Preview 2009 - Defense
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What you need to know:
The defense plugged
in the gaps and was among the best in America, and now it'll
have more work to do. The line loses Aaron Maybin, Maurice
Evans, and Josh Gaines from the outside, but Jared Odrick, one
of the nation's best tackles, returns and there's plenty of
potential at end. Jack Crawford could be the next pass rushing
great. The secondary is shaky with all four starters needing to
be replaced, but the safeties should be solid. The jury is still
out on the corners. Bringing it all together is a loaded
linebacking corps that welcomes back Sean Lee from a knee injury
and has a superstar in Navarro Bowman on the outside. The stats
will be better than the defense, but once again this will be a
great group that will be a brick wall against the mediocre
Tackles: Navorro Bowman, 106
Sacks: Jared Odrick, 4.5
Drew Astorino, 2
Star of the defense:
Junior LB Novorro Bowman
Player who has to step up and become a star: Senior CB
Unsung star on the rise: Sophomore DE Jack Crawford
Best pro prospect: Bowman
Top three all-star candidates: 1) Bowman, 2) LB Sean Lee,
3) DT Jared Odrick
Strength of the defense: Linebackers, Tackles
Weakness of the defense:
Good passing games, Secondary
Another year, another big-time pass
rushing end emerges. Last year it was Aaron Maybin who went from
relative obscurity to first-round NFL draft pick status in just 11
games, and now the new star appears to be Jack Crawford,
a 6-5, 262-pound sophomore with next-level pass rushing skills and
excellent size. He didn't get to see much time in the rotation last
year, coming up with just four tackles, but he broke up two passes.
Still extremely raw, he came from England and took up the game just a
few years ago. However, his athleticism should make up for the lack of
The star of the front four will be Jared Odrick,
a 6-5, 306-pound all-star who made 41 tackles with 4.5 sacks and 9.5
tackles for loss from his spot at left tackle. While not necessarily an
afterthought going into last year, considering he was coming off a
broken ankle, no one expected a first-team All-Big Ten campaign.
Extremely quick and very tough, he doesn't get pushed around against the
run and he feasts on slow guards. It'll be a shock if he's not
considered for several All-America teams.
6-1, 292-pound junior
Ollie Ogbu has been a good spot starter over the last
two years, getting the call in every game but three last season, making
17 tackles with two sacks. The senior has the raw talent and the skills
to be a special interior presence, and while he more than held his own
against the run, he didn't put up big numbers or come up with too many
big plays. With a good motor, he's always working and always forcing
blockers to play to the whistle.
Stepping in for Maybin on the
left side will be 6-2, 248-pound sophomore Kevion Latham.
Very smart and very quick, he saw most of his action on special teams
last season with so many good ends in front of him. Now he's expected to
be a pass rusher who gets into the backfield on a regular basis. No
one's expecting him to be Maybin, but he could be one of the team's
Projected Top Reserves: Junior Abe Koroma
is a high-character interior presence and a good leader who
came up with 20 tackles in a spot-starter role. He got the call in three
games, most notable against Ohio State and Iowa, and now he'll be a key
factor in the rotation at right tackle behind Ogbu. At 6-3 and 317
pounds he's a big inside presence who's great at gumming up the works.
Yet another speed rusher to watch out for is Eric Latimore,
a 6-6, 264-pound sophomore who was lost in the crowd last season but
still managed to see a little time and made seven tackles with a sack.
Extremely quick, he'll be a situational pass rusher in relieve of
Crawford on the right side, but he could end up playing on the left side
Watch Out For ... Crawford. With his size and his
ability, he'll be the next Penn State end in line for the NFL scouts to
take a gander at. He doesn't have to do it all alone, but if he doesn't
have a big season, the pass rush that was so tremendous last year could
Strength: Penn State. Defensive line coach Larry
Johnson always gets production out of his linemen. Out goes one star, in
comes another. Lose all-star players to suspension for smoking pot?
Someone else steps in and star. Expect more of the same this year with
Crawford and Latham looking ready to shine.
Weakness: Experience on the ends.
There isn't any. While the talent is there to keep on rolling, the line
is starting from scratch on the outside after Maybin and Maurice Evans
left for the big leagues and with Gaines also gone. It might take a
little bit of time before everything comes together.
Outlook: While the pass rush wasn't quite as
unrelenting as it was two years ago, it was still plenty good with 33
sacks. However, most of the production from the ends are gone, meaning
the pressure is on for Crawford and Latham to shine. Odrick will be an
all-star, but the interior needs Ogbu to do more and could use Koroma to
be a steady force against the run again. This won't be Penn State's best
line, but it'll be great against the run and it will be in the backfield
often enough to cause problems.
So where will he play and how is his
knee? Senior Sean Lee would've been on everyone's
All-America list going into last season before he tore up his knee in
preseason practices. A superstar on the outside, he made 228 tackles in
two years going into last season, and now he'll likely move into the
middle where he should be back to form. At 6-2 and 236 pounds he has
excellent size and he's back to form. There isn't any major issue
considering the injury happened over a year ago and has time to heal, so
now he'll get a chance to turn it loose and be on the short list for the
With Lee moving outside in, sophomore
Michael Mauti will get the first look on the weakside after a
strong spring. At 6-2 and 224 pounds, he's not big, but he's tough,
always working, and is a huge hitter. While he saw spent most of his
time as a true freshman on special teams, he was decent on defense when
he got playing time. Even if he doesn't turn out to be a starter, he'll
be one of the team's most productive linebackers.
Navorro Bowman did, after being suspended from spring ball
last year, was step into the starting lineup in game three and finish
with a team-leading 106 tackles with four sacks, five broken up passes,
and 16.5 tackles for loss. The fastest of the linebacker options, the
6-1, 230-pounder was a Maryland Defensive Player of the Year in high
school, and he has lived up to his potential and then some. He'll be
used in a variety of ways working both as a pass rusher and a run
stopper as he'll once again get to use his unlimited range to make
things happen all over the field.
Projected Top Reserves: There will be a spot
somewhere for Josh Hull. The 6-2, 236-pound senior was
second on the team with 75 tackles with 5.5 tackles for loss as he
stepped in for Sean Lee and became the main man in the middle. The
former walk-on moved from the outside in and turned into a star holding
up well against the run and doing what he could when plays were funneled
into him. His motor is always going 100 miles per hour and he'll produce
whenever he steps on the field.
If Hull isn't the main backup in
the middle, or if he's the starter, then Chris Colasanti
will see time on the inside. The 6-2, 235-pound junior made 16
tackles in his limited time, but he's an extremely tough hitter who'll
do whatever he must to make a stop. He's a central casting middle
linebacker with no neck and a thick body, but he's hardly a prototypical
jock with the smarts to be in the hunt for Academic All-America honors.
Sophomore Nathan Stupar is more like a small
defensive end rather than a linebacker, but the 6-1, 226-pounder has
range and speed with the ability to work on either side. He saw a little
bit of action making 21 tackles, but his real worth was as a special
teamer with an uncanny ability to get to the punter. Now he should be
used more as a pass rusher.
Watch Out For ... Bowman to be better than Lee ...
and it won't be because of the knee. All the focus will be on the
All-American's return, and Lee will put up huge numbers in the middle,
but Bowman will be more disruptive and more dangerous on the outside.
Strength: Talent. When the second-leading tackler
(Hull) from a defense that finished eighth in the nation against the run
is a likely backup, the corps is good. Lee and Bowman are the all-stars,
but Mauti is about to blossom and Stupar can play. Once again, this
group will produce big numbers.
Weakness: Youth among the reserves. This is an experienced corps
across the board, but the Nittany Lions will be relying on several
sophomores and Colastanti, a backup, to play big roles. They appear to
be ready to step up and produce, but the backups have to show they can
shine in big games when they get a shot.
Outlook: A monster question mark last season is
one of the team's biggest strengths going into this year. Getting Lee
back is as much of a boost as it gets, while Bowman is an all-star who
should do even more now that he can get into the backfield and can let
Lee clean everything up. There's a ton of talent waiting in the wings,
but the backups need more time to be ready to roll for next year, and if
injuries strike the starters.
All four starters need to be replaced
in the secondary, with the biggest loss at free safety with the loss of
first-team All-Big Ten star Anthony Scirrotto. Looking to fill his shoes
is Drew Astorino, who quickly took on the leadership
role this spring and appears to be ready to shine now that he has more
responsibility. While he's not all that big at 5-10 and 193 pounds, and
he's just a sophomore, he produced when he saw time making 39 tackles
with two picks and five broken up passes. A tremendous athlete with
great range, he'll be all over the field.
Stepping in at the
Hero, or the strong safety, in place of Mark Rubin will be
Cedric Jeffries, a 6-2, 203-pound junior who made 16 tackles in
his back up role, and now he should come up with a big year. Not only
does he have good speed and athleticism, but he's tough enough to have
seen time as an outside linebacker in practices. Even though he could
move up and hold up well, he's better as a safety.
Sargeant led the team with four interceptions at the right corner job,
and now it'll be up to Knowledge Timmons to be steady
after making 15 tackles with a pick. At 5-10 and 187 pounds, he has
decent size and he can be physical, and he has seen plenty of practice
time. Extremely quick, the senior has been a coverage team star. Now he
has to prove he can cover on a regular basis.
Wallace struggled with a hamstring problem last year, but he's
expected to be the team's top corner even though he has had a hard time
staying healthy and he hasn't shown much to suggest that he can be a No.
1 shut down defender. At 6-1 and 201 pounds he has excellent size and
superior athleticism, but he hasn't been able to put it all together. He
made 20 tackles after coming up with 33 as a sophomore, and while he has
all the tools, and is a tremendous kick returner, he's not a sure-thing
against the more talented targets.
Projected Top Reserves: Ready to be special sooner
than later will be Gerald Hodges, a 6-2, 223-pound
linebacker-sized freshman who'll work behind Astorino at free safety. He
has future star written all over him with tremendous speed and
athleticism to go along with his size. With a little more weight, he
could become an unstoppable playmaker at linebacker, but for now. he'll
be a key backup in the secondary.
6-2, 221-pound sophomore Andrew Dailey will move over
from linebacker to the Hero position bringing tremendous size and big
hitting ability. He saw a little time making five tackles, but he has
the speed to do a lot more. Originally considered a big receiver
prospect, he'll now work behind Jeffries.
Watch Out For ... a steady rotation at safety. Hodges
is too good to not see time somewhere in the secondary, but he might not
be able to push Astorino out of the free safety gig.
Strength: Tacklers. If spring ball was any
indication, everyone can hit. There's excellent size across the board
and there will be plenty of help against the run, however ...
Weakness: Sure-thing producers against the pass. The receiving
corps did what it wanted this offseason, meaning either the Nittany
Lions will have a good passing game or the secondary will have problems.
The corners are extremely suspect with backups needing to emerge to help
out the shaky starters.
Outlook: The pass defense was tremendous
statistically last year, allowing six touchdown passes all year before
getting ripped apart by USC for 413 yards and four scores. The stats
were a mirage; Penn State didn't play that many teams that could throw.
Now the secondary will have to be hidden by a front seven that has to
generate as much pressure as possible. The DBs will come up big against
the run but will get beaten a bit too often by the better quarterbacks.
The stats will be better than the talent.
Gone is Kevin Kelly, who nailed
20-of-24 field goals last year and 40-of-50 kicks over the last two
seasons. Walk-on junior Collin Wagner will get the
first look at the job. While he doesn't have the biggest leg, he should
be decent from inside 40 yards. While he won't be Kelly, he just has to
hit the midrange kicks and be reliable enough to be used late.
Senior punter Jeremy Boone is coming off a huge season
averaging 43 yards per kick while putting 15 inside the 20. He doesn't
have a booming leg, but he's accurate and he works well with the
coverage teams. Very consistent, he always hangs it high, always gives
his coverage team a chance to make a play, and he always comes through
when needed. He'll be on the short list of Ray Guy Award candidates.
All-star kick returner Derrick Williams is gone, but there's speed
and talent ready to fill in. Chaz Powell will step in
on kickoff returns after averaging 28.8 yards per try on his nine
returns. He'll be fantastic, and he'll also see work as a punt returner
when RB Evan Royster isn't getting the nod. Williams
averaged 9.4 yards per try, and Royster should come close to that.
Watch Out For ... the
return game to be just as good even though Williams is gone. Penn State
isn't short on quick, electrifying players. Powell and Royster will do
more than fine.
Strength: Boone. While he's not going to blast
away with a monster bomb, he'll net 38 yards on every boot, he won't
make any mistakes, and he'll pin offenses deep when needed.
Weakness: Reliable placekicking. While Kelly didn't win any
games last year, he was always producing. Wagner has to show early on
that he can be counted on.
Outlook: If Wagner can just be average and hit
around 65% of his kicks, the special teams will be solid. Boone is one
of the best in the nation and the return game will be great. The kickoff
coverage could stand some improvement, but that's nitpicking.