Penn State Blue White Game Preview: Defensive Backs

Mike PettiganoCorrespondent IApril 24, 2009

STATE COLLEGE - NOVEMBER 22:  Anthony Scirrotto #7 of the Penn State Nittany Lions returns an interception in front of Charlie Gantt #83 of the Michigan State Spartans on November 22, 2008 at Beaver Stadium in State College, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Joe Sargent/Getty Images)

Three years ago, the Penn State football team lost all four senior starting defensive backs. Everyone was freaking out about how the program could sustain losing that kind of veteran talent, and continue to win.

Well, Penn State emerged just fine, and continued to play at a high level in the defensive secondary the last three seasons. Now, with four seniors again lost to graduation, some with NFL futures on the way, and only two somewhat experienced players returning, Penn State must again find itself a new secondary.

The talent returning this year is even better than before, but the experience is far from what is needed to contend for another championship.

This weekend, fans will be treated to seeing the newly formed secondary in action. They can only hope things go better than the last time Penn State had to defend the pass... against USC.


• No. 4, Knowledge Timmons. Senior. Starter.

What we already know

Timmons has been the special teams guy for years, but now is his chance to shine. He's lightening fast, and has so-so height (5'10") for a corner. He played in all 13 games last year, and almost every game the last three years. In 2008, he logged 15 tackles, an interception and a pass defended.

The coaches like his work ethic so far this season, citing that he really started to mature mentally before last season. That's good news for a guy with so much talent and experience, especially with the youth in the rest of the defensive backfield.

What to expect

It would be very comforting to see him pick one off of Clark on Saturday. At the very least, Timmons needs to play like a senior who's seen everything but a start.

He will be the only senior defensive back on the field this weekend, which will automatically make him the go-to leader. Joe Paterno has worried a lot about the secondary, and this unit cannot afford a timid Timmons.

• No. 8, D'Anton Lynn. Sophomore. Starter (until AJ Wallace returns)

What we already know

Lynn was a huge pickup from the Lone Star State in last year's recruiting class. He came to Penn State with excellent measurables (6'1" 190) for a corner, and has the speed to catch any receiver.

The coaching staff was a bit worried about pushing Lynn into the lineup too soon, but reports showed that as he played, he improved. In 2008, Lynn played in nine of the last 10 games, finishing with three tackles and a pass defended.

What to expect

If Lynn wants to get more playing time this fall, or even get the nod as the first sub in, he can use a good game on Saturday. While he's young, I don't expect Lynn to crumble under the pressure, mainly because most of the wide receivers are just as in-game inexperienced as he is.

Lynn should do fine, and if he can make a few good plays in front of what could be a record crowd, it will be a great way to end spring practice.

• No. 20, Devin Fentress. Redshirt Senior. Backup.

What we already know

Fentress was one of just five true freshmen to play in 2005, and that's saying a lot considering the other names who did: Williams, Norwood, Scirrotto, King. While his height (5'10") may not be great, he's reported to be a solid contributor and a hard worker.

He was supposed to be a wide receiver again this year, but with the depth issues at corner until the true freshmen arrive in June, Fentress will continue to play here. Fentress played in six games last year, but didn't record any stats.

What to expect

Fentress will most likely work with the second team, if not be one of the staring corners. He could team up with Shelton McCullough as the two corners going up against Daryll Clark and the offense.

With depth such a big concern this offseason, Fentress has to use his experience to make the unit better as a whole. I'm not expecting him to take over on Saturday, but he has to have a solid outing, with no big mistakes.

• No. 16, Shelton McCullough. Redshirt Junior. Backup.

What we already know

McCullough played in only three games last year, but actually put together a relatively nice stat sheet: A tackle, two passes defended and two pass breakups.

He is one of the taller corners on the team, at 6'0", and has the weight to back it up. McCullough is quick off the line, but lacks the elite pass coverage skills to contend for a starting spot.

What to expect

As I stated in above, McCullough will probably play opposite Fentress as starting corners for the second team. They can make a big impact by slowing down the offense, especially when the defensive line can't quite get to Clark fast enough.

McCullough needs to build on the good plays from last season, and go into the summer with a good game this weekend.

• No. 35, Jesse Alfreno. Redshirt Junior. Backup.

What we already know

Alfreno might contend for one of the lead backup spots this summer, provided he keeps working hard. The coaches like his attitude, and rewarded him with appearances in two games last season. His build (5'11" 195) gives him the frame to work with at corner.

What to expect

Alfreno still has two seasons left, so it's not urgent for him to emerge this spring. But it would be nice. On Saturday, the defense needs the backups to play like they could start right away if needed, and that includes Alfreno.

Injured: No. 1, AJ Wallace. Senior.

What will happen

Wallace has been suffering from a nagging hamstring injury for a few months. While he does work out with the team, he hasn't gone full strength for a long time. He should be fine for the regular season, and will be the starter opposite Knowledge Timmons.

Wallace could also continue as one of the best kick returners Penn State has, especially with Derrick Williams' graduation.


• No. 13, Andrew Dailey. Redshirt Sophomore. Possible Starter (Strong Safety)

What we already know: Dailey was a prized linebacker coming out of high school, and has played admirably on special teams so far. In 2008, he appeared in all but one game, logging five tackles.

He has great size (6'2" 228) and is fantastic in run support, as expected from a former 'backer. The coaches really like his development, and is one of the top two candidates in the battle for this position.

What to expect

I'm kind of stuck on whether or not he'll start for the first team, as Nick Sukay (more in a sec) is also right up there for the starting spot. But if Dailey gets the nod, I will be expecting a lot of big hits over the middle.

Dailey, should he win the spot, will be replacing Anthony Scirrotto, a known hitter. If a ball comes his way, and it's there for the pick, it would be very comforting to see Dailey come down with it, considering how the secondary has failed to make big interceptions (Ohio State game aside) the past few seasons.

• No. 10, Nick Sukay. Redshirt Sophomore. Possible Starter (Strong Safety)

What we already know

Sukay was hampered by a sesamoid bone injury that required surgery last summer. He's a great prospect at the position at 6'1", 206 lbs. Because of his injuries, the coaches haven't committed to giving him the starting spot over Dailey, but it's still up in the air. He has the talent, but has to stay healthy.

What to expect

I want to see how well Sukay runs. If he looks confident, and can go full speed, I'll feel much better going into the summer practices. I imagine Sukay has been itching to get onto the field, since he's come so close for two seasons. If he doesn't win the starting spot, we could see plenty of him anyway, in the three-safety/nickel-back package.

• No. 28, Drew Astorino. Redshirt Sophomore. Starter (Free Safety).

What we already know

I'll admit, it seemed like Astorino came out of thin air last season. As a redshirt freshman, Astorino played in all 13 games, and actually earned three starts, including at Ohio State when Scirrotto was out with a concussion.

He doesn't exactly fit the mold of a play-making safety, but at 5'10", 195 lbs., Astorino packs a big punch for opposing receivers. He tied for the team lead with two interceptions last season, while totaling 39 tackles, five pass breakups, and seven passes defended.

What to expect

With the departure of two very good (Rose Bowl aside) safeties, it will be up to Astorino to set the pace for this unit. He likes the big hit, and doesn't shy away from any opponent. I expect him to display good leadership on Saturday, and continue to play bigger on the field than he appears on paper.

• No. 6, Gerald Hodges. Grayshirt Freshman. Backup.

What we already know

Hodges is one of those rare true freshmen who will be able to play right away for Joe Paterno. Ok, so he's actually a "Grayshirt," meaning he enrolled this past January.

But that doesn't take away from the fact that he's already contending for the top backup position behind Sukay and Dailey. Hodges is blessed with the perfect build for a safety (6'3" 210) and even better speed for his size.

What to expect

In terms of defensive backs, I'm most excited to see how well Hodges holds up in a real-game setting like he'll see on Saturday.

Similar to my expectations for the backup cornerbacks, Hodges should be able to hold his own against he first team offense, with maybe a small flap here or there. I don't expect him to get lost in the action and give up any big plays.

No. 7, Cedric Jeffries. Redshirt Junior. Backup.

What we already know

A solid prospect out of The Garden State (like yours truly), Jeffries has the physical build (6'2" 215) to be a successful contributor this season. He saw a good deal of action last year, playing in every game, and finishing with 16 tackles.

What to expect

As one of the top backups going into the spring workouts, Jeffries can continue to provide quality depth to the position. Joe Paterno has been overly critical (justifiably in most cases) of the safeties this spring. That should give Jeffries the green light to leave it all on the field this weekend, and give the coaches something good to say at the next meeting.

• • •

Coming later today...
Special Teams

Monday: Quarterbacks and Running Backs
Tuesday: Receivers and Tight Ends
Wednesday: Offensive line,
Thursday: Defensive Line (pt. 1), Linebackers (pt. 2)

Next up...
Saturday night: Report from the game, photos, etc.