Spring Football Preview: Defense/Special Teams

Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

The 2014 Nittany Lion football squad officially begins football practice today. What should we expect on the defensive and special teams sides of the ball during year one of the James Franklin era?

There’s been no general consensus on the type of defense that new coordinator Bob Shoop will be running this year, but all accounts seem to point to a sort of "multiple" style that utilizes the talent that he has, and puts them (and the team) in the best position to win. That’s the good news, as this year’s senior class will be looking to play under their fourth defensive coordinator in four years in the blue and white this fall.

Perhaps the biggest thing to look out for on the defensive in spring practice, and the weeks leading up to the spring game on April 12, is an improvement in a overall unit that even the most generous of observers could say underperformed in 2013, despite the sanctions and their accompanying lack of depth, particularly on the defensive side of the field. What in 2013 was a liability, though, could turn into a benefit—the defense and special teams units are only losing 4 (6) starters combined, which means that the inexperience and lack of depth that plagued the 2013 squad turned into game time and solid contributions that this year’s coaching staff can build upon headed into spring practice, summer camp, and the fall season.

New head coach James Franklin, like his successor Bill O’Brien before him, recognized that overall depth was an issue (mostly because of the NCAA sanctions), and attempted to recruit to fill that void; though only eleven of the 25 members of the class of 2014 were specifically recruited for the defensive side of the ball, a number of the offensive recruits are versatile, and can be shuffled to the defensive side if necessary. There’s also been an emphasis so far on the defensive side in the class of 2015; half of that class (currently tops in the B1G) is on the defensive side right now.

Defensive Line

Returning Starters*: CJ Olaniyan (DE; RS Sr),  Austin Johnson (DT; RS So), Deion Barnes (DE; RS Jr); Anthony Zettel (DE; RS Jr)

Solid Backups from ‘13: Carl Nassib (DE; RS Jr); Brian Gaia (DT; RS So)

Key Departures: DaQuan JonesKyle Baublitz

Position Coach: Sean Spencer

Perhaps the biggest departure on the defense (pun intended) was that of Jones, Larry Johnson’s last defensive lineman from Penn State likely to be drafted to the NFL, and the leading tackler of the starting front four. He’ll be tough to replace, and the fact that both Baublitz hung up his cleats following the season doesn't help. There’s not a lot of inexperience in the starting lineup up there--the only position really up for grabs is opposite Johnson, who will likely get the starting nod come Blue/White, with Gaia, Derek Dowrey and 2014 recruit Tarow Barney challenging to get the other starting nod, and into the two-deep at tackle.

The jury’s out whether Spencer will rotate his line as much and as thoroughly as LJ did, but he’ll no doubt benefit from it at the defensive end spot—where he’ll have three returners with significant starting experience to choose from, including 2012 B1G Freshman of the Year Barnes, who had a relative sophomore slump last year, notching only 2 sacks, 20 tackles, and one forced fumble (no fumbles recovered). He was complemented, though, by Zettel and Olaniyan, and each stood out at different parts of the year. The line will look to be a strong component of the defense this spring and into 2014, and the depth of the sanctions will likely impact this position group the least of all three levels of the defense.

edit: after publication, in his press conference today, Coach Franklin indicated that Zettel will move to DT for at least the spring. That provides needed depth at that position, and frees up Garrett Sickels and Evan Schwan to break into the two-deep at DE alongside Nassib and projected starters Olaniyan and Barnes. He also confirmed that, in the spring, Gaia has moved to offensive line, which makes more sense with Zettel's move.

Linebackers

Returning Starters: Mike Hull (OLB; RS Sr), Nyeem Wartman (OLB; RS So)

Solid Backups from ‘13: Brandon Bell (OLB; So), Gary Wooten (MLB; RS So)

Key Departures: Glenn Carson, Stephen Obeng-Agyapong (played as LB-S hybrid in 2013)

Position Coach: Brent Pry

Losing the team’s leading tackler, and a solid three-year starter, in Carson won’t be easy for the unit to overcome. Luckily, there’s increased depth at this position, and Bell came on strong near the end of the 2013, hyping many up for what he might bring to the table in future years (technically, he started the Wisconsin game in the place of Wartman—his first career start). This unit also will look to see Ben Kline return from injury; Kline was out all of 2013, but provides increased depth, having seen time on the field in 2012.

Hull only played 10 out of last year’s 12 games due to injury, and still finished the year second on the team in tackles—despite not being at 100% in the majority of the games he did see time in. This year, we’re expecting Hull to be the senior leader on this defense, as well as a force to be reckoned with in the linebacker corps; he’s too athletic and quick and good at drop-back pass coverage to shift to the middle, so he should still be the starter on the outside. Unless Wooten comes on incredibly strong, I’d expect Bell to shift over and start in the MLB position, with Hull and Wartman flanking him on the outside; Wartman was hyped by many (including yours truly) coming into 2013, and this spring and summer could dictate whether he’ll be a superstar or a career solid contributor/fourth man. Look for incoming freshmen Troy Reeder and Jason Cabinda to challenge for playing time in the two-deep by midseason, and special teams early on in the season due to the lack of depth at this position.

Secondary

Returning Starters: Adrian Amos (C; Sr), Ryan Keiser (S; RS Sr), Jordan Lucas (C; Jr)

Solid Backups from ‘13: Trevor Williams (C; Jr), Jesse Della Valle (S; RS Sr), Malik Golden (S; RS So), Da’Quan Davis (C; Jr)

Key Departures: Malcolm Willis, Stephen Obeng-Agyapong

Position Coach: Terry Smith

A position area that O’Brien lamented was completely lacking in depth when he got to Happy Valley in 2012 has slowly gotten back to respectable in the past few years, and 2014 looks to be even better. Last season was a mix of players playing out of their natural positions (SOA, Amos for parts of the season) and testing out brand new cornerbacks for others (Lucas, Williams—the latter of whom had only played on offense). The negative was that, throughout the year, the secondary got torched by quarterbacks with a modicum of accuracy, on short out routes and dink and dunk passes and drives up and down the field—we saw this time and again, versus Indiana, Ohio State, UCF and even Illinois.

The positive is that this unit is more experienced this year, and the new coaching staff will have more options, more groupings open and available to them to put the best players on the field to succeed versus whatever offense they see on film. The huge cushion that has been a staple of the Penn State defense for as long as I’ve been a fan was much lamented last year (but in reality was nothing new for us), and the biggest thing to see in the spring game will be how close the secondary plays to the receivers they’re guarding—and whether the threat of injury will determine how aggressively the secondary plays.

Special Teams

Returning Starters: Sam Ficken (K; Sr); Eugene Lewis (KR; RS So); Akeel Lynch (KR; RS So); Jesse Della Valle (PR; RS Sr), Von Walker (PR; So)

Solid Backups from ‘13: Bill Belton (KR; Sr)

Key Departures: Alex Butterworth, Ty Howle (as KS)

Position Coach: Charles Huff

Special Teams has taken the biggest hit in terms of the sanctions. On many Division 1 teams, you play high quality players on special teams—perhaps not all of your starters, but your definite 1b players and your future starters, who log their early minutes as underclassmen on punt and kick teams. That wasn’t the case with Penn State last year, when the majority of special teams players were those who would never crack a starting lineup—walk ons, and true freshmen. That hurt us where it counted, and may have cost the squad at least one game (the Nebraska kickoff return for a touchdown, the second such return the ST unit gave up in the month of November, comes specifically to mind).

The good news? Depth is getting better. The scholarship sanctions have been reduced, and while depth will continue to be an issue this year, it will likely get better. Ficken’s groin injury, which plagued him the entire second half of the year and caused his accuracy to plummet, will be entirely healed. Butterworth had gotten better by year’s end, but was never the punter most thought he could be—or that Penn State deserved. Chris Gulla, a walk on, will look to solidify a starting position as punter next year, and he’ll be challenged by other walk ons from the class of 2014. We’re also getting back our entire returner units, both punting and kick offs, which gives staff even more options—and the quartet of talented receivers that Franklin signed in this year’s class will bolster that unit even more.

In short, special teams will be better in 2014. Because—let’s face it—it can’t be much worse, for our standards.

*all returning starters are taken from the depth chart released for the 2013 team’s last game, at Wisconsin. Note that Coach Franklin has stated multiple times that all starting positions are up for grabs. In the case that the official depth chart listed an "OR" between two starters, I have listed both as returning starters as they both saw enough time to designate them, in my view, as a returning starter.

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