Countdown to Blue-White / 27 Days: Who Steps up on the Defensive Line?
The season finale Senior Day overtime victory against Wisconsin is one of the most satisfying and memorable games in recent Penn State football history, but it may never have happened if not for Jordan Hill.
The senior defensive tackle saved his best performance for last, recording 12 tackles, 2 sacks, and 3 tackles for loss. He helped hold Badgers running back Montee Ball to 25 yards on 11 carries in the second half after it looked like Ball was bound for a huge game when he finished the first thirty minutes with 85 yards on the ground.
For the past four years, Penn State entered a season with the luxury of having a stud defensive tackle. There was future first-round pick Jared Odrick in 2009, Devon Still in 2010 and 2011, and Hill last season. Now, that is no longer the case as the Nittany Lions look towards 2013.
Hill was the biggest loss along the defensive line but far from the only one as the Nittany Lions also need to replace the contributions of Pete Massaro and Sean Stanley, who both started at times last season, and rotational defensive tackle James Terry.
Defensive line coach Larry Johnson Sr. knows he has Big Ten Freshman of the Year Deion Barnes, a budding superstar who led last year’s defense with 6 sacks. After Barnes, there are a lot of bodies, and a lot of question marks.
Senior defensive tackle DaQuan Jones figures to have one of those spots locked up but will need to greatly increase his production, something Bill O’Brien believes he is capable of.
“We think [DaQuan] is a really good football player,” said O’Brien. “He’s had a really good offseason and is in good shape. He’s strong. We’re going to have to monitor his reps this spring because he’s played a lot of football here at Penn State, but we really have high expectations for him going into next year.”
Outside of Jones, there is senior Kyle Baublitz and three redshirt freshman in Austin Johnson, Brian Gaia, and Derek Dowrey.
“We think Austin Johnson has a chance to be a really good player, hopefully sooner rather than later,” said O’Brien.
“Then we have Derek Dowrey and Brian Gaia, two guys who gave us a ton of problems on the Dirty Show last year. I remember Matt Stankiewitch last year after one of those practices, we were sitting around shooting the breeze, and I remember him saying that Gaia and Dowrey were strong guys that could hold the point of attack, and that was coming from an All-Big Ten center. That was pretty neat.”
Opposite Barnes at the other defensive end spot figures to be sophomore Anthony Zettel, who showed some promise with 4 sacks in 2012. Redshirt freshman Evan Schwan should also be in the mix along with incoming recruits Garrett Sickles, Curtis Cothran, and Parker Cothren if they do not redshirt.
While a decorated group of linebackers received much of the accolades and attention on defense last season, the contributions of numerous linemen were key. The Nittany Lions were 7-1 when not allowing an opposing player to eclipse 100 rushing yards and had a 6-2 record in contests where they registered 3 sacks or more.
“There’s not a lot there, but there’s enough there, and we just have to do a good job of rotating those guys in and out and make sure we get the young guys enough reps that they improve and progress,” said O’Brien.
There are a lot of names to choose from, but most have very limited experience and not much of track record.
Who is next in line along the defensive line, and are they up to the task of matching the production of a solid unit in 2012?
Under Johnson’s tutelage, a few of these young players should emerge. The Blue-White game and O’Brien’s first summer depth chart should provide a better idea of who and what to expect here.
This is the seventh in a 33-day series about the Penn State football program leading up to the Blue-White Game on April 20. We’ve put together a team of football writers who will examine a variety of topics and answer key questions about Bill O’Brien’s team. Click here for past installments in the series.