2011 Penn State Preview – Defense

Posted Jun 21, 2011

CollegeFootballNews.com 2011 Preview - Penn State Nittany Lion Defense

Penn State Nittany Lions

Preview 2011 - Defense

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What You Need To Know: Call 2010 a transition season that could lead to huge things for 2011. Injuries played a big role with five key players – DEs Jack Crawford and Eric Latimore, LB Michael Mauti, CB Stephon Morris, and FS Nick Sukay – all hurt to various degrees, and the production suffered. The main goal is to start generating more of a pass rush, and while there isn't a hybrid type of terror who can get into the backfield like past Nittany Lion stars, the return of Crawford and Latimore should be a huge help. The linebacking cops should be stellar with Mauti back and healthy and with excellent options on the outside, while the secondary could be the team's biggest strength with all four starters returning and excellent depth to count on.

Returning Leaders
Tackles: D'Anton Lynn 75
Sacks: Devon Still, 4
Interceptions: D'Anton Lynn, Nick Sukay, 3

Star of the defense: Junior LB Michael Mauti
Player who has to step up and be a star: Junior DE Sean Stanley
Unsung star on the rise: Sophomore LB Khairi Fortt
Best pro prospect: Senior CB D'Anton Lynn
Top three all-star candidates: 1) Mauti, 2) Lynn, 3) DT Devon Still
Strength of the defense: Linebackers, Secondary
Weakness of the defense: Pass Rush, Health  

Defensive Line

State of the Unit: The defensive line wasn't miserable against the run, but it was hardly the rock it was in past years. The biggest issue was the non-existent pass rush that generated a pathetic 17 sacks, and losing Pete Massaro this offseason to a torn ACL isn't going to help. The ends have to be better and the tackles have to hold up against the teams with a living, breathing running game.

Senior Jack Crawford was supposed to be the next great Penn State pass rusher, and he showed promise two years ago with 5.5 sacks and 14.5 tackles for loss. Slowed down by a foot injury last year, he only came up with 14 tackles with two sacks and 4.5 tackles for loss, and now the pressure is on to become the team's disruptive playmaker up front. At 6-5 and 265 pounds he has the size, and he has the athleticism needed to blow up, but he has to come back 100%. After coming to the U.S. from England, he's now rounding out into a total football player, and now with his experience and his tools, he could be terrific. Joining in the rotation, and possibly working on the other side, is 6-6, 278-pound senior Eric Latimore, who started out the year at right end but suffered a broken wrist and finished with just six tackles with 2.5 tackles for loss. With his tremendous size and shockingly good first step, he'd be a great 3-4 end but will work on the outside in the 4-3.

If Latimore doesn't get the starting nod on the other side of Crawford, 6-1, 245-pound junior Sean Stanley will get the call after starting against Kent State and late in the year against Ohio State. A pure pass rusher with tremendous quickness, he failed to do much of anything when he got his chances with just 11 tackles with half a sack and two tackles for loss after making two sacks as a freshman. Also in the rotation is 6-5, 261-pound redshirt freshman Kyle Baublitz, a former high school tight end as well as a defensive end with great athleticism for his size.

Working as the veteran anchor on the inside is 6-5, 305-pound senior Devon Still, one of the team's best all-around defenders last year making 39 tackles with four sacks and ten tackles for loss. Not only was he solid against the run, but he was a terrific interior pass rusher and he showed off even more quickness and better skills this offseason. Health has been an issue with a torn up knee and a broken ankle suffered earlier in his career, but now he appears to be ready to emerge as a Big Ten superstar after earning Honorable Mention honors. 6-1, 303-pound redshirt freshman Evan Hailes will be the backup but could quickly take over at one of the defensive tackle spots. A fantastic all-around talent, he should be a strong pass rusher as well as a run stopper.

6-1, 316-pound junior Jordan Hill was a spot starter working his way into the lineup as a big end in the middle of the season and getting the call against Indiana as a tackle. Productive when he got his chances with 24 tackles and two tackles for loss, he's a rock on the inside who should blossom with a bigger role. He'll rotate with 6-3, 316-pound junior DaQuan Jones is still a work in progress, but he's very big and is just versatile enough to work at end in an emergency. The former offensive lineman only made six tackles with a sack and two tackles for loss, and now he'll be a bigger part of the rotation.

Watch Out For … a healthy Crawford. The ends should be decent if, and it's a big if, Latimore and Crawford are healthy, with the potential there for the latter to become a double-digit sack, All-America caliber playmaker who jumps up NFL draft boards in a hiccup. It has taken a while for it to all come together for him, but all the tools are there for a huge year.
Strength: Size. There aren't any smallish hybrid types on the Nittany Lion front four with 300 pounders who can work at end if needed and tackle-sized ends in Crawford and Latimore who can work in a variety of ways. With all the bulk and all the size there needs to be more …
Weakness: Production. Granted, injuries were a problem with Crawford and Latimore getting banged up, but the pass rush was miserable and with too many teams running wild with Illinois, Ohio State, and Michigan all able to move without a problem.
Outlook: In 2008, Penn State was eight in the nation against the run and was terrific at getting into the backfield. In a transitional 2009 season, the D was the best in the Big Ten in sacks and tackles for loss, while he run defense finished sixth in the nation allowing 90 yards per game. Last season, Penn State finished 101st in the nation in sacks and allowed 166 rushing yards per game. With the expected return of a healthy Crawford and Latimore, to go along with a star in Still on the inside, the line should rebound. It won't be as good as it was a few years ago, but it'll be better.
Unit Rating: 7.5


State of the Unit: The linebackers should be up to Penn State snuff again if everyone can stay healthy. Unlike last year when the defense had to overcome the loss of Josh Hull, Novorro Bowman, and Sean Lee, this year's corps is ready to make more big plays and be stronger against the run with a few returning starters and a couple of very promising prospects ready to emerge.

One of the big keys to the defensive improvement will be the health of Michael Mauti, a 6-2, 234-pound junior who missed all of 2009 with a torn ACL and was never quite right throughout last year with an ankle injury giving him problems for a time and then a shoulder injury knocking him out. Now that he's okay, he's expected to blossom into a superstar after finishing fifth on the team in tackles with 67 stops with two sacks and 5.5 tackles for loss despite all his problems. A big hitter with good toughness and great range, he's more than fine for the outside but will probably end up starting in the middle. If he struggles with injuries again, 6-3, 240-pound redshirt freshman Glenn Carson will step in bringing good athleticism and great size. He started out at linebacker, moved to fullback, and moved back to linebacker making 12 tackles. Very smart and very tough, he's built for the middle.

After working in a starting rotation on the outside with Mauti, 6-1, 239-pound senior Nate Stupar will have a job all to himself after finishing third on the team with 73 tackles with two sacks and 6.5 tackles for loss. He started seven games last year and did a little bit of everything on the outside, and now he has the talent and the ability to be an even better all-around linebacker. He has great range and the burst to get into the backfield, and after shining as a punt blocker and top special teamer to start his career, now he'll do even more for the defense. While Stupar is good, 6-2, 227-pound sophomore Khairi Fortt had a strong enough offseason to suggest that he might be even better. The 6-2, 227-pound athlete has the pass rushing ability to be a disruptive force on the outside, and he's tough enough against the run to be used inside if absolutely needed. He came up with 17 tackles in his true freshman season, and he should double those numbers even in a reserve role.

Ready to become a stat-sheet filler is 6-2, 234-pound junior Gerald Hodges, a former safety who came up with a terrific offseason after growing into a role over the final half of last year. He got hurt in the Alabama game but ended up making 31 tackles with 2.5 tackles for loss. A key reserve during most of his time, he also got a start against Indiana making six tackles with two broken up passes. A terrific hitter for his size, he's a guided missile of a tackler and will move around wherever needed. He'll be backed up by Mike Hull, a smallish 6-0 and 219-pound hitter with smarts and the bloodlines with his father a linebacker in the early 1970s.

Watch Out For … Fortt. It'll be tough to push Stupar out of a job and out of time at one outside spot, and Hodges is too good to keep off the field at the other position, but Fortt is so active and has so much playmaking ability that he has to find a role somewhere.
Strength: Depth. Assuming everyone stays healthy, and if Hull plays up to his prep hype, there are two strong options at each spot and there should be more and more plays made in the backfield. Penn State has reloaded at its fabled position.
Weakness: Proven production. Everyone looks great in practices, and Mauti was great when he wasn't hurt, but it's time to do it on the field. The run defense starts with the line, but the linebackers have to do more, too.
Outlook: There was supposed to be a drop-off in production after losing all the stars from the 2009 corps, and now, a year later, everything should be back to normal. Mauti will be an all-star while Stupar and Hodges should be among the team's top tacklers. Fortt and Hull will put up numbers when they get their chances.
Unit Rating: 8

Defensive Backs

State of the Unit: All the starters are back from a group that helped Penn State finish 16th in the nation in pass defense even though there wasn't any help from the pass rush. The defense gave up 19 touchdown passes and only came up with ten picks, with LB Nate Stupar getting one of them, but the secondary should be far better with the promise of a better pass rush and with all the experience returning.

Senior D'Anton Lynn earned Honorable Mention All-Big Ten honors last season finishing second on the team with 75 tackles with 2.5 tackles for loss and a team-leading three picks and seven broken up passes. The 6-1, 210-pound corner was one of the defensive stars in the Outback Bowl loss to Florida, showing off the playmaking ability that should make him one of the league's premier defensive backs this year. A great open field tackler, his NFL future will be as a nickel back or free safety. He'll be backed up by 6-0, 178-pound sophomore Derrick Thomas, a promising but inconsistent corner who worked mostly on special teams last year in his four games of work making three tackles with a pick.

Back on the other side is 5-8, 189-pound junior Stephon Morris, a good corner who had a disappointing year when the ball was in the air. He started the first seven games before getting banged up and having a few problems, finishing with just one broken up passes to go along with 39 tackles. He's not all that big but he's tremendously quick and is fearless in run support, for good and bad. He needs to be able to keep himself healthy even though he likes to hit. When Morris struggled, 6-1, 198-pound senior Chaz Powell stepped up after moving over from receiver. The team's fourth-leading receiver in 2009, he came up with 11 tackles with five broken up passes at corner, and now he'll be a key backup and a nickel and dime defender.

Ball-hawking senior Nick Sukay is back at free safety after making 29 tackles with three picks despite playing just half the year. At 6-1 and 207 pounds he has good size and moves well all over the field with a knack for always being around the play. Known for coming up with the fumble recovery to seal the bowl win over LSU two years ago, he got hurt last year forcing a fumble against Illinois, tearing his pectoral muscle on the play. Now Sukay is back and healthy, but 5-11, 212-pound sophomore Malcolm Willis will still see time after stepping into a starting role late last year and finishing sixth on the team with 54 tackles with an interceptions and three broken up passes. With good size and tremendous quickness, he can handle himself in a variety of roles.

5-10, 202-pound senior Drew Astorino's biggest question was whether or not he could stay healthy after coming off of shoulder surgery, and he ended up making 70 stops with a pick and five broken up passes. The Hero, or strong safety, earned Honorable Mention All-Big Ten honors and now returns as a leader of the veteran secondary with 171 career stops. Sophomore Stephen Obeng-Agyapong saw time in every game, mostly as a special teamer, finishing with nine tackles. Very smart and with 5-10, 206-pound size, he can fill in for small stretches.

Watch Out For … Sukay for a full season. He was putting it all together with a huge junior season before getting hurt, and now, if he can last for a full year, he should be one of the team's top three tacklers and could lead the league in picks.
Strength: Experience. All four starters return, and the lone positive about the injury issues of last season was the experience gained by Powell and Willis when thrown into the fire. The Nittany Lion secondary can easily go to more nickel and dime packages without a problem.
Weakness: Proven pass rush. The front seven didn't generate nearly enough pressure on the quarterback throughout last year, and while the secondary didn't suffer too much, life would've been easier with more help. It's not a given that the pass rush will improve even with most of the key parts back up front.
Outlook: With four excellent starters returning and with Lynn and Sukay likely all-stars, this should be one of the team's biggest strengths. The corners are big, the safeties can move, and there's quality depth at all four spots.
Unit Rating: 8

Special Teams

State of the Unit: The kicking game takes a big hit losing Collin Wagner, an reliable midrange kicker who hit 20-of-25 field goals last season. Trying to make a splash right away is true freshman Sam Ficken will get a long look for the job. With a big leg and great range, it's his spot for the taking for the next four years, but sophomore punter Anthony Fera is in the mix to double-dip.

The punting game was fine last season as Fera averaged 41.4 yards per kick, and he showed off a huge leg with a 74-yard bomb against Iowa. Extremely accurate, he forced 19 fair catches and put 13 kicks inside the 20 with just one touchback. Great on kickoffs, he has the leg to handle all the kicking duties.

Receiver Justin Brown struggled a bit on punt returns averaging just 5.1 yards per try, but Devon Smith was stronger averaging 12.9 yards per attempt. Chaz Powell was terrific on kickoff returns averaging 24 yards a pop with a 100-yard score against Youngstown State. RB Stephfon Green has too much speed and quickness to only average 19.8 yards per try.

Watch Out For … Ficken. Fera has the leg to hit bombs from deep if he handles all the kicking duties, but the faster that Ficken can step in and produce, the better.
Strength: Fera. He had a terrific freshman season showing that he's the next in the line of great Penn State punters. He's a weapon who can blast the team out of trouble from anywhere on the field.
Weakness: Sure-thing placekickers. The situation will turn out to be fine, but it could be an issue early on. Considering only one game last year was decided by fewer than ten points this might not be a huge problem, but it could be the difference between a good season and a great one.
Outlook: The special teams were a disaster two years ago and improved greatly last season all across the board. If the placekicking situation works itself out the special teams could actually become a strength again. The coverage teams aren't bad, there's speed for the return game, and the punting should be terrific.
Unit Rating: 6.5

- 2011 Penn State Preview | 2011 Penn State Offense
- 2011 Penn State Defense | 2011 Penn State Depth Chart
- Penn State Previews  2010 | 2009 | 2008 | 2007 | 2006