PSU Nittany Lions: Stephon Morris
Every week, NittanyNation will pose five questions to a recruit, player, alum or coach about all things Penn State.
This week's subject is cornerback Stephon Morris, an All-Big Ten honorable mention who is hoping to be drafted next week.
NittanyNation: You ran an official 4.35 on your pro day. Just how much has that helped you with getting NFL teams' attention, and how confident are you about being drafted now?
Stephon Morris: It helped me a lot. My draft stock has been tremendously high, just talking to my agents, and a lot of teams are interested, and a lot of teams are big on me. But I feel like I got four years worth of film and started 26 games -- so the only thing I really needed to prove to the scouts, especially coming up to Penn State, was that I wasn't a typical stiff, slow corner because that's how I feel they judge us.
But when I ran that, I think my stock really went higher. I don't know my draft grade right now -- some say between the fourth and seventh, so who knows? But whether I get drafted or not, I just want a chance to prove I can play at this level.
NN: You said teams approached you after pro day and commented how they wished they would've seen more of you in man coverage. Where do you think you'd be now if you had played in this defense for all four seasons?
SM: I feel that I would've been one of the top corners in the country. I started my freshman career off in the nickel, and we had guys like NaVorro [Bowman] and Sean [Lee] and everybody, so it made everything easier. So, some games, I wasn't starting and I ended up getting on the freshman All-Big Ten team and I was kind of free. I would play man then. But then -- my sophomore, junior year -- we weren't really a blitzing team, so I played more of a Cover-3 and jumping routes. I didn't really play much man between junior and sophomore year. But coach [Ted] Roof, you know he's going to blitz you.
I feel like if I would've played in Roof's scheme or someone's like Ohio State or Virginia Tech, I would've been one of the top corners in the country, hands down.
NN: Mr. Irrelevant signed a contract last year for $400,000 with a $45K signing bonus. And practice squad players can make upwards of six figures. So, if everything goes as planned, what's the first thing you plan to buy?
Saturday will be the first time most of last season's freshmen will play in front of a crowd, the first time fans can size up the quarterback race and the first time the media can see the progress this team has made over the spring.
The Blue-White weekend has taken on a carnival-type atmosphere these past few years, and there's plenty to see. But on the field, NittanyNation takes a closer look on what fans should keep an especially close eye on.
Tom Hauck for ESPNTyler Ferguson and Steven Bench are side by side in Penn State's quarterback competition this spring.
Bill O'Brien said in the past no quarterback separated himself yet. Maybe, just maybe, someone will gain an edge Saturday.
BRING ON THE MAN COVERAGE
Defensive coordinator John Butler acknowledged last season that PSU couldn't play be as aggressive in the secondary because of the depth. But that is improved this season. Jordan Smith and Anthony Smith enrolled early, while wideouts Malik Golden and Trevor Williams switched to defensive back.
PSU began practicing the nickel this spring, and fans can expect finally to see that package this season. There's no telling who might start alongside Adrian Amos come August -- Jordan Lucas is currently practicing with the first team -- and fans should keep an eye on the young corners here.
PROJECTED (RS) FRESHMAN STARTERS
DT Austin Johnson and LB Nyeem Wartman are just redshirt freshmen, but it already looks as if they'll crack the starting lineup this season. Both very well could wind up as the rare four-year PSU starter, and expectations are high for these two.
Johnson already is up to 302 pounds, and O'Brien has praised his ability since he was asked about his top freshmen last season. And the hard-hitting Wartman, whom PSU fans already are familiar with, blocked a punt in his PSU debut before an injury in Week 2 that sidelined him for the season (and allowed him to pick up a medical redshirt). With the departures of Mike Mauti and Gerald Hodges, Wartman will have to play well right off the bat for PSU to remain strong here. One recruit said he was especially impressed watching No. 5, because he was all over the field during one practice. Let's see what they can do in a scrimmage.
(Also, Akeel Lynch and Eugene Lewis might not be starters ... but is there anyone who doesn't plan to keep a close eye on them?)
HOW MUCH BETTER HAVE THE BEST GOTTEN?
Practice observers and teammates have pointed constantly to Allen Robinson when asked who has impressed so far this spring. He broke the single-season school record for receptions last season, and he has gained needed weight while maintaining his speed. Robinson was the best in the Big Ten last year, and now he's even better. That's hard to picture on the field.
Mike Hull, Deion Barnes, Zach Zwinak, Amos, etc. all have earned a lot of praise this spring. Zwinak has improved his strength, Barnes is shoring up his run-stopping, Hull is embracing a starting role ... and Amos? Well, he's probably PSU's most versatile player. Returner, safety, cornerback -- he can do everything. And it'll be interesting to see just how much he does Saturday.
TIGHT END U?
It's pretty incredible just how much this position has evolved in about 15 months. Kyle Carter won't play in the Blue-White Game, but fans still will be able to look at Matt Lehman, Jesse James and Brent Wilkerson.
MLB Glenn Carson mentioned James as the player who has impressed him the most overall. He broke out during Carter's absence late in the year, and he boasts good speed for a 6-foot-7 target. James has "red-zone target" written all over him, and it'll be interesting to see how this young corps does in the scrimmage. It'll be an even bigger bonus if Adam Breneman is able to play.
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Adrian Amos was known as a shy, do-everything DB last season. He was a man of many highlights and few words -- but Wednesday afternoon was a little different.
The junior stood tall, carried a smirk and had a lot to say: He's looking forward to playing more nickel, the secondary looks a lot better, man coverage has greatly improved, Trevor Williams is making a nice switch to defense, etc. But, despite the roll Amos was on, PSU's versatile DB had to stop and stare at the ground a few moments when asked about himself.
What position don't you play in the secondary?
Amos hesitated slightly, seemingly going over the positions in his mind. "There's -- there's not one," he said.
What position are you best at?
"Psssh ... I don't know," he added. "People say my natural position is safety, but then people say I'm better at corner. But I feel comfortable playing all over."
That's good news for Penn State, because the staff isn't finished trying him out elsewhere. The 6-foot All-Big Ten honorable mention has not only practiced at both safety spots, focused on the boundary corner, played some field corner -- but he discovered just this week he's also the team's nickelback.
Here's what they had to say:
Jordan Hill, defensive tackle, 6-foot-1, 303 pounds
MCT/ZUMA Press/Icon SMIDefensive tackle Jordan Hill improved his numbers at Penn State's Pro Day and is hoping his draft stock climbs as a result.
Pro Day notables: Said his knee probably was still sore at the combine, but he didn't want to shy away from the drills. Felt much better on Monday. Turned in a 4.97-second 40 and increased his broad jump by eight inches.
Watching the draft: "I usually always sit down every year and watch it. It's just something I like. Me being a football player is one thing, but me being a fan is another. And that's what I've always done. I'm a fan of the game, so I know everybody. I know all the players' names and what they did and stuff like that. Especially me being in college, I had to keep up with other big names and stuff like that -- so I'll be seeing where they're going and wanting to know where everybody's at."
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Cornerback Stephon Morris couldn't suppress a grin when he stepped outside Holuba Hall right after Penn State's pro day.
With a white business card from the New England Patriots in hand, Morris said he spoke with several teams -- including the Denver Broncos and Houston Texans -- but that wasn't the only reason for the smile. Standing at 5-foot-8, he knew his time at the 40-yard dash would be critical.
"You can't have a slow 5-8 corner," he said. "So I'm just glad I wowed them."
Morris couldn't have been happier with his speed Monday afternoon. He claimed he spoke to two scouts after his 40, one of whom hand-timed him at 4.16 while another clocked him at 4.22 on the first run. His official time was a 4.35.
"A 4.16?" one reporter asked incredulously.
"Yeah," Morris said with a laugh. "I rode into it, though."
Although that unofficial number would be pretty impressive if accurate, the bottom line is that Morris was able to turn in a good time after missing a spot in the NFL combine by a mere two votes. He said he his measurements came in at 5-foot-8, 188 pounds, and he did 18 reps on the bench press.
The media wasn't permitted to watch the workouts, which 25 NFL teams attended, but Morris said he was pleased with the scouts' response to his numbers. When asked again about his speed, Morris pointed toward the Outback Bowl in 2011 when he ran down Florida tailback Chris Rainey, who's been timed as fast as 4.28 seconds.
Regardless of his times, though, Morris is just hoping he might hear his name called in late April.
"There's shockers who get drafted every year," Morris said. "And, hopefully, I'll be one of those shockers."
Early rounds: Linebacker Gerald Hodges and defensive tackle Jordan Hill said they're both hoping to be selected in the second or third rounds.
And if they do happen to drop to the fourth?
"I'll be a little upset," Hill acknowledged. But I'll be ready to go to work. I just need the opportunity; I need to get my foot in the door."
Said Hodges: "I'll be upset, too, if I went down that far, but I'm going to put it all in God's hands. Just as long as I have my chance to play in the NFL, it's a dream come true. No matter how you get there, it's how you perform once you get there."
Hodges said he'll be working out in State College for now and already has some individual workouts scheduled with a few teams. He wouldn't name them, but he did say he had formal interviews at the combine with the Detroit Lions, Oakland Raiders and Baltimore Ravens, among others.
Hill impresses: The defensive tackle said he probably wasn't ready to run the 40-yard dash at the combine because of his lingering knee injury. But he wanted to do everything at the combine; he figured he'd just improve upon those numbers at pro day.
He did just that. He said he turned in a 4.97-second 40 -- 0.26 seconds faster than his combine time -- and increased his broad jump to 9-foot-3.
"I was able to get a full-night sleep; a lot more stress was off," Hill said. "It was my first 40 I ran out there ... and it was one of those things that was brand new to me."
Patience, patience: Now comes the hard part for Rimington Trophy finalist Matt Stankiewitch -- the waiting game.
The center said he felt relaxed after taking part in pro day, but he knew that feeling wouldn't last.
"Of course, you're on edge because you don't know what you're future's going to be like," he said. "I have it in my head that I'm going to get drafted. If I don't, I don't. If I do, I do. In the NFL, it matters where you end -- not where you start."
Stankiewitch took part in field drills and just the broad jump because he didn't want to risk injury and said he believed his numbers would likely be similar those at the NFL combine. He increased his broad jump six inches -- to 8-foot-2 from 7-8.
Package deal?: Fullback Michael Zordich is hoping to land on an NFL team, while his father is hoping for the same -- albeit as a coach -- after the Philadelphia Eagles revamped their staff.
The younger Zordich said the two often joke they're both looking for NFL jobs at the same time. And they're both on the phone trying to find the right place.
"That'd be awesome," he said about the two landing on the same team. "I wouldn't mind playing for Pop."
He said he's not sure whether he'll be drafted, but his focus at this point his just making it to a camp.
5. CB Da'Quan Davis, sophomore
Last year's stat line: Five tackles, one fumble recovery, three pass breakups
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Welcome to NittanyNation's bi-weekly mailbag! We asked you to tweet or email your questions this week, and we've selected three to answer in-depth.
William Amesbury (@WAmesbury16) writes: Where do you think the 2013 recruiting class would be without the sanctions?
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For every elite prospect who falls short, there's an Allen Robinson -- an under-the-radar, two-star prospect who exceeds all expectations. The only true way to gauge the success of a recruiting class is in hindsight, by simply waiting.
So, as part of a RecruitingNation-wide series, NittanyNation took a closer look at PSU's Class of 2009. Some fifth-year seniors will have one more chance to show what they have on the field next fall. But, at this point, it's pretty safe to judge whether the class was a bust or not.
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- Who: Stephon Morris was -- by far -- the most experienced player in the secondary in 2012, and his leadership will be missed. He played in 49 career games and evolved into an above-average cornerback who was an honorable-mention selection on the All-Big Ten team. He wasn't the tallest corner on the field at 5-foot-8, but he was quick and picked up a reputation as a hard worker. He earned the Jim O'Hora Award, given to the most improved defensive player, after spring practice.
- By the numbers: He finished fifth on the team with 60 tackles (41 solo stops), five tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks and five pass breakups. He was part of a pass defense that was ranked No. 50 nationally and allowed 225 yards per game.
- Job description: Morris may have preferred man coverage, but Penn State was forced to stick with zone coverage for most of 2012 because of some early secondary struggles. Whoever fills in for Morris will likely be counted on for more man coverage, though, and his replacement will be asked to force more turnovers. Morris was a good corner, but he didn't come away with a single interception, fumble recovery or forced fumble.
- Top candidates: Rising sophomore Da'Quan Davis is the favorite to fill in because he was the only other cornerback to really see time at the position in 2012. Incoming freshman Jordan Smith, who will enroll in less than a week, is a definite darkhorse here, but PSU could always turn to its other two 2012 DBs. Jordan Lucas and Jake Kiley might be better suited at safety, but both could be moved around in case of injury or to add some competition.
- One to watch: Davis. He was our No. 1 2012 player to watch next season, and that's because a lot will be resting on his young shoulders. He's not the biggest corner at 161 pounds, but another offseason should help him bulk up. He's being groomed to take over for Morris -- and Morris, Bill O'Brien and two high school coaches all commented on Davis' work ethic. It's his job to lose at this point.
Vinny Carchietta/Icon SMIRising sophomore cornerback Da'Quan Davis will be a key component in the Nittany Lions secondary next season.
He's not the biggest name of the 2012 class, but he's in prime position to be a starter next season. He'll likely take over for Stephon Morris, and he could make or break the secondary.
He's followed a similar path as Adrian Amos to this point. Amos played in all but one game as a true freshman -- and so did Davis. However, Amos definitely seemed more advanced at the end of his 2011 freshman campaign.
Still, the rising sophomore definitely showed flashes of potential. He's the kind of player who shows up early to lift and then leaves late. And he doesn't shy away from competition.
"If one of his teammates spits, he'll have to spit further," said his high school position coach, Cory Robinson, earlier this year.
Bill O'Brien praised his work ethic and, with another year to learn and improve, Davis' freshman season could really just be the launching pad to become a three-year starter. He has the drive, he just needs the experience.
And, with the loss of five defensive starters, Davis' performance will be more important than ever next season. He'll be critical in helping determine whether this secondary can take a big step from 2012 and prevent big plays and third-down conversions. He's definitely a player to watch.
Quotables: "He's really come on strong at camp. He's a young guy; the mental aspect, he's still grasping that. But as far as his ability to play football, he's fantastic. He has quick feet and good ball skills, so I expect a lot of big things out of that guy." - Safety Malcolm Willis
Jim Murphy (@JimMurphy13) writes: How many of the '6 recruits to keep eyes on' do you think will commit and which ones? What's the likelihood of a Trey Johnson and Garret Dooley visit?
Bruce Thorson/US PresswirePSU might struggle early in 2013 after losing QB Matt McGloin.
Penn State's got a lot of options here, and it seems to be following the Bill Belichick line of reasoning with the NFL draft: Forget need for the most part; take the best player available. Ideally, the staff seems as if it would prefer a defensive back. After all, they've visited cornerback Myles Willis (Atlanta, Ga./Marist) twice in the last three weeks and Willis thinks an offer is on the way. Deondre Singleton also remains a viable option. But I couldn't see them turning down, say, a Boyd-Williams combo.
But, as you mentioned, visits at this stage are critical. They won over Hamilton and, apparently, they're pretty convincing on those visits. Johnson will not make an official, though, and he seems to be the biggest long-shot of all. Ohio State's the favorite there. Dooley's still considering a visit -- I'd put that at a coin flip; all depends on how he likes the new staff -- and, although the odds are for him to remain committed to Wisconsin, Penn State instantly becomes the favorite if he chooses to decommit.
Of the four long-shots, I think Penn State has the best chance with Williams or Dooley. It should definitely be an interesting January.
Dan Mealing (@SpiderCat79) writes: Seems like people picked PSU to finish below .500 this year. Didn't happen. Now they say next year should be easier for Bill O'Brien. You?
Josh Moyer: I can see the thinking in that because most of the team remains intact. But I'm sorry to say I disagree with it being easier next season. I predicted a 7-5 record in 2012 and -- at this point -- I think a 6-6 or 7-5 record in 2013 is more likely.
Why do I feel that way? Well, Matt McGloin was the most valuable player to this team. Yes, even more valuable than Michael Mauti. He threw 24 touchdowns to just five interceptions, several of which first deflected off his receivers. He was incredibly efficient, a great leader, and his shoes won't be easy to fill.
The No. 3 breakout player: CB Adrian Amos, rising junior
He's frequently been named one of the best athletes on this team, and it's easy to see why. He has the versatility to play cornerback and safety -- and as a true freshman, under an old-school coach who sparingly played rookies, Amos saw action in 12 games.
The defensive back started every game this past season and nearly earned a spot on the All-Big Ten team. He was an honorable mention, and even bigger things are expected from him in 2013.
With Stephon Morris' graduation, Amos will play an even bigger role. And with another year of experience under the safeties' belts, defensive coordinator Ted Roof could decide to call for more man coverage -- a strength of Amos.
A member of the "Supa Six," Amos led the secondary in interceptions (2) and earned a reputation as a hard-hitter. He boasts a great combination of speed and smarts and should make an even bigger name for himself in 2013 as one of the best cornerbacks in the Big Ten.
He quickly landed on the radar in 2012, but his sophomore season wasn't quite a breakout, not like Allen Robinson. But next season? Well, it would be a surprise if he didn't earn a spot as a member of the All-Big Ten's first- or second team.
Malcolm Willis may be known as the quarterback of the secondary, but Amos should be the star.
Quotables: "He's having a great season. I believe he's one of the best cornerbacks in the Big Ten. In the summer time, I thought he was going to be special. I'm just glad it's coming true." -- Morris
Michael Mauti choked back tears, and Matt Stankiewitch stared up at the private boxes as Penn State unveiled "2012" in blue numbers along the facade, honoring these seniors and making sure they'll be forever remembered among teams who won national titles and conference championships.
This ceremony happened before the kickoff on Nov. 24, and these Nittany Lions were determined to win on this emotional day. After a year of uncertainty and pledges and transfers and loyalty, these players vowed to uphold the notion that Penn State was neither down nor out.
On the last time these seniors would step foot inside Beaver Stadium, they held nothing back. Jordan Hill seemed to occupy every space on the interior and finished with a dozen tackles. Matt McGloin brushed off an early deficit. Gerald Hodges wore his fallen comrade's jersey.
This back-and-forth game, an instant classic, saw Wisconsin score a game-tying touchdown with 18 seconds left in regulation. Shortly after, Penn State's hopes were pinned on Sam Ficken -- who statistically was the worst kicker in the nation after the first few weeks. He redeemed his Virginia struggles with a 37-yard FG to hand PSU the lead. A pessimist would call it incredible, an optimist, poetic.
One possession later, as Bill O'Brien whispered Hail Marys and the team locked hands on the sideline, the Badgers would hook a field goal wide left. An entire offseason of adversity and disappointment, of struggles and loss, came to head at that moment, spilling over -- for some players -- in the form of tears and others with smiles. Most screamed; some remained silent.
Senior cornerback Stephon Morris tossed up his helmet in a fit of ecstasy -- so high that he couldn't find it a half-hour later. John Urschel had a goofy grin plastered to his face. Ficken called it a fairy-tale ending.
And, for this Penn State team, it surely was. This was the exclamation mark to Penn State's season, the proof that PSU was stronger than these sanctions. This was perhaps the most memorable final regular-season game in all of Penn State's 126 seasons.
This was a statement game. This was a game that showed, beyond a reasonable doubt, that the Lions were stronger than the sanctions and that O'Brien was one of this nation's best coaches. This showed Penn State wasn't going anywhere.
And that's why it's the top moment of the season.
John Butler tried to motivate his defensive backs by rattling off snippets from the media before this season started. There was plenty of motivation -- using an array of adjectives, this secondary was labeled inexperienced, shallow and weak.
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"You a Lion yet?"
"Jordan texts me every day with that," Vincent said with a laugh. "He stays on me. I don't know if the coaches told him to, but he stays on me every day."
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