Travis Johnson | Looking at Penn State’s top football performers — so far

October 20, 2013 

Yes, we know they don’t declare winners at halftime.

But as the Penn State season reaches its midpoint on a bye week, why not stop and give some players the credit they deserve thus far?

So here’s a look at who is making an impact (or not) for the Nittany Lions (4-2 overall, 1-1 Big Ten).

Offensive MVP: Allen Robinson.

The junior wide receiver has been a game-changer every Saturday this season and he’s torched nearly every defensive back who has lined up across from him. He’s contributing in more ways this season in the variety of routes he’s running and where he’s operating from.

Not only has Robinson accounted for 27 percent of his team’s offense, he’s contributed early and late with four of his five touchdowns coming in the second half.

Robinson set a Penn State record last season with 77 catches. He’s on pace for 86 now. With half a season in the books, Robinson is also on pace to torch the school’s single-season receiving yardage record. Currently, Bobby Engram’s 1,084-yard performance in 1995 is tops in Penn State history. If he keeps up his current pace, Robinson will finish the season with 1,410 yards.

If you add up the production of the rest of the wide receivers who have caught passes for Penn State this season, Brandon Felder, Geno Lewis, Richy Anderson, Matt Zanellato and Alex Kenney have combined for 474 yards.

Penn State fans should enjoy No. 8 while they can. Although he has another year of eligibility remaining, Robinson’s NFL stock continues to rise as he’s now the fourth-highest rated wide receiver amongst players by CBS Sports who will be eligible for May’s NFL Draft.

Most Improved Offensive Player: Bill Belton

Last season was forgettable for Belton who was trying to make the transition from wide receiver to running back in Bill O’Brien’s offense. He was dogged by injuries but even before that seemed to be having difficulty picking up the new position.

What a difference a few months make. Belton played his best game as a Nittany Lion, helping fuel Penn State’s 43-40 overtime win over Michigan with some patient running and crafty footwork to bounce the game-winning touchdown run to the outside. His 369 rushing yards through six games already exceed his 2012 totals (60 carries for 263 yards).

He’s done well in pass protection and has been assigned to protect the quarterback more times than either Zach Zwinak or Akeel Lynch. Belton has also proved himself to be a dangerous weapon in the red zone as he’s caught two touchdowns.

Defensive MVP: DaQuan Jones

Jones is slimmer but stronger than ever this season and his offseason training has paid off. He’s played a heavy volume of snaps in every game and leads PSU in tackles for loss with 8 ½.

He’s been a big factor in three games in which the Nittany Lions have held opponents to less than 100 yards rushing, has chipped in two sacks and has demanded double teams more than any player on the Penn State defensive line.

Jones’ NFL Draft stock is also worth noting as CBS Sports has him as the eighth best tackle eligible to be picked in May.

Most Improved Defensive Player: C.J. Olaniyan

Although Olaniyan played a good amount last season, he was behind Sean Stanley, Pete Massaro and Deion Barnes for most portions of games.

But Olaniyan has been Penn State’s most productive end this season and showed up in a big way against the Wolverines. Olaniyan’s 27 tackles are second among defensive linemen on the team and his 6 ½ tackles for loss are also second only to Jones.

He’s also broken up two passes and forced a fumble.

Unsung Hero: Brandon Felder

A wily veteran with lots of playing time under his belt, Felder has been instrumental in helping quarterback Christian Hackenberg develop. When Hackenberg transitioned to college life in the summer, Felder was one of a group of players who helped him get his bearings and took time to lift and catch passes from him during player-organized workouts.

Felder’s absence was noticeable in the loss to Indiana. As he sat out with a bum ankle, Robinson shouldered even more of the workload and the Penn State passing attack didn’t have the best route-runner on the team to compliment Robinson’s gamebreaking approach.

While Robinson’s catch at the goal line against Michigan will always be remembered in Penn State lore, Felder’s catch before that – where he went up over a defensive back and hauled in a ball thrown deeply into a crowd – cannot be overlooked.

Most surprising disappearing act: Deion Barnes

Barnes hasn’t played badly every game but hasn’t been the impact player he was last season when he led the team in sacks. Now, Barnes has just half a sack and only two tackles for loss through six games.

He made a crucial tackle for loss in overtime against the Wolverines but overall hasn’t been able to elude the obstacles opponents are now throwing in the way of his speed rush.

Most surprising newcomer: Christian Hackenberg

The true freshman who honed his game at Fork Union Military Academy showed promise when he was in high school that he would one day be a great player. He’s showing more and more of that sooner than many thought he would in college.

Hackenberg leads the Big Ten in passing yardage per game (279) and is fourth in total offense.

Seeing a lot of defensive schemes for the first time, Hackenberg has been able to correctly check out of certain plays and plays with a cool demeanor. He’s shown confidence in his own arm and doesn’t shy away from throws.

Follow Travis Johnson on Twitter @bytravisjohnson

Centre Daily Times is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service