Breakout prospect No. 1: Justin Brown

Wide receiver Justin Brown was one of the final players to commit to Penn State’s 2009 recruiting class, but he’s the first player I’m highlighting in my week-long series of seven players ready for breakout seasons for the Nittany Lions.

Brown saw the field as a true freshman, catching five passes for 78 yards to go along with seven punt returns, including an 18-yarder against LSU in the Capitol One Bowl, but the 6-foot-3, 214-pounder showed glimpses of his vast talent last season. Brown pulled in 33 passes for 452 yards — both third best on the team — and one touchdown. At times Brown’s concentration was lacking, with balls clanging off his hands and/or pads, but it never seemed to stay with him throughout the game. He’ll need to have the same attitude, and better focus, this season.

With Derek Moye and Brett Brackett, Brown getting most of the attention last season Brown didn’t get a lot of balls thrown his way, but that will change this season. Brackett is gone and Moye is now a known quantity who teams are going to have to game plan against stopping. That’s going to give Brown plenty of opportunities to show why Penn State fans were so excited when he finally committed to the Nittany Lions on signing day in February 2009.

Defensive backs are going to have a hard time with his size, while safeties won’t be able to match his speed. Despite his drops last season, Brown showed really good hands in high school and an offseason of catching the ball and not letting it get to his body should prove beneficial for him and the Lions. Another positive about Brown is that he’s a willing, and pretty good, blocker. He uses his body well to shield defenders and knows how to block, something a lot of receivers struggle with when they transition to the college game. That’s going to be key in allowing Silas Redd and Stephfon Green to pick up extra yards in the running game.

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As promised

Sorry it’s late (I was taking in the Phillies’ come-from-behind opening-day victory over the Astros today), but here is my column in today’s paper on the first two weeks of spring practice for Penn State.

Remember, starting Saturday for the next week I’ll be highlighting one player a day poised for a breakout season for the Nittany Lions. The following week I’ll pick out a player whose time to prove themselves is now or never.

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Something quick

I wanted to give you a heads up for some things I’m working on for Lions Land for the next couple weeks as Penn State continues spring practice.

I’ll have a column in Friday’s paper (I’ll link it up here when it posts) on the developments from spring practice, notably the injuries to wide receiver Curtis Drake and defensive end Pete Massaro. I’ll also touch on the early recruiting success of the Nittany Lions’ coaches, who have already gotten four verbal commitments for the 2012 class. Remember, last year Penn State only had two verbals well into the fall, albeit with a much smaller amount of scholarships to offer.

I’m also going to be posting every day, starting this Saturday, over the next two weeks with two different kinds of items. For the first week, I’ll highlight a player a day who is in line for a breakout season; guys like wide receiver Justin Brown, linebacker Gerald Hodges and center Miles Dieffenbach. During the final week of a practice I’ll pick a player whose time to prove himself is now or never; guys like defensive tackle Brandon Ware, who broke his hand during the first week of practice, tight end Andrew Szczerba and defensive end Eric Lattimore. And then on April 17, the day after the Blue-White game, I’ll touch on the successes and failures of spring practice.

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Hi again

It’s been quite some time since I’ve last blogged and there are two main reasons for that.

Over the past month basketball has pretty much owned my working existence. Between girls and boys hoops, I was attached to a bleacher or chair nearly every night, but with that now over I’ve had the opportunity to catch my breath and turn my attention to other things, like this blog. And that’s where the other reason for my absence comes in.

With the new rule stating that colleges cannot render written scholarship offers until Aug. 1 of a player’s senior year of high school, schools have been flooding the recruiting field with verbal offers and Penn State is no different. To date the Nittany Lions have made verbal offers to 49 different players (give or take depending on which PSU website you read) from all over the country. Washington, Arizona, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Florida and Kentucky all have players who have received verbal offers from Penn State.

In the past I’ve tried to keep you updated with players who received written offers from Penn State, even going as far as giving small scouting reports on those recruits, but the times they have a changed. To me a verbal offer is a lot like a verbal commitment. On the surface it looks pretty nice, but at the end of the day it doesn’t really mean a whole lot. I’ve never heard of a signed verbal offer coming through a fax machine. So, until Aug. 1, I won’t be putting a ton of stock in “verbal” offers since it doesn’t even guarantee that those players will end up with written offers from Penn State.

I do know that spring practice starts next week and there are plenty of questions the Nittany Lions have to answer before the Blue-White game on April 16. Is Silas Redd ready to take over at running back and is there enough depth behind him? Will the offensive line establish itself or will fans have to suffer through another round of preseason camp battles for positions? Is this the year Michael Mauti stays healthy and fulfills his endless amount of potential? And who is the kicker? I feel like I’m forgetting one. An important one, too. Oh yeah, where will Chaz Powell line up? Defense, offense or quarterbacks coach? No, seriously, who starts at quarterback is the question that must be answered by the end of spring ball. Talent-wise I’d say Paul Jones has a shot, but I just can’t see Joe Paterno allowing another inexperienced quarterback to play in what might be his last season. It will come down to Rob Bolden and Matt McGloin with Bolden winning out on a talent standpoint every day of the week and twice on Sundays. Then again, talent isn’t always the only deciding factor, especially at quarterback where McGloin’s moxie and fire can’t be ignored.

So instead of the recruiting updates that I usually give here, and if there’s one that warrants reporting I certainly will pass the info along, I’m going to focus more on the team over the next month. I hope that’s OK.

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A few days late

I said I’d write up a review of Penn State’s recruiting class a couple days ago, but better late than never right?

Instead of reading me babble on and on about each prospect here is a pretty good breakdown of Penn State’s class that also includes highlight videos of some of the 16 prospects who signed with the Nittany Lions on Wednesday.

My quick thoughts on the class:

1. After a woefully slow start the Nittany Lions really picked things up in December and January. Defensive end Anthony Zettel was a surprise commit, while the Nits were able to fend off multiple suitors for long-time leans Deion Barnes and Donovan Smith.

2. I would have liked to see a running back in this class, but I’m not up in arms because there isn’t one. With Stephfon Green always hurt, Brandon Beachum coming off a major knee injury and Curtis Dukes an unknown it would have been nice to add some depth in the backfield, but there are some good running backs in Pennsylvania next year to go hard after.

3. The one position that didn’t really need any depth, wide receiver, saw three prospects added to a deep group. That means you’ll see some current receivers (Shawney Kersey and Christian Kunz specifically) getting a look in the secondary this spring.

4. Getting only two defensive backs was a big miss for the Nittany Lions. Letting Kyshoen Jarrett and Albert Louis-Jean go elsewhere hurt, and waiting so long to go after a safety when the position is one short on depth was a mistake.

I’d give this class a B because of how well Penn State finished. The Nittany Lions’ traditional recruiting strongholds weren’t exactly overflowing with talent. That won’t be the case next year when PSU has about 22 scholarships to offer, but that’s for another day and time.

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Lions add safety

Penn State picked up its 16th commitment for its 2011 recruiting class when Baltimore safety Adrian Amos pledge on signing day Wednesday.

I’ll have some more thoughts Thursday on the Nittany Lions’ class, which started out painfully slow and then picked up steam the past two months.

Meanwhile, check out PennState247, a fairly new website that has great coverage of signing day. You can read about all 16 of PSU’s commitments for free and get some good insight from Sean Fitz, one of the best Penn State recruiting guys I’ve read.

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No. 14 in the den

Penn State’s recruiting class grew by one Monday when Atco, N.J., athlete Bill Belton verbally committed to the Nittany Lions.

Belton previously had committed to Pittsburgh, but de-committed there when Dave Wannstedt was forced to resign in December. Since then, wide receivers coach and recruiting coordinator Mike McQueary had been on the case and got a pledge from Belton, who was also considering West Virginia, after an in-home visit Monday night.

Here’s a quick breakdown of Belton, who was recruited to play wide receiver but I wouldn’t be shocked if he played some cornerback, too: Belton primarily played quarterback for his high school team and his athleticism really jumps off his film. He has good vision, the ability to make defenders miss in tight spaces and great body control. I’ve seen some reports that Belton runs a 4.6 in the 40, not exactly blazing speed for someone his size, but there’s a huge difference between running that in shorts and a t-shirt and in pads. Belton plays the game at that speed. Even though he’s only 5-foot-9 he covers a lot of distance per stride and really pulls away from defenders in the open field.

This is another huge late pickup for the Nittany Lions, who have been gaining steam in recruiting since the end of the regular season. They missed out on a Brooklyn defensive end Ishaq Williams, who committed to Notre Dame when the Irish had an assistant coach do an in-home visit at 4:30 a.m. the day Williams was supposed to officially visit Penn State. I’ve always been in the boat of being happy about the prospects you get and not dwell on the ones missed and Belton is a player Penn State fans should be very excited about.

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Catching up

Since my last post Penn State’s recruiting class grew by two, with one expected commit and a bit of a surprise.

Owings Mills, Md., offensive tackle Donovan Smith, thought to be a longtime Penn State lean, verbally committed to the Nittany Lions during the U.S. Army All-American Bowl on Saturday. That came a day after Valparaiso, Ind., placekicker Sam Ficken committed.

Smith, who picked the Nittany Lions over N.C. State and UCLA, had Penn State as his favorite for a long time, but wanted to make sure he made the best decision possible. At 6-foot-6 and 300 pounds, Smith is a projectable prospect who should be able to compete for playing time early. It’s rare for Penn State to play true freshmen on the offensive line, but Smith has the physical tools to challenge for playing time right away.

I found some stats on Ficken and they make his commitment look good on the surface. In his senior season Ficken had 44 touchbacks (remember, in high school kickoffs come from the 40-yard line) and was 10-for-14 on field goal attempts with a long of 52 yards. With Collin Wagner gone and reports of Anthony Fera’s issues kicking off the ground, taking a kicker in this class isn’t all that crazy, but with a cap of 17 players I’m not sure it was vital.

Two players who won’t be coming to Penn State are Hyattsville, Md., defensive tackle Darian Cooper, who was told by Penn State that he’s no longer on their board, and Brooklyn safety Brandon Reddish, who hasn’t heard from the Penn State coaching staff recently. Both were expected to take official visits soon and had Penn State near the top of their lists.

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Nowicki comes aboard

Penn State continued to build recruiting momentum when Glendale, Ariz., offensive tackle Ryan Nowicki verbally committed earlier this week.

Nowicki, who chose the Nittany Lions over offers from Arizona, Illinois and USC among others, is rated as a three-star prospect, Arizona’s ninth-rated player and the nation’s 36th-best offensive tackle by Rivals.com

Here’s a brief scouting report on Nowicki: For a kid who is 6-foot-5 and 272 pounds, Nowicki moves exceptionally well. His high school played him at right tackle and ran a lot of plays with him pulling and Nowicki did it with ease. What I really liked was how natural it looked with him pulling. He immediately turned his left foot, planted off his right and went right down the line. No wasted movement and it didn’t look like he had to think, which made me believe he was asked to pull a lot in high school. Did a good job moving his feet when engaged in run blocking. Got a little high coming out of his stance at times. Played mostly in a two-point stance in a spread offense and didn’t pass block once in the film I saw. Was able to turn his defender routinely and played with a mean streak, finishing off plays by pancaking his man.

This is a good pickup for Penn State, reaching into a part of the country the Nittany Lions rarely ever go. Nowicki is originally from Illinois so he’s familiar with Big Ten football. He likes to play physical and looks like a good right tackle prospect. He’ll have to work playing with his hand on the ground and staying low out of his stance, but he has the upside to be able to do all that.

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Surprise (big-time) verbal

Penn State got a very pleasant surprise on Tuesday when West Branch, Mich., defensive end Anthony Zettel verbally committed to the Nittany Lions.

Zettel, who many thought would select either Michigan or Michigan State, took an official visit to Penn State on Nov. 26 and that was enough to pull him away from home. Ranked by Rivals.com as the nation’s 66th-best prospect, third-best prospect in Michigan and the fifth-ranked strongside defensive end in the country, Zettel was recruited by Penn State linebackers coach Ron Vanderlinden.

Here’s a quick scouting report on Zettel: At 6-foot-4 and 255 pounds, Zettel has ideal size to play right defensive end or even possibly slide inside and play a 3-technique defensive tackle spot. Two things that really jumped of Zettel’s film were his foot quickness and ability to use his hands to get off blocks. Zettel rarely had a wasted step and showed the ability to shed blocks, both against run and pass blocking, with strong hands. Showed the ability to find the ball and sniff out screens and draws. Displayed a high motor and good hands, intercepting a screen pass on the other side of the field. Good tackler who finishes plays and doesn’t let ball carriers get away once in his grasp. Did a good job recognizing whether a play was a run or pass and attacked the offensive lineman accordingly. Didn’t show a lot of moves rushing the passer, but that’s because his bull rush and first step were so dominant. He’ll work with defensive line coach Larry Johnson to add some diversity to his pass-rushing repertoire.

This is a big-time get for the Nittany Lions and could really be a big shot of momentum going into the final five weeks until signing day on Feb. 2.

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