With one week to go before the start of the season, it's time to review Penn State's defense. Three new starters will be lining up on the defensive line and four new kids will be roaming the secondary. Let's meet the new faces.
Gone from the defensive line are starters Tamba Hali, Mathew Rice, and Scott Paxon. This trio combined for 164 tackles, 19 sacks and 36.5 TFL. That's the bad news. The good news is Jay Alford returns with his 37 tackles and 8.5 sacks. He has more sacks than any player returning in the Big Ten this year.
Like most teams, Penn State rotates several defensive linemen in and out of the game. Five of the top eight linemen from last year return, so this group does have considerable experience. The starting line most likely will be:
DE - Jim Shaw (6 tkl, 1 sack)
DT - Ed Johnson (DNP in 2005 - 21 tkl, 4 TFL in 2004)
DT - Jay Alford (37 tkl, 11.5 TFL, 8.5 sacks)
DE - Josh Gaines (9 tkl, 0.5 TFL)
Jay Alford and Paul Posluszny return to lead the Lions.
Coming in this year is what may be the greatest group of defensive linemen to ever come to Penn State in one class. Don't be surprised if uber recruits Maurice Evans, Aaron Maybin, Tom McEowen, Jared Odrick, and Phillip Taylor see significant playing time.
Penn State's success on defense will depend heavily on this group's ability to stop the run and put pressure on the quarterback to protect the inexperienced secondary.
Preseason Grade: B-
All three All-Conference linebackers return in 2006. The line is anchored by All-Universe Butkus and Bednarik winner Paul Posluszny with his 116 tkls, 3 sacks, 8 TFL. Poz suffered a slight tear in his knee in the Orange Bowl last season, but his rehab went well and he is back to 100%. Rumors from spring practice said Paul was an animal in the weight room since he could not participate on the field and his body fat is now below 5%. His teammates say he is actually faster than he was before the injury.
Just another day in the trenches
Joining Posluszny are All-Big Ten linebackers Tim Shaw and Dan Conner. Shaw recorded 76 tackes and 4.5 sacks last season. Conner recorded 76 tackles and 1.5 sacks in only nine games.
Conner says, "Time to open a can of whoopass."
The scary thing about this group is the coaches feel even if all three of these guys got hurt their backups could step in and the defense would not skip a beat. Jerome Hayes, Tyrell Sales, and Sean Lee are that good. You may remember Lee was forced to step in when Poz went down in the Orange Bowl making several key tackles near the goaline.
Preseason Grade: A+
This season the Nittany Lions have to replace all four starters in the secondary. Zemitis, Lowry, Harrell and Phillips are all going to be playing on Sundays. This group combined for 248 tackles and 12 INT.
VHT Sophomore Justin King makes the switch to defense full time this year. His speed and athletic ability figure to make him an All-Conference corner someday. Anchoring down the other corner will be sophomore Tony Davis. Senior Donnie Johnson will be starting at strong safety. Johnson made himself known during the MSU game last year pulling in an INT and blocking a kick. Nolan McCready will most likely be the starter at Hero, but Anthony Sciriotto is pushing for playing time.
This group has big shoes to fill.
Message board banter says the coaches are very impressed with incoming freshman speedster A.J. Wallace and plan to utilize him right away on offense and defense much like Justin King was used last year. Expect to see him get some playing time as the nickel or dime back.
This group has tons of talent but lacks any significant playing experience. Unfortunately they will be thrown to the wolves early. They will be tested by Notre Dame and Ohio State before the leaves start turning color. Their learning curve will have to be a steep one if Penn State hopes to contend for the Big Ten title and a BCS Bowl.
Preseason Grade: C+
There is bound to be a dropoff from last season's experienced squad. You don't lose seven starters and come back the number one unit in the nation. (Of course if you are Ohio State I guess that's another matter in the eyes of the pollsters. But that's another post for another time.) The defense is stacked with tons of talent and has the potential to be a great squad as it gains experience. This group won't shut anyone out, but they will keep it close and give the offense a chance in every game.
Preseason Grade: B