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2008 Penn State Preview - Defense
Penn State DE Maurice Evans
Penn State DE Maurice Evans
Posted May 9, 2008 2008 Preview - Penn State Nittany Lion Defense

Penn State Nittany Lions

Preview 2008 - Defense

- 2008 CFN Penn State Preview | 2008 Penn State Offense
- 2008 Penn State Defense | 2008 Penn State Depth Chart
- 2007 CFN Penn State Preview | 2006 CFN Penn State Preview 

What you need to know:
This will be a good defense overall, but it's not going to be as good as last season. The linebacking corps carried the defense for the last few years, but this season, it's all about pass rushing terror Maurice Evans and the line. The loss of tackles Chris Baker and Phil Taylor, who were suspended this spring and booted off the team, will hurt, but the Nittany Lion defensive line could still be among the best in America. It'll have to be with Dan Connor and Sean Lee gone from the linebacking corps (Lee will be back next year after injuring his knee). The back seven will be fine as long as the line plays like last year, when it led the way to the nation's seventh best run defense and was second in the country in sacks, but if there's a drop-off in production up front, the secondary could be in big trouble.

Returning Leaders
Tackles: Lydell Sargeant, 70
Sacks: Maurice Evans, 12.5
Anthony Scirrotto, 3

Star of the defense: Junior DE Maurice Evans
Player who has to step up and become a star: Junior LB Josh Hull
Unsung star on the rise: Sophomore LB Chris Colasanti
Best pro prospect: Evans
Top three all-star candidates: 1) Evans, 2) FS Anthony Scirrotto, 3) LB
Tyrell Sales
Strength of the defense: Line, pass rush
Weakness of the defense:
Linebacker, corner depth

Defensive Line

Projected Starters: Even when it seemed like Phil Taylor was going to be back, 6-1, 292-pound sophomore Ollie Ogbu was likely going to get the start at right tackle, and he could play either spot. He started five times last year and finished with 18 tackles, a sack, and ten tackles for loss, and while he had a good first year, he seems to be only scratching the surface. Once he figures out how to close on a quarterback a bit faster, he's going to be a statistical monster.

Now in the starting tackle picture is 6-3, 316-pound sophomore Abe Koroma, a key reserve all season long and the starter in the Alamo Bowl. At 6-3 and 316 pounds, he's a big inside presence with tremendous upside. He still needs seasoning and a bit more work, but coming off a seven tackle first season, he's ready for a bigger role.

With all the drama and talk about the tackles, the spotlight has come off the team's best player, All-America end Maurice Evans. A future NFL millionaire hanging around the college game, the 6-2, 264-pound junior was dominant making 54 tackles, 12.5 sacks and 21.5 tackles for loss on his way to several post-season honors. The definition of the unblockable pass rusher, he managed to bulk up without losing any quickness off the line, and it paid off. Now he'll have to get used to being the target of everyone's blocking scheme.

Since all the attention will be on Evans, it'll be up to senior Josh Gaines to come through with a big year on the left side. The starter in 22 games over the last two years, he made 40 tackles, 2.5 sacks and five tackles for loss last season and has grown into a team leader. At 6-1 and 275 pounds, he's not the prototypical end and is far better at stopping the run than getting to the quarterback, but he's quick.

Projected Top Reserves: Penn State boasted the nation's seventh best run defense last year partially because of the excellent play of two tackles, juniors Chris Baker and Phil Taylor. They were suspended this off-season for off-the-field issues involving a fight, they missed all of spring ball, and were kicked off the team this summer. The 6-2, 298-pound Baker made 37 tackles, 4.5 sacks and eight tackles for loss despite missing the final two games of the year. He has been in and out of the doghouse for the last year, and he would've been a major factor on the inside. He has excellent quickness into the backfield and is a consistent rock against the run, and now he can spend his time working out to get ready for the NFL.

Taylor stared the final five games of last year making 20 tackles, three sacks and 6.5 tackles for loss on the year. At 6-4 and 335 pounds, he's a big body who clogged everything up, but he was also quick enough to get into the backfield on a regular basis.

Junior Jared Odrick has bulked up to 308 pounds on his 6-5 frame, but he didn't lose any quickness making 16 tackles with 2.5 sacks and three tackles for loss in just eight games of action. He has to get over a broken ankle, but he'll be a factor on the inside at some point.

Sophomore Aaron Maybin is a smaller, quicker option on the right side behind Gaines. At a rangy 6-4, 236 pounds, he's the opposite of Gaines as more of a speed rusher than a run stopper making four sacks and 12 tackles. He's a tough tackler who can hold his own, and now he'll be used more to get to the quarterback.

Watch Out For ... a very interesting tackle situation. The tackles won't be as good without Baker and Taylor, but they won't be bad. Penn State had an embarrassment of riches; the team will be just fine with Koroma and Ogbu.
Strength: Pass rushing and size. The line can get into the backfield from all four spots with Evans leading the show. There isn't a lightweight in the bunch among the front four, unless Maybin is in, and then the speed gets cranked up a notch.
Great running games. The Nittany Lions stuffed a lifeless Wisconsin ground game, but the overall stats were still a bit askew. Michigan State threw it instead of running as much as it normally did, Ohio State rolled for 200 yards, and Illinois had few problems running its spread. Penn State's run D looked out of this world on paper helped by games against FIU, Notre Dane, Buffalo and Temple. 
Outlook: Penn State finished sixth in the nation in sacks and seventh in run defense in 2006 and was supposed to be in rebuilding mode last year. Yeah, right. All the line did was lead the way for the nation's seventh best run defense, again, and was second in the nation in sacks and tenth in tackles for loss. Now the line is even better with Evans a superstar to revolve around, too many good tackles to get on the field at the same time, and good potential among the reserve ends. This group will dominate. The rating would've been a 10 if Baker and Taylor were in the mix.
Rating: 8.5


Projected Starters
Sean Lee would've been everyone's All-American and in a tight battle with Ohio State star James Laurinaitis for Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year honors, and then he tore up his knee. Now he'll be the star next year. He was going to take over Dan Connor's spot in the middle, but now it'll be junior Josh Hull who makes the move from outside in after 18 tackles. The 6-2, 231-pound junior is a former walk-on who is fine, but he's a big-time downgrade from Connor and Lee.

Taking over Lee's spot on the outside will be sophomore Bani Gbadayu, a 6-1, 221-pound speedster who has the smarts and toughness to make plays all over the field, but he has only been a special teamer, for the most part, so far coming up with six tackles and a tackle for loss. He'll put up big stats and he'll show off great range, but the jury is still out on how well he'll hold up for a full slate.

The one returning starter to the corps is 6-2, 233-pound senior Tyrell Sales, a spot starter before last season who took advantage of his opportunity and made 50 tackles with three sacks and 5.5 tackles for loss. With a good mix of speed and hitting ability, along with his experience, he's now the leader of the linebackers.

Projected Top Reserves: Hull might get the opening day call, but he might quickly give up his middle job to Chris Colasanti, a 6-2, 232-pound, for lack of a better word, meathead. Actually, he's likely going to be on the Academic All-Big Ten team, but he's the perfect stereotype for a linebacker. Tough, very tough, a big hitter, and the type who'll run through a cement wall to make a stop, he'll be in the rotation early on and will play a big role after making three stops last year.

Eventually, Novorro Bowman will be back in a job of some sort after being suspended this off-season. The 6-1, 230-pound sophomore had a nice first year making 16 tackles with two sacks and four tackles for loss, and he'd be a nice option for one of the outside spots with his tremendous speed. The fastest player in the corps, he should be a big-time playmaker once he's back in the fold.

Working behind Sales on he outside will be 6-1, 220-pound redshirt freshman Nathan Stupar, who's more of a small defensive end than a linebacker. A tough athlete who'll be used as a pass rusher, he should be in the rotation early on if he can show he can be consistent against the pass.

Watch Out For ... Colasanti. Hull is a try-hard, full-tilt motor player and a great story, but Colasanti has the makeup of yet another superstar Penn State linebacker. He's the prototype for the Nittany Lions.
Strength: History. It's not like Penn State drags a bunch of kids out of the library to play linebacker. This might not be as good a group as it's been over the last few years, but there will still be production and there's plenty of decent talent.
Paul Posluszny, Dan Connor and Sean Lee. Those three comprised the best linebacking corps in the history of Penn State football. While there might be some arguments about that, at the very least the trio would rank in the top three. Connor and Lee kept things rolling last year, and now Lee is out until next season. There isn't a talent like him, or Connor or Posluszny, ready to step up.
Outlook: It's Penn State, so the linebackers will be good, but there's a massive drop-off in talent from what the corps was at the last few years. Sales is a good one and Gbadyu will grow into the job, but Connor will be sorely missed in the middle. You don't get better by losing 283 tackles, ten sacks, and 25.5 tackles for loss that Connor and Lee provided. However, there's hope for the future as the recruiting class is full of star prospects. Michael Zordich and Mike Yancich might be better than anyone on the roster right now.
Rating: 6.5

Defensive Backs

Projected Starters
Back in everyone's good graces after some off-the-field issues jeopardizing his eligibility going into last year, 6-0, 192-pound senior free safety Anthony Scirrotto finished fourth on the team with 65 tackles with a tackle for loss and a team-leading three interceptions. An All-Big Ten caliber performer, he has excellent range and a great nose for the ball in the air. He's an interception machine with nine over the last two seasons.

The other star of the secondary is 5-10, 186-pound senior Lydell Sargeant, the team's third leading tackler with 70 stops and 1.5 tackles for loss. The former wide receiver didn't look green last year as he became a good cover corner, making two interceptions, on the other side of Justin King, and was used as a fifth defensive back against Purdue.

Moving from safety into King's old job at right corner will be senior Tony Davis, a 5-9, 195-pound hitter who broke up 13 passes as a sophomore and made two last season, along with 29 tackles. While he had great range in a strong safety role, he's better suited for free safety or corner. He's experienced enough to make more than his share of plays in the new job.

With Davis moving to corner, 6-2, 216-pound Mark Rubin will stay at the job he held over the final five games of last season. A nice tackler with 32 stops as a backup, he'll have to show he can do more against the pass or he'll be a part of a rotation. The former wide receiver has the speed and range, and now he should be one of the team's leading tacklers.

Projected Top Reserves: If Sargeant doesn't hold down the job at right corner, it'll be because 6-1, 188-pound junior A.J. Wallace has taken over. The team's top kick returner, averaging 24.2 yards per try in 2006 and 26.4 yards per attempt last year, is a superior athlete with excellent size. He made 33 tackles with a pick and four broken up passes. He took over the starting job over the final four games on the left side, and he'll play a huge role again.

About to be a star either at linebacker or safety is one of the team's top recruits, 6-2, 220-pound freshman Michael Mauti, who got to school early and worked behind Rubin at the Hero, or strong safety position. While he'd be a prototype weakside linebacker with 15 more pounds on his frame, he's a big time talent no matter here he plays in the back seven.

Watch Out For ... life to go on without King. King was always a blinding-speed, next-level talent, but he didn't always play like it. He had a great 2007, breaking up 15 passes and picking off two, but Sargeant, Davis and Wallace will fill in without too much of a problem, even if they're not nearly as talented.
Strength: Safety. Scirrotto needs to revert to his 2006 form, and all indications are that he will, while Rubin is a promising veteran who should be even better. If Mauti sticks in the defensive backfield, and doesn't move to linebacker, he could be the breakout star.
A true shut-down corner. Yeah, the overall production will be fine without King, but there will be times when the team needs one guy to go out and erase someone's number one target. The current corners are really good, but someone has to prove he can handle the pressure and the work.
Outlook: The biggest plus the secondary has going for it is a defensive front that'll be camped out in opposing backfields. The corners won't have to work for too long. This is a good group of defensive backs, but it's not an elite one, and it can be burned deep by a quarterback who gets a little time. Everyone can hit, and there are enough veterans to make this a relative strength, even if this group has the upside to do even more than last year.
Rating: 7

Special Teams

Projected Starters
The knock on junior punter Jeremy Boone was that he didn't have a huge, booming leg. Last year he helped lead the Big Ten's best, and nation's third-leading punting game by averaging 43 yards per kick with 25 put inside the 20. He even banged out a 70-yarder. A consistent weapon, he should be among the best in the nation.

Senior Kevin Kelly
didn't kick in the 1986 Fiesta Bowl or the 1983 Sugar Bowl; it just seems that way. A solid producer over the last three years, he has a big leg and he improved overall last season hitting 20 of 26 field goals with two of the misses coming from beyond 50 yards. He's clutch, has great range, and is reliable.

Corner A.J. Wallace is one of the best kickoff returners in the country averaging 26.4 yards per try last year, while WR Derrick Williams is an explosive punt returner who averaged 11 yards per attempt.

Watch Out For ... the special teams to win at least one game for the team. There wasn't much need for a clutch kick last year, but the return game blew some games open and the rest of the special teams were a major strength. With everyone back, things should be even better.
Strength: Big legs. Boone and Kelly have big-time range, and the experience to go with it. Wallace is a big-time weapon who'll force several teams to squib it.
Kickoff coverage. Considering Kelly can boom it, there's no real reason Penn State should be allowing 26.4 yards per kickoff return. It gave up two touchdowns.
Outlook: Ohio State has the best kicking game in the Big Ten, but Penn State could have the best all-around special teams in America. The spotlight is on for this to be one of the team's biggest strengths.
Rating: 9.5