Penn State's defense is looking to rebound form a soft 2010, and if they stay healthy, there is reason to believe that some things may change in 2011. Will the linebackers live up to the program's expectations at the position? Will the defensive line be tougher to push through for opposing running backs?
Here is a look at some of the players expected to take charge on defense this season for Penn State.
The defense starts in the middle of the field, where Michael Mauti has been lauded as one of the top linebackers in the Big Ten
Phil Harrison of College Football News says of Mauti, "He has great vision and can string out plays from sideline to sideline better than almost anyone in the conference. With the departure of Chris Colasanti, the coaching staff will be looking for Mauti to assert himself as a leader, and he has the skill set to do it."
It sounds nearly identical to the descriptions of some of the better linebackers over the past decade, including Paul Posluszny, Dan Connor and Sean Lee.
The middle linebacker has become the iconic position at Penn State, and it is by no mistake. Penn State recruits well for the position, and they develop players that may not be the flashiest of the bunch (LaVar Arrington aside), but they always seem to be the kind of players who just have a nose for the football, know how to track it down and find themselves in position to make a play.
Mauti is no different.
He will be looked to as a leader on defense and will have plenty to live up to, but he appears to have the character to do so. He has battled injuries and has been on the field to witness first-hand some of the down moments for the defensive unit. The change in defense begins with him.
In 11 games last season, Mauti recorded 67 total tackles, 18 for a loss of yardage.
If Mauti is the leader of the linebackers, then D'Anton Lynn is the leader in the secondary. In 2010 Lynn finished second on the team in total tackles with 75, and he came away with three interceptions. This all for a secondary that was tested mightily with struggles along the defensive line and in the middle of the field from start to finish.
Lynn has the ability to break up passes, although he only recorded four pass break-ups last season, and if the defense improves up front, then the impact of the secondary should improve as well. The senior cornerback was listed on Phil Steele's third-team defense for the 2011 season.
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Devon Still came on strong toward the end of the season and finished in the top 10 in tackles among Penn State's defensive players. Having benefited by increased playing time due to injuries on the defensive line, Still was able to become more of a factor on the defensive line, and that momentum could carry in to 2011.
Of his 39 tackles in 13 games, 10 were for a loss. With uncertainty surrounding the outside of the defensive line due to injuries, the importance of Still in the middle increases. Still will lead the push on the line along with upcoming players such as Evan Hailes, DaQuan Jones, Jordan Hill and more. Still has the experience behind him to take on a full load for the season, and if he cannot bring some pressure up the middle, then Penn State's defensive line could be a problem in 2011.
Nate Stupar finished 2010 third on the defense in total tackles behind Chris Colasanti and D'Anton Lynn, with 73 tackles. This season, he hopes to retain a starting job over up-and-coming Khairi Fortt and play alongside Mauti to form two-thirds of a solid linebacker corp.
We will get to Gerald Hodges next, but Stupar has the ability to take some experts by surprise. He is not widely regarded as a stud linebacker, but much like a number of Penn State linebackers in the past, Stupar has the mentality to find his way around the football and ability to be in position more often than not.
If Stupar stays healthy, then Penn State should have at least two linebackers who will be in position each play they are on the field. And that could lead to a revitalized defensive unit all-around.
Gerald Hodges is the third member of a trio of linebackers hoping to honor the moniker of Linebacker U with solid defensive play.
Hodges played in just eight games in 2010 and recorded 31 tackles, 2.5 for a loss of yards. Despite his playing time in 2010, Hodges finished 13th on the team in total tackles, and he was named to Phil Steele's All-Big Ten Second Team in his annual preseason preview magazine.
While Mauti and Stupar are more likely to rack up the more basic and less dazzling tackles, Hodges will be more likely to make the big hits that get his teammates and the fans riled up. Hodges plays with a different intensity on the field, and he will need to ensure that the emotions of the game do not overtake his ball smarts on the field.
Making a big hit is nice, but making a smart play is even better.
Drew Astorino finished the 2010 season fourth on the team in total tackles, with 70 total tackles (38 solo). Astorino also recorded a single interception (zero return yards), and he was credited for breaking up five passes.
Similar to Lynn, Astorino's defensive production figures to improve if the defensive line and linebackers can see improvement up front and bring more pressure to the opposing quarterbacks. Astorino was also recognized by Phil Steele in his preseason preview magazine, receiving a mention on Steele's All-Big Ten fourth team defense.
Astorino and Nick Sukay will both be the leaders of the safeties or Hero position this fall. Sukay registered three interceptions in 2010 and was named to Steele's All-Big Ten third team. Sukay missed the second half of the season with a torn pectoral muscle. With Sukay back, both he and Astorino should be in store for a better 2011.
As a sophomore, Stephon Morris finished 2010 ninth on the Penn State defense in total tackles with 39 (16 solo) and he was credited with just one pass break-up. Since arriving on campus, Morris has done a nice job in creating a good impression on his level of play. He may be a tad undersized against some of the top wide receivers he will line up against, but his relentless pursuit for the ball make him a player capable of causing trouble no matter what the offense throws his way.
He is physical enough to stand his own on a weekly basis but is also always looking to step up his game.
“We're going to have to go one-up this year," Penn State defensive coordinator Tom Bradley said before the 2010 season, as quoted in a report by The Patriot News' Bob Flounders. "He's a very prideful young man. He wants to be good, he works at it. He studies the game... he's really a joy to coach.''
If Morris continues to grow as a football player, then he will continue to be one of the top defensive players on the roster.