For years, safety was a forgotten position at Penn State. Under Joe Paterno, it was where undersized Italians from rural Pennsylvania, with questionable athleticism but a nose for the ball, shared time with failed cornerbacks. Walk-ons littered the depth chart. And it made sense, because in Tom Bradley's defense, safety wasn't the most important position. You'd typically have one playing a deep center field, the other defending over the middle, and all you wanted--and needed--was smart, heady, unspectacular play.
The best thing you could say about those safeties, for the most part, was that they were invisible. They weren't asked to make the big plays. And even if they could, the system wasn't designed for it. Adrian Amos runs a 4.4 40, can lay big hits, and has excellent ball skills, but even he put up fairly underwhelming numbers, compared to what he was capable of. Sure, teams kept away from Amos, too, and he was reined in by backfield mates who needed him to cover for them, but if nothing else, Amos was our first glimpse of a dynamic, athletic, playmaking safety since Bryan Scott.
The good news is that despite losing its best player in over a decade, the safety position returns stronger than ever in 2015, thanks to the meteoric rise of Marcus Allen and--if it sticks--Jordan Lucas's switch to the position. True, there's not much depth, and an injury--or struggles at cornerback necessitating Lucas to reclaim his mantle--would turn this overwhelming strength into a weakness. But come on, it's July. Why the hell would we think negative thoughts?
Marcus Allen was a little used backup and special teams player for the first half of last year, his true freshman season, when Ryan Keiser sufferd a season-ending injury and illness. Keiser had been perfectly cromulent through those first six games--especially in the UCF and Northwestern games, when he racked up 13 of his 25 tackles--but Allen stepped in and changed the narrative for what a Penn State safety could do. Despite only starting 7 games, Allen was third on the team in solo tackles, and those weren't AJ Hawk-esque, scorekeeper-assisted numbers. Allen started with a bang, with 11 tackles under the lights against Ohio State and 11 more the next week against Michigan, and just never let up. Allen was everywhere.
That's not to say his freshman campaign was perfect--he got beat deep a couple times, and Bob Shoop kept the kid gloves on a bit. Allen wasn't really used to attack the line of scrimmage (he only had 2 TFL) and didn't do too much in man coverage (no interceptions, just 3 passes defensed). But Allen's stunning ascent last year bodes well for the next three, and an offseason practicing with the first unit in Shoop's havoc, chaotic, disruptive schemes ought to give Allen the freedom to do more than just destroy opposing ballcarriers over the middle. A year older and more mature, we should see Allen blitzing off the edge, lining up against tight ends, and filling out the stat sheet like few others can.
When the news first broke on Jordan Lucas switching from cornerback to safety, it seemed counterproductive. Sure, Lucas will probably be a safety in the NFL next year, and there's every indication that he'd be great at it, but why move one of the best corners in the Big Ten and leave a gaping hole across from Trevor Williams? The answer, like all things, is "because Bob Shoop can." Sure, Shoop's predecessors Butler, Roof, and Bradley all tried the same thing with Amos, and ended up having to shuttle him back to his less natural cornerback position because nobody else could fill his shoes. But James Franklin has brought in enough top-end talent that he and Shoop can keep rotating through different combinations until halfway through the season without having to resort to moving Lucas back.
Lucas, it goes without saying, was one of those cornerbacks that was so good that teams just generally stopped throwing at him--hence the drop from 3 interceptions and 13 passes defensed to 0 and 9, respectively, between 2013 and 2014. His tackles fell from 65 to 58, too--though that was still good enough to tie with Allen for third place on the team. Just as impressively, though, and perhaps precipitating the switch, was Lucas's play in the run game, and attacking off the edge. Lucas has 8.5 TFL and 3 sacks over the past two years--numbers that compared with Austin Johnson and Nyeem Wartman. And most of all, it was his decisiveness that stood out.
Asked Lucas how he decided to attack Pohl or stay in coverage: "I didn't want to hesitate. I didn't want to be between the fart & the poop."— Travis Johnson (@bytravisjohnson) September 6, 2014
Sure, if Lucas is forced back to corner, it'll be nigh-impossible to fill his shoes, though the staff is reportedly very high on converted wide receiver Troy Apke, and Malik Golden does have some experience. But why plan for contingencies? As it stands right now, and as it will be on opening day, it's Jordan Lucas and Marcus Allen, and that's not just the best unit on this team, it's the best safety unit for Penn State in recent memory.
Penn State's safety outlook in 2015 is basically the best riddle ever: What do you get when you cross a ball-hawk who's almost as great in the offensive backfield as he is in coverage with a young, improving, freight train who has a preternatural nose for the ball?
The best position group in 2015 for these Nittany Lions.