The upcoming season will be a time of unprecedented change for all Penn State fans. A major coaching staff overhaul, implementing new systems, and changing traditions is nothing new for most fanbases. At Penn State however, this concept of change is a totally foreign idea.
Fans clearly have a lot to be optimistic as Penn State looks to the future. But for now, let's look at the reasons why the 2012 defense could be a major step back from past seasons.
1. Penn State really misses Scrap
Some people may have been frustrated with the "Bend but don't break" philosophy. Regardless of your personal feelings, it was extremely effective. Since 2004, Tom Bradley's defenses have ranked among the best in the nation year-in and year-out (with the exception of an injury-laden and inexperienced unit in 2010). His defenses were a revolving door of future NFL stars. Even the years when it seemed like a huge drop-off was inevitable, the young guys would step up and the defense would find a way to remain dominant.
Starting in 2012, Penn State fans can no longer count on the lights out-performance by the defense with absolute certainty. The defense could be plagued with the same unpredictability we have experienced with the offense during the last few years. Let's face it- if the defense wasn't there to bail out the offense so often, the losses would have piled up very quickly over the years. Take Penn State's 8-1 start before The Thing in 2011. Without a dominant defense, Penn State almost certainly lose to Temple, Indiana, Iowa, Purdue, and Illinois. Suddenly an 8-1 team (with the only loss coming to the eventual national champs) is 3-6 with the only wins coming against FCS Indiana State, Eastern Michigan, and Northwestern. And I'm being generous by not counting NW as a probable win.
Now that's downright terrifying.
2. The inexperience of the secondary shows
There is no doubt that losing all four starters in the defensive backfield hurts. The new batch of starters may be able to play at the same level (or even exceed) last year's unit, but we just don't know.
Adrian Amos was impressive while filling in for an injured D'Anton Lynn in 2011. As a true freshman, he shut down one of the most dangerous receivers in the Big Ten by holding Marvin McNutt to 4 catches for 73 yards (McNutt's 3rd lowest total of the season) in a 13-3 victory against Iowa. Malcolm Willis has looked more than capable while filling in during the past two seasons. Stephon Morris has shown tremendous potential at times, but has also been inconsistent. Curtis Drake is being moved to the secondary, bit it's entirely unknown how he will perform. Mike Wallace has looked impressive, but the sample size is just too small to know how he will hold his own on a more regular basis. Regardless, Penn State will be forced to rely on some players with little to no experience.
Inexperience isn't the only thing to fear. Depth is also a huge concern. A handful of injuries in the secondary would almost certainly lead to a complete disaster.
The one thing working in Penn State's favor is that 2012 may not be a banner year for Big Ten quarterbacks. Nathan Scheelhaase is a mixed bag, and seemed to regress as the season went on. Kain Colter is an extremely dangerous athlete, but does not possess the spot-on accuracy of Dan Persa.James Vandenberg could pick us apart if given time in the pocket (something he didn't get much of in 2011). Braxton Miller didn't do much with his arm last year, but will improve upon his true freshman year. Fans all wanted Danny O'Brien to bring his talents to State College, but should be a huge drop-off from Russell Wilson. While Penn State's conference opponents don't boast any preseason Heisman candidates at quarterback, all have the experience and could take it to a whole other level in 2012. Let's hope none of these guys make that leap and that all of our DBs remain healthy. Otherwise, things could get really scary.
3. Injury to Michael Mauti (again)
Michael Mauti has been absolutely tremendous when he's been on the field. Unfortunately, Mauti's career at Penn State has been riddled with injury. Mauti was talented enough to find some playing time during the 2008 Big Ten Championship season. He was set to break into the starting lineup and become the next heralded linebacker to play at Penn State. But a torn ACL in preseason camp prevented this from happening. He lived up to his potential in 2010, but along with most of Penn State's defense that year, missed chunks of time due to injury. Last season saw Mauti get off to a brilliant start, but another torn ACL in non-conference play put a quick end to his season.
This fall will be Mauti's final opportunity to play a complete season as one of the leaders of Penn State's defense. As usual, linebacker will be a major strength in 2012. An injury to Mauti would certainly hurt, but wouldn't be nearly as catastrophic as a loss in the secondary. However, it would deprive Penn State of witnessing Mauti wreak havoc game-in and game-out for an entire season. If Mauti had stayed healthy during the last few years, he would be talked about with Sean Lee, Paul Posluszny, Dan Connor and other recent greats at Linebacker U. Instead, Mauti may go down as a "what could have been" story.
We are all going to hold our breaths each time Mauti stays on the turf a little too long following a play. Hopefully he makes it up each time this year, fully prepared to knock more heads in.