Tom Bradley has been here before. The man is not only in charge of the team's defense, but the cornerbacks and secondary. As preseason camp inches closer (begins Aug. 10), Bradley knows all too well the challenge of having to completely rebuild a secondary that loses all four senior starters from the previous season's Big Ten Championship team.
In 2004, Penn State's pass defense was ranked No. 6 nationally at 162.3 ypg, while the Lions were No. 4 in pass efficiency defense with a 99.8 rating. Penn State allowed only five touchdown passes all season, with just two coming in the eight Big Ten contests. That unit only lost one starter, Andy Guman, but he was replaced by a former starter, Chris Harrell.
The next season, 2005, the unit slipped a bit statistically, allowing 211.7 ypg and 11 touchdown passes. But those numbers were mostly due to opponents' frantic garbage time passing as Penn State rolled to easy blowout wins. The secondary also grabbed 16 interceptions, and held opponents to just 5.8 yards per attempt.
With all the starters off to the NFL (all four were either drafted or FA), combined with the loss of 3/4 of an elite defensive line (93 ypg), the defense looked shaky at best going into 2006.
But Bradley pulled off a remarkable feat. The defense was not only as good as the 2005 edition, it actually improved. Penn State allowed a paltry 284.5 total ypg (87 rush ypg and 197 pass ypg) which was even better than the 2004 defense. The 14.4 ppg allowed in 2006 was Penn State's best mark this decade, until last year's defense matched it.
So, we know Bradley can do this. He's done it before. But there is a twist this time around—Penn State now has the benefit of four years' worth of top-notch recruiting behind it. In 2006, the talent level depth left much to be desired.
The defensive line, despite the recent losses, still has plenty of VHTs in the two-deep and the best DT duo in the Big Ten, and the linebackers return the best group in five years.
The secondary will remain the main concern for Bradley and Joe Paterno, but all the doom and gloom could be premature, just as being overly optimistic would be.
AJ Wallace and Knowledge Timmons have been around the program a long time. Wallace was rated as the No. 1 corner out of high school, and has started six in his career. True soph D'Anton Lynn is another VHT, who played in almost every game last season.
Penn State brought in five defensive backs in this year's recruiting class, which should give the overall talent here a shot in the arm.
Although Bradley doesn't directly coach the safeties (Asst. Kermit Buggs), this group must be in lock-step with the corners this year.
Drew Astorino filled in as the third safety (PSU uses three safeties instead of a nickelback) last year, and also started three games. Behind him is soph Nick Sukay, a VHT who has been caught by the injury bug. Sukay is now healthy and ready to push for Astorino's spot.
Penn State's HERO (SS) position is an open race, but VHT soph Andrew Dailey (former LB) is now leading. Behind Dailey is junior Cedric Jeffries, who has seen action in 26 games. The wildcard in all of this is VHT true frosh Gerald Hodges, who saw significant time in the spring game, and who the coaches rate very highly.
At last week's Big Ten Media Days, Paterno told reporters, "We're going to have to take some young people and put them in key spots. There will probably be a couple of kids I haven't seen play yet. But that will go on for a while."
Looking at Penn State's defensive backfield, it's hard to imagine Paterno's comments were directed elsewhere.
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