Every defense in football obviously has the three-pronged structure: the front three/four, the linebackers and the secondary. At least for this upcoming season, it’s the last of the triad which brings about the biggest concern.
Let’s begin up front. Losing Devon Still will undoubtedly hurt, but his replacement – DaQuan Jones – should fit that piece of the puzzle nicely. Jones has been on the radar for two years now and the fact that he was not redshirted by a (former) coaching staff which loved to redshirt linemen on both sides of the ball tells you all you need to know. Jones is massive and has earned high praise in the early goings of the Bill O’Brien era. By the time the conference schedule starts to bloom in mid-October, Jones should be firmly implanted as a reliable run stuffer along with senior Jordan Hill.
On the outside, senior Sean Stanley, who made possibly the greatest defensive tip/pass breakup in program history in November (yes, seriously) is a tremendous athlete and proved in the second half of the last season that he is a force from the end. Stanley, who will absolutely make the all-conference team in 2012, could blossom into a Michael Haynes clone and work himself into the front tier of the NFL Draft one year from now. He truly has that athletic potential. If Pete Massaro can stay healthy in this his 19th season as a Penn State football player, perhaps the piece of the university’s endowment that was tapped to keep his scholarship going will be repaid. Massaro is a tremendously tough football player, but the injury bug just can’t seem to stay out of his way. Redshirt freshman Deion Barnes from Philadelphia is a very exciting prospect who might beat Massaro outright for the starting job. Reports so far out of spring camp are that Barnes has both excelled and impressed.
Next, the linebackers. It’s hard to imagine that a football program which is aptly nicknamed for a specific position will fail to maintain that billing because a new coaching regime has taken over. That will of course remain to be seen in terms of how the recruiting pans out at the position over the next few years (read: Alex Anzalone and Zayd Issah are “must-gets” for O’Brien, particularly if he wants to make good on his goal to keep in-state prospects at home), but in the short term, Linebacker U isn’t going anywhere. The talent is still aplenty and with the return of Michael Mauti to play alongside Glenn Carson and Gerald Hodges, the football I.Q. contained in that trio is second to none in the Big Ten.
But here’s the rub.
Having a strong front seven is wonderful, but without a reliable and speedy secondary, the entire defense becomes extremely vulnerable. A weak line unit can be hidden by strong linebacking play which stuffs the run and blitzes for pressure. If a team has shoddy linebacker play, that can be mitigated with a front four that produces consistent quarterback pressure along with ball-hawk safeties and lock-down cornerbacks.
However, a questionable secondary has no lifeline. They are their own island, truly. If a talented quarterback has strong receivers – at any level of football – he will pick apart a weak secondary with ease. A fragile back four will simply kill a defense against good passing teams, unless said team has a Stanley and said Stanley makes that same play he made in Columbus on every single passing down of every single game (speaking facetiously of course). In reality, this is the major area of concern for Penn State heading into the Blue-White game.
The starting cornerbacks come September 1will probably be Stephon Morris and Curtis Drake. That’s not bad. Drake is certainly athletic enough to make that switch to defense and excel, while Morris, though small in stature, can provide the same solid, consistent play that Anwar Phillips produced in 2005. Morris won’t be a star, but he won’t hurt the unit either.
Safety is the key here. Forever and a day, Penn State has had terrible safeties; let’s not beat around the bush here. Sure, there was the occasional Kim Herring every now and again, but for the most part, the strong safety and the free safety (thank you so much Coach O’Brien for finally ridding this world of that ridiculous “Hero” term) have been too slow. For decades – literally decades – it has been so intolerably draining for Penn State fans that the one position in football at which the entire world knows any team absolutely must have the fastest players, their team did not follow suit. Lloyd Carr never saw a Penn State secondary he didn’t like. Michigan simply killed Penn State with that skinny post for a touchdown countless times.
So who might the lucky duo be in 2012? Well, Malcolm Willis will likely hold one spot. Although Willis had a few rough spots last season in the substantial action he saw, there were also bright spots. The redshirt junior should come into his own this season, and new strength coach Craig Fitzgerald will do wonders not only for Willis’ conditioning but his off-the-ball speed as well.
That leaves Stephen Obeng-Agyapong, Jake Fagano and Josh Ham-and-Egger as possibles to fill the other safety spot. Unless Derrick Thomas finally becomes Derrick Thomas, a major position change occurs, or Trevor Williams shines as a true freshman…how about this weather by the way?