Without a doubt, the highlight of the 2014 season was watching a resurgent defense dominate opponents on a weekly basis. While the offense struggled to produce while breaking in a new offensive line and staff, the defense somehow transformed into arguably the best unit in all of college football. To accomplish this, it was necessary for many players to take a major leap. While Anthony Zettel and Mike Hull received most of the spotlight for being the best among their positions nationally, the remainder of the defense quietly had outstanding seasons. Today, we debate which player is the most underappreciated on defense. Be sure to leave your own selection in the comments section.
Matt: Adrian Amos
I think it was sometime during the Illinois game that it dawned on me just how key Amos is for this Penn State defense. He can line up at corner or safety, and defend the run and pass equally as well. With a team limited by injuries and sanctions, that type of versatility has been huge the last three seasons. But that is just the beginning for the quiet senior from Maryland.
Amos has never been the guy that is in the middle of the pregame huddle hyping up his teammates, or the guy celebrating after making a great play. I think that businessman-like approach to the game is what I admire the most about him. He's a key cog in one of the best defenses in the nation, and to me, the very definition of underappreciated.
I don't intend to take anything away from the young safeties like Marcus Allen or Troy Apke, who are already very good players, and are going to get better. But you don't just plug in a replacement for a guy that has played, started, and contributed big things for 4 years.
bscaff: Nyeem Wartman
Do you remember week five, the Northwestern game? The Wildcats came to Penn State and threw for 258 yards. About 2/3rds of that total came on weakside seam routes, behind our linebackers. It was a frustrating day, and the game threads reflected doubt in the genius of one Bob Shoop.
Shoop got it fixed. While Northwestern would throw for more than 250 yards just 3 more times in 2014, Penn State didn't allow another team to throw for 250 yards the rest of the season. Bob Shoop's solution? Get Nyeem Wartman back on the field. Wartman missed the Northwestern game with an undisclosed injury.
Wartman's well-earned reputation is as the Lions' thumper. He hits things, and those things go down. At 240 pounds, he's a large part of the reason that Penn State's rush defense sits atop the college football world, number one at just 84.75 yards per game allowed. But he grew tremendously in pass coverage this season as well. His awareness of route combinations, and his ability to get deep quickly played a very big role in Penn State limiting nearly everyone to less than 200 yards passing after week five. You might remember his interception against Temple as proof of his prowess in the hook/seam zones.
If it's sacks and tackles for loss that you need to see, you'll have to keep looking. That wasn't Wartman's role this year. He played (mostly) the hardest linebacker spot in Shoop's defense - weakside - and gets the least glory for it. That he did it so well, and so quietly - until he wasn't in the lineup - underscores his credentials for this 'most under-appreciated' roundtable.
Nick: Austin Johnson
When it comes to picking out the most under-appreciated player on Penn State's defense, there's really only one choice, and it's the space eating monster who creates a black hole in the middle of the offensive line. That's right, it's Austin Johnson. Despite getting a lot of playing time last year as a redshirt freshman, Johnson didn't seem to completely "get it" at the college level just yet. This year though, was a coming out party for the man who still has two more seasons of eligibility for Penn State. Johnson was constantly met with double teams on the interior of the line, and was not only able to occupy both of his men and allow Anthony Zettel to wreck havoc, but was often able to fight through and make a play of his own. According to GOPSUSports, he was only credited with one sack and five tackles for loss, but the extra pressure he was able to apply from time to time was a huge part of the pass defense. As far as the outstanding run defense, without Johnson, this team doesn't come close to that level of success. Whether it was taking down the runner just one or two yards past the line, or completely changing the path he was going to take in the first place, Austin Johnson was Luke Skywalker and the runner was the Death Star. The man just straight blew up running backs.
The simplified form of thinking on Austin Johnson is even simpler. Everyone can agree that Mike Hull and Anthony Zettel were the two best defensive players on the team. Without Austin Johnson filling space faster than people correct spelling mistakes on Twitter, Zettel doesn't have half as many opportunities to get into the backfield. Without Austin Johnson altering the run game as ferociously as Devon argues a counterpoint, Mike Hull doesn't come close to his 2014 tackle total. Sure sounds like an under-appreciated player to me.
Jared: Jordan Lucas
This may seem like an odd selection considering how well-respected Jordan Lucas is by Penn State fans and the fact he is the third most celebrated defensive player outside of Mike Hull and Anthony Zettel. However, Lucas’ All-Big Ten snub made me realize just how underrated he is outside of State College.
I could understand the snub if Lewis was sitting behind two All-American candidates at cornerback in the Big Ten (similar to the dilemma of choosing between Melvin Gordon, Tevin Coleman, Ameer Abdullah, David Cobb and Jeremy Langford for the running back slots). However, the voters could pick any four defensive backs, regardless if they line up at safety or cornerback. Lucas was not only left off of the first team, but the second team as well and had to settle for Honorable Mention by both the coaches and media. I may have a blue-and-white bias, but I don’t see any logical explanation of how there are eight DBs in the Big Ten more talented than Lucas.
The phrase "shut down corner" may be thrown around too lightly in an era where racking up 40-plus points per week has become the norm, but it certainly seems to apply to Lucas. Outside of a blown coverage against Temple that resulted in their only touchdown of the contest, Lucas has been lights out all year. Not only does he consistently shut down the opposing team’s most talented receiver, he also supports the run and acts as one of the foremost emotional leaders of the defense. His talent is apparent, yet is only truly appreciated by the Penn State faithful.
It's difficult to evaluate cornerbacks for the same reason it's difficult to do the same for offensive linemen- the great ones do their job very quietly. Lucas won't get the numbers to find himself as the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week or make others take notice during the season because he does his job so well that teams will avoid his side of the field. On the other hand, a lesser skilled cornerback has the opportunity to produce impressive numbers since he is being picked on by opposing offenses. Therefore, the only way for a corner like Lucas to get the accolades he deserves is to depend on preseason hype or hope that opponents decide to test him and let him build up his stats. Otherwise his excellence will go unnoticed by most outside of the fanbase. He may not get his due nationally, but I couldn't be any happier about the fact Lucas is a Nittany Lion.
Nick Page: C.J. Olaniyan
Anthony Zettel and Deion Barnes are the two stars of the defensive line but for them to succeed somebody has be able to do the dirty work. Olaniyan is the dirty work master. He is a grinder whose impact is often felt off of the stat sheet. While Zettel and Barnes may fill up the box score, a lot happens underneath for them to strive. Austin Johnson eating blocks and Olaniyan forcing the QB to move around are prime examples of stuff that won't show up in the box score, but it's a vital part of the pass rush. Olaniyan's unselfishness allows for the success of others, and that is extremely valuable. You don't hear Olaniyan's name much by broadcasters, but his pocket disruption can not be understated. Without Olaniyan the other pass rushers wouldn't have near the statistics or the overall quality of play that they do with him.
Though C.J. has never been the "WOW" guy for Penn State, he's always been a model of consistency. Typically, the consistent players are the most under appreciated and that is certainly the case with the veteran defensive end.
Bill: Deion Barnes
Deion Barnes was Deion Barnes again this year. After a monstrous debut in 2012 which made people go "hey, this guy is going to play in the NFL someday," Barnes metaphorically dropped his pants and took a dump on the field in 2013. There was just something...off. He just wasn't doing Deion Barnes stuff.
Then, this year happened, and Deion Barnes went back to being a terror off the edge and showing signs of being an outstanding pass-rusher again. While Anthony Zettel gets all the credit for ruining people along the defensive line -- rightfully so, I might add -- Barnes was brilliant. He had 41 tackles, 11.5 TFLs and 6 sacks, all of which were second among Penn State defensive linemen.
Most importantly, he looked like a freshman again, which in his case is exactly what you want out of him. The speed and the burst off the line that was missing last year was back. He seemed faster and stronger and hungrier and like every snap meant he was going to knock a quarterback's head off. Maybe he was complacent last year, maybe he was motivated this year, I don't know. Whatever it was, we need to appreciate what Deion Barnes did on Penn State's defensive line, because he was so, so great. He may very well be an All-Big Ten performer next year and a high NFL Draft pick in 2016.
Deion Barnes is back. We didn't appreciate that nearly enough.