Preview 2007 - Defense
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What you need to know:
As always, the defense will revolve
around the linebackers. Paul Posluszny might be gone, but Dan
Connor, who'll take over in the middle, could turn into a better
all-around playmaker, and Sean Lee will be an All-Big Ten
performer. The line doesn't have much experience with only one
starter returning, but there's plenty of promise on the inside
in beefy tackles Phil Taylor and Abe Koroma. The secondary will
be stellar if Anthony Scirrotto gets past his off-the-field
legal troubles. If not, corner Justin King and safety Tony
Davis, who moves over from corner, will keep the pass defense
from sliding after a good 2006.
Tackles: Dan Connor, 113
Sacks: Sean Lee, 5.5
Star of the defense: Senior LB Dan Connor
Player that has to step up and become a star: Sophomore
DE Maurice Evans
Unsung star on the rise: Sophomore DT Phil Taylor
Best pro prospect: Connor
Top three all-star candidates: 1) Connor, 2) CB Justin
King, 3) LB Sean Lee
Strength of the defense: Linebacker, tackle size
Weakness of the defense:
Defensive line experience
Projected Starters: The big questions up
front concern replacing end Tim Shaw and tackle Jay Alford, two all-star
performers, on the left side. Junior Josh Gaines will most likely
move over from the right side, where he started nine games last year
making 25 tackles and two sacks. At 6-1 and 264 pounds, he doesn't look
like the prototypical end, and he's not a natural pass rusher, but he's
quick. While he should be solid, he has a lot to live up to with Shaw
and Tamba Hali the last two left ends.
Stepping in at tackle will be 6-4, 337-pound sophomore Phil Taylor,
who has the type of big body that can clog things up inside. He's
extremely strong with the type of skills to become an anchor up front
for the next few years, but he's not going to be in the backfield on a
regular basis like Alford was. While he saw time as a true freshman, he
didn't make any tackles.
The new star of the line appears to be 6-2, 269-pound sophomore
Maurice Evans, who bulked up since making 12 tackles, 1.5 sacks and
3.5 tackles for loss as a true freshman, but didn't lose his quickness.
Unblockable at times this spring, he'll be the team's top pass rushing
threat early on from the right side.
Taking over for Ed Johnson at right tackle is massing 6-3, 312-pound
redshirt freshman Abe Koroma, a very green, but very promising
big body with tremendous upside. It'll be his job, next to Taylor, to
hold up against the run and let everyone around him work. Don't expect
many plays in the backfield.
Projected Top Reserves: It would be nice if
305-pound sophomore Chris Baker was back in the rotation at
tackle, but he's likely out until an off-the-field mess involving an
invasion and fight in an apartment clears up. Still scheduled to stand
trial for a variety of charges from assault to burglary, Baker has other
things to deal with; the coaching staff will let the process play out.
On the field, Baker made six tackles as a reserve in eight games and
would be in the hunt for the starting job on the left side if it weren't
for the problems.
The top backup tackle option will be 6-5, 280-pound sophomore Jared
Odrick, who had a sensational spring moving to the inside after
making four tackles and a sack last season at end. After getting bigger
this off-season, he's more of a quick tackle than an end trying to play
big, and he'll be an important third man in the rotation.
Combining with Gaines on the left side will 6-4, 238-pound redshirt
freshman Aaron Maybin. A tough tackler with excellent quickness,
he'll eventually be the pass rusher that Gaines isn't.
Watch Out For ... growing pains. There's undeniable
talent at all four spots, but it might take a while before everyone
plays up to their capabilities. This will be a much better line at the
end of the year than at the beginning.
Strength: Inside beef. Good luck running on the
337-pound Taylor and the 312-pound Koroma. These aren't just big bodies;
they can play.
Weakness: Experience. This is a young, young line with almost no
appreciable experience among the backups. It'll take a while for a
consistent rotation to develop.
Outlook: Penn State finished sixth in the nation
in sacks and seventh in run defense. The line won't be jelled enough to
do that again, but it'll be great going into 2008. For now, the ends
have to do what they can to get into the backfield at the expense of the
run defense, while the big tackles simply have to hold their ground. Big
plays won't be as important as steady ones.
Projected Starters: Lose one all-everything middle linebacker,
replace him with another. Paul Posluszny was the heart and soul of a
terrific defense, and now the torch will be carried by 6-3, 233-pound
senior Dan Connor, who'll move from the outside in. As good as
Posluszny might have been, and as great he was over the second half of
last year, Connor was better from pillar to post with a more consistent
113-tackle season with five sacks, and nine tackles for loss. He was
also the more complete defender than his more heralded running mate with
better range and more production in pas coverage. Part of that was
because he played on the outside, and part of that is because he's
really, really good. Expect another 100+ stop season, and the
possibility of hitting the 400 career mark (he'll need 126 to get
If Connor was unheralded compared to Posluszny, then junior Sean Lee
was virtually invisible when it came to national attention. All he
did was finish third on the team with 90 tackles to go along with 5.5
sacks and eight tackles for loss. He first showed what he could do when
he stepped in for an injured Posluszny in the 2006 Orange Bowl and made
five tackles, and now he should grow even more as one of the Big Ten's
most complete linebackers. The former running back is 232 pounds, can
move, and provides a big pop.
The newcomer to the party will likely be 6-1, 228-pound Navorro
Bowman on the weakside. The redshirt freshman is one of the fastest
players in the corps, and while he doesn't have any experience, and
isn't all that big, his athleticism should lead to several big plays,
and all the tackles that Lee and Connor don't get to.
Projected Top Reserves: If it's not Bowman on the
outside, then it'll be 6-2, 237-pound junior Tyrell Sales, a spot
starter who has made 36 tackles over the last two years. Mostly a
special teamer so far, he has a good mix of skills, and enough time
logged to be, at worst, a very nice reserve.
236-pound sophomore Jerome Hayes isn't going to get any
consideration for a starting spot in place of Lee, but he played well
enough in spring ball to possibly take over on the other side, or be a
top backup. Never right last year thanks to a foot injury, he's healthy
now, and soon will be the next great Nittany Lion linebacker. It just
might not happen until next season.
In the middle, the question isn't the talent of junior Dontey Brown,
it's finding a space for him. Very fast, and with nice size at 6-2 and
236 pounds, he hasn't been able to be more than a special teamer with
just 12 tackles in two years. If injuries hit the starters, don't expect
too much of a drop-off in production if he gets in.
Watch Out For ... Connor to be a finalist for the
Butkus Award, if not win it. More A.J. Hawk than Paul Posluszny, he'll
be a featured defensive star every week making plays all over the field.
Strength: Talent. The backups could form a great
starting threesome for most Big Ten teams. Sales, Hayes, Brown, and
sophomore Josh Hull brown can all play, and all can shine if they're
forced into extended action.
Weakness: Veteran backups. While the reserves are all talented,
collectively, they haven't logged a ton of playing time and won't see
too much action if the starters are healthy. It would be nice if there
was a bit more bulk, but that's nitpicking.
Outlook: While you don't get better by losing an
all-timer like Posluszny, the corps will be one of the best in the Big
Ten if Lee takes another step in his progression and Connor is the
all-around defender he's expected to be. Finding a top-notch number
three will be the main job in fall practice, but there are plenty of
options to choose from.
Projected Starters: The X factor in the secondary is the status
of All-Big Ten strong safety Anthony Scirrotto, who was involved
in the off-the-field incident involving breaking into an apartment and
an ensuing fight. While the other football players involved should be
fine, Scirrotto still has to face felony charges of burglary, criminal
trespass, and criminal solicitation. If he's not with the team, it would
be a painful blow considering he was growing into one of the team's
rising stars. The junior was fourth on the team with 58 tackles and
picked off six of the team's 13 passes.
Back is junior Tony Davis, who made 42 tackles and broke up a
whopping 13 passes starting at left corner. Now he'll move to free
safety where he's a bit undersized at 6-0 and 195 pounds, but has
tremendous range and can make plays when the ball is in the air. Teams
went after him all year long, and he came through.
Offenses picked on Davis because they wanted to stay away from junior
Justin King, who started to live up to his potential as an all-star,
number one cover corner with 30 tackles, an interception and six broken
up passes. A receiver over the second half of the 2005 season, he moved
back to corner where he handled himself like a seasoned veteran. He's
6-0, 186 pounds, and has next-level speed. It wouldn't be a shock if
this was his last year in Happy Valley before becoming a top 50 draft
pick, but first he has to make more big plays against the pass.
On the other side, in place of Davis, will likely be junior Lydell
Sargeant, who made five tackles and an interception in a limited
role. The former wide receiver is still green, and is far from being a
lock to get the job, but he has good potential and nice quickness.
Projected Top Reserves: If Sargeant doesn't hold
down the job, it'll be because 6-1, 195-pound sophomore A.J. Wallace
has taken over.
The team's top kick returner, averaging 24.2 yards per try, he was also
third on the team in rushing with 153 yards and a touchdown on just
eight carries. He'll bring his explosiveness, and his good size, to the
left corner job.
With all of Scirrotto's issues, redshirt freshman Cedric Jeffries
has to be ready. A big 6-2 and 207 pounds, he was one of the stars of
the scout team and will be one of the team's top tacklers if he has the
job. If Scirrotto is back, Jeffries could end up playing free safety if
Davis moves back to corner.
Watch Out For ... King to become a superstar. He
already has a great reputation, but he hasn't done enough to justify the
hype. That'll change. He'll be more of a big play corner who'll come up
with several interceptions.
Strength: Safety ... if Scirrotto is back. If he
returns, he'll combine with Davis to form one of the Big Ten's best
safety tandems. But if he's not ...
Weakness: There might be a lot of reshuffling done. In a perfect
world, Davis could stay at corner and combine with King to shut down
more above-average receiving corps, but he's needed at safety. There's
no way he's moving is Scirrotto is out.
Outlook: Assume, for now, that Scirrotto won't be
part of the team when the season starts. King and Davis are good enough
to prevent a slide after a strong 2006, while Wallace and Jeffries have
to be prepared to be great when the lights go on.
Projected Starters: Coming off a great freshman season, when he
connected on 16 of 23 field goals, junior Kevin Kelly is back
after another good year hitting 22 of 34 shots. While he wasn't always
consistent, and he missed all three of his kicks from beyond 50 yards,
he showed decent range with a 49-yard kick. Eight of the left-footer's
12 misses were from beyond 40. Replacing punter Jeremy Kapinos, who was
amazing with a 41.9-yard average with 21 put inside the 20 and 15 forced
fair catches, will be tough. Sophomore Jeremy Boone doesn't have
the same leg, so he has to be consistent. If he can come close to
averaging 40 yards per kick, he'll be fine.
Watch Out For ... Kelly to grow into an all-star.
After two years, and all the pressure he's faced, he's ready to do even
more and hit 80% of his kicks.
Strength: The return game. Derrick Williams is a
next-level punt returner, while A.J. Wallace should explode on kickoffs
with the ball now being placed on the 30. He'll break several huge
Weakness: Punting. Boone has huge shoes to fill. Kapinos was a
Outlook: If Boone is merely adequate, the Nittany
Lions will have some of the best special teams in the Big Ten. From
coverage units to the return game to Kelly, this should be a strength.