A New Defensive Coordinator (Again) For 12 seasons, Penn State relied on the steady hand of Tom Bradley as defensive coordinator. While not everyone agreed with his "Bend but Don't Break" philosophy, it was difficult to argue with the results. Each year, Penn State boasted a dominant defense, regularly one of the top units in the nation. Even when the defense began a season littered with inexperience, all that was needed were players to buy into the system and they would find a way to perform at a high level.
Those days are all but a memory now. In 2012, the defense had enough holdovers to comprise a solid unit. In 2013 the wheels came off a bit as the defense oftentimes had trouble getting off the field. For the fourth consecutive season, Penn State will start off with a brand new defensive coordinator. While Bob Shoop has an impressive resume thus far in his early career, the frequent turnover at the top isn't helpful for the players. Just consider the case of Adrian Amos. The senior defensive back has performed under the tutelage of Bradley, Ted Roof, John Butler, and now Shoop during his Penn State career. Each coach has their own specific set of philosophies, expectations and terminology. Regardless of Shoop's ability to lead, a learning curve will once again hamper the defense.
LB Who? Penn State producing All-American linebackers has been nearly as reliable as death and taxes over the years. That was one more thing that came to an abrupt end in 2013. The linebacker corps was able to hold their own at times, but also were completely exposed by more prolific offenses with the ability to spread out the field.
Mike Hull could find himself listed as an All-B10 performer by season's end, but first he will need to stay healthy. Brandon Bell came on strong towards the end of the season, but it's hard to tell if he'll be a reliable option based on such a small sample size. Nyeem Wartman should continue to improve, but he's done little to make people forget about the Paul Posluzneys and Navarro Bowmans who kept the "Linebacker U" moniker going strong. In fairness to Bell and Wartman, both players would have sat and learned for a couple seasons before seeing meaningful playing time. Thanks to a post-sanctions era of Penn State football, both players were forced into action with heaps of expectations placed upon them.
Outside of the offensive line, the linebacker unit is the one that simply cannot afford injuries. If you think back to the days prior to the Sandusky fallout, linebacker was the position of need after a few misses on the recruiting trail during the previous seasons. Add that to some mediocre recruiting classes since 2011, and the unit has become dangerously thin. Overall, the linebacker unit should be a step up in talent and experience compared with 2013, but could still easily struggle to help the defense get off the field.
Deion Who? Deion Barnes didn't struggle as much as you may have thought in 2013. Sure, his numbers took a dive during his sophomore year, and he often disappeared for stretches. However, his lack of productivity was the result of opposing offenses having the freedom to gameplan around him. Even though you didn't hear his name called very often in 2013, he was still drawing plenty of attention to help free up other defenders. This fall, his counterparts on defense will need to return the favor.
Barnes has the ability to become an All-American and future top 10 NFL Draft pick. But he'll need a little help from his friends to collect those accolades. In 2013, it was too easy for teams to put two or three guys on Barnes and not worry about anyone else disrupting the offense. This year could be much different. A healthy Hull could make life hell for opposing offenses. He has the speed and instincts to cover sideline-to-sideline, as well as quickly make his way into the backfield. But so far, it's been almost all potential and little productivity for Hull. CJ Olaniyan showed flashes last year, and definitely has the ability to become a consistent force. Evan Schwan received some time as a redshirt freshman in 2013, and should play a much larger factor this fall. The highly-touted Garret Sickels should see time at defensive end, and Anthony Zettel could be the next great defensive tackle to come out of Happy Valley. If a couple of those options are able to consistently provide pressure, Barnes will exceed the glory of his B10 Freshman of the Year campaign in 2012. If not, he'll once again be that guy who gains attention from the offense, but goes mainly unseen for the rest of us.