There’s an old sports cliché that offense will win games, but a defense will win championships.
Being a Penn State football fan has long been about defense. Until last year, flashy, exciting offenses were few and far between for the Nittany Lions; instead, we were treated with a consistent dose of stout defenders who put the team in position to take advantage of and force mistakes by their opponent.
2012 was no different on that front, ending the season in the top 30 in the nation in nearly every single statistical defensive category; this spring, and next fall, the Nittany Lions will look to continue that trend under the tutelage of first time Defensive Coordinator John Butler.
Though he hasn’t yet coined a term as catchy as last year’s "multiply aggressive" style as favored by then-coordinator
Graham Spanier Ted Roof, Butler’s style will likely be similar with a few tweaks. Last year, our defensive backfield was so thin that the Nittany Lions’ nickel package actually involved senior outside linebacker Mike Hull instead of a fifth d-back; this year, however, there’s enough fresh bodies to go around, along with plenty of experience at most positions…except the position that Penn State is known for.
Penn State being Linebacker U isn’t really in dispute, especially with a number of recent alums making waves in the league, and two more set to join their ranks next weekend. Replacing standouts Michael Mauti and Gerald Hodges, both in talent and in intangibles, will be easier said than done for Bill O’Brien.
The anointed starters during spring practice are senior Glenn Carson (who also starter last year at MLB), redshirt junior Mike Hull (who flirted with a transfer last offseason before Mauti knocked some sense into him) and redshirt freshman Nyeem Wartman, who actually saw time last year (blocking a punt versus Ohio) before an injury at UVA forced him to sit out. Wartman was so good right away that, even after his injury, he was listed as probable the rest of the season; he likely could have played had Penn State needed him, but was able to take a medical redshirt instead. Wartman was a standout in Scranton before signing is LOI last spring.
Carson comes into this spring as a clear leader amongst the linebacker corps. He recorded only five tackles his freshman year in 2010 despite seeing time in every game, and seemingly came out of nowhere to grab the starting spot in 2011. Over the past two years, he’s totaled 159 tackles (68 solo), including 4.5 for loss; he’s also notched 2 forced fumbles and a sack.
He’ll be flanked on one side by Wartman and the other by Hull, who would no doubt have started at most other division 1A schools—but was relegated to nickel duty behind Hodges and Mauti. He redshirted his first year before bursting on the scene his second, playing in every game and even blocking a punt versus Temple. It wasn’t until this past season, though, that Hull started coming into his own, especially with this:
Hull is one we’ve expected a lot from in the past, but hasn’t quite lived up to his hype—but that is more because of the depth in front of him, and Carson’s emergence, than any deficiency on his own part. He should see some time at Blue-White, but, like Carson and Wartman, has solidified his starting status, so Butler and O’Brien will likely try to limit their reps, instead playing redshirt freshman transfer Gary Wooten and walk ons like redshirt freshman Charles Idemudia, redshirt sophomore TJ Rhattigan and redshirt freshman Adam Cole, as redshirt sophomore Ben Kline has been held out of much of practice this spring due to injury.
Beyond linebackers, the Lions are pretty well stocked on the defensive front. Though the line loses starters DT Jordan Hill and DE Sean Stanley, as well as consistent contributors DL James Terry and (oft injured) DE Pete Massaro, this is LJ Senior’s unit we’re talking about—so we’re simply looking at the next man up. This year, on the interior that man is senior DaQuan Jones, who saw significant time in the line rotation last year and will look to fill the void that Hill leaves. The other starting tackle is still a question mark, so look to see a heavy rotation tomorrow of redshirt junior Kyle Baublitz and a trio of redshirt freshmen in Derek Dowrey, Brian Gaia and Austin Johnson. Also possibly seeing significant time is former touchdown king (okay, it was only one, but it was a surprising one!) senior Nate Cadogan.
Flanking the tackles will be a stable of defensive ends led by reigning Big Ten Freshman of the Year Deion Barnes, who likely won’t be playing much this Saturday simply because there’s no reason to risk injury to the talented sophomore. The starter on the other side isn’t as set, but look for redshirt sophomore Anthony Zettel to have an inside track, as he impressed when on the field in 2012—notching four sacks in limited snaps. Redshirt freshman Evan Schwan and redshirt junior CJ Olaniyan should see heavy rotation at this position, and Brad Bars seeing time this weekend but less as the season comes around.
The third position group in the defense is the defensive backfield—traditionally the weakest part of any stalwart PSU defense. What a difference a year makes, though, as last year I was frankly quite frightened at the prospects of our d-backs—and this year, with the experience and loss of only Stephon Morris (though he turned in quite a season last year), we’re looking pretty good at that position.
Leading the way in the back is junior CB Adrian Amos who, like most of the supa 6, will likely watch most of the blue-white game from the sidelines—because after his play the last two years, he’s the one opposing offensive coordinators will try to avoid. The other starting corner position is up for grabs, but sophomore Da’Quan Davis will likely have the inside track, as he saw significant time as a backup true freshman in 2012. Freshmen Anthony and Jordan Smith will likely vie for time, and I’m personally looking for redshirt sophomore Devin Pryor to have another stellar blue-white game followed by very little time during the actual football season.
Unlike corner, the starters at safety are both returning, so there’s controversy; its seniors Stephen Obeng-Agyapong and Malcolm Willis’ jobs to lose. Whatever controversy there is, however, may be who the fifth back will be in nickel packages this year, as Butler has added a lot of depth at this position, with redshirt freshman Malik Golden and sophomore Trevor Williams both flipping to safety. Add in surprising special teams contributor and redshirt junior Jesse Della Valle, sophomore Jordan Lucas and redshirt junior Ryan Keiser, and the options for the defensive backfield are a plenty—not even factoring in redshirt freshman Jake Kiley.
Like I said, what a difference a year makes—but one thing that won’t change is our high expectations on the defensive side of the ball. This year, as in the last, I’m expecting the defense to win the blue-white game in the modified scoring system—and it might be strength to strength, as I’m expecting more of a coaching focus on the pass game this weekend.
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