NCF Nation: Herb Hand

This week, we're examining a problematic position for each Big Ten team during the 2014 season and how it can potentially be repaired in 2015.

Penn State takes its turn in the spotlight now.

Problem position: Offensive line

Why the offensive line was a problem in 2014: Everyone who followed the Nittany Lions worried about the O-line going into the season. Miles Dieffenbach suffered an injury in the offseason that would keep him sidelined most of the year, leaving left tackle Donovan Smith as the only experienced player on the unit. Depth was so thin that coach James Franklin and his staff had to flip a couple defensive tackles over to the offensive guard spots. The problems ended up being worse than just about anyone imagined, as Penn State fielded the league's worst rushing attack (101.9 yards per game) and gave up an almost unfathomable 44 sacks, which was more than every Power 5 team except Wake Forest. For comparison's sake, the 44 sacks were more than Michigan State, Wisconsin and Rutgers combined to allow in 2014. The line woes were encapsulated by this unforgettable image.

How it can be fixed (solutions on the roster): Smith played well despite the chaos and chose to enter the NFL draft rather than use his final year of eligibility. Dieffenbach, who missed the first eight games last season, also departs. Andrew Nelson showed promise as a redshirt freshman at right tackle and could move to the left side. Angelo Mangiro and Brian Gaia join him as returning starters. Penn State also redshirted four offensive linemen last season and will hope at least a couple of them are ready to contribute in 2015.

How it can be fixed (potential help from 2015 recruiting class): The Nittany Lions currently have four offensive linemen committed in this year's class, three of whom are in the ESPN 300: tackles Sterling Jenkins and Ryan Bates and guard Steven Gonzalez. The fourth is a junior college transfer: 6-foot-8, 300-pounder Paris Palmer, who could step in and start right away.

Early 2015 outlook: Franklin and position coach Herb Hand know offensive line is a major problem right now, and they have worked to address that in recruiting. Scholarship cuts from NCAA sanctions and injuries hit the unit hard, but help appears to be on the way. The line looks to be incredibly young in 2015, however, so some quick development will be needed to better protect quarterback Christian Hackenberg and establish a more reputable run game.
Penn State and Pittsburgh haven't played since the 2000 season, cooling off a spicy in-state rivalry.

Thanks to the (relatively) new coaching staff, namely Penn State assistant Herb Hand -- he of "Chopped" fame -- things are getting stirred up again.

New Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi, never one to back down from a challenge -- just ask Michigan -- started the chirping shortly after his hiring. Asked in late December about the pledge from Penn State coach James Franklin to "dominate the state," Narduzzi told a local radio station, "We had a school like that down the road in Michigan that maybe had the same attitude."

Things are spilling into social media now. Franklin and his staff are extremely active, and Pitt's new staff has joined the fun, as colleague Andrea Adelson writes.

The teams' offensive line coaches -- Penn State's Hand and Pitt's John Peterson -- entered the Twitter ring Wednesday night.

Peterson got things started with this graphic, proclaiming Pitt as the state's premier program. Hand didn't take kindly to it, listing Penn State's accomplishments over Pitt last season, including a bowl win and a better record against common foes (Penn State went 2-0 against Boston College and Akron; Pitt went 1-1). Is mentioning Pitt's bowl collapse a shot below the belt? Ouch. Hand then proceeded to drop the mic, SNL style. A night's rest didn't cool off Hand, who added this picture Thursday morning. Your move, Pitt coaches. By the way, Penn State and Pitt resume their series Sept. 10, 2016 in the Steel City. The game can't get here soon enough.

LB Mike Hull snubbed by Butkus committee

October, 27, 2014
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Maybe most of the Butkus Committee fell asleep early Saturday night. Or maybe their TVs aren't normally tuned to unranked teams.

[+] EnlargeMike Hull
Matthew O'Haren/USA TODAY SportsPenn State linebacker Mike Hull has been left off of the Dick Butkus Award semifinalist list.
Really, those seem to be the only feasible explanations to leave Penn State linebacker Mike Hull off the Dick Butkus Award semifinalist list. Because anyone who's watched Big Ten football this season wouldn't have put maybe the third best backer in the conference over Hull.

Let's get one thing straight here: This isn't a bias against Penn State. Former Nittany Lions Michael Mauti and Gerald Hodges both made the list two seasons ago. Hull's exclusion is simply pure ignorance, lack of research and ... well ... a black eye for the committee.

A cursory glance at the statistics would show Hull has more tackles per game (11.9) than any candidate on the semifinalist list. This isn't extensive research, folks. You'd think that alone should merit some pause.

But let's take a closer look at some of the semifinalists, if for no other reason than to just grasp how truly crazy this omission is. Three candidates -- Alabama's Reggie Ragland, Georgia's Ramik Wilson and UCLA's Myles Jack -- didn't even make their respective midseason all-conference teams, whether it came from the conference itself or the first- or second-teams from Phil Steele. Hull is on our awards tracker as one of the best overall defenders in the conference.

How about numbers? Well, none of those three have more sacks, tackles-for-loss, interceptions, solo tackles, assisted tackles or total tackles than Hull -- and two of them played in an extra game. How about team rankings? Jack's UCLA defense is No. 86 in total defense; Penn State is No. 7. How about big-game performances? Against heavily favored Ohio State, Hull just turned in a 19-tackle game, complete with 2.5 stops in the backfield and an interception.



"I think he should be on every award list," head coach James Franklin said immediately following the loss to the Buckeyes. "I've got a man-crush on that guy."

This happens every season. Good players are always going to be left off these lists, with debate and controversy following closely behind. Hull is just the latest overlooked player.

But the fact is he should've made the cut. And the Butkus committee made a mistake.

Current struggles not a surprise for PSU

October, 3, 2014
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A smiling James Franklin took the podium three weeks ago, right after beating Rutgers, and uttered a line that might as well have served as a future warning.

“Winning minimizes issues, losing magnifies issues,” he said. “The issues are still there.”

A loss to Northwestern last Saturday proved his point. But despite the overreactions of some -- assistant coach Herb Hand is overrated? Christian Hackenberg has regressed? -- it wasn’t the start of Penn State heading in the wrong direction. It was just Penn State driving in circles and retracing its steps.

Just look at two of the closer games. Opener vs. UCF: OL gives up seven tackles-for-loss, PSU averages 2 yards a rush, Hackenberg accounts for 89 percent of the offense, defense plays solid -- and Hackenberg drives PSU to a game-winning score. Win vs. Rutgers: OL allows eight tackles-for-loss, PSU averages 1.9 yards a rush, Hackenberg accounts for 88 percent of the offense, defense plays solid -- and Hackenberg drives PSU to a game-winning score.

Know what was different in the Northwestern game? No game-winning drive. Really, that’s about it. Instead of Hackenberg throwing the offense on his back, he tossed a touchdown to the wrong team in the final quarter. Before that play, prior to linebacker Anthony Walker’s interception, the score stood at 14-6. All the other numbers, compared to UCF and RU, remained the same.

“Really, the problems that surfaced are the problems we’ve been having all year,” Franklin said earlier this week. “It’s not like a whole lot of things popped up on Saturday that are different than the story we’ve been writing all year long.”

He’s right, and it’s pretty easy to see the big issue here -- what everyone’s been writing about since the spring -- and that’s the offensive line. Penn State’s tome of preseason concerns sat as heavy as the players up front. Left tackle Donovan Smith was the only returning starter, and two players listed as backup defensive tackles in February became starting offensive guards by September. One even received national media attention -- by inadvertently blocking his teammate.

Franklin and Hand both tried to take the blame for Penn State’s struggles in the past few days. But that’s what good coaches do; neither is entirely at fault. Blame Bill O’Brien, who for some reason had left Franklin just two scholarship offensive tackles, or blame the NCAA, whose sanctions thinned the numbers. Heck, blame the players.

But Hand and Franklin aren’t miracle workers. The truth is the bye week won’t fix this offensive line. The 2015 offseason might not even repair these issues. Not when the unit features just two healthy upperclassmen, four sophomores (only one of whom saw action on the line last year as a scholarship player) and 12 freshmen. Especially when nearly half are walk-ons.

The Northwestern loss isn’t an anomaly. But, if something doesn’t change, the wins against UCF and Rutgers might prove to be.
 

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Previewing the 2014 season for the Penn State Nittany Lions.

2013 overall record: 7-5 (4-4 Big Ten)

Key returnees: Christian Hackenberg, QB; Bill Belton, RB; Zach Zwinak, RB; Donovan Smith, OT; Jesse James, TE; Deion Barnes, DE; C.J. Olaniyan, DE; Mike Hull, LB; Adrian Amos, S; Jordan Lucas, CB

Key losses: Allen Robinson, WR; John Urschel, G; Ty Howle, C; Adam Gress, OT; DaQuan Jones, DT; Glenn Carson, LB; Malcolm Willis, S

Instant impact newcomer: The easy pick is at wide receiver, where Penn State needs help following the departure of Allen Robinson. The team signed several talented receivers in February, and Chris Godwin could be the best of the bunch. The 6-foot-2, 210-pound Godwin has the physical tools to contribute right away for PSU's offense. Also keep an eye on receivers De'Andre Thompkins and Saeed Blacknall.

Projected starters

[+] EnlargeChristian Hackenberg
AP Photo/Gene J PuskarQB Christian Hackenberg became the first sophomore ever to be named a captain at Penn State.
Offense: QB: Christian Hackenberg, Soph., 6-4, 234; RB: Bill Belton, Sr., 5-10, 204; WR: Geno Lewis, Soph., 6-1, 199; WR: DaeSean Hamilton, Fr., 6-1, 203; TE: Jesse James, Jr., 6-7, 254; TE: Kyle Carter, Jr., 6-3, 241; OT: Donovan Smith, Sr., 6-5, 335; OT: Andrew Nelson, Fr., 6-5, 305; G: Derek Dowrey, Soph., 6-3, 323; G: Brian Gaia, Soph., 6-3, 291; C: Angelo Mangiro, Jr., 6-3, 309

Defense: DE: Deion Barnes, Jr., 6-4, 255; DE: C.J. Olaniyan, Sr., 6-3, 252; DT: Austin Johnson, Soph., 6-4, 313; DT: Anthony Zettel, Jr., 6-4, 274; LB: Brandon Bell, Soph., 6-1, 222; LB: Mike Hull, Sr., 6-0, 232; LB: Nyeem Wartman, Soph., 6-1, 236; CB: Jordan Lucas, Jr., 6-0, 198; CB: Trevor Williams, Jr., 6-1, 188; S: Adrian Amos, Sr., 6-0, 209; S: Ryan Keiser, Sr., 6-1, 208

Specialists: K: Sam Ficken, Sr., 6-2, 186; P: Chris Gulla, Fr., 6-0, 193

Biggest question mark: Can assistant coach Herb Hand work his magic with the offensive line? The Lions likely will start two converted defensive linemen, Brian Gaia and Derek Dowrey, at the guard spots and a redshirt freshman (Andrew Nelson) at right tackle. Left tackle Donovan Smith will anchor the group and should contend for All-Big Ten honors, but Penn State is dangerously thin up front and can't afford to put Hackenberg in harm's way.

Most important game: Aug. 30 against UCF in Dublin (not the one in Ohio). There has been a lot of positive energy since James Franklin arrived in January, but the team remains somewhat of a mystery. Penn State could be a pleasant surprise or regress after the latest transition. It's important to start off well and build confidence in a setting where it matters. UCF isn't an easy draw as the Knights come off a Fiesta Bowl championship and bring back nine starters on defense. They were picked second in the American in the preseason media poll. This game really sets the tone for PSU.

Upset special: Nov. 29 against Michigan State. Unless the NCAA changes course on Penn State's ban, this will serve as the Lions' bowl game as they wrap up the season. Penn State has recorded very impressive wins against Wisconsin to finish each of the past two seasons, and Michigan State can expect the Lions' best shot at Beaver Stadium. A lot depends on PSU's health entering the game, but the Lions have a chance here.

Key stat: Penn State's Christian Hackenberg and Florida State's Jameis Winston, the Heisman Trophy winner, were the only FBS freshman to record 14 passes of 40 yards or longer in 2013.

What they're wearing: A smiling Franklin said last month on ESPN, "I've always been a big fan of what Oregon has done, and my time at Maryland, so I think we're going to do something similar to that. We're not going to do anything gradual. We're just going to go right after it." A complete makeover seems unlikely at Penn State, which cherishes its traditional blue-and-white look but put players' names on jerseys in each of the past two seasons.

Stay tuned.

Team's top Twitter follows: No Big Ten coaching staff embraces social media quite like Franklin (@coachjfranklin) and his assistants. Be sure to follow offensive line coach Herb Hand (@CoachHand), running backs coach/special teams coordinator Charles Huff (@CoachHuff), defensive line coach Sean Spencer (@SpenceChaos) and others. Quarterback Christian Hackenberg tweets (@chackenberg1), and other good follows include cornerback Jordan Lucas (@_JLucas9), offensive lineman Miles Dieffenbach (@Curiousjorge65), defensive end Deion Barnes (@DBarnes_18) and running back Akeel Lynch (@ALynch_22). The official team handle (@PennStateFball) tweets some good stuff, and the recruiting staff has an account (@PSURecruits).

They said it: " Right now we have some challenges and issues that we need to overcome. So guys are going to have an opportunity to come in and impact the roster quickly." -- coach James Franklin

Stats & Info projections: 6.85 wins

Wise guys over/under: 7.5 wins

Big Ten blog projection: Eight wins. There are so many unknowns here, such as the team's health/depth and whether the postseason ban will be lifted. A few injuries to the wrong players, and Penn State could be staring at a losing season. But I like the starting 22 and think the defense will be improved under Bob Shoop's direction. The Lions don't play the top teams in the West division, and they get both Michigan State and Ohio State at home.
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Penn State left tackle Donovan Smith already knows what this article is going to say.

Clips and columns about Penn State’s offensive line have revolved around a central theme the last five months: This unit likely isn’t going to be any good. Smith can’t escape all that chatter. With every compliment thrown Christian Hackenberg ’s way, there’s another question mark tossed at the offensive line.

Hackenberg can be great … but will he have enough time to pass? Penn State returns two experienced tailbacks … but does that matter if this line can’t generate any push? A lot of the criticism seems deserved, or at least understandable. Only Smith returns as a starter on the line, and two converted defensive tackles might very well start at guard in time for the opener. That’s not exactly cause for a confidence boost.

[+] EnlargeDonovan Smith
AP Photo/Gene J. PuskarDonovan Smith is the only returning starter on the Penn State offensive line, and he's motivated by that.
“A lot of people hear it, but we use it as motivation,” Smith said, adding some of his teammates keep the negative articles taped to their lockers or saved to their phones. “They read them daily or at night, or stuff like that. We’re just going to use it as motivation and push on from there.”

That doesn’t mean players here are scouring ESPN or the local news sites for bulletin-board material. Far from it. But they don’t have to go very far to hear those doubts. It’s on Facebook and Twitter; it’s talked about on campus and in classrooms. It’s been an unwanted storyline that’s hovered since news broke in March that Miles Dieffenbach, the Nittany Lions’ most experienced lineman, suffered what could be a season-ending injury.

Depth is obviously an ongoing issue during these years under scholarship limits because of NCAA sanctions. It's created a huge concern on an offensive line that returns just three scholarship athletes with OL game experience. And no unit is reminded of it more often.

“It’s hard to ignore,” said redshirt junior Angelo Mangiro, who played in every game last season but never started. “It’s sticking in. I don’t go digging my nose in it and looking for it. But it’s hard to avoid, so you definitely remember it.

“It’s sticking with me, and it’s sticking with the rest of the guys. So we have something to come out and prove.”

Offensive line coach Herb Hand stood near his thinned-out unit last week and wore a permanent smile. He didn’t look like a man whose line features just two healthy upperclassmen, four sophomores and 13 freshmen (including redshirts and walk-ons). He insisted he felt no pressure and quoted NFL coaching great Chuck Noll: “Pressure is something you feel when you don’t know what you’re doing.”

Hand, who was a candidate to become Vanderbilt’s head coach, does know – and has been a beacon of positivity for these Lions. Often in the spring, he pulled aside the converted defensive tackles -- Derek Dowrey and Brian Gaia – and offered encouragement and advice on pass protection. Gaia still remembers those first few days, of confusion and sometimes blocking no one during an inevitable sack play. But Gaia caught on in about a week and a half; he was then holding his own against pass-rush specialist Anthony Zettel. Gaia won an award in the spring as the offense’s most improved player.

Players have thrown a lot of praise Hand’s way. But, then again, if there’s one answer to all these question marks, it might come from Hand, since he faced an identical situation in the past. Back in 2007, before his hair shifted to gray, during his first year at Tulsa, Hand’s offensive line had just one regular returning starter. He even moved a defensive tackle over to offense. The result?

“We led the nation in offense that year, in 2007,” he said. “It’s a whole different animal in the Big Ten, obviously, but this is not something new. I’ve done it before. There’s a lot of growth that needs to take place and a lot of learning. But if you have guys that will work hard, that have great attitudes and bring a tremendous work ethic … you can accomplish great things.”

The situation at offensive line was never quite this dire before at Penn State, but there is still some precedent at the school as well. The 2006 squad also returned just one starter, left tackle Levi Brown, but still fared OK and helped the team finish 9-4 with an Outback Bowl victory. Four of the linemen on that team – Brown, Gerald Cadogan, Rich Ohrnberger and A.Q. Shipley – went on to earn All-B1G honors during their careers, and three were drafted into the NFL.

But this is a different line, and the future of this unit remains unknown. There are question marks – big question marks -- and, precedents or not, there will undoubtedly be more columns and stories wondering aloud just how this unit will fare. But Smith, Mangiro and the rest of the current linemen already know what the clips are going to say. And they’re hoping to prove them all wrong starting Aug. 30.

“It is what it is,” Smith said. “They talk about you good, bad – and we’re up for the challenge.”

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

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

The biggest reason for the push is obvious: recruiting.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



He then followed up with this:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"I know they're going to have some people out there watching us, especially on social media," linebacker Mike Hull said. "So I try to refrain from saying anything too bad."
We've already covered the conference's potential villains, so it's only natural that we move on to the good guys.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Penn State assistant Herb Hand has beaten himself up over past decisions, but none was probably as public as Tuesday night’s second-guessing: Why, oh why, didn’t the father of three toss his rice noodles with that Thai peanut sauce?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

If you live in State College and haven't shaken James Franklin's hand, high-fived the Penn State coach or snapped a picture with the new leading Lion, you're probably a recluse.

Since his Jan. 11 introduction, Franklin has been a man about town, at least when he's not feverishly recruiting or attending the State of the Union address as a congressman's guest. From speaking to crowds at THON and other Penn State athletic events, to wearing a wig so he could get his (already bald) head shaved at a fundraiser, Franklin is everywhere.

But there's a group of Penn Staters with whom he has yet to connect, at least not nearly as much as he'd like to.

"We've had very little time to interact with the players," Franklin told ESPN.com. "The 20-hour rule and all those things are good rules, but when you're a new staff, it makes it challenging. We've got to build relationships, we've got to build trust, and we've got to get our system installed. That's why we've been successful in the past.

[+] EnlargeJames Franklin
AP Photo/Eric Christian SmithJames Franklin says offensively his system will be similar to that of former coach Bill O'Brien.
"That's what our focus is right now. We've been running since Day 1."

There will be running when Penn State opens spring practice Monday. Blocking and tackling, too. There will be installation in all three phases and position competitions -- all the standard signs of spring ball.

But the most important work will take place away from the field and might have nothing to do with football.

"It starts in the locker room and selling your vision, selling the culture you want to create," offensive line coach Herb Hand said. "You don't know the kids and they don't know you. That's the first challenge coming in, the development of relationships. You're doing that after you've been on the road recruiting for two or three weeks. And then you're in the middle of winter workouts and you're barking and screaming and getting after them and you hardly know them.

"Relationships take time."

The process is under way at Penn State after an intense winter program.

"I haven't had a coaching staff push us this hard as far as conditioning goes, and also as far as competition," senior linebacker Mike Hull said. "You can tell Coach Franklin's real passionate about what he does, and he fires us up.

"[The coaches] talk about building relationships, and that's exactly what they've done."

After the recruiting whirlwind concluded, Hand took the offensive linemen to dinner, wisely selecting a Chinese buffet ("When you walk in with 13 or 14 300-pound people, that'll garner some attention"). Defensive coordinator Bob Shoop, meanwhile, gleaned insight into his new team by spending last weekend reading John Bacon's book, "Fourth and Long: The Fight for the Soul of College Football," which chronicled Penn State's transition and tumult in 2012.

"These guys have been through a lot," Shoop said. "They've have had four [defensive] coordinators in four years. They've seen the good and bad of the profession. I'm just amazed with their approach and their maturity."

The second challenge for Franklin and his staff isn't a new one during the sanctions era. Scholarship reductions had a larger impact on the Lions' depth in Year 2 than Year 1, and as Franklin recently noted, "The longer you're in it, the more effect it has."

There are some potential trouble spots such as the offensive line, which enters the spring with only three scholarship tackles (Donovan Smith, Andrew Nelson and mid-year enrollee Chasz Wright). Franklin admits PSU has "major depth issues" up front.

Hand's response? Bring it.

"I could sit there and say this is going to be an obstacle for us and we'e going to struggle," he said. "You know what's going to happen? We're probably going to struggle because of our depth. But you go back to Core Value No. 1: have a positive attitude. Let's dwell on the opportunity."

When Shoop watched tape of PSU's defense last year, he saw the same linemen remaining on the field and few personnel combinations. Shoop's Vanderbilt defense used 20-22 players, while Penn State rarely played more than 15.

The hope is this year's defense will have more bodies, although Penn State is thin at tackle and cornerback. Shoop likes the foundation at defensive end with C.J. Olaniyan and Deion Barnes, and at safety, the position he directly coaches, as Adrian Amos returns alongside Ryan Keiser.

Linebacker depth surfaced in 2013, but Shoop is willing to get creative. One possibility: a 4-2-5 alignment with a hybrid safety/linebacker.

Amos, who has played both cornerback and safety but will start off at strong safety, provides a building block.

"So big, so strong, so fast," Shoop said. "He can contend for first-team All-Big Ten and be a guy who receivers national recognition if he pushes himself to the next level."

PSU returns an excellent centerpiece on offense in quarterback Christian Hackenberg, who will operate a system that, according to Franklin, won't differ dramatically from Bill O'Brien's. Franklin lived on the same street as O'Brien when the two worked at Maryland and is philosophically aligned with his predecessor.

Shoop will pressure more than the Lions did in the past, but the structure of the defense shouldn't change much, either.

"Very, very similar concepts," Franklin said. "The terminology is just a little bit different."

According to Shoop, the players are taking a businesslike approach to their latest transition. Hull came to a program that had been the model for stability in college football. It has been anything but in his time there.

"The first time was real hard," Hull said. "We didn't really know what to expect at all. This time, it’s been a lot easier. Whenever a new staff comes in, they want to get in all their policies and values. Some people it frustrates, but it's good to have myself, Miles Dieffenbach, some of the older guys tell them it will get better, it just takes time."

Penn State must maximize its time this spring. Installation, development and evaluation are the staff's top three goals, according to Hand.

But there's an even bigger objective.

"How do you prove trust?" Hand said. "Studying them, finding out where's their hometown, what's their family situation like, what's their major.

"Once you win the locker room, everything else will take care of itself."
The loss of James Franklin is really going to sting for Vanderbilt. There's just no way to get around it, but all should not be lost for those that make up a more-energized Commodores fan base.

While it will be very hard for Vanderbilt athletic director David Williams to replace the charisma, fire and work ethic that Franklin displayed every day he was on the job, the program is light-years ahead of where it was before Franklin's arrival in 2010, which should help make this a more attractive job for top-notch coaching candidates.

[+] EnlargeJames Franklin
Zumapress/Icon SMICoach James Franklin, who is now Penn State's new coach, has left a solid foundation at Vanderbilt.
Vanderbilt was the perennial cellar-dweller of the SEC before Franklin came along. Now, there's swagger after three consecutive bowl berths (two straight wins) and back-to-back nine-win seasons (all firsts for the Commodores). The facilities have vastly upgraded and they'll only continue to get better because of what Franklin did -- and demanded. A new coach might not have the attitude and salesmanship of Franklin, but he'll have a good base to work with in Nashville, Tenn.

When Vanderbilt hired Franklin more than three years ago, the program had won just four games total in the previous two seasons and had always been traditionally looked down upon. Making a bowl would have been a major accomplishment for Franklin and the program, but he went far beyond that. Because of his triumphs with the Commodores, it will be much easier for this program to attract a decent name from the coaching ranks.

The Commodores could certainly look in-house, at defensive coordinator Bob Shoop or offensive-line coach Herb Hand, but if Williams decides to search elsewhere, he shouldn't have much of a problem luring solid candidates. Expect well-known up-and-coming coordinators to hear their names attached to this opening. Vandy might never be a true SEC championship contender, but it's now a job that you can't laugh at. There's moxie and confidence swirling throughout that locker room and program.

There's also a new breed of talent. Studs such as Jordan Matthews, Wesley Johnson, Andre Hal and Kenny Ladler might be gone, but there's a solid group of youngsters still in town. Keep an eye on running backs Jerron Seymour and Brian Kimbrow. Defensive end Caleb Azubike appears to have a bright future ahead of him, as do cornerbacks Paris Head and Jahmel McIntosh.

Getting Vandy to stay competitive means the Commodores' next head coach has to be able to build immediately. Even with a solid foundation, he has to be able to hit the same recruiting spots in the Southeast, especially the Atlanta area, with the same tenacity Franklin showed. He has to be able to keep the same level of confidence in that locker room and he has to invigorate a fan base that took a bit of an emotional hit with the loss of Franklin in order to keep this program relevant.

What Franklin did in Nashville was tremendous. Even after taking Vandy bowling in his first season, there was still plenty of skepticism. But the next year he did it again, this time winning a bowl, and equaled that accomplishment in 2013.

Really, keeping Franklin this long was a major win for Vandy, and now he leaves this program in much better shape than how he found it. He showed that there's a recipe for winning at Vandy -- but it isn't easy, and he's leaving some monster shoes to fill. The expectations are much higher at Vandy and it's going to take a special person to keep this momentum going.

Institutions with strong academic traditions have proven of late that winning is in fact an option. Vandy beat Florida, Georgia and Tennessee in the same season for the first time ever in 2013 and hasn't lost a game in November since 2011. This team had a ton of momentum going into the offseason with Franklin as the coach, but now it's someone else's turn to keep that fire burning. With what Franklin has taught these guys, they'll be able to find it, and you had better believe they'll be motivated to show they can win without him.
1. OK, it’s officially July, the month before things crank up, so I’m allowing the what-ifs in the back of my mind to come to the fore. The biggest -- is this the year that North Carolina becomes a national force? I thought the Tar Heels would do so last season, but they began playing games before they learned how to make a first down. As good as the defense is this season, North Carolina will progress only as far as senior quarterback T.J. Yates can take them.

2. The news that Syracuse will play Penn State in the new Meadowlands stadium in 2013 is a reminder that the Orange have a proud tradition. The Penn State rivalry once meant everything to Syracuse. The 1987 defeat of the Nittany Lions at the Carrier Dome remains one of the most emotional stadium scenes I have ever witnessed. Kudos to Penn State athletic director Tim Curley for honoring that history and not demanding a deal that tilts toward State College.

3. This is the time of year when coaches, a.k.a America’s workaholics, take off a couple of weeks. At random times Wednesday, I saw a tweet from Tulsa offensive coordinator Herb Hand in Hawaii and from Mississippi State head coach Dan Mullen at Fenway Park. I’m guessing that one day this week or next, Alabama coach Nick Saban will take off an entire afternoon. A possible tweet: “Came home. Tried to take a nap. Watched film instead.”
It had been a long time since bowl season had proceeded without a Todd Graham-coached team, but last year, the Tulsa head coach watched six other Conference USA teams play for a bowl championship while he got back to the drawing board.

Tulsa finished 2009 with a 5-7 record, its first losing record since 2004. During the two years that Graham was head coach, the Golden Hurricane posted a 21-7 record, appeared in the Top 25 and had played for two Conference USA championships. In 2009, Tulsa was more or less out of title contention by the beginning of November.

“No one was more surprised than I was that we didn’t go to a bowl game because that was far from what our expectations were,” Graham said. “I think one of the hard things sometimes is when you win 21 games in two years, the expectation is you’ve got to win 12. That was our expectation.”

After starting the season 4-1, Tulsa lost six consecutive games. The Golden Hurricane fell short on an opportunity to tie Boise State in the final minutes. They allow UTEP running back Donald Buckram to score with 29 second left. Houston kicked a 51-yard field goal at time expired. Southern Miss scored three unanswered touchdowns to pull away in the second half.

It’s not that Tulsa wasn’t competitive. It was just a play here or there that swayed the momentum and Tulsa couldn’t bring it back.

“We’re not far off, it’s just that every close game in ’07 and ’08 we won, and every close game last year we lost.” Graham said. “You have to look no further than leadership and coaching. We’re going back to work and that ‘we’ve got something to prove’ mentality.”

When the season ended at the end of November, Graham went right to work on preparing his team for 2010. He posted team goals on his door:

Conference USA champions, bowl champions, 14-0 BCS champions, 100 percent graduation rate.

And then he posted them on every locker and told each player to write the goals on his mirror at home.

There was no time to feel bad about what happened in 2009, there was only time to get better for 2010. The first step in that process was rectifying the offense. Tulsa had been dominant when Gus Malzahn and Herb Hand shared offensive coordinator duties. But when Malzahn left for Auburn prior to the 2009 season, Hand wasn’t able to steer the ship alone. So, Graham hired former Lake Travis (Texas) High coach Chad Morris to help. Morris takes Malzahn’s role and will call the plays. Hand will coordinate the running game and work the offensive line, and Mike Norvell will be in charge of the passing game.

Graham said the hiring of Morris was not a knock on Hand, but a chance to get Hand back to his comfort zone.

“The key is the partnership there,” Graham said. “Your offensive line coach has to be involved in a big way and naturally, Herb is one of the best in the country. It just allows him to go back to doing what he does best.”

Graham said that while there was disappointment about the way 2009 turned out there was never any quit. The players never stopped believing in the system and the coaches never stopped believing they had the makings of a winning team.

As spring football gets underway this week, the goal is getting back to the type of team that had enough fortitude to pull out those close wins and had the leadership to get through tough stretches in the schedule. Graham said he believes that while missing a bowl game was hard, the experience of doing so might make his team better in the long run.

“I think in a way it’s very, very tough to sustain that and you can take winning for granted,” Graham said. “That’s the one thing that we’ve talked about. We need to get back to that blue-collar mentality. That chip on our shoulder, got something to prove-type mentality. That’s the team we need to be.”
Here's a breakdown of three issues facing each program heading into the spring:

Central Florida Knights
Spring practice starts: March 19
Spring game: April 17

What to watch:
  • The Knights will need to develop offensive line talent after allowing 2.54 sacks per game and failing to block for a rushing offense that ranked 82nd in the country. The Knights return all but two offensive linemen and have one coming in the spring.
  • The quarterback battle will heat up with early enrollee Jeffrey Godfrey, who already has impressed coach George O’Leary. Godfrey will compete against Rob Calabrese for the starting role.
  • The Knights will have to find replacements for three key members of the defensive line -- DE Jarvis Geathers, RT Torrell Troup, LT Travis Timmons. The defense was the main reason the Knights finished 8-5 and won their final five games.
East Carolina Pirates
Spring practice starts: March 22
Spring game: April 17

What to watch:
  • With a new coach, a new system, and a crop of new starters, East Carolina will have its work cut out for it this spring. New head coach Ruffin McNeill needs to replace 15 players with starting experience, which won’t be easy with just a month to work.
  • The most underrated positions the Pirates have to fill are punter and kicker. All-American Matt Dodge is gone as is kicker Ben Hartman, who set the school record for career scoring. Finding replacements for those two is a top priority.
  • New offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley will be implement Texas Tech’s offensive system with just two scholarship quarterbacks and a team that relied on its running game. Riley is confident he can install all of his spread offense this fall, but there’s no telling how quickly the Pirates will pick it up.
Houston Cougars
Spring practice starts: March 27
Spring game: April 24

What to watch:
  • The one thing that really kept Houston from an undefeated season was its defense. Brian Stewart, who was named the defensive coordinator in January, inherits a young team with a lot of talent, but he has some work to do to catch the defense up to the offense by September.
  • Quarterback Case Keenum returns for his senior season, but his center, Carl Barnett, does not. Barnett started 39 games, so Keenum will have to establish a good rapport with his new center this spring. Blake Sargent, who was the backup last year, appears to be the front-runner.
  • Even though the Cougars did not lose many starters on offense, coach Kevin Sumlin will look for more athletic players to rotate into the mix. Last season, 19 players had at least one catch and 12 had double-digit catches.

(Read full post)

Kinne has Tulsa believing

September, 16, 2009
9/16/09
11:00
AM ET

Posted by ESPN.com’s Graham Watson


G.J. Kinne grew up a Texas fan so his dislike for Oklahoma, the Longhorns’ rival, was ingrained in him at a young age.

When he was a redshirt freshman at Texas in 2007, he watched the Sooners defeat his Longhorns 28-21 in one of the more thrilling and agonizing games of the series.

When Kinne transferred to Tulsa at the end of that freshman season, he hoped for a chance to meet the Sooners and do what Texas couldn’t do that afternoon -- win.
Chris Graythen/Getty Images
Tulsa quarterback G.J. Kinne is eager to lead his team to a win over Oklahoma.

“I want to beat them because I’m at Tulsa now and we want to go undefeated,” Kinne said. “I want to play good and just prove to everyone that we’re the real deal.”

Kinne has proven to his coaches and Tulsa fans that he’s the real deal, and on Saturday he’ll get to prove it to the nation when the Golden Hurricane travel to Norman, Okla., to take on the No. 12 Sooners.

It will be the biggest game of Kinne’s young career, which has spanned just two games. Kinne was named the Golden Hurricane starting quarterback during fall camp after beating out Jacob Bower and Shavodrick Beaver. Kinne said he thought he procured the job by earning a leadership role on the team. Before Kinne even took a collegiate snap, his teammates voted him a captain.

Kinne’s drive to lead was developed out of necessity during his sophomore season of high school. In the spring of 2005, Kinne’s father, Gary Joe, was the football coach at Canton High School in Texas, and Kinne the quarterback. Jeff Robertson, a disgruntled parent of a football player, who though Gary Joe was giving preference to Kinne, came into Gary Joe’s office, said nothing and shot him in the stomach. Gary Joe called for help and survived the incident.

But while Kinne’s father recovered over the summer, football went on and someone had to lead the team.

“I was a boy my freshman year and sophomore year in high school,” Kinne said. “I was just out there having fun and it really changed. I was still having fun, but I definitely grew up. I was by myself pretty much that whole summer. I was pretty much the coach. We had different coaches around, but I led all the summer conditioning and summer throwing and all that stuff. I was definitely a coach out there my junior and senior year.”

Kinne transferred from Canton to Gilmer (Texas) High School his senior season and instantly became a leader and a captain. He earned respect as a redshirt during his one year at Texas, and running the scout team at Tulsa while sitting out because of NCAA transfer rules last season, Kinne said his only goal was to impress the coaches and his teammates.

“I just think I have that knack of developing friendships and earning that respect,” Kinne said.

When Kinne started the season opener against Tulane, he said he knew all eyes were on him. Tulsa coach Todd Graham had kept his starter a secret until the week leading up to the game.

But Kinne assuaged any fears by completing 15-of-20 passes for 211 yards and a touchdown. He also rushed for 77 yards and a score in his debut.

“Week 1 everyone was kind of looking at me wondering, ‘How’s he going to respond? How’s he going to do?’” Kinne said. “I think that they found out that I’m going to work really hard in the film room and on the field. I’m a tough guy. I’m going to get hit and pop back up.”

Kinne’s attitude has Tulsa believing that this could be the year it turns the corner on a national stage. Since Graham took over as head coach in 2007, his teams have racked up 21 wins, but they have not defeated the two automatic qualifying teams they’ve faced. The first loss was a 62-21 shellacking by Oklahoma in 2007, and last year, the Golden Hurricane had a chance to put themselves in the BCS bowl conversation, but faltered against Arkansas.

“The dude’s a winner, I know that,” offensive coordinator Herb Hand said. “He’s been a real steady influence on our offense the past two weeks. He is probably as good a leader as I’ve been around. A tough competitor and done an awesome job of managing the offense and really protecting the football, which is one of the biggest things that we have tried to improve upon this year.

“He’s made great decisions with the ball and really made some big plays for us when things have broken down. We’re real excited about him.”

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