The Penn State Nittany Lions' pass defense is currently ranked 65th in the nation, and a big reason why is because of its mediocre secondary. For the Nittany Lions, the problem isn't necessarily players underperforming—rather, the issue revolves around the lack of talent within the unit.
Defensive coordinator John Butler is slated to lose only safety Malcolm Willis to graduation (and technically Stephen Obeng-Agyapong, though he's played more at linebacker this year), so at least he won't have to replace multiple bodies next season. Nevertheless, nothing is set in stone in terms of a starting lineup for next year.
Here's a look at what Penn State's secondary could look like in 2014.
Jordan Lucas is locked in at one cornerback spot for next year. He's been the Nittany Lions' most consistent player in the secondary and his future looks promising. To boot, he's also emerged as a leader on the team, as Mark Dent of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette writes:
He also has become a leader among the younger players. Lucas was one of few players to address the media after a 63-14 loss to Ohio State. He takes his role seriously and, after the Ohio State game already was spreading a positive message he wanted everyone on the team to embrace: F.I.D.O. It stands for forget it, drive on.
As for the other spot, it's Adrian Amos—at least for now. The problem isn't Amos' ability at the cornerback position. He's proven throughout his career at Penn State that he's one of the more talented players on defense.
Rather, the problem is who will start at the two safety spots—but I'll get to that in a bit.
Amos was recruited as a cornerback out of high school, but he started the 2013 season at safety. He was recently moved back to cornerback, presumably because of how Trevor Williams had regressed since the Syracuse game.
The Illinois game was Amos' first at his old position. Head coach Bill O'Brien acknowledged that in his press conference a few days after, and made it seem like Amos would be there for the rest of his Penn State career.
"Amos, his natural position is corner," O'Brien said. "I think he's a good corner. He's at home there. We're going to keep him there as long as we can."
O'Brien went on to mention that injuries could force a move back to safety, but for all intents and purposes it seems like the coaching staff wants Amos playing corner. With Lucas on the other side, that doesn't leave too many snaps for others.
Williams and Da'Quan Davis would most likely be the third and fourth cornerbacks on defense, followed by current freshmen Anthony Smith and Jordan Smith. Incoming 2014 recruit Troy Vincent Jr. could also be a possibility, but O'Brien will probably want to redshirt him if possible.
Putting both Lucas and Amos at corner would be ideal if the side effect wasn't an unbalanced secondary. However, that looks to be the case.
If Amos is in fact playing cornerback in 2014, then Penn State's safety situation is in dire straits.
Willis' impending graduation leaves Ryan Keiser, Jesse Della Valle and Malik Golden as the only safeties on the roster who have really played this year. Golden has only seen action in four games, while Keiser and Della Valle play consistently.
Golden redshirted last season and is in his first full season at safety, after making the switch from wide receiver in the offseason. His limited playing time seems to be a result of being buried on the depth chart, especially when Amos is playing safety.
Unless Golden can assert himself as a starter in camp, there's probably going to be some sort of rotational system put in place. The reality of the situation is that both Keiser and Della Valle walked-on at Penn State. In a tough conference like the Big Ten, talent gaps can often be glaring problems.
Are they good role players in a rotational system? Yes. But they aren't necessarily playmakers like Amos.
With that being the case, Bill O'Brien might be forced to see what incoming freshman Marcus Allen can do. A 4-star recruit, Allen has a big frame at 6'2" and is a hard hitter. That style could go well alongside the finesse play of Keiser and Della Valle.
Unless Amos switches back to safety, a projected lineup for next year on the back end of things might as well be written in sand.
If Penn State wants to maximize its amount of talent at each particular position, it would be best to put Amos back at safety. Although keeping him at corner along with Lucas would give the Nittany Lions one of the better cornerback tandems in the Big Ten, it would significantly weaken Penn State in deep coverage.
If O'Brien and Butler decide to go this route, it would open up a competition in camp for the remaining cornerback and safety spots. Having multiple players get significant snaps in nonconference games wouldn't hurt either, especially before Big Ten play rolls around.
While some uncertainties remain, one thing seems fairly clear—it looks to be a few years before Penn State is truly comfortable with its situation in the secondary.