasn't a fan of it. But I kept practicing and, when the game came, I did a pretty good job of it. It gave me confidence."

The Bronx native played down his heroics earlier this week but acknowledged his performance in the Syracuse game -- one sack, one pick, one fumble recovery -- finally sold him on the switch. After starting LB Mike Hull went down with a leg injury, the Orange targeted the defense's apparent weak link in replacement Obeng-Agyapong ... but it didn't exactly go as expected.

The man with the longest last name on the team -- get used to pronouncing it; it's OH-bing AH-juh-pong -- shut Syracuse down at every turn. Defensive coordinator John Butler frequently called his number on blitzes, and his speed caused fits for the Orange.

"Obeng played a phenomenal game," linebacker Nyeem Wartman said, adding he felt the safety-turned-linebacker was the defensive key to PSU's opening win. "When Hull went down, Obeng stepped up. I think his plays made a big impact because they kept going at him. They knew he wasn't a linebacker, so they kept trying to run at him and he was making plays."

Obeng-Agyapong will likely hear his name called a bit more now on Saturdays. Hull is listed day-to-day with an apparent leg injury, but PSU's shortest on linebacker depth. That's part of the reason the safety was moved there to begin with, and he has been focusing on the new position this week.

Even if Hull returns, Obeng-Agyapong should see a lot of time. And he's just fine with that now.

"Initially, I wasn't a fan," he said of linebacker. "I was recruited as a safety. That was my favorite position. I felt like I wouldn't as be successful going down there."

"But after the game Saturday, I realized I could run around those guys and compete and make some plays. That kind of changed my whole mindset."

Obeng-Agyapong started 11 games at safety last season and came away with exactly two turnovers. On Saturday, he also had a hand in two -- including forcing and recovering one fumble.

His surprise performance even caused his head coach to wonder aloud about plugging him in elsewhere. Maybe, Bill O'Brien said Tuesday, he'd practice with the fullbacks or tight ends this week. "I'm being serious," he added.

Wherever he plays, Obeng-Agyapong will undoubtedly play a big role on this team. With a team short on scholarships, versatility is at a premium -- and Obeng-Agyapong has enough trust in this staff now that he'll play anywhere. He's confident, he's one of the fastest PSU players, and he's a quick learner.

"A lot of my teammates were telling me, 'I told you so. I told you you should've been a linebacker,' " Obeng-Agyapong said with a laugh. "It is what it is.

"Sometimes those opportunities come, and you don't know what you can actually do until you actually do it."

Big Ten lunch links

August, 26, 2013
8/26/13
12:00
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It's game week, people. You ready for some football?

Let's get linky ...

Penn State season preview

August, 9, 2013
8/09/13
10:30
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Can the Nittany Lions build off last season and play the role of BCS spoiler? Let's take a closer look at this 2013 Penn State team:

PENN STATE NITTANY LIONS

Coach: Bill O'Brien (8-4 overall, 8-4 at Penn State)

2012 record: 8-4 (6-2 Big Ten)

Key losses: QB Matt McGloin, C Matt Stankiewitch, DT Jordan Hill, LB Michael Mauti, LB Gerald Hodges, CB Stephon Morris

[+] EnlargeAdrian Amos
Keith Srakocic/AP PhotoKeep an eye out for rising star Adrian Amos, who will play more at safety this season for PSU.
Key returnees: RB Zach Zwinak, WR Allen Robinson, G John Urschel, DE Deion Barnes, DT DaQuan Jones, LB Mike Hull, DB Adrian Amos

Newcomer to watch: QB Christian Hackenberg. He was the top-rated quarterback in the 2013 class, and ESPN ranked him as the 15th-best high school prospect in the nation.

Biggest games in 2013: vs. Michigan (Oct. 12), at Ohio State (Oct. 26), vs. Nebraska (Nov. 23), at Wisconsin (Nov. 30)

Biggest question mark heading into 2013: O'Brien turned this passing offense around last season with an up-tempo style and an efficient McGloin, who tossed 24 touchdowns to five interceptions. But he'll have to start a first-year QB this season, as none of PSU's five signal-callers -- three walk-ons, two on scholarship -- were on the roster last season.

The race is between Hackenberg and Tyler Ferguson, a junior college player who missed about a month of voluntary workouts. O'Brien plans to name a starter about midway through camp. Whoever it is, he will have to learn quickly for the Nittany Lions to repeat the success of last season.

Forecast: Penn State overcame some huge question marks last year and went on to have a surprisingly successful season, but it's not going to get any easier in 2013.

The defensive front seven is short on depth and bigger on inexperience. Nyeem Wartman, a redshirt freshman, will take over for a Butkus semifinalist at linebacker. The starting DT opposite Jones -- projected to be Kyle Baublitz -- compiled just three stops last season and weighs in at just 281 pounds. A single injury at either spot would be devastating for the Nittany Lions.

On the bright side, there are clearly some strong leaders who could make up for some early missteps. Barnes was last year's Big Ten Freshman of the Year, and he's already one of the league's most feared pass-rushers. Hull is poised for a breakout season, and teammates recently called his offseason improvement the most impressive.

But out of all the defensive stars, Amos might surprise fans the most. He moved from cornerback to his natural position at safety in the offseason, and last year's 50th-ranked pass defense should be better this time around.

On offense, just about every unit has improved, with one big exception at quarterback. It'll be difficult for any newcomer to match McGloin's performance, but there's a strong supporting cast. Robinson is the top wideout in the Big Ten, Zwinak reached the 1,000-yard plateau last season, and the tight ends will play as large a role in this offense as any other team in the country.

In short, like last year, PSU is a bit of a wild card. If it receives strong efforts from its quarterback and the front seven, it should surpass last year's record. If it doesn't, it might be fortunate to get to seven wins.
Now that spring practice is over, we're examining the most indispensable players on each Big Ten team for the 2013 season.

By indispensable, we don't necessarily mean best. We mean the players who would be hardest to replace between now and the start of the season if they got hurt or suspended or sent on a goodwill mission to North Korea. That could be because of their value to the team, or because of a lack of depth at their position.

We'll pick two players from each team, usually offense and defense, but not always. Up next: the Penn State Nittany Lions.

Allen Robinson, WR, Jr.

The biggest reason not to panic about Penn State's quarterback situation is the supporting cast that will surround unproven options Tyler Ferguson or Christian Hackenberg. Penn State has excellent depth at tight end and solid depth at running back, but there are question marks at receiver behind Robinson, who won the Big Ten's Richter-Howard Receiver of the Year award last season. Robinson emerged as the league's most dynamic and dependable pass-catching option as a sophomore, recording 77 receptions for 1,013 yards and 11 touchdowns. He had five or more receptions in 10 of 12 games and nine or more receptions in four contests. Robinson formed tremendous chemistry with Matt McGloin, especially in the red zone, and Penn State's new starting quarterback undoubtedly will be helped when No. 8 is on the field. Although the Lions have some other potentially good options at receiver, Robinson is proven and would be missed if he isn't out there.

Mike Hull, LB, Jr.

It's rare when a player who didn't start in 2012 earns the "most indispensable" table, but Penn State fans won't be surprised to see Hull's name here. He essentially served as the Lions' fourth starting linebacker in 2012, recording 58 tackles, four sacks, two fumble recoveries, an interception and a blocked kick. Hull stood out on special teams and showed his natural playmaking ability throughout the season. Not only does he move into a featured role this fall, but he does so at a position where Penn State lacks depth after losing All-Big Ten selections Michael Mauti and Gerald Hodges. Although returning starter Glenn Carson is back, and hopes are high for Nyeem Wartman, Penn State needs big things from Hull to solidify the middle of the defense. Hull could be an All-Big Ten-caliber player this season, and if Penn State loses him, the defense could take a step back.

More indispensable:

Michigan
Wisconsin
Minnesota
Nebraska
Indiana
Michigan State
Ohio State
Iowa
2012 record: 8-4
2012 conference record: 6-2 (second, Leaders Division)
Returning starters: Offense: 8; defense: 6, kicker/punter: 2

Top returners

RB Zach Zwinak, WR Allen Robinson, TE Kyle Carter, OG John Urschel, OT Donovan Smith, DE Deion Barnes, LB Glenn Carson, CB Adrian Amos

Key losses

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)

Spring answers

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.

Fall questions

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.

Spring game preview: Penn State

April, 19, 2013
4/19/13
10:00
AM ET
It's another big weekend of spring games in the Big Ten, as three schools wrap up their drills with a Saturday exhibition inside their home stadiums.

We're here to preview them all, starting with Penn State's annual Blue-White game ...

When: Saturday, Noon ET

Where: Beaver Stadium

Admission: Free. Parking is available on a first-come, first-serve basis, and lots open at 8 a.m. Fans will be able to enter the stadium through Gates A, B, C and E.

TV: Live on Big Ten Network

Weather forecast: Mostly cloudy, with a high of 49 degrees.

What to watch for: Forget traditional football scoring. Like last year's 77-65 game, head coach Bill O'Brien will divide the team between offense and defense and award points like so: two points for consecutive first downs and two points for single plays of 15 yards or more for the offense. Six points for a turnover, four for a sack and one for a three-and-out for the defense. For those scoring at home, well, don't bother. Just enjoy as the offense and defense go head to head and don't have to worry about splitting up units.

Like any team with a quarterback battle, the Nittany Lions' competition under center will get a lot of attention in this game. It's a two-man race between Steven Bench and junior college transfer Tyler Ferguson. O'Brien has said both players are neck-and-neck this spring, but maybe a big spring game performance will help one gain separation over the other. More likely, the competition will go into August, with freshman Christian Hackenberg thrown into the mix.

The team's depth at tight end should be on display, as Kyle Carter and Adam Breneman are likely to be limited at best because of injuries. Running backs Bill Belton and Akeel Lynch could see plenty of reps as they vie for carries alongside Zach Zwinak.

On defense, fans will see a new-look linebacking corps missing graduated stars Michael Mauti and Gerald Hodges. Mike Hull and redshirt freshman Nyeem Wartman will try to show that they can reach the high standard at Linebacker U.

O'Brien has tried to limit some of the hitting in spring practice this year because of depth concerns but says there will be full tackling on Saturday. Even though the game plans will probably be very basic, fans will love seeing some hard-hitting Penn State football again.
On Wednesday, the head coach and one player from each Big Ten Legends Division team participated in a spring football teleconference with the media. On Thursday, it was the Leaders Division's turn. Here are some notes and updates from the call:

Illinois
  • Head coach Tim Beckman said the junior college players he brought in helped with depth and age issues on his young team. "We have 40 football players that have never been in our spring football until this year," he said. Of the juco imports, Beckman said wide receiver Martize Barr has quick hands and good playmaking skills, both in the passing game and on kick returns; Eric Finney has earned a starting job at the Star linebacker position; Abe Cajuste is adding depth by playing both defensive tackle and defensive end; and Dallas Hinkhouse is making an impact at offensive tackle.
  • Beckman sung the praises of offensive lineman Corey Lewis, a sixth-year senior who has battled back from five knee surgeries and has become a team leader. "Corey Lewis comes to my office probably four or five times a week, just to talk," he said. "To me, he is what college football is all about." Beckman said that Lewis has "had a special spring" and hinted that he has earned a starting job.
  • Quarterbacks Nathan Scheelhaase and Reilly O'Toole will take most of the snaps in Friday's spring game so they can get more experience in the new offense. Beckman said Scheelhaase has "got a step in front" because of his experience, but the competition continues.
  • Scheelhaase on reasons for optimism in 2013: "Establishing an identity. That's something I don't know that we necessarily had last year, on offense or defense or as a team in general.
Indiana
  • Like many of you, head coach Kevin Wilson would like to know the new Big Ten division alignment. The reason? It's harder to recruit without being able to tell a prospect where he'll be playing his freshman season. Wilson added that if the league does indeed go to an East/West split, he'd like to see the Hoosiers placed in the East since they're located in the Eastern Time Zone.
  • Wilson said run defense and takeaways are two huge priorities for the Hoosiers' defense during the offseason. He noted that the Big Ten doesn't boast a large group of elite pass offenses, so IU must prepare better for run-driven attacks. Indiana finished last in the Big Ten in both run defense (231.3 ypg) and takeaways (13). Cornerback Greg Heban said the defense is working on takeaways every day in practice. "Every time the ball touches the ground, the defense is scooping it and scoring it," Heban said, "trying to give us a feel of what it's like."
  • Both Wilson and Heban praised the play of junior cornerback Tim Bennett this spring. Other spring standouts include linebacker T.J. Simmons, a freshman early enrollee, and Steven Funderburk, a junior-college transfer.
  • Heban called this "easily the best spring I've been around." He has seen more physical play and better effort on both sides of the ball, and the team also is having more fun than in past springs.
Ohio State
  • Head coach Urban Meyer said running back Rod Smith won't play in Saturday's spring game because he recently suffered a concussion. Before that, Meyer said Smith was one of the five most improved players on offense this spring. Meyer listed Carlos Hyde and Smith as the team's top two running backs, while Bri'onte Dunn and Warren Ball are even for the No. 3 spot.
  • Although the receivers have been better this spring -- especially Corey Brown and Chris Fields -- the depth is still nowhere near where it needs to be for Meyer's spread offense. "We’re way behind on quality of depth at that position," Meyer said. "That's a major, major concern." Moving Jordan Hall to H-back should help, and Meyer noted that the Buckeyes boast two good tight ends in Jeff Heuerman and Nick Vannett.
  • Buckeyes offensive tackle Jack Mewhort paid close attention to the way John Simon and others led in 2012. He's ready to take on a greater load this season. "I welcome that," he said. "I see that as an honor, being compared to a guy like John Simon. I also see it as a challenge. I feel the pressure to step up and get guys going in the right direction." Mewhort also has seen quarterback Braxton Miller recognize his leadership responsibilities more this spring and get after teammates when he needs to.
  • Meyer said he puts more emphasis on spring practice and the spring game than most coaches. He has told his players that there will be a depth chart after spring ends, and while changes are possible in the summer, they're not likely. "In spring ball, you're trying to win a spot," he said. "During the fall, we're trying to win games."
Penn State
  • Quarterbacks Steven Bench and Tyler Ferguson are receiving equal reps during practice and, not surprisingly, have endured some ups and downs. Head coach Bill O'Brien praised both players' intelligence, noting that they aren't making mental errors during workouts. "These guys have had productive practices," O'Brien said. "Has every play been great? No. But the word patience is a very important word here. Coming from pro football, I definitely have to learn more patience with all these young players. I think I have, but I can do a lot better." Senior guard John Urschel, who was highly entertaining during the teleconference, said he's the wrong person to ask about quarterbacks but praised Bench and Ferguson for picking up the system and showing leadership.
  • Urschel said the first-team offensive line right now consists of himself and Miles Dieffenbach at guard, Ty Howle at center and Donovan Smith and Adam Gress at the tackle spots. Of Howle, he said, "I could talk about Ty all day. If you ask me, he's one of the most underrated players on our team. ... Honestly, when I got here, I thought Ty was the best offensive linemen in our year, of the seven of us." Urschel also said Dieffenbach "started a lot for us last year but really is starting to take his game to the next level."
  • O'Brien said Zach Zwinak would get the start at running back if the season opened now, but all three backs -- Zwinak, Bill Belton and Akeel Lynch -- have had good springs. Lynch, a redshirt freshman, has "improved every single day of spring practice."
  • O'Brien is excited about Penn State's starting linebackers -- Glenn Carson, Mike Hull and Nyeem Wartman -- but admits the lack of depth at the position is "something I think about 24-7." He said it's vital to get Carson, Hull and Wartman through the rest of the offseason healthy, and hope for contributions from others like Ben Kline and incoming freshman Brandon Bell. Penn State won't shift players to linebackers because "there’s really nobody to move" and will instead closely monitor reps the rest of the spring and in preseason camp.
Purdue
  • Head coach Darrell Hazell said the Boilermakers have made major improvements in the last three and a half weeks. "Anytime you put in three different schemes, there's a little bit of a learning curve for the first couple weeks," he said. "You could see guys start to really get comfortable the last five or six practices."
  • Hazell said he has "three capable guys" right now at quarterback with Rob Henry, Danny Etling and Austin Appleby. He reiterated that he would keep the competition open until two weeks before the opener at Cincinnati. Of Etling, a freshman early enrollee, Hazell said: "For a young guy, a guy that should be at his prom, I think he's got tremendous poise. He's smart and really studies the game."
  • Hazell said backup tight end Justin Sinz and center Robert Kugler are two guys that have really caught his eye this spring. He called Kugler a "very much a leader on the offensive line."
  • Cornerback Ricardo Allen said Hazell has instilled an "all is one" mentality. "If one person does something, we all have to do it. We all wear black socks. We all wear the same uniform. We all tuck our shirts in. I feel like we're becoming closer as a team, and it's helping us build."
Wisconsin
  • Head coach Gary Andersen confirmed Curt Phillips and Joel Stave have separated themselves in the quarterback competition. It's a "mixed bag" of who takes snaps with the first-team offense, but both will continue to rotate through the rest of the spring and into fall camp. "The way they've separated themselves is simply production," Andersen said. "They know exactly where they sit and so does the rest of the team. … If they put all their friendships aside, their depth chart would look exactly like our depth chart."
  • Andersen praised the offensive line for tackling another transition, as the group works with its fourth position coach (T.J. Woods) since the 2012 Rose Bowl. The line has seen varying looks from the defense in practice and had players move around to different positions, in part because of injuries. Wisconsin had only seven healthy linemen a week ago, but Andersen is hopeful the number will rise to nine or 10 by next week's spring game. "Those kids have grinded through it every single day," Andersen said. "They're a tough-minded group."
  • Badgers senior linebacker Chris Borland said losing defensive end David Gilbert to recurring foot problems is a blow but the team has others to step in like Tyler Dippel, Brendan Kelly and Jesse Hayes, a redshirt sophomore who has stood out this spring.
  • Much like his old boss Urban Meyer, Andersen believes in constant competition and declares winners and losers in each practice. Andersen also mixes in some fun with a dance-off and throwing footballs into trash cans. "Some of them are a little bit quirky, but through the years establish some things we like," he said.
  • Borland said the strength program has brought the biggest changes in the transition to Andersen's staff. Cardiovascular work is stressed more, as is preventative care. Head strength and conditioning coach Evan Simon operates at a faster pace and uses more of an instructional approach than Ben Herbert, who stressed motivation.

Big Ten lunch links

April, 9, 2013
4/09/13
12:00
PM ET
The men's college basketball season is over and the Big Ten's title drought continues, but spring football marches onward.

Link time ...
Spring practice will be underway at every Big Ten school when Iowa hits the practice field tomorrow. So we're taking a look at one potential breakout player for each team this spring.

We're spotlighting players who could take a major step forward, so those who have started multiple seasons or earned All-Big Ten recognition in 2012 aren't eligible. Let's turn our attention to State College and Bill O'Brien's Penn State Nittany Lions:

Nyeem Wartman, LB, redshirt freshman, 6-foot-1, 236 pounds

Wartman was in line for some playing time last year as a true freshman, serving as Glenn Carson's backup at middle linebacker. He saw action in the first two weeks but suffered a knee injury at Virginia that prematurely ended his season.

The good news is that he's healthy this spring -- and there's even more opportunity for minutes. With Michael Mauti and Gerald Hodges moving on, Wartman is getting a long look for one of the starting outside linebacker spots this season. O'Brien told ESPN.com earlier this month that "we think he's got a bright, bright future."

Wartman was a three-star recruit, according to ESPN.com's Recruiting Nation, which offered this assessment of him out of high school: "[He] is an impressive looking linebacker prospect with a striking blend of size and straight-line speed. Potential sleeper with the physical tools he presents to develop."

With Ben Kline (shoulder) out this spring, Wartman will get a lot of reps to prove he's ready to make the next step. And to show that he can help keep the Linebacker U. tradition going.
Bill O'BrienRandy Litzinger/Icon SMIBill O'Brien is excited about his team as he heads into his second season at Penn State.
The last time we saw Penn State, the Lions were celebrating a surprisingly strong finish to the 2012 season and saying farewell to a special senior class. Penn State since has turned the page and will begin spring practice Monday with a mix of familiarity and uncertainty. Bill O'Brien is not the "new coach" in Happy Valley anymore, and players have acclimated to O'Brien and his staff. But the Lions are looking for a starting quarterback for the second consecutive spring. They also must replace several outstanding defenders and fill holes on both lines. But the depth crisis many of us envisioned for the Lions when the NCAA sanctions came down last summer simply isn't there in State College.

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.

(Read full post)

When the NCAA leveled severe sanctions against Penn State last summer and made it easy for players to transfer, roster depth became an immediate short-term concern.

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.

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