Penn State Football: Midseason Staff Grades

For the first time this school year, Penn State will not be playing football on Saturday. We’ve seen some extreme highs, and some lows, so far this season, and the Nittany Lions are 4-1 going into the bye week.

So instead of giving a staff prediction as we usually do on Fridays, we decided to assess grades for the football team as a staff. Each member gave a grade for each position, and we averaged them to come up with one “staff grade.”

Here’s how we think the team is doing so far:



Staff grade: B


“If I had to grade Christian Hackenberg on his play when not pressured with a steady pocket, he gets an easy A and a sticker of choice. Unfortunately, I don’t have said luxury because Hack has spent most of the season rolling out to avoid hits because the offensive line is literally incapable of blocking any half-decent front seven for more than two seconds. So yes, Hack looks great in some situations and terrible in others, but for the most part the blame less with the line. Having said that, Hack’s whole ‘Brett Favre’ impression where he uses every ounce of strength in his arm to launch a bomb into triple coverage… those usually don’t end too well.” — Zach Berger

“Hackenberg’s numbers this season fail to accurately represent how well he’s played this year. He’s been under seige constantly, and he’s repeatedly thrown into 3rd-and-longs thanks to questionable playcalling and the poor rushing attack. This grade would be an A if not for the Northwestern game and the 5 yard punt vs. Rutgers.” — Stephane Hardinger


Running backs

Staff grade: C-


“I don’t want to pile on the offensive line here, but that unit’s struggles is the root of this unit’s struggles. Bill Belton, Zach Zwinak, and Akeel Lynch should be having much better seasons than they actually are, but there isn’t much the group can do at this point. They’ve been serviceable when they’ve had a hole to run through, so taking everything into account, they get a C from me.” — Alex Robinson

“In a vacuum, the running backs should get an F, but this abysmal offensive line has hamstrung the poor trio. Tugging on a wishbone at this point.” — Tim Gilbert


Wide receivers/Tight ends

Staff grade: B+


“DaeSean Hamilton and Geno Lewis have proven time and time again that they can be serious playmakers. The trio of tight ends also have a substantial amount of talent. The reason they aren’t feared nationally is because they are victims of the transitive property: our weak offensive line is holding back Hackenberg, who in turn can’t give his receivers a chance to make a play. Besides a few key drops, this unit has been solid through five games.” — Doug Leeson

“Despite the problems up front with the offensive line, along with Christian Hackenberg’s recent struggles, the young group of wideouts have been able to put up some good numbers. DaeSean Hamilton and Geno Lewis could be one of the best receiver duos to come through Penn State in a long time. The wideouts have been the one sign of consistency of Penn State’s offensive unit thus far.” — David Abruzzese

“Sure, the tight ends haven’t quite been as explosive as hoped (42 catches for 292 yards and three scores), but the wide receivers’ incredibly unexpected play outweighs that to the tune of an A. How can the tight ends get so much production when Geno Lewis (29 catches, 495 yards, one TD) and DaeSean Hamilton (36 catches, 502 yards) are hogging it all? If it weren’t for these two playmakers, the season would have a hugely different feel.” — Tim Gilbert


Offensive line

Staff grade: F- (Grades ranged from F to LOL to WN)


block— Tim Gilbert

“If ‘Football 101: Offensive Line’ was a course here at Penn State, this unit might want to consider using some of their 16 late drop credits. The line has been unable to protect Hackenberg, forcing the sophomore to scramble outside the pocket to buy extra time to throw. Hackenberg is on pace to finish the season with twice as many rushing attempts as last year (35 through five games, compared to 49 total in 2013), and the line is a big reason why. If there’s one player the Lions can’t afford to lose, it’s Hackenberg, and yet the offensive line has allowed 14 sacks — a mark that ranks 107th in the nation. The running game has been abysmal, averaging 3.1 yards per carry and only 101 yards per game. Opposing defenses should start investing in real estate in the Nittany Lions backfield, as Penn State is allowing an average of seven tackles for loss per game. The injury to Miles Dieffenbach in the off-season left only one returning player on the line in senior tackle Donovan Smith, which explains why the young, inexperienced group has struggled. That being said, there are no John Urschels or Stefen Wisneiwskis waiting in the wings, meaning offensive line coach Herb Hand will have his hands full to produce a competent unit against much tougher competition in the Big Ten.” — CJ Doon


Defensive line

Staff grade: A


“Perhaps the lone bright spot on the team this season is the defensive line. The front four of Anthony Zettel, Deion Barnes, C.J. Olanyian and Austin Johnson have wreaked havoc on opposing offenses, leading a unit thats totaled 34 tackles for loss, tied for the 16th in the nation. Zettel has been a monster up front, recording seven tackles for loss and three sacks. Olanyian, Barnes, and Johnson combine for another 11 tackles for loss and four sacks. The group is a major reason why Penn State is ranked second in the country in rush defense, allowing a paltry 60.2 yards per game and less than two yards per rush. Backup lineman Parker Cothran (1.5 TFL, 0.5 sack), Evan Schwan (5 tackles), Tarow Barney (1 TFL, 1 sack), Carl Nassib (0.5 TFL, 0.5 sack), and freshman Garret Sickels (1 TFL, 1 sack) have also been impressive in limited game action.” — CJ Doon

“Man, it is nice to see Deion Barnes back in action after a lackluster 2013. It seems many fans have forgotten he was the Big Ten Freshman of the Year in 2012, because in 2013 he tallied only 28 tackles, four for a loss, and two sacks. Those stats didn’t even tell the whole story; it was tough to see him consistently getting eaten up by blockers. This year, he’s back after gaining some offseason weight: 16 tackles, with the exact same TFL and sack numbers as all of 2013 through five games. The Philly product is fun to root for.” — Tim Gilbert



Staff grade: B


“Penn State’s defense is actually quite good. There have been some instances where someone will get picked on after an obvious mistake, but that’s bound to happen. The linebacking corps has certainly been impressive, holding Rutgers’ debatably great RB Paul James to 51 yards and UMass’s entire team to three rushing yards. Mike Hull is having yet another stellar season, and after recording 16 tackles against Northwestern last weekend, he may be on track for some accolades at the end of the year.” — Doug Leeson

“The play of linebacker Mike Hull has me excited about this unit. Sure there may be some areas that the unit can improve upon, but there is no denying that it plays with a certain intensity that wasn’t there last season. Hopefully Bob Shoop unloads plenty of crafty blitz packages so the unit can maximize its potential and wreak havoc in the backfield of its opposition.” — David Abruzzese



Staff grade: B


“While it isn’t the best unit Penn State has ever fielded, Penn State’s secondary has showed flashes of brilliance so far. The unit’s performance this season was highlighted by a five-pick performance at the expense of Gary Nova and the Rutgers Scarlet Knights. With Jordan Lucas and Adrian Amos playing some of their best football, the unit can only improve as the season progresses.” — David Abruzzese

“I’m not gonna lie, I’m quite surprised at how this unit has developed. Looking back to this time last year, if you would have told me the secondary would be a strong point, I would have laughed at you. But Jordan Lucas has developed into a shutdown corner, Adrian Amos continues to play at a high level, and Trevor Williams has improved immensely. Props to Shoop and cornerbacks coach Terry Smith for bringing out the best in each of these guys.” — Alex Robinson


Special teams

Staff grade: C-


“From multiple blocked field goals to poor decision making on kick returns to the unit unequivocally failing to do its job and provide the offense with decent field position, the special teams has been an absolute mess. That was especially evident against Northwestern as poor punting and returning marred the team’s performance. Ficken has been money, but his unit has stunk.” — Zach Berger

“The kicking games have both been subpar at best, with Sam Ficken already having 2 field goals under 40 yards blocked and Chris Gulla averaging only 38.3 yards per punt (13th out of 14 punters in the conference). Combine that with a lack of explosiveness in the return games with Grant Haley and Jesse Della Valle and you get a unit that seems to mainly be trying not to actively screw things up every time it steps on the field.” — Stephane Hardinger

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