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Spring Football Preview: Safeties

On April 18, the Penn State football team will take the field for their annual Blue/White scrimmage. In the midst of spring practice, and headed into the spring game, we'll be taking a closer look at all of the position groups. Up next: Safeties

Matthew O'Haren-USA TODAY Sports

A season ago, Penn State fans waited out a series of competitions in the defensive backfield. Adrian Amos, after years of shuffling between corner and safety, was penciled in to one spot, and returning starter Ryan Keiser had the inside track on the other. Still, with a new coaching staff, the non-conference schedule was very much a trial period for Amos and an open competition for the other spot.

As it turned out, Penn State's corners shined, especially as the season went on, and Amos was able to stick at safety; meanwhile, Ryan Keiser was able to hold off Malik Golden to maintain his starting spot--but he would later succumb to a freak injury and sepsis infection and miss the last seven games. Keiser, of course, made a full recovery, but like Amos. he has played his last game in Blue and White. Still, there's reason for optimism at the position moving forward: it was a true freshman who broke out after Keiser's sending-ending rib injury, and Bob Shoop is at least toying with the idea of moving another stud corner back to complement him.

Key Departures: Adrian Amos, Ryan Keiser

The loss of Amos casts a large shadow over this group: The Maryland native started all 13 games a year ago--and all 24 in the previous two years combined--and although he didn't put up huge numbers--his 42 tackles and 2.5 TFL represented a step down from his 2013 stats--Amos' steady, consistent play helped groom a young defensive backfield into one of the Big Ten's best. That said, Amos still led Penn State (along with Anthony Zettel) for the team lead in interceptions, to go along with a team-leading 10 passes defensed. Named to both the coaches and media All-Big Ten honorable mention team, Amos ought to have his name called in the middle or late rounds of the NFL draft.

Unlike the beloved Amos, Ryan Keiser was a more controversial figure among Penn State fans. The former walk-on always had good ball skills, and a tendency for being in the right place in the right time--of his four interceptions in 2013 and 2014, three came in the final moments to clinch a Penn State win--but never inspired too much confidence when playing a deep center field against the Big Ten's faster, more athletic receivers. Still, if for nothing else than a huge loss of depth, experience, and hustle, the lack of Keiser's veteran presence will be felt deeply.

Likely Starters: Marcus Allen, Jordan Lucas(?)

There's no doubt, barring injury, that Marcus Allen will stick in the strong safety spot--the freshman phenom started the last seven games of the 2014 season in Keiser's absence and made fans wonder how he could've ever been buried on the depth chart. Although Allen had a tendency to inflict the knockout blow, he was rangy and sure enough of a tackler to third on the team on the team despite playing just half the season. In his first start of the year, in primetime against Ohio State, Allen racked up eleven tackles and broke up a pair of passes, and only got better as the season went on. He'll still have room to grow--Allen seemed less comfortable in coverage than attacking the line--but Allen is a hard worker and a film rat, and before it's all said and done, he could very well be the best Penn State safety since, like Kim Herring.

When Bob Shoop announced that he'd try erstwhile CB Jordan Lucas next to Allen, it made sense on a more immediate level--like plenty of bigger corners without blazing speed, Lucas profiles better as a safety at the next level, and given his coverage abilities, he'd be perfectly suited to complement the heavy-hitting Allen. Lucas, of course, is no slouch himself to the other duties of a safety--left out on an island, he made plenty of terrific open-field stops en route to accumulating the second most solo tackles on the team, and he's exceptionally comfortable making the decision of when to attack the line. If Penn State's cadre of talented underclassmen can play well enough at corner so as not to force Lucas back to the position, then mark it down right now: the Nittany Lions will have the best pair of safeties in the Big Ten next year.

Primary Backups: Malik Golden, Troy Apke, Amani Oruwariye

...And therein lies the other reason belying Lucas' potential transition to safety; unlike at corner, there's very little depth at safety--remember that the "returning stud" is only a sophomore, and the lack of experience becomes even more stark. Golden found himself in the rotation with Keiser early on, but didn't play in the second half of the season--either buried on the depth chart, or the victim of a heretofore unnanounced injury. The speedy Troy Apke made the switch from receiver to safety last summer, and was forced to burn his redshirt after Keiser's injury, but played only sparingly in four games. Finally, unlike a pair of other true freshman corners (Grant Haley and Christian Campbell), Oruwariye was able to hold on to his redshirt--but with those two joining Trevor Williams, and incoming immediate-impact prospects John Reid and Garrett Taylor, as well as the returning DaQuans Davis and Worley, Oruwariye seems better served to get more immediate playing time at safety.

The Wild Card: Koa Farmer

As Cari wrote yesterday, Farmer seems well-suited to a hybrid LB-S role when Penn State moves to nickel formations. Although he's officially listed as a linebacker, Farmer's got a safety pedigree and is listed at 219 pounds--hardly too large to play an in-the-box "Star" role.