Penn State Nittany Lions: Trevor Williams

Things to watch in Blue-White Game

April, 11, 2014
Apr 11
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STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- There will be plenty to watch when the Blue-White Game kicks off at 1:30 p.m. Saturday, but here's a look at some of the more interesting storylines:

1. How the offensive line performs. This unit will go a long way in determining Penn State's success this season. There's enough talent at the skill positions that the Nittany Lions could surprise again this year, but only if this battered line can hold up and hold its own. Neither guard Miles Dieffenbach, who's reportedly out for the season with a knee injury, nor tackle Andrew Nelson is expected to play on Saturday. Guard Anthony Alosi isn't listed on the roster, as he's facing criminal charges. And the status of center Angelo Mangiro is unknown.

[+] EnlargeChristian Hackenberg
Dan Sanger/Icon SMIChristian Hackenberg looks poised to build on a sensational freshman season.
There's a lot of uncertainty on this line, and the bigger questions are at guard. Brendan Mahon practiced at right tackle last week, so it's possible that converted defensive tackles Brian Gaia and Derek Dowrey could start inside during the Blue-White Game. At the very least, the two are sure to get considerable playing time on Saturday, and it will be interesting to see how they've progressed since learning of the position changes about a month ago. Left tackle Donovan Smith said Thursday that he has had to slow his pace a little bit as a result of playing alongside an inexperienced teammate.

2. Christian Hackenberg's ability to make any throw. Some analysts have already started wondering aloud if Hackenberg might be the No. 1 overall pick if/when he declares early for the NFL draft. Maybe that happens; maybe it doesn't. But the fact that's even being discussed now should give you an idea of his talent level.

He was one of the Big Ten's best passers last season, despite moving into Happy Valley just a few short months before the opener. His progress was pretty notable from Week 1 to the finale against Wisconsin. Bill O'Brien called running plays on third-and-long against Syracuse in the opener so he wouldn't put Hackenberg in a tight spot. Against 24-point favorite Wisconsin? Hackenberg was nearly perfect -- 21-of-30, 339 yards, 4 TDs, 0 INTs, 89.4 QBR -- and led the Lions to an upset.

Expectations were incredibly high for Hackenberg last season and he still managed to surpass them. After another few months on campus, he's bound to impress yet again. And it would be even more surprising if James Franklin didn't give fans something to cheer for by having Hackenberg lob a few deep balls in the Blue-White Game.

3. An improved secondary. This has been the Lions' Achilles heel the past two seasons, but it shouldn't be anymore. There will be an influx of talented freshmen this summer but, even before then, this secondary's stock is on the rise. Adrian Amos is much more comfortable at safety this season, and cornerback Jordan Lucas has been putting in a lot of work this offseason. Young players last year -- such as Malik Golden and Jordan Smith -- are evolving into good backups who could challenge for playing time. Trevor Williams and Ryan Keiser are really the questions here, but they have one more year of experience under their belts.

Amos has All-Big Ten ability, and his transition back to safety will be crucial to the defense. If he can read Hackenberg or catch up to a speedster like De'Andre Thompkins on Saturday, that can only mean good things for Penn State.

4. WR Thompkins and DT Anthony Zettel. You've seen the running backs and wideout Geno Lewis before. You know what Mike Hull and Jesse James are capable of. But this could be a coming-out party for both Thompkins and Zettel. Zettel has impressed the last two seasons, but he mostly played as a defensive end -- and now he's gained weight and moved inside. Zettel could be the surprise on the defense this season, as his speed certainly sets him apart. And, with a beaten-up offensive line in the Blue-White Game, he could have a field day. As far as Thompkins, he has been on campus three months but he's already the fastest player on the team. He needs to improve his hands and his route-running but, when he gets the ball, he's electrifying.
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- The first week of Penn State’s spring practice is underway so a lot of eyes will be on different position battles and rising starters. But what about those under-the-radar players?

Every year, coach James Franklin said there are at least one or two surprise players who jump into the spotlight. So here’s a look at five current backups who could make an impact:

1. RB Akeel Lynch
2013 stats: 9 games played, 60 carries, 358 yards, 1 TD
Currently behind: Zach Zwinak, Bill Belton

[+] EnlargeAkeel Lynch
Randy Litzinger/Icon SMIAkeel Lynch is primed to have a breakout season for Penn State.
Synopsis: He’s on quite a few reporters’ breakout lists this fall -- and for good reason. He has made an impression every time he has received a sizable workload. He was the star of the spring scrimmage in 2013, rushing 13 times for 83 yards, and he twice surpassed the 100-yard mark during the nonconference season. He’s a speedy runner who clocked a 4.48-second 40 last spring, and he could evolve into a nice spark plug. He needs to become more well-rounded, as he saw limited time last season due to blocking and similar concerns. However, he’s clearly excellent at carrying the ball.

Running backs coach Charles Huff said in January that a good system needs three good options on the ground. So Lynch will see an increased workload, and Franklin will have the ability to discover whether he has the talent to be the primary ball-carrier in 2015.

2. DE Brad Bars
2013 stats: Missed season due to injury
Currently behind: C.J. Olaniyan, Deion Barnes

Synopsis: Bars stood inside the Lasch Building last February and told the media that he felt 2013 would be a breakout year for him. He felt he could start or, at the very least, contribute heavily. But in July, Bars ruptured his Achilles’ tendon and was forced to miss the season. Franklin has repeatedly declined to address such injuries, but Bars’ initial rehabilitation plan was expected to end -- at the latest -- sometime in January. And the senior seemed fine on Monday when he sprinted during drills and took direction from the staff.

Bars won’t end up as a starter in 2014, but he could still see considerable playing time. Defensive line coach Sean Spencer likes to utilize a lot of different looks and rotations, and Franklin once again alluded to a scheme that would sometimes feature four defensive ends. With Anthony Zettel moving inside on a permanent basis, the Nittany Lions need some quality depth -- and Bars could be that answer. It might turn out that his prediction was just a year off.

3. S Malik Golden
2013 stats: 12 games played, 8 tackles, 1 pass breakup
Currently behind: Adrian Amos, Ryan Keiser

Synopsis: There are two ways this could go for Golden, and either way is significant. The redshirt sophomore could challenge Keiser for playing time this season -- or he could lose out. But, even if he doesn’t start, this season is no less important for his future. Both Amos and Keiser are seniors, so Penn State will need someone to step up in 2015.

There are plenty of freshman safeties enrolling over the summer, but Golden will obviously be the most experienced of that crew. He’s in a somewhat similar situation as Lynch, in that his play this season will determine whether he’s a future starter or just a career backup. He appears to be the next man up at safety, though, so he will see the field in 2014 -- it’s just a matter of how much and whether he can challenge Keiser.

4. CB Jordan Smith
2013 stats: 12 games played, 5 tackles
Currently behind: Jordan Lucas, Trevor Williams

Synopsis: Williams may be the projected starter at cornerback for now, but this position battle is far from decided. Lucas has taken Smith under his wing, not unlike Stephon Morris did for him, and Smith isn’t afraid to work. When he battled with insomnia in high school, he often did a couple hundred push-ups to pass the time. Also, it didn’t hurt that he trained with former NFL great Troy Vincent, either.

He wasn’t ready for a big role as a true freshman last season, but he’s definitely a player to watch as a sophomore. And he has the potential to follow in Lucas’ footsteps. As a sophomore, Lucas beat out a more-experienced player (Da’Quan Davis) for the starting job. Now, as a sophomore himself, Smith is hoping for the same.

5. OT Albert Hall
2013 stats: 5 games played
Currently behind: Donovan Smith, Andrew Nelson

Synopsis: Hall isn't just on this list because he’ll see a lot of playing time this season, or even in the future. There's more to him. He’s a converted tight end and a walk-on and is one of just four offensive tackles currently on the roster, and Franklin offered him a lot of praise on Monday.

“That guy is going to find a role on this team somehow,” Franklin said. "I’ve called him out in front of the team a number of times because I’ve been so impressed with him: His approach, his demeanor, his attitude.”

Hall should, at the very least, be an important member of the scout team -- and will likely see plenty of time on special teams. It’s not necessarily Hall's play that’s going to be important to this team. It’s the intangibles. There are a lot of walk-ons on this team, and Franklin only singled out Hall. So he’s definitely worth a second look.
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- We’ve finally reached the end of this week’s countdown involving the top position battles to watch this spring.

Up next is a position that caused a lot of head scratching last season ...

[+] EnlargeJordan Lucas
Matthew O'Haren/USA TODAYJordan Lucas seems set at one corner for Penn State, but the other starter is anyone's guess at this point.
No. 1 position battle: Cornerback

Departures: None

Returning players: Jordan Lucas (65 tackles, 16 pass deflections, 3 INTs), Trevor Williams (24 tackles, 2 INTs), Da'Quan Davis (5 tackles), Anthony Smith (1 tackle), Jordan Smith (5 tackles), Kasey Gaines (redshirted), Grant Haley (incoming freshman), Amani Oruwariye (incoming freshman), Daquan Worley (incoming freshman)

Breaking it down: There are other defensive backs who could slide over from safety -- such as Adrian Amos and Jesse Della Valle -- but, right now, it looks as if cornerback is the position with the question marks. Lucas will take up one starting spot. But the other? At this point, you might as well just throw the names in a hat and pick one out.

Back in 2012, Davis started the season as the No. 3 cornerback before fizzling out and seeing less time as the season progressed. He played in 11 games as a true freshman and just six as a sophomore. In 2013, Williams began the season as a starter before fizzling out and watching Amos move from safety to reclaim his spot. It sure seems like it’s time to write Davis off as a starter, but is it too early to write Williams off? If Williams, who switched positions from receiver last season, can’t bounce back, then this position truly gets interesting. It seems as if Jordan Smith would be next in line since he’s quickly earned a reputation as a hard worker.

Then again, Smith’s work could all be for naught. There are several incoming freshmen who could challenge for immediate playing time -- including safety Christian Campbell, who could also play corner -- once they arrive over the summer. This position battle might not be totally decided in the spring, but it should go a long way in answering some of the biggest questions on the defense.

Pre-camp edge: None. That’s right -- no one has an edge right now. That’s a big reason why this battle is the top spot on the countdown. This is one starting spot that’s ripe for the taking. The players who have seen the most time (Davis, Williams) haven’t played well, and there’s really no strong way to gauge the others since they’ve seen so little time. Williams might be in the best shape right now, but Jordan Smith should be right behind him. At this point, it seems as if those two corners might be the ones to keep a close eye on this spring ... but anything can happen at corner.

More position battles to watch:

No. 5: Kicker
No. 4: Tight end
No. 3: Defensive tackle
No. 2: Offensive guard/center
We're taking snapshots of each position group with every Big Ten team entering the spring. Up next: the defensive backs.

Illinois: The secondary returns mostly intact from 2013, as Illinois returns starters at both cornerback spots (V'Angelo Bentley and Eaton Spence), as well as Zane Petty, who started the final seven games at free safety. Taylor Barton, who opened last season as a starting free safety, also is back. Building safety depth is important this spring as Illinois must replace Earnest Thomas III. Barton will compete with Jevaris Little and others for playing time. The depth is much better at corner as Darius Mosely and Jaylen Dunlap both saw significant action as freshmen last fall.

Indiana: Like Illinois, Indiana returns a lot in the defensive backfield but must improve after struggling to stop opponents in 2013. The Hoosiers also lose only one starter in safety Greg Heban, a mainstay during the past four seasons. There's a lot of experience at cornerback with returning starters Tim Bennett (senior) and Michael Hunter (junior), along with reserve Kenny Mullen (senior). Decorated recruit Rashard Fant, who redshirted in 2013, will compete for significant playing time. Senior safety Mark Murphy will lead the secondary, and sophomore Antonio Allen could fill the other safety spot when he returns from an ACL tear. Building depth here always is a priority at IU.

Iowa: The situation isn't as dramatic as the linebacker spot, but Iowa still must replace two productive players in cornerback B.J. Lowery and safety Tanner Miller, who combined for six interceptions in 2013. Lowery is the more significant loss, as he had 19 passes defended and three forced fumbles. The good news is Desmond King looks like a budding star and he will move into the featured role Lowery occupied. Jordan Lomax, Sean Draper and others will compete to start opposite King. Strong safety John Lowdermilk returns after a solid junior season. Lomax also could play free safety and will compete there with Anthony Gair and Nico Law, who both appeared in all 13 games last fall as reserves.

Maryland: The back four aims for better results on the injury front and on the field in 2013. Maryland returns both starters at safety in Sean Davis, the team's leading tackler with 102 last fall, and Anthony Nixon, but there should be competition behind them with A.J. Hendy and Zach Dancel. The cornerback position is worth watching this spring as Dexter McDougle departs and Jeremiah Johnson remains limited by a toe injury. Will Likely has opened the spring as a starter, and Alvin Hill could rise up after recording 24 tackles last season.

Michigan: The secondary took a step back in 2013 and all jobs are open even though Michigan returns two veteran cornerbacks -- Blake Countess and Raymon Taylor -- and some experience at safety. Jabrill Peppers, the nation's No. 2 overall recruit according to ESPN Recruiting Nation, will play a major role for the Wolverines this fall, whether it's at corner, safety or nickel. Junior Jarrod Wilson started the first seven games of last season at free safety, and Dymonte Thomas is a good candidate to start at one of the safety spots. Michigan should expect more from this group in 2014.

Michigan State: Will opposing offenses invade the No Fly Zone in 2014? Not if Michigan State can fill several spots, none bigger than Darqueze Dennard's at cornerback. Dennard, a unanimous All-American and the Jim Thorpe Award winner, departs to the NFL, and junior Trae Waynes slides into the featured corner role after a promising sophomore season. The competition opposite Waynes heats up this spring as Ezra Robinson, Darian Hicks, Jermaine Edmondson and Arjen Colquhoun compete. Free safety Kurtis Drummond boasts 21 career starts and enters 2014 as one of the league's top safeties. RJ Williamson likely will fill Isaiah Lewis' spot at strong safety, and Demetrious Cox provides depth.

Minnesota: Like the Gophers' defensive line, the secondary loses a huge piece in Brock Vereen, who played both safety and cornerback last season. But there might be enough returning pieces to fill the void. Cornerback Eric Murray had a very solid first season as a starter, and Minnesota also brings back Derrick Wells and Briean Boddy-Calhoun, both of whom have starting experience. Leading tackler Cedric Thompson and Antonio Johnson finished last season as the starting safeties, and both are back. Senior Grayson Levine provides some experience in a reserve safety role.

Nebraska: An important spring awaits new defensive backs coach Charlton Warren, who must identify new starters at cornerback, safety and nickel. The Huskers are replacing Ciante Evans and Stanley Jean-Baptiste, who combined for eight interceptions, 18 passes defended and 15 tackles for loss in 2013. Safety Andrew Green, who made 10 starts in 2013, also leaves. The good news is cornerback Josh Mitchell had an excellent bowl game and will fill a starting spot. Leading tackler Corey Cooper also returns at safety. There's not much experience at corner other than Mitchell, and Daniel Davie, Auburn transfer Jonathan Rose and others will compete. Nebraska brings back more at safety with Harvey Jackson, who made three starts in 2013, and junior Charles Jackson.

Northwestern: That the Wildcats' secondary could be one of the team's biggest strengths seemed laughable three years ago, but it could be true this fall. All four starters return, led by safety Ibraheim Campbell, one of the Big Ten's most productive defenders (262 career tackles). The depth at cornerback looks strong as starters Nick VanHoose and Matt Harris return, along with Dwight White and Daniel Jones, who opened 2013 as a starter and is coming back from an ACL tear. Traveon Henry should start alongside Campbell, and there are some promising young safeties like Godwin Igwebuike.

Ohio State: Pass defense proved to be Ohio State's downfall in 2013, and the Buckeyes' secondary will be under the microscope this spring as new assistant Chris Ash steps in. Ohio State loses All-Big Ten cornerback Bradley Roby and will lean more on Doran Grant, who started opposite Roby in 2013. Ash also expects big things from Tyvis Powell, who will start at one of the safety spots. Safety Vonn Bell finally logged significant playing time in the Orange Bowl and could become a permanent starter as a sophomore. Veteran Ron Tanner and Cam Burrows also are in the mix at safety. There should be good competition to start opposite Grant, as Armani Reeves tries to hold off redshirt freshmen Gareon Conley and Eli Apple.

Penn State: After a season of moving parts and inconsistent plays, Penn State hopes for a more settled secondary. Adrian Amos, who alternated between cornerback and safety last season, will lead the group and brings plenty of experience. Jordan Lucas likely will start opposite Amos at cornerback after making strides toward the end of his sophomore season. PSU loses some leadership at safety with Malcolm Willis and Stephen Obeng-Agyapong departing and will lean on Ryan Keiser and Jesse Della Valle, both of whom have starting experience. Converted wideouts Trevor Williams and Malik Golden provide depth at cornerback and safety, respectively.

Purdue: The rotation from 2013 returns almost completely intact, but Purdue loses a very big piece in cornerback Ricardo Allen, a four-year starter. Cornerback Frankie Williams enters his third year as a starter and will slide into Allen's featured role, while the competition for the other top corner spot will feature Antoine Lewis and Leroy Clark, among others. Purdue has plenty of experience at safety with Taylor Richards, who started every game in 2013, and Anthony Brown, who replaced the injured Landon Feichter and had 69 tackles. Feichter also is back from a broken leg.

Rutgers: This group is anxious to turn the page after a season filled with personnel issues and poor performance (Rutgers finished 120th nationally in pass defense). Senior safety Lorenzo Waters leads the group after recording 62 tackles and two forced fumbles in 2013. Johnathan Aiken will try to start opposite Waters at free safety, although he'll be pushed by Delon Stephenson and Tejay Johnson, who started three games last fall. Gareef Glashen started six games last season and seems likely to retain one of the top cornerback spots. There will be competition at the other between Anthony Cioffi and Nadir Barnwell, both of whom started games as true freshmen in 2013. The most intriguing player to watch is cornerback Ian Thomas, who returns to the team after quitting midway through last season, one that he began as a starter.

Wisconsin: The Badgers are relatively young at both secondary positions but boast far more experience at cornerback than safety. Junior Darius Hillary and sophomore Sojourn Shelton started all 13 games at cornerback last season. Peniel Jean adds even more experience at the position. Safety is much less settled as Dezmen Southward graduates, Michael Caputo shifts to linebacker and Tanner McEvoy returns to quarterback. Nate Hammon and Leo Musso both played in all 13 games last fall as reserves. Newcomers like Serge Trezy and Austin Hudson could compete for time when they arrive this summer.
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Nebraska Cornhuskers, Ohio State Buckeyes, Penn State Nittany Lions, Wisconsin Badgers, Big Ten Conference, Illinois Fighting Illini, Iowa Hawkeyes, Michigan State Spartans, Michigan Wolverines, Indiana Hoosiers, Maryland Terrapins, Rutgers Scarlet Knights, Minnesota Golden Gophers, Northwestern Wildcats, Purdue Boilermakers, Malik Golden, Trevor Williams, Adrian Amos, Jesse Della Valle, Ryan Keiser, sojourn shelton, Nick VanHoose, Blake Countess, Gareon Conley, Jabrill Peppers, Cam Burrows, Rashard Fant, Godwin Igwebuike, Darius Hillary, Mark Murphy, Michael Caputo, Peniel Jean, Cedric Thompson, Raymon Taylor, Dezmen Southward, Doran Grant, Daniel Jones, Jarrod Wilson, Dymonte Thomas, Ibraheim Campbell, Kurtis Drummond, V'Angelo Bentley, Dwight White, Briean Boddy-Calhoun, Landon Feichter, Tim Bennett, Matt Harris, Taylor Richards, Antonio Allen, B.J. Lowery, Derrick Wells, Nate Hammon, Austin Hudson, Armani Reeves, Michael Hunter, Trae Waynes, Eaton Spence, Jaylen Dunlap, Darius Mosely, Tyvis Powell, Charlton Warren, B1G spring positions 14, A.J. Hendy, Alvin Hill, Andrew Green, Anthony Cioffi, Anthony Gair, Anthony Nixon, Antoine Lewis, Antonio Johnson, Arjen Colquhoun, Charles Jackson, Corey Cooper, Daniel Davie, Darian Hicks, Delon Stephenson, Demetrious Cox, Dexter McDougle, Eric Murray, Ezra Robinson, Frankie Williams, Gareef Glashen, Grayson Levine, Harvey Jackson, Ian Thomas, Jeremiah Johnson, Jermaine Edmonson, Jevaris Little, John Lowdermilk, Johnathan Aiken, Jonathan Rose, Jordan Lomax, Josh Mitchell, Kenny Mullen, Leroy Clark, Lorenzo Waters, Nadir Barnwell, RJ Williamson, Ron Tanner, Sean Davis, Sean Draper, Serge Trezy, Tanner Miller, Taylor Barton, Tejay Johnson, Traveon Henry, Will Likely, Zach Dancel, Zane Petty

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- It’s Monday so you know what that means: the start of another Penn State countdown.

We’ll have a different countdown every week until spring practice starts to help time tick by a little faster. And, this week, we decided to take a look at the five players you should watch the closest this spring.

Up first is a defensive back who's trying to live up to big expectations …

No. 5 spring player to watch: DB Adrian Amos

[+] EnlargeAdrian Amos
Matthew O'Haren/USA TODAY SportsAdrian Amos is expected to being the spring at safety, but Penn State could need him at cornerback.
2013 review: He was coming off a strong freshman campaign but moved from cornerback to safety out of necessity. He was widely regarded as the team's best defensive back, but he struggled at his new position -- as did his replacement, wideout-turned-cornerback Trevor Williams -- and the experiment was abandoned by midseason. Amos started every game, but it's clear he still didn't meet expectations. He finished with 50 tackles and just one interception and, while he fared much better at his old position of cornerback in the second half of the year, his struggles at safety overshadowed any successes.

Why spring is so important: Amos is undoubtedly a talented player, but he was not a great safety last season. Defensive coordinator Bob Shoop believed Amos would "probably" still begin the spring at safety, but it's still no guarantee that's where he'll finish. Right now, he's a better cornerback -- he's the best corner on the team -- but this spring will help determine whether Amos can put together a solid season at safety. He appears to be needed there more because the position is such a liability.

Best-case scenario: Amos said he felt like a freshman all over again last season because he was basically learning a new position (safety). Well, this year, he returns to old form and has the best season out of any of the other defensive backs. Safety is no longer the weakness of this defense, and Amos leads the team in interceptions on his way to All-Big Ten honors. Talk of his NFL potential once again picks up around the defense's playmaker.

Worst-case scenario: Amos continues to struggle at safety and, instead of being a great cornerback, is forced to settle for being a mediocre safety. The secondary is once again a punching bag for opposing offenses, and Amos finds himself out of position on several big plays that draw the ire of fans. He's better than 2013, but his performance still leaves fans wondering "what-could-have-been" because of all the potential he showed as a freshman. At some point, he's moved back to cornerback -- but his confidence is shaken.

Penn State positions to improve: No. 1

February, 14, 2014
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STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- The end of this week's countdown is finally here. And if you're surprised by this top choice, then you just haven't been watching the past two seasons ...

No. 1: Safeties

[+] EnlargeRyan Keiser, Malcolm Willis
Evan Habeeb/USA TODAY SportsPenn State defensive back Ryan Keiser (23) has experience at safety, but he must improve to get on the field in 2014.
The players: Adrian Amos (50 tackles, six pass deflections), Ryan Keiser (38 tackles, 11 pass deflections), Jesse Della Valle (21 tackles), Malik Golden (eight tackles), Koa Farmer (incoming freshman), Marcus Allen (incoming freshman), Christian Campbell (incoming freshman)

Last season: This group has been the Nittany Lions' Achilles' heel for the past two seasons. Amos started 2013 as a safety while Trevor Williams tried his hand at cornerback. Neither fared well, however, and that experiment was abandoned midseason with Keiser taking over. Keiser didn't fare any better, and the safeties found themselves constantly out of position. A third-and-long play was no guarantee for a punt the next down, and better quarterbacks -- like Blake Bortles and Braxton Miller -- absolutely shredded this secondary.

What's missing: Ability. There's really no other way to put it. You could go with speed or athleticism or awareness, but all adjectives point back to that same simple trait: talent. Malcolm Willis was a really hit-or-miss player last season, but he was at least a team leader who knew the signals well enough to become the "quarterback of the defense." With his graduation, that won't be easily replaced either. Amos is a great corner, too, but he wasn't such a great safety.

Moving forward: It's not an easy exercise to even decipher who might be a safety next season. Amos didn't fare well, but the newest roster update still puts him at the position. Even Jordan Lucas could technically play the position. Those two are clearly the best cornerbacks, but the concern is obviously how much of a liability safety is with the team's top two DBs both at corner. Last season, PSU fared better with both at corner. This season -- who knows? One of the incoming freshmen could become a Day 1 starter, or maybe Golden takes over after a strong spring. Whatever happens, though, the most surprising move might be having two of the more experienced safeties -- Keiser and Della Valle -- both starting alongside one another. Both came to Penn State without scholarships and have impressed in that regard, but they're simply not a good season-long solution to PSU's issues at safety.

On the bright side, though, could Penn State's safety play really be any worse than it was the last two seasons?

Looking to the past & future: DBs

December, 30, 2013
12/30/13
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It's never too late -- or too early -- to see what we learned from this past season and also look ahead to next season. So, we've started breaking down each position on the Nittany Lions.

Up today: Defensive backs.

REWIND

[+] EnlargeAdrian Amos
Matthew O'Haren/USA TODAY SportsAfter switching from cornerback to safety and back to cornerback, Penn State's Adrian Amos could have a breakout season in 2014.
Expectations entering the 2013 season: The season before was such an awful one that many believed PSU had already hit rock bottom and that it couldn't possibly get any worse.

With Adrian Amos' move to safety, many took that as a sign that defensive coordinator John Butler was confident with the new cornerbacks (Jordan Lucas and Trevor Williams) and that this group wouldn't be the liability it was in 2012. Penn State was forced to play more zone coverage than it wanted to in 2012, but 2013 appeared as if the secondary could at least earn the status of "average." It wouldn't be a defensive strength, but it wouldn't be a complete disaster either.

How they fared: Maybe it wasn't a total disaster ... but it was close. Amos' position switch to safety was a total bust, and he was moved back to cornerback later in the season. The safeties were once again the Achilles' heel on the team and, despite returning both starters from 2012 (Malcolm Willis and safety-turned-linebacker Stephen Obeng-Agyapong), the position of safety somehow managed to take a step back.

Ryan Keiser caught the ire of fans quite a few times, and it wasn't unusual for a defensive back to be completely out of position. PSU didn't press often, the corners gave opposing receivers plenty of room and third-and-long wasn't an automatic prelude to a punt. This was the worst unit on the team -- by far. Again.

What we learned: Butler doesn't have a lot to work with here. CB Da'Quan Davis saw time early in 2012 but hasn't played much since. Wideout-turned-cornerback Williams was looked upon as the better option and, well, you know how Williams fared. He was pulled about six games into the season. Nearly all of the prime options in the secondary are underclassmen. Outside of Willis, PSU had to resort to former walk-ons at safety.

Grading the position: D. If this unit was average, Penn State might've been at least 9-3. But even teams like run-first Minnesota were able to pass on the Nittany Lions. Lucas was a nice surprise, but one nice surprise couldn't overcome missed expectations everywhere else. Amos admittedly didn't live up to expectations, the safeties were a mess, and there really wasn't a whole lot of good to say here.

FAST FORWARD

Key losses: Willis. He wasn't a great player, but he still helped other players in the secondary adjust. He was the quarterback of the defense and a vocal leader who helped the underclassmen. PSU probably will be able to replace his production, however. Can Keiser or Jesse Della Valle really be that much worse?

Position stock watch: Trending upward. Penn State had to hit rock-bottom in 2013; it had to. It really has nowhere to go but up. The cornerbacks should actually be above-average in 2014, and this could finally be the breakout season everyone was waiting for from Amos. Safety is obviously a huge concern but, once again, it really can't get that much worse.

Key to next season: Getting average play from the safeties. They don't have to be great, or even all that good. Simply being average would be a big step up. That being said, it might be difficult for this unit to improve that much. Malik Golden could be the answer, as he saw some significant time toward the end of the season. And it's always possible that a freshman could contribute here. Lucas can also play safety ... but that'd likely cause some head-scratching after the failed experiment with Amos.

Looking to the past & future: DL

December, 26, 2013
12/26/13
1:00
PM ET
It's never too late -- or too early -- to see what we learned from this season and also look ahead to next season. So, we've started breaking down each position on the Nittany Lions.

Up today: Defensive line.

REWIND

Expectations entering the 2013 season: Believe it or not, more question marks surrounded the defensive tackles than the defensive ends. Although Gil Brandt named DaQuan Jones the best senior DT in the country, the senior was still an unproven commodity. And the starter alongside him -- Kyle Baublitz or Austin Johnson -- was widely considered a liability.

[+] EnlargeDaQuan Jones
Rob Christy/USA TODAY SportsDT DaQuan Jones lived up to the preseason hype and led the Nittany Lions in stops in the backfield and was fifth on the team in tackles.
Deion Barnes had already garnered NFL hype, and 10 sacks didn't seem out of the realm of possibility for the reigning Big Ten freshman of the year. The line wasn't expected to be as good as 2012, but it was still expected to be in relatively good shape.

How they fared: Jones was the best player on the defense, finishing fifth in tackles (56), first in stops in the backfield (11.5) and making it difficult for any tailback to find room up the middle. The combination of Johnson/Baublitz fared better than most thought, too.

But the defensive ends? Well, Barnes might've been the most disappointing player on the team. He followed up his strong freshman season with just four sacks, and he struggled with his run-defense. Bill O'Brien didn't start him for a game or two to send a message. C.J. Olaniyan played especially well in the second half of the season, although his forte wasn't exactly setting the edge, either. Still, he wound up with 11 tackles-for-loss and a team-high five sacks, four quarterback hurries and three forced fumbles. Anthony Zettel also played well in spots.

What we learned: Barnes isn't the first-round NFL lock we thought he was. At least not yet. He utilized his speed a lot in 2012, but he was just outmuscled in 2013. He needs to add weight and get stronger before his production matches his freshman season. Teams are aware of him now, so he's not taking anyone by surprise. He's going to be a huge factor on this team moving forward, and we learned he needs to add some tangibles before he reaches double-digit sacks.

Grading the position: B. No, this group wasn't as strong as 2012. But it was still the best group on the defense in 2013 and often set the tone. When the defensive ends set the edge, fans knew the team would be in OK shape. When they didn't? Disaster loomed. They were able to pressure quarterbacks in the conference season, and -- outside of the Ohio State game -- the run-defense performed well in the Big Ten.

FAST FORWARD

Key losses: Jones and Baublitz. PSU's top three DEs return, but it loses two of its best three DTs. The interior was a strength in 2013, while the ends were more of an issue. In 2014, that situation's a bit flip-flopped.

Position stock watch: Trending downward. Jared Odrick, Devon Still,Jordan Hill, Jones -- PSU has had a lot of luck finding future NFL DTs to step in one season after another. But that might end in 2014. If Barnes can improve his production from his freshman season and Olaniyan can make some strides, then it won't be all bad news. But when you lose the best player on your line -- and on your defense -- that usually doesn't work in your favor. Couple that in with Baublitz's decision to leave, and depth at defensive tackle will definitely be a concern.

Key to next season: Production of the No. 2 DT. It's as simple and as difficult as that. Johnson will return as a starter, but who will start alongside him? The early favorite is probably Zettel, who could move from DE. But incoming juco Tarow Barney (Bainbridge, Ga./Northwest Mississippi C.C.) or freshman Thomas Holley (Brooklyn, N.Y./Lincoln) playing immediately isn't a total stretch either. If PSU finds a solid replacement, this line is likely in store for another "B" grade next season. If it doesn't? It's going to have to deal with an Achilles' Heel all season. Just ask Trevor Williams how that worked out.

What we learned: Week 10

November, 3, 2013
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Lessons learned from Penn State's 24-17 overtime win against Illinois in Week 10:

1. You can never count this team out. Surviving unprecedented sanctions? Check. Trailing by a touchdown against Michigan in the final minute and coming back? Check. Trailing by a field goal against Illinois in the final two minutes and coming back? Check. Winning overtime games? Check and check. Penn State might not be the best team, but it sure has to be one of the most resilient. The Nittany Lions are making plays when they need to so, although the wins aren't the best looking, they're still wins. Most people predicted PSU to finish 7-5 or 8-4 and, right now, that's not out of reach. Its record should meet expectations this season.

2. This secondary is incredibly soft. Put Adrian Amos at cornerback, bench Trevor Williams, change the personnel packaging so that those two are on the field with Jordan Lucas. It doesn't matter. Penn State's secondary is playing poorly. Defensive coordinator John Butler is taking heat but, with slow safeties, it's difficult to press because big plays could become even more commonplace. Butler is handicapped by the lack of talent in the secondary. If there's one thing Illinois coach Tim Beckman did right, it was passing on nearly seven out of 10 plays. If you thought a few adjustments would improve this defense Saturday, you were wrong. Adjustments or not, it's going to be a long November for the the Nittany Lions defensive backs.

3. Zach Zwinak is slowly changing his ball-carrying habits. The 240-pound tailback with the fumbling problems wore gloves Saturday, the first time in his college career he has opted to do that. But Zwinak was also clearly mindful, during every carry, not to turn the ball over. He tightly gripped the ball with two hands and made sure to protect it. Illinois, almost comically, kept trying to strip the ball on Zwinak's first carry -- but he held on to it. It's too early to say he's out of the woods, but he's taking the right steps. Bill Belton is the top guy, but he can't carry the pigskin 36 times every game. Zwinak should see more time as the season progresses, as long as those fumbling issues evaporate.

4. Christian Hackenberg is the comeback kid. Three games, two comeback drives, two overtime wins. He played it relatively conservatively Saturday, but he bounced back from his worst game of the season in a big way. He drove his Nittany Lions downfield -- twice -- to tie up the game in the final five minutes of regulation. If there was any doubt Hackenberg lacked poise, file that away. He'll be just fine.

Five things: Illinois at Penn State

November, 2, 2013
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The best way to move past a 63-14 loss is a win. It's as simple and as difficult as that.

The good news for Penn State is that Illinois has surrendered 137 points in the last three games, and the Nittany Lions remain the double-digit favorite. But, still, there's still a question of whether Penn State can move past last Saturday's loss.

A win here shows Penn State is down but not out. A loss? Well, that anonymous criticism Bill O'Brien hates so much certainly isn't going to get any quieter. Here are five things to keep an eye on:

1. How will this defense rebound? Last week's 63-14 embarrassment at Ohio State is likely still in the back of this defense's collective mind. They missed tackles, missed assignments and missed any chance of keeping that game close. There's not just one thing to watch on the defense Saturday afternoon -- it's the entire squad that will be under the microscope. O'Brien said the defense will simplify things against Illinois and, though he was short on details, linebacker Mike Hull believed they'd use fewer checks at the line. Said O'Brien: "I think we just need to let them go play."

2. New-look backfield: Bill Belton is now the starting running back; that much is certain. But what is Zach Zwinak's role with the team now? He fumbled twice on his last 11 carries, and O'Brien admitted those issues are a bit mental now. Does that mean Akeel Lynch will be used more? Well, it's anyone's guess at this point ... but it certainly doesn't seem as if Zwinak will play a big role. This is another chance for Belton to distance himself, and it might also be a bigger opportunity for Lynch.

[+] EnlargeJosh Ferguson
Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY SportsJosh Ferguson is Illinois' top running back and top receiver.
3. Impact of Illinois RB Josh Ferguson: He's averaging a team-best 5.5 yards a carry and has 361 rushing yards. He's also the Fighting Illini's top receiving threat with 361 receiving yards. Nathan Scheelhaase likes to spread the ball around, but Ferguson has a team-high 25 catches, three more than his No. 2 target. For Illinois to win, Ferguson will almost certainly need a huge game. Penn State's defense will have to be prepared for him.

4. Adrian Amos back at CB: This move is a long time coming. Wideout-turned-cornerback Trevor Williams was the weak link on a weak defense, and he's now been benched. Amos will move from safety back to Williams' spot, which means that the starting safeties this week will likely be Malcolm Willis and Jesse Della Valle. Ryan Keiser underwent surgery on his arm, so he's been practicing with a red jersey. Keiser will still play, but that injury is likely the main reason that Della Valle earned the start over him. Amos has been a bit of a disappointment at safety, so this game will help determine whether it's just the new position that handicapped Amos -- or whether he's taken a step back, a la Deion Barnes this season.

5. Christian Hackenberg putting mistakes behind him. He never recovered after last week's interception on the first drive, and he's coming off his worst performance of the season. It should be markedly easier this afternoon, as Illinois has the No. 74 passing defense, but he can't get down on himself if he struggles early. Illinois likes to blitz a lot, and Hackenberg needs to remain poised -- something that seemed to be sorely missing last week. We'll be able to tell a lot about Hackenberg's mindset based on the first few drives. He's done pretty well for a true freshman overall, but Penn State needs more out of him.

O'Brien, Della Valle defend coordinator

October, 29, 2013
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STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Bill O'Brien remained calm and poised for much of Tuesday afternoon, but Penn State's head coach showed some fire when asked about the recent criticism of defensive coordinator John Butler.

The first-year coordinator took some heat over popular Penn State fan boards and on social media after PSU's 63-14 loss to Ohio State. It was the defense's worst performance since 1899, and it was the third straight game the Nittany Lions surrendered 40 or more points.

[+] EnlargeJohn Butler
Matthew O'Haren/USA TODAY SportsDefensive coordinator John Butler has come under fire after the 63-14 loss at Penn State.
"John Butler is our defensive coordinator, works his tail off. The kids respect him. He's doing a hell of a job," O'Brien said, his voice rising. "I don't care what the scoreboard says or what the yardage says. This guy is our defensive coordinator. He's my defensive coordinator. I'm proud to coach with him.

"If anybody should take heat, it's Bill O'Brien -- not John Butler. I don't know where that's coming from but, hopefully, that will get squelched. That's a bunch of crap that he's taking heat."

About 10 minutes after O'Brien stepped off the dais, safety Jesse Della Valle took his place. The first question centered around Butler, and Della Valle echoed his head coach's sentiment.

"Coach Butler is a guy that's always working with us as players to develop us every single week, every single day," Della Valle said. "He's extremely passionate about what he does and his profession. And I think I speak for every player on our team when I say everyone has a lot of respect for him and really respects the work he does for our team."

Butler has been forced to operate a defense this season that's without former All-Big Ten talents Michael Mauti, Gerald Hodges and Jordan Hill. Butler wasn't made available to the media Saturday and isn't scheduled to speak this week, but O'Brien said they plan to simplify the defense in preparation for Illinois.

There have been quite a few changes on defense since last season. Last year's starting safety, Stephen Obeng-Agyapong, is now at linebacker. And Trevor Williams, a wideout last season, has started at cornerback -- although O'Brien said that Adrian Amos will reclaim his old CB position instead of playing safety.

"We have a lot of good players on both sides of the ball, but I think we just need to let them go play," O'Brien said. "That's what I talked to the staff about on Sunday -- just let them go play."

Christian Hackenberg OK: The true freshman missed most of Saturday's second half with a shoulder injury, but O'Brien said he was a full participant in Monday's practice.

"He's good to go, as we sit here today," O'Brien said.

Hackenberg didn't need any extra braces on Monday. PSU's head coach intimated he was just fine and will start again Saturday.

Starting tailback: Bill Belton started on Saturday night, and O'Brien said the shifty runner is now the team's starting running back over Zach Zwinak.

"He's a much improved player, he really is," O'Brien said. "He's more patient in the running game. I think he understands how to watch film better. I think he's a better teammate."

The move came on the heels of Zwinak's renewed fumbling issues. Zwinak has fumbled eight times since last season, including twice in the last two games, on just 11 carries.

"If there's one guy making mistakes, obviously, the other two guys are going to play more," O'Brien added. "Right now, Zach has got a little bit of a fumble issue. I do think it's a little bit mental. I talked to him for a long time yesterday."

Bye week to-do list: Penn State

October, 16, 2013
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Sure, Penn State's bye week comes just three weeks after its first one. But it certainly comes at a good time.

PSU played Michigan to a four-hour, 11-minute 4 overtime classic Saturday night that caused several members of its thin roster to tweet about how sore they were -- on Monday. As a result, coach Bill O'Brien said he held a scrimmage Monday with the younger players and only had the veterans work on conditioning.

[+] EnlargePenn State
AP Photo/Gene J. PuskarReceiver Brandon Felder caught six passes for 97 yards and two touchdowns in the Nittany Lions' win over Michigan.
After the quadruple-OT win, the Nittany Lions are looking to make a splash in the Big Ten. Here are three things they'll have to do to achieve that:

1. Heal up, and forget about Michigan. There's no question this is at the top of PSU's priorities. The atmosphere at Beaver Stadium was about as electric as any home game since the PSU-OSU game in 2005, so it's difficult to blame players if they dwelled on the win a bit longer. Many were still tweeting about it early in the week. And, as a result of the back-and-forth game, PSU is obviously nursing quite a bit of strains and soreness. Said O'Brien: "The biggest goal for us this week is to get healthy." The week off should certainly help out safety Ryan Keiser, who's still recovering from a hand injury. But everyone could use some extra time to rebound after an energy-draining contest like that, especially considering the Nittany Lions only boast approximately 61 scholarship players.

2. Shore up the secondary. Some things never change, and the Nittany Lions' DBs have been a glaring question mark since last season. That isn't going change over the bye, but something clearly has to be done here. Michigan's players dropped several balls -- including at least one touchdown pass -- and wideout-turned-cornerback Trevor Williams has to show more improvement. Defensive coordinator John Butler made a few tweaks to the defensive line, and that seemed to pay dividends. Maybe it's time to take a closer look at the secondary now.

3. Find playmakers not named Allen Robinson. Michigan could be a turning point for several players. Brandon Felder was the leading receiver Saturday -- the first time all season -- and made one back-shoulder catch that really got fans talking. The Nittany Lions have needed another receiving target to step up and, if Felder can continue to perform like that, quarterback Christian Hackenberg should take a giant step forward in the conference season. It's not just at wideout, though. Running back Zach Zwinak committed a critical fumble in the third quarter, and he has been hindered by those turnovers since he took over last season. Bill Belton filled in nicely for him and, if Zwinak can't get those problems under control, Belton might be the answer. Even if Zwinak can, Belton might be the answer anyway. He's more of a home-run threat than Zwinak, and he could wind up being an offensive playmaker. PSU needs more of those.

Five things: Penn State at Indiana

October, 5, 2013
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The Nittany Lions' defense will get another chance at showing UCF was just an aberration in their first real road test of the season. Here's what we'll be watching in Penn State's conference opener against Indiana:

Secondary issues a primary problem? It's difficult to pinpoint the identity of Penn State's defensive backs just yet. On one hand, the passing defense is ranked No. 23 in the nation. On the other hand, those numbers could be a bit misleading -- as UCF carved up the secondary to the tune of 288 yards and three touchdowns. Trevor Williams undoubtedly will be targeted in the early going, and Jordan Lucas will have to play strong for PSU to slow down Indiana's high-powered passing attack. A good game here shows that UCF was just a one-time mistake; a bad game shows PSU will struggle against a lot of their Big Ten opponents' passing games.

[+] EnlargeDaQuan Jones
Rob Christy/USA TODAY SportsDaQuan Jones expects Indiana to be fast. He also should expect to see a lot of action.
Keeping up the tempo: DT DaQuan Jones said this will be the fastest team, tempo-wise, that PSU faces all season. And with that comes quite a few challenges. Bill O'Brien said Thursday he has about 61 true scholarship players, and an up-tempo offense certainly could wear out a thin defense. Safety Ryan Keiser is out for the game, so the defensive backs won't be able to get much of a break. Glenn Carson and Jones also need to see as many snaps as possible, so it'll be an interesting balance to strike later today. O'Brien will adjust the tempo of his offense as needed because he doesn't want to cause a fatigued defense. And, with the way Indiana plays in space, PSU could be in trouble if tired defenders leads to sloppy tackling.

Mike Hull is finally back: The outside linebacker is a critical part to this defense, and he hasn't started a game since suffering an unspecified leg injury in the season opener against Syracuse. He played some against UCF but eventually was pulled; he just didn't seem like the same linebacker. O'Brien rested him against Kent State but said he'll start against Indiana. Hull is a great coverage linebacker who can make sure guys liked TE Ted Bolser don't run all over the defense. And his addition allows Nyeem Wartman and/or Stephen Obeng-Agyapong to grab a breather when needed. He's one of the most important players on this defense, and his health is paramount to Penn State.

Indiana 0-16 vs. PSU: If you haven't yet heard these numbers this week, then you just haven't been paying attention. Since 1993, Indiana has played Penn State a total of 16 times -- and has beaten PSU a grand total of ... zero times. The Hoosiers have come close on six occasions, losing by just one score, but the Lions always have come out on top. If Indiana is going to break the trend in the next five years, this certainly seems its best chance to do it. The Hoosiers returned most of their starters from last season, while PSU is dealing with a shallow roster, first-year starting corners and a true freshman quarterback. Christian Hackenberg will only get better, O'Brien will have more scholarships to work with in future years and, put simply, PSU likely will improve at a faster pace than Indiana. It might be now or never for the Hoosiers.

Running wild: Indiana's strength last season was the interior of its defense. Well, with the graduation of Larry Black and Adam Replogle, that's not the case anymore. The Hoosiers are giving up nearly 250 rushing yards a game, which should provide fertile ground for Penn State's three-headed running attack. Zach Zwinak, Bill Belton and Akeel Lynch have taken steps forward each week -- and this should prove no exception. Belton and Lynch can give PSU a home-run threat, while Zwinak can pound that interior. Indiana's defense could be in for a long day against those three.

Bye week to-do list: Penn State

September, 27, 2013
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At 3-1, Penn State is feeling relatively good during the bye week. Sure, its record could be better -- but the Nittany Lions lost to a good UCF team and already are ahead of where they were last season.

This is the perfect time to shore up some weak spots, heal up and regroup before the Big Ten season begins. Here are a few things Penn State needs to work on to take a step forward:

[+] EnlargeChristian Hackenberg
Matthew O'Haren/USA TODAY SportsFreshman quarterback Christian Hackenberg needs more pass catchers to step up.
1. Find a solid No. 2 receiving target. Allen Robinson is the most dangerous receiver in the Big Ten, but the Nittany Lions' passing attack can't rely just on him. When Kent State shut him down in the final three quarters, Christian Hackenberg went just 6-of-25 with an interception. And Big Ten opponents undoubtedly will focus on the receiver come passing downs. That means someone else -- anyone else -- needs to step up. Brandon Moseby-Felder had six catches in each of the first two weeks but had 39 yards combined in the last two weeks. Only one other target has caught more than three balls in a game, and that's true freshman Adam Breneman -- who has just five catches total this season but had four for 22 yards vs. UCF. Penn State has to hope Kyle Carter returns to his old self in a hurry, Eugene Lewis takes a giant step forward or Moseby-Felder can form more consistency. A-Rob can't do it all.

2. Tighten up the secondary. OK, sure, PSU shut out Kent State and limited Colin Reardon to a QBR of 9.4. But PSU's next opponent, Indiana, has a high-powered passing attack that more closely resembles UCF -- and the Lions did not fare well against the Knights. Wideout-turned-cornerback Trevor Williams was targeted repeatedly early in that game, as UCF threw short when he played off receivers and threw longer when he played tight. Defensive coordinator John Butler eventually benched Williams and slid safety Adrian Amos to his spot, and Butler again will have to gameplan around another good offense in Indiana. Williams isn't the only issue here -- the young corner certainly has had bright spots this season -- but the secondary as a whole has issues that need to be ironed out during the bye.

3. Continue to improve on third downs. For the first three weeks of the season, no team in college football was worse on third down than Penn State. The Lions converted just four of 34 third downs, and nothing they did seemed to work. Bill O'Brien played it conservative by mostly calling run plays in Week 1, and the third downs didn't go well. Then he passed on eight straight third downs in Week 2, and it didn't go well. And then he mixed it up in Week 3, and it still didn't go well. PSU did better against Kent State by converting 7-of-18 ... but the opponent was Kent State. Penn State still ranks 120 out of 123 teams in the third-down department, and it can't expect to live off big offensive plays in the conference season.

Sanctions, depth impact Penn State defense

September, 17, 2013
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STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Penn State's fiery defensive coordinator, John Butler, just crossed his arms and stared up at the big screen after UCF's third touchdown Saturday.

Maybe he just needed to make sure this was real, that he wasn't trapped in a nightmare. Maybe he couldn't believe how his players missed tackles, moved in slow motion or struggled in coverage. Whatever Butler was thinking, it didn't get any better for a defense that surrendered 34 points and 507 yards.

The game's been over now for nearly three days, but answering the questions has only just begun. Some fans have already, tongue-in-cheek, called for PSU to reinstate former defensive coordinator Tom Bradley. Others are blaming thud practices, in which no player is tackled to the ground.

In a valley that's never happy after a loss, Bill O'Brien did little to ease concerns when he deflected talk Saturday by saying he'd need to watch the film. But Penn State's struggles, to a great extent, don't need to be viewed on a flat-screen to be explained.

Just look at the roster. Look at the numbers.

[+] EnlargeJohn Butler
Matthew O'Haren/USA TODAY SportsPenn State defensive coordinator John Butler is receiving some blame for the Lions' poor day on defense, but the problem runs a lot deeper.
This isn't the 2012 team led by two Butkus Award semifinalists at linebacker. This isn't the 2009 squad with three future NFL players at defensive tackle. And it's certainly not the 2010 group that ranked No. 16 in pass defense.

"We knew what we had to to do to stop them," Butler said. "And, to be honest with you, we couldn't stop what we needed to stop."

O'Brien is ESPN's reigning coach of the year and Butler is considered a rising defensive coordinator, but they're not King Midas. The Nittany Lions have fewer scholarship players than every team they're facing this season, and the Knights peeled back any illusion that PSU would cruise through this schedule unscathed.

Safety-turned-linebacker Stephen Obeng-Agyapong acknowledged he initially feared he was too small for his new role -- but he fared well in the first two weeks. The 5-foot-10 senior was exposed Saturday. Wideout-turned-cornerback Trevor Williams earned praise after stopping an Eastern Michigan passing attack that's about as a high-powered as a water pistol. He was exposed Saturday.

Penn State really doesn't have anywhere else left to turn. It's a Whack-a-Mole of depth problems. Butler can move Adrian Amos back to cornerback, but then he might have to move Obeng-Agyapong back to safety ... and then who takes over at linebacker?

Mike Hull appears to be fighting a lingering injury, Ben Kline has seen limited time after recovering from offseason shoulder surgery and Gary Wooten is ... well ... just not ready for prime time. Butler has MacGyver-ed his way to even fielding a defense, calling upon first-year starters to pick up the slack.

Four defenders made their first career starts this season. Another two had just one career start before the 2013 season. Butler doesn't have a deep defense to choose from. He's not a bad coach; he's a handicapped coordinator -- not unlike Bradley, the same coach some might prefer, earlier in his career.

Bradley, affectionately known as "Scrap," didn't fare too well in Year 2 as coordinator, either. (And, in his first season in 2000, he lost to Toledo.) In 2001, the Johnstown native's defense gave up 443 yards a game. Only 17 teams fared worse that season, as Penn State's defense finished behind the likes of Hawaii, UTEP and New Mexico State.

It was an era when fans were bluer than the Penn State home jerseys. But Scrap just didn't have the players early in his tenure. PSU finished No. 98 in total defense in 2001. Afterward? PSU never finished worse than No. 50 and, during the next 10 seasons, finished within the top 20 a total of seven times.

That's a lot of numbers -- but it goes to show that Bradley was a good coordinator who simply didn't have a lot to work with. Give the best poker player in the world a bad hand and you can't expect them to rake in fistfuls of chips.

So it's a bit early to jump on Butler. Yes, these were the cards that Penn State was dealt -- but that doesn't mean the wrong man's playing the hand.

It's just one game, and PSU could rebound. It did after poor showings last season. But the Big Ten slate is loaded with high-powered offenses, such as Indiana (50 ppg), Michigan (42.7 ppg) and Ohio State (44.7 ppg) -- and those are just Penn State's opponents in October.

It's too early this season for Chicken Littles to proclaim the sky's falling over Beaver Stadium. But it's not too early to remind that this defense is short on depth. It will struggle at times, and Butler will be blamed for it.

But it's not Butler, it's not thud and it's not the game plan. It's primarily the depth -- and it's these sanctions.

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BIG TEN SCOREBOARD

Saturday, 12/20
Monday, 12/22
Tuesday, 12/23
Wednesday, 12/24
Friday, 12/26
Saturday, 12/27
Monday, 12/29
Tuesday, 12/30
Wednesday, 12/31
Thursday, 1/1
Friday, 1/2
Saturday, 1/3
Sunday, 1/4
Monday, 1/12