Big Ten: Devon Smith

Allen Robinson's turning point at Penn State might have been the low point for everyone else.

The transfers of several key Penn State players both before and after the NCAA leveled sanctions against the program in July was labeled charitably as a setback and, seemingly more realistically, as a disaster. Arguably no position group suffered more than wide receiver. Top target Justin Brown bolted for Oklahoma. Devon Smith, a returning starter, left the team in June before the sanctions hit and eventually landed at Marshall. The team's top returning pass-catcher was Shawney Kersey with five receptions in 2011 -- and he, too, would eventually depart the team.

Many wondered who would catch passes for Penn State in 2012. Robinson knew the answer. It's why he viewed Penn State's summer turmoil as something different -- an opportunity.

[+] EnlargeAllen Robinson
Rich Barnes/US PresswireAllen Robinson went from three catches as a freshman to tops in the Big Ten in TD grabs this year.
"As the sanctions and everything else happened, my expectations for myself got a little bit larger," Robinson told ESPN.com. "We had Silas Redd leave, Justin Brown leave. We didn't have that many guys [left], so I definitely knew I'd have a bigger role.

"I just wanted to produce when my number was called."

Has he ever. Robinson not only has cemented himself as Penn State's No. 1 wide receiver, but he's also quite possibly the best in the Big Ten.

The 6-foot-3, 201-pound true sophomore leads the Big Ten in both receptions (57) and receptions per game (6.3) -- nearly a full catch more per game than any other player in the league. He also leads the league in touchdown receptions (8) and trails only Wisconsin's Jared Abbrederis in receiving yards per game (76.6). Robinson also holds the team record for receptions by a sophomore and needs just seven receptions to break the Penn State single-season record of 63 held by both Bobby Engram (1995) and O.J. McDuffie (1992).

While senior quarterback Matt McGloin is the most pleasant surprise in Penn State's suddenly potent offense, Robinson, who had just three receptions as a freshman in 2011, isn't far behind.

"I knew I would have to step up for this team if we wanted to win some games," Robinson said.

Robinson notes that the transfers, particularly Brown, increased his ability to make an impact. First-year Lions coach Bill O'Brien sees thinks differently.

"He knew whether Justin Brown was here or not," O'Brien said, "that he was going to be a major part of this offense."

O'Brien knew before anyone else what type of season Robinson could have. Robinson immediately caught O'Brien's eye during winter workouts, weeks after the coach had taken the Penn State job.

"You could see right away that he was a big kid that had very, very smooth athleticism," O'Brien said. "He could come in and out of cuts real well."

Spring practice only increased O'Brien's confidence in the young receiver. O'Brien brought in his offense from the NFL's New England Patriots, but Robinson was a quick study.

Robinson showed the staff he could play both outside receiver spots as well as the slot, unique versatility for such a tall receiver.

"He caught the ball real well in the spring," O'Brien said. "We knew going into the summertime that we had a guy there who had a chance to be really productive for us."

O'Brien tabbed Robinson as a co-starter with Kersey on the post-spring depth chart. Brown and Smith also were named starters at receiver.

Robinson spent much of the summer working with McGloin, named in June as the Lions' starting quarterback. They built a chemistry that has repeatedly shown up in games, particularly in the red zone. Between Sept. 8 and Oct. 20, Robinson caught touchdown passes from McGloin in five of six games, including three against Navy and two against Northwestern.

"Matt has thrown that ball that you guys see in games to me hundreds of times [in workouts]," Robinson said. "Matt definitely trusts me in those situations to go get it, and I definitely trust and believe in him that he's going to make the throw."

Robinson has embraced the detail-oriented approach needed to succeed in O'Brien's offense. While the Lions might not be perfect on every play, "we can try," Robinson said.

O'Brien oversaw one of the NFL's top passing offenses with the Patriots, but he hasn't had many weapons quite like Robinson.

"We had guys in New England that were about 5-foot-9, 5-foot-10 for the most part," O'Brien said. "We had Randy Moss there, but obviously Randy Moss is a Hall of Fame player. Allen is a tall guy, he runs well, he can jump, he's got really good hands, he's very smart. He can do a lot of different things on the route tree. He's not just a vertical threat. He can run underneath things. He can catch screens.

"So he's got a very unique set that really I haven't been around in my career."

Robinson saw a big opportunity after Brown's departure, but he was sorry to see Brown go. Brown took Robinson under his wing when Robinson arrived at Penn State, and the two roomed together on road trips during the 2011 season.

They still talk regularly, mostly not about football, although Robinson noted Brown's strong performance for Oklahoma in last week's victory against Iowa State.

"Justin is still a really good friend," Robinson said.

Brown made his choice, while Robinson opted to stay at Penn State. Not surprisingly, Robinson and other Lions young standouts such as defensive end Deion Barnes have been asked frequently whether they'll stick around State College after the season. Robinson has consistently affirmed his commitment to the program.

"Hearing [questions] about transferring and things like that, it does kind of overwhelm us sometimes, but you have to deal with it," he said. "Coach O’Brien always tells me the opportunities to make big plays are definitely going to be there.

"It definitely gives you some insight on what I could potentially do here."

PSU's Brown still considering transfer

August, 1, 2012
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Senior wide receiver Justin Brown said he was still mulling a transfer Wednesday night and wasn't sure whether he would remain at Penn State.

"I haven't made a decision yet," he said in a brief telephone interview. "I just don't know."

Brown said he doesn't have a timetable for his decision, although preseason practice starts Monday. His high school coach, George Kosanovich of Concord (Del.), said Brown fielded calls from about three or four schools, including Cincinnati, Illinois and Oklahoma.

As the Nittany Lions' top returning wideout, Brown's decision could prove critical to Penn State's offensive success -- especially without starting tailback Silas Redd, who announced his transfer to USC on Tuesday.

If Brown leaves, unproven receivers Shawney Kersey, a redshirt junior, and sophomore Allen Robinson -- who combined for just eight catches last season -- would battle for the top spot.

Brown finished last season with 35 receptions, 517 yards and two touchdowns.

Five Penn State players have already announced their intent to transfer since the sanctions: Redd, linebacker Khairi Fortt, safety Tim Buckley, defensive lineman Jamil Pollard and tight end Kevin Haplea. Quaterback Rob Bolden was released from his scholarship prior to the sanctions, according to a source.
On Wednesday, we ranked the top individual wide receivers and tight ends in the Big Ten heading into 2012. So of course that means it's time to look at the position group as a whole throughout the league. Remember, we're weighing past performance heavily here with consideration given to potential.

It's go time.

1. Northwestern: We didn't rank a single Wildcat in our top 10 individual receivers or tight ends, yet we have the group No. 1. Have we lost our minds? Well, maybe. But we really like the depth of this group, even with star Jeremy Ebert off to the pros. Demetrius Fields, Christian Jones, Tony Jones and Venric Mark are all very good, and if Kyle Prater gets eligible this might be the deepest receiving corps in the league. The drawback is the lack of an experienced tight end to take over for Drake Dunsmore, but that's less important in a spread offense.

[+] EnlargeChristian Jones
Dennis Wierzbicki/US PresswireNorthwestern's Christian Jones helps form one of the best wide receiver groups in the Big Ten.
2. Nebraska: The Huskers might not be the most prolific passing team, but they've got a lot of options. Kenny Bell emerged as a real weapon last season, and Quincy Enunwa, Jamal Turner and Tim Marlowe all bring something to the table. Add to that one of the league's top tight end duos in Kyler Reed and Ben Cotton, and this is a strong group.

3. Wisconsin: Bonus points here for star power, as receiver Jared Abbrederis and tight end Jacob Pedersen enter the season as the top-rated players at their respective position. There are a lot of other question marks at receiver, though the Badgers have a large cast of candidates. And they're loaded at tight end.

4. Iowa: Keenan Davis and Kevonte Martin-Manley form one of the best returning receiving tandems in the Big Ten. C.J. Fiedorowicz could become a star at tight end. Marvin McNutt is gone, but James Vandenberg should still have plenty of targets.

5. Purdue: The Boilers bring back three of their top four pass-catchers from a year ago, led by Antavian Edison. They need to stretch the field more, and perhaps star kick returner Raheem Mostert can add more playmaking ability to the group. They have a deep group of tight ends that could be one of the strengths of the offense.

6. Michigan: Junior Hemingway is gone, but the Wolverines are hopeful Roy Roundtree can fill his role. Jeremy Gallon is tiny but manages to make big plays. Michigan will need a third receiver to emerge and for someone to take over for Kevin Koger at tight end. Brandon Moore is the top candidate for that.

7. Penn State: Justin Brown gives the Nittany Lions a solid top option, but the loss of Curtis Drake and Devon Smith hurt the depth. Penn State's tight ends have mostly been anonymous, but that -- along with overall passing game production -- should change with the new staff.

8. Indiana: There's talent here, if the Hoosiers can harness it. Kofi Hughes can be one of the league's top receivers and is complemented by Duwyce Wilson, Cody Latimer and the diminutive Shane Wynn. Ted Bolser had a nice spring and looks ready to be very productive at tight end.

9. Ohio State: By now, you know the stat. No Buckeye had more than 14 catches last year. No matter how many times you hear it, it's still a little hard to believe. At least Ohio State has talented players to work with in guys like Corey Brown, Devin Smith and freshman Michael Thomas. And Jake Stoneburner could thrive under Urban Meyer at tight end. Expect the group's numbers to soar.

10. Illinois: It was almost A.J. Jenkins or bust for the Illini receivers last year. They'll need to find new playmakers in the spread offense. Darius Millines has to step up, along with Spencer Harris. Jon Davis had a promising freshman year at tight end.

11. Michigan State: The Spartans lost their top three receivers and their starting tight end, so no wonder they're so low on this list. The addition of Tennessee transfer DeAnthony Arnett helps, and Andre Sims Jr. and Keith Mumphery had good springs. Still, playing time here is wide open, and true freshmen will get a chance to contribute. Dion Sims has as much physical talent as any Big Ten tight end.

12. Minnesota: Quick, name a Minnesota receiver. If you're not a Gophers fan, you probably are still thinking. This is a group of largely unknown guys who'll have to raise their profile this fall. Brandon Green, Malcolm Moulton and Devin Crawford-Tufts are the leading returning receivers. Transfer Isaac Fruechte and some youngsters will be counted on to contribute. Senior John Rabe brings experience to the tight end spot.
Penn State hasn't suffered a great deal of attrition during the transition to new head coach Bill O'Brien.

But wide receiver Devon Smith's departure on Friday accentuates the need for more offensive playmakers to emerge. O'Brien announced Smith has left the team for personal reasons. It's unclear whether Smith's departure relates to the March incident where police allegedly found evidence of marijuana use in Smith's apartment. Smith was charged in April and has applied for the Accelerated Rehabilitative Disposition program as a first-time offender. He has a hearing scheduled for Wednesday.

Smith finished third on the team in both receptions (25) and receiving yards (402) in 2011. He averaged 16.2 yards per reception, but he wasn't a major difference-maker in Penn State's pass-challenged offense. Smith might be best known for running into Joe Paterno at a practice last August while on a pass route, causing injuries to the then-Lions coach.

While Smith wasn't a star, he started seven games in 2011 and had been listed as a starter on Penn State's post-spring depth chart, despite missing much of the spring with a foot injury. Penn State returns only one starting receiver in Justin Brown, and will need players like Alex Kenney, listed as Smith's backup on the most recent depth chart, to step up. Like the diminutive Smith (5-foot-7, 147 pounds), Kenney is a smaller receiver (6-foot, 193) who boasts very good speed.

The Lions will be much more reliant on their tight ends in O'Brien's offense, but they still need to build more depth at wide receiver for top quarterback Matthew McGloin. Unproven wideouts like Allen Robinson and Shawney Kersey need to have big summers.

Big Ten lunch links

June, 21, 2012
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Playoffs? Don't talk about playoffs. Are you kidding me? Playoffs?
Four days after naming Matthew McGloin as Penn State's starting quarterback entering the fall, new Nittany Lions coach Bill O'Brien has issued his summer depth chart. Penn State opens preseason practices Aug. 6.

The first thing you'll notice is 13 offensive positions listed. Penn State can only have 11 players on the field at once, but as O'Brien explains in a news release, "We will be a multiple personnel grouping team, particularly at wide receiver and tight end." Translation: this isn't the old Penn State offense. Get ready for a lot of passing.

BO'B adds that aside from quarterback and a handful of other positions, Penn State will have competitions at most spots when camp kicks off in August.

O'Brien announced three position changes today: sophomore Adrian Amos moves from safety to cornerback, sophomore Kyle Baublitz moves from defensive end to defensive tackle; and redshirt freshman Anthony Zettel moves from defensive tackle to defensive end. The Amos move makes sense after Curtis Drake, who moved from wide receiver to cornerback this spring, left the program.

Four positions feature co-starters on the depth chart. They are:
All four should be interesting competitions, particularly the one at middle linebacker, where Carson started in 2011 and recorded 74 tackles and two forced fumbles. Fortt has shown promise at times, racking up 33 tackles, including six for loss, as a reserve last fall.

Some more notes and thoughts on the Lions' two-deep:
  • Penn State has redshirt freshman Donovan Smith listed as the starting left tackle, while Adam Gress, one of the standouts of spring practice, checks in as the starting right tackle. The right side looks strong with Gress and John Urschel, but there are some question marks on the left side.
  • Garry Gilliam is listed as one of the starting tight ends ("Y" position) ahead of promising freshman Jesse James, who impressed me while I was at practice in April. It's interesting to see redshirt freshman Kyle Carter listed ahead of junior Kevin Haplea at the other tight end spot ("F").
  • Two secondary spots seem fairly set -- junior free safety Malcolm Willis and senior cornerback Stephon Morris -- while the others should be interesting to watch in August. Senior Jake Fagnano is a somewhat surprise starter at strong safety ahead of Stephen Obeng-Agyapong, while Amos and Thomas will compete at the right cornerback spot.
  • Penn State's starting defensive line looks strong with Jordan Hill and DaQuan Jones at the starting tackle spots, and Pete Massaro and Sean Stanley at the starting end spots. The key is whether several former heralded recruits like Baublitz and C.J. Olaniyan, or promising young end Deion Barnes, bolster the depth up front.
  • Bill Belton is listed as the No. 2 running back behind Silas Redd. Curtis Dukes isn't listed, but O'Brien confirmed last week that Dukes is rejoining the squad after clearing up some academic issues. The 6-1, 242-pound Dukes should be in the mix for a good chunk of carries.
  • Justin Brown and Devon Smith, who had an off-field issue this spring, are listed at two of the starting wide receiver spots. Kersey is listed as Brown's backup, while the speedy Alex Kenney likely will push Smith.
  • Anthony Fera handled the double duties of kicker and punter quite well in 2011, converting 14 of 17 field-goal attempts and averaging 42 yards per punt. He's once again listed as the starter at both spots entering camp.
  • Amos and Belton are listed as the top two kickoff returners. Amos shared the role with primary returner Chaz Powell last fall. Brown is listed as the top punt returner, followed by Belton.
  • Two young players worth watching are the men wearing jersey No. 18: James and Barnes.

Thoughts on the Penn State depth chart?
Penn State opens spring practice without Joe Paterno for the first time in decades Monday. New coach Bill O'Brien, who's won some supporters by the way he has recruited and carried himself of late, will conduct his first official practices. I recently caught up with O'Brien for a brief preview of the Nittany Lions' spring:

Are you settled in now as the Penn State coach?


Bill O'Brien: I'm settled in. We had a good winter, and we're ready to go for spring. We've got a bunch of really good kids want to be coached and want to play well and win. So I'm settled in.

We'll get to spring practice in a second, but first I wanted to ask you about how well you've recruited the past couple of months. I know you can't talk about specific recruits, but how have you been able to sell the program through some difficult times?


O'Brien: We just talk about Penn State. We talk about our vision for the football program here. We talk about the university. There are 160 majors to choose from here. It's just a great college town, we have a 108,000-seat stadium, a tremendous football facility, a great, brand-new weight room, and a great indoor facility. We just sell Penn State, and there's a bunch of things about Penn State to sell. The student body, the coaching staff here, the players on our football team here. So all we do is talk about Penn State.

How has the reception to that pitch gone?


O'Brien: We feel good about the reception. Again, this is a special place that obviously people recognize and have great respect for, so we've gotten a good reception.

What are your main objectives this spring?


O'Brien: We want the kids to understand how fast we want to play, the tempo we want to play at. We want to get in our base systems on offense, defense and special teams, and we want these guys to understand how we want them to play football. We want them to play fast, play hard, play tough, be situationally smart. So those our are goals.

The players have been doing things this offseason to learn the offense, so how far along do you expect them to be when you get started?


O'Brien: It will be baby steps. We'll put it in one day at a time. We're not in a rush to get a bunch of things in. We're just in a rush to find out who our best football players are, so that's what we'll begin to do on Monday.

How much do you really know these players?


BO'B: I really know them from winter workouts and just speaking to them in my office. I've been very impressed with this group. We have about 124 guys on the team and we have a bunch of hard-working guys. I've been very impressed and proud to be associated with them.

Let's talk about the quarterback situation. Is it a true open competition this spring?


O'Brien: Yeah, its definitely an open competition. Every position on the team is an open competition. Now, obviously guys who have experience have the upper hand because they've played, but nobody has a starting position right now. Guys are going to get a bunch of reps, we're going to play fast and we'll evaluate the roster as we go along.

What are you looking for in a quarterback?


O'Brien: He's got to be a good decision-maker. He's got to be accurate when he throws it. He's got to take care of the football. He's got to have really good knowledge of defensive alignments, the coverages and fronts and pressures. He's got to be a good leader. He's got to mentally tough and physically tough. That's basically what I'm looking for.

Two spots that were hit hard by graduation were the secondary and the offensive line. What's the outlook like for those positions this spring?


O'Brien: I feel good about both those positions. I made a couple of position moves to move some guys over to the secondary, and you guys will get that when we start spring practice. So we've got better numbers over there. And I feel good about the offensive line. We've got four guys on that offensive line that are dean's-list students. We've got smart guys guys that play hard and love Penn State, and so I feel good about both positions.

How about the receiver position, where Derek Moye was the No. 1 guy last year?


O'Brien: It's tough to replace a guy like Derek Moye, and I wish he had more eligibility. But we feel very good about our receiving corps. We've got Justin Brown, Shawney Kersey, Devon Smith, Brandon Moseby-Felder and Christian Kuntz. We've got a number of guys with good size that can run. And they've got two jobs: get open and catch the ball. So we'll see how that goes as we go through spring.

You're going to be very involved on offense, so how will you split your time this spring in practice?


O'Brien: We've got a great staff on offense and on defense, so I'll be able to be involved with every facet of the football team, absolutely no problem.

Have leaders emerged yet from this offseason?


O'Brien: There's a lot of leaders. There really are. We have a lot of good kids. Once you come back and ask me that after spring, I'll have a better feel. But I think we've got the potential to have a lot of strong leaders on this team.

How do you replace Devon Still on defense? Can you do it with just one guy?


O'Brien: It's hard to replace a guy like Devon Still. He's a potential first round draft pick. But we feel really good about our defensive line that exists right now with Jordan Hill, DaQuan Jones, Pete Massaro, Sean Stanley, James Terry, C.J. Olaniyin. I could go on and on. We're deep up front.

How much will we be seeing you use the tight ends in your offense, even in spring practice?


O'Brien: Yeah, we'll definitely be using the tight ends quite a bit.

Lastly, how do you think the team has responded this offseason during winter workouts and other activities?


O'Brien: I've been very impressed with this football team, just with their work ethic. I'm proud to be their coach. Now we've got to put it out on the field and see how it translates to playing football. But to this point, I've been very impressed with them.

Big shoes to fill: Penn State

February, 23, 2012
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As we count down the days before spring practice, we're taking a look at how each Big Ten team will replace key players on their depth charts. We're picking two departed players who left big shoes to fill and identifying who might be ready to do that filling.

Up next, Penn State.

[+] EnlargeDevin Still
Jeffrey G. Pittenger/US PresswireDevon Still piled up the postseason honors last season after recording 17 tackles for loss.
BIG SHOES TO FILL: Devon Still, DT

Why: It's never easy to replace the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year and a consensus All-American. Still was the epicenter for Penn State's defense, a disruptive force who regularly required double teams. He recorded 17 tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery, but his value went far beyond the numbers. As Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald noted before his team faced Penn State, Still causes "complete and total chaos in the backfield." Although Penn State has shown it can reload up front, it will miss No. 71.

Replacement candidates: Jordan Hill (6-1, 297, Sr.); DaQuan Jones (6-3, 312, Jr.); James Terry (6-3, 317, Sr.); Evan Hailes (6-1, 303, So.)

The skinny: Hill will start at one defensive tackle spot, but I include him here because he'll need to increase his production to help account for Still's departure. Jones and Terry served as the backup defensive tackles in 2011 and combined for 18 tackles and a quarterback hurry. Jones has played both inside and outside but is clearly suited to the defensive tackle spot. Hailes came in as a decorated recruit but battled a blood clot issue last spring and appeared in only two games last fall. Penn State's best bet is to have an All-Big Ten type season from Hill and generate depth at the other tackle spot.

BIG SHOES TO FILL: Derek Moye, WR

Why: While Moye didn't have the year some had hoped, Penn State's problems at quarterback had a lot to do with it. He's a big body (6-5) who could stretch the field and outjump defensive backs for the ball. Moye led the team in receptions (40), receiving yards (654) and receiving touchdowns (3) in 2011, and was the team's top receiver in 2010 and 2009 as well. He's a three-year starter at a position that doesn't have much proven depth entering the 2012 campaign.

Replacement candidates: Justin Brown (6-3, 213, Sr.); Devon Smith (5-7, 155, Sr.); Shawney Kersey (6-1, 198, Jr.); Brandon Moseby-Felder (6-2, 191, Jr.)

The skinny: Penn State really needs Brown to move into the No. 1 receiver role Moye occupied for the past three seasons. Brown showed some flashes in 2011, recording 35 receptions for 517 yards, but he also had some key drops. Smith contributed 25 receptions, but Penn State had no other receiver record more than five catches. It'll be a huge spring for players like Kersey, Moseby-Felder, Bill Belton and Curtis Drake to take their games to the next level and give Penn State some additional options at receiver.
Our postseason rankings of each position group from the 2011 Big Ten season took a short hiatus last week as signing day madness placed its grip on all of us.

Never fear, though, as the rankings are back in full force today, moving on to the receivers and tight ends as we round out our offensive skill positions.

We're looking for depth and not solely star power at the top here. This is how the preseason rankings looked. Some of these groups were undoubtedly hurt by inexperienced or underachieving quarterbacks, so we had to figure out how to weigh their performances in that light. Let's see how the list shakes out after the year ended:

1. Michigan State: The Spartans had the best combo at wideout with seniors B.J. Cunningham, a physical deep threat and No. 1 receiver, and Keshawn Martin, a speedster who could do all sorts of different things in the offense. Together, they combined for 2,083 receiving yards and 16 touchdown catches. Keith Nichol provided a solid third option who made the catch of the year in the Big Ten, if not all of college football, against Wisconsin. Tight end Brian Linthicum had 364 yards receiving and played a key role in the Outback Bowl win over Georgia.

2. Wisconsin: Depth? Hardly. But the Badgers got the most out of their front-line players. Starting wideouts Nick Toon and Jared Abbrederis combined for 1,859 yards yard and 18 touchdowns. Eight of tight end Jacob Pedersen's 30 catches went for touchdowns. And don't underestimate the importance of the receivers and tight ends in the Wisconsin running game.

3. Northwestern: The Wildcats' wideouts likely would have put up better numbers if Dan Persa had stayed healthy all season. As it stood, Northwestern still got another outstanding year out of Jeremy Ebert (75 catches, 1,060 yards, 11 TDs). Kain Colter, when he wasn't playing quarterback or running the ball, managed 466 receiving yards. Demetrius Fields and Christian Jones were among the other contributors. First-team All-Big Ten tight end Drake Dunsmore was the team's No. 2 pass-catcher with 455 yards and six scores.

4. Iowa: Marvin McNutt was good enough to elevate this entire group. He led the Big Ten in receiving yards, finishing with 82 catches for 1,315 yards and 12 scores. Keenan Davis contributed 50 catches for 713 yards. But Davis and Kevonte Martin-Manley didn't help enough after strong starts to the season. Iowa didn't get a lot of production in the passing game out of its tight ends, either, with C.J. Fiedorowicz leading the way at 16 catches.

5. Michigan: The Wolverines didn't have any receivers finish in the top 10 in the league in the key categories, but what they had was a fairly deep group that knew how to go up and get Denard Robinson's throws. Though Roy Roundtree's numbers went way down from 2010, Junior Hemingway (699 receiving yards) emerged as a big-time playmaker. Jeremy Gallon came up with some key plays in huge spots as well. Tight end Kevin Koger gave Robinson a reliable safety valve and was a key cog in the offense.

6. Illinois: At first glance, A.J. Jenkins' tremendous numbers (90 catches, 1,276 yards, eight TDs) would make you think the Illini deserve to be ranked higher. But Jenkins did most of his work in the first half of the season; like the rest of the Illinois offense, his stats fell off a cliff in the second half. And he didn't have much assistance, as Spencer Harris and Darius Millines combined to record only half his number of catches. Jon Davis was the team's third-leading pass-catcher at tight end.

7. Purdue: It was quantity over star power for the Boilermakers, whose top four pass catchers — Justin Siller, Antavian Edison, O.J. Ross and Gary Bush — all had at least 29 receptions and 300 yards. Edison led the way with 584 yards. Tight ends Crosby Wright and Gabe Holmes combined for 29 catches. Purdue needs more playmaking ability from the tight end spot, something the team tried to address in this recruiting class.

8. Penn State: Evaluating the Nittany Lions receivers is tricky because the quarterback play was so inconsistent. Derek Moye was once again one of the most dangerous deep threats in the league, but a foot injury and an overall inability to get him the ball limited his production to 654 yards and only three scores. Justin Brown, who will likely be the team's go-to guy in 2012, put up good stats, while Devon Smith got a chance to flash his speed and averaged 16.1 yards per catch. The tight ends were rarely used in the passing game; expect that and a whole lot more to change under Bill O'Brien.

9. Nebraska: The Huskers must improve their overall passing game to take the next step as a program, and that includes a receivers group that had an up-and-down season in 2011. The good news is that Kenny Bell emerged as a potential star as a redshirt freshman. But Brandon Kinnie and tight end Kyler Reed failed to build on strong 2010 campaigns and were invisible for large stretches. Nebraska must hope Quincy Enunwa and Jamal Turner develop to go along with Bell.

10. Indiana: No one was more disappointing at this position in 2011 than the Hoosiers, whom we had pegged at No. 4 in our preseason list. DaMarlo Belcher, who led the league in receptions in '10, got himself booted off the team in midseason. Injuries hit the group hard as well. Kofi Hughes paced the group with 536 yards and found the end zone three times. Tight end Ted Bolser made only 14 receptions. We expected more from a Kevin Wilson offense.

11. Minnesota: Jerry Kill made finding playmakers at receiver a top priority in this recruiting class, and it's easy to see why. Da'Jon McKnight had a decent season (51, 760 and 4). After that, though, things dropped off quickly and the Gophers lacked players who could stretch the field. Tight end Eric Lair managed fewer than one-third the amount of catches he had in 2010.

12. Ohio State: Injuries, inexperience and suspensions combined to make this a difficult year for Buckeyes' receivers. No one had more than 14 catches all season, and no one topped 300 receiving yards. Things would have gone better if DeVier Posey hadn't been suspended for all but two regular-season games. Devin Smith showed potential as a true freshman, including his game-winning grab against Wisconsin. Tight end Jake Stoneburner scored seven times, but most of those came early in the year.
National Signing Day is barely a week away, and Big Ten teams will be stockpiling for the future (and, in some cases, the present). Today we'll take a look at the recruiting needs of each Big Ten team, starting with those in the Leaders division. These needs are based on current rosters and anticipated departures in the near future. And to save you some email time, we do realize teams have already addressed needs in compiling their 2012 classes.

Let's get started ...

ILLINOIS

Wide receiver: The Illini lose A.J. Jenkins, who accounted for 90 of the team's 226 receptions in 2011. No other Illinois player had more than 26 catches, so there certainly are opportunities for young players to emerge and make an immediate impact for the new coaching staff.

Linemen: Illinois loses two starters from an offensive line that struggled down the stretch of the regular season. It's important to build depth there going forward. Despite Whitney Mercilus' early departure to the NFL draft, the defensive line returns some talented players. Still, defensive end Michael Buchanan is entering his senior year, and defensive tackle Akeem Spence is a bona fide NFL prospect who could enter the draft with a strong 2012 campaign.

Safety: The Illini defense didn't have many weaknesses in 2011, but safety was a liability at times. The team returns experience for 2012, but will lose some key players after the season. An impact defensive back or two in the 2012 class would really help.

INDIANA

Defensive back: This has been a primary recruiting need for the past few seasons, and it remains a pressing concern after Indiana surrendered a league-worst 8.5 yards per pass and a league-high 26 passing touchdowns in 2011. Indiana needs impact players and depth among the back four to be able to limit Big Ten offenses.

Defensive front seven: Sense a theme here? Indiana needs defenders in the worst way, and the front seven is a huge piece to the puzzle. The Hoosiers return some experience at defensive tackle, but lose top linebackers Jeff Thomas and Leon Beckum. The coaches showed in 2011 that they're not afraid to play young players, and they need more contributors on the defensive side.

Quarterback: Starter Tre Roberson returns, but Indiana needs bodies here after Dusty Kiel and Ed Wright-Baker both opted to transfer earlier this month.

OHIO STATE

Offensive line: Three multiyear starters depart at center, left tackle and right tackle, so Ohio State's offensive line will have a very different look in 2012. The Buckeyes could use some immediate-impact linemen, like center Mike Brewster in 2008, and they'll look to build depth here.

Defensive end: Ohio State appears loaded at defensive tackle for 2012 and beyond, but the team needs some more pure pass-rushers on the edge. John Simon, who had four more sacks than anyone on the squad in 2011, will be a senior this coming season.

Wide receiver: The Buckeyes lacked reliable receiver options in 2011 and had their best wideout, DeVier Posey, for only three games because of suspension. Posey departs and Ohio State needs to build depth and increase competition in what should be a more wide-open offense under Urban Meyer.

PENN STATE

Quarterback: New coach Bill O'Brien might be the quarterback whisperer Penn State has waited for, but he also needs to upgrade the talent on the roster. Matthew McGloin and Rob Bolden both must make significant strides, and while Paul Jones is an intriguing player, we've yet to see him in a game. Penn State needs more options here.

Wide receiver: Top target Derek Moye departs, and Penn State returns only two players with decent but not great production in Justin Brown and Devon Smith. Brown looks like a potential impact player in 2012, but Penn State needs more options in the passing game.

Defensive back: Penn State loses all four starters, although returning players like Stephon Morris, Malcolm Willis and Adrian Amos have logged playing time. Still, the Lions need some more players here to build depth and increase competition.

PURDUE

Offensive line: This is one of few areas where Purdue loses a decent amount of production from 2011, as tackle Dennis Kelly and Nick Mondek both depart. Two more starters exit after the 2012 season, and Purdue wants to be a run-based offense. It's important to build some depth up front with the 2012 class.

Kicker: Purdue loses the bionic-legged Carson Wiggs, who did more than make field goals from ridiculous distances. He also kicked off and served as a backup punter, attempting 45 punts over the past two seasons. The versatile Wiggs leaves a major void, and Purdue must address the specialist spot.

Defensive back: The Boilers say goodbye to both of their starting safeties from the 2011 team. They also will lose starting cornerback Josh Johnson after the 2012 season, while Ricardo Allen might be an early entry candidate with a big junior year. While this isn't a pressing need right now, it could soon become one.

WISCONSIN

Quarterback: Russell Wilson saved Wisconsin in more than one way in 2011, and his departure is significant. The team's most experienced signal callers, Jon Budmayr and Curt Phillips, both are coming off of major injuries. Wisconsin typically doesn't play younger quarterbacks, but needs more options after a season where Wilson showed what the offense could be.

Wide receiver: The Badgers typically get by with 1-2 good wideouts and an excellent tight end or two, but they could use more depth at the receiver position. Top target Nick Toon departs, and Wisconsin is pretty thin at receiver aside from Jared Abbrederis.

Defensive speed: Oregon makes a lot of teams look slow, but the Rose Bowl spelled out what the Badgers must do to take the next step as a program. Wisconsin needs to upgrade its speed at all three levels of the defense, particularly the back seven, to prevent explosion plays. Michigan State also exposed Wisconsin's defense, so the need for speed certainly is there.

Big Ten lunchtime links

November, 16, 2011
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Already dreaming about next week's turkey ...

Big Ten lunch links

October, 28, 2011
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Every Halloween I tell him the same thing: you can't bring weapons into the office. And every year he says the same thing: as soon as I get my weapons back, I'm gonna kill you.
After Penn State's Week 2 loss to Alabama, coach Joe Paterno refused to pile on his beleaguered quarterbacks, saying the signal-callers "didn't get much help."

Although Paterno seemed to be dodging the obvious problem at the time, he wasn't lying, either. Penn State's receivers needed to step up for quarterbacks Matthew McGloin and Rob Bolden. Devon Smith dropped a perfectly thrown pass on the Lions' first play from scrimmage, and senior standout Derek Moye also had a case of the dropsies.

[+] EnlargeJustin Brown
AP Photo/Gene J. PuskarJustin Brown is one of the receivers who has stepped up while Derek Moye is on the sideline.
Moye responded well the next three weeks, recording at least six receptions against Temple, Eastern Michigan and Indiana while racking up 335 receiving yards and three touchdowns. But two days after Penn State's win against Indiana, the senior slipped on the stairs at his apartment and broke a bone in his left foot.

A Nittany Lions offense already with its share of concerns would be without its best pass-catching weapon for at least two weeks. How would Penn State's other receivers respond?

Pretty well, in fact.

In Penn State's first game without Moye, Justin Brown caught four passes for a career-high 86 yards as the Lions outlasted Purdue. And then Smith, the diminutive sophomore best known for accidentally running into JoePa at a preseason practice, emerged last Saturday night at Northwestern, recording career highs in receptions (six) and receiving yards (110) in a 34-24 win.

Both Smith and Brown recorded touchdown receptions against the Wildcats.

"Smith had a really good game," Paterno said. "He's got great speed. He's come to the front. Brown has always been a good receiver. He's been in the shadows of Moye, but Brown in his own right is a big-time receiver.

"So we're still in pretty good shape there."

Smith, often underestimated at 5-foot-7 and 155 pounds, admitted he did some soul searching after the Alabama game, questioning his ability to succeed at this level. He rebounded two weeks later with a 71-yard touchdown against Eastern Michigan and then had the big night against Northwestern.

The Lions' receivers knew they'd be needed during Moye's absence.

"Basically step up, that’s what we had to do," said Smith, a speedster who also plans to run track for Penn State's indoor team next season. "Step up for the team and the offense. ... Everybody's getting to showcase their talents more since Derek is gone. We're improving with that."

Brown, a 6-3 junior who should be Penn State's No. 1 receiver in 2012, has recorded at least three receptions in each of the past seven games. The Lions will lean on Brown and Smith -- and ideally, several others -- this week against Illinois as Moye remains out.

Penn State hopes to get Moye back after a bye week for a Nov. 12 showdown against Nebraska.

"Moye, obviously we're going to miss him because he's a leader," Paterno said. He's made catches in the clutch. He understands what it is to be in a tough football game. Some of these don't. Brown does. Smith is starting to get it. The more these kids play, the better they're going to be."
The Penn State offense already had problems moving the ball and finding the end zone. And now it must make do without arguably its best weapon.

Wide receiver Derek Moye will miss at least the next two games after breaking the fifth metatarsal in his left foot when he slipped on some stairs at his apartment. Nittany Lions officials say Moye could return for the Oct. 29 game against Illinois, but a broken foot is never a good injury for receivers. Who knows how quickly Moye will recover, or whether he'll be able to resume his full quickness and cutting ability.

Moye, a 6-foot-5 senior, is one of the best deep threats in the Big Ten. He's far and away the best receiver Penn State has, and he'll finish his career ranked among the best wideouts in school history. He has 28 catches for 485 yards and three touchdowns this season, numbers which would surely be better if the team's quarterbacks were playing more consistently well. Matt McGloin seemed to look for Moye and have a much better connection with him than Rob Bolden.

Only one other receiver on the Penn State roster has more than eight catches this year, and that's Justin Brown (19 for 225 yards). The junior will now be asked to take on a larger role in the offense as the No. 1 target in the passing game. Devon Smith and Bill Belton might have to increase their contributions as well.

For sure, it's a big setback for an offense that has averaged just 21.5 points per game and has scored a total of 29 points in its first two Big Ten games (albeit both were victories). Penn State must hope that the performance of its offensive line last Saturday against Iowa was a good sign of things to come and that it can rely heavily on its running game with Silas Redd. Tailback Brandon Beachum, out the past three games with a sprained foot, is also expected to return from injury this week, so that helps.

The Nittany Lions will remain favorites against Purdue, but the Northwestern game on Oct. 22 looks more challenging now. As poor as the Wildcats' defenses looks, their offense can put up points on most people behind Dan Persa. And if Moye isn't full go for the Illinois game, that could be a big problem, too.

Penn State is 5-1 this season based on its formula of outstanding defense combined with just enough offense. It may need to lean on that defensive side of the equation even more for at least the next two games.
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Two games into the 2011 season, the most important question surrounding the Penn State Nittany Lions hasn't been answered.

It isn't whether or not coach Joe Paterno will retire after the season (keep on asking, folks).

It isn't even who should start at quarterback, although that question is closely related. But the issue goes deeper than Rob Bolden vs. Matthew McGloin.

What is Penn State's offensive identity?

"It's definitely still a work in progress," McGloin said. "Today was definitely a football game to be able to see we're at offensively. In my opinion, we're not where we want to be yet."

[+] EnlargeRob Bolden
Rob Carr/Getty ImagesPenn State quarterback Rob Bolden (1) split time with Matthew McGloin against Alabama.
That much is clear after a 27-11 loss to No. 3 Alabama. But how can Penn State's offense expect to make progress without a clear identity?

"Offensive identity?" receiver Derek Moye said. "Honestly, we don't have one. I don't know. We've got to get one."

Other players remain just as mystified.

"It's still early, we've still got a lot of games," running back Silas Redd said. "I really can't tell you what our identity is."

Asked to identify Penn State's offense, guard DeOn'tae Pannell offered a hopeful answer.

"Untapped potential," he said.

Pannell paused.

"We don't really have an identity."

You can't beat the No. 3 team in the country -- and quite possibly the best defense in the country -- without knowing who you are on offense. And you certainly can't pull off the upset on a day when that team figures out who it is on offense.

Alabama's offense isn't a finished product, but the Tide know who they are and who will lead them in the coming weeks. Coach Nick Saban made the decision to go with AJ McCarron at quarterback, and the sophomore came through with a solid, mistake-free performance in his first career road start.

Penn State's coaching staff could take a cue from Saban when it comes to Bolden and McGloin.

Make. A. Decision.

The coaches had all spring to evaluate the quarterbacks and all fall camp. They also had the season opener against FCS Indiana State. And yet there's still no decision on a starter.

Quarterbacks coach Jay Paterno said the plan was to give Bolden two series Saturday and then give McGloin two series. And that's exactly what Penn State did.

The rotation continued throughout the game: Bolden, McGloin, Bolden, McGloin.

Like a blinking light for an offense stuck in neutral.

"It would be good to have one quarterback, yeah," Redd said. "But both of those guys are good. That's no excuse for us."

Both of them are good, at least in practice, according to Jay Paterno. One hasn't separated himself. They continue to push each other. The competition is good for both and for the team.

The neck-and-neck race Monday through Friday has spilled over into Saturday.

"When they're both practicing really well," Jay Paterno said, "it's kind of hard to tell one to sit down."

But you have to in order to help the offensive identity take shape.

Although neither quarterback lit up Alabama, Bolden appeared to separate himself Saturday. He led both Penn State scoring drives, accounted for 11 of the team's 12 completed passes and all 144 of its passing yards. While he was intercepted once and nearly had other passes picked off, he made some good throws and showed some decent mobility, diving into the end zone for a two-point conversion.

McGloin's line: 1-for-10 passing, zero yards.

"I wish I could have just went back-to-back-to-back, but it's Joe's decision and I have to do what he does," Bolden said. "If I was running things, I would be the only guy out there."

Joe Paterno remains the man in charge. Paterno didn't put Saturday's loss on Bolden and McGloin.

"I thought the quarterbacks played a pretty good football game," Paterno said. "They had one or two throws I'd like to get back, but [the receivers have] got to catch the ball from them. ... The kids handled themselves well, didn't get a lot of help."

Paterno is right. The receivers and tight ends could be helping Bolden and McGloin.

A diving Devon Smith couldn't corral a beautifully thrown ball by Bolden on the first play of scrimmage. The normally sure-handed Moye couldn't come down with some catchable passes. Penn State lost momentum for good in the second quarter after tight end Andrew Szczerba fumbled the ball after catching a pass from Bolden.

"As a receiving corps, we've got to make some more plays," Moye said.

Penn State needs all its offensive position groups to step up and form an identity. But figuring out the quarterback is a vital step in the process.

Can an offense have an identity with two quarterbacks?

"Yes," Jay Paterno said. "We had it in '99 with Rashard Casey and Kevin Thompson. We were a very, very good offensive football team that year."

Penn State also had one of the nation's most talented teams in 1999. It opened the season by thumping No. 4 Arizona 41-7 in the Pigskin Classic. The Lions haven't beaten an Associated Press top-5 team since that day.

Times have changed. Penn State is no longer a nationally elite program, as Saturday showed.

Joe Paterno said he still feels he has a good team, a message echoed by his players. Penn State's defense showed some good signs Saturday, particularly in the front seven.

"We've got a lot of big goals this season," Pannell said. "Whichever way can lead us to a Big Ten championship, that's what I want done."

Can Penn State get to Indianapolis with a two-quarterback system?

"I've seen it done," Pannell said, "but not much."

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