Big Ten: Ron Vanderlinden

Big Ten lunchtime links

April, 18, 2014
Apr 18
12:00
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Mario + Easter = Awesome.
  • Urban Meyer recently acknowledged that he knew, once safety Christian Bryant went down with an injury last year, that "there was a chance that we wouldn't be able to go play for a national title."

Big Ten Friday mailblog

January, 3, 2014
Jan 3
4:00
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Eventful week in the Big Ten so far, and bowl season wraps up tonight in South Florida.

Time to check the mail ...

Dave from Columbus, Ohio, writes: Adam -It was great to see Coach Dantonio finish out the season with a Rose Bowl win. His team's effort reminded me a lot of OSU's defense the year they won the NC game. I also like seeing him getting a huge raise. But what does it say, 1) to Texas, and 2) to MSU, their fan base, and the players that Dantonio turned down overtures there? Granted, I'm sure he isn't the only coach being contacted, but the fact that he'd just plain turn down interest in the role has to say something significant.

Adam Rittenberg: The most significant development is that Michigan State will pay Dantonio like the top-tier coach that he is. Not enough Big Ten programs are willing to invest the ridiculous sums of money they earn every year into winning football championships. I know money isn't everything, but it shows the commitment to head coaches and top assistants like Pat Narduzzi, who also should get a big raise after another superb season. Dantonio's loyalty to MSU has never really been in doubt. He told me years ago the only job he'd leave for is Ohio State -- when Jim Tressel was still there. But I didn't know if MSU would make the necessary financial commitment, and it appears as though it will.

Joe from South Bend, Ind., writes: Adam,Maybe I am biased. But I can't help but feel that the notion of "JoeBots" caused O'Brien to leave, a bit disingenuous. Why aren't the fans allowed to be upset when, Ron Vanderlinden, the recruiter and developer of All-American, All-Pro and Pro Bowl linebackers - Bowman, Lee, Poz, Connor, etc - was fired? Also, wouldn't Alabama fans, despite the amazing record of Saban, react harshly if Saban tried to change Alabama's historic uniforms? This narrative seems so forced to me. Most Penn State fans are more than supportive of O'Brien. Even the great coaches can be the subject of legitimate criticisms.

Adam Rittenberg: Joe, the Joe Paterno supporters weren't the reason O'Brien took the Texans job. He came to Penn State as a coach likely to jump to the NFL and jumped after two years. I'm not surprised and most Penn State fans shouldn't be, either. Fans absolutely have the right to question decisions like dismissing Vanderlinden, which left several Big Ten coaches puzzled. Being upset about the uniforms thing is a little less understandable, as O'Brien made changes with good intentions in mind. I agree that the large majority of PSU fans supported O'Brien, but he also was in a stressful situation after the way things ended with Paterno. But his exit had much more to do with the allure of the NFL.

Steve M. from Columbus, Ohio, writes: Hey Adam, which loss on Ohio State's D is more crippling...Bradley Roby or Noah Spence?

Adam Rittenberg: It's sort of a chicken-and-egg question because if Spence pressures Clemson's Tajh Boyd, he has less time to attack a Roby-less secondary. Then again, Roby is capable of matching up against Clemson's talented wide receivers. You can replace good pass rushers, and I wouldn't say Spence is an elite one just yet. It's very hard to replace standout corners like Roby.

Matt from Plymouth, Minn.: Hey Adam,With Jeff Jones getting even more exposure from winning the MVP honors at the Under Armour All-America Game, is there any way he will actually end up signing a letter of intent with the Gophers, especially given that he's already softened his commitment? It would be huge for the program if they could convince him to stay in his home state.

Adam Rittenberg: It's going to be tough, Matt, as the higher-profile programs are swarming now. Michigan offered today, and Jones will take an official visit to Florida later this month. Minnesota can sell staying local and helping the Gophers reach new heights, but I wouldn't be surprised if Jones signed elsewhere. He would be a great get for Minnesota, which loses too many of its elite prep prospects (James Onwualu, Seantrel Henderson, Michael Floyd) to other programs.

Lance from Greensboro, N.C., writes: When people question how tough the B1G bowl lineup is, you should point out that we were the only one of the 5 power conferences to play nothing but power conference teams in bowls. A few MWC, AAC, C-USA, or MAC matchups would definitely help the record!Also, I hope you plan to make some mention in the blog about Gordon/White breaking the record for rushing yards by teammates in a season, and also the first ever pair of 1,400 yard rushers on the same team. Quite an achievement! That said, I wouldn't be shocked if Gordon/Clement do just as well next year.

Adam Rittenberg: Lance, I've argued for years that the Big Ten's bowl lineup is way too difficult given the league's current state and the locations of games. I don't think you need to face a bunch of teams from non-power conferences, but a little more ACC wouldn't hurt. The new lineup is much better overall. I admire commissioner Jim Delany's desire to play the best, but perception is based more on wins, not who you play. Thanks for bringing up James White and Melvin Gordon, who had excellent seasons and worked well together. I agree that the Gordon-Corey Clement combination next year will be very good.

Will from Walcott, Iowa, writes: Big Hawkeye fan. Disappointed in the outcome in the Outback Bowl, a game we could have won. However, the thing that bothered me the most in this game was the flagrant fake injuries the LSU players were displaying late in the game. I counted at least 3 times an LSU player was on the ground in "agony" only to to be back in one play later jumping and hopping around like nothing happened. I think Les Miles should be reprimanded for allowing this un-sportsman like conduct to go on. I see this happening more and more in college football. Is there anything that can be done to stop it?

Adam Rittenberg: There's not much that can be done, as it's hard to conclusively prove that the injuries, however benign they might be, are conclusively fake. I know Iowa fans aren't laughing, but isn't it a bit funny that we're talking about a defense faking injuries to slow down the Hawkeyes' offense? I couldn't believe it when they made the defensive substitution ruling. Against an Iowa offense? Somewhere, Chip Kelly was chuckling. But the fake injuries are an unfortunate part of the game today. It's on officials' radar, but I'm not sure how they'll go about stopping it. I agree that Iowa could have won that game.

Nick from Sparta writes: Adam, Alright, since it hasn't been discussed enough the last few years. Any chance, that with the recent, and now reasonably prolonged Spartan success, that the divisions will be realigned? Looking at the last few years, the divisions seem incredibly unbalanced, with HUGE schedule favoritism to Wisc and Neb. Any chance?

Adam Rittenberg: No chance, Nick. The Big Ten based the original alignment on long-term results and the most recent one on geography. The East certainly looks loaded, but only if Michigan improves substantially and Penn State gets back on track. That looks like a two-team race -- Michigan State and Ohio State -- in 2014.
Two winters ago, the Big Ten had an unprecedented 40 coaching changes. Three teams replaced their head coaches, and three others replaced three or more assistants.

Last year's coaching carousel wasn't quite as packed, although eight of the 12 teams made at least one change, and Purdue had a complete staff overhaul. There were 32 changes in all, including nine at the coordinator level.

It's still early in the so-called silly season, and a big coaching domino just fell in Austin, Texas, but the Big Ten coaching realm has been relatively quiet so far (operative phrase: so far). The departures of Penn State assistants Charlie Fisher and Ron Vanderlinden are the only confirmed coaching changes in the league.

[+] EnlargeBill O'Brien
Rich Barnes/USA TODAY SportsNFL teams have their eyes on coach Bill O'Brien, but it's tough to say if he is ready or willing to leave Penn State just yet.
The Big Ten could avoid a head-coaching change for the first time since after the 2009 season. Athletic directors Mike Thomas (Illinois), Shawn Eichorst (Nebraska) and Dave Brandon (Michigan) have affirmed support for their head coaches. Eichorst's statement released Nov. 30 didn't explicitly say coach Bo Pelini would return for the 2014 season, but it suggested as much.

Eichorst also shot down the claim from Mack Brown's attorney that a Nebraska representative had contacted him about Brown's services.

Michigan State head coach Mark Dantonio, who is 41-12 in the past four seasons, has been mentioned as a fringe candidate for the Texas job. But Dantonio, who was born in Texas but grew up in Ohio, seems unlikely to leave a great situation at MSU, especially with a sizable raise coming his way. His boss, athletic director Mark Hollis, said Monday that he has "every reason to believe" Dantonio and defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi both will return in 2014.

Potentially the only head-coaching drama in the Big Ten surrounds Penn State's Bill O'Brien, who last month completed his second winning season at the school despite heavy NCAA sanctions. O'Brien, who came to Penn State from the NFL's New England Patriots, talked with several NFL teams about coaching vacancies after the 2012 season but opted to stay put.

CBSsports.com's Jason La Canfora reported Sunday that the Minnesota Vikings and Houston Texans are interested in O'Brien -- the Washington Redskins soon could be, too -- and that O'Brien is ready to return to the NFL.

It's the belief here and elsewhere that O'Brien will head to the NFL, but potentially not right away. He has one of the nation's top young quarterbacks at Penn State in Christian Hackenberg, the Big Ten freshman of the year, and likes having his family in Happy Valley. The NCAA reduced some of its scholarship sanctions against Penn State in September, and it's possible the final two years of the postseason ban will be eliminated. Wouldn't O'Brien like to compete for a Big Ten title with Hackenberg before returning to the NFL? Stay tuned.

Many assistant coach changes take place after the bowl season, but early indications are the Big Ten will remain relatively stable. After replacing two-thirds of his staff last winter, Illinois' Tim Beckman is expected to keep the same group of assistants for a make-or-break run in 2014. Northwestern was the Big Ten's biggest disappointment this season, but Pat Fitzgerald intends to keep his staff intact for the fourth straight year.

Indiana coach Kevin Wilson has yet to make any staff changes despite another horrific season on defense, although some still could be coming. Michigan’s Brady Hoke doesn't anticipate making changes despite increased criticism for offensive coordinator Al Borges and line coach Darrell Funk. Pelini has been extremely loyal to his staff, and it's unlikely we'll see much movement at Iowa, Purdue and Wisconsin.

Even some of the Big Ten's top assistants might not be going anywhere. Narduzzi, who reportedly declined the head-coaching job at Connecticut, could remain at Michigan State for another year as more attractive jobs likely will open next year both regionally and nationally. Minnesota defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys, who masterfully led the team during Jerry Kill's health-related absence, has received interest elsewhere but doesn't sound like he's ready to leave Kill after two decades on his staff.

Anyone who follows the silly season knows there's a long way to go. We even saw a coaching change after spring practice began, as Jim Bridge went from Illinois to Purdue. It's naive to think more aren't coming around the Big Ten.

Several Ohio State assistants have been mentioned for other jobs, although two landing spots -- Miami (Ohio) and Florida Atlantic -- are off the board. Buckeyes offensive line coach Ed Warinner, the team's best assistant in my view, has been mentioned as a potential candidate at Army, where he spent 13 seasons.

Expect some shuffling in the coming weeks and months, but the Big Ten likely won't approach the big numbers of the past two winters. It'll be interesting to see how the relative stability impacts the on-field results in 2014.
The Big Ten's best two teams played Saturday night in Indianapolis, and Michigan State proved that it belongs on top. Ohio State had occupied the No. 1 spot throughout the season, but Mark Dantonio's team outclassed the Buckeyes, scoring the game's first 17 points and its final 17 points after Ohio State surged midway through the contest.

Both teams are headed to BCS bowls, but the Spartans earned their way to Pasadena for the first time since the 1987 season.

There are no changes in the final 10 spots.

Here's one final look at the Week 14 rankings.

Now, for the fresh rundown …

1. Michigan State (12-1, last week: 2): We knew the Spartans had a nationally elite defense and a much-improved offense, but we didn't know whether they could put it all together against a team that hadn't lost a game in two seasons. Quarterback Connor Cook, linebacker Denicos Allen and others provided the answers against Ohio State. Cook passed for a career-high 304 yards and three touchdowns, while Allen and the Spartan Dawgs limited Ohio State to 25 yards in the fourth quarter. Next stop: the Rose Bowl Game presented by Vizio.

2. Ohio State (12-1, last week: 1): It's odd to see a "1" in the loss column, but Meyer's Buckeyes looked shaky both early and late in their biggest test since the 2011 Sugar Bowl. Penalties and poor pass defense, as well as a one-dimensional offense that didn't sustain a rhythm, doomed Ohio State against Michigan State. Quarterback Braxton Miller and his teammates squandered a chance to play for a national title. They'll try to finish the season strong with a win against Clemson in the Discover Orange Bowl.

3. Wisconsin (9-3, last week: 3): No Big Ten team wants to get on the field more than the Badgers, who delivered their worst performance of the season at the worst time against Penn State. Linebacker Chris Borland and a proud and decorated group of seniors should be much better in the Capital One Bowl against South Carolina. Quarterback Joel Stave tries to bounce back after throwing a career-high three interceptions against PSU.

4. Iowa (8-4, last week: 4): Coach Kirk Ferentz sees similarities between his current team and the 2008 version, which also finished strong after a so-so start. The 2008 squad finished with an Outback Bowl victory, and the Hawkeyes will try to do the same when they face LSU in a rematch of the 2005 Capital One Bowl. Linebacker James Morris and an improved defense will be tested, and Iowa will try to control the clock with its power run game.

5. Minnesota (8-4, last week: 5): The season will be a success no matter what, but Minnesota would like to end on a positive note after dropping its final two regular-season games to ranked opponents. The Gophers return to the Texas Bowl, where coach Jerry Kill thinks they set the foundation for this year with a good effort last December against Texas Tech. Minnesota's defense will show up against Syracuse, but can the offense find a passing game?

6. Nebraska (8-4, last week: 6): Barring a surprise, Bo Pelini will get another chance to bring a championship to Lincoln next season. It would be nice to end this year on a positive note, however, especially after a blowout home loss to Iowa on Black Friday. Nebraska's young team has a chance to grow up the next few weeks before a matchup against Georgia in the TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl, a rematch of last year's Capital One Bowl.

7. Penn State (7-5; last week: 7): The season is over but Penn State can feel optimistic about the future, particularly on offense with Big Ten Freshman of the Year Christian Hackenberg at quarterback. Hackenberg completed a strong debut with 2,955 passing yards and 20 touchdowns, and he'll have most of his weapons back for 2013. Last week brought the somewhat surprising departures of two assistants, including longtime linebackers coach Ron Vanderlinden. It will be interesting to see where Bill O'Brien goes with his replacements.

8. Michigan (7-5, last week: 8): Michigan's performance in The Game left many wondering where that team was all season. The Wolverines hope to follow up with another strong effort -- and a win -- as they take on Kansas State in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl. It's important for Michigan to end a disappointing season on a positive note, especially for the offense, which surged behind Devin Gardner, Jeremy Gallon, Jake Butt and others against Ohio State.

9. Indiana (5-7, last week: 9): It's a pivotal offseason for the Hoosiers, who should in no way be satisfied with a five-win season that includes three Big Ten victories. Indiana should have made a bowl this season with such an explosive offense and must make the necessary upgrades -- coaching, talent and elsewhere -- to get to the postseason in 2014. Kevin Wilson has some work ahead to ensure he's not the latest offensive-minded coach to flame out in Bloomington.

10. Northwestern (5-7, last week: 10): Here's another team bitterly disappointed with its 2013 season that has some work to do this winter. Coach Pat Fitzgerald's first priority is keeping together or perhaps enhancing the strongest recruiting class in his tenure. Northwestern also must evaluate its offensive vision after enduring quarterback injuries in three of the past four seasons. The Wildcats should get a big boost at running back if Venric Mark is granted a fifth year, as expected.

11. Illinois (4-8, last week: 11): Tim Beckman will lead the Illini for a third season, athletic director Mike Thomas confirmed earlier this week. Like Indiana's Wilson, Beckman will focus on improving a defense that slipped to 110th nationally in total defense and 104th in scoring defense. He fixed the offense after the 2012 season by bringing in coordinator Bill Cubit. If he can do the same on defense, Illinois should go bowling next fall. If not, it could be the end for Beckman in Champaign.

12. Purdue (1-11, last week: 12): After a historically poor season, Purdue begins the rebuilding process on the recruiting trail, where it must get better in a lot of areas. The Boilers lose some of their top defenders like Bruce Gaston Jr. and Ricardo Allen, and must build a lot more depth on that side of the ball. Offensive line also is a target area as the Boilers allowed a league-worst 38 sacks this fall.

Big Ten's lunch links

December, 9, 2013
12/09/13
12:00
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After Sunday's announcements, these links are served in a bowl.

Two PSU assistant coaches leave program

December, 3, 2013
12/03/13
11:00
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STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Longtime linebackers coach Ron Vanderlinden and quarterbacks coach Charlie Fisher are no longer with the Penn State football program, according to the school.

The university's official statement said both coaches "have resigned to pursue other opportunities." It wasn't immediately clear what those other opportunities were.

Neither Fisher nor Vanderlinden returned calls from ESPN.com seeking comment.

"I've greatly enjoyed my 13 years at Penn State and all the student-athletes I had an opportunity to work with," Vanderlinden said in a news release. "I wish Coach [Bill] O'Brien and Penn State nothing but the best in the future."

O'Brien will begin a job search immediately and said he will not comment until the positions are filled. Potential candidates are not yet known.

The assistants' departures come just three days after the Nittany Lions clinched their second winning season during unprecedented sanctions. Penn State upset then-No. 15 Wisconsin on Saturday, the first time PSU defeated a top-15 team on the road since 2008, to finish the season at 7-5.

Vanderlinden's departure was considered especially surprising, given his track record. He's been a part of the staff since 2001 and oversaw a program widely known as Linebacker U. He coached several All-Americans such as Michael Mauti, Dan Connor and Paul Posluszny -- in addition to NFL stars NaVorro Bowman and Sean Lee.

He also played an important role in the commitments of at least a half-dozen pledges for the 2014 class, including four-star linebacker Troy Reeder (Wilmington, Del./Salesianum).

"At this point it does not affect my decision," Reeder said earlier in the afternoon. "Coach [Bill] O'Brien and [John] Butler will be coming down to see me today and are going to explain everything in more detail."

Vanderlinden has coached since 1978 and served as Northwestern's defensive coordinator from 1992 to 1996 -- coaching current Wildcats coach Pat Fitzgerald -- and then coached at Maryland from 1997 to 2000 before landing in Happy Valley.

Fisher was one of O'Brien's first hires at Penn State and helped spring former walk-on Matt McGloin to a school-record 3,266 passing yards in 2012. Fisher arrived at the school after spending one season at Miami (Ohio), where he acted as the quarterbacks coach/passing game coordinator. Before that, he was an assistant at Vanderbilt for nine seasons.

"I want to thank Penn State and Coach O’Brien for the opportunity to be a part of the program the past two seasons,” Fisher said in the news release. “It was a great experience and I am very proud of what we accomplished. Now I'm looking forward to the next chapter and making a positive impact on the next group of players I have the privilege of working with."

Tom VanHaaren contributed to this report
Penn State defensive coordinator John Butler is so competitive and intense that a childhood friend wonders half-jokingly if a demon lives inside him.

Wisconsin defensive coordinator Dave Aranda, meanwhile, is California cool, an admittedly cerebral coach directing a scheme built on aggression.

[+] EnlargeJohn Butler
Matthew O'Haren/USA TODAY SportsPenn State's John Butler is emotional, animated, competitive and his players feed off that.
Butler can't be missed on the Penn State sideline, a ball of energy whose animated style makes players feel like he's one of them. Aranda is more Zen-like, bringing a teacher's approach that connects with bright Badger defenders as he conveys messages without veins bulging from his neck.

Butler and his boss, Bill O'Brien, are near replicas, fiery Irishmen from hardboiled Eastern cities who share a relentless drive to succeed. Aranda and his boss, Gary Andersen, first met in Maui of all places. They both have backgrounds in defense but are, as Andersen puts it, "polar opposites."

The obvious differences between Butler and Aranda shouldn't overshadow the fact that both first-year Big Ten defensive coordinators are rising stars, rocketing up the coaching ladder. They're highly respected among their peers and viewed as likely future head coaches.

Both men also will be put to the test this week, as they lead defenses against two strong opponents -- No. 20 Wisconsin visits Arizona State and Penn State hosts UCF -- led by standout quarterbacks (ASU's Taylor Kelly, UCF's Blake Bortles).

"This is why you do it, man," Butler told ESPN.com. "As a competitor, when the competition improves, you better improve your game or you're going to get embarrassed."

Butler and Keith Conlin rarely were embarrassed as young athletes growing up just outside Philadelphia. In fact, they rarely lost at anything. Conlin and Butler met in first grade and played together on every team and in every sport.

They won titles in everything, thanks to Conlin, a self-described "mutant athlete" who went on to be an All-Big Ten offensive lineman at Penn State, and Butler, who eventually played football and basketball at Division III Catholic University. But they didn't win every game.

"Imagine the kid who would sulk and cry after games when you lose, but during the game was going to do whatever it took to win," Conlin said of Butler. "He wasn't the crybaby who lost and [said], 'I'm going to take my ball and go home.' He was literally mad because we lost. Losing is probably the worst thing he could possibly have in his world.

"It's almost like a demon he has, his drive and competitiveness."

It's also an asset that helped Butler rise from modest coaching origins -- Midwestern State, Texas State and Harvard -- to the Big Ten (Minnesota) in 2007, to the SEC (South Carolina) in 2011 and back to the Big Ten last year as Penn State's secondary coach and special teams coordinator. When defensive coordinator Ted Roof left for Georgia Tech in January, O'Brien immediately promoted Butler, who vaulted veteran Lions assistants Larry Johnson (defensive line) and Ron Vanderlinden (linebackers) for the role.

O'Brien's rationale: "He's just a coordinator, that's what he is. ... I knew if the coordinator job ever opened up, he would be the guy."

The transition was quick. Minutes after Roof informed the staff of his move, O'Brien walked into Butler's office.

"Billy said, 'This is the move I want to make,'" Butler recalled. "I told him, 'That's great. Let's move on.' I've prepared myself for this for a long time."

[+] EnlargeDave Aranda
AP Photo/David StlukaWisconsin's Dave Aranda and his network of connections have risen through the coaching ranks.
Preparation is at the core of Aranda's approach. He has his principles -- multiple fronts, varied blitzes, a focus on takeaways -- but constantly keeps his ears open.

If there's a new approach, Aranda, 37, wants to learn it, even if he never employs it in a practice or a game.

"Professional development for him is very important," Andersen said. "He's a great researcher, very detailed. He's always out there looking for new things. He's much better at that than I was as a coordinator. I probably got a little set in my ways.

"If he's in a city where there's a football program, it doesn't matter if it's NFL, Division I or Division II, he's going to see if he can learn something from somebody."

This summer, Aranda dropped in on the Green Bay Packers, Atlanta Falcons and Jacksonville Jaguars, in addition to college teams like Ohio and Eastern Michigan.

"Outside of my family, about the only other people I talk to are other defensive coaches," Aranda said. "You try to get as many questions answered prior to having to answer them in games."

Andersen and Aranda first met at a high school camp in Maui. They both embraced what Andersen calls "the aggressive side of defense" -- capitalizing on blitz opportunities and gearing a scheme toward forcing turnovers. Aranda, like Butler, worked his way through the lower ranks (California Lutheran, Delta State, Southern Utah) before getting his big break at Hawaii.

Andersen watched Aranda's first coordinator stint -- Hawaii led the nation in takeaways in 2010 and finished 15th nationally in sacks the following year -- and in 2012 brought him to Utah State, essentially to replace himself as the defensive play-caller. Since Andersen made no other changes, Aranda took over a defensive staff as the only newcomer.

"There's no pretense," Aranda said. "I've always thought that it's not whose ideas that matter; it's just that it works."

After coordinating a Utah State defense that last season finished in the top 15 in points allowed, sacks, rushing yards allowed, pass efficiency and total yards allowed, Aranda received offers from two major-conference schools -- reportedly Cal and Texas Tech – but he chose to stay at Utah State. But that was before Andersen landed the Wisconsin job.
"A lot of people would say it was kind of crazy," Andersen said, "but he said no because he felt like that was where he needed to be. I respected that, so when we had the opportunity to come here, [bringing Aranda] was a slam dunk."

O'Brien and Butler didn't know each other well before O'Brien landed the Penn State job, but they had a mutual connection in strength coach Craig Fitzgerald, who had met O'Brien at Maryland and had attended high school with Butler and Conlin. O'Brien brought both Fitzgerald and Butler in from South Carolina.

After meeting O'Brien, Conlin wondered how Butler would mesh with his new boss.

"How [O'Brien] was emotionally so driven in everything he does, I was like, 'Man, they’re either going to be best friends or the most hated enemies of all time,'" Conlin said.

It turned out to be the former. Both men are in their early forties. O'Brien grew up north of Boston in Andover, Mass. Butler lived in Boston while working at Harvard and said the city's energy reminds him of Philly.

"He's a quick-minded guy, a hardworking guy," O'Brien said. "We believe in the same things football-wise."

Added Butler: "It ended up being an excellent match."

Butler's style clicked with Penn State's players, whose competitive spirit carried them through a summer of sanctions and a season with no bowl or championship possibilities. The Lions won eight of their final 10 games last fall and the secondary, labeled as the defense's weak link, held its own.

"He's pumped up, just like all of us," defensive tackle DaQuan Jones said. "He's just out there, all loud and running around. I love it."

Butler hasn't pumped the brakes on his approach, despite his increased responsibilities. Competitiveness is non-negotiable for his players, although he has learned over time that it takes on different forms.

"Whether you're overtly competitive, which maybe I am, as opposed to internally competitive, which a lot of other people are, that spirit shows through in all of our guys," he said.

Butler, 40, oversees two of the nation's most accomplished assistants in Johnson and Vanderlinden, the only two holdovers from Joe Paterno's staff. Despite the experience gap, the transition "came natural," Butler said, and Penn State has surrendered only 24 points, 22 first downs and 132 rush yards in its first two games.

Conlin, who has seen Butler's evolution and maturation firsthand, has no doubt his friend will eventually lead a program.

"I don't know when, I don't know where," Conlin said, "but I wouldn't want to be playing against him. There's going to be 11 guys out there who will cut your heart out to win that game."

Andersen also sees Aranda as a future head coach, but hopes to keep him for "a while." Like Butler, Aranda has had early success, as the Badgers have yet to allow a point in two games.

And like Butler, Aranda will be challenged Saturday. Arizona State ranked 14th nationally in scoring last season and put up 55 in its opener. Aranda faced the same Todd Graham offense in the 2010 Hawaii Bowl, when Graham's Tulsa team put up 62 points against Hawaii.

"I think about that a lot," he said. "So it’s exciting for me to get back in it and give it a go. It's a challenge, the stuff as a coach you look forward to."

Maybe Aranda and Butler aren't so different after all.
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)

John Butler says Bill O'Brien informed him on Wednesday morning that he'd been promoted from Penn State's secondary coach to its defensive coordinator. Butler simply thanked O'Brien and asked what the head coach wanted.

"It wasn't like there was a surprise party," Butler said Thursday on a conference call with reporters.

And Butler hopes that the transition from Ted Roof -- who left after one year as the Nittany Lions' defensive boss for Georgia Tech -- follows a similar business-as-usual path. Butler said he shared a lot of the same philosophies as Roof and that the system, terminology and approach would remain the same with him in charge in 2013.

"We're going to maintain consistency," he said. "There's not going to be any universal changes in what we do."

What the Lions like to do, he said, is present multiple looks to the offense in their fronts and coverages while playing with aggressiveness and physicality. The key is being able to make adjustments on the fly. He pointed to the season finale against Wisconsin as a great example of that. After trailing 14-7 at halftime, the Lions dominated most of the second half and won 24-21 in overtime.

While Penn State loses many outstanding seniors from last year's defense -- Gerald Hodges, Michael Mauti and Jordan Hill chief among them -- Butler said, "We feel like we have a talented enough group, as long as we stay healthy, that we can move this thing forward." And whereas last year the defense had to learn a whole new system and terminology, the returning players will have a smoother time this year, even under a new coordinator.

"For them, it's like, 'OK, it's not like we're learning a lot of new stuff here,'" Butler said. "'It's just getting better at what we already know.'"

Butler said veteran defensive assistants Larry Johnson and Ron Vanderlinden will help maintain that consistency and said both coaches are "fully invested" though they may have been passed over for the coordinator job.

Butler also said that he'll remain involved with the secondary, and it will be determined later if he'll coach the safeties or the cornerbacks. He also expects to continue to have a big hand in recruiting.

In his first year in State College, Butler became known for his very demonstrative style during practice and on the sideline during games. Will he change that now that he's a coordinator? Like the defense itself, don't expect any makeovers.

"If I showed up at practice one day and had my hands folded and was very quiet, the kids would say, 'Who's this clown?'" he said. "Sometimes, people see my demeanor and misunderstand. I'm extremely competitive, and I have the ability in those situations ... while it appears I might have lost my mind, I haven't."
Bill O'Brien is staying at Penn State after a brief flirtation with the NFL, but one of his top assistants and closest friends is not.

Defensive coordinator Ted Roof resigned Wednesday after spending just one season at Penn State, and took the same position with Georgia Tech, his alma mater. O'Brien acted quickly in promoting Nittany Lions secondary coach John Butler to defensive coordinator.

Few are surprised to see Roof on the move again, as Georgia Tech becomes his fifth coaching stop since the 2008 season (Minnesota, Auburn, Central Florida, Penn State). He has strong ties to the state and to the school, where he served as linebackers coach in 1998 and defensive coordinator from 1999-2001. But he's also extremely tight with O'Brien, who he worked with at his previous stop at Georgia Tech. O'Brien later joined Roof at Duke when Roof served as Blue Devils' head coach.

"It's very important to keep your staff intact, but you have to be careful there, too, because I think it's important for these guys to want to move up the ladder," O'Brien said Monday at a news conference. "So you've got some fantastic coaches on our staff that are going to have chances probably, maybe not this year but maybe in other years, of being coordinators or even head coaches. You never want to hold those guys back from being able to do that, and I never will. But obviously from a continuity standpoint, you'd love to keep them intact and do the best you can with that."

Regarding assistant coach salaries, O'Brien said, "These guys are paid well. I think that they can always be paid better, and I think there's things that we've talked about from Day 1 here, [athletic director Dave Joyner] and I, about ways that we can do that, whether it's a bowl bonus or what bowl would we have gone to if we win a certain amount of games, things like that. So those are conversations that take place, and like I said, in the inner circle, and we'll do the best we can to continue to try to make it attractive to coach here."

It's hard to blame Roof for heading home, although Penn State had a better season than Georgia Tech, and the PSU job has more national prestige. You have to wonder how concerned Roof is about Penn State's future with the NCAA sanctions, despite the team's success this season. Although Penn State held onto O'Brien for at least another year, it's critical for the school to retain assistants and maintain staff continuity.

Roof didn't immediately return a message from ESPN.com. Penn State's defense finished 16th nationally in points allowed, 23rd in rushing and 29th in total yards allowed in Roof's sole season as coordinator.

O'Brien went with Butler at defensive coordinator rather than veteran Penn State assistants Larry Johnson (defensive line) or Ron Vanderlinden (linebackers), the only holdovers from Joe Paterno's staff. It's unknown whether O'Brien offered the job to either Johnson or Vanderlinden, who might be content in their current roles.

Before joining O'Brien at Penn State, Butler served as special teams coordinator and helped coach linebackers at South Carolina. He held a similar post with Minnesota from 2007-2010. I got to know Butler a bit at Minnesota, and he struck me as an extremely bright coach. This is certainly a big step for him, although Penn State's structure of success on defense is already in place.

Big Ten Friday mailblog

December, 14, 2012
12/14/12
4:30
PM ET
Hoping you have a great weekend.

Gary from Olathe, Kan., writes: I know I'm in the minority, but I'm starting to think the so called "super conferences" are a good thing. Say the B1G goes to 16 teams. We'll basically have two 8-team conferences (does the Big 8 ring any bells) that have a television and scheduling agreement with another 8-team conference. It seems to be a more formal version of what the B1G and PAC tried to do earlier.

Adam Rittenberg: Gary, this is an interesting way of looking at it. A key question is whether the Big Ten divisions into two eight-team divisions or four four-team pods, which might preserve rivalries a bit better and create some nice scheduling flexibility. I know the Big Ten wouldn't look at it like that -- two separate conferences -- and if there were two eight-team divisions, the number of crossover games would be minimal (two or three). But you would have more teams in the group and a chance to make more money. My big concern is whether further expansion kills some of the exciting non-league matchups (Ohio State-Texas, etc.) we've seen in recent months.


Rich from Des Moines, Iowa, writes: Adam, Would it make sense for Alvarez to coach a year or two and then bring in Chryst? What is the appropriate waiting period in this situation before Wisco brings in the People's Choice as coach? Thank you.

Adam Rittenberg: Rich, I've thought about this very possibility this week as Wisconsin's search twists and turns. I don't know if Alvarez can take such a presumptive approach, as who knows what will happen with Chryst at Pitt. He could struggle there. He could do so well that he gets an NFL job. Who knows? I do agree that the timing was off to bring in Chryst to Wisconsin right now, after only one year at Pitt. And he definitely makes the most sense for the UW job. I think Alvarez would be fine coaching for a year, although recruiting could be affected if there isn't a long-term plan. As for the appropriate waiting period, I think another year or two would create a different situation for Chryst, but again, you can't assume he'll take the job.


Kyle from Denton, Texas, writes: Adam,With what happened today with the catholic schools in the Big East is this a prime opportunity for the Big Ten to maybe capitalize and go to 16 schools? South Florida would be a great addition. Sure they aren't an AAU member, but that is an overrated thing by the Big Ten. By adding South Florida the Big Ten would have a recruiting presence in the Midwest (Nebraska), Iron Belt (original Big Ten schools), North East (PSU, Maryland, and Rutgers), California (Rose Bowl), and Florida (with SFU). The only area the Big Ten would not be in is the deep south and Florida. They could then try and go for a school like Georgia Tech to get into the deep south, or even go after a school in Texas ... just seems like the best opportunity to expand the Big Ten's footprint.

Adam Rittenberg: Kyle, you couldn't be more wrong about the AAU status being overrated in the Big Ten. It's incredibly important to Big Ten presidents. I've talked to several league sources who say Nebraska might not have been admitted into the conference if it had lost its AAU status at the time of admission. Big Ten presidents aren't pleased that Nebraska is no longer an AAU member (although it could regain the status in the future). But you're deluding yourself if you dismiss the AAU/academic component of this. That's a long way of saying the Big Ten won't add South Florida. Georgia Tech? Definitely in play. Other ACC teams with AAU status like Virginia and North Carolina? They're on the Big Ten's radar. But South Florida isn't happening.


Jay from Arlington writes: While your selection criteria limits the ability to praise Larry Johnson and Ron Vanderlinden (the two best position coaches in the country) after their units excelled as usual, you missed out on Mac MacWhorter. He turned the smartest football player in the country (John Urschel) into an all Big Ten selection. Elevated Stank's game, put together the best pair of starting tackles in the league (with depth) while putting together a unit that was a team asset.

The Dave from Sarasota, Fla., writes: I will refrain from casting personal aspersions because I think you are very tolerable overall, but how could you leave Greg Mattison off your best assistant list and still look at yourself in the mirror? Who has done more with less talent and depth? Who has completed a bigger turn around? With less talent than Narduzzi his unit plays better more sound D.

Adam Rittenberg: Jay, I strongly considered including McWhorter on the list. Ultimately, we had to cap it somewhere and he didn't make it, but he did a terrific job with a line that entered the season with some major question marks. Honestly, we could have included all of Penn State's offensive assistants, as they really improved the unit in 2012. You also can't minimize the head coach's impact on the group as well.

As for Mattison, he had another great year for sure, but I wanted to spread around the credit a bit to coaches who don't receive as much. Those who read the blog know what Brian and I think of Mattison, and we praised him repeatedly last season as he transformed the Michigan D. For this post, I wanted tor recognize Curt Mallory, who doesn't get nearly as much credit, for doing what he did with the secondary. This isn't a Mattison vs. Narduzzi debate. Michigan State didn't have one position coach that, to me, stood out as much as Narduzzi did with the entire defense, so that's why he was listed.


Kevin from Rochester writes: I know you say that Northwestern is better off playing in a smaller bowl to get a win but Id rather them win as an underdog. They have been known to pull off big upsets and ruin teams goals such as big ten titles. They pulled off the win against Ricky Stanzi #4 Iowa a couple years ago and ruined Nebraska's big ten hopes late last year. Id rather have them break they're bowl streak by winning a bowl game thats similar to their identity which is pulling off an upset. Am I wrong to think this way. I really think they could have pulled off an upset and kept the game interesting if they played in the Capital One bowl against Johnny Football and A&M

Adam Rittenberg: I think Johnny Football and A&M would have destroyed Northwestern, and extended the bowl streak and all the chat about how the Wildcats can't get over the hump in a bowl. Northwestern hasn't won a bowl game since 1949! You really care how the streak ends at this point? The underdog wins tradition is nice, and Northwestern almost pulled off a nice upset of Missouri in the 2008 Alamo Bowl. But the poor bowl matchups are a huge reason why Northwestern keeps losing.The most important thing here is a win, and Northwestern has a much better chance against Mississippi State than Texas A&M or Georgia or South Carolina. I just don't understand your mind-set. A bowl win would change the narrative about Northwestern and resonate throughout the offseason before a potentially huge 2013 campaign.


Nate from Council Bluffs, Iowa, writes: Adam, As a Hawkeye fan I entered this season only expecting a 6-7 win season, with big coordinator changes, the question mark at running back, and favorable schedule. I never expected this outcome though. Now thinking ahead, because that?s all we can do at this point: With all the returning starters next year, and all the underclassmen who got playing time this year (Also if AIRBHG stays out of Iowa City this offseason!!), is there light at the end of the tunnel for next season?

Adam Rittenberg: Nate, there's definitely hope when a team returns a lot of core players and won't be going through another staff transition like Iowa went through last winter. My concern, however, is the Legends division. Who do you see getting worse so Iowa can rise up? Nebraska returns virtually its entire offense, led by quarterback Taylor Martinez. Michigan State might lose running back Le'Veon Bell, but its best defenders return and the offense should be at least serviceable in Year 2 with Andrew Maxwell at quarterback. Northwestern returns virtually everyone from a 9- or 10-win team (depending on the bowl game). Brady Hoke will have more of his recruits in key positions at Michigan, and Devin Gardner's emergence down the stretch raises hope. Minnesota just went from three wins to six wins. My point is that while Iowa shouldn't be this bad again, the division is only getting tougher for the Hawkeyes.


Fred from Spokane, Wash., writes: For programs on the rise, such as Minnesota, does it help the program to go to a bowl game and get blown out? Does a blow out help or hurt recruiting?

Adam Rittenberg: Fred, in Minnesota's case, the bowl game itself is secondary to the bowl practices. The fact Minnesota gets 15 extra practices is huge, especially with a true freshman (Philip Nelson) at the quarterback spot. It gives coach Jerry Kill and his staff more time to evaluate younger players who will play bigger roles in 2013. Although there are quite a few seniors on defense, the offense is very young for the most part, and that's the unit that must make significant strides for next season. Minnesota can sell the bowl appearance to recruits and the fact it doubled its wins total in Kill's second season. The outcome of the game itself, even if bad, shouldn't impact recruiting too much.

Big Ten lunchtime links

October, 26, 2012
10/26/12
12:00
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No sleep 'til State College ...

Did you know? Week 6 in the Big Ten

October, 5, 2012
10/05/12
10:00
AM ET
Put on your thinking caps. It's time for some more Did You Know in the Big Ten (hat tip to ESPN Sports & Information and school sports information directors for these nuggets) ...
  • Ohio State's Braxton Miller has completed nine passes thrown 20 yards or more downfield this season. Five of those nine completions were caught by Devin Smith, including all four of Miller’s touchdowns. When Miller is not throwing downfield to Smith, his completion percentage drops by 30.6 percent. Miller is 5-of-9 when throwing downfield to Smith, averaging 24.2 yards per attempt. To all other receivers, he's just 4-for-16 for 9.2 yards per attempt, with two interceptions.
  • Nebraska is 7-0 against BCS AQ opponents when quarterback Taylor Martinez completes at least half of his 15-yard throws and 5-9 when he does not. Martinez is completing 51.6 percent of his passes thrown 15 yards or more downfield this season, compared to a 39.6 percent rate over his first two seasons as starter. His six touchdowns this season on 15-yard throws matches his total from last season and is two more than his 2010 total.
  • Northwestern's Kain Colter became the first player in the FBS to have 150-plus rushing yards and 100-plus receiving yards in the same game when he put up 161 rushing and 131 receiving against Indiana. Colter is the only player in FBS with at least 300 passing yards, 300 rushing yards and 100 receiving yards on the season.
  • Illinois leads the all-time series with Wisconsin, but that may change after Saturday. The Illini hold a slim 36-35-7 edge over the Badgers, who have won six of the last seven meetings. Illinois' last win in Madison came in 2002.
  • Over its last two games, Wisconsin has 10 plays that have gone for at least 20 yards, including three completions of 45-plus yards from quarterback Joel Stave to receiver Jared Abbrederis. The Badgers had just five plays of 20 or more yards in their first three games combined. Wisconsin has also started eight drives in its opponent's territory in the past three games after having just one such drive in its first two games. The Badgers have turned six of those eight possessions into touchdowns.
  • Ricardo Allen broke the Purdue all-time record for interceptions returned for touchdowns with the fourth pick-six of his career last week against Marshall. He eclipsed Rod Woodson and Mike Rose in the Boilermakers' record book. Allen is tied for second in Big Ten history in interceptions returned for touchdowns, matching Indiana’s Tim Wilbur (1978-82). He trails Wisconsin’s Jamar Fletcher (1998-2000) for the all-time mark of five.
  • Heading into this week’s game with Purdue, Michigan's Denard Robinson is one rushing touchdown shy of becoming only the eighth player in NCAA history to rush for 40 touchdowns and pass for 40 touchdowns. After amassing 90 rushing yards against Notre Dame, Robinson (3,670 yards) moved into a tie for fifth place among the all-time NCAA leaders in rushing yards by a quarterback, matching Kent State’s Joshua Cribbs (3,670). With his Notre Dame stats, Robinson moved into first place in Michigan history in career total offensive yardage (9,438), surpassing previous record holder Chad Henne (9,400).
  • Indiana true freshman Tevin Coleman returned a kickoff 96 yards for a touchdown against Northwestern and finished the game with 138 kickoff return yards. That was the Hoosiers' first kickoff touchdown return since Shane Wynn’s 99-yarder versus Illinois on Oct. 8 of last season. Coleman and Wynn are the only true freshmen in school history to bring a kickoff to paydirt.
  • Michigan State has faced the Big Ten’s toughest schedule and the 11th-toughest in the nation, according to NCAA figures. The Spartans’ first five opponents have a combined record of 11-3 (.786) against other FBS teams. The Spartans are one of just three teams in the FBS to play three ranked teams before Oct. 1 (Kentucky and Arizona are the others.). The last time Michigan State played three ranked teams before Oct. 1 was 1987 (No. 16 USC, No. 9 Notre Dame, No. 7 Florida State). The Spartans became the first team to play host to three opponents ranked in The Associated Press Top 25 before Oct. 1 since Stanford and Washington in 2007.
  • Penn State linebackers coach Ron Vanderlinden was Northwestern’s defensive coordinator and assistant head coach from 1992-96, serving on the staff that led the Wildcats to Big Ten titles in 1995 and ‘96. Vanderlinden also coached the linebackers at Northwestern and was current Wildcats coach Pat Fitzgerald's position coach.
video Editor's note: Ivan Maisel has the latest from Penn State as the Nittany Lions prepare for their season opener versus Ohio.

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- It took nearly the entire two-hour practice for the Penn State offense to get on head coach Bill O'Brien's good side Tuesday.

Midway through the practice, O'Brien huddled up the entire team and said, "No. 1 is we got to pick this up, especially on offense. We've got to pick this practice up."

He never got to No. 2. He sent them back out on the field.

O'Brien bellowed. He yelled. He demanded. "I'm not talking about wanting to be good! I'm talking about doing something!" he said.

He made the offense repeat a practice period, and only at the end, when fifth-year starter Matt McGloin moved the starters smartly down the field, did O'Brien see what he wanted to see.

Just like that, practice ended.

[+] EnlargeCharlie Fisher
Ivan Maisel, ESPN.com Penn State quarterbacks coach Charlie Fisher writes out playcards.
"If you want to be good," he told his team, "you have to shut up and practice, practice like you did at the end right there. You've got to string drives together. String plays together."

Tuesdays are often the ugliest day of a football week. Game plans are installed. Players are trying to transfer what they saw on video and heard in the meeting room onto the football field. On Tuesday morning, quarterbacks coach Charlie Fisher printed screen grabs off video of the Ohio defense to prepare his quarterbacks.

"In the pros, you can take these pictures during the game and look at them on the sideline," Fisher said. "In colleges, you can't take a picture. I'm trying to give them a visual."

He also "wrote play cards," coachspeak for the X's-and-O's diagrams that players have studied in three-ring playbooks since the dawn of college football time. Fisher drew the offense in with a blue Sharpie, then handed it to graduate assistant Bartley Webb, who diagrammed the defensive look with a black Sharpie.

"I wish I had a dime for every card I've drawn," said Fisher, a coach for 31 years. "You keep everything. Coaches are like pack rats. We're afraid to throw away anything: playbooks, notes, game plans from 1995."

After practice, after the cold pool and the hot tub, ice pack in place, McGloin said, "All that stuff Coach Fisher does, the pictures he gives us, some tips he writes down after every practice, but just going back to the basics and watching film. That's the main thing. You've got to watch as much film as you possibly can to see what they're doing on third-and-5, what they do the most on first-and-10."

McGloin said the offense will be prepared for Saturday, Tuesday's tumult notwithstanding. Penn State will start seven seniors on defense. McGloin is one of four fifth-year seniors on offense. After them, the experience level drops pretty fast.

"He just wants to see us practicing fast," McGloin said of O'Brien, "doing the right thing, me making the right checks, running the routes right, lining up right. It's the little things that irritate him. If you throw an interception, throw a bad ball, he's not going to get mad. He's going to get mad if you make a wrong read or you don't check to this play or that play. We ended on a good note. Hopefully it will carry over to tomorrow. We're trying to do some new stuff out there."

Once upon a time, linebackers coach Ron Vanderlinden said, "We used to call it Bloody Tuesday." Wednesdays are for correcting mistakes -- cleaning up the blood -- and Thursdays are for polishing. If you're still correcting mistakes on Friday, you're going to keep making make them on Saturday.
video
Before spring practice, Penn State defensive backs Malcolm Willis and Stephon Morris sat in their apartment, brainstorming a way to motivate the secondary.

They decided to tell their teammates the truth. At least the truth according to those outside the program.

At the end of each workout in the spring and now in the summer, Willis and Morris gather the other Lions defensive backs.

[+] EnlargeMalcolm Willis
Rob Christy/US PresswireMalcolm Willis has challenged Penn State's younger defensive backs to step up this season.
"We huddle them up, we talk to them and say, 'We're supposedly the worst unit on this team,'" Willis told ESPN.com "Everybody is doubting us, everybody is doubting our ability. We know what we can do. We know the ability we have and what we're capable of."

The outside skepticism makes sense. Penn State loses all four starters from 2011: safeties Nick Sukay and Drew Astorino, and cornerbacks D'Anton Lynn and Chaz Powell. Although players like Willis, Morris and sophomore cornerback Adrian Amos have been very much in the mix -- they combined for 65 tackles, two interceptions and nine pass breakups in 2011 -- depth is a significant question mark, especially with the offseason departures of cornerbacks Derrick Thomas and Curtis Drake.

The Lions will need their young defensive backs to step up in a big way. And that's who Willis and Morris direct their message to following workouts.

"Every day we say that, these younger guys, they're hyped up, they're juiced up and they want to do extra work," Willis said. "Right after that, they want to go watch some film with us, or they want to go work on their footwork, just giving that extra effort and that extra attention to detail. It really shows me these guys want to be great this year."

Penn State's defensive fortunes could hinge on the secondary this season. While there are significant changes in State College, namely the arrival of new defensive coordinator Ted Roof and his "multiply aggressive" scheme, several elements remain the same.

The front seven, as usual, should be very strong. First-team All-Big Ten linebacker Gerald Hodges returns, along with Michael Mauti, back from a knee injury. Pete Massaro also returns at defensive end and joins a line featuring tackle Jordan Hill, end Sean Stanley, tackle DaQuan Jones and end Deion Barnes, an extremely promising redshirt freshman. The line and linebackers also both return their position coaches -- Larry Johnson and Ron Vanderlinden, the only two holdovers from the previous staff -- while the secondary has a new boss (John Butler).

Add in the new scheme, which includes some Cover 3 but not nearly as much as the system under Tom Bradley, and the secondary can be seen as one giant question mark.

"A lot of people say we're the weakest group on the team," Willis said. "We were like, 'We need to motivate these guys to let them know what people think.' Reading it is one thing on the Internet, but when somebody says it to your face, it has to hit a nerve. And you really have to be offended by it."

Willis and Morris are getting the desired result so far. Willis has been impressed with the way fellow safeties Stephen Obeng-Agyapong and Tim Buckley have approached the offseason. Obeng-Agyapong is projected to start alongside Willis, while Buckley saw some time with the first-team defense this spring.

"When I see the D-backs, I see a whole bunch of hard-working people," wide receiver Justin Brown said. "They're always out there trying to get better, trying to do one-on-ones, anything to help the defense.

"I don't see any weak link."

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