2007 Penn State Preview - Defense

Posted Jun 7, 2007

Preview 2007 Penn State Nittany Lion Defense


Penn State Nittany Lions

Preview 2007 - Defense

- 2007 Penn State Preview | 2007 PSU Offense Preview
2007 PSU Depth Chart | 2006 CFN Penn State Preview 

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.

Returning Leaders
Tackles: Dan Connor, 113
Sacks: Sean Lee, 5.5
Dan Connor, 2

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

Defensive Line

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.
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.
Rating: 7


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 there).

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.
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.
Rating: 9.5

Defensive Backs

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 ...
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.
Rating: 7.5

Special Teams

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 returns.
Punting. Boone has huge shoes to fill. Kapinos was a weapon.
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.
Rating: 8


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