Big Ten Breakdown 2012: Penn State Nittany Lions Part 3, Defense
I began by taking a broad overview of the Penn State program, what it has done over the last five years and what that might tell us about what the Nits will do this season.
Last week, I scanned the 2012 Penn State offense and how it projects.
This week, I'll look at the 2012 Penn State defense.
2011 scoring defense: 16.8 PPG (first in conference)
Total defense: 323.9 YPG (sixth)
Rushing defense: 3.60 YPC (third)
Passing efficiency allowed: 107.20 (first)
Average scoring defense conference ranking over last five years: 2.6
Best scoring defense conference ranking over last five years: first (2009 and 2011)
Worst scoring defense conference ranking over last five years: sixth (2010)
Returning starters: DE Sean Stanley, DE Pete Massaro (injury), DT Jordan Hill, LB Gerald Hodges, LB Glenn Carson, LB Mike Mauti (injury)
Open positions: DT, CB, S
Defensive formation: 4-3
Defensive philosophy: aggressive
One could always count on a staunch defense from Joe Paterno's Nittany Lions. Penn State earned the right to be called Linebacker U.
Under Paterno, the PSU defense was conservative. Paterno usually kept his safeties back, had the defensive line control the line of scrimmage and let the linebackers make tackles.
Even when blitzing, Penn State made sure it wasn't in a position to get beaten for a big play. This led to a good deal of soft zone coverage.
Word coming out of State College is that Bill O'Brien and his defensive coordinator Ted Roof's defense will be more aggressive.
According to linebacker Mike Mauti via the Deseret News, "'It's going to be a multiple aggressive defense. We're going to be flying around showing a lot of different looks.'"
Safety Stephen Obeng-Agyapong further commented, "'One of our goals is to be one of the most aggressive defenses in the nation this year.'"
Via Pennlive.com, "The defensive plan calls for the corners to play more man-to-man coverage. There is less soft zone and more willingness by the new DC to let his corners press opposing receivers at the line of scrimmage."
Along with more press coverage, this also means more blitzing, and more dropping safeties into the box.
On the negative side, it also means more big plays allowed than at any point in the recent past.
It remains to be seen if the new defense will be successful. After all, it will be hard to improve upon Joe Paterno's defensive showings. Nevertheless, the new defense will be different.
Three key contributors have graduated. Under Paterno, the returning players would be enough to expect a semi-reload of the Big Ten's third-best rush defense (YPC).
Senior Jordan Hill looks poised to take departed defensive tackle Devon Still's place. Fellow senior Pete Massaro would have been a starter last year, if not for a season-ending ACL tear. This season, he will man the weak-side end.
Sean Stanley will be the starting strong-side end, and he is poised to finish his up-and-down college career with a big senior season.
Junior DaQuan Jones ended spring practice as the other starting tackle. He will have to fend off competition from senior James Terry and sophomore Kyle Baublitz (what a football name), the latter of whom recently changed positions from defensive end to defensive tackle.
The depth at end is largely untested, and is mostly made up of sophomores and redshirt freshmen.
This line has the talent to be amongst the best in the conference, though it will be a big blow to the defense if Massaro can't get back up to speed.
Linebacker U returns starters Gerald Hodges and Glenn Carson. It also gets its best linebacker—Michael Mauti—back after he missed the final nine games of 2011 with a torn ACL.
There is no question about Mauti's skill level, but there are questions regarding his durability. Mauti missed 2009 with a torn ACL, and, in 2010, lost two full games and parts of other games with various injuries.
If he stays healthy, he, along with Gerald Hodges, will press for all-conference honors.
Glenn Carson isn't at the level of Mauti and Hodges, but he can hold his own in the middle. Nevertheless, one of the many controversial moves on PSU's recently released depth chart had Carson sharing the starting middle linebacker spot with junior Khairi Fortt.
Bob Flounders of Pennlive.com quoted Bill O'Brien as saying that sophomore linebacker Mike Hull was the most improved of his linebackers. O'Brien further noted, "'one of the things he does well is the way he blitzes. He has a knack for blitzing.'"
Lastly, seniors James Van Fleet and Michael Yancich add solid depth.
The Big Ten linebacker class is particularly strong this season, which explains my relatively low ranking of a strong group of PSU linebackers. However, make no mistake: Penn State's backers are up there with the best in the league, and could be the best in the league by the end of the season.
Unlike the front seven, which returns the majority of its contributors, the back four returns nobody.
The top cornerbacks—senior Stephon Morris, sophomore Adrian Amos and junior Derrick Thomas—all have some experience.
Morris made a splash as a true freshman, gaining one start and logging the most tackles on the team—30—of any non-starter. He gained 10 starts as a sophomore, but eventually lost the starting job due to inconsistent play.
Last season, he gained one start, subbing for an injured D'Anton Lynn, but his sketchy play led to true freshman Adrian Amos jumping over him on the depth chart.
However, Morris has taken to the new defensive scheme, which has led to him winning the Jim O'Hora Award, given to the team's most improved defensive player during the spring.
Morris will lock down the one cornerback spot, while the other is currently listed as the aforementioned Adrian Amos or Derrick Thomas.
Odds are Amos will win the starting corner job, but Derrick Thomas, who seems to have put his legal issues behind him, will push Amos.
After the top three, there is no depth to speak of. Currently, walk-on Jesse Della Valle is the second backup cornerback.
Speaking of no depth, the safety position is wide open.
Junior Malcolm Willis is the starting free safety. He started six games in 2010 and two games, as the nickelback, in 2011. Willis is a solid presence and will emerge as a playmaker, but he is the only sure thing amongst the safeties.
Senior walk-on Jake Fagnano is listed as the starting strong safety, which comes as a surprise, as the job was expected to go to junior Stephen Obeng-Agyapong.
Finally, redshirt freshman Tim Buckley is Willis' backup.
In closing, despite Morris' inconsistent history, it is worth giving him the benefit of the doubt and assuming he has made the senior-year jump to team leader. It is also fair to assume that Willis will be solid at his position, and the second cornerback spot should be in able hands.
The first problem is strong safety, and the second problem is there is no depth. If Willis or Morris get injured, the PSU secondary could be in big trouble. Usually, the Nits could depend on a strong recruit or two to step in, but due to the Nits' off-the-field issues, the Penn State recruiting class was not as strong as normal.
Putting aside the reality that there was no "choice" in Joe Paterno's firing and Bill O'Brien's hiring, O'Brien couldn't have picked a worse year to implement his new, more aggressive defense.
Under Paterno, the deficiencies of the secondary were generally minimized. Things were okay as long as the defensive backs could tackle and keep everything in front of them.
The front seven set the tone for the defense, and if the front seven was fine—as this year's front seven seems to be—then the entire defense was fine.
The problem is this new defense puts more pressure on the secondary—a secondary that is devoid of experience and, just as importantly, depth.
As concerns experience, it might be a good thing to start from scratch.
There will be bumps in the road, but it is difficult to imagine erstwhile all-conference PSU cornerback D'Anton Lynn lining up in press coverage. Lynn was a great soft zone, Cover 2 cornerback, but there is a reason he found a place in the New York Jets' camp—because, according to the New York Daily News, the Jets are moving towards a 4-3 and a simpler defensive approach, much as PSU employed under Joe Pa.
The point is, Lynn, or any number of other Penn State defensive backs, probably wouldn't have flourished in O'Brien's defense, so maybe starting from scratch is a positive.
That said, experienced safeties are a cornerback in press coverage's best friend. Penn State doesn't have that luxury.
The other problem concerns depth. If PSU is going to get more aggressive, that means it will need more defensive backs to play nickel and dime defenses. After all, it will be easy for opposing quarterbacks to spot mismatches in man coverage—whomever the linebacker(s) is/are covering.
The issue is there aren't many defensive backs, and that will pose a problem for an aggressive, blitzing team.
This year, the Penn State rush defense will be as imposing as it's ever been, though it will give up more long runs than in the past because these defensive backs won't be as solid in run support. Either way, the pass defense will be the biggest issue, and opponents will exploit that.
In effect, the overall defense will still be in the top half of the conference, but it won't be in the top three.
It could fall out of the top half if the injury bug hits the secondary or if Pete Massaro can't get up to speed.
Coming next Tuesday, an overview and breakdown of Penn State's specialists, schedule, recruiting class and a prediction as to where I think the Nittany Lions will finish the 2012 season.
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