On Tuesday, after taking a much-needed break from uber-busy-ness and dipping into the warm, fuzzy, familiar confines of the BSD commentariat, I got typically carried away and wrote this:
Now, note I chose my words carefully and included plenty of linguistic qualifiers, but still: that's a pretty high bar. Jared Odrick was named by opposing coaches as the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year the same year Brandon Graham, Ryan Kerrigan, O'Brien Schofield and 2009 Adrian Clayborn were terrorizing offenses from defensive line positions. Is it out of the question for Devon Still to reach that kind of company?
Historically, both Odrick & Still took similar, highly-recruited, paths to Penn State. Odrick was a 4* recruit who arrived in that crazy 2006 class at 6'5", 303 and with a 5.0 forty time. Still came in the next year much smaller, also a Rivals 4*, at 6'6" 251, with a 4.9 forty time. Still was very highly recruited and may have been one of the last recruits Joe Paterno left State College to recruit. But Penn State's strength & conditioning HIT program has at least worked very well for Still, as he is now listed at 6'5", 305.
While only a year apart originally, Still is playing two seasons beyond Odrick because of two nasty injuries that set him back early. In the August, 2007 Media Day, Joe had this to say about the injury:
Well, we had an injury yesterday that really bothered me. We had a good, young kid by the name of (Devon) Still. He hurt his ACL yesterday, and I'm pretty sure he's out for the year. That was a real setback, but other than that, that was the only one we've had so far.
Then after working hard through recuperative therapy and appearing ready to contribute on the field in 2008, Still ended up on the wrong end of a pile up and broke his foot, missing most of that season as well. It's a shame, because we might have seen a few years of the two of them playing on the field together.
Meanwhile, Odrick, who actually started out at DE his freshman year, got to learn the tackle position from future NFL linemen Jay Alford and Ed Johnson and went on to start seven games his sophomore year, before it too was cut short by a knee injury.
But getting to the comparison, Odrick's and Still's junior seasons look very, very similar, save for one glaring metric: overall team defense rank.
They had nearly the same numbers of tackles, tackles for loss and sacks, but Odrick's team defense finished 5th in the country, while Still's finished 45th. In Odrick's junior year, he played alongside new starting tackles Ollie Ogbu and Abe Koroma and alongside veteran DE's Aaron Maybin, Josh Gaines and Maurice Evans. But he was backed up by linebackers Tyrell Sales and new starters Navorro Bowman and 2008 Josh Hull.
In Still's junior year, he played alongside veteran Ogbu and the rotating carnage at DE. He was also backed up by an equally varied mishmash of weak, injured and young linebackers. After the Alabama game, during which he learned first-hand the lessons of cut-blocking, Still came back and had a very good year. Some of it was lost amidst other glaring weaknesses, but there were a whole bunch of plays last year that saw him in the backfield causing disruption. I suppose a case could be made that these facts support either player having had the better year: Still flourished despite a weaker supporting cast, or Odrick was a man amongst men.
It remains to be seen how good the 2011 Penn State defense will ultimately be. At the least, we are probably looking at an improved linebacker squad, even if some of it is addition by subtraction. The defensive end position remains a question mark of talent, but returns a great deal more experience and health this year, despite the early loss of Pete Massarro. I mean, it's got to end up being better than 45th in the country. Doesn't it? If the backers can settle into a smaller rotation and continue the cohesion they displayed this spring (and actually make all their tackles!) and if the ends can provide just a little more contain than they did last year, this defense has a chance to return to the top ten we have come to expect of them. And if they do, Devon Still could have a monster senior season.