April 15, 2011

Blue-White Game Preview '11: Secondary & Special Teams

This post is the final part of our week-long series previewing the major position groups heading into the Blue-White scrimmage this Saturday in Beaver Stadium.

2010 Penn State vs Temple-29 Part 5: Secondary & Special Teams

"Bend but don't suck." Is that how the saying goes?

Penn State's defense has been particularly good at being particularly simple the last, oh, half-century. Playing 8-10 yards off the receivers; blitzing a safety or corner every once in a never. It's all part of keeping the opposing offense on the field as long as possible, without actually surrendering any points in the process. Sounds crazy, I know.

But what Tom Bradley does with the Nittany Lions' pass defense has been actually very impressive. Penn State has been a regular in the top pass defense rankings the last 10 years, with several top-10 appearances along the way. Generally speaking, it's not usually the defensive secondary's fault exclusively when an opposing quarterback torches Penn State for 400 yards.

There have been some really great defensive backs who have come through Happy Valley. Alan Zamaitis, Mark Robinson, David Macklin, Darren Perry, Michael Zordich, Neal Smith, Pete Harris, Kim Herring, to name a few of the best. That story isn't over, though, and it may continue strongly this season. But it all depends on things like injuries, and whether or not certain players with the ability to be great, rise up and meet that potential.

Penn State returns 52 starts from the 2010 defensive backfield. Among those returning starts are six players who started a game last season. But this unit is coming back for 2011 with fewer "issues," like injuries and suspensions. Though the injuries are rampant for this weekend--the entire projected starting secondary will miss the game--they likely will not affect the regular season.

But that doesn't mean there isn't much to look forward to seeing tomorrow on the field. Younger guys, particularly those called into action last season, will have an opportunity to run with the first team defense in a game-like situation in front of a larger crowd than any during the 15 previous practices this spring.

More below the break.


In the fall, this position will be hopefully dominated by D'Anton Lynn--that is, if opposing quarterbacks ever throw his way. The rising senior will miss the game this weekend, but is the unquestioned leader of the secondary, and has proven it on the field. Last season, when Penn State was struggling through the first two games without a single interception, it was Lynn who dove in front of a Kent State pass for 2010's first pick. It's those kinds of plays that make a great player. Unfortunately, we won't see any of them this weekend.

2010 Penn State vs Illinois-57
Hopefully this spring has allowed
Chaz Powell to finally stay
in one position.
With Lynn will be Stephon Morris, the other likely starter this fall. Morris will also miss the game tomorrow, but I really like the style in which he plays. Morris is sort of the anti-Lynn back there. While Lynn goes about his business in a low-key manner, Morris tends to show more flash and style on the field. The problem with Morris is that his flash has outpaced his production. He's a great prospect, but is still far to inconsistent to become a cornerback you trust on an island.

The likely starter tomorrow will be Chaz Powell. A senior, he came to Penn State as a great safety prospect. Then he moved to receiver. Then to corner. Back to receiver. And finally now looks to finish out his career as a corner once again. He battled Morris all year in 2010 for the starting No. 2 corner spot, eventually grabbing the job for half the season. Powell had a good game the last Blue-White scrimmage, nearly picking off an end-zone pass. We'll see if he can do well again this year.

In the "others" category, we have once-troubled corner Derrick Thomas, and his not-so-troubled, and musically-talented counterpart Mike Wallace. Thomas was suspended prior to the Iowa game, in an incident which still many even in the main stream media can't figure out. Regardless, Thomas is back this spring, and apparently doing really well. He was a very highly touted recruit coming into Penn State, and played in each of the first four games last year. Wallace has been a solid backup defensive back for the last two seasons, but may have to wait another year for space to open up on the depth chart before he can look to being a starter. This weekend, however, he will see most of the snaps with the White Team.


Drew Astorino will return as Penn State's "Hero" back--the strong safety--and safety Nick Sukay should be 100 percent by the fall. Both will miss the Blue-White Game. Astorino has been a quality "Hero" but hasn't been that dynamic play-maker Penn State usually prefers to fill that role. Still, Astorino doesn't usually make mistakes, and has a very high Football IQ. Sukay has better physical tools to work with than Astorino, but tends to lose his mind and make some questionable plays on the ball. The two will form a very nice set of starting safeties this fall. But we'll have to wait until then to see them on the field.

2010 Penn State vs Michigan State-65
Malcolm Willis.
The guys who will likely take the starting Blue Team spots tomorrow are Malcolm Willis, who started in place of Sukay when he went down with a torn pectoral, and Stephen Obeng-Agyapong. Willis is a fantastic prospect that many feel should be in the running to start once again this fall. In the final nine games last season, Willis finished with 54 tackles. A redshirt freshman, it will only get better for Willis. Obeng-Agyapong's name isn't really that hard to remember if you practice it enough. But maybe we'd remember him more if he were on the field more. That hasn't happened yet because of the backlog of safeties that were on the team in 2010. But he should be a starter tomorrow, so keep an eye on No. 23.

The only other name I've heard floating around this spring, in terms of guys who might start tomorrow, is redshirt freshman Ryan Keiser. He's a bit of an unknown, if only because he's young and didn't play last year. Not in the conversation to be a starter in the fall, but could actually see time as the White Team first team safety, Jacob Fagnano is one final name to keep in mind for the safety position.

Special Teams

It seemed logical that there was anything at all to talk about regarding the special teams going into the Blue-White Game. But then I remembered, this is the Blue-White Game we're talking about, when special teams boil down to nothing more than who is dressed and whether or not the kickers miss any easy field goals.

Penn State doesn't do live kickoffs or punts, eliminating practically all the special teams plays in a real game. Also, projected kicker Sam Ficken doesn't even arrive on campus until this summer, so you won't even get to see him on the field. The only other guys to watch are Anthony Fera, who could pull double-duty kicking and punting tomorrow, and the punters Alex Butterworth and A.J. Firestone.


So it's tough to get excited when half the secondary will be on the sidelines in street clothes. Well, maybe they dress, but for what? As a real wonk for these kinds of things, I'm going to be looking forward to seeing the younger guys have a chance to play much more than they would have if the regular first-teamers were healthy.

This fall should be a really good year for the defensive backfield. The six players returning with starting experience, including all four original starters from September, will give this unit an unusually deep pool of experience this season. On top of that, the added time that these younger, less experienced players have seen working with the first and second teams.

The special teams will remain a mystery for now. But as long as the kick return situation is worked out, this unit should be fine. "Should" being the operative word.

So that's all folks. Thanks for reading! Be sure to check out all five editions in this week's Blue-White Game Preview series below.

Part 1: Offensive Backfield
Part 2: Receivers & Tight Ends
Part 3: Offensive & Defensive Lines
Part 4: Linebackers
Part 5: Secondary & Special Teams

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1 comment:

  1. I really should've trademarked that phrase. Damn it.