It’d be hard to find a soul who predicted Penn State would emerge as the winner of the Big Ten before the 2016 season.
After a 2-2 start, the Nittany Lions eked out an overtime win over Minnesota on Oct. 1 and never looked back, winning nine in a row, including a thrilling comeback over Wisconsin to win the Big Ten title.
The dream season ended disappointingly when PSU blew a big lead against USC in the Rose Bowl. Still, 2016 was a huge year for James Franklin and company. With that comes a brand new set of every coach’s favorite thing: expectations! How will Penn State handle it?
“I think the expectations are always pretty big at Penn State. I think where it’s probably changed is nationally. I think there’s more people nationally talking about Penn State right now than probably in years past,” Franklin said.
“To be honest with you, I think our guys embrace it. It challenges them and motivates them. But for us we don’t spend a whole lot of time talking about those things. We believe in kind of how we run our program and focus on the fundamentals of the game and making sure all our guys are really detailed and specific and thorough in all the things we do from a preparation standpoint, both physically and mentally.
“So we focus on that and not on the expectations, the outside noise. We’re concerned about ourselves. Although we are aware of it.”
[Big Ten Media Days: Urban Meyer says ‘there’s no gap between Big Ten, SEC]
One area Franklin expects the team to improve is along the offensive line. Franklin hasn’t been shy in mentioning that PSU’s sanctions-stricken roster had seven scholarship offensive linemen when he arrived. Now the Nittany Lions have six linemen with significant starting experience, plus a few highly recruited underclassmen ready to contribute.
Quarterback Trace McSorley and running back Saquon Barkley, two of the five players to receive Big Ten preseason honors in the East, already put up huge numbers when the offensive line was average-at-best last fall. Franklin thinks there’s room to improve — a scary proposition for Big Ten opponents.
“I would make the argument the thing we’re most excited about is the offensive line,” Franklin said. “Saquon Barkley has done some great things so far, but to think about him having a chance now this season to play behind what I feel like has got a chance to be one of the better offensive lines in the Big Ten, there’s so much value in that.”
Harbaugh opens Michigan QB competition
Michigan lost a majority of its starters from 2016, but the quarterback position was supposed to have a familiar face under center Week 1 against Florida. Well, according to Jim Harbaugh, that may not be the case.
Harbaugh said Tuesday that Wilton Speight, a 12-game starter in 2016, is in a “good spot” and is “tied for first with John O’Korn and Brandon Peters.” That was a bit of a surprise, even though Speight did struggle down the stretch in 2016 when the Wolverines lost three of their last four games.
Is this just a motivation thing? Well according to Harbaugh it was “a dead heat” after spring practice.
“Brandon really shot up. John O’Korn really played consistently good. And Wilton really had some impressive moments as well,” Harbaugh said.
“We’ll go through training camp starting on Monday, just throw the balls out there and let the fellows compete. There’s a lot a quarterback can do over the summer to get better at playing quarterback. So you want to see what’s transpired over the summer and see who has gotten better.”
Harbaugh said the player named starter is the one “who gives our team the best chance to move the ball, score touchdowns and put points on the board and not turn the ball over.”
That will take anywhere between eight and 15 practices to figure out, Harbaugh said.
Fleck injecting ‘cultural sustainability’ at Minnesota
New Minnesota coach P.J. Fleck, sporting a newly shaved head thanks to a bet he lost to his wife, brought a jolt of energy to the podium Tuesday morning.
He spoke of the transition — or the “honeymoon period,” as he called it — from Western Michigan to Minnesota over the last six months or so and how he has begun to inject “cultural sustainability” into the program. That, of course, includes rowing the boat.
“One of the challenges we face again at Minnesota is cultural sustainability. That is our players’ third head coach in three years. Very challenging for young people,” Fleck said.
“We look forward to bringing that culture of sustainability over a period of time. We look forward to developing our players to an elite level, academically, athletically, socially and spiritually on a daily basis, and keep doing our best and rowing the boat every single day.”
Part of Fleck’s job, he said, is to raise the profile of Minnesota’s program. So when ESPN approached him about a four-part docuseries called “Being P.J. Fleck,” he didn’t hesitate to accept.
“This wasn’t something that we said: ‘We’re going to have a reality show, let’s go find somebody to air it.’ They approached us, which was an honor. One thing I am hired to do is bring national exposure, national attention to the University of Minnesota. And that’s what we’re going to do,” Fleck said.
Fitzgerald: New facilities paying dividends in recruiting
Northwestern rallied from a 1-3 start in 2016 to finish the year 7-6. The season was capped off by a win over a solid Pittsburgh team in the Pinstripe Bowl. Pat Fitzgerald hopes that win, and the team’s improved play behind Clayton Thorson and Justin Jackson in the second half of the year, carries over into 2017.
“We got our edge back midway through the season, we carried it through the bowl prep,” Fitzgerald said. “And the guys saw the return on the investment, and that momentum carried over really through offseason workouts and then to spring ball.”
It’s taken a long time — Fitzgerald is entering his 12th season — but Northwestern finally is catching up facility-wise with its Big Ten opponents. On the whole, Fitzgerald says the program is continuing on an upward trajectory and the presence of the beautiful new Walker Athletic Center, right on Lake Michigan, has translated into more success on the recruiting trail.
“(Recruiting is) at an all-time high. Young men want to play for a winner, want to get a great education and be prepared for life. And, quite frankly, they want to see commitment from universities and fans that they’re going to support your program and the experience,” Fitzgerald said.
“This is for our program, from the standpoint of university support, one of the last few pieces of the puzzle we really need. We’re far from the finished product in Evanston, and now to have all the great facilities we’re about to have gives us a chance to compete for a recruit maybe we never had an opportunity to get.”
Brohm: Purdue defense ahead of offense
In his first year from Western Kentucky, Jeff Brohm knows he has a lot of work to do at Purdue. His teams at WKU scored early and often. Beyond quarterback David Blough and a solid group of running backs, the personnel may not be there quite yet, but Brohm intends to bring a similar brand of football to West Lafayette.
“I think we do want to play an exciting brand of football. We do want to have some fun with it and try to score points. I think when we look at our team right now we’ll have to adjust to the personnel we have,” Brohm said.
“Probably for us right now our running backs are our strength, and our tight ends are right behind them. We’ve got to find ways to get the ball in their hands. I feel good about finding a way to get them in there and find a way to get more than one back in at times, and being very creative with it in our own way.”
Brohm’s WKU teams were more known for offense, but he said Tuesday the defense — at linebacker especially — is ahead of the offense right now. Depth is an issue, however.
“I like our defense and I think they’re farther ahead than the other side of the ball right now,” Brohm said. “I think we’ve got some experienced guys on that side of the ball that have been there and done that. We have a great linebacking corps. I think we have a good front line on the defensive side and good corps of a first unit that can be productive for us. Once again, do we have the depth we need? Not at this point. But I think it’s getting better. I think that will be the key to how we perform on defense.”
Change at QB, on defense for Riley, Nebraska
For a guy who hasn’t played a snap in the Big Ten, Nebraska quarterback Tanner Lee sure has gotten a whole lot of hype. Lee, a two-year starter at Tulane, was named the starter coming out of spring and was one of three players to represent the Huskers on Tuesday in Chicago.
There’s a lot to like about the junior, according to coach Mike Riley.
“He’s been with our team for about a year. He had to sit out a year and his entry has been impressive in just the simple fact that he became a good teammate. Became immediately well liked and through time became very well respected, enough so to be elected at one of our offseason captains. He got a large amount of votes from the current team,” Riley said.
“He entered in rather not a really dramatic fashion, just became one of the guys and, like I said, was well liked and then eventually well respected.”
In addition to a new quarterback, Nebraska will play a new style of defense in 2017. Riley brought in fired UConn head coach Bob Diaco to implement his 3-4 scheme. RIley has been thinking about going back to the 3-4 alignment for quite some time, he said, and was impressed with the team’s transition in the spring.
“I was a 3-4 defensive coach. So I have been for a time intrigued about getting back to playing the 3-4,” Riley said. “And then the availability of Coach Diaco with my desire to look into the 3-4, led me to the interview and then the interview was really great confirmation about what else this guy would bring. I see Bob as a really good teacher. I love that part of him.”
One challenge Riley, Diaco and company face is replacing Chris Jones, the team’s job returning cornerback who suffered a serious knee injury. Riley raised the possibility of moving Josh Kalu back to corner from safety.
Ash: 2016 season was ‘awful’
Rutgers coach Chris Ash didn’t mince words about his first season.
“It was awful,” he said.
The Scarlet Knights went 2-10 without a win in conference play. Ash said the team has “moved on” from that disastrous season.
“It’s behind us and we’re a lot better football team today because of what we went through a year ago. We went through a lot of adversity a lot of tough times, a lot of challenges. It brought our football team closer together,” Ash said. “What we did is push the reset button in December when the season was over. We are a very committed football team right now.”
To beef up the roster, Ash brought in a bevy of transfers, including ex-Louisville quarterback Kyle Bolin. Ash is hopeful the new additions can make an immediate impact, even if it’s just in practice.
“I think we’ve brought in nine transfers here recently. Really what we wanted to get from the transfers is competition. We wanted to bring in some guys that have come from four-year programs. They’ve gone through strength and conditioning programs and offseason workouts and training camps,” Ash said.
“A lot have had successful experiences from the places that they’ve been at and they’ve provided tremendous competition, renewed energy, excitement as we go into training camp. And those battles for positions are going to be really exciting to watch with those guys being part of our team.”
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