Sticks and Stones
Cobbling together a defense hit by sanctions and making it not only functional, but aggressive, is the challenge of Bob Shoop, Penn State's first-year defensive coordinator. Vanderbilt's defenses ranked 18th, 19th, and 23rd the last three years, and he'll be trying to bring that same level of success to his new team.
Shoop said his Vanderbilt defenses were successful but different.
"In 2011 we won one way," Shoop said, referring to his time at Vanderbilt.
"Every time somebody threw the ball, we intercepted it.
"In 2012, we couldn't buy an interception, but we stopped teams on third down and in the red zone.
"This year (2013) we were 3-3 at the mid-point of the season, and I took a look at the defensive coordinator, and said what is the identity of this group?
"We weren't good at anything. The second half of the year we loaded up the box on first and second downs, and said nobody is going to run the ball on us and we brought the 'magic show' on third down.
"We were 6-1, second half of the year, had 23 takeaways the second half of the year, and played maybe the best defense we did in the last six or seven games right there."
If there's something Shoop knows about, it's the magic show. He runs a 4-3 defense, but he plays around with it a lot - like using a lot of nickel packages or dropping a middle linebacker into pass coverage (called Tampa 2). Still, he's equally flexible around the players he has to work with. With the position changes of Mike Hull, Adrian Amos, and Anthony Zettel, Shoop is already setting his plans in motion to maximize a piecemeal Lions roster.
One of the first questions posed to Shoop was the fate of Adrian Amos. The star of the Penn State secondary, the hard-hitting corner has started every game the last two years, but he was shuffled to safety to help with depth problems, partly caused by Stephen Obeng-Agyapong switching to linebacker because of more depth problems. Amos played well, of course, but Lucas was not ready for the boundary corner position, and the third corner, a converted receiver, struggled.
While Amos is more comfortable at corner - and pairing him up with Jordan Lucas on the outside is certainly tempting - the staff will put him back at safety. Not only does he provide a lot of hard hitting, Amos is a veteran who can handle Shoops' schemes and quarterback the secondary.
Lucas will instead be paired with Trevor Williams, the aforementioned receiver, and alongside Amos will be a former walk-on in Ryan Keiser who was looked at as a "key, core special teams guy" a little more than a year ago. An All-Academic Big Ten and a senior, he'll be a key part of implementing the schemes that will bring the Lions success.
Meanwhile, the face of the defense, Mike Hull, moves to inside linebacker for much the same reason: he is a veteran guy (the other two starting linebackers are sophomores) who can get everyone lined up right. On the line, Anthony Zettel has moved inside, for depth purposes but also perhaps for speed. Shoop isn't using nickel all the time for nothing - he likes having a fast defense.
"[Our identity] is based on two premises, relentless pursuit and never-ending pressure," said Shoop this past January. "First thing I say to the guys all the time is everyone has a game plan until they get punched in the face. We throw the first punch and keep on punching."
And so, the pieces are set. Depth is obviously an issue, especially at linebacker, where it's razor-thin after the injury to Ben Kline. There are four linebackers who played last year and came in on scholarship: the three starters and Gary Wooten, who's a true sophomore and got 6 tackles last year. After that, it's walk-ons, and two three-star freshmen in Jason Cabinda and Troy Reeder. The ceiling is high in Happy Valley, but the floor is missing.
B1G Recruiting Roundup
The Big Ten hasn't gotten a five-star yet in this cycle, with the highest-rated recruit being Michigan's Garrett Taylor. The 2015 class still has a ways to go, with a full season to help change athletes' minds about where they want to stay the next four years. But this is a snapshot of where things stand right now.
Penn State: 17
Michigan fans know well about the off-season successes of a first-year coach, and like with Michigan's hot starts of the last few years, PSU is starting to fall behind nationally because its class simply got full faster.
For all the waves that Franklin made with his coaches working at high school camps in Georgia and Florida, his recruits in this cycle are almost entirely regional: all ten four-star commits are from Pennsylvania, Maryland, and New Jersey. Franklin has brought SEC intensity to B1G recruiting, and it's paying off - they have a third of all the committed blue-chips in the Big Ten.
Pat Fitzgerald has quietly put together a decent class, exactly what we've come to expect the last few years. From 2006-08, the Wildcats signed 32 two-star players and no four-stars, but they've had nine four-stars from 2012-15.
The gems of the class are twins Andrew and David Dowell, two Ohio products who will play running back and corner, respectively. "We use each other as motivation. We push each other and lift each other up if one of us is having a bad game. It's a mutual thing and it's pretty great."
Fitz has said his first priority is recruiting speed, while the second is getting physicality on the line. This class is better at the latter outside of the Dowell twins, but the Cats are hoping for a commitment today from Travis Waller, a 4-star quarterback who has a top four of Northwestern, Alabama, Ohio State, and Notre Dame.
For a recruiting class like this, it's more about projecting and finding diamonds in the rough, and the Terps have a few of those. On the line, Maryland's recruiting B1G size, with four OLs north of 275 and a 293-lb. nose tackle.
Gus Little, a Rivals 5.5 linebacker, is a thumping but slow run-stuffer, with the brains (4.1 GPA) to be a perfect Mike. Ty Johnson is a possible under-the-radar star who averaged 17.4 yards a carry (...) for a small Maryland high school. Add in Deltron Sands, a running back who played a complementary role (336/5.8, and 202 yards receiving) for St. Thomas Aquinas, and could do more of the same for the Terps.
Wisconsin has benefited from its reputation, pulling in four-stars from California and New Jersey, as well as a quality lineman from Michigan in David Moorman. They're also taking risks in the south on lower-ranked players - five of their six red-chips are from below the Mason-Dixon line.
Until the recent commitment of Mohamed Barry, the top eight recruits were all on offense - there's a Russell Wilson clone coming out of Utah, a few linemen, a couple tight ends, and a couple more receivers. The bottom six recruits are all on defense. Andersen still hasn't shown us exactly what his defenses will look like at Wisconsin; he may be going for speed on offense and weight-room strength on D. His 2014 class was also top-heavy on offensive versatility.
I'll give the Knights one out of two for recruiting size on the offensive line (283, 281, 275, 270... yesss) but not on the defensive line (250, 234). Kyle Flood might be serious about experimenting with speed rather than size on the line; if he can pull it off, that would make recruiting easier for him.
Rutgers also has a good receiver/tight end in Nakia Griffin, and RB Charles Snorweah was second in the state at the 400-meter dash. OL Blake Camper cited academics when committing to Rutgers and had offers from Miami, West Virginia and Louisville. Like with Maryland, there's some good value here, but the two schools are also pulling in a lot of two-stars. About 26% of the commits in the Big Ten are two-star players right now, and RU and UM are leading the way there with 16.
Iowa is going all-out on being Iowa this year. Six of their recruits are from Iowa, two-thirds of their three-stars are offensive linemen, and they'll be relying on a three-star quarterback and two-star receivers. Carry on, then.
Bo Pelini has never had a top-10 recruiting class, though his 2011 one did have 11 blue-chips out of the 20 commits. This class isn't on that level yet, but it's rock-solid with a couple of highly ranked defensive tackles, speed in the secondary and an explosive running back with offers from a host of Big 12 and SEC teams.
Ohio State: 10
For whatever reason - the loss to Michigan State in the championship game, a down year in Ohio, the uncertainty of what this team will look like without Braxton Miller, the lack of a 'star' recruiter à la Shane Morris - but this year has been off to a slow start. More than 72% of Urban Meyer's '13 and '14 recruits were four-star players.
It wouldn't be wise to bet against the Buckeyes in recruiting, though. As Anthony Broome laid out, Justin Hilliard and Jashon Cornell commit this week, and both are leaning toward the Buckeyes. Meyer also loves to poach other teams' recruits whenever he can.
Unsurprisingly, Indiana has an easier time recruiting offensive talent right now, and they have two nice commits in QB Tommy Stevens and WR Leon Thornton. They still need to find a running back or two, but Kevin Wilson is recruiting some beef on the O-line and taking his time on defense to get the kids he wants. A solid showing this year would do wonders.
Thanks to pulling in 52 commits in 2012-13, and a dramatic drop in attrition under Hoke, the more recent classes have been extremely small for the Wolverines. This year's class will be a minimum of 11 players. Next year's (2016) class might be a little smaller, with a minimum right now of 16. That could easily bloom into 24 or 25, though.
Beckman & Co. are grabbing more in-state players, and while Illinois is not a hotbed, there's plenty of three-star talent and Illinois hasn't captured too much of it the last few years. For right now, that's enough to hope for a better class than last year's, which was #75 on Rivals.
The team is also benefiting from a sense of optimism about the direction of the program - almost to a man, the recruits cited taking Illinois to new heights as a reason for committing. Combined with some conference wins, a good recruiting class could also cool Tim Beckman's seat a little.
"This program needs consistency. The way that consistency is built, and this is just my opinion, but consistency is built on being able to establish yourself as you build a program." There's still a ways to go for the Illini to make that happen, though.
Michigan State: 7
Michigan State hasn't changed its approach at all. Grayson Miller is the son of a former Michigan State safety, and State has leaned on legacy recruits. Khari Willis, meanwhile, is listed as the third-best running back in the state of Michigan, but the Spartans have talked to him about other positions and already tried him at safety in camp.
And Michigan State still uses Google while everyone else is stuck on MSN.
Alexander's previous emphasis on basketball, he said, helps explain why he falls into the category of "under-the-radar" recruit. ... "I think they'll both end up fairly highly ranked," Trieu said of Alexander and Miller, "when it's all said and done."
Their staff has a soft spot for unusually tall defensive linemen, and Justice Alexander fits the bill after a growth spurt to 6'6". Height makes technique more important to not get blown off the line but it allows for bigger bodies against the run and disrupting the quarterback's vision.
Elijah Sindelar is actually a four-star QB according to Scout, and he chose Purdue for its engineering program. Robert Ennis is a small, speedy back, and as one H&R writer put it, "He's hard to catch, but if a linebacker does catch him, they may have to scrape him off the field."
They have one of the top fullbacks in the nation, Richard Worship (6'1", 245), who had interest from OSU, Michigan, Michigan State, and Minnesota, and one of their red-chips is actually a long snapper - in short, the Boilermakers are taking their time with this class and doing a pretty good job, even if it doesn't show up in star rankings. A no-show recruiting class can hamper a program for several years, and their '14 class wasn't that great. Only 17 seniors are graduating, so the Boilermakers have some time to maintain their slow approach and finish a good class.
Minnesota also has a set of twin commits in Jacob and Julian Huff. Jacob should slot in at safety, while Julian could be destined for Mike backer, though he's a tweener and more than a little undersized for it. Their other three recruits are offensive linemen, all of whom are at least 6'5". Twenty-three seniors will be graduating, so Minnesota will have to get to work from now until February.
Hitting the Links Is Kicking Back and Relaxing
Historically, the Buckeyes cut their teeth on their great defenses. They've allowed 20 points per game in a season just eight times - but also in each of the last three years.
This is pure gold. I have to tip my hat to the Champaign Room and everybody involved on this one.
For all of Chip Kelly's ingenuity, maybe it comes down to some simple yoga. On that note, I'm going off to drink some iced green tea.
Most people would probably agree. On the one hand we may have weaknesses at offensive tackle, but if Erik Magnuson comes in and shuts it down for the next couple of years we'll be all right. But yeah, we're pretty deep.
You could also throw in Ohio State's tight ends or Illinois' running backs here.
There are some really good runs here, including a couple against us, which is a little painful. I myself have never seen a perfect back (Barry Sanders, maybe?), but Yeldon is pretty well-rounded.
Johnny Football will face a lot more athletic defenses in the NFL, but after watching him play football, I don't want to say he can't do anything.
I've talked a maximum allowable amount about pace, but ESPN interviewed a gajillion coaches about the game and compiled it into one mega-article. Pat Narduzzi talks about some of the things Michigan State is doing differently than everyone else, and Brady Hoke, Bob Shoop, Jeremy Pruitt, Nick Aliotti, Tracy Claeys, and Derek Mason also give their thoughts.
The career-5.8 ypc senior was also an All-American in 2012 for his punt returning. From 2010-12, Mark amassed 2,404 yards from kick-offs and punts. Here's 75 of them.
Venric has a self-professed angry style, and he shows it here. His name is already up in Ryan Field, and he's determined to add to his legacy.
Again, whatever you might feel about him - and I am not a fan - he's making the most of his proverbial fresh start.
One of the writers at Bring on the 'Cats (Kansas State's blog) wrote up some of their experiences being in Brazil.
Collins is fun to watch but I had a hard time finding a good, HD link to just one highlight. He's still young and a little under the radar, so this will have to do. The whole link is a good introduction to the Arkansas running back, but the play I'm directing you to is also the start of the drive that leads to his first college TD. After that, he takes the rest of the game off.
I know, I know, there weren't enough Michigan links. Here's an oldie for you, back when Mike Hart was in high school. Maybe one of the more amazing runs you'll ever see.