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November 12, 2014
by Chris Adamski

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Getting to know Penn State’s future quarterback: An interview with his high school coach





Tommy Stevens, to my knowledge, has not spoken with media since making a verbal commitment to Penn State’s incoming class of 2015 on Monday night. The athletic, 6-foot-3, 196-pound dual-threat quarterback from Decatur (Ind.) Central High School flipped from home-state Indiana University to PSU two days after the Nittany Lions beat the Hoosiers in Bloomington, Ind.


Stevens has not responded to text or voice messages I have left for him – and I have not seen him go on the record with anyone else, either. Which is understandable. By all indications, Stevens is a good kid. It probably wasn’t easy for him to “go back on” a commitment – especially to a home-state school. Once things settle a little, I expect him to open up publicly a little more. For now, this is his only public comment:



Anyway, so in lieu of not being able to interview Penn State’s quarterback of the future (well, one of them, at least), I tried the next-best thing: I interviewed his high school coach.


Justin Dixson was gracious enough to spend 15 minutes on the phone with me Tuesday morning. Here is the majority of that conversation…




On what kind of overall athlete Stevens is:

He’s an unbelievable just football player in general. You look at him, he’s dynamic with the ball, a physical blocker and tackler, he can throw it and he can run it, he can kick it – just an all-around unbelievable football player. He’s a coach’s kid – his dad’s been on my staff since I’ve been here. So he’s a football junkie, grown up around the game of football and has a legit passion for it and just plays the game the way it’s supposed to be played.



On what kind of overall person he is:

I just think he’s a natural charismatic leader that people like to be around. Part of that is the way that he approaches practice and the way that he approached games. He does what’s in the best interest of the team, whatever it takes to win. He wants to get better everyday – and his teammates see that and his coaches see that, and I think that’s why a lot of people are drawn to him and follow him and like being around him. Obviously, he’s well-respected in our school, he’s a great leader, a great student — teachers love having him in class – just an all-around great guy. The two biggest things that I really think set Tommy apart: One, I never thought I would coach a player that loves the game of football more than I do – and he might be close. That just tells you the type of passion he has for the game. And, especially in this day and age, I think where kids can tend to be a little bit selfish and it tends to be about them and about their recruiting and about how many stars they have, I think Tommy was 100 percent opposite of that. He really wanted to minimize the recruiting process so it wasn’t a distraction for his team through this whole thing. His teammates didn’t resent the attention Tommy was getting because they know what type of guy he is. In a lot of situations guys who are as high-profile as Tommy and getting all the attention and articles and interviews and media coverage, that never went to his head and his teammates didn’t obviously resent him for that so that shows you what type of kid he is.

He’s a top-notch guy and we are going miss him.



On how often Stevens played defense (some colleges were reportedly recruiting him as a safety):

We tried to use him in what we consider ‘championship situations’ … There’s no doubt he’s our best defensive player but also being our starting quarterback and as big a part of the offense that he was we wanted to be very systematic in how we used him, and we decided we were going to play him both ways when we felt like a championship was on the line so late in the year… He played every snap on both sides of the ball (for a late-season must-win game). That also tells you what type of gritty competitor he is. And he’s doing it at a high level – it’s not like this is small-school level, he’s doing against Marian County and Indianapolis athletes.



On why he selected Penn State:

I don’t want to speak for him… I just know during in the entire recruiting process, he was very deliberate and open and honest with everybody about what was going on. I think he did his homework and research on every school that recruited him, and obviously ultimately felt best about Penn State.



On what coaches recruited him to Penn State:

Well, you know, not necessarily (any). We’ve got a 2016 offensive tackle that is being highly-recruited (Trent Maynard) that they were able to come and at least get information on. As far as I was concerned, Tommy’s recruitment was done when he committed to Indiana so the contact that they had was really outside of our program, and the talks they had with him was really outside of me and outside of our program.



On if he struggled with “de-committing’:

I think he told everybody (during the spring of 2013) that he would see what offers he had after his junior year and be able to visit and try to make the best decision possible to kind of minimize the recruiting process during his senior year and not be a distraction for his team. And that’s what he did. And that’s when he made the commitment to Indiana (in June). At that point, Penn State wasn’t an option – it became an option late in his senior year (when PSU needed a QB after Brandon Wimbush decommitted). He was able to weigh that and obviously make his decision based on how he felt and what he saw. I know Tommy and his family are high-character people. They’re the most unselfish people you will ever meet, and I think it was hard for them because he genuinely wanted his word to mean something and didn’t want to be a guy who de-committed. But at the end of the day, I also think he felt he had to do what was best for him in this situation – which ended up really, really opposite of his personality because he wants to do what’s best for everybody and what’s best for the team. So it’s kind of against his personality to be honest with you, so I think that was a little bit tough for him. But I don’t want to speak for him.



On the offense Stevens ran at Decatur Central:

A multiple option spread offense. We run some under-center option and some ‘gun option and some run/pass option stuff, so there’s no doubt we’ve always put an emphasis on having a guy who can beat you with his arm and beat you with feet; it just so happens that Tommy is at an elite level at doing that. So obviously any time you get a guy like that in an offense like a lot of people are running, it’s extremely hard to defend, and that’s why we were so able to be successful on offense the past two years.



On if Dixson was familiar at all with what PSU offensive coordinator John Donovan ran at Vanderbilt, and if that was similar to what Dixson had Stevens run:

Without really breaking down the schematics of it, I would say if it’s an offense that asks the quarterback to make decisions based on what the defense is giving them, and has run/pass options and different types of read-options within the run game, I would say, yes, that’s what we do and that’s what he’s good at.



On what other schools Stevens was interested in:

I think coming down to June he really liked Nebraska, really liked Michigan State and obviously really liked Indiana. Those were the schools I felt like were at the top of his list, and he ultimately made the decision to pick Indiana until the Penn State option came in late in his senior year.





(Photo: Tommy Stevens, second from left, during his official visit to Penn State on Oct. 25 for the Ohio State game. Baldwin HS offensive tackle and PSU recruit Sterling Jenkins, left, spent plenty of time with Stevens that day while on an official visit of his own. Lions coach James Franklin and four-star uncommitted offensive guard Matthew Burrell are also in the “selfie” — Courtesy of Sterling Jenkins)


November 9, 2014
by Chris Adamski

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The Day After Penn State’s skid ends: Notes/Etc. on a win in Indiana


CHARLOTTE DOUGLAS INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT – As I make the trek from the Midwest to the South and back home, some more notes/observations/quotes from Penn State getting itself off the proverbial schnide. (I have no idea how to spell that fictitious word – it is fictitious, right?)…




Christian Hackenberg’s statistics weren’t any better. A handful of his throws weren’t, either. But what did appear vastly improved from the recent prior weeks was the Penn State quarterback’s on-field demeanor and body language.


Whether it was an intentional effort to do so or more of a function of being part of a victory instead of a loss, Hackenberg wasn’t spotted barking at teammates, arguing with coaches, slamming his helmet or otherwise carrying an expression of general disgust and miserable-ness (another fictitious word) that characterized, in particular, last week’s home loss to Maryland.


Franklin and Hackenberg had a meeting last Monday. Hackenberg, a five-star recruit who’s often been projected as a future top-10 NFL draft pick, has been one of the worst quarterbacks in the country this season in passing efficiency rating – though, certainly, a porous offensive line and lack of any consistent running game has affected his play.


Hackenberg said that body language and on-field displays of emotion were broached during his Monday chat with Franklin.


“That was part of it, (but) I think there was a lot that went into that conversation,” Hackenberg said. “But sometimes things that you can’t control happen and you’ve got to be able to bounce off of that and react. And that’s one thing I had a hard time doing earlier. So I think I just made the correction, easy as that.”




**What drove Belton 92 yards**

Bill Belton, in general, speaks quietly. He’s been known to be introspective (almost Zen-like) on Twitter. But he can be a lot of fun to talk to. I can’t decide if he intentionally has an understated, deadpanned delivery – or if it’s really just an overall indifference that comes across as an attempt at humor. Either way, he makes me chuckle. (As I type it, maybe it was one of those proverbial “you had to be there” kind of things; oh well).


Here was Belton’s exchange with a small handful of media after the game Saturday about his 92-yard touchdown run…


On what enabled him to outrun two defenders who were pursuing him: “I told (cornerback) Trevor Williams I’ve never gotten caught from behind, and basically that’s all I was thinking about at that time – it would have been a big deal in the running back room and stuff like that. That was the biggest thing.”


Asked if is possible to maintain a 4.5-ish speed for a 40-yard dash while running more than twice as far: “I was able to. I don’t think I got touched going through the line so I was able to get to top speed quickly. My biggest thing is I didn’t want to get caught from behind. So once you see the touchdown in front of you, you’re kinda just like ‘All right, I gotta get there. I GOTTA get there.’


Belton said he did not hear the two pursuers. So he shrugged when asked how did he know they were there: “Intuition, I guess… I just kind of felt them.”


On how that intuition is developed: “In the summertime we all met with (running backs coach Charles) Huff, and he had this thing where he kind of took us to a film session called RB School. It taught us about leaning away from defenders and creating positive angles on defenders to enable longer runs. Those are some of the things that helped that run get where it was.”


On his emotions after the game: “I celebrated with my teammates; celebrated with (sophomore running back Akeel Lynch) and Coach Huff, Those were the people who were, honestly, with me at the time things that happened last week and the Ohio State game, along with my family, too. I celebrated with them because they were always with me every step of the way.”


On what was so difficult about these past two games (Belton gained 22 yards on 17 carries in them, falling behind Lynch on the depth chart for each): “I didn’t play well on a very big stage couple weeks ago. And that wasn’t something I wanted to have happen. Akeel came out and continuously got better each week. He’s a great teammate and a great player and I know he’s going to be a great player for this university.

I didn’t play well. I didn’t show up. I didn’t play well. I didn’t affect the game, didn’t have a positive effect on the game. I pride myself into coming into each week and playing well and I didn’t play well those particular games.”



**Indianapolis media reaction**

Bloomington is less than an hour’s drive from Indiana’s largest city and capital, Indianapolis. But to show how little IU football registers throughout the state, consider its coverage in the Sunday Indianapolis Star.


The PSU-IU game story was buried below the fold on page 4 of the sports section. There was no column (none for us at the Trib, either, to be fair), no notes, no “Matchup,” “Grades,” or any other apparent regular coverage.


The game story length was fairly standard – but for basis of comparison, a game story for the Butler University basketball team’s exhibition against a Division III game Saturday was slightly longer.


As for the content of the story written by The Star’s David Woods (), the tone was set immediately with a lede of “Piling on the Indiana University football program at this point would merit a penalty. What would be the point?”



**WPIAL lettermen in attendance**

Former Penn State offensive lineman A.Q. Shipley (Moon) and former PSU quarterback Anthony Morelli (Penn Hills) were in the Lions’ locker room after the victory. They were in front of current players in coaches posing for the photo sent back to Keiser.


Shipley plays for the nearby Indianapolis Colts; Morelli now lives in Indiana.



**Nittany notes**

Hackenberg became the eighth Penn State quarterback to surpass 5,000 career passing yards. … Each of the Lions’ three victories away from Beaver Stadium this season were decided by six points or fewer. … Indiana went 3 for 17 on third downs, not converting any until the final 18 minutes of the game. Over its past two games, Penn State’s defense has held opponents to 4 for 31 on third downs. … The only PSU player to have more receptions in a season than DaeSeasn Hamilton has in 2014 is Allen Robinson. Hamilton had two catches for 33 yards to give him 64 this season. Robinson had 77 in 2012 and 97 last season. … The 330 yards and 13 points Penn State managed against Indiana were both the fewest the Hoosiers have allowed in 28 Big Ten games under coach Kevin Wilson.



November 7, 2014
by Chris Adamski

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Notes to get ready for Penn State-Indiana


 CHARLOTTE DOUGLAS INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT – Because, why wouldn’t I go farther in a different direction than to my final destination merely to begin my trip to Indiana?


Just some random Penn State football-related thoughts as I have a bit of free time during my sojourn to the heart of the Midwest.


The first two notes actually will appear in the print edition Saturday on our GAMEDAY page (in a slightly cut-down form), but since we do not offer them with the online coverage, I included them in this blog post. (Probably a good idea for me to continue to do that in the future, because sometimes there’s some hidden gems here).


Enjoy the game Saturday. Give the TribLive PSU show podcast a listen, if you are so inclined.



**Youthful PSU roster just keeps getting younger**

As the season progresses, freshmen have earned the Penn State coaching staff’s trust and some upperclassmen have been unable to play because of injury. The result is the further erosion of the experience of the Nittany Lions’ already-youthful roster.


PSU began the season with the second-highest percentage of seniors and juniors of any FBS team in the country. But with junior linebacker Ben Kline, senior guard Mikes Dieffenbach, senior running back Zach Zwinak and senior safety Ryan Keiser all missing significant time because of injury (of that group, only Dieffenbach has a chance to play at all during the remainder of the season), the Lions’ youth is even more magnified.


Check some of the player-participation notes from this past Saturday’s game against Maryland:


  • The offense had exactly one senior play (running back Bill Belton, who gained 14 yards on his eight touches)
  • Four freshmen and four sophomores started on offense, in addition to three juniors
  • More freshmen (five) than seniors (four) were in the starting offensive and defensive lineups combined
  • Breakdown by class among the 22 starters: Four seniors, seven juniors, six sophomores, five freshmen
  • On opposite ends of the eligibility spectrum, there were two true freshmen who started and nine overall who played; there were two fifth-year seniors who started and three overall who played
  • Even forgetting fifth-year players, there were more true freshmen who played (nine) than seniors (eight) – when redshirt freshmen are counted, that former number swells to 14



**‘Genius’ turns around PSU defense**

Last season’s Penn State defense ranked in the bottom half of the Big Ten in scoring and yardage, and was in the middle of the conference against the rush.


From it, four starters were subtracted – two of whom are currently in NFL rosters – heading into 2014. Any new additions to the roster are mostly freshmen who, while their impact is gradually growing, have generally played complementary roles over the first two-thirds of this season.


The result? The Nittany Lions rank No. 3 in total defense, No. 9 in scoring defense and No. 1 in rushing defense in the country.


How? Why?


“Coach Shoop is a genius,” sophomore defensive tackle Austin Johnson said, unsolicited, of PSU defensive coordinator Bob Shoop.


Shoop, a Riverview High School graduate, also counts Yale among his alma maters.


“I think he’s just a genius,” said linebacker Brandon Bell when told of Johnson’s comment. “When he says things are going to happen (a particular) way, they do. It shows up.”




The current coaching staff has no shortage of candidates to be a future college head coach. For many of them, their youth suggests that, if their career ascension continues and success at PSU follows, it could be, in theory, within the realm of possibility.


Wide receivers coach/offensive recruiting coordinator/assistant special teams coordinator (these hyphenated titles kill my word counts) Josh Gattis is certainly among that group. Barely into his 30s, Gattis has a charisma that helps allure recruits, and he is well-spoken and intelligent enough to be the proverbial face of a program with the media.


That was on display Thursday, when Gattis was the one assistant that is available to the media weekly. (Don’t get me started on how they are doubling up on some coaches, while others – offensive coordinator John Donovan, anyone? – have been shielded… but that’s for another time).


Among the highlights was his opinion on the two true freshmen who are playing at receiver this season, Chris Godwin and Saeed Blacknall: “I think those guys are really progressing. I’m really happy about Saeed and Chris. Those guys are playing really good ball. They are making some plays out there. It’s hard sometimes when you have a bunch of guys rotating in. Some of the opportunities they aren’t in for, they can’t make. But as far as their attempts, their completions and their targets, I’ve really been pleased with how they are playing as they continue to develop. This is a young group. DaeSean still has room to develop, but he has been playing really good football. Geno is a young player who is playing good football, but he still has a lot more room to grow. I think as a group, we have to continue to find ways to get those guys more active as far as Saeed Blacknall and Chris Godwin. We need to continue to get those guys more and more reps.”



**Zettel a playmaking machine**

Even the previous two seasons, when he was playing much more sparingly, Anthony Zettel was making an impact seemingly every time he was on the field. Now, in 2014 – at a different position, no less – Zettel is emerging as one of the Big Ten’s best defensive linemen.


Listen to opponents’ press conferences in the week leading up to playing Penn State. They invariably always mention the 6-4, 274-pound fourth-year junior. I expect a monster 2015 from him, after having had a full season to settle into playing on the interior and another year of experience and physical maturity to rely on.


Still, despite being among the Big Ten leaders among defensive tackles in sacks and tackles for loss (and interceptions and touchdowns, for that matter), Zettel doesn’t sound overly impressed with himself.


“Yeah, I’m pleased, but I also know I have a lot of stuff to improve,” he said. “I’ve left a lot of plays out on the field that if I could have done something simple or technique‑wise, I could have made more of a play.  So I know I have a lot to improve to be a great player.  I’m just going to keep striving to be that.”



**Not-so special**

Penn State’s special team rankings in the Big Ten: Kickoff returns (seventh), punt returns (13th), punting (12th), kickoff coverage (11th).


Good thing for Sam Ficken, who’s missed just two of 36 kicks all season (mid-range field goals against Rutgers and Northwestern in September) and has a respectable 18 touchbacks on 41 kickoffs this season.


Too bad he can’t punt.


Or can he?


“I did a little bit of that in the spring,” Ficken said Tuesday. “ But right now that’s something that I’m not focused on. We have faith in our guys right now, so I don’t think you’ll see me punting.”




November 5, 2014
by Chris Adamski

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TribLive show ep. 14: PSU-IU preview, Has the losing streak changed the perception of Franklin? Is it time to blame Hack?


The first thing James Franklin said as he sat down to begin his weekly news conference Tuesday – after his standard thanking of everyone for being there, anyway – was, “I’m in a great mood.”


Setting the narrative as he is so adept at doing, Franklin clearly wanted to keep a positive spin on things, as a man on the heels of a four-game losing streak (PSU’s longest in a single season in more than a decade) who hadn’t experienced a victory in 45 days to that point.


Franklin might be in a great mood… but are Penn State fans? Has this seven-week span of futility (a handful of high-profile recruiting losses have been part of it, too) changed your mindset and outlook for the program under Franklin going forward?


For what my opinion’s worth (not much), 4-4 is right about where everyone thought (or should have thought) this team would be at this point. And a top-15 (but not top-5) recruiting class is right about where everyone thought (or should have thought) this program would get. The disappointment comes in how it got to these places (from 4-0 to 4-4 and from a brief period as the No. 1 recruiting class down to what is now No. 13, per Rivals).


On whole: Not much has changed in how I view the ability of Franklin and his staff to carry the Nittany Lions to the proverbial “next level.”


Now, as for my opinion of Christian Hackenberg’s ability to do the same… well…


To discuss those issues and more, I was glad to have Travis Johnson and Mike Miller join me. Johnson is the PSU beat writer for its hometown paper, the Centre Daily Times; Miller the IU beat writer for its hometown paper, the Herald Times of Bloomington.




Listen with one click right here:



And download the podcast here:



Enjoy the rest of the week (and weekend)…



October 29, 2014
by Chris Adamski

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TribLive Radio PSU show ep. 13: How Saturday felt like a win, recruiting recap from Ohio State weekend


NORTH SHORE – Unlucky episode No. 13… during Halloween week?!


Not with Sean Fitz on this week’s Nittany Nation show on TribLive Radio. The editor of is connected and knowledgeable about Penn State’s team and its recruiting. He breaks down what this past Saturday’s Whiteout double-overtime loss to Ohio State means to the 100-plus high school prospects who were guests of the program that night. He also goes in-depth in what Nittany Lions recruiting storylines are for the rest of this winter for both the 2015 and ’16 classes and beyond.


For the weekly opponents’ viewpoint segment, Maryland beat writer Matt Zenitz  of the Baltimore Sun Media Group enlightened us on the state of the Terrapins’ program and its plight this season as well as sixth-year quarterback and Seneca Valley graduate C.J. Brown’s up-and-down Maryland career as it approaches its close.



Listen with one click here:



And download the podcast here:



Until we chat again, enjoy the rest of your week.




October 27, 2014
by Chris Adamski

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Nittany notes: Where’s Geno? DaeSean the new A-Rob? Recruiting rundown


I’m done trying to decipher what, exactly, has gone sour with Geno Lewis’ season.

Penn State trotted out Geno Lewis as the lone player available at the podium during the weekly news conference Tuesday. Trust me, PSU would not have done that if it didn’t want to, or if it was a sensitive situation with his status on the team or if it didn’t want him talking.


Lewis then started Saturday. All is forgotten for the player who entered the season as by far the Lions’ most accomplished receiver and began it with 25 catches for 462 yards over its first four games but then quickly (inexplicably?) became an afterthought in the offense, right?


Wrong. Lewis was targeted just three times (once each during the first half, second half and overtime). He ended up with one reception for 11 yards (it came during the tying drive late in the fourth quarter).


For whatever reason, freshmen Saeed Blacknall (six targets) and Chris Godwin (four targets) both have surpassed Lewis on the depth chart and/or in the minds’ of the playcallers and/or in terms of the trust quarterback Christian Hackenberg has in him.


After being cryptic about the reasons for Lewis’ apparent demotion following the Michigan game, Franklin said Tuesday that Lewis is “back to feeling 100 percent” and that the two had a meeting that “went extremely well.”


**Spreading the wealth?**

Lewis’ near-disappearance from the offense helped contribute to DaeSean Hamilton being targeted 22 times by Christian Hackenberg on Saturday – accounting for almost half of Hackenberg’s 49 attempts. The rest of the wide receivers accounted for 12 targets, the tight ends eight (four to Jesse James and two each to Mike Gesicki and Kyle Carter) and the running backs four (Akeel Lynch, 2; Bill Belton, 2). Two others were intercepted and one a spike.


Penn State’s offense is in danger (if that’s the right word) of emulating the 2013 version in which the passing game became Allen Robinson… and then, everyone else.


Robinson, now with the Jacksonville Jaguars, had 97 catches for 1,432 yards last season. He had 40 percent of the Lions’ overall receptions and 60 percent of the wide receivers’ share.


Over the past three games (since Lewis went AWOL), Hamilton has 36 percent of all PSU catches and 60 percent of the wide receivers’ catches.



**Recruit-out **

As I’ve said in this space before, I never was a recruiting kinda guy – as a consumer. I totally get it and why it’s interesting to some people and why so many people are so hyped to track it. And more ppower to them, to each his own, etc., etc. I just, in my mind, have always wanted to draw a line somewhere (again, as a consumer/fan). I’ll start tracking athletes once they get to a certain level – not before it (I have similar thoughts about the NFL Draft).


Anyway… without getting too deep into this tangent, what I’m getting at is that Saturday was my first visit to a pregame field to mingle with the bevy of prospective recruits (and their guests) who are there for a game. The annual Whiteout game at PSU, more than most, draws people. It’s the “showcase game” (for lack of a better way of putting it) for the program.


What struck me was how festive the atmosphere is. The mood is celebratory – and this is pregame. Coaches – who have to be weighed down mentally from countless hours of game prep that is about to be put to use at kick off – are enthusiastically greeting kid after kid after kid.


Nobody made a verbal commitment, but there are plenty of other reasons to celebrate. Some – like Gateway lineman Robert Hainsey – have a reason to celebrate in receiving a scholarship offer. Others are happy just to be invited (let’s face it: Of the roughly 100 high school players who are invitees of the program, most will never receive a scholarship offer. And while there’s nothing whatsoever wrong with playing for a Division II or I-AA or, say, MAC school, some of these kids just get to get a kick out of being in a 107,000-seat stadium – even if just to watch). Then, there’s the families. Little brothers and sisters are in heaven. Heck, BIG brothers and sisters, too. Dads, moms, grandpa and grandma? Yep.


What I’m saying, basically, is that everyone is jovial and the mood is festive. Throw in a couple of juiced-up teams about to embark on a nationally-televised game, a growing number of tens of thousands of (many-intoxicated) revved-up fans… and, of course, a DJ blasting tunes… and it’s quite the scene.


Just wanted to share. When it comes to actual useful takeaways? Baldwin’s Sterling Jenkins (whose family was there; it was his official visit) seemed like one of the VIPs of the VIPs. Seemingly always at the center of attention.


Often next to him? Matthew Burrell. Burrell, another one of the top linemen in the country in the 2015 class (he has dozens of scholarship offers), was hanging with Jenkins throughout most of the roughly 90 minutes I was on the field.


Players who I ran into who have scholarship offers from Penn State included Central Catholic junior Damar Hamlin, Kittanning tight end Nick Bowers (a Pitt verbal recruit), junior receiver Trevon Diggs, and cornerback Julian Briscoe.


Additionally, several players who have made verbal commitments to PSU were on hand – among them were Jenkins, Sanders, Jonathan Holland, Andre Robinson, Ruan Buchholz, Brandon Polk, Adam McLean, Juwan Johnson and Irvin Charles.


Aiden Howard (Gateway), Malik Mathis (Penn Hills), Aaron Matthews (Clairton), Khaleke Hudson (McKeesport), Darius Wise (Beaver Area) were among the WPIAL players I came across, in addition to Hamlin, Jenkins and dynamic Woodland Hills running back Miles Sanders.


Speaking of the WPIAL:



**Nittany notes**

Left tackle Donovan Smith left late during Saturday’s game with an apparent undisclosed injury. Smith was the only returning starter entering the season. … An injury to safety Ryan Keiser meant only four seniors were in the Penn State starting lineup. … The Lions’ tying field-goal drive late Saturday lasted 19 plays – their longest in five years. … Penn State’s 16 net yards rushing were its fewest since having minus-14 against Michigan in 2006.




October 23, 2014
by Chris Adamski

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More from one-on-one with Miles Dieffenbach as his anticipated return to action nears


Will he or won’t he? It’s the biggest on-field storyline mystery heading into Saturday night’s Whiteout Penn State game against Ohio State.


Will Fox Chapel’s Miles Dieffenbach be in uniform? Will he play? How much? Will he start? Can he be the beleaguered offensive line’s savior?


Dieffenbach, who sustained a torn ACL in his left knee in March, is nearing the seven-month mark in his rehab. He will play again this season – but in how many games? Six remain. Evidence is mounting that the fifth-year senior left guard will play in all six of ‘em, returning for the Buckeyes game this Saturday.


Other than at the annual Lift For Life charity event in July – a worthy cause, by the way  – Dieffenbach’s only public comments since his March injury were in a phone interview late last week.


With Dieffenbach seemingly getting closer to playing by the day, here is some more of that conversation:




His overall feelings on what he went through not being able to play so far this season…

The tough part is not being out there with my brothers, out there on the field. That’s something that you work for every year and that’s what you train for – you want to be out there battling with your guys. So it’s hard standing on the sidelines like that. I’m just trying to help my guys out as much as I can.

But it’s been rewarding. I know I’m going to come back stronger and faster than I was before. My trainers and strength coach have done a great job of bringing me back, so it’s been rewarding because it’s kind of not only helped me understand the game more but also appreciate the game, realizing how much I missed being out there and practicing with the guys and playing in the games. I’ve been able to do a lot of film study, really study defenses, study our offense and really try to focus on the mental side of the game while I can’t be physically out there playing.



On how he’d describe his overall rehab experience…

I’ve never had a major injury, so this is my first one and … At first, it’s tough. But you realize, though, that you only option is get up every day and work as hard as you can and win the day. That’s something we take pride in everyday just doing the best job you can. So for me the best job was rehabbing and working out as hard as I could and watching film as hard as I could and helping my teammates out as much as I could. And so I took that role and I’ve embraced it.



On why he stayed so ubiquitous around the team, in meetings, at practice, etc…

I just figured, really, that was my only option – to stay around and help these guys out as much as I could. You know, we have a young offensive line, and I realized I could definitely help them with the mental side of the game so I knew I wanted to help in that way and also in the physical part, helping coach those guys when Coach Hand couldn’t.

(Offensive line coach Herb Hand) had been awesome; he’s really been helping me out along the way, kind of learning the ropes of the other side of football – coaching, and learning how to help these guys out. So it’s been very rewarding.



On what a typical day entailed for him since sustaining the injury…

I’d wake up, I’d come in and I’d ice up and I’d do a little stuff to get the legs moving, I’d go to class and I’d come back and we’d either have practice or film, so I’d be there with the film watching with the guys, helping them out there and with the drills. And then all day I’d lift and rehab. Lift, rehab – that’s basically all the rest of the day what I’d do. So when we did have meetings I’d be in there helping with the guys.

So it was hard right in the beginning of spring practice because during practice I’d be in there rehabbing so I couldn’t be out there practicing with the guys and be out there. But it’s obviously different now that fall has rolled around I can be out there for every practice and helping the guys out there.



On what his gameday duties have been so far this season…

Getting the calls in, and I just really look at our offensive line and serve as extra eyes on the offensive line. We obviously have Coach Hand on the field, we have our GA, Tyler Bowen, who’s up in the box looking at our offensive line, so we’re just trying to see what defenses they’re running and what kind of stunts they’re doing and how our offensive line is playing and…  helping with adjustments on the sideline and helping guys read defenses and see what (the opponent) is doing.



On how he’s been able to keep the positive attitude that so many have said he has throughout his rehab…

You know, there really is no other option when something like this happens… Everything happens for a reason – my only option was to work hard. You can’t really sulk about it. That’s only going to bring you down and bring the guys around you down. And I like to stay upbeat, I’m a positive guy, so that was my only option.



On what his immediate initial feelings and thoughts were when the injury occurred…

It was pretty painful. Right away I think I knew something was definitely wrong and then you end up getting the MRI and you actually see what was wrong with the knee.



On getting to play in live scrimmages last week…

That was great to get those reps in… You’ve got to start getting some live reps at some point, so this was a great week (last week) to get some live reps with the young guys and try to get back into the swing of things, and it felt great. The knee feels awesome, just getting out there kind of getting the rust off and trying to get my game back to where it was and playing my best.



On the original diagnosis was given to him by doctors…

At the time, really, for a knee 5-7 months is fast, 7-9 months normal and 9-12 is long. They said it all depends, everybody’s different in how they recover from these types of surgeries. And so I obviously wanted to choose to be in the fast, 5-7 months, so that was my mindset and I worked my butt off as hard as I could to get in that category so I could try to be back for my guys and playing in some games.



On if he will be playing in a game this season…

Yeah, definitely.



On if medical personnel have told him that his rehabilitation has been ahead of schedule throughout this process…

Our team doctor, Dr. (Scott) Lynch checks me out weekly. He’s been saying good things about the knee. Everything’s been going well, so I have been pleased with it. I couldn’t ask for a better support staff, the strength coach, the doctors, our athletic trainers, really have just helped me out so much along the process of getting my knee back to playing strength and being able to obviously do all that stuff on it. So couldn’t ask for a better support staff.



On if he’s looking forward to chasing a professional career after the season ends…

Yeah, definitely going to pursue an NFL career when I’m done. But I’m just taking it day by day. That’s all you can do. You can’t really focus on the future – just get at it everyday, work as hard as you can and on the future will take care of itself.



When asked what the toughest part of his rehab/physical therapy was, Dieffenbach took a more positive approach for the answer…

Our training staff, strength staff and doctors had put together a world-class rehabilitation for my knee so they … so they made it an awesome experience.  Obviously you’ve got to put a lot of hard work in and it takes a lot of time and a lot of effort – a lot of effort. But they couldn’t have been better with my knee or helped me out anymore.



On how difficult it is to pull off moving from the defensive line to being a starter on the offensive line in a six-month span like teammates Brian Gaia and Derek Dowrey did…

Oh yeah, that’s really had, when you’ve been trained, really, in your mind, to be a defensive lineman, specific movements for all that time, (and) it’s completely different to play offensive line so you’ve got to commend those guys for how well they have adjusted to that and all the hard work and time they’ve put in to become Division I starting offensive linemen.



On if there are any remaining hurdles or milestones to clear before returning to game action…

Not really, it’s just kind of comes down to playing well and getting the movement back. We’ve been doing lateral movement – really, every type of movement – for a long time now. So just doing the strength stuff, getting the movement back, playing well and just being ready to play… There’s really no exact date, it’s more of a day-by-day thing, you’ve got to take it day-by-day, work as hard as you can – and when the time comes, we’ll know. It’ll be a group decision with myself and my family and the doctors.







October 22, 2014
by Chris Adamski

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TribLive Radio PSU show ep. 12: Reasonable expectations for PSU?… Ohio State preview


After being idle for 26 of the previous 27 days, Penn State returns to Beaver Stadium for what is the annually most-anticipated game on the schedule – the White Out, network-televised night game. Every other year, this typically takes place against Ohio State.


The optimism of the 4-0 Nittany Lions start has evaporated for a team that hasn’t won a game in more than a month. Now, everyone from fans to media to coach James Franklin seems to be doing everything they can to temper expectations – not only for the rest of the season, but for Saturday’s game against the Buckeyes.


To me, Franklin’s tact in this area is fascinating for a man who has a core value of “positive thinking” and generally displays a public persona somewhere on the spectrum between over-the-top bravado and self-confident. Remember, this is the guy who went out of his way during his PSU introductory news conference to promise sellouts at every single game and famously (infamously?) pledge to “dominate” the state/region in recruiting.


To have him publicly question if his team is good enough to show it through wins and losses in 2014 is, at very least, interesting.


Joining me to discuss that – and much more – were two reporters who combined for 35-plus years of experience covering Big Ten football: Mark Wogenrich of the Allentown Morning Call, who’s been on the Penn State beat since 1999; and senior writer Steve Helwagen, who’s covered Ohio State for 20 years.



Listen right from here:



Or download the podcast here:




Enjoy the rest of your week up through the game Saturday.




October 17, 2014
by Chris Adamski

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Bill O’Brien: ‘The biggest thing that I take from (my time at PSU) is the relationship with the players’


Bill O’Brien snapped at me once after a game for having the audacity to ask why his running back that’d been averaging 23 carries a game had only seven for an early-season contest last season. Three weeks later, he was visibly annoyed I inquired if a lack of complementary wide receivers was a worry after one receiver had accounted for roughly two-thirds of the wideout catches through six weeks. During his two seasons at Penn State, it became clear that dealing with media questions – to be fair, oftentimes very mundane ones – was far from his favorite part of his vocation.

Ultimately, though, I respected O’Brien for his honesty and straightforwardness. Penn State’s players did, too. I reached out to several – some on the record, some off – over the past couple weeks in anticipation of knowing I’d have the opportunity to speak with him Thursday in advance of his Houston Texans playing at the Steelers on Monday night.

To a man, every Nittany Lions player I talked to was effusive in his praise of O’Brien. Part of that is likely attributable to some sort of psychological human reaction in which one develops a bond with someone with whom they experience a crisis with (after all, O’Brien navigated Penn State through what was easily the most trying time in its program’s history). But I have come to believe that players and others associated with the program also came to respect O’Brien for his no-nonsense, sincere approach.

The man had a classic New England Irish temper, no doubt. But for better or for worse, you always felt he was genuine. I only covered him for one season, so I sheepishly hesitate from drawing too much of a public conclusion, but I will say I also ultimately came to respect O’Brien for who he was.

That could be why there was no – at least as far as I had seen when it came to on-the-record comments – backlash against O’Brien from players when he left PSU to pursue an NFL coaching career 9 ½ months ago.

I was eager to talk with O’Brien this week. He was to be available to Pittsburgh media via a conference call – as all NFL coaches are to opponents’ media four days in advance of a game. As so often happens in these instances, a local media many times has little use for the opposing coach. Barring some kind of hot-button, locally-relevant or imminently-timely pressing issue, these conference calls are met with a figurative shrug, with perhaps only a couple questions asked by a scant number of media members.

In terms of Steelers-related relevance among the Pittsburgh media for O’Brien, that was the case Thursday. The result was a virtual one-on-one with me and the former Penn State coach – the only other outlet listening was the radio flagship for Pitt (unlikely his pro-PSU comments get broadcast there) and one other online reporter who asked one Steelers-related question before losing interest.

That meant almost eight consecutive minutes of a love letter from O’Brien to Penn State Nation.

A cynic would point out that O’Brien knew his audience (a Pennsylvania reporter) and catered his message as such. A fair point. Also, what would O’Brien have to gain by saying anything negative about a former employer? So that said, take his comments with a proverbial grain of salt — Who knows? This wouldn’t be the first time I’d be accused of being naive.

Still, I have no reason to doubt he was genuine. Multiple times, he veered off from clumsy questions I asked to emphasize a positive sentiment toward Penn State. During my second-to-last question (it asked how often he got to watch PSU games), O’Brien began his answer by saying: “I haven’t been able to watch too many games. We were off last weekend so I was able to see the Michigan game and I know that was a tough game for them. I think, not that you asked me this question, but I just feel compelled to say that, Penn State will be back. Penn State is a tremendous place…”

I included the final two phrases of the above, along with the remainder of his thoughts, in the print article that ran in Friday’s editions. Look, those who – for whatever reason – don’t like O’Brien (be it Penn State partisans or Penn State haters alike), they aren’t going to buy into his kind words for the university and its program. (And I’ll admit I didn’t ask him about some of the more controversial aspects of his tenure).

But I’ve been surprised with how overwhelming the early feedback has been about the printed article. So, I thought I’d (after making you all endure reading this wordy introduction) present the remainder of the conversation here on The Blog.

(H/T to Steelers PR whiz Ryan Scarpino for his help in compiling this)


O’Brien, when asked if there was anything he’d miss about coaching in the college game…
“Those kids — the kids that we coached there — were tough, they were hard-nosed, they were winners. And certainly, my wife and I made great friends in State College that we still will stay in touch with and will for the rest of our lives. But I’d say just of the time at Penn State, the biggest thing that I take from that is the relationship with the players that I had there.”


O’Brien on his tighter-than-usual bond with his former players at Penn State…
“I think it was more because of what we went through as a team together there at Penn State for two years. Not what we went through, that’s probably a bad way to say that. It’s more about how we bonded together and won some games…”


O’Brien, asked if despite recent struggles if Christian Hackenberg – whom he was instrumental in bringing to Penn State – still projected as a quality NFL quarterback…
Christian Hackenberg, No. 1, is a special kid. He’s a tough kid, he’s smart (and) he’s a great teammate. He has everything that you’re looking for in a quarterback. He’s got a strong arm, he’s competitive and I know that he hasn’t even reached his potential yet. He’ll work very, very hard every single day and he’ll only get better and better because of his own work ethic. He’s a special kid.”


O’Brien on if it took any time to get re-assimilated into the pro game after his two years at Penn State….
“It’s always an adjustment coming back –especially having been (in the NFL) for five years but then not having been here for two, and especially with the new rules of the CBA and things like that. Those were a little bit different when I was here before and those types of things. There was an adjustment period but it looks like now, personally, just from the schedule and the day-to-day operation, (I’m) definitely back into the swing of things.”




October 15, 2014
by Chris Adamski

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TribLive Radio show ep. 11: Penn State/Big Ten midseason report


This week’s bye-week show delves into where Penn State stands at the season’s midpoint. If asked before the season if they’d take 4-2, I’d have to believe that any Nittany Lions fan, player or coach woulda signed up for that. But when it comes after a 4-0 start, it just doesn’t leave as good a taste in your mouth, does it?


The question now, going forward, is how many wins can an undermanned PSU team get out of the second half of its schedule? Two wins away from bowl eligibility, will the Lions get to six? What’s the ceiling?


Blue White Illustrated editor/columnist Nate Bauer was enlightening in talking about the struggles of Christian Hackenberg, the much-discussed troubles along the offensive line (hint: those two are highly intertwined) and in parsing through The Great Geno Lewis Mystery. Big Ten reporter Mitch Sherman was next up, and he was quick to squelch any optimism I expressed that the Big Ten would get a team into the inaugural College Football Playoff.  On Hackenberg, Sherman said, “The guy’s got a ceiling and a talent level that probably exceeds just about any quarterback playing the college game right now” – but conceded that the circumstances are making it highly difficult for him to produce like one. Sherman also reveals his halfway-point Big Ten MVPs on offense and defense, and other superlatives in the conference through seven weeks.






Listen live here:



And download the link for the podcast here:




As always, thanks for listening and enjoy the week…



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