NCF Nation: Jack Crawford
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- New Penn State coach Bill O’Brien reiterates he has not watched and will not watch one frame of film from the team’s 2011 season.
That's not necessarily good news for Nittany Lions defenders Gerald Hodges and Jordan Hill. Both men could splice together some impressive highlight reels from last fall.
Hodges, an outside linebacker, earned first-team All-Big Ten honors from the coaches in his first full season as a starter, leading Penn State with 106 tackles, including 10 for loss and 4.5 sacks, and adding two forced fumbles and an interception. Hill was somewhat overshadowed by fellow Lions defensive tackle Devon Still, the Big Ten’s defensive player of the year, but he had a fine season in his own right, recording 59 tackles, including eight for loss and 3.5 sacks, to go along with a team-high three fumble recoveries and a forced fumble.
Both men could have bolted for the NFL draft, but both decided fairly early on that they'd return to Penn State and play for a coach who didn't care about what they had done in the past.
"I'm pretty sure [the coaches] heard about my style of play," Hodges told ESPN.com. "But I still feel it's my job to prove myself to them that I can play football, let them know as a man that I can play."
Hodges and Hill both are delivering the right messages this spring to the new coaching staff. O'Brien on Friday called Hodges "what you'd picture in a Penn State linebacker" and said Hodges has had one of the better springs on the squad. O'Brien told ESPN.com last week of Hill: "Excellent player, plays extremely hard and is technically sound."
The two seniors anchor a front defensive front seven that undoubtedly will be the team's strength in the first year of the new regime.
Both men have made position switches this spring that allow them to operate in more space. Hill is playing more at the 3-technique after spending most of last season at the nose (Still played the 3-technique). Rather than lining up over the ball, Hill is looking to shoot gaps between guards and tackles. Hill acknowledges the 3-technique is more of a glamor spot for defensive tackles.
At only 6-1, he’s able to keep his pads low and gain leverage against taller offensive linemen. He's also facing more 1-on-1 blocks, which he welcomes.
"You're playing against these big 6-7 guys, and they can’t reach you sometimes,” Hill said. "It's really an advantage at nose guard, too, because you're playing against 6-5, 6-6 centers and guards. They come at you on a double team, and if you're already at their hips, it's much easier."
Hill has played alongside elite defensive tackles throughout his time at Penn State. As a young player, he studied Jared Odrick, the Big Ten’s co-defensive player of the year in 2009 and a first-round pick in the 2010 draft. He spent last season lined up next to Still, a consensus All-American.
Although Hill is a different type of tackle than Odrick and Still, both of whom stand four inches taller, he took away traits from both. Odrick's motor never stopped, while Still’s drive in his final season made him a different player.
"It's definitely in the back of your head because you want to keep the defensive line moving, that tradition," Hill said. "As a defensive line, we're all one. If individual success comes from it, it’s because of the guys right next to me. Even with Dev's great success, he had an extraordinary year, [but] without Jack [Crawford], Eric [Latimore], me, that's not possible.
"It's the whole defensive line's effort."
And like Hill, Hodges is aware of the tradition at his position at Linebacker U. He's not the first Penn State standout linebacker to shift to the strong side.
"Navorro [Bowman], Sean [Lee] and Paul [Posluszny], those guys, their last years they finally got to play strong side," Hodges said. "As guys' careers move to the end here, their last year, their last two years, they get moved to the strong side and are able to play out in space.
"It's something I take personally and something I take pride in."
Both Hodges and Hill have stood out this spring as Penn State absorbs a different defense under coordinator Ted Roof. Pass coverage will be a bigger emphasis for Hodges, who nearly picked off a short pass in a recent practice.
"Even though he had a great season last year, he's still hungry," middle linebacker Glenn Carson said. "He still wants to get better. That's the one thing that's going to make him a great football player."
Carson sees similar qualities in Hill.
"I'm seeing things from him on tape that you're just wowed by," Carson said. "He's an unbelievable athlete and just like Gerald, he's a hard worker. He's really hungry, chasing his dreams."
With Hodges and Hill leading the defense, Penn State can dream big in 2012.
Defensive tackle was the strongest position in the league in 2011, so that makes this a competitive situation. There are some major changes from our preseason order as well. Remember this is about overall production, and depth matters along with star power. The top four on this list are really, really strong.
Here we go:
2. Michigan: We projected the Wolverines would make a significant leap in '11, but the amount of improvement still surprised us. The combination of head coach Brady Hoke and defensive coordinator Greg Mattison, both defensive line coaches at heart, and valuable seniors Mike Martin and Ryan Van Bergen made this the backbone of Michigan's Sugar Bowl run. The Wolverines were especially tough in short-yardage situations because their defensive front was so stout.
3. Penn State: Big Ten defensive player of the year Devon Still wrecked just about everybody's game plan with a huge senior campaign. Jordan Hill had a solid, underrated year next to him inside. Jack Crawford stayed healthy and contributed 6.5 sacks, while Eric Latimore and Sean Stanley combined for another 7.5 quarterback takedowns.
4. Illinois: Defensive end Whitney Mercilus was a consensus first-team All-American who led the nation in sacks and forced fumbles. Nobody saw that coming. He had good company along the line as well, with guys like Akeem Spence inside and Michael Buchanan at the other end spot. The Illini may have faltered down the stretch as a team, but the D-line stayed strong throughout the year.
5. Wisconsin: The Badgers didn't have many household names on the defensive line, and certainly no one stood out like J.J. Watt the year before. But Bret Bielema relied on a solid group of veterans that helped the team finish third in the league in total defense and fifth in sacks. Patrick Butrym, Louis Nzegwu, Brendan Kelly and Ethan Hemer were part of a group that played better than the sum of its parts.
6. Ohio State: The Buckeyes had one of the best defensive players in the league in John Simon, who had 16 tackles for loss and seven sacks in a breakout season. Tackle Johnathan Hankins emerged as a disrupter at 335 pounds. But Ohio State didn't get its usual production elsewhere on the line, got beat up as the season went along and lacked depth, which is one reason why Urban Meyer went out and signed so many pass rushers in his first recruiting class.
7. Nebraska: The biggest disappointment from the preseason, as the Huskers tumbled from their No. 1 ranking last summer. Jared Crick's season-ending injury hurt the production, but he was not putting up huge numbers before he tore his pectoral muscle. Cameron Meredith, Baker Steinkuhler and Eric Martin had some nice moments, but Nebraska wasn't nearly as fierce up front as we thought it might be.
8. Purdue: Kawann Short turned in his best season, with 17 tackles for loss and 6.5 sacks from his interior spot, while Bruce Gaston and Gerald Gooden provided solid support. But the Boilermakers' pass rush off the edge lacked explosiveness until freshman Ryan Russell started to come on late in the season. Everyone except Gooden returns, and with a new position coach Purdue hopes this unit can go from decent to great in 2012.
9. Iowa: Another disappointing crew, as the Hawkeyes proved it's not easy to replace three draft picks off the defensive line and simply reload. Mike Daniels and Broderick Binns were the senior anchors, but Iowa's pass rush was sluggish until late in the season. And there wasn't a whole lot of depth behind them. This group loses three starters and will be extremely young in 2012.
10. Northwestern: We ranked the Wildcats 10th in the preseason as well, but we still expected better things out of this group. Northwestern generated very little pressure on opposing quarterbacks and ranked last in the Big Ten in sacks. Vince Browne, a projected all-conference pick in the summer, had a subpar season with only 3.5 tackles for loss after putting up 15.5 in 2010. It's clear this group needs to get better for Northwestern to take the next step.
11. Minnesota: The Gophers weren't as terrible on the defensive front as they were in 2010, when they finished last in the nation with only nine sacks. In fact, they more than doubled that total with 19 last season. Still, it was a mostly anonymous crew that gave quarterbacks too much time to carve up the secondary in the passing game. Jerry Kill still needs to find more playmakers at this position.
12. Indiana: The Hoosiers had problems all over the defense, and the line was no exception. Adam Replogle and Larry Black gave the unit some veteran leadership in the middle, but Indiana resorted to playing a lot of kids at the defensive end spots. The results were about what you'd expect.
But once the Outback Bowl arrived, Still decided that was his time to take over. While the Nittany Lions lost to Florida on New Year's Day, Still looked like a new man. He had a career-high 3.5 tackles for loss in that game and hasn't really slowed down since.
"I feel like a light clicked for me," he told ESPN.com this week. "I looked over my season and felt like I had been real inconsistent. I wanted to focus on being dominant every game. I focused on that going into the bowl game so I could hit the ground running this season."
"He's a big, imposing guy," said Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz, whose team managed only one field goal against the Nittany Lions in a 13-3 loss. "Every time you see Penn State on cutups, he's typically showing up. He's got great size, he's very active and he's a tough guy to handle one-on-one."
Still has always had impressive physical gifts. But he had trouble staying healthy early in his career. He tore his ACL in what would have been his true freshman season, then broke his ankle in fall camp the following year. He returned that year for the regular-season finale. Still says he didn't get used to playing full-time until last season.
What really has changed for him, though, is his drive. Still and his girlfriend had a daughter, Leah, 18 months ago. That increased responsibility in his personal life carried over onto the football field.
"I know I have to do things so my daughter will look up to me, and I have to set the same example for my teammates," he said. "It's just knowing that I'm trying to be successful not only for myself but in order to support my family. When I go out there on the field, I just think of her and I try to play as hard as I can."
Defensive coordinator Tom Bradley noticed a difference in Still's approach after Leah was born.
"He knows there's a responsibility on his shoulders not only on the field but off it," Bradley said. "He's done a great job of managing both. He comes to practice every day with a purpose."
Every opposing offensive coach notices Still, too. He's the first player they have to account for if they want any chance of scoring on Penn State, which is allowing just 11.8 points per game this season. Predictably, Still has seen near constant double-teams in recent weeks.
"At the beginning of the season, I don't think teams paid so much attention to me and I was able to make big plays," he said. "Now, a lot of teams are scheming against me. I'm seeing a lot of trap blocks, because they're trying to get me up the field and out of the play."
That's keeping Still away from the quarterback more, and he knows he can't just try to bust through the line of scrimmage recklessly. But as he's occupying two blockers, he's freeing up teammates such as Jordan Hill and Jack Crawford to make plays. And that's just fine with him.
"As long as we keep playing the style of defense we've been playing, I'm happy," he said.
Still will have a different challenge this week at Northwestern. The Wildcats have two mobile quarterbacks in Dan Persa and Kain Colter who can elude pressure. They also play an up-tempo style that often prevents defenses from subbing on the defensive line. Those 300-pounders can tire out against a no-huddle. Still saw that earlier this year against Indiana and says he and Hill are doing extra conditioning work this week to get ready for the test.
The real burden, however, falls on Northwestern to find a way to deal with Still.
"He's probably impacted 40 or 50 plays where his ability to get up the field has caused just complete and total chaos in the backfield," Wildcats coach Pat Fitzgerald said. "We hope we can find a way to get him blocked. Nobody has blocked him yet, watching him on tape. And that's the hallmark of a great player."
In the Outback Bowl on New Year's Day, the Penn State defensive tackle had the most productive game of his career. He harassed Florida offensive linemen all day and finished with 3.5 tackles for loss, most by a Nittany Lions player all season.
"That game definitely boosted my confidence," Still said. "It let me know I could go out there and be the dominant player I want to be. I just want to carry over the play I had against Florida into this season."
Injuries and inconsistent play have hurt the defensive front. But Still thinks things are on the rise. He likes what he sees out of junior Jordan Hill, who is penciled in as the other starting tackle, and sophomore DaQuan Jones. If Jack Crawford and Eric Latimore can return from their injuries, they will add experience to the defensive end spots.
"I had to fight a lot of double teams last year," Still said. "I'm sure in the beginning of the season I'll see the same amount of double teams. But when teams see what type of player Jordan is or DaQuan is or Jack is, they're going to have to focus on all of them and not just one person."
Still has slimmed down a bit this offseason, dropping about five pounds from his listed weight of 305 last year. He's hoping to start this season around 298 or less because he feels he can do more when he's lighter on his feet. That could be bad news for opponents.
"I'm learning how to play full speed and not take off any plays," he said. "I want to be one of the best defensive linemen to ever come out of Penn State."
But team success means more to Still. After all, despite his great game in the Outback Bowl, Penn State did lose to Florida. He and the defense want to keep those results from repeating.
"We want to be a team that competes for a national championship," he said. "We had a fantastic spring. We just need to push forward through training camp and hope we come out of it a dominant defense."
Defensive end has been the league's strongest position the past few seasons, but there are few proven players entering 2010. The Big Ten had four defensive ends -- J.J. Watt, Ryan Kerrigan, Adrian Clayborn and Cameron Heyward -- selected in the first round of April's NFL draft.
This list could look very different by mid October, but here are the top 10 entering '11.
2. Vince Browne, Northwestern, senior: No Big Ten defensive end boasts more impressive numbers than Browne, who has 16 sacks and 31 tackles for loss in his career. He has seen increases in both categories in each of the past two seasons, recording seven sacks and 15.5 tackles for loss in 2010. Northwestern needs another big year from the second-team All-Big Ten selection.
3. Cameron Meredith, Nebraska, junior: Meredith earned second-team All-Big 12 honors from the coaches in 2010 after a solid performance in his first season as a starter. He recorded 64 tackles, including eight tackles for loss and 1.5 sacks, and also had 10 quarterback hurries. Expect the junior to build on those numbers this fall.
4. Nathan Williams, Ohio State, senior: The Buckeyes return only four starters on defense, so they'll need a big senior season from Williams. He led Ohio State with 4.5 sacks in 2010 and complements the bigger Simon as a pure speed rusher on the edge. Williams is the most experienced member of Ohio State's line and must help lead the way.
5. Louis Nzegwu, Wisconsin, senior: After playing alongside All-Big Ten ends Watt and O'Brien Schofield the past two seasons, Nzegwu's time has arrived. Wisconsin will look for big things from the senior, who started every game in 2010 and played a lot as a reserve in 2009. Nzegwu recorded 46 tackles, 7.5 tackles for loss, 3 sacks and a forced fumble last season. He's solid against the run but must be a bigger factor in the pass rush.
6. Broderick Binns, Iowa, senior: Binns had a disappointing 2010 season, but unlike several players on this list, he has shown he can be a difference maker in Big Ten games. As a sophomore in 2009 he recorded 10 tackles for loss, six sacks, a forced fumble, a fumble recovery and a team-high nine pass breakups. If Binns returns to form in 2011, he'll contend for All-Big Ten honors.
7. Darius Johnson, Indiana, senior: If the Hoosiers plan to turn things around on defense this fall, they'll need a big season from Johnson. He showed last season that when healthy, he can cause a lot of problems in opposing backfields. Johnson recorded 65 tackles, 7.5 tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks, three quarterback hurries and a forced fumble. He could be a very productive player for IU this fall.
8. Craig Roh, Michigan, junior: Roh and fellow end Ryan Van Bergen are among the Wolverines defenders who should benefit from the new/old 4-3 scheme. He's already bulking up for a defense that values size, hoping to reach 270 pounds by the season. Roh has shown flashes of promise and recorded 43 tackles, 5.5 tackles for loss and two forced fumbles last season.
9. William Gholston, Michigan State, sophomore: Here's a projection pick, but I see Gholston having a huge sophomore season. After trying his hand at linebacker in 2010, he settles into a more natural position at end. At 6-foot-7 and 265 pounds, Gholston could be a force for a Spartans line that must generate more pressure from the edges this season.
10. Gerald Gooden, Purdue, senior: The Boilers are thin at defensive end and need big things from Gooden, who can be effective when he avoids the injury bug. Gooden has started games in each of the past three seasons, recording eight tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks in 2009 and forcing two fumbles in 2010. Health and consistency are the big questions for Gooden, but experience is not.
Just missed the cut: Michigan's Van Bergen, Michigan State's Tyler Hoover, Illinois' Michael Buchanan, Wisconsin's David Gilbert, Penn State's Jack Crawford.
The Big Ten had five defensive linemen, all from different teams, selected in the first round of April's NFL draft: Wisconsin's J.J. Watt, Illinois' Corey Liuget, Purdue's Ryan Kerrigan, Iowa's Adrian Clayborn and Ohio State's Cameron Heyward. Iowa lost three starting D-linemen to the draft, and almost every Big Ten squad has to replace major contributors.
The personnel losses make the preseason D-line rankings both tricky and fun. The first three groups look very good, while there's not much difference in the middle of the league.
Let's take a look:
2. Ohio State: Heyward's leadership and versatility will be missed, but Ohio State always finds ways to fill the gaps up front. Junior John Simon should be primed for a breakout season. Like Heyward, Simon can play both line spots but might see more time on the edge this fall. Nathan Williams adds experience at end, and promising sophomore Johnathan Hankins could wreak havoc on the interior this fall.
3. Michigan State: Like several Big Ten teams, the Spartans build their line around a potential superstar tackle in Jerel Worthy. The junior already is projected as a potential first-round pick in the 2012 draft after recording four sacks last fall. Anthony Rashad White emerged this spring as a nice complement to Worthy. Michigan State needs a better pass rush from the end spots, and hopes are high for William Gholston and Tyler Hoover.
4. Wisconsin: Watt is a huge loss because he contributed in so many ways, but Wisconsin could account for his production with greater depth. Ends Louis Nzegwu and David Gilbert both have played a lot of football, and junior Brendan Kelly came on strong toward the end of spring practice. Senior tackle Patrick Butrym has emerged as one of the leaders on defense. Wisconsin needs young tackles like Jordan Kohout and Beau Allen to help Butrym.
5. Michigan: This is a projection pick, but I think Michigan's defensive front takes a significant step forward this season. Senior tackle Mike Martin is a bona fide NFL prospect and will lead the way, and players like Ryan Van Bergen and Craig Roh should be among the primary beneficiaries of the new defense under coordinator Greg Mattison. Michigan needs to build depth with Jibreel Black, Will Campbell and others, but there's great potential here.
6. Iowa: The Hawkeyes face a tough task in replacing multiyear starters in Clayborn, Christian Ballard and Karl Klug. Senior tackle Mike Daniels is ready to lead the group after recording 11 tackles for loss and four sacks in 2010. The biggest key is getting Broderick Binns back to his 2009 form. Iowa also needs to build depth with Lebron Daniel and others, and avoid major injuries.
7. Purdue: Defensive tackle is a major strength for Purdue as Kawann Short and Bruce Gaston Jr. form one of the league's top tandems. Short quietly turned in an extremely productive season last fall (12.5 TFLs, 6 sacks). The big unknown is how Purdue replaces Kerrigan. The Boilers need veteran Gerald Gooden to stay healthy and others to emerge alongside him.
8. Penn State: Much like Purdue, Penn State looks strong at tackle and has question marks at end. Devon Still could contend for All-Big Ten honors after a terrific performance in the Outback Bowl against Florida. Still and Jordan Hill should lock up the middle, but Penn State needs Jack Crawford and Eric Latimore to get healthy at the end spots. If not, the Lions will turn to unproven players to spark their pass rush.
9. Illinois: Liuget is a significant loss in the middle and Illinois also must replace veteran end Clay Nurse. The Illini will rely on Akeem Spence to step in for Liuget, and Spence showed some good things this spring. There's talent on the edges with Michael Buchanan, Whitney Mercilus and others, but Illinois needs more consistent production.
10. Northwestern: This group took a step back last fall and got manhandled down the stretch as Northwestern hemorrhaged yards and points. Senior end Vince Browne is a playmaker who put up impressive numbers (15.5 TFLs, 7 sacks) in 2010. He'll need help from tackles Jack DiNardo and Niko Mafuli, and Tyler Scott could provide a lift at the other end spot. The Wildcats need their line to regain the edge it displayed in 2008.
11. Indiana: It wouldn't surprise me to see Indiana's front four rise up these rankings during the season. There are some nice pieces back, namely senior end Darius Johnson, who can be a force when healthy. Junior Adam Replogle has been productive at defensive tackle. There's plenty of competition at the other two spots as Indiana tries to turn a page on defense.
12. Minnesota: The Gophers' pass rush was practically invisible in 2010, as they finished last nationally in sacks (9). The good news is new defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys will turn his linemen loose more often, giving players like Brandon Kirksey chances to make plays. We've heard a lot about Minnesota's talent up front but haven't seen nearly enough production on Saturdays.
With that in mind, today we're taking a look back at the top Big Ten recruits from the 2010 class and seeing where they stand. It's not fair to judge these guys until the end of their college careers, and in several cases these players haven't even gotten on the field yet. But it's never too early to take stock.
We're going to use the ESPNU150 list from 2010 as our guide. The Big Ten had 14 players make that elite list. We'll divide the players into three categories: those who've made the biggest impact so far, those who have played but for whom the jury is still out and those who haven't played yet. (One interesting thing to note: None of the 14 made Adam's 2010 Big Ten All-Freshman team):
Away we go ...
Rob Bolden, QB, Penn State (No. 112 overall, No. 4 position rank)
Corey Brown, WR, Ohio State (No. 137 overall, No. 20 position rank)
"Philly," as he's called, played in all 13 games last season and saw time on the kick and punt return teams as well as at receiver. He caught eight balls for 105 yards and a touchdown, which came in the win over Purdue. He won the outstanding first-year player award from the coaching staff. But he also had trouble with drops this spring. With the Buckeyes' lone returning starter at receiver, DeVier Posey, out for the first five games, Brown will need to become a consistent force.
Khairi Fortt, LB, Penn State (No. 66 overall, No. 2 position rank): Will Fortt be one of the next great players at Linebacker U.? He saw action in nine games last year, including a start against Illinois in which he recorded 11 tackles. Penn State is loaded at linebacker, but Fortt saw a lot of time with the first-team defense this spring and will be hard to keep out of the lineup this fall.
William Gholston, DE, Michigan State (No. 42 overall, No. 3 position rank)
The Big Ten's highest-rated recruit in 2010 served as the Spartans' backup left end and played in 10 games before suffering a season-ending shoulder injury against Minnesota. He collected 13 tackles and a half-sack as a true freshman and had five stops and an assisted tackle for loss against Iowa. The 6-foot-7, 265-pounder should slide into a starting role in 2011.
Jury's still out
C.J. Fiedorowicz, TE, Iowa (No. 82 overall, No. 6 position rank)
Fiedorowicz saw action in all 13 games but did not record a catch as a true freshman as he saw most of his time on special teams. The 6-foot-7 sophomore is expected to back up starter Brad Herman this season but could see time when the Hawkeyes use two tight ends.
Devin Gardner, QB, Michigan (No. 128 overall, No. 5 position rank)
Gardner got to play in three games as a true freshman. He threw for 85 yards and a touchdown against Bowling Green and also ran for a score in that game. Then he hurt his back and missed the rest of the season, and Michigan is hoping to get a medical redshirt year for him. Of course, his opportunities were limited anyway and figure to be the same for the foreseeable future because he's stuck behind another pretty good quarterback. Fella named Denard. You might have heard of him.
Andrew Rodriguez, OG, Nebraska (No. 147 overall, No. 7 position rank)
The 6-foot-6 Rodriguez got his feet wet with five appearances in 2010, becoming the first true freshman to play on the offensive line for Nebraska since 2006. With starting guards Ricky Henry and Keith Williams now departed, there's a good chance Rodriguez fills one of those spots in 2011.
Look out for
Darryl Baldwin, DE, Ohio State (No. 131 overall, No. 13 position rank)
Baldwin took a redshirt year in 2010 and should see some snaps this year, albeit most likely in a backup role.
Miles Dieffenbach, C, Penn State (No. 118 overall, No. 1 position rank)
Dieffenbach redshirted in 2010 as senior Doug Klopacz held down the center spot. Dieffenbach is expected to back up junior Matt Stankiewitch in 2011.
Evan Hailes, DT, Penn State (No. 88 overall, No. 9 position rank)
It may be a while before we know anything about Hailes. He redshirted in 2010, and Joe Paterno said after the spring game that Hailes could miss the entire 2011 season with an undisclosed illness.
James Louis, WR, Ohio State (No. 80 overall, No. 12 position rank)
Louis redshirted in 2010 and was inconsistent this spring, like most of the Buckeyes' young receivers. At least the opportunity for playing time is there.
C.J. Olaniyan, DE, Penn State (No. 148 overall, No. 16 position rank)
Olaniyan redshirted last season and got some first-team reps this spring with starters Jack Crawford and Eric Latimore slowed by injuries. Those two will start when they get healthy, but Olaniyan should see time in the rotation along the defensive front.
Dakota Royer, LB, Penn State (No. 70 overall, No. 7 position rank)
A defensive end in high school, Royer is battling for playing time at the crowded linebacker position with the Nittany Lions. He redshirted in 2010 and will have to fight to get on the field behind an experienced crew this season.
Rod Smith, RB, Ohio State (No. 56 overall, No. 7 position rank)
Smith reported late to preseason camp last year while he worked on some academics and ended up redshirting. Now he's part of a group of tailbacks battling for carries while starter Dan Herron is out for the first five games. The 6-3, 230-pound bruiser impressed during bowl practice last year, had seven carries for 36 yards in the spring game and could become the featured back in Herron's absence. But the running back competition figures to continue into fall camp.
They would strike for stretches: the final 31 minutes against Northwestern, the first half against Ohio State, most of the Michigan game. But every time the Lions appeared to dig in for the long haul, they'd slide back down.
The result was a maddeningly inconsistent season, which fittingly produced a 7-6 final ledger.
"We played Northwestern and Ohio State back-to-back," Penn State quarterbacks coach Jay Paterno said, "and with a minute to go [in the first half] against Northwestern till halftime at Ohio State, we outscored those teams 49-3. The other 59 minutes we got outscored 56-0. That's in a two-week stretch. That shows you, literally, a young team without a lot of leadership, sometimes they react to negative things very poorly and it snowballs. And sometimes, when things start to get hot, you can play with anybody.
Practice has had a different tone this spring at Penn State. Players feel it. Coaches feel it.
They're motivated by how last season turned out. They're motivated by competition at virtually every position. They're motivated by an 84-year-old who still knows how to light a fire under his players.
"Joe really threw down the gauntlet," Jay Paterno said of his father. "He said he didn't feel we were a very tough football team last year. There are some guys who want to prove how tough they are."
Practices have been more than a bit chippy this spring. If Penn State gets through a workout without a scrap or two breaking out, it feels like something's wrong.
"There's a lot of testosterone out there," Lions defensive tackle Devon Still said. "There's been so many fights, I can't tell you when the first one started. I thought it was going to be kind of calm like it usually is during the spring, but for some reason, it's been a real dogfight.
"I don't know what's gotten into everybody."
Still normally stays out of the fray, but last Monday he got into it with center Matt Stankiewitch. The two 300-pounders mixed it up for a few moments before the rest of the defense jumped in.
"Stank didn't have a chance," Still said, smiling.
Penn State defensive coordinator Tom Bradley has seen his share of fights in practice over the years. Sometimes, it's personal and coaches have to step in. Other times, the tussles spark out of competitiveness and the coaches can stay away.
The Lions' staff isn't intervening much this spring.
"It's been healthy," Bradley said. "There's been a couple scuffles, but it hasn't continued, it hasn't gone from one series to the next series to the locker room."
Joe Paterno seems to enjoy what he's seeing.
"He loves that type of stuff," Still said.
Paterno will love it more if Penn State's spring spunk translates into victories this fall.
The Lions have no shortage of question marks -- offensive line, defensive line, tight end, kicker -- but they should improve at arguably the two most important leadership positions, quarterback and linebacker.
Rob Bolden and Matt McGloin, who split the starts at quarterback in 2010, have impressed the staff this spring. Although a starter likely won't be named until fall camp and Bolden remains undecided about his future with the program, Penn State will have greater trust and confidence in the man calling signals this season.
"I definitely see a difference," wide receiver Derek Moye said. "Some of the plays they're making, some of the reads they're making, a lot of things they weren't doing last year are second nature to them now."
Linebacker should be a strength as Penn State returns starters Nate Stupar and Michael Mauti, as well as promising younger players like Gerald Hodges, who has drawn praise from the staff this spring. The depth at linebacker could impact the plan, especially if Penn State's fortunes on the health front don't change.
After being hit hard with injuries in 2010, Penn State lost defensive end Pete Massaro to a torn ACL early in spring ball. Ends Jack Crawford and Eric Latimore also are dealing with lingering injuries.
"We are not married to a scheme or married to people," Bradley said. "If coach Paterno walks in and says, 'I want you to play a 3-4,' we'll play a 3-4 or a 3-5 or whatever we've got to do."
Whatever we've got to do. It has been the mantra for Penn State this spring, starting with the head coach.
Joe Paterno has been critical of himself, saying he "didn't want to push some of the younger kids too far" last season. He has had fewer reservations this spring, and his players have noticed a change.
"I've enjoyed this team, I still enjoy coaching," Paterno said. "I can run around a little bit out there and get involved in drills and different things. If it appears to the kids that I am working harder at it, good, I'm glad to hear that. I don’t know whether I’m working any harder at it.
"I hope that I'm doing a better job."
Penn State reaches a potentially critical juncture this fall.
After a Rose Bowl appearance in 2008, the Lions fell short of expectations the next season and took a step back in 2010. The coming season could determine whether Lions blend with the Big Ten's midsection or get back among the league's elite.
"This isn't a mediocre program; this isn't a 7-6 program," offensive tackle Chima Okoli said. "This is a program built on a lot of pride. We've got to shoot for the top."
As a reminder, I tried to look at positions that have depth issues for the 2011 and/or the 2012 seasons.
Linebacker: Martez Wilson's early departure to the NFL leaves a void at middle linebacker, and Illinois also says goodbye to playmaker Nate Bussey and reserve Aaron Gress. Ian Thomas comes back and Jonathan Brown showed a spark, but Illinois has to rebuild some depth in its defensive midsection.
Wide receiver: Offensive coordinator Paul Petrino wants to run the ball, but quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase showed in the Insight Bowl that he can be an effective passer. A.J. Jenkins returns to serve as Scheelhaase's No. 1 option in 2011, but Illinois needs other pass-catching options to emerge.
Quarterback: The Illini have lost two scholarship quarterbacks (Jacob Charest and Chandler Whitmer) in each of the past two seasons, creating a depth issue behind Scheelhaase. Given Scheelhaase's style of play, Illinois needs other options under center and must address this position with this class.
Secondary: The Hoosiers simply haven't had enough Big Ten-ready defensive backs in recent seasons. This might be a recruiting need for several years as Indiana has to begin building a talent base in the secondary.
Quarterback: Kevin Wilson has done wonders with quarterbacks at his previous coaching spots, but he needs talented players who can flourish in his system. Ben Chappell's departure leaves Indiana with no proven options at quarterback. Although the Hoosiers bring back all of their reserves, they should keep looking for the right answer under center.
Wide receiver: All-Big Ten receiver Dane Sanzenbacher departs, and DeVier Posey is suspended for the first five games of 2011, pending appeal. Ohio State hasn't developed much depth at wideout in recent seasons, and a capable freshman could put himself into the mix.
Quarterback: Ohio State needs someone to take the snaps during Terrelle Pryor's suspension, and it's unknown whether Joe Bauserman or Kenny Guiton will be the answer. The Buckeyes also must address life after Pryor in this recruiting class.
Offensive line: The Lions began addressing this need with last year's class and will continue to do so with the 2011 crop. Getting the offensive line in order is the biggest key to Penn State reclaiming a place among the Big Ten title contenders. Penn State loses standout guard Stefen Wisniewski and will have more departures after the 2011 season, so building depth is paramount.
Defensive line: Penn State lacked a dynamic pass rusher in 2010 and could bolster the end spot, but it can't neglect the defensive tackle position, either. Ollie Ogbu departs and Devon Still will be gone after the 2011 season. Although Jack Crawford returns at end, the depth there could be enhanced through recruiting.
Running back: The Boilers should avoid a depth disaster like the one they endured in 2010, but they can't take any chances, either. Coach Danny Hope and offensive coordinator Gary Nord want to run the ball a lot and they need more options to emerge around Ralph Bolden and Al-Terek McBurse. There are opportunities for freshmen to emerge here.
Tight end: Purdue should be fine at receiver in 2011, but it loses starting tight end Kyle Adams, the team's top pass catcher, as well as backup Jeff Lindsay. Expect the Boilers to address the tight end position in the 2011 class, as it is a big part of the plan on offense.
Secondary: The Badgers lose a multiyear starter at safety in Jay Valai this season, and three more starters (safety Aaron Henry and cornerbacks Antonio Fenelus and Devin Smith) will depart after the 2011 season. It's important to start building depth with this class.
Wide receiver: Wisconsin benefits from Nick Toon returning for his senior year, but the overall depth at receiver isn't great. David Gilreath, Isaac Anderson and Kyle Jefferson all depart and with Toon gone after the 2011 season, the Badgers need to find playmakers to complement Jared Abbrederis.
Pass rusher: J.J. Watt's early departure to the NFL draft creates a potential depth issue at defensive end. Returning starter Louis Nzegwu and David Gilbert both are good options, but the Badgers are young and unproven after those two. Young players like Beau Allen will take on bigger roles in 2011, and the team could use an incoming player or two to emerge.
1. The Big Ten's lead pack is set: Ohio State delivered the impressive performance it needed against Indiana, and Michigan State notched its second consecutive win against an ranked opponent to further help its cause as a Big Ten title contender. Along with Iowa, this is your lead group heading into the meat of the conference season. Wisconsin is still lurking after a strong offensive performance against Minnesota, while both Michigan and Northwestern got exposed Saturday. Right now, there's a clearly defined top tier with the Buckeyes, Spartans and Hawkeyes.
3. Denard Robinson can be contained: No one had stopped No. 16 through the first five games, but Michigan State's defense showed how you can beat Robinson. The Spartans prevented the big run plays and forced Robinson to lead long, sustained drives and make big throws. Robinson showed his inexperience on several misreads and threw three interceptions in Saturday's loss after tossing just one in his first 96 pass attempts. He still had flashes of magic, but they were overshadowed by his miscues.
4. Joe Paterno might not get No. 400 this season: The bye week comes at a good time for Penn State, which looked like an absolute mess against Illinois. Penn State has some major issues on defense after losing five players (three starters) to injuries against Illinois and another (end Jack Crawford) to a foot injury in practice. But the bigger concerns have to be on the offensive side, which can't convert red-zone opportunities into touchdowns and has no identity through the first half of the season. Paterno needs three more wins to reach 400 for his career. The question always used to be when he's reach the magic number. Now the question is if.
5. Purdue is a resilient program under Danny Hope: What impressed me most about Hope's first year as Purdue's coach was the resiliency the program showed in Big Ten play after so many near misses in the first six games of 2009. The Boilers haven't lost it. Purdue might be the nation's unluckiest team as far as major injuries, but the Boilers are plucky, too, as they showed in a 20-17 win at Northwestern. Redshirt freshman quarterback Rob Henry made enough plays in his first career start, and the Boilers' coaching staff had an excellent game plan against an undefeated Northwestern team.
No intelligent fan base should be celebrating, "We're No. 6!" Truth: your team's unit is probably a lot closer to No. 11 than No. 1. If a certain position group is stacked at the top, I'm open to including multiple teams tied for the No. 5 spot.
The criteria: past performance, 2010 potential, game-changing players and overall depth.
Let's get it started with the defensive line.
1. Iowa: The Hawkeyes' front four is not only the best in the Big Ten, but quite possibly the country (Rivals.com thinks so). Everyone knows about beastly defensive end Adrian Clayborn, but Broderick Binns can be just as effective on the other edge. Veterans Karl Klug and Christian Ballard solidify the middle. This group can flat out dominate games, as it showed last season against Penn State and Georgia Tech, and should be even better in 2010. My lone concern: depth.
2. Ohio State: You know a position group will be fine when three key contributors (Thaddeus Gibson, Doug Worthington, Todd Denlinger) depart and there's talk of even better days ahead. Cameron Heyward could be the Big Ten's most disruptive defensive player, as USC and Penn State learned last season, and there's a lot of optimism about young players like John Simon, Melvin Fellows and Garrett Goebel. Dexter Larimore brings experience to the interior line.
3. Penn State: Like Ohio State, Penn State can lose key players like Jared Odrick up front and not miss a beat. We should know better than to doubt veteran line coach Larry Johnson, who recruits and develops players better than just about anyone. Penn State has high hopes for defensive end Jack Crawford, and veteran tackle Ollie Ogbu also returns. Odrick leaves a major void in the middle, but the Lions expect big things from Devon Still if he can stay healthy.
4. Purdue: I'm taking a little leap of faith here, as Purdue has to get a lot better against the run. But the Boilers have a bona fide star in end Ryan Kerrigan, some experience with Gerald Gooden and Kawann Short, and they should benefit from coach Gary Emanuel's return to West Lafayette. Purdue is thin at defensive tackle after Mike Neal's departure to the NFL, but Kerrigan leads what should be a formidable pass rush after finishing third nationally in sacks in 2009.
5. Wisconsin: Here's a case where I feel great about one line position and nervous about another. Emerging star J.J. Watt leads a talented group of defensive ends -- ends, not tackles!-- that also features Louis Nzegwu and David Gilbert. The situation at tackle is a bit shakier because Wisconsin lost both starters from 2009, but Patrick Butrym boasts experience, and hopes are high for Jordan Kohout.
Up next: Linebackers
The Badgers can survive without him.
Not to diminish Clay's size and power, which Wisconsin would miss if he goes down, but the Badgers aren't exactly starved for running backs. Montee Ball showed flashes as a true freshman the past season, and Zach Brown boasts more experience (36 games played) than any other Big Ten backup back.
And whomever carries the ball for Wisconsin will benefit from working behind one of the nation's top offensive lines. Left tackle Gabe Carimi and guard John Moffitt get most of the buzz, but Wisconsin returns all five starters up front, as well as others like Bill Nagy who boast game experience.
The Badgers are one of several Big Ten teams who can survive the loss of a key player or two, as long as it isn't quarterback Scott Tolzien.
The reason why Ohio State has won or shared the past five Big Ten championships: their depth chart. Take the linebacker position, for example. The Buckeyes have two of the Big Ten's best in Ross Homan and Brian Rolle, but they also can turn to a guy like Etienne Sabino, or younger backers Storm Klein, Dorian Bell and Andrew Sweat. Tyler Moeller also should return to the field this fall, although he'll likely see more time at safety.
Indiana's Tandon Doss and Purdue's Keith Smith were the media's picks for the first-team All-Big Ten squad in 2009, and both players are primed for big seasons this fall. While both also would be big losses, their teams have other options. Indiana can turn to Damarlo Belcher and Terrance Turner, or younger players like Duwyce Wilson. Purdue always boasts depth at receiver and has options like Cortez Smith, Antavian Edison and Gary Bush behind Smith. And don't forget about incoming freshman O.J. Ross or Justin Siller, the reinstated former starting quarterback.
Speaking of the offensive skill positions, Michigan State and Iowa boast similar depth. Both teams have potential All-Big Ten players -- Keshawn Martin, Derrell Johnson-Koulianos, Marvin McNutt, Keith Nichol -- but can truly lean on their strength in numbers. Michigan State quarterback Kirk Cousins is a very lucky man, as he'll have four capable wideouts, three capable tight ends and at least two capable running backs at his disposal. Iowa's Ricky Stanzi also has weapons at wideout with Johnson-Koulianos and McNutt, as well as three solid options in the backfield with Jewel Hampton, Adam Robinson and Brandon Wegher.
Michigan has several areas of concern entering 2010, but offensive line shouldn't be one of them. The Wolverines return five linemen who started part or all of the past season, led by veteran guard Stephen Schilling. Michigan has five offensive linemen who have three years of experience under their belts, not to mention promising young prospects like Taylor Lewan and Michael Schofield.
Flipping to the other side of the line, look at Penn State. Sure, the Nittany Lions lose Big Ten co-Defensive Player of the Year Jared Odrick, but there's no reason to doubt defensive line coach Larry Johnson and his personnel. Penn State will have depth up front yet again with guys like Jack Crawford, Ollie Ogbu, Devon Still, Eric Latimore and Kevion Latham.
As expected, the quarterback competition took center stage at Beaver Stadium, and the early returns weren't too promising. Kevin Newsome and Matt McGloin both struggled, while true freshman Paul Jones, seemingly an afterthought in the race before Saturday, had the best performance. Jones twice found classmate Shawney Kersey for 18-yard touchdown passes and finished 5-of-8 passing for 67 yards.
Although the quarterbacks didn't get much help from the offensive line (concerning) or the wide receivers (less concerning), Penn State's offense remains a major question mark entering the summer. To be fair, star running back Evan Royster didn't play Saturday.
"I would rate my performance as we've got a lot of work to do," Newsome said afterward. "We've got a lot of work to do. We've got a lot of work to do. We're just going to keep working."
"A lot of eyes were on us today," McGloin said. "We didn't perform maybe up to par, maybe up to what people expected to see."
Penn State quarterbacks coach Jay Paterno said after the game that it's wrong to eliminate Jones from the race, and then added, "I checked my e-mail afterwards, and people are telling me Paul should be the starter. So it doesn't take long for people to make the decisions."
Paterno and the other coaches have more time to make the ultimate decision, and they'll look for improvement from all three signal callers by the time preseason camp rolls around.
Other nuggets from the Blue-White Game:
- The offensive line's struggles can be attributed in part to the shuffling that went on this spring. It takes time to build chemistry, and Penn State has moved around several linemen, including first-team All-Big Ten selection Stefen Wisniewski. "Obviously, there's that chemistry we need to have,'' right tackle Lou Eliades said. "I think we're only going to get better in time. Chemistry will develop. I think, by September, we'll be ready to go.''
- Nate Stupar sometimes gets overlooked when folks size up Penn State's linebacking corps for 2010, but he had a very nice performance Saturday. Stupar recorded seven tackles (six solo) and an interception.
- Defensive ends Eric Latimore and Kevion Latham both found their way into the offensive backfield, and Latimore recorded two sacks in the game. Penn State's defensive line once again should be the team's strength, as end Jack Crawford and tackle Devon Still should have big seasons.
- While backup running back Stephfon Green (4 carries, 10 rush yards) didn't do much, I liked what I saw from freshman Silas Redd, who recorded a 16-yard run and a 10-yard reception. Redd brings a nice combination of size and shiftiness.
- Penn State brings back several proven veteran receivers, but Kersey and sophomore Justin Brown, who recorded a game-high four receptions for 35 yards, could work their way into the mix. Freshman Brandon Moseby-Felder led the White team with three receptions for 31 yards.
- Wide receiver Brett Brackett, linebacker Bani Gbadyu and offensive tackle Quinn Barham received awards from the coaching staff for their performances this spring.
WHO TO WATCH: Daryll Clark. One way or another, this game will go a long way toward shaping Clark's ultimate legacy at Penn State. He already owns a bunch of team passing records, and a New Year's Day bowl win will cement him as one of the program's finest quarterbacks. If Penn State loses, Clark will be remembered for winning a lot of games, but not many big ones. Last year's Rose Bowl loss to USC wasn't Clark's fault, and he didn't get much help in a Sept. 26 loss to Iowa, but quarterbacks are judged primarily on how they perform against the nation's elite. LSU ranks 29th nationally in pass defense and 17th in passing efficiency defense, so Clark will need to be at the top of his game
WHAT TO WATCH: Penn State's pass rush and LSU's punt returns. Both areas are strengths for these teams and weaknesses for their opponents. The Nittany Lions rank fifth nationally in tackles for loss (8.25 per game) and seventh in sacks (2.92 per game), while LSU is 108th nationally in sacks allowed (2.92 per game). You can bet Penn State defensive coordinator Tom Bradley will turn up the heat with Jack Crawford, Jared Odrick and Navorro Bowman. LSU leads the nation in punt returns (18.6 ypr) behind Trindon Holliday, quite possibly the fastest player in the country. Penn State's special teams have been a weakness all season, and the Lions rank 116th nationally in punt return yards defense (14.7 ypr).
WHY TO WATCH: No non-BCS bowl pairs two higher-ranked teams than the Capital One, generally regarded as the best of the rest. Both head coaches are at their best in the postseason, as Penn State's Joe Paterno owns an NCAA-record 23 bowl victories, and Les Miles is 4-0 in bowls at LSU and has won by an average of 28.5 points. Plus, these two storied programs play for just the second time after meeting in the 1974 Orange B0wl (a 16-9 Penn State win to cap a perfect season). Both teams are highly ranked, but neither has a true signature win. One will walk out of Citrus Bowl Stadium feeling pretty good about itself.
PREDICTION: Penn State's experience and defensive pressure will be the difference in this one. LSU boasts a ton of young talent, and a Tigers win will only strengthen the SEC's case against the Big Ten. The Tigers' defense holds Penn State in check for a half, but Clark and running back Evan Royster get it going in the third quarter. LSU doesn't protect Jordan Jefferson well, and Penn State's defenders will get home enough. The Lions win, 21-17.
Daryll Clark and Sean Lee believe Penn State is a good football team, and they should know best.
Unlike you and I, Clark and Lee have seen Penn State face top competition this fall. They see it multiple times a week when the Lions step onto the practice field and beat each other up for two hours at a time.
|Kirby Lee/US Presswire|
|Daryll Clark and the Nittany Lions are looking to prove themselves Saturday at Michigan.|
The rest of us? We've seen Penn State destroy much weaker opponents and lose its only game against top competition, to No. 6 Iowa on Sept. 26. We've seen Penn State rise to No. 2 nationally in scoring defense (8.7 ppg) despite facing no FBS offense ranked higher than 79th. We've seen the Lions' offense build some momentum in wins against Minnesota and Illinois, the two worst defenses in the Big Ten.
"We've been fortunate," Penn State head coach Joe Paterno said earlier this week. "The only tough game we've been in, we've lost."
The tough games part is about to change, and Penn State hopes the losing part does, too. The 13th-ranked Lions will be tested in their final five contests, beginning Saturday against Michigan (ABC, 3:30 p.m. ET).
Penn State tries to snap a five-game losing streak in the Big House, a slide that includes the program's most painful loss this decade, a 27-25 setback in 2005 that kept the Lions out of the national title game. More importantly, the Lions want to show 110,000 fans and a major TV audience what they've been seeing in practice.
"This will definitely be a test for us, but we’re a team that doesn’t mind flying under the radar," said Clark, the senior quarterback. "People aren’t sold on how good we are, and that’s fine. Our goal is to go out and win football games."
Michigan has its own point to prove as well. The Wolverines have shown improvement in Year 2 under head coach Rich Rodriguez. They boast the Big Ten's top scoring offense (37.3 ppg) and dynamic playmakers at all of the skill positions. They own a win against Notre Dame that should appreciate during the coming weeks.
But they lack a signature win in Big Ten play. Until they get it, doubts will linger about the progress being made.
"We have to prove it every week," Wolverines tight end Kevin Koger said. "Just because we're 5-2 doesn't mean anything. We won't be satisfied until we get a Big Ten championship or a national championship."
The latter goal is certainly off the table, and while it's unlikely a two-loss team can win the Big Ten, the league race certainly can change this weekend if Iowa falls to Michigan State.
"Penn State is a very good team," Michigan linebacker Stevie Brown said. "If we can beat them, it puts us another step toward where we want to go and where we want to go is the Rose Bowl. This is another team that's in our way."
The game's signature matchup pairs Michigan's offense and Penn State's defense. Both units are getting healthier, as Lee returned to the field last week after missing three games, while Michigan freshman quarterback Tate Forcier says he's fine after dealing with a throwing shoulder injury and a concussion. The Wolverines also get starting center David Molk back from a foot injury.
Line play also has improved on both sides. Penn State is getting big contributions from tackles Jared Odrick and Ollie Ogbu, who have combined for 14.5 tackles for loss (six sacks) and two forced fumbles, and blossoming end Jack Crawford (9 TFLs, 4.5 sacks). Two weeks ago, Michigan's offensive line helped the team rack up 195 rush yards against Iowa, one of the Big Ten's best defensive fronts. Michigan rushed for 461 yards last week against Delaware State.
"As a team, we’ve played our best games at home, but as an offensive line, our best game was at Iowa," left tackle Mark Ortmann said. "Iowa’s front four was the best we've faced up to that point and maybe it will continue to be. It gave us a lot of confidence to get down and run the ball against a great defense."
For Lee, simply beating Michigan is all the incentive he needs. But Penn State wouldn't mind making a bigger statement at the same time.
"We obviously want to prove we're a good team," he said. "You only do that by going out and playing well."