Malcolm Willis and DaQuan Jones Embracing Leadership Roles
A season ago, Malcolm Willis and DaQuan Jones received a solid taste of being starters on Penn State’s defense.
Now the senior duo has their sights set on not only more productive campaigns in 2013, but also setting an example for their younger teammates.
Jones, a defensive tackle, started in 11 of the Nittany Lions’ 12 games last season. Willis would have started all 12 games at safety had a knee injury not kept him sidelined for the final two contests. Before and during their ascension to the starting lineup, both followed the lead of the experienced players at their respective positions. Jones backed up team captain and Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year Devon Still two years ago and played next to Jordan Hill last season. Willis shared a defensive backfield with veteran players Drew Astorino and Nick Sukay in 2011. Although he and Stephon Morris played different positions, Morris served as a mentor — and roommate — to Willis last season.
This spring, the roles have been switched. Willis and Jones are now seasoned Nittany Lions with younger players looking to them for help.
“I like to watch film a lot. I watch film everyday, twice a day,” said Jones. “I try to get the young guys in there to watch film and go over our defense so we’re familiar with each other and we know what to do.”
“We’ll never have another Jordan Hill. I can’t tell you I’m going be Jordan Hill. What he brought to the table was just something special, and he just did a lot of things that a lot of defensive tackles couldn’t do. We’re going miss him a lot, but at the same time, I feel we have a lot of defensive tackles who can step up and help fill that role in different ways.”
If Anthony Zettel wins the starting defensive end job opposite Deion Barnes, there is a chance that Jones will anchor a defensive line with three underclassmen on it as Brian Gaia, Derek Dowrey, and Austin Johnson — a trio of redshirt freshmen — along with junior Kyle Baublitz, battle for the defensive tackle spot next to Jones.
The starting secondary is not quite as youthful in comparison to the front four, but the players being mentored by Willis, specifically converted wide receivers Malik Golden and Trevor Williams, will be key as the Nittany Lions look to boost depth in the defensive backfield and play more nickel and dime packages in passing situations.
“They reacted very well to the position change. They’ve been learning a lot,” said Willis. “They ask me a lot of questions, which is good because it means they want to learn more. We’re expecting big things from both of them.”
“With any team, leaders have to come through to the forefront. I take pride in being a leader. It humbles me. Those guys in the past did such a good job, so we have big shoes to fill. We’ll have to lead a little differently and face our own obstacles, but overall we’re up to it.”
The experience that Willis has gained gives his younger teammates the ability to conveniently ask him some questions rather than waiting to talk to a coach, but with it comes increased responsibility for the player to act like a coach and point out miscues as they occur.
“That’s part of my role as a leader to pull those guys aside when I see them making a mistake and not doing the right thing so we can correct it right then and there. It’s part of me growing as a leader and a football player,” Willis said.
“If a coach had to ask someone to be a leader, it wouldn’t fit well with a lot of people. It’s something you have to have a feel for. You can’t be a leader if you don’t have people follow you. When guys ask me questions or look up to me in the defensive room or the secondary, that’s just me growing as a football player or my knowledge growing from the game.”
Bill O’Brien praised Jones at the beginning of spring practice saying the team has “high expectations” for him heading into the season, but the rising senior is a bit tougher on himself and knows he can do better than the 22 tackles, two tackles for loss, and half a sack he recorded in 2012.
“I’m a very hard grader. I feel like I could do a lot more personally after watching film. I did okay, but I can do a lot better. The game’s about inches. There were just missed opportunities. Either my technique wasn’t good enough or I was half a step away.”
Unlike his freshman and sophomore seasons, Willis failed to come down with an interception last year. Forcing turnovers is at the forefront of his mind heading into 2013.
“We’ve been making that a point of emphasis this spring, myself included, that doesn’t excuse me. I need to make plays when opportunities present themselves, and that’s gonna help us win more games next fall,” said Willis.