Penn State Nittany Lions

LINCOLN, NE - SEPTEMPER 27: Linebacker T.J. Neal #52 of the Illinois Fighting Illini arches of running back Ameer Abdullah #8 of the Nebraska Cornhuskersduring their game at Memorial Stadium on September 27, 2014 in Lincoln, Nebraska.  (Photo by Eric Francis/Getty Images)
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Illini grad transfer T.J. Neal to visit WVU, Auburn

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T.J. Neal does not yet know where he will continue his collegiate career, but it appears the linebacker has significantly narrowed the field.

A little less than two weeks ago, Neal, after being told by the coaching staff that they were planning to move him from middle to strongside linebacker, decided to transfer out of the Illinois football program.  As he will be a graduate transfer upon earning his degree in May, Neal will be eligible to play at another FBS program in 2016.

Enter West Virginia and Auburn, two teams which have been in contact with Neal and vice versa.  According to al.com, Neal will visit Morgantown this coming Monday, then head to The Plains a week later.

Upon the announcement of an impending departure, Illini head coach Bill Cubit said the Pennsylvania native “was talking about playing closer to home.”  Even as a move to Auburn would be the exact opposite of that, Neal seems genuinely excited over the prospects.

“Being able to play down there in Alabama, it’s like a dream come true,” Neal told Brandon Marcello of al.com. “From my high school, I never thought I’d play at a big-time school like Auburn. To have a chance now, it’s exciting to play against some of the top players in the country.”

According to blueandgoldsports.com, Penn State and Pittsburgh are/were also in play. It’s unclear if he’s visited or plans to visit those schools in his home state, although it was originally thought that the Nittany Lions could be high on Neal’s to-do list.

Not only is Neal a native of McKeesport, Pa., but Tim Banks, the Illini’s co-defensive coordinator and secondary coach the past four seasons, left in December to become the Nittany Lions’ coordinator.  PSU has also seen a pair of linebackers, Troy Reeder and Gary Wooten Jr., transfer out this month, meaning the opportunity for a starting job would certainly be on the table.

Regardless, Neal expects to make a decision shortly after the Feb. 15 visit to Auburn. He would then enroll in his new school of choice shortly after his graduation from Illinois.

Neal was a two-year starter for the Illini who finished second on the team in tackles (109) this past season.  He was named honorable mention All-Big Ten for his play in 2015.

Penn State’s Beaver Stadium not in outdoor plans for Flyers, Penguins

Penn State fans watch the second half of an NCAA college football game between the Penn State and Rutgers at Beaver Stadium during a "Stripe Out" in State College, Pa., Saturday, Sept. 19, 2015. Penn State  won 28-3. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)
AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar
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The Philadelphia Flyers and Pittsburgh Penguins of the National Hockey League reportedly are discussing plans to play a pair of outdoor games during the regular season, but Penn State’s Beaver Stadium is not in the mix.

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reports the two NFL in-state rivals are expected to play in Heinz Field (home to the Pitt Panthers and Pittsburgh Steelers) in 2017 with the intent to play a second game in Philadelphia at a later time. The Flyers have played one outdoor game in Philadelphia in Citizens Bank Park for the NHL’s New Years Day Winter Classic, and the Penguins are no strangers to playing an outdoor game either. With outdoor hockey games all the rage in the NHL, Beaver Stadium has long been suspected of being a possible neutral site for a future game between the Flyers and Penguins as it is located fairly equidistant from each city and is a melting pot for fans attending Penn State.

Penn State recently made plans to review renovation plans for all of the athletic facilities on campus, including Beaver Stadium. As long as the NHL is open to outdoor hockey games, Beaver Stadium will remain a hot candidate in the discussion for a future game involving either the Flyers or Penguins, if not both. It should also be noted Penn State has a strong relationship with Terry Pegula, owner of the Buffalo Sabres, which would suggest there might be a push to have the Sabres involved in any outdoor plans that could one day take place on the football field.

One of the goals of Penn State’s potential renovation to Beaver Stadium is to modernize the stadium in order to be able to accommodate outdoor events in the offseason, winter in particular. That idea may have to be placed on ice until renovations are completed, whenever that may be.

Michigan made star-studded splash, but Buckeyes remain on top in Big Ten recruiting

Ohio State coach Urban Meyer, center, sings "Carmen Ohio" to the band after their 35-28 win over California in an NCAA college football game Saturday, Sept. 15, 2012, in Columbus, Ohio. AP Photo/Jay LaPrete)
AP Photo/Jay LaPrete
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Michigan landed the nation’s top-ranked recruit. The Wolverines scored one of the best classes it has had in years. It celebrated its latest recruiting efforts with an A-List fundraiser with Tom Brady, Derek Jeter and Ric Flair. Jim Harbaugh has Michigan making plenty of noise with his recruiting tactics on the road. Despite all of the attention given to what Harbaugh and Michigan are doing, at the end of the day it is still Ohio State sitting atop the recruiting game when it comes to the Big Ten.

Michigan gave Ohio State a good run in the recruiting rankings, but the Buckeyes managed to stay just ahead of their bitter rivals to the north. According to the Rivals team rankings, Ohio State finished in third in the nation behind only recruiting national champion Alabama and Florida State (the Seminoles pushed past Ohio State earlier in the day). Urban Meyer‘s latest prized haul included two five-star players (LB Keandre Jones and DE Nick Bosa, the younger brother of Joey Bosa). The Buckeyes also added 15 four-star recruits in a class of 24. Michigan landed 28 additions in the Class of 2016, including a handful of signing day decisions, highlighted by Rashan Gary choosing Michigan over Clemson.

Every year since 2011, Ohio State has landed the top-rated recruiting class in the Big Ten. The last time the Buckeyes didn’t land the top class was the Class of 2010, which came at the end of the Jim Tressel era. Ohio State has had the top-ranked class in the Big Ten all but one year since 2008. For the past few years, the Buckeyes were largely in a boat all to themselves in the recruiting rankings, but this year did show Ohio State has some rejuvenated competition on the recruiting trail within the conference.

Michigan’s resurgence was expected under Harbaugh, but Michigan State also landed another quality recruiting class to hold its own, with just 18 commitments to finish third in the Big Ten pecking order. James Franklin and Penn State had some hurdles down the stretch, but the Nittany Lions landed the conference’s fourth-best recruiting class. The top four classes in the Big Ten all reside in the east. Nebraska and Wisconsin followed to represent the west.

As we now get set to turn the page to the Class of 2017, the question will now become whether or not Michigan can take that next step at challenging Ohio State. This obviously begins on the field this season, but will continue on the recruiting trail as well.

Renovating Beaver Stadium preferred over replacement at Penn State

Penn State and Michigan play during a white-out at Beaver Stadium in the first half of an NCAA college football game in State College, Pa., Saturday, Nov. 21, 2015. Michigan won 28-16. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)
AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar
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Penn State is currently in the process of gathering as much information as possible before taking the next steps forward in a massive university athletics upgrade project. Working with architecture firm Populous, Penn State University intends to find the best ways to give many of its athletics programs some much-needed upgrades in terms of facilities. Of course, the biggest venue most will tend to focus on will be Beaver Stadium, the 107,000-seat stadium built like an Erector set. The hope shared by Penn State officials is that Beaver Stadium can be properly upgraded rather than a dramatic alternate plan that would build a brand new football stadium in Happy Valley.

Our desire, our inclination, quite frankly our expectation, is to renovate Beaver Stadium,” Penn State chief operating officer and deputy athletic director Phil Esten said Thursday, per the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette‘s Audrey Snyder. “At the end of the day, when you take a look at what we want to accomplish in the stadium, we think that a renovation can get us there.”

Though Beaver Stadium has had its share of upgrades over the year, mostly coming with stadium expansion projects at both ends of the stadium, there is much that still needs to be done in order to satisfy the fan experience that has gone unchanged for decades longer than they should have. Restrooms, for starters, are in serious need of improvements, not just for the flow of the fans, but also for the potential for year-long activities inside the stadium (NHL Winter Classic between the Flyers and Penguins, for example).

“When you look at a winter event [in Beaver Stadium] the restrooms aren’t winterized, the concessions aren’t winterized, so running water is an issue when it comes to that, heat in the concession stands and restrooms is an issue,” Esten said. “If we look to host say a soccer game in the stadium we need to make sure the field can actually accommodate the FIFA certifications for that. There are a lot of things you have to look at. It’s not just as easy as saying we’ll do it and if you open it they will come.”

Penn State is also open to discussing the possible selling of alcohol at athletic event sin the future, which is a terrific source for extra income and has become a growing trend around the country, including in the Big Ten.

Penn State still has a way to go before coming to any final plans for the future of its athletic facilities. The school expects to have a master plan ready to review over the summer. Changes to Beaver Stadium should be expected to some extent, but the university is in need of upgrading facilities for other programs that are spread across campus as well. Football is the big cash cow at Penn State though, but it will be interesting to see how much will be invested in the renovations to Beaver Stadium.

Penn State WR Jake Kiley the latest to transfer

Penn State head coach James Franklin looks at a replay on the scoreboard during the second quarter of an NCAA college football game against Temple in State College, Pa., Saturday, Nov. 15, 2014. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)
AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar
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Stop me if you have heard this one before, but Penn State is losing another player in 2016.

Penn State backup wide receiver Jake Kiley has announced he will play his final year of eligibility elsewhere in 2016. Riley, who graduated from Penn State in December, announced his decision to pursue a graduate transfer on Twitter with a message to fans.

Kiley played just two games since his arrival at Penn State in 2012, just as the program was being hit by NCAA sanctions. Injuries tended to sideline Kiley over the past four years. Had he returned to Penn State in 2016, he would have been buried by a number of younger receivers in all likelihood, so a chance to move on elsewhere and get an opportunity to get some playing time was perhaps a wise decision.

Kiley will be the fourth Penn State player to take advantage of the graduate transfer rule this year. Wide receiver Geno Lewis (Oklahoma), running back Akeel Lynch and linebacker Gary Wooten have also chosen to move on from Penn State as a graduate transfer. In each case, they would have been serving as a backup at best in the fall, so finding a chance to start somewhere else in their final year of eligibility makes sense. None of the transfers from Penn State should be deemed surprising, perhaps with the exception of Troy Reeder‘s decision to move to Delaware (where he will play with his brother for the Blue Hens).

This does not, however, suggest Penn State is particularly deep on its roster. Far from it, actually. Penn State is still working to rebuild depth across the board following an abbreviated sanction phase that reduced the scholarship numbers. Speaking of which, these transfers could have an impact on what Penn State can or will do with its recruiting in the final week before signing day and looking ahead to 2017.