February 23, 2011

Way Too Early 2011 Depth Chart: Pre-Spring Defense

Today is part two of our look inside the projected spring depth chart.

Part 1: The Offensive Depth Chart

As the Penn State offense struggled to find any sort of consistency in 2010, the defense was surprisingly not as bad as many will remember. There were plenty of breakdowns on a defense that's planted its flag among the elite units in college football the past six to seven years, but the overall production from the unit has some major upside looking back and then realizing what returns for 2011.

Michael Mauti (42) and Nick Sukay (1) celebrate a big play
Michael Mauti (42) and Nick Sukay (1) both return after missing parts of last year.
Both are expected to be leaders of Penn State's 2011 defense.
But if there was one major, critical problem on the Penn State defense last year, it was the uncharacteristically horrid tackling displayed right off the bat in week two at Alabama. Trent Richardson never had any flashy runs or long jaunts to the end zone. What he did have against Penn State was much, much worse: a soul-crushing ability to break away from four, five, six Nittany Lion tacklers at a time. Sure, it was only for an eight-yard gain, but those eight yards ripped the life out of Penn State's defense.

Things weren't much better as the season went on, but the tackling demonstration in Tuscaloosa would remain a negative theme for the rest of the season on defense. Probably the second-worst game defensively was the Great Homecoming Debacle of 2010, when Illinois ran roughshod over, around, and through the Penn State defense, again mostly on the ground for chunks at a time. Ohio State and Michigan State would later do the same.

But looking back, was the Penn State defense really all that bad when the final scores were recorded? Not really. Against Alabama and Iowa, Penn State gave up only 14 total points in the third and fourth quarters. Ohio State scored 14 of its 35 second half points by running back interceptions. Northwestern was shut out in the second half, after going up 21-0. Penn State's defense didn't to the team many favors this past season, including allowing opposing offenses to score 100 percent of the time inside the red zone in all but the Michigan and Florida games.

There is a ton of improvement needed on defense if Penn State expects to compete for the 2011 Big Ten title. Luckily, there is a heap of returning talent on this side of the ball, with some actual addition by subtraction possible if the right players get on the field.

Before we get to the defensive chart itself, here are a few quantifiers:
  • Returning starters are listed in bold, and CAPITALIZED. Players who started more than 10 games are marked with an asterisk(*). Players who started all 13 games in 2010 are marked with a double asterisk(**).
  • Returning major contributors who did not start a game are listed in bold, and not capitalized.
  • Returning from last year's depth chart, but not considered a major contributor from 2010, are listed in plain text.
  • New additions to this year's depth chart--i.e. redshirt freshmen, players coming off a medical redshirt year--are italicized.
  • The offensive line is a horrible thing to project, due to the fact that we only know of maybe two players who are going to start/play at the same position as 2010. So take the entire O-line with a grain of salt.
  • Not everyone is included below. This is not a roster. It's a depth chart, reflecting the projected pecking order for the spring, not just which players are at which positions.
  • I've changed up the categorization for each level of the depth chart. It used to be "First Team, Second Team, Reserves," but now goes with "1's, 2's, and 3's" to better reflect the terminology for a practice session depth chart. It's usually "So-And-So is running with the 1's today..." 
  • I'll have a brief breakdown for each position beneath the depth chart.

DT#71 DEVON STILL*#93 JAMES TERRY#75 Evan Hailes, #94 Mikel Berry
DT#47JORDAN HILL#91 DaQuan Jones#99 Brandon Ware
DE#59 PETE MASSARO*#90 Sean Stanley#84 Kyle Baublitz
Frz#42 MICHAEL MAUTI#34 NATE STUPAR#54 James Van Fleet
Bkr#33 Mike Yancich#43 Mike Hull#40 Glenn Carson
Hero#1 NICK SUKAY#10 MALCOLM WILLIS#27 Jacob Fagnano
FS#28 DREW ASTORINO*#23 Stephen Obeng-Agyapong#38 Tyler Ahrenhold, #36 Kyle Johnson
CB#8 D'ANTON LYNN**#2 CHAZ POWELL#5 Derrick Thomas
PS#30 ANTHONY FERA*#45 Alex Butterworth#49 A.J. Firestone
PR#19 Justin Brown#28 Drew Astorino--
PR#20 Devon Smith#28 Drew Astorino--


Returning from 2010: 
  • 89 (62%) Starts (of 143 possible: 11 starters x 13 games = 143 possible starts)
  • 15 Players with Starting Experience
The problem with the defensive line is that, while there is good experience in the two-deep, the three-deep isn't as experienced as Penn State prefers in its front line.

But overall it's a very good group returning this season.

Devon Still, Jack Crawford [1]
Tackle Devon Still (71) and end Jack Crawford (81) should anchor the strong side of the defensive front.
On the interior defensive line, we could see even more improvement. Still is a powder keg ready to blow, as he started drawing more attention from offensive lines later last year than Ollie Ogbu. Hill is an interesting prospect at the other projected starting spot. He started a few games at defensive end in 2010, when Stanley was in trouble and Latimore was injured. Hill is a bit short at 6'1", but is very similar to Ogbu, who turned out pretty well. Terry ('12) and Jones ('13) are going to be really good backups, and part of the tackle rotation this spring and fall. Then there is Ware. He's been one of the most talked about players who never sees the field. His issues with weight and school work has kept him out of the regular lineup, even though the coaches have actually said he could have NFL ability if he applied himself. Hailes is coming off his redshirt year, and should have more playing time in the rotation, especially this spring.

At defensive end it should be Crawford and Massaro coming back as starters, while Latimore could be part of the "starting rotation" on the ends. Behind them, there is all sorts of unknown and unrealized talent that we could only see in spurts last season.

Stanley played well as a true freshman in 2009, but landed himself in JoePa's doghouse midway through 2010. He didn't have the kind of impact many had anticipated heading into the season. Baublitz was expected to redshirt, but burned it against MSU... odd. But it's done, and expect to see much more of him this spring. Olaniyan is a another really good prospect, who did keep on his redshirt last year.

Nate Stupar and Pete Massaro
Linebacker Nate Stupar (34) and defensive end Pete Massaro (59)
are key returnees in the front 7.
Of course I'm excited about the position that is this site's namesake. The linebackers returning this spring--especially after such a disappointing performance by both departed seniors--are going to be that upgrade I was talking about, the addition by subtraction. There is no question about Mauti and Stupar, and their ability to make big, game-changing plays on a defense sorely in need of that exactly kind of performer. The problem this spring will be trying to figure out a way to get both of them on the field at the same time. Watch for Mauti to maybe switch or experiment with the 'Backer spot in the middle, as former outside linebackers Dan Connor and Paul Posluszny had previously.

Hodges went down with injury against Alabama, not returning to full strength until the Indiana game. He should be in the mix to start at the Sam (strong) linebacker, but it depends on what the coaches do with Stupar and Mauti. Fortt was pressed into action as a true frosh last year, and depending on how the depth is this year, could redshirt. But Fortt will get tons of looks this spring. If Mauti doesn't move to the middle, expect the experienced Yancich to take over in the middle. He saw tons of time the past two seasons, but hasn't stood out. Behind Yancich is redshirt frosh Hull, a monster recruit who has been much talked about on the scout team.

On what should be the third string, Van Fleet has been on the team for what feels like forever, shining bright on his punt block return for a touchdown against Indiana. Carson played on special teams last year, moving between fullback and linebacker. Royer is another big time recruit who should have ample opportunity to see the field this spring.

Though the defensive secondary had trouble making big plays when the team could have really used some, it was an extremely solid season from a unit rocked by injuries and off-field issues.

Stephon Morris [2]
In his second year starting, junior corner Stephon Morris is primed for a breakout season.
Cornerbacks Lynn and Morris should resume their roles as starters, with Powell the obvious No. 3. Powell started in place of Morris for a few games last season, and played well. Lynn is a sure draft pick who has the tackle power of a safety, but the coverage ability to force teams' passing attacks to the other side of the field. The big question mark here is Thomas. He came into 2010 as the No. 3 corner (Powell was moved to WR over the summer), and had some good performances. But before the Iowa game he was suspended and not seen from again. Thomas is supposedly still on the team, but still no one knows what happened. If he returns, this unit gets a big upgrade in depth.

Wallace and Lewis are young and saw little time last season, but should be solid in the backup roles this fall. Spring is the perfect opportunity for these guys to get quality reps in with the higher teams.

The safeties were on and off throughout the season, but took a huge hit when Sukay tore a pectoral. He was starting to hit his stride at that point in the season, and should bring a big-time element to this position. But all was not lost when Sukay went down. Willis played extraordinarily well in relief, while gaining great starting experience as just a redshirt freshman. Astorino was nagged by a shoulder injury for months, but played nearly all of the season. He missed the start against Temple, but then had to leave the Florida game in the very early stages. Obeng-Agyapong has been flirting with the No. 2 safety spot for more than a year, but hasn't broken through. The redshirt sophomore is a great prospect and should get plenty of looks this spring. With Obeng-Agyapong is Fagnano, Ahrenhold and Johnson. Fagnano saw the most playing time last season, mostly on special teams and some at safety. If Obeng-Agyapong doesn't grab the backup spot behind Astorino, watch for Fagnano to be the guy.

The specialists include the punter and punt return crew. Fera is the returning punter. As long as he gets a bit more control, he'll be lethal. In his place last year, Butterworth punted starting in the Indiana game. You probably won't see more than two punters in a regular season, but you sure will this spring. Firestone is likely the No. 3 you'll hear about and see in the Blue-White Game.

2010 Penn State vs Michigan State
Receiver Devon Smith showed some of his deadly speed on punt returns last season.
It's a matter of which kind of return Penn State sets up, but the PRs this year should return in Brown and Smith. Smith showed some real flashes last year--literally, he's like a flash he's so fast out there. But if a third return man gets a look, it'll be news. Astorino is the returning "hands" guy, though we didn't see him much last year, which could be a good thing.

So that's all, folks. We'll have more pre-spring practice posts in the coming weeks. Until then, maybe we'll have some good (tournament, maybe???) basketball to cover for you.

(All Photos by Mike for LBU)
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