Countdown to Blue White / 7 Days: How is Penn State’s Secondary Different from 2012?
With three returning starters from last year’s unit, one might assume that Penn State’s secondary will look similar to the one that saw the field in 2012, but that is not necessarily the case.
Throughout the spring, one burning question continues to be how the look and schemes of the defense will change with John Butler running the show at defensive coordinator after replacing Ted Roof. Aside from a few references to Butler’s fiery nature, the answer has been the same: Hardly anything is changing.
“Of course there’s a little bit of twists and turns,” said middle linebacker Glenn Carson. “He [Butler] has put his own spin on it, but generally I think he’s trying to keep things the same so it’s a lot easier for us. We feel really confident.”
If Butler himself does not feel confident, he should at the very least feel more comfortable knowing he has some extra pieces suited to make some adjustments. Midway through last season, the then secondary coach expressed concern about the ultra-thin depth in the defensive backfield, saying that the Nittany Lions could not play nickel and dime defensive packages without more bodies.
“We”ll play nickel when we have nickel personnel,” said Butler last October.
“I know a lot of the readers out there are wondering why we don’t play nickel and I guess I’m wondering why I only have six [defensive backs] when I took the job here.”
In obvious third down passing situations or against opponents that run spread offenses with three or four receivers rather than just two, a defensive back — or two when the defense switches to dime — will take the place of a linebacker to prevent a mismatch.
Last season’s opening loss to Ohio illustrated the situation — and at the time Penn State’s problem — perfectly. Bobcats quarterback Tyler Tettleton torched the Nittany Lions defense in the second half, completing 16 passes out of 19 attempts for 281 yards and two touchdowns while converting nine third downs through the air.
The secondary improved from there, only allowing over 300 passing yards once more, during a blowout victory over Indiana which required 59 passes from the Hoosiers. But Butler’s hands remained tied down from a flexibility standpoint throughout the 2012 campaign.
Stephon Morris’ emotional presence will be missed, but the Nittany Lions have made an attempt to reload quickly and provide the new coordinator with more tools to add to his arsenal. Da’Quan Davis and Jordan Lucas are another year into the program after seeing some playing time as freshmen. Early enrollees Jordan Smith and Anthony Smith provide some additional options this spring along with two former wide receivers Trevor Williams and Malik Golden, who are making the switch from offense to defense.
“We’ve added depth there, ” said head coach Bill O’Brien, referring specifically to Williams and Golden. “We have the ability to go to a five-defensive back personnel group and even a six-defensive back personnel group. They’ve practiced a lot. They’ve taken to coaching and are making good plays on the ball and competing.”
How important is the nickel and dime package to O’Brien?
“It’s different in college football than it is in pro football. You have to have nickel and dime in the pros because it’s a passing league. I think in the Big Ten, Gerald Hodges was our space linebacker. He was as good as a lot of defensive backs. I think we’re okay there. Anytime a team goes to a three or four wide receiver grouping, we’d like to have more speed on the field, and maybe we have the ability to do that this year.”
Golden, who played some defensive back in high school before switching to wide receiver last year at Penn State, has earned praise from new safeties coach Anthony Midget for making the transition again to defensive back. Redshirt junior safety Ryan Keiser has also received positive reviews.
“[Malik] is a guy who’s very talented and has done some good things,” said Midget. “Ryan Keiser had a great offseason and has translated it to the practice field. I’m excited about both of them.”
Keiser has seen some first-team reps during spring practice, and the aforementioned Lucas has received a taste of covering Allen Robinson with Adrian Amos rotating between cornerback and safety spots.
The first objective for Butler and Midget will be to find someone to complete the starting secondary. Amos along with seniors Malcolm Willis and Stephen Obeng-Agyapong are guaranteed to see snaps, but beyond finding one starter, there is a certain depth aspect that did not exist last year.
The fourth starter along with where exactly Amos plays are issues to work out, but Butler’s wish is on its way towards being complete, and results like Ohio could be squarely in the rear view mirror.
This is the 27th in a 33-day series about Penn State football program leading up to the Blue-White Game on April 20. Click here for past installments in the series.