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Boyd, Hackenberg lead parade of key sophomores at Pitt, PSU and WVU

| Saturday, Aug. 9, 2014, 9:15 p.m.
Penn State quarterback Christian Hackenberg drops back to pass during practice Monday, Aug. 4, 2014, in University Park.
Barry Reeger | Trib Total Media
Penn State quarterback Christian Hackenberg drops back to pass during practice Monday, Aug. 4, 2014, in University Park.
Pitt running back James Conner carries during practice Friday, Aug. 8, 2014, on Pittsburgh's South Side.
Chaz Palla | Trib Total Media
Pitt running back James Conner carries during practice Friday, Aug. 8, 2014, on Pittsburgh's South Side.

Sophomore football players no longer need directions to the cafeteria, and the thick playbooks finally are starting to make sense.

Still, only 15 months ago, they were high school kids.

Now, 19 sophomores at Pitt, Penn State and West Virginia are preparing for significant playing time. In many cases, their teams can't do without them.

Good news or bad news?

“You see your most improvement from your freshman to your sophomore year, in my opinion,” Penn State senior linebacker and defensive captain Mike Hull said.

Here are more focused looks at some of the three schools' best second-year players:

Pitt's ‘veteran' sophomores

When Pitt coach Paul Chryst was asked about running back James Conner's comfort level entering his sophomore season, he smiled and delivered a wise crack.

“This is his second camp,” Chryst said. “One of our veterans.”

Chryst was joking, but Pitt does have a young team.

A total of 12 non-redshirted sophomores, none of whom are 21 years old, comprised the most productive class on the team last season as freshmen. They accounted for 46.2 percent of the team's non-kicking points (120 of 260) — 59 percent, if you count Chris Blewitt's 14 field goals and 40 extra points.

The trick will be building on that success. All but suspended cornerback Titus Howard are expected to play even more important roles this season. Nine of the remaining 11 will start either full- or part-time.

Defensive coordinator Matt House has inserted three sophomores — middle linebacker Matt Galambos, defensive end Shakir Soto and safety/nickel back Terrish Webb — onto his top groupings. Yes, they are young, but he expects and needs big production from them.

“Not only have you had a full year,” House said, “but you had a full year to make game mistakes, re-learn in a slowed-down atmosphere in the winter and reinstall and watch them again before you go out to spring practice and make more mistakes. You learn from doing, right?”

Conner admits he has “a lot of weight on my shoulders” after leading the team in rushing with 799 yards, including a Pitt bowl game record 229 against Bowling Green.

“Everyone wants to see what I'm going to do next,” he said.

But Conner suffered freshman growing pains like anyone else. After a 173-yard effort against eventual ACC Coastal Division champion Duke, he totaled 94 yards on 42 carries in the next six games.

“It was embarrassing,” he said of the Virginia game when he ran for 27 yards on 15 carries. “I was a little down on myself.”

Meanwhile, wide receiver Tyler Boyd was named a freshman All-American by seven publications and got his picture on the cover of team's media guide.

That's part of the problem: He won't sneak up on anyone.

“Every team he plays against knows who he is,” Chryst said.

Finale hardened Penn State freshmen

Christian Hackenberg had career-bests in touchdown passes and passer rating in Penn State's 2013 season finale. Adam Breneman had a career-long touchdown catch that day against Wisconsin.

Linebacker Brandon Bell was at the center of the key defensive play of an improbable victory against the Badgers, who entered the game with a BCS bowl berth at stake.

The common links between Hackenberg, Breneman and Bell? Each was a first-year freshman, and each had the best game of his career to carry momentum into the offseason.

“Anytime you end the season with a game like that, it just completely changes everything in your mental approach,” Breneman said. “It's a lot different being a sophomore than it is being a true freshman, so I think that gave all three of us a lot of confidence to build on this season.”

Hackenberg, Breneman and Bell were three of the marquee members of the 2013 recruiting class that was the first to choose Penn State after NCAA sanctions were levied on the program.

Hackenberg and Breneman, a tight end, were among the most sought-after prospects in the country at their respective positions. Bell wasn't quite of that pedigree when he arrived on campus, but he did have scholarship offers from several Power 5 conference schools.

Hackenberg (12 starts) and Breneman (five) and Bell (one) are the only sophomores on Penn State's roster who started at least one game last season — and they're the only three who are all but assured to play significant roles this season.

“You ask these guys,” Bell said, nodding toward the assembled linebackers corps, “it was a rough time for me around this time last year. Definitely, having a whole year under my belt and knowing what to expect from camp now, the confidence is there. The comfort is there. This time, I'm ready to go.”

Bell did not play in the 2013 season opener or on defense until the second half of the season. He became a factor over the final three games, forcing a fumble against Nebraska and an interception against Wisconsin in the final two.

That mirrored the season of Breneman, who recorded a catch in just two of the Nittany Lions' first seven games but had 10 over his final five, including a touchdown during each of the last three.

Hackenberg had his best game against Wisconsin.

The strong finishes by all three led to greater optimism and confidence heading into their second seasons.

“I don't look at it as a sophomore jinx or anything,” Hackenberg said. “I've said it many times: I'm just trying to be the guy that the team can lean on when they need me.”

WVU finds home for Worley

In every sense, Daryl Worley was all over the field as a freshman. Although he mainly played safety and nickel corner while starting five games, he played eight different positions at various times.

Mountaineers coaches love his versatility and will continue to use it. But during the spring, the 6-foot-1, 198-pound Worley settled in as the starting right cornerback, where he is expected to remain a fixture for the next three seasons.

The change should facilitate improvement in the Mountaineers' pass defense, which ranked 106th in the nation last season.

“Daryl's far ahead of his years — and especially for a guy who played so many positions a year ago,” defensive coordinator Tony Gibson said. “The best thing we did for him this spring was put him at corner, and we left him at corner, and he's done a real good job.”

Worley, who is from Philadelphia, had 45 tackles and five pass breakups, second on the team, in 2013, along with an interception. This year, he said, “I feel like a completely different person.”

“I understand the game,” he said. “Whether it's in a film session or out there on the field, I've always been a quick learner. I'm picking up things so fast.”

Chris Adamski, Bob Cohn and Jerry DiPaola are staff writers for Trib Total Media. Reach them at, and or via Twitter @C_AdamskiTrib and @JDiPaola_Trib.

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