Upside Downside: A Little Less Defensive?

On Thursday, we ran a comparison of last year's offensive personnel compared to the players who will take the field for this year's Nittany Lions.  The results were largely favorable.   Personnel shouldn't be an issue for 2008's offense (2009?  Ugh.), provided that the quarterback -- let's face it, Daryll Clark's the guy -- can take care of the ball and help the team cut down on (1) ghastly-timed turnovers and (2) short field goal attempts.

Today, we'll look at the defense.  You already know the big stories.  A knee exploded.  A nation mourned.  Two guys were bounced after the Outside The Lines report.  A nation rejoiced.  While these incidents sucked for a variety of reasons, many fans seem to believe that Penn State can absorb the losses due to excellent defensive recruiting and depth.

More likely than not, they're wrong.

 

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DEFENSIVE END

2007:  Maurice Evans, Josh Gaines, Aaron Maybin, Jerome Hayes.

2008:  Evans, Gaines, Maybin, Hayes, Eric Lattimore.

Evans is the obviously headliner of the group, coming off a season with 12.5 sacks and 21.5 tackles for loss.  If all goes as planned, he'll be on a few All-American teams this season.  Gaines is a good player, not particularly flashy (2.5 sacks), but plays the run well and is generally around the ball.  Maybin is mostly a pass-rushing specialist -- slightly undersized and fast. 

The big question mark is Jerome Hayes, who played rather well before tearing his ACL on a special teams play against Wisconsin.  His effectiveness in the old Tim Shaw LB/DE hybrid role could make the difference between a good and great defensive line. 

Lattimore, along with freshman Jack Crawford, could be available in case of severe emergency.

All in all, pretty much the same group you saw last season.  That's a good thing.

 

DEFENSIVE TACKLE

2007:  Chris Baker, Phillip Taylor, Ollie Ogbu, Jared Odrick, Abe Koroma, Tom McEowen.

2008:  Ogbu, Odrick, Koroma, McEowen, Chimaeze Okoli.

Here's where it gets a little scary.  Like it or not, Baker was the teams most productive defensive tackle last season (40 tackes, 8 TFL, 4.5 sacks).  Taylor was second among DT's with 20 tackles and three sacks.  As you're fully aware, they're gone.   So is another guy who Joe Paterno expected to contribute as a true freshman last season -- Devon Still, out 8-10 weeks with a broken leg after missing 2007 with an ACL injury.  That's three guys, who for various reasons are missing from the rotation before the first snap of the season.

Left behind are Ogbu, an afterthought heading into 2007 who turned out to be an excellent tackle.  Other guys have various injury concerns -- Koroma started 2007 with a broken foot, Odrick dislocated his right ankle against Indiana,  McEowen's already had one knee surgery and nearly left the program in the spring.  Chima Okoli has earned very positive reviews, and not just for his improvisational comedy skills.  But he hasn't played a meaningful snap yet.

So yeah, injuries hit this group hard last year.  By the fourth quarter of the Indiana game, it began to show.  The Hoosiers put together a pair of 80-yard touchdown drives as the Lions limped to a five-point victory in Bloomington.  The next week, the PSU defensive line was nowhere to be seen against Ohio State.  Penn State only had one sack against Todd Boeckmann (by LB Navorro Bowman), but take any statistic you want from that game.  It was a defensive embarassment.

Okay, here's one stat from the Ohio State game.  Number of Ohio State punts?  Zero.

Two weeks later was the defensive meltdown against Michigan State.  The defensive line was utterly gassed in the second half, Jehuu Caulcrick started breaking off longer runs, Brian Hoyer threw the ball all over the field, and Sparty put up 28 points.

The point here, obviously, is that Penn State started last season with considerably more depth at defensive tackle and once a few guys went down, opposing quarterbacks had limitless time to pick apart a pedestrian secondary.  This season, we're already starting near the "once a few guys went down" point.

 

LINEBACKERS

2007:  Dan Connor, Sean Lee, Tyrell Sales, Josh Hull, Navorro Bowman.

2008:  Tyrell Sales, Josh Hull, Chris Colasanti, Bani Gbadyu, Navorro Bowman.

Connor and Lee accounted for 273 tackles, 25.5 tackles for loss, ten sacks, and a whole bunch of experience and leadership.  Sales was the third starter last season.  He's good.  He's not Dan Connor or Sean Lee.  Hull saw a fair amount of action last season.  He's good.  He's not Dan Connor or Sean Lee.  The duo of Gbadyu and Bowman add a level of athleticism the other projected linebackers lack, and Colasanti may end up on the field sooner than most expect. Keep in mind, Colasanti had as many tackles last season as placekicker Kevin Kelly.  Just sayin'.

Could the linebacker position actually be a major problem for Penn State?  There are plenty of good players.  There aren't enough great players to make up for other weaknesses in the defense.  Considering the losses of Connor and Lee, it's hard to envision anything but a healthy step backward for this group.

SECONDARY

2007:  Justin King, Lydell Sargeant, A.J. Wallace, Anthony Scirrotto, Tony Davis, Mark Rubin.

2008:  Wallace, Sargeant, Scirrotto, Davis, Rubin, Drew Astorino.

By their own admission, this group disappointed last season (8th in the Big Ten; pass defense efficiency), and in reality, the warning signs surfaced as early as the second half of the Buffalo game.  Good passing offenses such as Ohio State, Indiana, and Michigan State threw the ball at will.  Even Temple moved the ball with alarming ease between the 20's during the first half of the game.   It's not ridiculous to suggest that every player in last year's secondary played below expectations.  Now, Justin King is gone.

For 2008, Davis moves from safety to the cornerback spot he occupied in 2006.  That likely means less playing time for Lydell Sargeant.  A.J. Wallace, as discussed here repeatedly, needs to evolve into the lockdown corner he was supposed to be coming out of high school.  He was okay last season.  The defense requires him to be excellent this year.

Davis' shift to cornerback leaves Mark Rubin as a starting safety, along with Anthony Scirrotto.  You'll remember Rubin as the only wide receiver with a functioning pair of hands in 2004.  He's being pushed by lightly-recruited redshirt freshman Drew Astorino, which is simultaneously inspiring for Astorino's sake and terrifying for the rest of us. 

This was a shaky group in 2007 that will likely struggle to be any better without Justin King.  Even the most optimistic Nittany Lion fan will have a tough time arguing otherwise -- but please, feel free to try in the comments if you'd like.

To summarize, it could be a very difficult year for the Penn State defense unless:

  1. The defensive line, specifically Evans, Odrick, and Ogbu remain healthy.  No room for any additional losses there.
  2. Sales and Hull play far above "vaguely adequate".
  3. Either Rubin improves from last season or Astorino proves to be a true diamond in the rough.

Scared?  Me?  Yeah, more than a little. 

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