Dienhart: Linebacker U needs help at linebacker

The lid is being taken off the James Franklin era. And it’s an exciting time. He brings energy and enthusiasm—not to mention a strong resume that saw him win 24 games in three seasons at Vanderbilt—to State College.

There is plenty of talent to work with-headed by quarterback Christian Hackenberg–but the program continues to deal with repercussions from the Jerry Sandusky scandal. Departed Bill O’Brien was able to forge two winning seasons. What can Franklin do?

Some critical questions must begin to be answered this spring, when only 53 scholarship players will be on hand with 75 projected for the summer and fall. But there are only a combined 23 juniors and seniors.

Here are three areas to watch in March and April.

[ MORE: Read all of Dienhart’s spring football previews ]

1. Who will be the No. 1 wideout? Allen Robinson’s early departure leaves a big chasm after he paced the Big Ten with 97 catches for 1,432 yards and six touchdowns. He was perhaps the top wideout in the Big Ten, a big-play threat who was adept at stretching the field. Exasperating issues is the loss of Brandon Felder, the second-leading pass catcher in 2013. Players like Geno Lewis, Richy Anderson and Matt Zanellato need to continue to develop. Youngsters like DaSean Hamilton (missed last year with a bad wrist) and early-enrollee De’Andre Thompkins could impress. Having perhaps the best collection of tight ends in the Big Ten will help buffet the loss of Robinson and Felder. The trio of Kyle Carter, Jesse James and Adam Breneman has few peers.

2. How will the o-line look? Line coach Herb Hand is a good one. And he’ll need to be as he looks to re-tool the front. Brainy guard John Urschel is gone. And that hurts. Center Ty Howle and right tackle Adam Gress also have departed. Depth at the tackle spots is shaky, but returning starting left tackle Donovan Smith is a stud. Guard Miles Diffenbach also needs to be a leader as the other returning starter up front. Watch for Wendy Laurent at center, Andrew Nelson at right tackle and Angelo Mangiro at guard.

3. Linebacker U has issues. The team didn’t get enough from this group in 2013. Glenn Carson is gone. The staff will build around returning starter Mike Hull and needs players like Nyeem Wartman, Brandon Bell and Ben Kline to take the proverbial next step.

Practice starts: March 17

Spring game: April 12

About Tom Dienhart BTN.com senior writer Tom Dienhart is a veteran sports journalist who covers Big Ten football and men’s basketball for BTN.com and BTN TV. Find him on Twitter and Facebook, read all of his work at btn.com/tomdienhart, and subscribe to his posts via RSS. Also, send questions to his weekly mailbag using the form below and read all of his previous answers in his reader mailbag section.

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Show Comments (4 Comments)
B1Gfan MI on 3/16/2014 @ 3:37pm EDT Said:

“Linebacker U” was always a joke among B1G football powers. Truth be told, Michigan and Ohio turned out more high draft picks between 1970 and 1990. Joe and his buddy Jerry invented the name to create relevance on the recruiting trail. Eventually, it drew them into the B1G, for which we are forever greatful.

Barbara Gershman on 3/16/2014 @ 5:49pm EDT Said:

You have got to be kidding! As I write Michigan has 4 linebackers in the NFL — Lamar Woodley is the only one I’ve heard of. Ohio State has 4 linebackers in the NFL — A.J. Hawk and James Laurinaitis are the only ones I’ve heard of.

Penn State has 8 linebackers in the NFL including Pro Bowlers: Paul Posluszny Butkus and two-time Bednarik winner; Tamba Hali, 4x Pro Bowl; and Cameron Wake, 3x Pro Bowl and 2x CFL Defensive Player of the Year, who played linebacker at PSU. NaVorro Bowman definitely would have been in the Pro Bowl and possibly Sean Lee, if both hadn’t been injured.

Rookie Michael Mauti was the Butkus-Lambert (Big Ten) linebacker of the year last year.

To be so misinformed, you must be young and not know about NFL Hall of Famers Dave Robinson and Jack Ham; College Hall of Famers Shane Conlan and Trey Bauer (Conlan was NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year); LaVar Arrington, Butkus/Bednarik/Lambert Trophies and 3x Pro Bowl; and Greg Buttle, Silver Anniversary Butkus recipient. I’m sure I’ve missed some and there wasn’t room to list all the awards, but that’s a start!

BIGinTN on 3/16/2014 @ 10:42pm EDT Said:

BIGfan MI – Actually, the media gave that name to PSU–it wasn’t self-imposed. I don’t know what you classify as a “high draft pick,” but between the years of 1970 and 1990 (inclusive),OSU had 24 LBs drafted, Michigan had 20, and Penn State had 34. And Joe and Jerry were never “buddies.”

Big Ten Fan on 4/2/2014 @ 4:53pm EDT Said:

You know what is a joke among Big Ten football powers? Michigan’s performance on the national scene during the modern era. They split the 97 title with a Nebraska team that would have hung half a hundred on them in a season that featured games against Iowa and Notre Dame that were marred by horrible calls and then there is the highly dubious ending of the Rose Bowl against the worst participant in memory. That is about it.