2012 Penn State Preview – Defense
Penn State LB Gerald Hodges
CollegeFootballNews.com 2012 Preview - Penn State Nittany Lion Defense
Preview 2012 - Defense
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What You Need To Know: The defense should be a rock despite some heavy losses. The secondary loses all four starters, but there aren't many passing teams on the schedule and the pass rush should be just good enough to make life easier. On the plus side there's speed, athleticism and a whole slew of options to play around with in the defensive backfield. There's just not much in the way of sure-thing star power like there is in the front seven. If Michael Mauti can finally stay healthy – and that's a huge if – the linebacking corps could be the best in the country with Gerald Hodges and Glenn Carson two veteran tackling machines who'll clean everything up the line doesn't get to. The front four loses Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year Devon Still and top end Jack Crawford, but the return of Pete Massaro on one side should help make the pass rush shine, and Jordan Hill and DaQuan Jones should be terrific for Ted Roof's defense in the interior.
Star of the defense: Senior LB Gerald Hodges
Tackles: Gerald Hodges, 106
Sacks: Gerald Hodges, Sean Stanley, 4.5
Interceptions: Several with 1
Player who has to step up and be a star: Senior S Malcolm Willis
Unsung star on the rise: Junior DT DaQuan Jones
Best pro prospect: Hodges
Top three all-star candidates: 1) Hodges, 2) LB Michael Mauti, 3) LB Glenn Carson
Strength of the defense: Linebackers, Line
Weakness of the defense: Secondary, Sure-Thing Health
The defensive line that was a rock at times against the run and solid at getting into the backfield loses the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year in the middle, Devon Still, and now needs senior Jordan Hill to be the new rock. With 59 tackles, 3.5 sacks and eight tackles for loss, the 6-1, 298-pound senior came up with a nice season as the full-time starter. Built to be great against the run but with the quickness to see time at end earlier in his career, the tools and experience are there to shine and to take his game to another level. He might not be the star that Still was, but he should be plenty good as an interior pass rusher.
6-3, 317-pound junior DaQuan Jones was a part of the puzzle last season making eight tackles, but now the former offensive lineman has to use his bulk to be a star against the run. While he's not going to fly into the backfield on a regular basis like Hill will, he'll come up with his share of plays now that he gets a bigger role. He'll be in a steady rotation with senior James Terry, a 6-3, 317-pound backup who'll add more size to the mix in place of Hill while also seeing time behind Jones. With ten tackles last season he got his share of work, but he has to be even stronger against the run.
Losing Still on the inside hurts, and not having leading pass rusher Jack Crawford on the outside is almost as big. Needing to become the next star pass rusher is 6-1, 247-pound senior Sean Stanley, a spot starter last season who finished with 30 tackles with 4.5 sacks, 6.5 tackles for loss and a pick. A pure pass rusher with tremendous quickness, now the full-time job is his on the outside and he'll be turned loose to become a playmaker. Working behind him will likely be 6-3, 250-pound junior C.J. Olanyian, who saw a little bit of time making three tackles.
is senior Pete Massaro finally going to get a little luck and stay healthy? Arguably the team's best pass rusher, he has suffered through knee problems and hasn't been able to get quite right. If he's ready to go, he'll push for a starting job and could end up leading the team in sacks. Smart and extremely quick, all the tools are there to become a dangerous playmaker if he can hold up. If not, 6-4, 248-pound sophomore Deion Barnes will step in and be a dangerous threat. Fast, he's build like an outside linebacker and has the burst off the ball to grow into key part of the rotation.
Watch Out For … Massaro. A sixth-year grad student, he has been held back by torn ACLs and has kept fighting back to get on the field. While he might not have the same blast off the ball he did before first injuring his knee as a sophomore, the potential is there for him to become one of the Big Ten's best comeback stories.
Strength: The rotation. Defensive line coach Larry Johnson likes to use lots and lots of bodies to keep everyone fresh. With a good combination of size and quickness in the interior, the run defense could be even more of a rock despite the loss of Still.
Weakness: Teams that can run the ball. Wisconsin had no problem and neither did Ohio State. When Nebraska had to run, it did, and Alabama was able to pound out 196 yards. The front four should hold up without a problem against the mediocre, but it has to prove it can come through against the power lines.
Outlook: Even without Still and Crawford the line should turn out to be terrific. The combination of Hill, Jones and Terry on the inside will gum things up, while the return of Massaro to go along with Stanley on the outside should work out well. It might not be the Big Ten's best line, but it will get the job done.
Unit Rating: 7.5
is this the year Michael Mauti finally gets a little bit of good luck? The fifth-year senior misses all of 2009 with a torn ACL, wasn't right in 2010 as he fought through ankle and shoulder injuries, and last season he started off the season like a superstar with 21 tackles, a pick, three broken up passes and three tackles for loss in just four games before suffering another torn ACL. On the plus side if happened early enough in the season to give him time to come back for one more year. At 6-2 and 239 pounds he's not huge, but he's fine for the middle and is a big hitter. If he's hurt again or can't go then this year the linebacking corps can't rely on 6-2, 238-pound junior Khiari Fortt who stepped in after making 33 tackles and 2.5 sacks with six tackles for loss in a backup role. A great athlete who could play any of the three spots, hhe's now going to play a big part of the Cal defense.
Even if Mauti is back as the star of the linebacking corps, the best player still might be senior Gerald Hodges, a tackling machine who led the team with 106 stops with 4.5 sacks, ten tackles for loss, a pick, four broken up passes and two forced fumbles in his breakout year. Able to play inside or out, the 6-2, 233-pound guided missile is a former safety who beefed up and grew into the starting role highlighted by a 19-tackle day against Illinois coming off a 14-stop performer against Northwestern. Against Houston he was one of the few Nittany Lions who showed up with nine tackles. An All-America candidate, he should be among the Big Ten's steadiest defenders and should be even better with all the talent around him taking some of the heat off.
Junior Glenn Carson started all 13 games on the inside but can play in the middle if needed. A good athlete with great size, the 6-3, 238-pound veteran finished fourth on the team with 74 tackles with 1.5 tackles for loss. A run stuffer more than a pass rusher, he has the smarts and toughness to be one of the team's leading tacklers once again while doing even more to get into the backfield.
6-0, 213-pound junior Mike Hull is an undersized hitter with the smarts and the bloodlines to be a nice fill-in when needed. A good backup, he made 18 tackles with two broken up passes and 1.5 tackles for loss. He'll likely work behind Mauti but can play either side, while 6-0, 219-pound senior Jamie Van Fleet will get a long look at one of the backup jobs after making ten tackles. While he's not all that big, he can move.
Watch Out For … the loss of Fortt to sting. Hull, Van Fleet and Mike Yancich
will all see time in the rotation, but if the going
gets tough and one of the top linebackers goes down,
Fortt will likely going to be the first man in.
Strength: Tacklers. If Mauti is healthy there's a chance Penn State has the two best linebackers in the Big Ten, with Hodges being the other. Carson can hit and the undersized try-hard types in the backup roles aren't afraid to get their noses dirty.
Weakness: Mauti's knee. Can he be counted on for a full season? Even when his knee was okay a few years ago he had other issues. The starting three will be among the best in America, but there's a quick drop-off if injuries hit.
Outlook: The linebacking corps was terrific with Hodges stepping up his play and Carson turning into a cog. If Mauti is fine, then all of a sudden the corps goes from great to special. By far the strength of the team, the starting threesome should combine for well over 250 tackles and should fill up the All-Big Ten team … if everyone can stay healthy.
Unit Rating: 9
The secondary that led the Big Ten in pass efficiency defense is basically starting from scratch with sophomore Adrian Amos the only returning defensive back who started last year. He got the call against Iowa, and that was it finishing the year with 13 tackles with a pick and four broken up passes. He could start at corner but will more likely move to a safety spot to utilize his 6-0, 209-pound size and good tackling skills. If he ends up at corner, then 5-10, 201-pound junior Stephen Obeng-Agyapong will step in after making 11 stops. Mostly a special teamer so far, he could be a free safety or will see time in a nickel and dime package to get him on the field.
For Amos to stick at safety, then Derrick Thomas needs to be in the starting mix at one corner spot. Back after some off the field issues last year, he played in just nine games and made four tackles. At 6-0 and 181 pounds he has the size to go along with the speed and talent, but he has been inconsistent working mostly as a special teamer. He'll likely combine with sophomore Jesse Della Valle at one spot. The 6-1, 187-pound Della Valle is a long, thin prospect, but he has to prove he can play.
Senior Stephon Morris has been a part of the rotation for a few years, but he got banged up two years ago and last season failed to come up with a pick. He made 19 tackles with five broken up passes, but the 5-8, 188-pounder has to hold up against the bigger receivers and do more when the ball is in the air. On the plus side he's fearless in run support. Trying to get in the mix was 5-9, 195-pound junior Mike Wallace after making a tackle in just four appearances, but he was knocked out for the year in fall practices with a torn pectoral muscle.
Wallace has yet to do much to crack the lineup, but he's in if Curtis Drake isn't. The former wide receiver has had a rocky career with injuries and academic problems keeping him from showing off his enormous skills. The 5-11, 173-pound senior is a flash with great deep speed – averaging over 20 yards per catch - and this year he appeared to be set to help the cause in the secondary. Unfortunately, he's best known for beating up QB Matt McGloin at the end of last year.
5-11, 205-pound senior Malcolm Willis got a little bit of starting time at the end of the 2010 season and ended up finishing sixth on the team in tackles with 54 stops to go along with a pick and three broken up passes. Last year he made 33 stops with a pick as a backup, but now he should get one of the starting jobs all to himself. He'll be backed up by 6-0, 201-pound senior Jacob Fagnano, a special teamer who made six tackles.
Watch Out For … the Drake situation. If he has his stuff together and if he can stay healthy he might take over one of the starting corner jobs. At the very least he'll be a key backup and one of the more athletic defensive backs.
Strength: The schedule. If Iowa's James Vandenberg is the best passing quarterback on the slate, everything should be okay. Actually, Ohio, Virginia, Illinois, Purdue and Wisconsin will all be able to throw a little bit, but it's not like the Nittany Lions will be dealing with Big 12 passing attacks.
Weakness: Reality. The pass defense finished 17th in the nation and sixth in pass efficiency defense, but that's because it faced Temple, Eastern Michigan, Indiana and a slew of passing-challenged teams. Russell Wilson and Wisconsin had no problems, and Northwestern's Dan Persa threw for 294 yards. And then there was Case Keenum leading a Houston passing attack for 532 yards and three scores. The stats might be great this season, but there's a chance the secondary will be exposed by any quarterback having a nice day.
Outlook: The secondary would be a big problem in just about any other league. Fortunately, there won't be too many high-octane passing games to deal with and the secondary should turn out to be fine. The pass rush will help the cause and the front seven will do its job, so as long as the defensive backs are merely adequate the overall numbers will look good.
Unit Rating: 6.5
Senior Anthony Fera was expected to be one of the Big Ten's best all-around kickers. He hit 14-of-17 field goals last season, but seven of the shots came inside 30 yards and he went 4-for-4 from 30-to-39 yards out. He might not have the greatest range, but he nailed a 46-yarder against Ohio State and he should be reliable from midrange. Also a solid punter, he averaged 42 yards per kick putting 18 inside the 20. However, he came up with a way-too-many 12 touchbacks, and making things even worse, now he's gone, transferring to Texas.
His loss means that sophomore Sam Ficken will be thrown into the starting role. At 6-3 and 180 pounds he's big with a live leg, but he's going to have to show he can be consistent. He'll get a shot at the punting job, but it'll be an open casting call.
The kickoff return game was excellent with Chaz Powell averaging 27.1 yards per shot, but now it was going to be up to receiver Justin Brown to play the biggest role. Now that he's gone, defensive back Adrian Amos will get a long look as a punt returner after averaging 20.4 yards per kickoff return. Brown averaged 8.1 yards per punt return, but Bill Belton will likely move into the role.
Watch Out For … panic at punter. If Alex Butterworth doesn't show off a stron leg, punting could quickly become one of the team's biggest weaknesses.
Strength: Uhhhhh, kickoff returns? Fera was supposed to be the biggest strength and the saving grace for a lousy offense, but now there's not much to hang their hats on. Adrian Amos needs to shine as a kickoff returner to give the team decent field position.
Weakness: Kick coverage. The Nittany Lions allowed 22 yards per kickoff return and got gouged a bit too often. Getting more deep field goals would be nice, too.
Outlook: After a nightmare of a time a few years ago, the special teams were good enough to get by last season. The new coaching staff is looking to beef up and improve the special teams, and the attention should pay off - next year.
Unit Rating: 4.5
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