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Spring Football: Offensive Line Playing With Confidence

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Spring Practice Central

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - The Nittany Lions entered the 2014 spring practice period with just two players on the offensive line with starting experience.

And when senior Miles Dieffenbach suffered a knee injury during spring ball, the Lions were left with just one returning starter - Donovan Smith.

What a difference a year has made for the Penn State O-Line with senior center Angelo Mangiro headlining a group that now features a host of returning players with significant game and starting experience.

With experience comes confidence, and the Nittany Lions have taken a step forward in the trenches since the end of the 2014 season.

"We've done some really nice things this spring, and certainly we have some things to work on, but comparing this year to last year, it's really not close with how far we have come," said senior Angelo Mangiro. "We have more guys who are veterans now. They are more confident making their calls and doing the technical things we need to do."

You can't really put a value on what the game reps meant to the unit's collective growth. It was trial by fire with four of the five starters during the vast majority of last season seeing things for the first time during plays in games. Now, things have slowed down.

"One of the biggest things for offensive line play is getting those on-field reps," tackle Andrew Nelson said. "Getting on the field in games and playing in every rep was huge, not only for me, but a lot of guys. Those reps were huge to get a feel for the speed of the game, making calls, so that experience helped all of us grow tremendously."

No unit worked harder during the winter conditioning period than the offensive line. To a man, each player in the group made strides in strength, flexibility, speed and quickness. Coupling the physical growth with the game experience, Penn State's offense has executed at a higher level this spring because of the unit that makes up more than 45 percent of the entire offense.

"They just have to take kind of a lunch-pail mentality and come to work every single day and grind through it. But overall, I'm really pleased," said head coach James Franklin. "And I told them, they may not see it and even the individual coaches may not see it but I do. Looking at it from 50,000 feet and watching all the drills and all the competition, I'm just so impressed."

In all, six players return to the unit with starting experience, including Derek Dowrey (guard/center), Brian Gaia (guard/center), Wendy Laurent (center/guard), Brendan Mahon (guard/center), Mangiro (center/guard) and Nelson (tackle). Additionally, tackle Albert Hall saw action in 12 games last season, and the Nittany Lions add a host of redshirt freshman to the rotation and newcomers Paris Palmer and Sterling Jenkins.

The experience on the field and growth this spring has the group optimistic with the direction things are headed.

"When we are playing confident and doing the things we need to do, the offense moves," said Mangiro. "We understand that. We are willing to put that on our shoulders.

The offensive line's growth has not gone unnoticed by the players around the unit. Quarterback Christian Hackenberg has taken note of the command the line is playing with when it approaches the line of scrimmage during pre-snap reads. Running back Akeel Lynch has also been a direct beneficiary of an improved group up front.

"I think with the offensive line, the big thing is communication," running back Akeel Lynch said. "They are more confident in what they are doing. When it comes to pass protection, they are communicating with me and I'm communicating with them. When you are playing for the first time and learning the offense, it's hard to pick things up as quickly. Obviously, with this being the second year, they are able to communicate a lot faster, which helps with the running game be more productive and helps with pass protection."

With the experience alone, the offensive line is not the same unit it was in 2014. After a slew of underclassmen players received invaluable game reps, and with only one senior (Mangiro) in the group, the Nittany Lions have a lot to build on and look forward to as the offensive line continues to evolve.

Follow's Tony Mancuso on Twitter @GoPSUTony

Spring Football: Lynch Embracing Opportunity to Become Featured Back

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10996080.jpegSpring Practice Central

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - Akeel Lynch has been waiting for the opportunity to become Penn State's featured running back since he committed to the Nittany Lions leading up to the 2012 season.

He redshirted during his first fall before spending the last two years waiting in the wings behind the tandem of Bill Belton and Zach Zwinak.

Like any college freshman, Lynch walked into the program with his mind made up that he was ready to be an impact player. But hindsight is always 20/20, and knowing what he knows now as a redshirt junior, the Toronto product wouldn't trade the last two years for anything.

Albeit difficult, Lynch remained optimistic and used the opportunity as means to refine all aspects of his game.

"I think I did a lot in those two years to develop and put myself in this position to be the older guy in the room," Lynch said. "I don't think that if I had to play right away I would be as effective because I have learned so much. Even though at the time I didn't see it, it was helpful and your time comes."

Now the featured player in a backfield full of young talent, Lynch is the guy everyone is turning to with questions. He's poised to be a central figure in the Penn State offense, and it's a role Lynch is ready to embrace.

"It's more of a change in mentality," said Lynch. "Being the No. 1 guy is a lot different than coming off the bench. Just knowing that the team needs you to be the No. 1 guy, you know that you have to do all of the things necessary to be a good running back."

His preparation for what lies in store for 2015 has been an evolutionary process for three years, but Lynch's production in the final seven games of 2014 expedited his track to becoming the featured back.

The 6-foot, 220-pound junior circles the final drive in regulation during Penn State's double overtime game with Ohio State as the moment when things began to shift. It was a moment that propelled Lynch to seven-straight games of 12 or more carries, including back-to-back 130-yard-plus outings in November.

"That (last drive in regulation is) when the game started to slow down for me, and I gained my confidence," Lynch said. "We were able to move the ball, and I was able to do my job to help the team score (to end the game)."

Lynch scored touchdowns in three of the final four games and tallied 75 yards on 17 carries in the Pinstripe Bowl, boosting him into the start of spring ball.

"The spring has gone really well," Lynch said. "It's the second year so the offense is moving a lot more smoothly. The game has slowed down. Communication is a lot better for everyone."

"I think this spring he has really elevated his play and performance a lot," quarterback Christian Hackenberg said. "He's done a great job increasing his knowledge of the position. It's not just running the ball. It's so much more...You can see him coming into his own."

The final player to wear No. 22 before the number is retired is by no means satisfied. He knows there is another gear in all aspects of his game. At the top of the list in Lynch's mind is an unsung characteristic of any great running back.

"Pass protection has slowed down a lot for more, but it's still about picking up blitzes faster," Lynch said. "Definitely during this spring ball (period), I've seen a lot of improvement with myself. I'm getting more confident and I'm picking up blitzes a lot faster and getting in a lot better body position."

After becoming the 42nd player in Penn State history to eclipse 1,000 yards, Lynch's strong finish to 2014 set the stage for his final two seasons in Blue and White. He understands that increased responsibility on the field places a bigger burden on his shoulders.

"I've always tried to prepare myself for this role," said Lynch. "You've got to be the guy to go out there and make plays; run the ball, block, catch the ball out of the backfield. You have to go out there and make the plays to win the game."

Lynch's ability to make those winning plays is a byproduct of the trait that has made him a better running back and the same characteristic that placed him into the position he is in today as the featured man in the running attack.


Follow's Tony Mancuso on Twitter @GoPSUTony

VIDEO: Spring Practice Sights and Sounds - Defensive Line

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Spring Practice Central

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - The Nittany Lion defensive line is shaping up to be one of the strengths for the Penn State defense in 2015. Led by the talented interior pairing of Austin Johnson and Anthony Zettel, the Nittany Lion D-Line is full of playmakers.

Head coach James Franklin highlighted the unit's defensive ends when he addressed the media on Saturday. Carl Nassib, Garrett Sickels, Torrence Brown and Curtis Cothran. Today, take an inside look at the Nittany Lion defensive line during spring practice.

Penn State will hold practice No. 13 on Wednesday. The Blue-White Game presented by AAA is Saturday at 4 p.m. (BTN).

Follow's Tony Mancuso on Twitter @GoPSUTony

VIDEO: James Franklin Spring Practice Update - April 11

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Spring Practice Central

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - The Nittany Lions completed practice No. 11 of the spring on Saturday morning. The session featured several scrimmaging periods inside Holuba Hall before special teams work outdoors. Penn State President Eric Barron addressed the team at the conclusion of practice.

The team will practice three more times before culminating spring drills inside Beaver Stadium at 4 p.m. on April 18 at the Blue-White Game presented by AAA. Head coach James Franklin provided a spring practice update on Saturday. Take a look to hear about the team's progress since spring drills began on March 20.

Follow's Tony Mancuso on Twitter @GoPSUTony

Spring Football - Nassib Eyeing Bigger Role on Defensive Line

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10982258.jpegSpring Practice Central

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - He hadn't played a down for the Nittany Lions prior to the 2013 season, so when former head coach Bill O'Brien summoned Carl Nassib to his office on an early morning during training camp in August of 2013 it's easy to understand why he was a little nervous.

Nassib entered the head coach's office as a walk-on with a semester bill due to the registrar's office in a matter of days and left with a full scholarship, one that he has kept to this day.

Now, 20 months later, Nassib is in line to play a central role as a defensive end for the Nittany Lions in 2015. While plenty has changed for the West Chester native since that day in 2013, namely bulking up to 6-6, 270 pounds, one thing has remained constant - Nassib's motor.

The senior is relentless and plays every rep at practice like it's his last.

"Everybody is hungry and all of the defensive ends want to prove themselves every time we go on the field," Nassib said.

It's usually not difficult to know when Nassib is on the field for a rep at practice because you can hear his enthusiasm. Nassib never met a challenge he didn't enjoy facing or one he didn't believe he could beat.

"I have a great time at practice, yelling the whole time," said Nassib. "I'm trying to make plays, and when one person is out there yelling and having a good time it excites everybody...While your out there, you want to be hyped, have fun and do your thing. It's all about getting better, and you might as well have fun while you are doing it."

With two vacancies at defensive end following the graduation of Deion Barnes and C.J. Olaniyan, Nassib knew this offseason was an opportunity to take the next step. His quest for securing a starting spot began in the winter when he added nearly 10 pounds of muscle to his frame.

The increased size to go along with his speed and quickness has made the senior a tough man to block since spring practice began on March 17. Nassib, who has seen action in 23 of the past 25 Penn State games (7 tackles and 3.5 TFL in 2014), is the veteran of the defensive ends. It's a unit of ends full of potential thanks to a cupboard filled with young talent, including junior Evan Schwan, sophomore, Garrett Sickels, sophomore Curtis Cothran and freshman Torrence Brown.

"I'm really liking what I am seeing from the young guys," said Nassib. "They make me better. I make them better. They are doing a great job."

Aiding in the growth and development of the defensive ends is who the unit is able to lineup next to. All-America candidates Anthony Zettel and Austin Johnson are formidable figures in the heart of the coach Sean Spencer's unit, and it's something that makes Nassib's eyes light up at the potential of the group.

'It's relieving to know that you are lined up right next to them" said Nassib. "They are awesome football players. I'm excited to see how they progress even further from the seasons they had last year. I'm excited to play next to them. Single blocking those two guys is almost impossible."

A biology major with aspirations of pursuing medical school to specialize in pediatrics, Nassib is among the top students on the team. Now, the Eastern Pennsylvania product is primed to leave his mark on the field.

"I don't really look to the future too much and get ahead of myself," Nassib said. "I take everything day by day and try to get better every day. If I think about the future too much, I lose the present. It started in high school, and I just tried to work my butt off every single day. Back then I didn't really see myself here. I had no idea (I would be in this position). But I just worked to see where things would take me."

Follow's Tony Mancuso on Twitter @GoPSUTony

VIDEO: Spring Practice Sights and Sounds - Offensive Line

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Spring Practice Central

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - It has been a spring practice period marked by progress for the Nittany Lion offensive line. Like every unit on the depth chart, the offensive line has taken a significant step forward since the start of spring practice one year ago.

For an inside look at the unit, check out some sights and sounds with offensive line coach Herb Hand and the Nittany Lions during spring practice. Penn State will hold practice No. 11 on Saturday. The Blue-White Game presented by AAA is slated for April 18 at 4 p.m. (BTN).

Follow's Tony Mancuso on Twitter @GoPSUTony

Spring Football: Hamilton, Receiving Corps Ready to Take Next Step

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10976389.jpegSpring Practice Central

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - One year ago from today, DaeSean Hamilton had not made a single catch as a Penn State receiver during a practice or in a game.

After a wrist injury sidelined the Virginia native throughout 2013 and the first 12 spring practices of 2014, Hamilton did not participate in a practice until April 9. He practiced twice in a limited role before two quarters of action in the Blue-White Game on April 12.

But what a difference a year has made for the all-time leader in receptions for a Nittany Lion freshman.

On the heels of a rookie campaign where he hauled in a Big Ten-best 82 catches, Hamilton has reached for another gear during his first full spring on the field for the Nittany Lions.

"Having a season under your belt makes such a big difference," Hamilton said. "You're able to play a lot faster and understand the nature of the game a lot quicker with that experience. It makes a big difference. I feel a lot more comfortable."

Primed to be a central figure in a deeply talented pool of receivers, Hamilton is expecting big things from the Penn State offense in 2015.

"We are significantly more comfortable this year," Hamilton said. "We are going out there and reviewing things instead of learning them for the first time. You can tell a lot with guys knowing where they need to be on every play."

There is a natural progression from year one on the field to year two, and a big piece of the growth is the continued rapport with rising junior quarterback Christian Hackenberg. The duo has a season full of game and practice reps to build on, in addition to all of the work set forth during the offseason.

"It's big for us," Hamilton said. "We are a lot more comfortable with one another because we have played a lot. The expectations will be bigger for us (in the fall), but we're confident in what we are capable of doing."

"These guys have all worked extremely hard this spring, and you are seeing it on the field," Hackenberg said. "Guys know where to be and how to go out there and execute, and that is huge for the offense."

Within the 15 allotted spring practices, Hamilton said there are a number of things he is working on to refine his game following the stellar campaign in 2014.

"Without having spring ball last year, a big thing for me is just keeping my ball skills up, having a better catch radius to make better catches, being precise with my routes, being versatile by playing inside and outside," said Hamilton.

Hamilton will be just one piece of a receiving corps with great potential. Senior Geno Lewis returns as the team's second-leading receiver. Lewis made 55 receptions last season. Fellow senior Matt Zanellato and junior Gregg Garrity are also back, in addition to a pair of true sophomores poised for breakout campaigns.

Chris Godwin and Saeed Blacknall are two players who made big jumps in the weight room during the winter conditioning period, and that has translated into a very productive spring practice season for the talented tandem. As true freshmen, Godwin and Blacknall made 25 and 11 receptions, respectively, and combined for three touchdowns.

"We have high expectations (as a group) now after the performance we had against Boston College (in the Pinstripe Bowl)," Hamilton said. "Consistency is a big thing, but also taking our games to the next level. We want to be an elite group. We want to come back in the fall and springboard off of the way we finished last season. As long as we set the bar high and miss small, we are going to take a step forward next fall and even the rest of this spring."

Continuing with head coach James Franklin's theme of iron sharpening iron, the receiving corps is using the opportunity to practice against one of the top defensive units in the nation to its advantage. Each time the group steps on the field it learns something.

"Going out every day and working against one of the best defenses in the country last year helps everyone get better. When you practice against those guys, it helps all of us become better football players. And it's competitive," said Hamilton.

Follow's Tony Mancuso on Twitter @GoPSUTony

VIDEO: Spring Practice Sights and Sounds - Safeties

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Spring Practice Central

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - The safety corps received a boost before spring practice commenced when it was announced that veteran defensive back Jordan Lucas would join the group.

Thanks to depth at corner, Lucas will boost the depth at the safety position alongside rising sophomore Marcus Allen, junior Malik Golden and a host of young players.

Continuing the sights and sounds series, spend some time with defensive coordinator and safeties coach Bob Shoop during spring practice.

Follow's Tony Mancuso on Twitter @GoPSUTony

Spring Football: Williams Primed to Lead in Secondary

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Williams_blog.jpgSpring Practice Central

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - Sometimes the best leaders are the ones who quietly go about their business on the football field, but do it with a consistent workmanlike approach to set an example for those around them.

It wasn't too long ago Trevor Williams was catching 10 passes for the Nittany Lion offense during the 2012 season. Shifting from receiver to corner during the spring of 2013, the rising senior is now the elder statesman of talented group of cornerbacks on the Penn State defense.

Williams faced his share of adversity during the switch to the defensive backfield, even battling to regain a starting spot after the 2013 season. But that's ancient history now, and the Baltimore product is looking to build on the most consistent season of his career, one in which he started 12 games for Penn State's Top 10 defense in 2014.

If spring practice is an indicator, Williams is a prime candidate to take his game to the next level in the fall.

"There has definitely been a lot of progress," Williams said. "Our chemistry is a lot stronger. Coach Smith has done a great job helping us out in the cornerback room. And Coach Shoop puts us in positions to be successful. I just think the 2015 year will be a strong year for us."

Shoop repeatedly said last fall that when you watched Williams on film during practice or in a game, he was as consistent as anyone on the roster.

"I've really tried to focus on the small details, and I really think that has helped me be consistent," Williams said. "The mindset is to make more plays for the defense because big plays on defense helps the offense."

The step Williams has taken on the field this spring began in the weight room during the winter. The former Calvert Hall standout added 10 pounds of muscle, increasing his speed, quickness and strength. It hasn't gone unnoticed by his teammates.

"Trevor has gotten a lot better," wide receiver DaeSean Hamilton said. "Going against Trevor and Grant (Haley), you can tell this is becoming a solid defensive back corps at the corner position."

Williams returns as Penn State's most experienced player at corner after Jordan Lucas moved to safety. The senior is ready to lead a group with no shortage of young talent.

"You don't make that move unless you feel good about the young corners," head coach James Franklin said. "So having a Christian Campbell, having a Grant Haley (is important). Trevor's playing at a really high level."

Like the entire Nittany Lion defense, Williams and the young corners want to prove that the 2015 secondary can compete at what Coach Shoop calls championship level. That starts with setting the tone during spring practice.

"It's a lot of energy. It's a lot of intensity," Williams said. "Every day, we challenge one another to get better. We want to fly around, make plays and get turnovers."

The Nittany Lions will practice for the 10th time this spring on Wednesday.

Follow's Tony Mancuso on Twitter @GoPSUTony

VIDEO: Spring Practice Sights and Sounds - Running Backs

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Spring Practice Central

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - The stable of running backs will feature a blend of youth and experience for the Nittany Lions in 2015.

Key offensive returnee Akeel Lynch is primed to be the workhorse for a unit that is not short on versatility. Behind Lynch is a host young, talented players eager to take the next step in the fall to become impact players for the Nittany Lion offense.

Spend some time with running backs coach Charles Huff inside a spring practice.

Follow's Tony Mancuso on Twitter @GoPSUTony